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A Billionaire Who Gets It: Our Education System Cannot Compensate for the Injustices of Our Economic System

June 12, 2019 Leave a comment

Billionaire entrepreneur Nick Hanauer offers a mea culpa in an Atlantic article that appeared inCommon Dreams titled “Sorry, But Just Having Better Public Schools Will Not Fix America”. He opens the post with this confession:

Long ago, I was captivated by a seductively intuitive idea, one many of my wealthy friends still subscribe to: that both poverty and rising inequality are largely consequences of America’s failing education system. Fix that, I believed, and we could cure much of what ails America.

This belief system, which I have come to think of as “educationism,” is grounded in a familiar story about cause and effect: Once upon a time, America created a public-education system that was the envy of the modern world. No nation produced more or better-educated high-school and college graduates, and thus the great American middle class was built. But then, sometime around the 1970s, America lost its way. We allowed our schools to crumble, and our test scores and graduation rates to fall. School systems that once churned out well-paid factory workers failed to keep pace with the rising educational demands of the new knowledge economy.As America’s public-school systems foundered, so did the earning power of the American middle class. And as inequality increased, so did political polarization, cynicism, and anger, threatening to undermine American democracy itself.

But Mr. Hanauer came to understand that this narrative lays the blame for all of society’s ills on public education without acknowledging the impact of those same ills on the schools…. and he came to conclude that the “egg” of economic dysfunction led to “chicken” of “failing schools”.

What I’ve realized, decades late, is that educationism is tragically misguided. American workers are struggling in large part because they are underpaid—and they are underpaid because 40 years of trickle-down policies have rigged the economy in favor of wealthy people like me. Americans are more highly educated than ever before, but despite that, and despite nearly record-low unemployment, most American workers—at all levels of educational attainment—have seen little if any wage growth since 2000…

For all the genuine flaws of the American education system, the nation still has many high-achieving public-school districts. Nearly all of them are united by a thriving community of economically secure middle-class families with sufficient political power to demand great schools, the time and resources to participate in those schools, and the tax money to amply fund them. In short, great public schools are the product of a thriving middle class, not the other way around. Pay people enough to afford dignified middle-class lives, and high-quality public schools will follow. But allow economic inequality to grow, and educational inequality will inevitably grow with it.

By distracting us from these truths, educationism is part of the problem.

And educationism has distracted us mightily with its efficiency driven spreadsheet mentality whereby schools are “measured” and rank-ordered using seemingly precise standardized tests and other cheap and easy metrics and penalizing those schools that fall short for reasons that have nothing to do with their effectiveness and everything to do with the socio-economic factors of the children attending them. Mr. Hanauer goes on to burst other bubbles of his billionaire brethren, undercutting the narrative of the “skills gap”, the “under-educated workforce”, the need for more STEM, and the underlying belief that better schools will take care of the unarguable economic divide. And Mr. Hanauer does so with facts and data that counter the story lines embraced by the edu-philanthropists. His solution for improving public schools is one that is unsettling… and one rooted in de facto redistribution:

All of which suggests that income inequality has exploded not because of our country’s educational failings but despite its educational progress. Make no mistake: Education is an unalloyed good. We should advocate for more of it, so long as it’s of high quality. But the longer we pretend that education is the answer to economic inequality, the harder it will be to escape our new Gilded Age.

However justifiable their focus on curricula and innovation and institutional reform, people who see education as a cure-all have largely ignored the metric most predictive of a child’s educational success: household income.

Mr. Hanauer then lays out a series of facts his counterparts will, alas, be unlikely to accept and ideas they will also be unlikely to embrace:

Indeed, multiple studies have found that only about 20 percent of student outcomes can be attributed to schooling, whereas about 60 percent are explained by family circumstances—most significantly, income. Now consider that, nationwide, just over half of today’s public-school students qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches, up from 38 percent in 2000. Surely if American students are lagging in the literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving skills our modern economy demands, household income deserves most of the blame—not teachers or their unions.

If we really want to give every American child an honest and equal opportunity to succeed, we must do much more than extend a ladder of opportunity—we must also narrow the distance between the ladder’s rungs. We must invest not only in our children, but in their families and their communities. We must provide high-quality public education, sure, but also high-quality housing, health care, child care, and all the other prerequisites of a secure middle-class life. And most important, if we want to build the sort of prosperous middle-class communities in which great public schools have always thrived, we must pay all our workers, not just software engineers and financiers, a dignified middle-class wage.

