New York magazine’s Intelligencer blog today featured an article on the decline in spending on public education, a phenomenon writer Eric Levitz characterized as a “disinvestment from our nation’s future”. The diminishment of public education spending described in the article is appalling:
In May 2008, U.S. school departments employed 8.4 million teachers, administrators, and other staff. Today, they employ just 8.2 million, despite the fact that those schools now serve 1 million more students, according to Department of Education estimates. And while those teachers are being asked to serve more students, they’re making less money: According to a new analysis from the Economic Policy Institute, weekly wages for public-school teachers have declined 5 percent over the past five years… Between 2008 and 2014 (the last year for which we have full data), state public-education funding declined 6.6 percent. While the stimulus money was still flowing, Uncle Sam was able to ameliorate this austerity somewhat, but still left schools spending 2.4 percent less per student over that period, when adjusting for inflation. And when the stimulus wore off, state and local governments failed to pick up the slack: In 2012, total school funding fell for the first time since 1977. As FiveThirtyEight’s Ben Casselman notes, this cutback wasn’t concentrated on administrative salaries or extravagant construction — instructional spending has fallen at roughly the same rate as overall budgets.
The New York article covered some of the same ground as the NYTimes editorial I blogged about yesterday, emphasizing the impact (and preposterousness) of State-level Reagonomics. Noting that the graying of America will drive up retirement and health care costs and that the reduction in pay for teachers is making the profession less attractive, Eric Levitz concludes with this mind-boggling choice:
In the long run, it will take either a drastic increase in federal investment — and/or the proliferation of low-cost robots — for American schools to truly leave no child behind.
Given the choice between “pro-union Government run schools” and a robot that can teach children at home or in, say, a church basement, what do you think taxpayers will vote for?
USNews and World Report ran an online article by Diane Ravitch that describes the international privatization movement in public education. In the article Ms. Ravitch describes the roots of the privatization movement in our nation and decries the movement by billionaire privatizers in their efforts to open schools in Africa. She writes:
The British multinational corporation Pearson has ambitions to open for-profit schools using its products in many nations across the world. In Africa, a corporation called Bridge International Academies (BIA) is opening for-profit schools in poor countries that cost $1 a week. Liberia is considering outsourcing its entire elementary program to BIA, which is funded by American billionaires Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and others from Wall Street.
The Economist magazine wrote a glowing article about BIA’s plan to make low-cost schooling available in Africa, because existing public schools are so poorly resourced. The potential market of hundreds of millions of children is alluring and sure to be profitable. Teachers in the Bridge schools are uncertified; They teach a scripted curriculum from a notebook computer. Many families cannot afford even $1 a week, especially if they have more than one child. Meanwhile, the state is relieved of responsibility to supply what is being outsourced to private enterprise.
Ms. Ravitch then links the international privatization movement to “…ideas and funding that started in the United States” and then describes the way politicians used standardized tests to brand public schools as “failures; how profiteers branded themselves as “reformers” who could fix “failing” public schools by replacing elected school boards with corporate boards and replacing expensive unionized schools with technology-based instruction; and how these profiteers proceeded to pillage state and local school budgets. She was especially (and rightfully) hard on the anti-democratic nature of the charter schools that are tied to the privatization movement, writing:
Charter schools claim to be public schools, but the only thing “public” about them is their funding. They are run by private boards that do not hold open meetings, as elected boards of education do; they are neither transparent nor accountable in their finances.
After reading this paragraph, I was struck by the reality that the governance structure for public education in the United States is unique and anomalous. In most countries there is a national ministry of education that is overseen by the national government. Public school governance is not local, it is not overseen by directly elected boards, and its degree of transparency and accountability is a function of the national leadership. Furthermore, in many parts of the world universal public education is completely unavailable due to infrastructure challenges and/or the kleptocratic and totalitarian leadership at the national level.
If I were an idealistic entrepreneur seeking to increase literacy in the world I would avoid funneling any money to national leaders with a track record of corruption. By providing a means for parents to secure an education for their children such an idealistic entrepreneur could circumvent the national apparatus that skims large sums of money. In doing so, the entrepreneur could greatly expand the number of children in that country who receive an education, albeit an education that is tightly scripted from a notebook computer. In this way the idealistic entrepreneur would be giving parents and their children an opportunity to gain the knowledge and understanding needed to function in a democracy, knowledge and understanding that their current leader might want to withhold from them.
