Social Efficiency, Workforce Development, and the Threat to the Humanities and Social Sciences

In Aristotle’s Wrongful Death , NY Times columnist Frank Bruni contemplates the retreat by colleges and universities from the liberal arts: “History is on the ebb. Philosophy is on the ropes. And comparative literature? Please. It’s an intellectual heirloom: cherished by those who can afford such baubles but disposable in the eyes of others. I’m talking about college majors, and the talk about college majors is loud and contentious these days. There’s concern about whether schools are offering the right ones. There are questions about whether colleges should be emphasizing them at all. How does a deep dive into the classics abet a successful leap into the contemporary job market? Should an ambitious examination of English literature come at the cost of acquiring fluency in coding, digital marketing and the like?”

Bruni describes how the University of Illinois is combining majors like anthropology and linguistics with computer science, how Assumption College is eliminating majors in art history, geography, and classics and adding data analytics, actuarial science and a concentration in physical or occupational therapy. He reminds us that the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point is considering dropping 13 majors in the liberal arts and adding “clear career pathways,” and that the University of Wisconsin at Superior is ending majors in sociology and political science and seven other majors in the humanities and social sciences.

The same trend is affecting K-12 education here in Ohio, where Governor John Kasich and his allies have been trying to move a bill through the legislature to collapse the Ohio State Board of Education and the Ohio (Higher Education) Board of Regents into Kasich’s own Executive Workforce Board. (See here and here.) Kasich also attempted to get the legislature—in the 2018-2019 biennial budget no less—to require that, to renew their state certification, all teachers would have to sign up for workplace externships to expose them to the “real” world of work. Fortunately, after many people pointed out that teaching is itself a form of work, that initiative was removed from the budget.

In some cases the substitution of workplace-relevant majors is part of an effort by struggling colleges to stay alive. The Cleveland Plain Dealer has been tracking what it calls a “sweeping redesign of academic programs at tiny Hiram College. At the end of May, the trustees approved the plan to add criminal justice, international studies, and sports management; and to consider adding majors next year in data analytics, computer engineering and gaming, and interactive media and information technology. The major in religion has been eliminated.  Economics, philosophy, math, French and Spanish are no longer academic majors, although students can earn academic minors in these fields.

All the news about the abandonment of the liberal arts and social sciences, the attention to computer driven skills, and an almost myopic focus on workforce development as the goal of education took me back to David Labaree’s brilliant and very complex 1997 article published in the American Educational Research Journal: Public Goods, Private Goods: The American Struggle over Educational Goals. This is a paywalled article and available primarily in college and university libraries. If you can find access to it, you’ll be amazed at its timeliness 20 years after its publication.  It is a largely a descriptive analysis in which Labaree dissects and identifies the frequently competing social goals our society holds for education.

Labaree names three competing goals which he believes over the centuries have been thought to define the broad social purpose of education in the United States: democratic equality, social efficiency, and social mobility. The first is what many of us claim to be the purpose of public education—forming a democratic citizenry and promoting equal access and equal treatment for all students. The third—social mobility—is less often named, but certainly practiced by parents positioning their children by purchasing homes in particular suburbs or grasping for access to the Kindergartens in New York City known to be the path to Stuyvesant High School and the Ivy Leagues. Many public schools reflect this third goal institutionally, set up as many are to reinforce our society’s already existing social stratification. And promoters of marketplace school choice incorporate this goal in their arguments. This third goal positions education as something of value primarily to individuals, not society as a whole.

Labaree’s second goal—social efficiency—is the May, 2018 goal-of-the-month—the one that concerns Frank Bruni. Here is Labaree’s definition: “The logic is compelling: Schooling supplies future workers with skills that will enhance their productivity and therefore promote economic growth. This logic allows an educational leader to argue that support for education is not just a matter of moral or political correctness but a matter of good economic sense. Schooling from this perspective can be portrayed as a sensible mechanism for promoting our economic future, an investment in human capital that will pay bountiful dividends for the community as a whole and ultimately for each individual taxpayer.” (Emphasis is mine.)

Labaree describes proponents of social efficiency as: “policymakers (politicians and educational bureaucrats) who are worried about the high cost of supporting many parts of the educational establishment when the economic utility of this investment is slight.  There are employers and business leaders, who fear that their immediate manpower needs are not being filled by persons with appropriate skills or that they will have to provide training for employees at their own expense…  In addition, at the most general level, social efficiency in education is a concern for any and all adult members of American society in their role as taxpayers. As citizens, they can understand the value of education in producing an informed and capable electorate; as consumers, they can understand its value in presenting themselves and their children with selective opportunities for competitive social advantage; but, as taxpayers, they are compelled to look at education as a financial investment—not in their own children, which is the essence of the consumer perspective, but in other people’s children. The result is that adults in their taxpayer role tend to apply more stringent criteria to the support of education as a public good than they do to their role as consumers thinking of education as a private good… Thus the taxpayer perspective applies a criterion to the support of education for other people’s children that is both stingier than that arising from the consumer perspective and loaded down with an array of contingencies that make support dependent on the demonstrated effectiveness of education in meeting strict economic criteria—to boost economic productivity, expand the tax base, attract local industry, and make the country more competitive internationally, all at a modest cost per student.”