His idea that employers could find qualified workers if they paid them more seems obvious to any student of Economics 101 in college… but in our era of outsourcing, robotics, and downsizing the profiteers seem content to displace workers in favor of accumulating profits.

Mr. Hanauer concludes his article with this Big Idea which no billionaire is likely to accept and only a handful of politicians are willing to talk about:

Educationism appeals to the wealthy and powerful because it tells us what we want to hear: that we can help restore shared prosperity without sharing our wealth or power. As Anand Giridharadas explains in his book Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, narratives like this one let the wealthy feel good about ourselves. By distracting from the true causes of economic inequality, they also defend America’s grossly unequal status quo.

We have confused a symptom—educational inequality—with the underlying disease: economic inequality. Schooling may boost the prospects of individual workers, but it doesn’t change the core problem, which is that the bottom 90 percent is divvying up a shrinking share of the national wealth. Fixing that problem will require wealthy people to not merely give more, but take less.

And fixing the problem will require people like me who are comfortable but not billionaires, to accept a reality described in a pin that reads: “End Economic Inequality: Tax Me”.

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This Just In: USDA Study Shows That Students Like Nutritious Food!… And THIS Just In: The USDA Findings Were Buried

June 11, 2019 Leave a comment

The Washington Post’s Laura Reiley recently wrote a story describing the findings of a USDA study that effectively supported the reforms to the lunch program introduced by the Obama administration, reforms that increased the nutritional content of the meals without increasing the waste. The findings themselves are compelling:

The best news was that the Healthy Eating Index (HEI-2010), a multi-component measure of diet quality, shot up dramatically for both school-provided breakfasts and lunches.

For the 2009-2010 school year, the score for breakfast was an abysmal 49.6 out of 100 (even lower than the overall American average of 59), rising to 71.3 by the 2014-2015 school year. In that same time frame, the lunch score went from 57.9 to 81.5. The score for whole grains in school meals went from 25 to 95 percent of the maximum score, and the score for greens and beans rose from 21 to 72 percent.

In addition, there was greater participation in school meal programs at schools with the highest healthy food standards. And the study found food waste, a troubling national problem in the lunchroom, remained relatively unchanged.

Better nutrition: check… greater participation: check… food waste unchanged: check. Mission accomplished in terms of achieving nutrition and participation and no increase in food waste. This seems like a story that illustrates how government can work! This seems like a story that warrants wide coverage! But, alas, nutrition, like everything else, is driven by politics and politics is driven by money so this report was effectively buried and ignored. Here’s Ms. Reiley’s opening paragraphs:

The U.S. Agriculture Department has good news it seemingly wants nobody to know about.

On April 23, the USDA released its “School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study,” with no news release, no fanfare. The link on the USDA website disappeared for several days after that and was altogether inaccessible before reappearing under a different URL.

Later in the article Ms. Reiley offers an additional explanation about the (ahem) understated release:

It seems fairly outside of the norm for a federal agency to release a study that directly contradicts what the administration’s position is,” explained Elizabeth Balkan, food waste director of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “That’s why it was released very quietly.”

But the current administration is obsessed with deregulation, and loosening the relatively tighter requirements necessary to ensure a healthy meal fulfills their overarching goal:

“The Trump administration wants to tick off the maximum number of regulations it can say it rolled back,” Margo Wootan, vice president for nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said. “It’s another tick mark on the deregulatory agenda.”

And the deregulation of nutritious meals is only one of the deregulatory efforts that undercuts the well-being of citizens. The NYTimes reported recently on 83 EPA rules the administration modified, many of which will increase air and water pollution and almost all of which ignore climate science.

And if the voters and children suffer as a result of deregulation, who benefits? I think anyone who reads this blog knows the answer: shareholders and the plutocrats.

