This brief history of the relationship between human capital theory and education in the United States leads to two conclusions that may be of importance to educators. First, what many teachers see as a current upsurge in concerns about teacher effectiveness and even anger and hostility toward teachers among many politicians and members of the public are not new or suddenly emerging phenomena. Instead, they are the result of decades of slowly escalating worries that the US educational system is a major determining factor in its economy—both in terns of internal problems such as inequality and external problems such as global competitiveness. These perceptions are a direct result of a discursive tradition that began in the field of economics but that was used effectively for decades to advocate for increased funding at both federal and state levels for public schooling. This line of reasoning produced positive feelings toward public schools and concomitant willingness to fund programs during the 1950s, 1960s, and early to mid-1970s when the US economy was growing and the nation was the dominant player in the global economy. It has become a double-edged sword for educators in the current situation where the US economy is growing at a much slower rate and there are widespread concerns about US performance in a changing global market.
The solution to this problem is difficult and complex, and it is outside of the scope of this chapter to propose solutions. However, I would suggest that it is time for educators to stop responding with surprise and shock to events precipitated by these changing perceptions and begin leading the way to re-framing public understandings of education and the role it can play in society. This would involve the risk of abandoning a line of public discourse that was very effective in promoting public schools for many years—the idea that investment in education necessarily “pays off” in financial terms—and looking for other ways of understanding and justifying the way society benefits from schooling. This is a substantial but perhaps necessary risk.