Category Archives: Education / Youth

Chasing Tuition Dollars, Foregoing The Mission

When reasonably knowledgable people listen to today’s political arguments–not just in Facebook posts, or at dinner parties or other venues, but also on cable networks’ panel discussions–it becomes painfully clear that a whole lot of Americans have no idea how their government is supposed to work. I bitch about that constantly.

But ignorance of our legal and constitutional system is far from the only information deficit on display these days. The most dogmatic and smug assertions–on both sides of the political divide– routinely come from presumably educated folks who display absolutely no understanding of the rules of elementary logic, and who appear to lack even the slightest acquaintance with political theory, let alone American or world history.

“Presumably educated” is the key. At risk of over-simplifying a complex phenomenon,  I want to suggest that these low levels of argumentation are an outgrowth of the decline of  liberal arts requirements in our colleges and universities, where genuine education continues to lose ground to job training.

It isn’t only in the U.S. A reader of this blog sent me a link to a report from England:

The University of Staffordshire last year launched its bachelor’s and master’s esports programs, in which students mainly learn marketing and management skills tailored to the industry. This autumn, it’s expanding the program to London while other schools are also debuting esports degree courses, including Britain’s Chichester University, Virginia’s Shenandoah University, Becker College in Massachusetts and The Ohio State University. In Asia, where esports has seen strong growth, schools in Singapore and China offer courses.

The global esports market is expected to surge to $1.1 billion this year, up $230 million from 2018 on growth in sponsorships, merchandise and ticket sales, according to Newzoo . The research firm expects the global esports audience to grow in 2019 to about 454 million as fans tune in on live streaming platforms such as Twitch and Microsoft’s Mixer.

I am prepared to believe that “esports” is a growing field. So are motorsports (which my own campus offers and hypes), web design, hospitality studies–not to mention more traditional business school courses in marketing, accounting and the like. And I have absolutely no objection to programs that teach these skills.

I do, however, have a huge objection to programs that allow students to substitute what is essentially job training for courses that provide them with a liberal education–that introduce them, albeit superficially, to great literature, to the arts, to economic and social theory, to history–in short, to the intellectual products of civilization.

At best, an undergraduate education can only provide young people with a “tasting menu,” a sampling of the intellectual riches that generations of scholars and thinkers have amassed. But ideally, that sampling will do three things:  foster a thirst for lifetime learning; give them a foundation for understanding the complexities of the world in which they must function; and inculcate an appropriate intellectual modesty–a recognition that there is infinitely more to know.

I understand why many universities have gone down this road. We depend significantly on tuition dollars to function, so we compete for students. Telling 18-year-olds that you will help them understand their world is far less enticing than telling them–and their parents–that they’ll make good money.

Universities also depend heavily upon public funding. State legislatures hold those purse-strings, and too many policymakers view higher education entirely through the lens of eventual employment. Along with self-anointed “rankers” of institutional worthiness in the media, they judge the effectiveness of universities by looking only at the rates of employment and salary levels of their graduates.

Esports, “game studies” and the like may pay the rent. However, unless  students in those programs are also required to take significant courses in the liberal arts,  they are unlikely to produce informed citizens, or to provide their graduates with the inner resources they will need if the promised jobs fail to materialize.

We are cheating students when we fail to at least introduce them to the intellectual and cultural products of those who have gone before. Making a living isn’t remotely the same thing as making a life.

This Is Ominous

A few days ago, I posted a blog about the Chinese mainland’s negative response to “liberal” education in Hong Kong. I pointed out that the Chinese approach to education is more accurately described as indoctrination.

It would be satisfying if, as Americans, we could say “tsk tsk” and take comfort in our longstanding commitment to academic freedom. But of course, this is the Age of Trump, and we can’t–because this administration agrees with the Chinese.

On September 19th, the New York Times reported that the Department of Education had issued an ultimatum to two distinguished universities: Duke and the University of North Carolina–teach what we tell you or lose financial support.

The Education Department has ordered Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to remake the Middle East studies program run jointly by the two schools after concluding that it was offering students a biased curriculum that, among other complaints, did not present enough “positive” imagery of Judaism and Christianity in the region.

In a rare instance of federal intervention in college course content, the department asserted that the universities’ Middle East program violated the standards of a federal program that awards funding to international studies and foreign language programs. The inquiry was part of a far-reaching investigation into the program by the department, which under Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, has become increasingly aggressive in going after perceived anti-Israel bias in higher education.

DeVos, like Pence, is a fundamentalist Christian; apparently, she is also one of the Christian Zionists whose support for Israel is far less nuanced than that of  America’s Jewish community. Christian Zionists believe that the Rapture they await won’t occur until all Jews are gathered back in Israel. They also believe that only the Jews who then accept Jesus will be Raptured Up with them; the rest of us will burn in hell.

