Human Capital Theory and Shifting Perceptions of Teachers in the United States

Theodora Lightfoot-Rueda

In February 2011, citizens of the state of Wisconsin were deeply surprised to hear that the state’s new governor had introduced legislation taking away collective bargaining rights from public workers, including teachers, and asked those workers to take major cuts in benefits. The same budget bill took hundreds of millions of dollars away from education. Many Wisconsin teachers reported being shocked—not only by the changes in their salaries and benefits but also by the hostility they felt—both from the Republican lawmakers who proposed and voted for the legislation and from friends and family members who called them and posted on their Facebook pages telling them that teachers were doing a poor job and that teachers and their unions were a major cause of the “underperformance” or “failure” of US public schools.

While events in the state of Wisconsin have been particularly dramatic and have attracted international attention, they are merely one manifestation of a way of talking about schools and teachers that has been growing in prevalence in the United States since the early 1980s. That is, in the last three decades, public discourse in the United States has shifted from praising public schools as the solution to many of the nation’s social and economic problems to blaming them for holding the nation back. While few members of the public in the 1970s would have agreed with statements like “our nation’s schools are failing,” this concept, as indicated in the quote in the epigram to this piece, is currently used as if it were an unquestioned truth. A corollary to the belief that the nation is being “failed” by its schools is a large and growing apparatus of accountability measures, beginning with standardized tests at very young ages to insure that students are making adequate progress and to sanction any teachers who are not producing results. In addition, many politically conservative critics of public schools are calling for limiting or eliminating the role of the public schools that are “not working,” and instead implement market-driven solutions such as nonunion charter schools or voucher schools.

This chapter is an account of the discursive shift described above and its relationship to human capital theory. It argues that both the excessive hopes placed in the past on public schools and the current perception that we, the public, are being failed by our schools stem from the same source—that is, the idea that there is no true demarcation between a nation’s educational systems and its economic prosperity. A nation’s wealth, in this understanding, is a direct result of the “human capital” of its population, and that capital is largely generated by schools.

Although many teachers and supporters of public education may feel shocked by recent criticisms of their competence, I argue here that a sense of disillusionment with public schools in the United States has been building for decades. In order to counter these criticisms, educators need to understand the logic of the discursive frameworks in which they are embedded, and, optimally, to understand the historical context in which they arose. The purpose of this chapter is to provide readers with the backstory of current attacks on public schools and teachers and the logic that drives them, as well as to consider taking an active role in changing public discourse concerning the role of education in society to place education in a more favorable role.

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