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Labor of Learning: Market and the Next Generation of Educational Reform

reviewed by Eugene P. Trani - June 29, 2009

coverTitle: Labor of Learning: Market and the Next Generation of Educational Reform
Author(s): Alexander Sidorkin
Publisher: Sense Publishers, Rotterdam
ISBN: 9087907583, Pages: 216, Year: 2009
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In his latest book, Labor of Learning: Market and the Next Generation of Educational Reform, Alexander Sidorkin envisions a future America that knows few boundaries – where a free-market system of learning has replaced compulsory schooling and where there are 12-year-old senators and 70-year-old students (p. 197). We already live in a country with increasingly permeable boundaries – where a sizeable private education sector already competes with public schools. Nonetheless, Sidorkin’s suggested strategies for education reform, if implemented, would turn long-held mores and politically-entrenched statutes on their head.

Sidorkin’s suggestions are three-fold. In the short-term, Sidorkin proposes to reform K-12 education by cultivating the communal aspects of schools (i.e., treating schools as relational economies). For the longer-term, he proposes the adoption of a quasi-market economy framework for schooling, where America’s youth – and, even, adults – would be compensated at competitive market rates to learn, and government regulation would be kept to a minimum. Finally, Sidorkin proposes the adoption of the free-choice element of a truly market-driven system of learning.

After critiquing the main reform efforts over the past century, Sidorkin presents two solutions, with the more “sensible” geared to the short-term and the more “radical” geared to the long-term, but with both addressing the lack of motivation for learning (p. 135).

First, Sidorkin proposes the Sensible Solution, which focuses on cultivating a better understanding of the relational economic nature of mass schooling. Its central premise is that, “The single most important motive for school attendance is the opportunity to socialize” and, thus, “Improving the relational economy of a school takes into account the fact that in real life, learning motivation depends on the social aspect of schooling” (p. 139). Sidorkin emphasizes the growing importance of motivating learners in the 21st century knowledge economy, posing the question:

If widely distributed knowledge indeed becomes more and more central to economic and cultural production, the practical question all societies will face is this: how can we keep a bigger proportion of the young population for a longer time, and help them acquire the maximum amount of knowledge? (p. 148)

Sidorkin’s answer to increase student motivation to engage in learning activities is a proposal for a non-economic quid-pro-quo for learning – offer more meaningful, engaging extracurricular activities, in exchange for more academic “labor” (p. 154).

Second, Sidorkin proposes the Radical Solution, which would entail two main components: (1) paying students a market-driven rate for their labor; and (2) linking labor market demands to curriculum development. As examples of precursors of his Radical Solution, Sidorkin cites programs in Mexico and Brazil that pay poor families if their children attend school and undergo regular medical check-ups (p. 170). Sidorkin also cites Newt Gingrich’s educational reform proposal for American inner city schools, which would involve lining up a foundation to pay students a competitive wage (“more than McDonald’s”) in the poorest neighborhoods to study math and science (p. 171). And, Sidorkin also describes the experiment underway in New York City and Washington, DC public schools, which involves students getting paid a nominal amount for good standardized test scores (p. 171). While the specifics of Sidorkin’s “pay-to-learn” proposal are not entirely clear, the essence of the first component of his Radical Solution is that public subsidy for education should flow directly from governments to students (pp. 175, 191). Regarding the second component of his Radical Solution, Sidorkin stresses how today’s curriculum is outdated because it still emphasizes acquisition of specific knowledge over general knowledge acquisition skills (p. 185). Sidorkin advocates for the creation of a constant feedback loop in the K-12 system between the rapidly changing world and the curriculum development process.

Finally, Sidorkin’s Radical Solution is predicated on his proposal to empower youth, by “scaling down current limitations on children’s personal, property, legal and political rights” (p. 193). Sidorkin asserts that, “the creation of a true learning labor market requires the political emancipation of children” (p. 193). To determine which rights people of all ages should have, Sidorkin proposes that if a person can prove competency in a certain area (driving, voting, health care, marriage, military service, alcohol consumption, property ownership, and legal liability), she earns that right, regardless of age (pp. 193-195). Alternatively, some rights would remain under the age of majority (e.g., voting) and other rights would be conditional (p. 195). As an example, Sidorkin describes Arkansas’ and other states’ expansion of “Mature minor doctrine,” which gives the right to minors under 18 years old to make certain decisions about their healthcare, if they can demonstrate maturity (p. 194).

