Years ago, as a reporter in Seattle, I watched Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer decry Washington state’s education system. He said Microsoft couldn’t hire enough locals because our schools don’t produce the kinds of minds he needed.
At the time, I was angry. He and his cohort, most notably Jeff Bezos of Amazon, contributed serious money to the campaign against a state income tax on the wealthy that would have funnelled billions to our schools. Now I feel a pinch deep in my stomach, an emotion so primal I hesitate to name it.
As a mother, my time is come, or nearly done, and my children’s just begun.
Automation will absorb all of the jobs it can reach, whether on the factory floor or in an office. Artificial intelligence has already taken over the corporate earnings analyses I once produced as a business journalist. By the best measures I’ve been able to find, machines will displace about half of American jobs by the time my toddlers look for work.
This new era has been called the second machine age, the fourth industrial revolution, the information economy.
From certain angles, Seattle residents seem well positioned to access the highly paid and creative jobs that arise from combining cutting edge technologies with the exponential powers of computing and big data. My city is now considered a global city not because of the port, which put our state on the maps when they were still being drawn, but because of the presence of Microsoft, Amazon and numerous tech start-ups.
Amazon occupies one fifth of all office space in downtown Seattle, a short ride from my neighbourhood on light rail. Incoming waves of well-educated tech workers have helped double the median home price during the past five years.
Many of these rich young people call themselves progressive. Are they proud to be joining the nation’s most regressive tax structure? In our state, poor people pay eight times as much of their family income to taxes as the wealthy 1 per cent. Lacking a personal income tax, Washington state relies on sales tax and has long looked to levies to fund schools, parks and other social needs.
When I moved to Seattle in 2004, I marvelled that the state didn’t take a cut of my income from the now-defunct Seattle Post-Intelligencer. It took me a while to contemplate what it means for an entire society to act against the interests of its children.
College-level tuitions before college
To survive the extinction of an entire class, I must prepare my two- and three-year-old
sons to race with the robots, and not against them.
Our children are going to meet an economy with far fewer entry level positions and will have to clamber up a receding ladder. That means being in schools equipped to exceed the averages, not rising to meet them.
Washington state has underfunded our schools so long that our government’s negligence was deemed unconstitutional by our state supreme court, which fined the state $100,000 (Dh367,800) per day for failing to provide a future for our children.
Years into this public shaming, the legislature came up with a multibillion dollar package to fund basic education in our state, though they didn’t manage to pass a capital budget before students went back to school after a long, dry summer.
From my porch, I can see the chain link fence blur into grey around the asphalt playground of our neighbourhood state school. On weekday mornings, my closest friends walk to Hawthorne Elementary with their children, ducklings that cluster at crosswalks along streets known for gunfire. A new home just sold for nearly a million dollars at the end of our block, but people keep getting shot and dying at our community playfield.
Despite valiant efforts by its admirable principal, committed educators, engaged parents and resilient students, Hawthorne has been labelled “failing” since long before my husband and I bought a peeling house from a nice couple who raised their family here.
Less than half of the school’s fourth and fifth graders meet the state’s standards in math, which makes me doubt that our educational system is preparing these children to thrive in the glittering economy they were born under. Five years ago, the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction ranked Hawthorne among the bottom 5 per cent of the state, according to test passage rates.
This, in a city known for minting billionaires.
In The Second Machine Age, authors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, both MIT professors, recommend Montessori programmes to prepare children for their future, with a focus on science, technology, engineering, arts and math. That’s Steam, for those not versed in educational acronyms.
Developed to help poor children realise their own innate potential, Montessori schools practice self-directed learning with tactile materials that encourage the freewheeling creativity that formed tech CEOs such as Bezos and Google’s co-founders.
The private bilingual Montessori kindergarten I found 30 minutes away costs $20,000 a year.
Despite college-level tuitions, about one quarter of Seattle students opt out of the state school system to study at private or parochial schools. To send my sons to Seattle’s best private schools would cost more than $700,000, and that’s before they get to college.