Eugenics Led to IQ tests, SATs and Standardized Testing: Sorting an Selecting Persists

May 26, 2019 Comments off

I just read Linda Gordon’s review of Daniel Okrent’s The Guarded Gate, whose subtitle is: Bigotry, Eugenics, and the Law That Kept Two Generations of Jews, Italians and Other European Immigrants Out of America. The review describes the eugenics movement that swept our country in the late 19th and early 20th century, a movement that was purportedly based on hard science that provided tools to objectively identify those nationalities who deserved to be allowed into our country and those who should be barred from entry. In describing the basis for the eugenics movement, Ms. Gordon writes:

Misunderstanding what was and wasn’t genetic led to enthusiasm for eugenics, the science of human breeding. Not all eugenics was discriminatory. In the late 19th century progressive reformers used eugenic arguments for improving public health through, for example, the promotion of healthy pregnancies. But by the 1920s eugenicists were ranking ethnic groups as superior or inferior, and their work was considered state-of-the-art science, taught in standard biology textbooks…

Supremely confident of their objectivity, nativist leaders sought to put eugenics into practice. Willet Hays — a plant breeder — proposed that each American be assigned an 11-digit “number name,” a score of their genetic lineage, to guarantee their “mating with those of equal general excellence.” Okrent reproduces a sample report on an individual’s physical, mental and temperamental qualities. Eugenicists persuaded the Public Health Service to offer certificates of eugenic suitability for marriage.

Ms. Gordon makes no mention of the most long-lasting outcome of the eugenics movement: standardized testing. As Natalie Frank writes in an Owlcation essay, the originator of the IQ test, French psychologist Albert Binet, intended the test to be used to identify children who needed special attention. Moreover, he cautioned against using the tests to rank the general population. Ms. Gordon writes:

Binet firmly declared that his test was never intended as, “a general device for ranking all pupils according to mental worth” (Binet, 1916). A single score, he emphasized, could not quantify intelligence. He went on to state that it would be a serious mistake to use what had come to be referred to as an IQ score as a definitive indication of a child’s intelligence.

Binet’s fear was that the IQ score would condemn children to a permanent assumption of stupidity, limiting their education and ability to support themselves.Overall, Binet stressed that intelligence progressed at variable rates, was malleable not fixed, could be altered by the environment, and was only able to be compared among children of the same background and education(Binet & Simon, 1916)

Unfortunately, it appears that on its way across the ocean Binet’s intelligence theory and warnings regarding interpretation got lost somewhere in the translation. It became clear that his concerns were well placed as some did misuse his scale for purposes he had never intended. The services for those children struggling to learn that he hoped would be employed would not materialize for several generations.

As noted in previous posts, the individual who emphasized the value of IQ scores and standardized test scores in general was Lewis Terman, whose ideas came to dominate schooling in our country:

Terman defined the primary benefits of this test, now called the Stanford Binet, as “curtailing the reproduction of feeble-mindedness and in the elimination of an enormous amount of crime, pauperism, and industrial inefficiency” (White, 2000). Now that the concept of eugenics had been bestowed with scientific merit through the endorsement of a respected Stanford Professor, the movement began to grow exponentially.

And the line from IQ tests to SAT tests to standardized achievement testing is linear and clear. Lewis Terman’s associate, Robert Yerkes, developed a standardized test used to sort military conscripts and one if his assistants, Princeton psychologist, Carl Brigham, designed the test that became the SAT. Like the IQ, the SAT originally had a narrow purpose: it was designed to identify “...academically gifted boys who did not come from the Eastern boarding schools” to attend Harvard. James Conant, Harvard’s President at the time, saw the SAT as a good proxy for “…pure intelligence, regardless of the quality of the taker’s high school education.”

The first standardized tests used at the State level was designed by Lewis Terman and two of his assistants.  Their initial purpose was “...to test the accomplishments of school children in grades two through eight” but like other tests they assumed a broader purpose, especially when those calling for accountability emerged in the 1980s.

We now live in an era where the prevalence of data collected on each individual student combined with genome research make it possible to accomplish the kinds of coding plant breeder Willet Hays envisioned… a world where every child could be assigned an 11 digit code that would score their genetic lineage and make it possible to achieve the ultimate sorting-and-selecting the efficiency experts sought in the early 1920s. A chilling prospect… but one that seems increasingly plausible given our obsession with tests as a means of determining “merit”.