Sidorkin is not radical – or alone – in suggesting that the current system of mass schooling in the United States requires a complete overhaul. The National Center on Education and the Economy, a 2006 U.S. Higher Education Commission, Washington Post reporter Robert J. Samuelson, the National Governor’s Association, the Pew Center on the States, and the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce (2007) all seem to agree. Clearly, what Sidorkin proposes is far from educational reform as usual.

However, Sidorkin’s proposals might not translate easily into action-oriented policy recommendations. The case he tries to build for economic solutions to our current education problems – in particular, his attempt to provide an economic analysis specifically of learners – might appeal to our nation’s policymakers. And, his proposal to establish a more market-driven approach to curriculum development might appeal to educators.

But, Sidorkin’s proposals lack cohesion. While they contain many of the right ingredients, Sidorkin’s recipes for education reform seem at times downright contradictory. For instance, he provides conflicting answers to crucial questions about the flow of money to students – such as, whether and under what conditions compensation goes directly to students or to their parents – and one would think that how such questions are answered would drive the very nature of education reform. Student remuneration for labor could end up resurrecting a host of child labor issues, which Sidorkin only barely touches (see pp. 195-196). And, what about children with learning, physical, cognitive and mental disabilities? Sidorkin only briefly – and a bit naively – touches upon this huge, complex area of education within a market-driven context, stating, “As children with learning disabilities get closer to the ceiling of their abilities, they will become a very lucrative business for anyone able to move them just one step up, thereby providing funding for special education services” (p. 191). In addition, Chapter 18 on market-driven curriculum development raises more questions than it answers, delving into a system where the government would fund the teaching of skills it deems important for citizens to have, and private entities (e.g., “Coca-Cola” and “the Catholic Church”) would provide monetary incentives for areas of discretionary learning, thereby “competing for children’s attention” (pp. 182-183). Other unanswered questions and contradictions abound within Sidorkin’s proposals.

Throughout a number of chapters of his book, Sidorkin equates the type of wholesale school reform he is proposing in the United States to the process of transforming the economic foundations of third world countries. If scholarship on the role of higher education in developing countries is any indication, what Sidorkin proposes may be even more difficult than transforming pre-capitalistic societies into capitalistic societies.

However, Sidorkin is to be commended for at least laying the groundwork for conducting an age-old discussion (education reform) in more innovative ways – ways that are closer to the magnitude of the challenges posed by the global knowledge-based economy of the 21st century.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 29, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15702, Date Accessed: 12/7/2021 9:24:31 AM

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About the Author
  • Eugene Trani
    Virginia Commonwealth University
    E-mail Author
    EUGENE P. TRANI served as the fourth president of Virginia Commonwealth University from 1990 until July 2009. VCU – now the largest university in the Commonwealth of Virginia – enrolls more than 32,000 students and employs more than 17,000 faculty and staff at VCU and the VCU Health System. The University offers more than 205 undergraduate, graduate, professional, doctoral, and post-graduate degree and certificate programs through 15 schools and one college. A specialist in U.S. foreign affairs, Dr. Trani has co-authored The First Cold War: The Legacy of Woodrow Wilson in U.S.-Soviet Relations, published in the summer of 2002 by the University of Missouri Press and in Russia by Olma-Press in Moscow. His most recent book, Distorted Mirrors: Americans and Their Relations with Russia and China in the Twentieth Century, was published in June 2009 by the University of Missouri Press and in Russia by Vagrius Publishers, and is scheduled for publication in China and Spain in 2009. Dr. Trani has most recently completed a manuscript about universities and economic development entitled The Indispensable University: How Higher Education can Promote Economic and Community Development in the Knowledge Economy, which will be published in ACE’s Higher Education Series by Rowman and Littlefield. He currently serves as President Emeritus and Distinguished University Professor at VCU and focuses his time on research, writing, and teaching in the Honors College of the University.
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