This isn’t support for Jews or Judaism; it isn’t really even support for Israel as a country–they are just protecting what they believe is a necessary means to their heavenly end.

Be that as it may, the Department of Education disapproved of the universities’ effort to improve understanding of Islam.

The department also criticized the consortium’s teacher training programs for focusing on issues like “unconscious bias, serving L.G.B.T.I.Q. youth in schools, culture and the media, diverse books for the classroom and more.” They said that it had a “startling lack of focus on geography, geopolitical issues, history and language.”

The Times article was a dry recitation of the unprecedented action taken by DOE. The Guardian was more direct.

If you criticize Israeli policy, you will lose your federal funding. That is the message the Department of Education is sending with its threat to withdraw federal support for the Consortium for Middle East Studies, operated jointly by Duke University and the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, if it does not alter the content of its programming.

Just three months after Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, ordered an investigation into a conference about the politics of the Gaza Strip that the consortium had sponsored – an authoritarian threat, in and of itself – the Department of Education issued a letter demanding that the Duke-UNC consortium remake its curriculum. Or else.

This is just the latest evidence of what the Guardian calls “the Orwellian grammar of the Trump era”–where the repression of liberal or progressive viewpoints is free speech, and federal intervention in university curricula is academic freedom.

The Department of Education threat against the Duke-UNC consortium is yet another example of the Trump administration’s spectacular hypocrisy and cynicism, not to mention its clash-of-civilizations-style Islamophobia – among other things, the Education Department’s letter accused the Duke-UNC program of devoting disproportionate emphasis “on understanding the positive aspects of Islam.”

This episode is part of the GOP’s antipathy to expertise, science and higher education, and the Trump Administration’s efforts to dictate what can properly be taught.

Indeed, when it comes to higher education, the Trump administration’s approach is uncharacteristically coherent, to fight its enemies – variously conceived of as liberals, Arabs, Muslims, Palestinians, LGBTQ people, people of color, and women – by enforcing ideological constraints, amplifying conservative viewpoints, dismantling or manipulating anti-discrimination statutes and, when possible, slashing federal funding.

When the government can dictate what scholars teach in the classroom, that’s indoctrination, not education. Academic freedom is essential to genuine education.

The First Amendment doesn’t protect free speech because the Founders thought ideas didn’t pose a threat. They knew ideas could be dangerous–but they also knew that allowing the government to determine which ideas could be exchanged would be far more dangerous.

If some schools did use lopsided curricula, that might pose a danger–but allowing government to control what universities can teach would be infinitely more dangerous.

We need to bid an unceremonious “hasta la vista” to this entire administration.

 

 

 

Effective Civic Education…In Hong Kong

What is the purpose of civic education?

I could argue–indeed, I have argued–that people who don’t understand the basic structure of their country’s government lack personal efficacy. They don’t know where to go to get their problems with officialdom solved, for one thing.

The argument focused on democratic self-government is obvious: people who don’t know how the system is supposed to work aren’t prepared to cast informed votes.

These observations are true, but incomplete. A recent article in the New York Times reminded me that civic ignorance also aids and abets autocracy. The article reported on Beijing’s belief that civics education has contributed to the uprising in Hong Kong .

HONG KONG — They are sitting in orderly rows, wearing neatly pressed uniforms. But in this class, as they debate the merits of democracy and civil rights, Hong Kong high school students are prompting Beijing to worry that they are increasingly out of control.

The mandatory civics course known here as liberal studies has been a hallmark of the curriculum in Hong Kong for years, and students and teachers say the point is to make better citizens who are more engaged with society.

But mainland Chinese officials and pro-Beijing supporters say the prominence of the city’s youth at recent mass protests is the clearest sign yet that this tradition of academic freedom has gone too far, giving rise to a generation of rebels.

It is certainly the case that both university and high-school students have been active participants in the current protests.  And according to the article, students are planning class boycotts intended to ramp up pressure on the government to enact universal suffrage and fully withdraw the contentious extradition bill that triggered the current uprisings.[Update: the government has fully withdrawn the extradition bill, so to that extent, the protests were successful.]

On the mainland, China approaches education as indoctrination.

China’s ruling Communist Party has long seen education as a crucial ideological tool for nurturing loyal citizens. Under Xi Jinping, the country’s authoritarian leader, the party has ramped uppatriotic education on the mainland, helping shape one of the most nationalistic generations of youth that the country has seen in years.

