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Education: The New Agriculture
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Every society has people of limited ability who need employment and historically many of these folk worked the land. It was a simple and effective solution: you don’t have to be especially smart, even industrious, to herd cows, pick fruit or otherwise help put food on somebody’s table. Nor did society have to spend millions to train farm workers and provide them with modern-day benefits. Alas, thanks to the mechanization of agriculture and the growth of a world-wide economy, this handy employment option is dwindling. In 1840 the US population was about 17 million and approximately 9 million worked in agriculture (69%). By 1900 population rose to 76 million but the percent in agriculture fell to 58%, still lots and lots of jobs. By 1930, the proportion in agriculture had declined to 21% and by 1990, it was 2.6%. There are now 3 million employed in farming, one-third the figure of 1840.

So, where can we find gainful employment for those who once milked cows? The glib answer is “send them to college” where, supposedly, they will be trained to enter today’s high-tech economy. Pure fantasy—to be blunt, the millions with IQ’s below 90 are not going to be computer programmers or IT consultants no matter how hard they are pushed. Yet, they need some field where they can earn decent livelihoods.

K-12 education is today’s alternative and no matter how measured, the US spends generously and the upward trend seems unstoppable. In fact, unlike what occurs in the private sector, the worse the results the greater the spending.

Less obvious than just raw spending data is how this money is spent—the old vision of a school with some teachers, a few administrators and a custodian is now obsolete. Schools are now the place for those who once milked cows. A recent publication of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, The Hidden Half: School Employees who Don’t Teach by Matthew Richmond provides the details. Since 1970 the number of non-teaching staff (particularly teacher aides, a job category that did not exist in 1950) has increased by 130%, far out-pacing the hiring of teachers. In fact, these so-called para-professionals now comprise half of the public school’s workforce, and consume one-quarter of the budget. Between 1950 and 2012, non-teaching positions expanded by some 702% while the student population grew only by 96%, all the while educational outcomes remained flat.

These figures only begin to tell the story since many school workers are not counted as “educators.” For example, in 2008/09 (the latest figures available) New York City employ 5,055 “school safety agents,” the fifth largest policy force in the country, larger than the police force of Washington DC. Further add others servicing surveillance equipment, the thousands of street crossing guards and workers who those drive and maintain school buses run by private contractors. Chicago recently hired 100 “Safe Passage” workers who escort students to school in crime-ridden neighborhoods. The governor has also pledged to hire 600 more such guardians once funds become available.

And let’s not forget how schools must now pay closer attention to disabled students, an exceedingly labor intensive task. Schools are also now responsible for services such as serving meals and psychological counseling that previously scarcely existed. It is also arguable that the weakening of teacher power over classroom discipline has reduced class size and further added positions to handle disruptive students and these helpers often only need the most minimal qualifications.

More is involved here that just generic bureaucratic bloat. Most clearly, this expansion is a god-send to various public sector unions, everything from the big teachers’ unions to those who organize food service workers, security guards, even the street crossing monitors. This is not an issue of unionization per se. This growth brings power to public sector unions that, unlike their private sector brethren, have a clear stake in expanding government.

Now, thanks to this expansion of dues-paying members, Progressive candidates will be able to raise even more funds and count on armies of Election Day “volunteers.” (A similar pattern is occurring in the public healthcare sector where unions can deliver lots of cash and huge blocks of docile voters.). Of the utmost importance, this political clout will be most evident in low-turnout primaries—no small matter since most big cities are one-party—given that that those whose livelihood depends on government largess are the most motivated voters here. This electoral cloud will be even greater if cities require teachers, administrators and other “educators” to live within city boundaries. New York City’s current Mayor, the Progressive Bill DeBlasio may well be the harbinger of office holders to come as “educators” come to dominate urban electorates.

Less obvious than electoral consequences will be the promotion of policies necessary to keep schools filled with students independent of actual learning, a formidable problem as residents (including under-class blacks) move to the suburbs. Think Detroit, St. Louis, Baltimore, Camden, NJ, Newark, NJ, Philadelphia, and Rochester, NY among several others.


