A rising tide raises all boats. This is a Reagan-era phrase referring to trickle-down economics. The idea was that as those with the resources (the biggest boats floating on the economic ocean) poured their capital into the economy, the economy (the tide in this metaphor) would grow and all the boats floating on the water, be they luxury liners or rowboats, would float higher and higher. It didn’t work and the metaphor is wrong. Let’s just get that out of the way. The evidence is in the growing division of wealth in this country. Many boats sank.
A better metaphor is this. The water in the metaphor is not the economy, but instead the majority people—those in the working and middle class. In the old metaphor, all had boats, though some were larger than others. Now, the boats represent those that hold the majority of the resources. Applying this new twist on the metaphor, the majority of the people, with just enough resources (food, shelter, and maybe health care) are the ocean upon which the boats are floating. Notice in my twist on the metaphor, many don’t have boats at all. However, eventually the fewer and fewer, but larger and larger boats will be too heavy (loaded with more and more of the resources and wealth) to be supported by the ocean. It isn’t sustainable for the boats to grow larger and larger, leaving fewer and fewer with any purchasing power. Eventually, those with capital and resources making the goods will have no customers except themselves.
A more sustainable approach is the following. If the majority of the people (the working and middle class) acquire more resources also, then they will have more purchasing power. This results in a growing economy, which will lift and support the floating boats. Currently this is more and more just luxury liners. A strong middle and working class will actually still keep the rich wealthy and comfortable. I frankly cannot understand why those with the most wealth continue to allow the financial divide to grow as they are reducing their own customer base for the products they produce. Evidence for this is in the stores that have grown profits during the recession, luxury item stores and discount stores. The stores that cater to what used to be the majority of Americans continue to see less and less profits.
Henry Ford recognized this when he created his assembly line factories and began paying his workers many times the going rate for factory workers, who because of the economy and competition for work were at the mercy of those holding the capital. The prevailing wisdom among the producers of goods was to pay as little as possible to maximize profits on goods produced—and because of the times, that could be very little. What Ford recognized was that if he paid his employees enough to be able to actually buy what they were making, his Model T, then he wasn’t just creating a product for the wealthy, but was instead increasing his market share. The workers made a decent living, bought more and more of his cars, and with each one he made more money. He might have made less per car due to the increased labor costs, but the increase in volume of sales made up for the difference in spades.
We have forgotten this lesson in history. And so the gap between the haves and have-nots continues to widen. This has affected education as well. The American Psychological Association has recognized and now recommends that teachers adopt progressive and constructivist practices in education. This is the recommendation because it is this type of teaching, using more essential questions, open-ended questions, project-based learning, and a more individualized approach that creates students with creative problem solving skills and a love of learning. Simply put, the type of individuals we want as leaders in the future.
However, this kind of education is often reserved for those with the means to send their children to private schools that exist without the burden of 30 – 40 students in a class and without the burden of a litany of fact-based standards. These hurdles hit the inner-city the hardest. So, to get students to attend school despite socio-economic barriers and to have success on standardized tests, we have created models the opposite of what we know leads to creative thinkers and leading problem-solvers.
I have heard educators state that the progressive, constructivist education can’t be done in these schools until the basic skills are achieved. I am revolted and offended by such statements. This is simply an example of structural racialization. Structural Racialization is when structures are in place that are not overtly racist, but yet help to maintain past damages done by overt racist practices. It should be unacceptable in education structures and policies, but sadly is not.
The result is that students in these over-burdened public schools (i.e. urban and mostly minority and/or poor) often never get past the basic skills—though we might effectively improve standardized test scores and graduation rates. Meanwhile, their peers (i.e. white and/or upper class) get to excel with smaller classes, in-depth project learning, exploration of their own questions, and creative problem-solving. Based on this scenario which class of people will (still) be the next generation of leaders and therefore power brokers? That’s a rhetorical question.
Returning to our original metaphor, the rising tide may raise all boats, however, I fear that the rising tide is made up of the poor working class, educated with just enough to work in the factories providing the resources for the few in the boats floating atop the labor of this working class. And from their viewpoint, dry in their boats, those few holding more and more resources will have to beat back the hands of those trying to scramble into their boats to survive. As the power brokers sit in their boats will they be wondering why those below them aren’t grateful for the work scraps that have been thrown to them? As competition for survival grows, and maximizing profits is the norm, workers will have to work more and more in which the best they can do is toil to survive and only dream of a better day when a day’s wage would allow them to buy the very products they are producing. This is not a sustainable economic or education system. As educators we need to rebel against this basic-standards education for the masses, and creative-problem-solving education for the wealthy—be they attending private schools or schools in wealthy neighborhoods with the benefit of a higher tax base of funding for public education. This will not close the achievement gap, only widen it, and eventually all boats will not be rising, but will have sunk—or been pulled down by the languishing “tide.”