He continues: “For taxpayers in general and for all of the other constituencies of the social efficiency goal for education, the notion of education for social mobility is politically seductive but socially inefficient. Sure, it is nice to think that everyone has a right to all the education he or she wants, and of course everyone would like to get ahead via education; but (say those from the social efficiency perspective) the responsible deployment of societal resources calls for us to look beyond political platitudes and individual interests and to consider the human capital needs of the society as a whole. From this pragmatic, fiscally conservative, and statist perspective, the primary goal of education is to produce the work force that is required by the occupational structure in its current form and that will provide measurable economic benefits to society as a whole.

Labaree describes considerable interaction over the decades among the three goals, and it is clear that today in our high-tech economy, the third—social mobility—is also driving at least a lot of talk across K-12 schools about STEM preparation—science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Students want jobs with status, and hi-tech is where it’s at. Colleges, of course, are lured to provide what students think they need to qualify for lucrative, high-status jobs.  In the state universities, however, especially in the all-Red states engaging in austerity budgeting after tax cuts, the motive of social efficiency conspires with market-based social mobility against the humanities and the social sciences.

Labaree’s primary purpose is to define and describe the many goals that compete from era to era to drive education policy.  Frank Bruni takes a position—flatly rejecting what seems to be the dominant goal right now—social efficiency through workforce development.  He worries about a fourth goal—one that many of us hold: intellectual development itself.  Bruni writes: “I worry that there’s a false promise being made. The world now changes at warp speed. Colleges move glacially. By the time they’ve assembled a new cluster of practical concentrations, an even newer cluster may be called for, and a set of job-specific skills picked up today may be obsolete less than a decade down the road…. (I)t’s a balancing act, because colleges shouldn’t lose sight of what makes traditional majors—even the arcane ones—so meaningful, especially now. And they shouldn’t downgrade the nonvocational mission of higher education: to cultivate minds, prepare young adults for enlightened citizenship, give them a better sense of their perch in history and connect them to traditions that transcend the moment. History, philosophy and comparative literature are bound to be better at that than occupational therapy. They’re sturdier threads of cultural and intellectual continuity. And majoring in them—majoring in anything—is a useful retort to the infinite distractions, short attention spans and staccato communications of the smartphone era.”

Bruni agrees with our society’s greatest proponent of progressive education, John Dewey, who, in 1897, published a Pedagogic Creed, in which he declared: “((T)he only possible adjustment which we can give to the child under existing conditions, is that which arises through putting him in complete possession of all his powers. With the advent of democracy and modern industrial conditions, it is impossible to foretell definitely just what civilization will be twenty years from now. Hence it is impossible to prepare the child for any precise set of conditions. To prepare him for the future life means to give him command of himself; it means so to train him that he will have the full and ready use of all his capacities; that his eye and ear and hand may be tools ready to command, that his judgment may be capable of grasping the conditions under which it has to work….”

All this is to malign neither fine vocational training nor workforce preparation in fields where students will find employment opportunities—including teaching. But one should be alarmed if, as is being considered at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, future teachers will still be able to earn state professional certification even though the future high school teachers among them will no longer be able to earn academic majors in the subject areas in which they plan to teach.

Defining workplace prep as the single, dominant goal of education is merely another example of how out-of-kilter things have become in America.

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Big Data, A.I., ‘Personalized’ Learning: A Solution for Eliminating Poverty and Improving Schools?

Tuesday’s NY Times featured a commentary whose author promotes artificial intelligence, big data, and “personalized” learning—algorithm-driven computer programs said to tailor learning to a student’s needs and interests—not only for reinventing education but for powering a new war on poverty. It is a glowing article framed as problem-solving: “Poverty, of course, is a multifaceted phenomenon. But the condition of poverty often entails one or more of these realities: a lack of income (joblessness); a lack of preparedness (education); and a dependency on government services (welfare). A.I. (artificial intelligence) can address all three.”

Clearly the author, Elisabeth A. Mason, the founding director of the Stanford Poverty and Technology Lab, isn’t a fan of dependency on government programs to provide support for people trapped in poverty, and she believes big data and artificial intelligence can match people who are out of work to, “good middle-class jobs that are going unfilled.  Today there are millions of such jobs in the United States…. A.I can predict where the job openings of tomorrow will lie, and which skills and training will be needed for them.” Mason adds: “(B)ig data promises something closer to an unbiased ideology-free evaluation of the effectiveness of… social programs.”

Mason denigrates what she believes is our education system: “We bundle students into a room, use the same method of instruction and hope for the best.”  The solution?  A.I. tutors that, “can home in on and correct for each student’s weaknesses, adapt coursework to his or her learning style and keep the student engaged.”  The so-called tutors are computers—not human beings.  Mason continues: “Today’s dominant type of A.I., also known as machine learning, permits computer programs to become more accurate—to learn, if you will—as they absorb data and correlate it with known examples from other data sets. In this way, the A.I. ‘tutor’ becomes increasingly effective at matching a student’s needs as it spends more time seeing what works to improve performance.”