A survey of state schools in Seattle shows no Montessori options that my children can access, though a nearby programme in Leschi was a success at first, drawing wealthier students into the state school system, bringing with them the engagement of their families.
The Leschi teachers were so distressed by the resulting racial, linguistic and housing disparities between the traditional and Montessori classes that they melded the programmes, rather than working to recruit more students of colour into the Montessori programme, which they could not afford to expand. A task force opted against including technology in the curriculum, fearful they would attract too many white families.
I believe in diversity; my own blood is blended. A first generation Latinx, I’ve invested years of effort to raise my sons to be bilingual. I also want to work toward equity in a city whose neighbourhood schools reflect the segregation compelled by redlining and white flight.
Leschi’s students are learning hard truths about equity, but they’re improving together. Maybe that’s enough. But I worry when well-intentioned people — lacking the resources to serve their students equally — decide against teaching technology, the lingua franca of our world. Even the state administers student tests by computer.
I sought answers from Chris Reykdal, state superintendent of public instruction. “The injustice of it all is that we have never seen technology as a core learning,” Reykdal said. “Do we still consider technology an enrichment, or should it be a more profound part of basic education? The state hasn’t made that decision yet.”
Washington has hundreds of school districts overseen by elected boards that enact tangled mandates without the resources to see them through. All over the state, schools used levy monies to take care of basics and pay their teachers, rather than acquiring and teaching technology.
Deb Merle is Gov Jay Inslee’s K-12 education adviser. Merle said that designating technology as part of basic education, which would ensure that the dollars flowed to their purpose, is not a state priority, though she recognised that Reykdal’s predecessor also advocated for keeping technology funds separate.
“I don’t think we teach enough science, period. That’s what I spend a lot of time worrying about, not what kind of science,” Merle said. “Our elementary schools teach less than one hour per week of science.”
I kept dialling, determined to maintain the education-fuelled trajectory of my family.
My kin have lived in dictatorship-induced diaspora since famine swept Spain under Franco; they later fled Batista, who ruled Cuba before Castro. I am not conditioned to expect social stability as a condition of being for any country.
The meeting I most dreaded was closest to home. On the short walk to our neighbourhood school, I decided to come right out and tell its principal, Sandra Scott, that I am afraid to send my children to Hawthorne because the school’s test scores, though on the rise, are low enough to make me wince.
Luckily, Scott is a pragmatic visionary, the kind of principal who inspires parents to put down the remote and join the PTA. Since 2009, Scott has led Hawthorne’s revitalisation, winning admiration and awards from Johns Hopkins University for her programme of school, family and community partnerships.
“Test scores don’t define who the students are. Our children are not a number,” Scott said. “There were things we needed to do differently or better” — like “improving the academics and the school culture to bring families back into the community”.
Recognising the opportunity that Seattle’s tech economy presents, Scott retooled Hawthorne to focus on Steam programming. Rather than cluster the high performing test takers together — which has segregated programmes within diverse schools — Hawthorne distributes them throughout classrooms. If a student excels in math, outstripping peers in that grade’s curriculum, the teacher walks that child to the next grade for math.
When it comes to fifth grade science, those efforts more than doubled the test passage rates over three years, from 20% to 46%. I ache upon rereading that last sentence — the hope and pride in the increase, the grimace I can’t help but make at where they started, and what remains to be accomplished.
Scott and her staff find ways to make progress. But she doesn’t have the funds for a technology teacher or trainings, so the lab will be largely unused this year. As a mother who cares about the children who go to Hawthorne, I can’t afford to wait for someone else to find those resources.
The leaders of this school are working to undo the effects of intergenerational poverty that dates back to slavery and other forced migrations. More than half of the students are eligible for free and reduced lunches. A quarter of the students are learning the language they’re taught in. Scores reflect circumstances, which is why Reykdal is refocusing the state on “racial gaps, poverty gaps, and English language gaps, down to the school level”.