Happily, de-population can be surmounted by filling schools with the children of immigrants, the more troubling the better and this includes illegals. Ever wonder why so many cities declare themselves to be sanctuaries for illegals or refuse to cooperate with Washington in enforcing immigration laws?

Not only does this newly found warm body automatically generate revenue, even if the body seldom shows up, but these new arrivals quickly generate a support staff to address student shortcomings. School superintendents will rightly claim that their schools now need bi-lingual aides, no small expenditure in many urban areas where schools often have students speaking a dozen or more languages. Further add the need for multi-lingual staff to reach out to the parents of these new-comers. Outsiders seldom grasp the financial enormity of educating an immigrant population. Consider the mission statement from the Big Apple’s Department of Education’s Translation and Interpretation (T &I) unit:

Chancellor’s Regulation A-663 establishes procedures for ensuring that LEP parents are provided with a meaningful opportunity to participate in and have access to programs and services critical to their child’s education. Chancellor’s Regulation A-663 requires language services in the nine most common languages other than English spoken by parents of New York City school children. Based on the DOE’s Home Language Identification Survey these languages are Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, French, Haitian Creole, Korean, Russian, Spanish and Urdu (hereinafter referred to as the “covered languages”). These languages, including English, account for over 95% of student households. Support in additional languages is available through contracted vendors.


In practice, this means translation assistance with junior’s disciplinary problems, his health and safety, access to special programs, and so on. The T & I unit is even given legal responsibility to monitor the Multicultural Welcoming Posters in over 1700 schools, among multiple other duties.

Then add those skilled at multicultural outreach so the school staff can treat their Creole Haitian students in a culturally sensitive way. And what about obtaining teaching material relevant to youngsters who only know life in rural Guatemala? I’ll spare the details but I’d guess that a “truly” multicultural school would require far more staff than students (see here) and this is never-ending as immigration pattern shift.

And since many of these non-English speaking students have scant regard to school learning, retention becomes critical and, yet one more time, the Beast grows. An entire village probably cannot get Juan to learn but “this village” will be charged with keeping him in school, and who can argue with preventing drop-outs?

Lastly, the education industry, like so many other state bureaucracies, has a stake in sustaining deep dependency on government while weakening the family. To wit, prominent educators are now talking about schools as if they were surrogate families and the mission creep seems unstoppable. The creep is most visible in the growing movement for universal “quality” pre-school (that is, lots of credentialed aides) despite the shortcomings of Head Start. Now mothers who struggle as parents will be hired to look after the children of strangers provided they can obtain a credential from a local community college. Extensive school lunch and breakfast programs are already the norm in many schools and Washington itself is pushing these food programs (what do you expect from a government headed by a former community organizer?).

Few associate the term “homeless” to youngsters attending school, but “homeless student” now infuses the “education problem” agenda. One estimate put the national figure of homeless students at 1.7 million, larger than the largest American school district and according to the National Center for Homeless Education (yes, such a thing exists) this figure is now rising by 10% a year. And there is also the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth in Washington that is pushing a legislative agenda to help such at-risk youth. Many urban schools will soon resemble boarding schools if not hotels to meet the needs of students whose parents occasionally forget to pick them up.

In conclusion, let me put it this way. When millions toiled in agriculture the consequences were higher consumer prices and lots of back-breaking dangerous work. Though a few might celebrate this rustic life—yeomen farmers—no political imperative existed to reverse mechanization and the resultant agricultural unemployment (this had to wait until Willie Nelson’s Farm Aid concerts). Certainly nobody worried that unemployed farm laborers would re-locate to cities and become an urban pox.

Today’s education is profoundly different—“investing in the children” is sacrosanct, often viewed as the cure-all for all our woes, and candidates who hints of slimming down the beast are doomed. It is no accident that education remains an antiquated labor-intensive industry where, ironically, the introduction of technology only creates more jobs. Nor is it an industry that has responded well to calls for privatization so as to reduce costs. It is the bureaucratic Beast that can only grow and with this growth comes even more power to today’s Left.

One final note. We are not suggesting that all these newly hired workers be fired. After all, what are the alternatives? Permanent welfare dependency? Forcing private industry to hire unnecessary workers as was true in communist nations? All and all, people need jobs and categorizing those who once toiled in agriculture as “educators” may be the only sensible option.