I am skeptical about Mason’s brave new world even though I acknowledge the value of social research that employs big data. Stanford’s Poverty & Technology Lab is tiny part of much larger collaborative, cross-discipline work at the Stanford Center on Poverty & Inequality, where sociologist Sean Reardon has been using big data to inform us about economic inequality and its effects on students’ educational achievement. My skepticism does not extend to Reardon, who has done more to help us understand the impact of poverty on children than perhaps any other social scientist. With the kind of big data Mason advocates, Reardon has found a way (here and here) to document nearly a half century of growing residential resegregation by family income across America’s metropolitan areas along with a widening academic achievement gap that reflects children’s segregation by income.  And recently, Reardon published a new study, once again based on big data, that teases out the impact of family and neighborhood factors in education from other indicators of the quality of a community’s schools. All this helps define the scope of our social problem of widening and deepening hypersegregation by race and poverty across America’s communities and schools, but so far, at least, it has helped us face neither the logistical challenge of what to do nor the moral problem of motivating our society to want to do something. Here in metropolitan Cleveland, Ohio, for many years I have been watching the growth of interstate highways that take the wealthy farther and farther into white, outer-ring suburbs. Reardon’s data helps me see the phenomenon in a new and more structural way, but so far nobody seems to know what to do or how to develop the political will to stop our economic segregation.

It would be helpful if big data and artificial intelligence could help us with a new war on poverty, but once again, the challenge is not so much a matter of the technical capacity to measure the problem. Despite that politicians today do not even mention poverty, its depth and growth are well documented. The Washington Post recently reported on a new study from the United Nations on U.S. poverty: “With welfare reform in 1996, poor single parents with children now have a lifetime limit of five years of assistance and mandatory work requirements… The number of families on welfare declined from 4.6 million in 1996 to 1.1 million this year.  The decline of the welfare rolls has not meant a decline in poverty, however. Instead, the shredding of the safety net led to a rise in poverty. Forty million Americans live in poverty, nearly half in deep poverty—which U.N. investigators defined as people reporting income less than one-half of the poverty threshold. The United States has the highest child poverty rates—25 percent—in the developed world… Declining wages at the lower end of the economic ladder make it harder for people to save for times of crisis or to get back on their feet. A full-time, year-round minimum wage worker, often employed in a dead-end job, falls below the poverty threshold for a family of three and often has to rely on food stamps.” Poverty in America remains politically and morally invisible despite the presence of big data.

And finally there is the proposal that our society can personalize education with A.I. tutors—computers driven by algorithms said to respond to children’s prompts with material that addresses their educational needs and feeds their interests. Yesterday this blog explored the education philosopher John Dewey’s 1897 pedagogic creed. Dewey believed that education is not merely for the kind of individual intellectual growth that is promoted by advocates for so-called “personalized” learning. The school, as the place where the student works with teachers and peers, is also instrumental for socializing human beings. The school and the family are the social institutions where, through relations with others, children learn to be moral beings and citizens: ” “I believe that the only true education comes through the stimulation of the child’s powers by the demands of the social situations in which he finds himself.  Through these demands he is stimulated to act as a member of a unity, to emerge from his original narrowness of action and feeling and to conceive of himself from the standpoint of the welfare of the group to which he belongs. Through the responses which others make to his own activities he comes to know what these mean in social terms.” “(E)ducation is a regulation of the process of coming to share in the social consciousness.” “This process begins unconsciously almost at birth, and is continually shaping the individual’s powers, saturating his consciousness, forming his habits, training his ideas, and arousing his feelings and emotions. Through this unconscious education the individual gradually comes to share in the intellectual and moral resources which humanity has succeeded in getting together… The most formal and technical education in the world cannot safely depart from this general process.”

Nobody ever really pinned down the meaning of Arne Duncan’s cliche that our schools must stop being “trapped in the 20th century.” John Dewey’s long life spanned the last half of the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries. I hope nobody will try to tell me that Dewey’s wisdom is just so “yesterday.”

An Urgently Needed New Year’s Resolution for Those Who Care About Public Education

A worthwhile New Year’s resolution would be to honor educators—the people who feel called to help others realize their promise. We live in an era of attacks on the public schools and school teachers, and even on higher education in America’s world-renowned colleges and universities.

A resolution to honor educators would mean we consult educators about the public policies that shape our schools, but in recent years we have listened instead to politicians, philanthropists,  business leaders, and tech titans—Michael Bloomberg, Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, Mark Zuckerberg, and Eva Moskowitz—or Eli Broad, Jeb Bush and Betsy DeVos.

As it happens, John Dewey—a professor of education, perhaps America’s most famous education philosopher, and an education psychologist as well—published a short, readable education creed in 1897. As an exercise for the new year, indulge yourself by comparing Dewey’s pedagogic creed to the ideas and principles that underpin today’s public education policy driven by business, philanthropy, the tech-savvy, and politicians. Imagine how different our schools might be if school teachers who have studied the philosophy and psychology of education were trusted by the education committees in Congress and across the statehouses.

