The Katz Bill: Bandwagon to the Past

A Critical Appraisal of Oregon’s New Vocational Education Law

By Jeff Edmundson

An educational bandwagon is creaking across the country. It’s brightly decorated in all the latest fashions and high-tech attachments. But underneath is the worn-out buggy of the past.

This bandwagon is Oregon’s Katz bill, otherwise known as the Oregon Education Act for the 21st Century. While purporting to be revolutionary, it is little more than a remix of the old amalgam of testing, tracking and elite control of the schools.

Nonetheless, the revolutionary label serves to attract support from a wide spectrum of people who want school reform.

The Katz bill is not just Oregon’s problem. The business group behind the bill has a national agenda. Within weeks of the bill’s passage, Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander appeared in Oregon to praise the state’s foresight in adopting a bill so consistent with Bush’s “America 2000” education plan.

The Katz bill, sponsored by State Rep. Vera Katz (D-Portland), became law in July and goes into effect over the next several years. On the positive side, the bill promises full funding for Head Start (though no new money is provided now), and encourages a move toward ungraded classes for K-3 students. It originally included a strong move toward teacher and community control of schools through school-based management committees, but this provision was gutted at the insistence of school administrators.

The heart of the bill is the establishment of a pre-diploma, called a Certificate of Initial Mastery, to be reached at the end of 10th grade. After receiving this certificate, a student can either leave school, or move into one of two tracks: the “college preparatory;” or the “academic professional-technical” — otherwise known as the vocational track. According to the bill, those in the professional-technical track would get both general or liberal-arts education as well as training in specific job skills. This training will involve some kind of partnership of business, labor, community colleges and high schools.

The Katz bill is drawn almost word for word from the “Report of the Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce.” This 1990 report came from the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE), a group that includes major corporations such as Chase Manhattan and Eastman Kodak, and some academics and union officials. It echoes several other education white papers in suddenly discovering a concern for the students who are not college-bound.

Why the solicitude for kids that business has been happy to discard for so long? The reports claim that business is worried that these kids are not getting the skills in high school to prepare them for the new world of complex, changing jobs.

Perhaps some companies are worried about getting enough workers with complex skills. But according to the NCEE’s own report, “Because most American employers organize work in such a way that does not require high skills, they report no shortage of people who have such skills and foresee no such shortage. . . only 5 % of employers were concerned about a skills shortage.”

If only a few companies are short of skilled workers, why is business so eager for skills training?

History helps us understand this urgency. Before 1905, schools generally taught all students the same subjects. But in the early 1900’s, working-class children flooded into the schools. In response, people such as James Russell, Dean of Teachers’ College, argued for adding vocational tracks because high schools with only academic tracks were not meeting the needs of those who would “do the rougher work of life.”

In this first big push for vocational education, Russell and others used the rhetoric of democracy and of meeting student needs. But Russell made their real concern plain: “How can a nation endure that deliberately seeks to rouse ambitions and aspirations in the oncoming generations which in the nature of events cannot possibly be fulfilled?” This dark warning of angry educated-but-unemployed people causing social instability was met by dousing student expectations with vocational training. Students were adjusted to the futures that business and education leaders had planned for them —jobs in the rapidly expanding factory system.

As Ira Shor demonstrates in his book Culture Wars, each wave of enthusiasm for vocational education, from the early years of the century through the 1950’s and 1970’s, has used the language of democracy to cover a real agenda: lowering the expectations of working-class children for an education and a job with a future, thus creating workers who accept their “place” and who will be less disruptive.

Neither the old nor the new campaigns for vocational education included any concept that learning was important for more than work preparation, let alone the idea that students should learn to think about, critique, and change society. Indeed, the early versions of the Katz bill declared that the official purpose of public education in Oregon would now be to have “a workforce equal to any in the world” and that “the quality of Oregon’s workforce is critical to the . . . competitiveness of its businesses.”

According to the NCEE Report, “More than 70% of the jobs in America will not require a college education by the year 2000.” What skills do employers want? “The primary concern of more than 80% of employers was finding workers with a good work ethic and appropriate social behavior: ‘reliable,’ ‘a good attitude,’ ‘a pleasant appearance,’ ‘a good personality,’” the report said.

It seems likely that business supports vocational education for the same reason it always has: it creates docile workers; and it reinforces the tracking credo that some people are suited for brain work, while most are destined for manual jobs, thus serving to lower the expectations of many students for a good-paying, challenging job.

But why is it suddenly critical to lower worker expectations? As good-paying factory jobs continue to disappear to Mexico and to automation, they are being replaced with low-wage service jobs. The greatest job growth in the near future will be in such fields as fast-food, custodial, and retail sales, rather than in technical fields that require complex skills. If workers start realizing that the capitalist economy is not producing enough good-paying jobs for all, there is potential rebellion against corporate priorities. However, if workers believe they can’t get a good job because they weren’t smart enough or didn’t work hard enough in school, they have nobody but themselves to blame.