Robert Weissberg is a New Yorker with an AB from Bard College and a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin Madison. He has taught political science at Cornell University, the University of Illinois-Urbana and New York University and has authored eleven books and numerous articles in professional journals. A version of this paper was given at the seventh annual meeting of The Mencken Club.

• Category: Economics • Tags: Public Schools 
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  1. This may be the best article that has ever appeared on this site. Bravo

    • Replies: @Florida resident
  2. Muse says:

    How about a similar analysis in higher education? But make it all data. Over time, compare percentage of students attending, real wages , cost per student, subject matter taught, degrees granted. Etc. It would be horrifying.

    • Replies: @Realist
  3. @Hare Krishna

    I can compare high quality of this article to Professor Weissberg’s book
    “Bad Students, not Bad Schools”, outstanding study of the subject.
    I would be happy to provide the reference to Amazon, where the book can be purchased,
    for thirteen bucks (used), but when I do that, moderating system treats my post as spam.
    Bravo, Dr. Weissberg, bravo !!!
    Respectfully, F.r.

    • Replies: @Billy O
    , @Hare Krishna
  4. Jim says:

    But doesn’t this process eventually lead to financial collapse as in places like Detroit? There is an asymmetry here between the assets and liabilities od cities. When a taxpayer leaves a place like Chicago the future tax revenues from that taxpayer disappear but when a participant in a city pension plan leaves the accrued liblity remains. The city’s assets evaporate but not their liabilities. Detroit is the end result.

  5. Beliavsky says:

    Good article. Something is missing from the last sentence

    “A version of this paper was given at the .”

  6. Oldeguy says:

    Quibble Alert !
    The author needs to rework those stats in the first paragraph: 9 million is about 53% of 17 million etc.

    • Agree: ben tillman
  7. As Florida resident writes above, Bad Students, NOT Bad Schools is an important book by Weissberg that gives the single most important answer to all the screaming about “education in America” today. The student performs learning. The teacher can’t learn for the student any more than a physical trainer can do someone’s exercises for him. Students have to do work in order to learn. Bad students fail to learn because they are bad students. They are responsible for their own failure.

    Teachers can’t pour knowledge into kid’s heads, but currently everyone on every side of the issue demands they do exactly that – and to babysit too. The brobdingnagian staffing that has been constructed around the actual teachers exists mostly to support and enforce these misguided demands.

    Regarding our inflated “higher” education racket, mentioned above by Muse, another good book is Real Education, by Charles Murray of Bell Curve fame. One major point made by Murray in this book is that less than twenty percent of the population has the aptitude to complete a real college education. This is an unchangeable, genetic fact: less than one-fifth of the public should ever attend college. Yet our education sector now essentially tells all children and their parents that anyone who does not get into college is a failure.

    No one could ever call the men who recently installed new heating and air conditioning systems in my house failures. Those men run very successful businesses and charge good money for their services. I doubt they went to college. In a way I envy them, because I am a deskbound money shuffler who produces nothing. I went to college while they learned how to do useful things that make them money.

    We neither respect nor emphasize vocational education, yet it is the best route for a large portion of humanity. We are being inhumane.

    Another recently published book perhaps worthy of attention in regard to this matter is The Teacher Wars, by Dana Goldstein. Reading this, one comes away realizing that Americans have been re-inventing the wheel of teaching for two hundred years. All this time, teachers have borne an inordinately large brunt of blame for the failures of other people’s children. Current emphasis on closing the “achievement gap” is simply a continuation of the past two centuries of foolishness and misplaced blame.

    Teachers are not the problem, nor are they the reason for the ever-increasing taxation necessitated by non-teaching staff, programs and facilities. I have witnessed the school superintendent in my own community pad his budget for “programs” while our student population actually shrinks and teachers get laid off. The budget continues to grow, and the town keeps on approving it! The administrators in our case clearly are coming up with ways to keep their coffers full while their customer base gets smaller. It’s typical bureaucratic behavior.

    • Replies: @OutWest
  8. Priss Factor [AKA "Andrea Ostrov Letania"] says:

    Militarize education from kindergarten.