Here are just four of the concepts explored in Dewey’s “Pedagogic Creed.” Dewey’s thinking directly confronts what is happening in our schools driven by high stakes test and punish—charter schools dominated by no-excuses compliance—schools with unworkable ratios of students per teacher—schools oriented to college-and-career prep.

First, Dewey, the psychologist, explains that because all learning comes from within the learner, school must be child- or student-centered.  “I believe that interests are the signs and symptoms of growing power. I believe that they represent dawning capacities.  Accordingly the constant and careful observation of interests is of the utmost importance for the educator. I believe that these interests are to be observed as showing the state of development which the child has reached. I believe that they prophesy the state upon which he is about to enter. I believe that only through the continual and sympathetic observation of childhood’s interests can the adult enter into the child’s life and see what it is ready for, and upon what material it could work most readily and fruitfully.”  Therefore, “The child’s own instincts and powers furnish the material and give the starting point for all education.  Save as the efforts of the educator connect with some activity which the child is carrying on of his own initiative independent of the educator, education becomes reduced to a pressure from without. It may, indeed, give certain external results but cannot truly be called educative.”

Second, Dewey challenges the idea of school as career prep or college prep. “I believe that much of present education fails because it neglects this fundamental principle of the school as a form of community life. It conceives the school as a place where certain information is to be given, where certain lessons are to be learned, or where certain habits are to be formed.  The value of these is conceived as lying largely in the remote future; the child must do these things for the sake of something else he is to do; they are mere preparation.  As a result they do not become a part of the life experience of the child and so are not truly educative.” “But on the other hand, the only possible adjustment which we can give to the child under existing conditions, is that which arises through putting him in complete possession of all his powers.  With the advent of democracy and modern industrial conditions, it is impossible to foretell definitely just what civilization will be twenty years from now. Hence it is impossible to prepare the child for any precise set of conditions. To prepare him for the future life means to give him command of himself; it means to to train him that he will have the full and ready use of all his capacities; that his eye and ear and hand may be tools ready to command, that his judgment may be capable of grasping the conditions under which it has to work, and the executive forces be trained to act economically and efficiently.”

Third, what about the role of the teacher and the student’s peers?  “I believe that the only true education comes through the stimulation of the child’s powers by the demands of the social situations in which he finds himself.  Through these demands he is stimulated to act as a member of a unity, to emerge from his original narrowness of action and feeling and to conceive of himself from the standpoint of the welfare of the group to which he belongs. Through the responses which others make to his own activities he comes to know what these mean in social terms… For instance, through the response which is made to the child’s instinctive babblings the child comes to know what those babblings mean; they are transformed into articulate language and thus the child is introduced into the consolidated wealth of ideas and emotions which are now summed up in language.” “I believe that moral education centres about this conception of the school as a mode of social life, that the best and deepest moral training is precisely that which one gets through having to enter into proper relations with others in a unity of worth and thought… I believe that under existing conditions far too much of the stimulus and control proceeds from the teacher, because of the neglect of the idea of the school as a form of social life.  I believe that the teacher’s place and work in the school is to be interpreted from this same basis.  The teacher is not in the school to impose certain ideas or to form certain habits in the child, but is there as a member of the community to select the influences which shall affect the child and to assist him in properly responding to these influences.”

And fourth, all education must be social; it cannot happen merely in front of a computer screen. “I believe that education is a regulation of the process of coming to share in the social consciousness…” “This process begins unconsciously almost at birth, and is continually shaping the individual’s powers, saturating his consciousness, forming his habits, training his ideas, and arousing his feelings and emotions. Through this unconscious education the individual gradually comes to share in the intellectual and moral resources which humanity has succeeded in getting together… The most formal and technical education in the world cannot safely depart from this general process.” “I believe that in the ideal school we have the reconciliation of the individualistic and the institutional ideals. I believe that the community’s duty to education is, therefore, its paramount moral duty… I believe it is the business of every one interested in education to insist upon the school as the primary and most effective instrument of social progress and reform in order that society may be awakened to realize what the school stands for, and aroused to the necessity of endowing the educator with sufficient equipment to perform his task… I believe, finally, that the teacher is engaged, not simply in the training of individuals, but in the formation of the proper social life.”

John Dewey, Paul Wellstone… and Betsy DeVos?

Betsy DeVos has weakened, through rule changes, protection for the victims of campus sexual assault, reduced protections for transgender youths, shortened and made more superficial the investigations of civil rights complaints, and reduced some of Obama’s sanctions against for-profit colleges. There also seem to be changes coming in the administration of student loans. But as far as the operation and funding of K-12 public schools, she hasn’t been able to move major changes through Congress.

I would argue, however, that the most serious damage she is inflicting is her use of her power as Secretary of Education to undermine the philosophy of education most of us have merely assumed was true, because it has always been the explanation we’ve heard as the reason for public schools. Most of us can’t articulate that philosophy because we’ve merely taken it for granted.