Yet the business agenda is not just for more vocational education, but also for “high educational standards.” In part, this approach helps to sell vocational education to the unconvinced. But further, the “high standards” call is part of a larger message about who is to blame for U.S. economic problems. If business can persuade people that bad schools and incompetent workers are to blame for the increasing inability of U.S. companies to compete, then the obvious answer is to whip the schools into shape. But if people believe that business’ rapaciousness and focus on short-term profits is the problem, then the solution involves social control of corporations — every executive’s nightmare.

Regardless of the motivation, one can hardly object to raising the abysmally low standards in many schools. But look closely. According to the bill, in order to receive the Certificate of Initial Mastery, a student will be required to “read, write, and problem solve… at national levels by the year 2000, and at international levels by the year 2010.” The idea of national and international standards has become a common concept among those who bash allegedly inferior American schools. The NCEE Report’s language in proposing the certificate says, “Other advanced industrial nations have stringent performance standards that virtually all students must meet at about age 16 and that directly affect their employment prospects.” The threatening tone in that statement is none too subtle, nor is the call to order. There is no sense that learning is important. What these people want is discipline.

This raises another troubling question: who will set the “national standards?” Perhaps the Bush Administration, whose America 2000 education plan calls for national exams. And how do we prepare our students for national tests? By following a national curriculum, an idea also proposed by conservative groups. Thus, despite all the rhetoric about local control and choice, it seems that a key business agenda is gaining national control of US education.

With the curriculum set in Washington, some business interests would expect to eliminate the tendencies toward democratic and multicultural education that have bedeviled conservatives.

In the meantime, the Oregon standards would be determined by the Oregon Education Department — primarily by the appointed State Board of Education.

Further, the department is charged with assessing whether students have met the standards for the Certificate of Initial Mastery. Although the bill is sprinkled with promises of “performance-based assessment,” financial considerations will almost surely mandate the use of computer-scored multiple-choice tests. Since the bill also requires assessment of progress at grades 3, 5, and 8, we have a recipe for a testing explosion. Since funding will ride on test results, districts will have no choice but to tailor curriculum to the tests. With a curriculum set in the state capital or eventually in Washington, business will be more able to enforce both the discipline and the content it wants.

Perhaps the bill’s worst provision is that it restores a tracking system. Readers of Rethinking Schools are familiar with the powerful arguments against tracking: that low-income and minority children are disproportionately in the lower tracks; that the quality of education is always lower in the lower tracks; that it serves to reproduce the class divisions in U.S. society. These arguments have been increasingly accepted among educators, and tracking has been on the retreat around the country.

So just like the cavalry coming over the hill, Katz and the NCEE have arrived just in time to save tracking from the “savage” democrats who want to teach everyone equally. Of course, Katz and her supporters deny that the bill will increase tracking.

They insist that students can choose which track to enter, rather than being forced into one, and that the education will be of equal quality in both tracks. As a result, they say, schools will better meet kids needs.

The first assertion betrays their ignorance of how schools really work and how supposedly free choices are influenced.

Teachers know that schools and standardized tests give numerous messages that tell kids where they are expected to end up.

The second argument, that both tracks will be of the same quality, prompts the question: then why have separate tracks? Why can’t students be together for their general education, and then take their electives separately? History has amply demonstrated that the minute you separate kids into different tracks, you guarantee different qualities of education.

The language of “meeting kids needs” has been so abused by the business and education elite that you’d think people would suspect a scam when they hear the phrase. But some people in Oregon, desperate for change, bought it. Many others didn’t even hear about the bill until it was too late, because it was prepared in secrecy and rushed through expedited hearings. Nonetheless, education activists in Oregon were able to mount some opposition.

Teachers gathered to discuss the bill. As they became aware of the pernicious aspects, most teachers came to oppose the bill. At several community meetings, there were spirited discussions of the bill and the wider issues of tracking and testing. The local newspaper in Portland printed several articles critical of the bill. When the legislative hearings were finally held, dozens of teachers, students, and parents went to testify — though many were unable to speak in the abbreviated sessions. The Portland affiliate of the National Education Association passed a strong resolution opposing much of the bill, including “any aspect of the bill that reinforces tracking based on race and social class.”

Unfortunately, the Oregon Education Association was curiously quiet on the issue. It produced a waffling statement on the bill, refused to consider the Portland resolution, and never wielded its lobbying power against the bill. Apparently the association feared being labeled as “anti-reform,” an epithet it has often deserved. Katz repeatedly characterized opposition educators as “conservatives who don’t want to change.”

As a result, she won some unexpected allies, including many in the black community. After years of battling a recalcitrant education establishment, some black activists saw the bill as a step toward change. Their theme was commonly voiced as, “Anything is better than what we have now.”

But there was a clear split in the black community. Many others pointed out that in fact the bill offered no solutions to the real problems of drop-outs and low academic achievement, while it exacerbated the tracking problem.

These concerns highlight a critical problem for teachers and teacher unions in other states who face similar bills. The Oregon Education Association’s history of protecting narrow teacher interests and opposing reforms, and its lack of an alternative reform plan, left it wide open to the charge of conservatism.

Progressive education activists, mean-while, must articulate alternatives. We must develop realistic visions of genuine reform. We must work in our communities and in our unions to put those visions on the public agenda. Otherwise we are likely to be run over when business interests hustle the “job skills” bandwagon into town.