Many of the jobs first displaced by automation belong to peoples of colour, women and others who depend on a combination of part-time positions. A federal council of economic advisers found an 83 per cent likelihood that, by 2040, automation would displace jobs paying less than $20 per hour.
In Washington, Steam-related jobs pay double the median wage, for starters. The people moving here to work for Microsoft, Amazon and Boeing make much more. When we choose not to provide state schools with the resources needed to provide educational access to those opportunities, we are consigning local students to lesser paid sectors of the economy, the very same that are vulnerable to automation. In other words, we are allowing our government to consecrate our children to poverty in real time.
Mass unemployment would make American society more violent, our law enforcement more brutal and our peoples more vulnerable to genocide. Automation is a social justice issue, and if history is any teacher, it shows us that vast swathes of disenfranchised peoples are a harbinger of war.
Problems that reflect the world
Whenever I have a problem that’s too big to solve, I call my dad, and we argue about what to do. He told me the solution was simple. I should move. The only financially feasible choice would be the suburbs.
Something in me balks at leaving a city I love, and especially our neighbourhood, where my children are happy. As a community, we just celebrated our tenth annual block party, a Cuban pig roast that my husband and I organise for our wedding anniversary. Our neighbours come bearing side dishes, canopies and games, and we dance until the DJs stop playing. The conversations we start on that night have lasted a decade. I want to stay.
As native Spanish speakers, my sons could option into the bilingual state schools on the other side of our gridlocked downtown, north of the covenants which kept people of colour from buying homes. Those schools’ wait lists are legendary, but I am uncomfortable with
the mostly white and relatively well-off demographics produced by saving only 15 per cent of seats for native speakers. I want my children to feel at home in a country that contains multitudes, which is why we moved to one of our nation’s most diverse zip codes.
Computers solve the problems they’re given. And so we must ask ourselves what we value, and whom.
Not every child wants to be a robotics engineer. But without the modes of thought elicited by learning computer science from an early age, many Washington state students will not be competitive for the jobs that remain. I want my own sons to be chosen — and better yet, able to choose — as I was, though I fell for a profession whose financial structures imploded five years after my college graduation.
I hope my privileged vulnerability encourages you to reflect on those truly trapped by our system. This essay invokes my worries as a mother, and with them, my socioeconomic position. Hawthorne is a happy place with diverse classrooms whose problems reflect the world, but I am glad of the years I have left to decide what my children truly need to learn.
There can be no denying that I am one of the gentrifiers of this neighbourhood, and with the honour of living here comes the responsibility to contribute. Looking at what’s coming in the second machine age — tremendous opportunities, to be sure, but also massive loss of what we’ve known as jobs — I feel compelled to join those working toward a better future, minds whirring whenever problems arise.
Two non-profit, FIRST Washington and XBOT Robotics, have offered support and equipment for Hawthorne to start a LEGO robotics league after school. Four parents signed up to lead teams during last night’s PTA meeting, my very first.
It’s a start.
To bolster Steam education for students, hybridised systems have sprang up as non-profit seek to prepare our children for the economy we will leave to them.
FIRST Washington: This non-profit helps start and sustain after-school LEGO robotics leagues from K-12.
XBOT Robotics: Operating in one of the nation’s most diverse zip codes, offering robotics programming K-12.
Code.org: Free online programming for learners at all levels. Work through problems with your children.
Technology Access Foundation: Helping people of colour access STEM-related education in middle school, high school and beyond.
Washington State Opportunity Scholarship: A non-profit that funds thousands of STEM scholarships for Washington’s college-bound high school graduates. More than half of those scholarship recipients are students of colour, women and/or the first in their family to access a higher education, if not all three.
TEALS: Matches professionals with teachers to co-teach computer science in classrooms.
Seattle MESA (Mathematics Engineering Science Achievement): Provides scholarships, in-class math and science projects, advanced learning opportunities, tutoring, math camp and teacher trainings.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Kristen Millares Young is a writer and journalist whose work has been featured by the Guardian, Hobart, the New York Times.