Here are two simple statement, by experts, of what most of us just accept. Philosopher John Dewey wrote, “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children… Only by being true to the full growth of all the individuals who make it up, can society by any chance be true to itself.”  The late Senator Paul Wellstone made it even simpler: “That all citizens will be given an equal start through a sound education is one of the most basic, promised rights of our democracy.”  Leave aside for a moment the fact that these are aspirational goals: Our society has not fulfilled these promises for the most vulnerable children, but we have made some progress over the years expanding the provision of education for the children we’ve left out or left behind simply because we have believed in the broader principles of equal access and opportunity.

Dewey and Wellstone promoted a philosophy of social responsibility. Betsy DeVos, on the other hand, promotes a philosophy of individual freedom. It is a very different way of thinking.

In a major policy address in July, here is how Betsy DeVos described her philosophy of education: “Choice in education is good politics because it’s good policy. It’s good policy because it comes from good parents who want better for their children. Families are on the front lines of this fight; let’s stand with them… Just the other week, the American Federation of Teachers tweeted at me… ‘Betsy DeVos says (the) public should invest in individual students. NO. We should invest in a system of great public schools for all kids.’… I couldn’t believe it when I read it, but you have to admire their candor. They have made clear that they care more about a system—one that was created in the 1800s—than about individual students.  They are saying education is not an investment in individual students.”  Betsy DeVos continued, remembering Margaret Thatcher: “Lady Thatcher regretted that too many seem to blame all their problems on ‘society.’ But, ‘Who is society?’ she asked. ‘There is no such thing!  There are individual men and women and there are families’—families, she said—‘and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.’”  Finally, DeVos summed up what she has learned from Margaret Thatcher: “This isn’t about school ‘systems.’  This is about individual students, parents, and families. Schools are at the service of students. Not the other way around.”

As a description of schooling for children, DeVos’s statement makes little sense. She doesn’t explain anything about the operation and funding of school schools—I guess, because she doesn’t believe in any kind of system. DeVos’s statement is merely a declaration of libertarian ideology.  This must be what she meant back in 2015 when she said, “Government really sucks.”

In addition to her words, the venues where DeVos has been speaking about her education philosophy tell us about her philosophy of education.

The speech about Margaret Thatcher was a keynote at the annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange  Council (ALEC).  Economist, Gordon Lafer explains that ALEC is “the most important national organization advancing the corporate agenda at the state level.”  It “brings together two thousand member legislators (one-quarter of all state lawmakers, including many state senate presidents and House Speakers) and the country’s largest corporations to formulate and promote business-friendly legislation… Thus, state legislators with little time, staff, or expertise are able to introduce fully formed and professionally supported bills. The organization claims to introduce eight hundred to one thousand bills each year in the fifty state legislatures, with 20 percent becoming law.  Ultimately, the ‘exchange’ that ALEC facilitates is between corporate donors and state legislators.  The corporations pay ALEC’s expenses and contribute to legislators’ campaigns; in return, legislators carry the corporate agenda into their statehouses.” (The One Percent Solution, p 13)

In a recent column, the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss describes DeVos’s collaboration with ALEC: “For decades, DeVos has been working at the state level, in philosophical alliance with the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to push state laws that expand school choice and privatization.  That agenda scored a victory recently in Illinois, where… Gov. Bruce Rauner (R)… had thrown his support to DeVos’s nomination as education secretary in January.  It was no surprise when Rauner managed to push through a new school funding law recently in the state legislature that included a new program that uses public dollars to fund private and religious school tuition and educational expenses.”

Another recent example is the Mackinac Island address DeVos just delivered to the 32nd biannual conference of the Michigan Republican Party.  Here is Nancy Kaffer, a columnist for the Detroit Free Press: “There’s something really through-the-looking-glass about DeVos addressing a room full of legislators whose campaigns she has funded, lobbyists whose work she has paid for, and activists whose movements she launched.  This is, in a very real way, a room DeVos built, in a state her family has shaped, in a country whose educational policy she now plays a key role in administering… The DeVoses are by no means the only big-money donors, on either side of the political aisle.  But in Michigan, it’s difficult to find a significant state-level policy change the DeVos family hasn’t backed: right-to-work, pension reform, unfettered school choice… DeVos is now in a powerful position to spread her philosophy of unconstrained school choice to the rest of the country.  But Michigan is left to deal with the mess that the charter movement has wrought.”

Finally there is the conference beginning today at Harvard’s Kennedy School.  It is important to note that the conference is part of Paul Peterson’s right-wing funded think-tank, the Program on Education Policy and Governance, which is situated in the Kennedy School; this is not the university’s college of education.  Betsy DeVos is one of the keynoters at this particular conference, which, reports Graham Vyse of the New Republic, is being sponsored primarily by the Charles Koch Foundation and EdChoice, formerly known as the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. The title of the September 28-29 conference transparently identifies its libertarian slant: “The Future of School Choice: Helping Students Succeed.”  Here are some of the presenters beginning, of course, with Paul Peterson, the program’s host: Paul DiPerna (EdChoice), Robert Enlow (EdChoice), Matthew Ladner (Charles Koch Institute), Jason Riley (Wall Street Journal), Betheny Gross (Center on Reinventing Public Education), Robert Pondiscio (Thomas B. Fordham Institute), Macke Raymond (The Center for Research on Education Outcomes and The Hoover Institution), Brian Gill (Mathematica Policy Research), Chris Cerf (New Jersey Department of Education and formerly of Joel Klein’s operation running the NYC schools), and Nina Rees (National Alliance for Public Charter Schools). Not surprisingly, as Vyse points out, on this conference’s agenda there are no presenters who are critics of school choice.