 

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SAT Adds “Adversity Score” to Mitigate Demographic Reality, Sidestep College Decisions to Abandon Tests as Metric

May 24, 2019 Comments off

The College Board announced last week that it was introducing an “Adversity Score” in an effort to mitigate the demographic reality that children raised in poverty and minorities generally score lower on their tests than their affluent and white counterparts and to sidestep the reality that more and more colleges are abandoning the use of the test in their acceptance decisions. The bottom line in both cases is that the survival of ETS depends on its acceptance as a proxy for “merit”, and that case is increasingly difficult to make given the fact that there is no correlation between SAT scores and college success and sufficient evidence that individuals with relatively middling-to-low SAT scores fare well in post-secondary education.

Of late there has been wide coverage given to millionaires who spend thousands to help their children prepare for these tests and, in rare instances, pay to have someone take the tests in place of their children. This is happening because so-called “elite colleges” require high SAT scores for admission and entry into those colleges is viewed as an essential first step toward success. But increasingly the “elite colleges” are finding applicant pools full of high scoring students whose SATs cannot be used in any statistical sense to identify the most worthy candidates— especially when the “elite” schools want to offer a wide array of arts, music, and athletic programs that require students whose SAT scores might not otherwise qualify them for entry. Given the mass of students whose SAT scores exceed 1500, the “elite” schools are relying less on the scores and more on other factors. The SAT decision to offer an “adversity Index”, then, would not make a difference in most cases of admission to an “elite” school except to offer a fig-leaf’s protection when a college accepts a low scoring athlete or musician.

From my perspective, the sooner we abandon the SAT as a proxy for “merit” the better. It might be possible that if “elite” colleges abandoned the SAT altogether that US News and World Report would no longer focus on it and MAYBE the whole notion that a single test is the proxy for success would disappear. If that is the case, schools might be able to go about the business of educating students based on something more holistic than a pencil-and-paper test.

 

According to Politicians and Pundits, the Road to Riches is the Road to Fulfillment

May 23, 2019 Comments off

Yesterday’s NYTimes featured an Upshot article by Kevin Carey titled “Can Data Ward Off College Debt? New Strategy Focuses on Results”. Unsurprisingly given the avariciousness of the current POTUS, the pro-privatization tilt of his Secretary of State, the GOP, and the neoliberal wing of the Democratic Party, and the unfailing faith in Capitalism on the part of many voters, the EARNINGS are the “results” the “new strategy” intends to measure. Need evidence of this assertion? Here are two paragraphs from Mr. Carey’s essay, describing the “new accountability system” proposed by Senator Lamar Alexander:

Mr. Alexander proposed a “new accountability system” based on loan repayment rates for individual programs within colleges. This, said Mr. Alexander, “should provide colleges with an incentive to lower tuition and help their students finish their degrees and find jobs so they can repay their loans.”

Both Mr. Trump and Mr. Alexander, despite their strong criticism of President Obama on education, are following in the footsteps of his regulatory crackdown on for-profit colleges and short-term certificate programs. Rather than evaluate sprawling educational conglomerates based on the average results of hundreds of programs, the Obama rules disqualified specific programs whose graduates didn’t earn enough money to pay back their loans.

In earlier blog posts I railed against President Obama’s metrics because, like those of Mr. Alexander and the POTUS, they assumed that the purpose of college was to land a job that pays enough to allow the student to pay back loans for college. In effect, college exists to make certain banks collect enough interest to remain profitable.

Mr. Trump and Ms. DeVos know the facts about debt… and presumably Mr. Carey does as well. While only 6% of college students in NYS attended for-profit schools, 41% of those who defaulted came from those schools. Discussions that link earnings to majors sidestep this issue. The founder of Trump University, his Secretary of Education, and the many legislators who receive donations from profiteers who want less regulation are banding together to divert our collective attention away from the real problem and, at the same time, reinforcing the idea that college is about getting a high paying job and not “guiding people toward more enlightened, fulfilling lives.”

And here’s the bottom line: the policies promulgated by our legislators and pundits, assume our lives can only be fulfilled if we make a lot of money… and the more we earn the more we will be fulfilled.

