Tag Archives: education

If Evidence Mattered…

I post fairly frequently about my multiple problems with school voucher programs, and I apologize for the repetition, but really!

Vouchers tend to be a “work around” the First Amendment–a mechanism for transferring tax dollars to religious schools; they steal critical resources from public schools that need those resources; they are re-segregating the schools…I could go on.

Vouchers were marketed as a mechanism allowing poor kids to escape from failing public systems and enroll instead in private schools that would give them a much better education. Proponents also argued that having to compete for students would lead to the improvement of the public schools.

It hasn’t worked out that way. Vouchers are increasingly used by families that would have and could have sent their children to parochial schools with or without them (in Indiana, families making up to 100,000 a year); meanwhile, starving public schools of resources doesn’t exactly help them improve.

Most significantly, research consistently shows that those “superior” private/parochial schools have failed to improve the educational outcomes of the children who use vouchers to attend them.

Brookings recently added to the available evidence

Four recent rigorous studies—in the District of Columbia, Louisiana, Indiana, and Ohio—used different research designs and reached the same result: on average, students that use vouchers to attend private schools do less well on tests than similar students that do not attend private schools. The Louisiana and Indiana studies offer some hints that negative effects may diminish over time. Whether effects ever will become positive is unclear.

The four different studies analyzed by Brookings used four different methodologies, but arrived at the same conclusion: on average, students that use vouchers to attend private schools do less well on tests than similar students who do not attend private schools. The four recent studies thus replicated the results of eight previous research projects, which Brookings also referenced.

The Trump Administration–and especially Betsy DeVos, Secretary of Education–have been pushing voucher expansion. DeVos was largely responsible for the expansion of charter and voucher schools in Michigan, and does not appear to be deterred by the fact that student performance declined dramatically. An article in a Michigan newspaper, reproduced in the Washington Post, reported

In Detroit, parents of school-age children have plenty of choices, thanks to the nation’s largest urban network of charter schools.

What remains in short supply is quality.

In Brightmoor, the only high school left is Detroit Community Schools, a charter boasting more than a decade of abysmal test scores and, until recently, a superintendent who earned $130,000 a year despite a dearth of educational experience or credentials.

On the west side, another charter school, Hope Academy, has been serving the community around Grand River and Livernois for 20 years. Its test scores have been among the lowest in the state throughout those two decades; in 2013 the school ranked in the first percentile, the absolute bottom for academic performance. Two years later, its charter was renewed.

Or if you live downtown, you could try Woodward Academy, a charter that has limped along near the bottom of school achievement since 1998, while its operator has been allowed to expand into other communities.

This deeply dysfunctional educational landscape — where failure is rewarded with opportunities for expansion and “choice” means the opposite for tens of thousands of children — is no accident. It was created by an ideological lobby that has zealously championed free-market education reform for decades, with little regard for the outcome.

And at the center of that lobby is Betsy DeVos, the west Michigan advocate whose family has contributed millions of dollars to the cause of school choice and unregulated charter expansion throughout Michigan.

There is much more, and I encourage anyone interested in DeVos’ success in destroying Michigan education to click through, or to Google the numerous other articles chronicling the decline.

As the Brookings article notes, it used to be rare for policy initiatives to be expanded in the face of evidence that those initiatives are having negative effects on key outcomes. But this is an anti-evidence administration. Zealotry, religious convictions and (in Trump’s case) gut instinct–seasoned with breathtaking ignorance– are what guide policy prescriptions in Trump’s Washington.

 

Useful Knowledge

One of the great ironies of an age in which college attendance has steadily increased is the declining percentage of people attending those institutions who emerge with a genuine education. In the past, the “man of letters” (what should now be the “person of letters”) was widely admired; to be deemed a polymath was high praise.

I am a college professor. I’m pro-education. And I want to preface what I’m about to write by  emphasizing that I have absolutely nothing against job training, practical skills, or the transmittal of “useful knowledge.” The inculcation of skills and information required to obtain and keep employment is clearly an important endeavor–both for the individual and for society–and the increasingly technical nature of work in the 21st Century often necessitates a significant amount of training.

But both individuals and society pay a steep price when we substitute the transmittal of useful knowledge for a full, well-rounded education.