We are hearing a lot these day from the far, far right when it comes to education and much less from those who believe that public education is part of our nation’s historical commitment to social responsibility. It is worth contemplating seriously the rest of Senator Paul Wellstone’s definition of our society’s obligation to do much better for our most vulnerable children. Here is what he said in March, 2000 in an address at a very different kind of venue— Teachers College, Columbia University: “That all citizens will be given an equal start through a sound education is one of the most basic, promised rights of our democracy. Our chronic refusal as a nation to guarantee that right for all children…. is rooted in a kind of moral blindness, or at least a failure of moral imagination…. It is a failure which threatens our future as a nation of citizens called to a common purpose… tied to one another by a common bond.”

What the Washington Post’s Editorial Promoting School Privatization Neglects to Consider

In an editorial earlier this week, Fred Hiatt the editorial page director of the Washington Post, endorses marketplace school choice along with Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education. Trump and DeVos are both strong supporters of private school vouchers and the rapid expansion of unregulated charter schools. Hiatt writes from the point of view of individual parents and endorses the ethos of the American Dream, the individualistic notion that school choice should not be merely the privilege of the rich who can afford to move to exclusive suburban school districts or to enroll their children in private schools.

Advocates for school choice like Hiatt propose to reward poorer parents who demonstrate gumption by searching for a school, filling out what may be a complex application, and then, in many cases providing their own transportation to a distant school or letting their children ride the subway. Embodying America’s ethos of individual success, school choice is designed to reward strivers. But such a plan also concentrates, in what quickly become schools of last resort, the children in families who are doubled up or moving from shelter to shelter and isolates these children in even poorer public schools. Are these children less worthy than the children of the parents who have the time and stability to enter the school choice marketplace?

The Rev. Jesse Jackson identifies the primary flaw in school choice: “There are those who make the case for a ‘race to the top’ for those who can run. But ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”  Marketplaces are races—competitions to see who can get a place. Races and competitions reward winners and leave the losers behind.  These days as states evaluate (and even close schools) according to the test scores their students produce, the schools themselves have an incentive to steer away (sometimes reject and sometimes quietly counsel out) students who struggle academically and children with behavior problems. It has been demonstrated again and again that in many places the charter schools that are a central part of the school choice movement, serve fewer students with serious disabilities—blindness and autism, for example—and fewer English language learners.

In cities where school choice has been in place for a while, such expensive-to-educate children have become concentrated in the traditional public schools, even as more and more money has flowed out of these districts to follow children through vouchers and to charter schools.  In Chicago and Detroit, where charters have been rapidly expanded, there is evidence that the parasite charters are killing the host school district. As schools compete for students and low scoring schools are closed, some neighborhoods in both cities have found themselves without, for example, a comprehensive high school ready to serve all the adolescents who live in the area.  For this very reason, in the November election when data were made public to demonstrate the likely fiscal impact on the Boston Public Schools of Massachusetts Question 2—the ballot issue to lift the cap on the authorization of new charter schools—the voters definitively blocked the expansion of school choice.

Benjamin Barber, the political philosopher, explains what happens, even when the consequences are unintended: “(P)rivate choices do inevitably have social consequences and public outcomes. When these derive from purely personal preferences, the results are often socially irrational and unintended: at wide variance with the kind of society we might choose through collective deliberation and democratic decision-making.” (Consumed, p 128)

In his recent editorial, Fred Hiatt correctly identifies a serious problem with today’s de facto school choice, the byproduct of America’s explosive inequality. Parents with money—who choose the expensive private schools they can afford and wealthy exurban school districts—have driven the acceleration of income-based housing segregation across America’s metropolitan areas, with the mass of poor children concentrated in cities and inner-suburban schools while their wealthy peers grow up in exclusive enclaves. Here is Barber’s observation (describing the consequences of urban flight by the wealthy as well as their retreat to private schools): “What do we get? The incomplete satisfaction of those private wants through a fragmented system in which individuals secede from the public realm, undermining the public system to which we can subscribe in common. Of course no one really wants a country defined by deep educational injustice and the surrender of a public and civic pedagogy…. Certainly that is not what we opt for when we express our personal wants with respect to our own kids. Yet aggregating our private choices as educational consumers in fact yields an inegalitarian and highly segmented society in which the least advantaged are further disadvantaged as the wealthy retreat ever further from the public sector. As citizens, we would never consciously select such an outcome, but in practice what is good for ‘me,’ the educational consumer, turns out to be a disaster for ‘us’ as citizens and civic educators—and thus for me the denizen of an American commons (or what’s left of it).” (Consumed, p. 132)