    Kids will learn better and behave better.

  9. Retired says:

    School administration is also a place for employees of limited ability. I am not sure how the principal in our kid’s school made it through college.

  10. Hepp says:

    One final note. We are not suggesting that all these newly hired workers be fired. After all, what are the alternatives? Permanent welfare dependency? Forcing private industry to hire unnecessary workers as was true in communist nations? All and all, people need jobs and categorizing those who once toiled in agriculture as “educators” may be the only sensible option.

    The gender component must be addressed. A huge percentage of these unproductive workers are women. Unlike men, they tend not to work in productive fields like construction, mining, etc. They would be getting married and forming families if it wasn’t for all this government spending. The men, in turn, knowing they could get wives, would work harder and become more productive employees.

  11. A reasonable presentation of the situation, but nothing new. John Taylor Gatto pointed all this out back in the 90’s. Further developments are simply “to be expected”.

    A depressing picture, fine, but what are you going to do about it?

  12. David says:

    I have watched education spending in my small Vermont town go through the roof in nominal terms while being systematically understated due to cost shifting and delayed expenditure. An excavator billing half a million a year has no hope of retirement, ever, but a teacher pulls benefits worth $80,ooo a year working three-quarters time and gets to retire after 20 something years on a 50% pension. Break out the guillotines.

    Your macroscopic view is fascinating.

    • Replies: @Buzz Mohawk
  13. miles says:

    Thanks Dr. Weissberg for the informative article. Learned from it.

  14. I suspect the people doing manual labor in agriculture weren’t making much money. The jobs that many could move into, like service work for the wealthier, probably didn’t pay much more.

    Ever read “The Help”? The men worked in agriculture, the women as household help. It’s striking the work ethic that book describes. Anyway, the few ag jobs that remain have gone to illegals and the nannies, cooks, and maids have seen salaries go up so much that only the very wealthy few can afford them (and they often get paid off the books.) Now that my parents have regular help in their home I’m shocked at how much they’re paying. I tell my kids not to bother with much college; just go be caretakers for old people.

    BTW, why do those caretaking jobs pay so much? I mean, $20/hour or so?

    • Replies: @bomag
  15. @David

    Vermont must be very good for teachers!

    The teachers I know in my affluent state have to work 30 years for retirement, and I don’t know any of them who are making 80k! And the ones I know are high school math and science teachers with graduate degrees in their subjects. They have to know and teach complex material, yet they don’t get paid any more than the mouth-breathing gym teachers down the hall.

    Teachers here are also under constant threats to raise the performance of disrespectful, lazy children with low IQs — you know, the “disadvantaged.” (Read into that what you will, and you will be correct.) They are tasked with closing the “achievement gap,” you see. (Vermont, essentially a nice spot in the woods, may not have this problem.)

    I have to ask the following of anyone who regurgitates the old canard about teachers having it easy: If you think teaching is such an easy job with such great pay and benefits, why haven’t you tried it?

    I’m not being mean here. Most of us (including myself) would quit teaching after a very short time. A lot of new teachers do quit. It’s not for everybody. And that 3/4 time is deceptive. That doesn’t count the hours at home preparing lessons and grading papers. Or meeting with parents. Or the now countless after school programs and mandatory “professional development” seminars.

    Teaching properly requires dedication — and a patience for large groups of immature humans few of us have.

    On the other hand, my neighbor is an excavator! He built his towering McMansion 18 years ago, and it’s worth 3/4 of a million dollars in today’s lousy market. I have to stare at it. He’d like to sell it, what with him and his wife living alone there now, but he’s not satisfied with the depressed real estate prices. I don’t feel sorry for him. I’ve seen how much he charges people for his services.

    Believe me, an excavator (in business for himself) has a better job than a teacher. I would never blame an excavator for his success, nor should anyone blame a successful teacher. Both should be viewed as professionals who deserve what they can earn for themselves and their families.

