Gene V. Glass, emeritus professor at Arizona State University and an associate of the National Education Policy Center, ponders the ubiquity of the “Shoe Button Complex” among leading “reformers” of education.
In this essay, he recalls a story of a man who became the nation’s leading vendor of “shoe buttons” a century ago. He cornered the market on shoe buttons. He knew everything there was to know about shoe buttons, and he became a very rich man. His great success persuaded him that he was an expert on everything. The essay then refers to the “reformers” who think that their fabulous wealth entitles them to opine on how to re-engineer schools. They don’t listen to people who work in schools or people who are researchers and scholars of education, because those people are not fabulously wealthy; in the eyes of those who have cornered the market on shoe buttons or computers, the opinion of mere educators counts for nothing. Educators, in the eyes of “reformers,” are the status quo because they are educators. Better to trust someone who has never taught or studied the subject in depth.
Glass suggests that Bill Gates and his wife Melinda may be prime examples of the Shoe Button Complex. And then there is Arizona, where he finds this scenario:
Jan Brewer, Republican governor of Arizona and famous for issuing a tongue wagging to President Obama, appointed Intel ex-CEO Craig Barrett to chair a council—Ready Arizona–to study and recommend public education reform for the state. It is unclear what Barrett knows about education. One suspects that we are encountering another case of the Shoe Button Complex. Barrett is urging businesses to push school reform. His public utterances strike familiar chords: the future of the entire state rests on the test scores of little kids; more science and math majors will attract businesses to the state; it’s a global economy. After all, the public schools are “suppliers” of labor for businesses. And at Intel, “if a supplier didn’t meet our specifications, we would call the supplier and say, ‘Meet our specifications or we will fire you.’” Apparently, Barrett shares his fellow Republican Mitt Romney’s pleasure in firing people.
Of course, what Barrett is actually and unknowingly talking about is crony capitalism: Linking government and business in relationships that favor the economy. Whether the intellectual, moral, physical, and aesthetic well-being of young people is benefited by their education probably never occurs to Barrett and his ilk. Or perhaps “well-being” to Barrett means having acquired a taste for consumerism and a job to support it. In fact, most industry leaders would like to see specialized training pushed down as early in the curriculum as possible so that high school graduates appear in their HR departments job-ready, trained at public expense. And if training kids for Intel just happens to involve piping a bunch of online courses into Arizona public schools, well so much the better since Barrett also serves on the board of K-12 Inc., the nation’s #1 supplier of cyber-courses. Whether the former CEO of Intel knows everything there is to know about selling microprocessors AND education, or whether this is merely another manifestation of the Shoe Button Complex remains to be seen.