There are a number of reasons, however, why expansion of marketplace school choice is not the solution to today’s economic and educational inequality. Charter schools were designed to be free from bureaucratic regulation and free to innovate.  Public schools, regulated by law and overseen by democratically elected boards, can be required to protect the rights of the public and the civil rights of the students. We are all familiar with the disastrous lack of regulation of charter schools in many places. In Ohio, for example, thanks to generous political contributions, the legislature has refused even to regulate attendance to ensure that the state is paying tax dollars for the students who are present at online charter schools for at least five hours per day. The state education department is set to claw back $60 million in over-payments (due to inflated attendance reporting) from  one online charter school last year alone, but the legislature has refused to crack down. The political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson bemoan our fading understanding of the role of government oversight to correct the excesses of the marketplace: “It takes government—a lot of government—for advanced societies to flourish.  This truth is uncomfortable because Americans cherish freedom. Government is effective in part because it limits freedom—because in the language of political philosophy, it exercises legitimate coercion. Government can tell people they must send their children to the school rather than the fields, that they can’t dump toxins into the water or air, and that they must contribute to meet expenses that benefit the entire community. To be sure, government also secures our freedom. Without its ability to compel behavior, it would not just be powerless to protect our liberties; it would cease to be a vehicle for achieving many of our most important shared ends. But there’s no getting around it: Government works because it can force people to do things.” (American Amnesia, p 1)

Barber also confronts the failure of the marketplace to provide oversight on behalf of the public: “Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right. Private choices rest on individual power…. Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities, and presume equal rights for all.” (Consumed, pp 143-144)

Hacker and Pierson are explicit in defining education as a public function: “(M)ass schooling has never occurred in the absence of government leadership. The most fundamental reason is that education is not merely a private investment but also a social investment: It improves overall economic (and civic) outcomes at least as much as it benefits individuals. Ultimately, only the public sector has the incentive (attracting residents, responding to voters) and the means (tax financing of public schools, compulsory attendance laws) to make that investment happen.” (American Amnesia, p.65).

Finally, universal public education—not a fragmented education marketplace—is important because our public schools define our society’s highest ideals. Here is John Dewey, from The School and Society in 1899: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children…. Only by being true to the full growth of all the individuals who make it up, can society by any chance be true to itself.”  Public education represents our commitment to community, not merely to rugged individualism.

Walmart Has Ruined our Towns: Will We Let the Walton Foundation Destroy our Schools?

Motoko Rich’s recent blockbuster article in the NY Times explores the vast reach of the Walton Foundation to promote and support the privatization of public education.  What has happened in Washington, D.C., writes Rich, is a microcosm of Walton’s investments in the promotion of an education revolution across the country: “In effect, Walton has subsidized an entire charter school system in the nation’s capital, helping to fuel enrollment growth so that close to half of all public school students in the city now attend charters, which receive taxpayer dollars but are privately operated… The foundation has awarded more than $1 billion in grants nationally to educational efforts since 2000, making it one of the largest private contributors to education in the country.”

Rich describes grants of over $1.2 million from the Walton Foundation to DC Prep, a Washington, D.C. network of four charter schools.  Walton also supports Teach for America, the alternative, five-week, Peace Corps-like certification program that has become a primary supplier of teachers for charter schools not only in the nation’s capital but across the country.  Not only does the Walton Foundation support particular privatized charter networks and programs to certify teachers outside the colleges of education, but it also funds the think tanks that have created and promoted the theoretical basis for today’s wave of school privatization including the American Enterprise Institute and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.  It even “bankrolls an academic department at the University of Arkansas in which faculty, several of whom were recruited from conservative think tanks, conduct research on charter schools, voucher programs and other policies the foundation supports.”

Recently, according to Rich, Walton hired a staff person from the American Legislative Exchange Council as an education program officer. Rich lists Walton’s largest education grant recipients: the Charter School Growth Fund, Teach for America, KIPP charter schools, the Alliance for School Choice, GreatSchools Inc., StudentsFirst—Michelle Rhee’s advocacy group, and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.  “The size of the Walton foundation’s wallet allows it to exert an outsize influence on education policy…. With its many tentacles, it has helped fuel some of the fastest growing and most divisive, trends in public education—including teacher evaluations based on student test scores and publicly funded vouchers for students to attend private schools.

While Rich acknowledges serious criticism of the Walton Foundation by supporters of public education including Kevin Welner, who directs the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers, and Dennis Van Roeckel, president of the National Education Association, the stories she tells of high test scores at DC Prep and a father whose son attends Washington, D.C.’s Richard Wright Public Charter School for Journalism and the Arts are from the point of view of particular families and parents who seek school choice for the purpose of meeting their own children’s needs.  The father admits, “Charter schools are a bit of a disservice to the public schools…. But in the meantime, between everyone fighting about it, I did not want my kids to be caught in the limbo.”

One can surely understand the lure of school choice from the viewpoint of individual parents who want to do right by their children, but one wishes Rich had done more to remind us what kind of  disservice to public education the D.C. charter school father may have been thinking about.  She quotes Marc Sternberg, who recently left Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s education department in New York City to become director of K-12 education reform at the Walton Foundation: “The Walton Family Foundation has been deeply committed to a theory of change, which is that we have a moral obligation to provide families with high quality choices,” but Rich does not consider whether it is in fact possible to provide good choices for every child and family.  Rich comments, “While charter schools and vouchers may benefit those families that attend these schools, there may be unintended effects on the broader public school system,” but she does not explore closely what those effects may be.  She extolls the high test scores of DC Prep, but she does not examine, for example,  its attrition rate (an indicator in many places that charters have been known to shed students who will bring down score averages).  Neither does she report on the number of special education students, English learners, and extremely poor children enrolled (or not enrolled) at DC Prep in comparison to statistics for the District’s traditional public schools.