As readers of the blog know, I wholeheartedly share Diane Ravitch’s perspective regarding the privatization in this country. But as I think about the best way to provide education and information to as many citizens of the world as possible as quickly and cheaply as possible, and operate on the assumption that Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg’s intentions are grounded in the idealistic belief that knowledge is power and a necessary pre-requisite for the establishment of democracy, I think this market-based approach in undeveloped countries might be the best way forward in some parts of the world. Who knows, once citizens in undeveloped nations gain knowledge and understanding they might seek a more local form of governance for their schools and seek a better way to become educated.
I’m several weeks behind in reading New Yorker articles and am therefore late to the game in reacting to “Learn Different“, Rebecca Mead’s article on AltSchool. In the article Ms. Mead describes AltSchool’s model for teaching and learning, which combines progressive education’s assumption that children learn best when they study materials that interest them at their own pace and in their own way with Big Data’s assumption that the collection and analysis massive amounts of information on teaching can make the delivery of content more efficient and effective. The article is full of observations Ms. Mead made in AltSchool sites in Silicon Valley and Brooklyn and does an excellent job of describing the promise and perils of progressive personalized schooling that might replace the factory model in place today. The main characters in the story Mead weaves about AltSchool are its founder, Max Ventilla, a former Google technologist who is the founder of AltSchool, and an AltSchool lead teacher, Christie Seyfert, described as “…an energetic young woman with green hair“. Ventilla was dismayed over the standardization he witnessed when his children began school and decided to bring his technology background (and considerable access to funding) into play and create a new model for schools:
The more Ventilla thought about education, the more he thought that he could bring about change—and not just for his own children. Instead of starting a “one-off school,” he would create an educational “ecosystem” that was unusually responsive to the interests of children, feeding them assignments tied to subjects they cared about. Ventilla’s vision fit the prevailing ethos of middle-class child rearing, in which offspring are urged to find their enthusiasms and pursue them into rewarding nonconformity.
Ventilla also wanted students to focus on developing skills that would be useful in the workplace of the future, rather than forcing them to acquire knowledge deemed important by historical precedent. “Kids should be spending less time practicing calculating by hand today than fifty years ago, because today everyone walks around with a calculator,” Ventilla told me. “That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be able to do math—I shouldn’t have to whip out my phone to figure out if someone gave me the correct change. But you should shift the emphasis to what is relatively easier, or what is relatively more important.”
Later in the article Mead describes a day in Seyfert’s life and the way she and her colleagues use technology tools to continuously and rapidly improve the curriculum:
Like other AltSchool teachers, Seyfert was drawn to the startup because of its ambition to make systemic change. Two or three times a week, she told me, she gives colleagues feedback about the school’s digital tools. The Learner Profile, Stream app, and other tools are only about a year old, and AltSchool’s personalization still requires considerable human intervention. Software is updated every day. Carolyn Wilson, AltSchool’s director of education, told me, “We encourage staff members to express their pain points, step up with their ideas, take a risk, fail forward, and fail fast, because we know we are going to iterate quickly. Other schools tend to move in geologic time.”
Ventilla’s vision is to use the power of Big Data to change the role of a teacher:
Ventilla told me that these tools were central to a revised conception of what a teacher might be: “We are really shifting the role of an educator to someone who is more of a data-enabled detective.” He defined a traditional teacher as an “artisanal lesson planner on one hand and disciplinary babysitter on the other hand.”
But Ventilla and the hedge funders who are backing his school also have another intention: they want to monetize public education and change the motivation of teachers. Not only are teachers expected to become “data-based detectives”, they are shareholders in AltSchool and therefore especially invested in its success.
I’ve written three previous posts on AltSchool, each expressing full support for AltSchools efforts to move away from the Factory School paradigm but expressing some un-ease with the funders’ ultimate rationale. Mead puts her finger on the source of that un-ease in this paragraph describing the paradoxical underpinning of AltSchool:
Personalized education promises an escape from the more recent Gradgrindian practice of standardized tests. In a world of personalized learning, the argument goes, every child’s particular genius will be permitted to shine. But AltSchool’s philosophy of education is also essentially utilitarian, even as it celebrates the individuality, autonomy, and creativity of its students. It holds that children should be prepared for the workplace of the future—and that the workplace of the future will demand individuality, creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking.
As an advocate for the liberal arts, it is at once unsettling and heartening to find that the kind of education liberal arts promotes is “utilitarian”… It is unsettling because he liberal arts promote unconventional and creative thought and education for its own sake, not as a means to and end. But it is heartening because having more open-mindedness and open-heartedness would be a welcome development in schools.