The U.S. has its share of “patriots” who also believe that the nation’s schools should be a venue for inculcating the “proper” perspectives and values. We have an even larger percentage of lawmakers who equate education with job training, and dismiss the importance of a liberal education and the creation of knowledgable , participating citizens.

We have far too many politicians who would enthusiastically agree with Xu Luying, who was quoted in the article:

“There is indeed a problem with the national education of Hong Kong’s youth,” said Xu Luying, a spokeswoman for the Chinese government’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, at a news conference last month. “Passionately loving the country and passionately loving the motherland should be taught in the first class in school.”

In fact, the critique of Hong Kong’s civics course sounds depressingly familiar. In recent surveys, Republicans have soured on higher education, and make similar accusations.

Many educators and democracy advocates in Hong Kong say the course teaches students to be analytical and objective, even when it comes to examining the party’s flaws. To present a distorted version of history, they argue, is to undermine the intellectual rigor of a system that has consistently ranked among the top in global education indexes.

“They want to make young people dumber and less aware,” said Hoi Wai-hang, 38, who has taught liberal studies for 10 years.

But pro-Beijing officials have accused liberal studies of stoking anti-mainland sentiment.

Some, like Mr. Tung, the former Hong Kong leader, blame the curriculum. Others, including the Hong Kong Island Chaoren Association, a community organization with pro-Beijing views, blame the teachers. The group said in July that students should not have to take liberal studies classes at school because they could be swayed by the political beliefs of their teachers.

The conflict over civics instruction in Hong Kong has highlighted what the article calls “the increasingly untenable contradiction” between academic freedom as a core value and ideological control.

That contradiction isn’t limited to China and Hong Kong.

 

Indiana’s School Voucher Program–The Back Story

Toward the end of yesterday’s post about high-stakes testing, I noted that its largest-in-the-nation voucher program illustrated Indiana’s penchant for simple answers to complicated questions.

I have friends who sincerely believe that “school choice” will help poor children escape failing public schools, and none of the careful academic research that documents voucher schools’ generally poor academic results convinces them otherwise. “Private” is a word like “shazam!”– magically opening imaginary doors.

Critics of Indiana’s voucher program tend to place the most blame on Mike Pence, but a recent series of articles identifies Mitch Daniels as the political brains behind Indiana’s program. Pence certainly expanded it–and engineered amendments to ensure that religious schools, rather than other private institutions, would be the major beneficiaries. (In Indiana, some 92% of vouchers are used to attend religious schools, virtually all Christian and a sizable number fundamentalist.)

No one who knows Mike Pence, however, would describe him as the brains of any operation. That accolade belongs to Mitch Daniels.

After noting that five years after the program was established, more than half of the state’s voucher recipients had never attended Indiana public schools–failing or not–and that Hoosier taxpayers are now covering private and religious school tuition for children whose parents had previously footed that bill, the author proceeded to describe the voucher program as an outgrowth of a conversation at a dinner party hosted by Steve Hilbert, at which Daniels is quoted as saying “There is no reason even debating the abysmal, atrocious failure of the public school monopoly anymore.”

In the years that followed, three of those dinner guests — Daniels, Pence and Klipsch — would be major players in the quest to privatize traditional public education in Indiana.

Klipsch would start and run a political action committee, Hoosiers for Economic Growth (a.k.a. Hoosiers for Quality Education), that would play a major role in creating a Republican majority in the Indiana House to redistrict the state to assure future Republican control.

In 1996, however, there were no charter schools in Indiana, nor were there virtual schools or vouchers. Neighborhood public schools served communities in a state that had always taken a “liberal and leading role” in providing public education for its children.

Twenty-one years later, Hoosier public schools were showing the effects of 15 years of what the article characterizes as “relentless attack.”

Entire public school systems in Indiana cities, such as Muncie and Gary, had been decimated by funding losses, even as a hodgepodge of ineffective charter and voucher schools sprang up to replace them. Charter school closings and scandals were commonplace, with failing charters sometimes flipped into failing voucher schools. Many of the great public high schools of Indianapolis were closed from a constant churn of reform directed by a “mindtrust” infatuated with portfolio management of school systems.

The author traced the decline to Daniels.

After his election, Daniels quickly laid the groundwork for creating a system based on the belief that the market principle of competition would improve education outcomes and drive down costs. Under the guise of property tax reform, Daniels seized control of school funding by legislating that the state would pay the largest share of district costs known as the general fund, while giving localities the responsibility for paying for debt service, capital projects, transportation and bus replacement. Daniels and the legislature also made sure that districts would be hamstrung in raising their local share by capping property taxes so that they could not exceed 1 percent of a home’s assessed value. The poorer the town, the less money the district could raise.