    Teachers aren’t the cause of our constantly inflating budgets anyway. Top-heavy groups of grossly overpaid administrators — and the unnecessary programs they dream up — are. (Though maybe someone should lower the wages of those gym teachers…)

  16. bomag [AKA "doombuggy"] says:
    @Formerly CARealist

    BTW, why do those caretaking jobs pay so much? I mean, $20/hour or so?

    Welcome to the Obama economy. There are a lot of easy, make-work jobs out there; such as teacher’s aide et al. Welfare benefits are good enough to raise the opportunity cost of a real job.

    Caretaker jobs are a drag compared to the next best opportunity.

  17. bomag [AKA "doombuggy"] says:

    Excellent article. Especially the last paragraph: it nicely sums up what we are facing with our increasingly technical/robotic future where one high achieving person with a fleet of machines can quickly make common human labor obsolete.

    We are accustomed to measuring a large part of a person’s value by the work they do. In a future where most people are not able to contribute economically, we need to rethink economic value.

    • Replies: @Billy O
  18. Billy O says:
    @Florida resident

    Thanks for the tip. I’ll avoid adding links in future.

  19. Billy O says:

    Or rethink a person’s value. In my grandmother’s childhood, a billion people walked the Earth. Now the market is flooded with an extra six billion and rising. This overproduction of rather large mammals is squeezing everything.

    • Replies: @Hepp
  20. Hepp says:
    @Billy O

    Yes, living standards were much better when one billion people lived on the earth, rather than seven billion. If we go back to tens of thousands I’m sure we’d be in paradise.

    • Replies: @Jim
  21. Karl says:

    >> you don’t have to be especially smart, even industrious, to herd cows, pick fruit or otherwise help put food on somebody’s table

    written like a true City Person.

    My dream is that a miracle occurs, such that Robert Weissberg is cursed to only ever receive food that was produced by non-smart, non-industrious humans.

  22. you don’t have to be especially smart, even industrious, to herd cows, pick fruit or otherwise help put food on somebody’s table

    What percentage of gardeners and farmers, ranchers and field hands, would agree with that?

    We are not suggesting that all these newly hired workers be fired. After all, what are the alternatives? Permanent welfare dependency?

    Getting rid of their jobs would be a stop on the growth of educational bureaucracy. If the goal is to contain the growth of educational bureaucracy, then getting rid of such jobs as those is essential. If that is not even considered as an alternative, then what is the point of the article?

    As for other options, the best course for unsolicited immigrants of unassimilable ethnic and cultural background, is incentivized repatriation. Many unsolicited immigrants would be persuaded to leave with one year’s pay. If they live their lives here and are paid 20 or 50 times that amount, spreading their genes and culture into the host population’s, who benefits from that? The unsolicited immigrants, and the state and its administrators lackeys and dependents. The natives do not benefit from unsolicited immigration. Jobs and benefits that support and encourage unsolicited immigration ought to be excised.

  23. Jim says:

    It’s generally believed based on skeletal evidence that the transition from hunting/gathering cultures to agricultural cultures caused a considerable increase in malnutrition and degenerative diseases such as arthritis as well as an increase in infectious diseases. There was also a much greater risk of famine resulting from crop failure. The amount of hard labor required for early agricultural societies seems to have been much greater than that required for most hunter/gatherer cultures.

  24. panjoomby says:

    farming & agriculture take common sense, future planning & conscientiousness – at least at the top – not all the farm hands had to be bright, tho! some could just be told what to do –

    just as many school employees now either babysit or indoctrinate their charges –

    public school is a mass warehousing of kids – for a reason –

    at least half those kids are not smart enough to really learn & shouldn’t be there.

    school has never made anyone smarter – school can only make people more “credentialed” – the union ticket into being a public school employee minion.

    public schools mass produce minions who can become public school employees (well – half – the other half of students are simply too stupid)

  25. @Florida resident

    The message I got from this piece wasn’t “Bad Students, not Bad Schools”. It was “Bad Students and Bad Schools”

  26. OutWest says:
    @Buzz Mohawk

    Bad students are so (relative to their capability) not so much because of teachers as parents. Culture, including the inclination to work and learn, is learned at home.

  27. My sister who is a retired teacher disagrees with this. She says the 3/4 of school employees are not teachers. I think she is counting the people in the classrooms.

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