What does the Walmartization of American public education mean for the public education system that developed over two of centuries and that aspired to serve all of our society’s children?  Here we move from from the market world of Walmart to the more abstract principles of education philosophy, political philosophy, and public morality.  How quaint these ideas have come to seem in our corporatized and marketized world.  Our society has traditionally affirmed the principle that public education—publicly funded, universally available, required to accept all children who present themselves at the door, and accountable to the public—is the best way to try to ensure that all children are served.  We have thought of the public schools as the optimal way to balance the needs of each particular child and family with the need for a system that secures the rights of all children.  These goals have been aspirational, and we have made slow but sure progress in expanding the rights of children in marginalized groups to kind of public education that middle class children in the dominant culture have taken for granted.

Even in our corporatized world, there are proponents of a public system of education.  In a stirring address in 2000, at Teachers College, Columbia University, the late Senator Paul Wellstone describes society’s public moral obligation to serve all children.  He critiques the lack of equity in our public schools even as he speaks for public schools as the site where we must work collectively to serve all children: “That all citizens will be given an equal start through a sound education is one of the most basic, promised rights of our democracy. Our chronic refusal as a nation to guarantee that right for all children…. is rooted in a kind of moral blindness, or at least a failure of moral imagination…. It is a failure which threatens our future as a nation of citizens called to a common purpose… tied to one another by a common bond.”  The Rev. Jesse Jackson expresses the same profound ideal in this pithy observation: “There are those who would make the case for a race to the top for those who can run.  Instead ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”

Wellstone and Jackson remind us of society’s obligation to our collective children, but the idea is not merely that we aspire to equity for the sake of doing the good thing.  Both also believe that society itself benefits when all are prepared to participate actively in our democracy and all are prepared to share their gifts socially, politically, and economically.  Just over a hundred years ago, John Dewey, America’s best known philosopher of education, described this public benefit from universal public education:  “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children…. Only by being true to the full growth of all the individuals who make it up, can society by any chance be true to itself.”

For help thinking about the pervasive consumerism and commercialization of just about everything in our society today, I find myself drawn to Consumed, a fascinating book by the political philosopher, Benjamin Barber. Consider the following passage in the context of Motoko Rich’s article on the Walton Foundation’s school privatization enterprise:  “The transfer of public power to private hands often is associated with a devolution of power; but in fact privatizing power does not devolve but only commercializes it, placing it in private hands that may be as centralized and monopolistic as government, although usually far less transparent and accountable, and also pervasively commercial.”(p. 145)

Barber would worry about turning the privatization of education over to Sam Walton, his descendents and the program officers of the Walton Foundation.  He would caution that these folks are less likely than a deliberative public body to look out for the interests of the children who are being lured into the charter schools in the District of Columbia and America’s other big cities these days: “The idea that liberty entails only private choice runs afoul of our actual experiences as consumers and citizens.  We are seduced into thinking that the right to choose from a menu is the essence of liberty, but with respect to relevant outcomes the real power, and hence the real freedom, is in the determination of what is on the menu.  The powerful are those who set the agenda, not those who choose from the alternatives it offers.  We select menu items privately, but we can assure meaningful menu choices only through public decision-making.”(p. 139)

De Blasio Appoints Experienced Educator as NYC Chancellor: A Sign of Hope

In A Brief History of Reform!, life-long and much beloved educator Deborah Meier contrasts the educational philosophies of John Dewey, who believed the school should model and therefore teach democracy, and Ellwood Cubberley, the technocrat who promoted so-called scientific management of schools.  As an educator Meier founded schools that modeled Dewey’s philosophy; Cubberley was the direct ancestor of today’s school reformers.

Today Meier celebrates New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s appointment of Carmen Farina, a 40-year teacher, principal, and school administrator—her entire career spent serving the children of New York City.

Clearly Farina and de Blasio have much work to do to curb special favors like free rent for charters and to undo policies like almost universal school choice at the high school level.  This is the policy that the Annenberg Institute for School reform exposed last year for assigning what New York City schools formally designate as “over-the-counter-children” (the children of parents who do not participate in school choice but instead expect the district to make a school assignment) to schools already being dismantled in preparation for closure.  And then there is the school closure policy itself that is already underway to dismantle several of New York City’s comprehensive high schools one grade at a time.  Addressing these issues will be a daunting task.

As we begin a new year, however, there is reason for optimism in New York City.  A forty-year, veteran educator has been appointed chancellor.  It wasn’t too long ago that the outgoing mayor appointed as chancellor Cathleen P. Black, whose work experience was limited to publishing—overseeing Esquire, Cosmopolitan, Seventeen, and Good Housekeeping for Hearst Magazines.