Another Assault on Free Speech: Banning Books on Injustice in Prisons

May 22, 2019 Comments off

AP writer Terry Tang recently reported that the ACLU is appealing a decision by the AZ Department of Corrections to ban the book “Chokehold: Policing Black Men.” Written by Paul Butler, a former federal prosecutor, Ms. Tang describes the book as one that “…examines law enforcement and mass incarceration through its treatment of African American men.” And she indicates that the author is at a loss to understand why his book is being banned:

Butler, a criminal law professor at Georgetown University, said his publisher was notified by email in March that his book had “unauthorized content.” The notice did not specify what led to the decision but warned that some aspect of the 2017 book was “detrimental to the safe, secure, and orderly operation of the facility.”

Butler said he is mystified as to what raised alarm bells. He uses the title, which is a maneuver police have used to restrain a suspect by the neck, throughout the book as a metaphor for how society and law subjugate black men. Nowhere does Butler advocate violent or retaliatory behavior.

“I disavow violence because first, I think it’s immoral, and second, because it wouldn’t work,” Butler said. “I’ve received letters from several inmates who have read ‘Chokehold’ while they are serving time. No one has indicated that reading ‘Chokehold’ has caused any problems in prison.”

I find it hard to believe that a book that the author states does not advocate “violent or retaliatory behavior” could be “detrimental to the safe, secure, and orderly operation of the facility.” But I DO understand how a book dealing with the treatment of African American men might provoke some unsettling questions in prisons that currently house them in disproportionate numbers.

It strikes me that one of the major purposes of schooling is to raise unsettling questions and promote open-minded dialogue. In prison, though, I have the sense that compliance and conformity in behavior and thinking are more important. I would like to believe that outside of prison things are different… but as long as students are being trained to pass examinations with one-right-answer I might be deluded.

Billionaires Invest in Advertising Campaign to Save High Stakes Testing in NYC

May 7, 2019 Comments off

As noted in several posts in this blog, New York City’s insistence on equating high scores on a single test with “merit” is foolish and counterproductive and contributes to the current admissions dis-equilibrium dilemma whereby black and Hispanic students are underrepresented and Asian and white students are over-represented. Fortunately NYC’s current mayor, Bill DeBlasio, sees the absurdity in using a single test as the determinant to enter the “elite” schools in the city and is proposing a fairer method for selecting students, one that might result in a student population at the “elite” schools that mirrors that in the city as a whole.

But some in the city favor the retention of the current test: the parents of those children who test well, the parents who can afford to spend thousands for “test prep” courses, and now billionaires who sincerely believe that “merit” and “high scores on a single test” are equivalent. As reported in a NYTimes article late last month by Eliza Shapiro, two billionaires, Ronald S. Lauder, the billionaire cosmetics heir, and Richard D. Parsons, the former chairman of Citigroup, are spending millions on a PR campaign to save the tests used to screen students for “elite” high schools. Why? From what I can tell both men are invested in maintaining the political status quo that is reflected in the status quo of public education:

They (Mr. Lauder and Mr. Parsons) are championing a range of educational ideas that include more gifted and talented programs, more test preparation, better middle schools and more elite high schools. Mr. de Blasio’s administration, on the other hand, is skeptical of high-stakes testing and academic tracking in the school system.

Mr. de Blasio is seeking to replace the test for the eight so-called specialized schools with an approach where top performers from each middle school would be offered spots.

Ms. Shapiro’s article indicates that this is yet another battle between the proponents of Terman and those of Dewey. In the early 20th century a there was a battle between two schools of thought regarding tests. One one side were those like Edward Thorndyke and Lewis Terman who believed tests measured an absolute “intelligence” that was largely unchangeable. On the other side were those like John Dewey who saw the social environment on the activity of mind and behavior as more crucial than innate intelligence. Indeed, Mr. Dewey and his acolytes were dismissive of public education as a means of sorting and selecting and transmitting a fixed set of facts, which was implicit in the views of Thorndyke, Terman, et al. Rather, Mr. Dewey saw the purpose of education as “…the realization of one’s full potential and the ability to use those skills for the greater good.”

In NYC, it appears that Mr. Lauder and Mr. Parsons are supporting Thorndyke and Terman while Mr. deBlasio is supporting Dewey. At the macro level, Thorndyke and Terman prevailed and their legacy is the reliance on testing as the main means of sorting and selecting children, teachers, and now, thanks to NCLB and it’s successors, schools. Mr. deBlasio is countering that movement. Here’s hoping he succeeds.