The remainder of the lengthy article traces the changes to Indiana education made by Daniels and Tony Bennett, his chosen Superintendent of Public Instruction–changes funded by Betsy DeVos’s foundation. I encourage you to click through and read the article in its entirety. And weep.

My only quibble is with the author’s obvious belief that Daniels’ assault on public education was motivated by a malevolent intent to privatize the state’s schools. Unlike Pence, Mitch Daniels is a highly intelligent man. He is also thoroughly political and ideological. My guess is that he drank deeply from the well of GOP dogma, and believes–with an almost religious fervor, evidence be damned– that the private sector is always superior to the public sector. (Why so many people who clearly believe this nevertheless spend their professional lives in the public sector is an enduring mystery.)

So here we are. Vouchers have increased religious and racial segregation without improving academic performance. Meanwhile, public schools are struggling to perform without adequate resources, and the state’s underpaid teachers are leaving in droves.

Did Indiana’s schools need improvement? Absolutely. Were vouchers an appropriate or effective remedy? Absolutely not.

That’s what happens when ideology trumps evidence.

 

Testing…Testing…

Mary Beth Schneider recently wrote a column about ILEARN, (I’ve misplaced the link) the most recent iteration of Indiana’s obsession with education testing. In the column, she recited an incident in which–following a standardized test– a teacher had informed her then third-grade daughter that she was suited only for minimum wage labor. (That daughter has since graduated college with honors.)

In Indiana today we are using a standardized test that is meant to help track students’ progress along with teacher and school effectiveness. It’s just the latest in a string of standardized test iterations Indiana has tried over the years, starting with the “A plus” program launched by Gov. Robert D. Orr in the 1980s. From there we went to ISTEP; then Gov. Evan Bayh tried to change that to the IPASS testing program, but we ended up back with ISTEP, then ISTEP+ and now ILEARN.

We’ve held the tests in spring, then fall, then spring and fall, and spring again. We’ve changed who takes them and how they take them.

It’s no wonder many teachers want to say IQUIT.

As Mary Beth writes, there are plenty of reasons why educators are unhappy with what has come to be dubbed “high stakes” testing: for one thing, teacher evaluations are pegged to results, based, evidently, on the assumption that poverty, parents, peers and a multitude of other real-world influences–including test anxiety– don’t have at least an equal effect on outcomes;  and resentment over the fact that preparation for and administration of the tests steals valuable instructional time.

This is not to say that testing can’t be useful. When tests are administered as a diagnostic tool, they provide teachers with valuable information about a child’s progress, and help them tailor instruction accordingly. But Indiana’s legislature–which includes few educators–prefers to use testing as a punitive (and inaccurate) evaluation tool.

Mary Beth points out that it isn’t only teachers who react negatively to high-stakes testing.

As a parent, the part that concerns me most is that the tests are used to tell children as young as third grade that they are not career or college ready.

In third grade I still planned on being a cowboy.

As she acknowledges, there are perfectly reasonable uses for tests.

Parents and teachers do need to know if their child is keeping pace, and what steps need to be taken to help them become their best selves. And we all need to know if our schools are educating our children or failing them.

But even if the test accurately finds that a child is struggling, that should be the starting point for finding out how to help them learn — and not the time to tell him or her to prepare for a life as a grocery store bagger.

Mary Beth notes that Richard Branson–who dropped out of school at 16– was dyslexic, not stupid. There’s a limit to what school performance can predict.

Recently, schools and parents received the results of the new ILEARN test. And while the exact data hasn’t been officially released, Gov. Eric Holcomb and Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick have both said they are disappointing. State Rep. Bob Behning, the Indianapolis Republican who is chairman of the House Education Committee and one of the biggest drivers of this new standardized test, issued a statement saying that “the value of Hoosier students and teachers are not defined by test scores, but by the learning being accomplished in the classroom.”

Great. But if their value is not defined by one test, Indiana needs to stop acting like it is.  And while giving up testing isn’t an option, how we handle the results is.

The widespread misuse of what should be a diagnostic tool is just one more example of our depressing American tendency to apply bumper sticker solutions to complex issues requiring more nuanced approaches.

Are we concerned about the quality of our public schools? Easy. Let’s just give out vouchers allowing parents to send their children to mostly religious schools that may or may not teach science or civics or accurate history, and are turning out graduates with lower test scores in math and English.

For the 90% of children who still attend our public schools, let’s spend lots of tax dollars on standardized tests that we can then use as a blunt weapon to pigeonhole the kids and penalize their teachers.

Those approaches are so much easier than acting on the basis of in-depth analyses of both strengths and shortcomings, giving our public schools and public school teachers the resources–and the respect– they need, and properly evaluating the results.