I was prompted to share this “reflection” (okay, rant) by a Ross Douthat column in the New York Times. I often disagree with Douthat, but he offers a thoughtful perspective on many of the issues of the day. In this column, he was mourning the eclipse of the Humanities by our all-consuming focus on technocratic subjects.

Douthat approvingly references a recent book about a group of Christian Humanists who were active during the war; he agrees with its author that neither Christian Humanism nor any other has been able to withstand the “spirit of technocratic ambition, the spirit of truth-replaced-by-useful-knowledge, that rules today not just in Washington and Silicon Valley but in much of academia as well.”

By coincidence, Jacobs’s interesting, depressing book has come out just after an interesting, depressing analysis of the steepening decline in the share of college students majoring in English, philosophy, religion, history and similar pursuits.

The analyst is a historian named Ben Schmidt, who just five years ago wrote an essay arguing that the decline of the humanities was overstated, that enrollment in humanistic majors had declined in the 1970s, mostly as women’s employment opportunities began switching to more pre-professional tracks, but that since then there has been a basic stability, at best a soft declension.

But now he’s revised his argument, because the years since the Great Recession have been “brutal for almost every major in the humanities.” They’ve also been bad for “social science fields that most closely resemble humanistic ones — sociology, anthropology, international relations and political science.” Meanwhile the sciences and engineering have gained at the expense of humanism, and with them sports management and exercise studies…

Douthat  suggests that the problem is “the one that Auden identified seventy years ago.” In a culture that is eager for “useful knowledge” and technical mastery and increasingly indifferent to memory and allergic to tradition, “the poet and the novelist and the theologian struggle to find an official justification for their arts.” So, he says,

they rebrand the humanities as the seat of social justice and a font of political reform, or assume a pseudoscientific mantle that lets academics claim to be interrogating literature with the rigor and precision of a lab tech doing dissection.

Douthat would encourage the study of history and literature and poetry by reinvigorating the role of religion and metaphysics in studies of  the human condition. I disagree, but in any event, I think it’s safe to say that ship has sailed. In any event, the humanities do not need extrinsic or theological justification: as Alexander Pope admonished us,

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man.

 

When an “education” is limited to the transmission of technocratic skills–when we are teaching students how to derive the one correct answer to that math problem or the one correct way to program that computer–there is a very real danger that we are creating a culture in which every issue has a “right” answer and a “wrong” answer.

The humanities teach us to appreciate the complexities of human cognition, emotion and interaction. They require us to wrestle with ethical and moral questions in thorny and confounding context, and challenge us to see different perspectives and appreciate new insights.

 

They deepen our humanity, our capacity for critical analysis, and our humility.

 

You can be well-trained without ever studying the humanities, but you can’t be well-educated–and we desperately need a well-educated citizenry.

 

I Hope This Is Hyperbole…

Generally, when partisans of one sort or another pursue policies that are likely to have negative side-effects, those side effects are unintended. (Hence the term “unintended consequences.”) A recent report generated by The Institute for New Economic Thinking–a source with which I am unfamiliar, and for which I cannot vouch–asserts that the attack on teachers (about which I recently blogged) is part of a deliberate effort to “Groom U.S. Kids for Servitude.”

At least three people forwarded the paper to me. It references research by Gordon Lafer, Associate Professor at the Labor Education and Research Center at the University of Oregon, and Peter Temin, Professor Emeritus of Economics at MIT.  It describes a movement that is said to have begun in the wake of Citizens United, a “highly coordinated campaign” to destroy unions, cut taxes for the wealthy, and cut public services for everyone else.

Lafer pored over the activities of business lobbying groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) – funded by giant corporations including Walmart, Amazon.com, and Bank of America—that produces “model legislation” in areas its conservative members use to promote privatization. He studied the Koch network, a constellation of groups affiliated with billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. (Koch Industries is the country’s second-largest private company with business including crude oil supply and refining and chemical production). Again and again, he found that corporate-backed lobbyists were able to subvert the clear preferences of the public and their elected representatives in both parties. Of all the areas these lobbyists were able to influence, the policy campaign that netted the most laws passed, featured the most big players, and boasted the most effective organizations was public education. For these U.S. corporations, undermining the public school system was the Holy Grail.

The obvious question is: why? These organizations and businesses need an educated workforce; why would they intentionally subvert education? I understand–and mostly agree with– the argument that their preferred policies would have that effect, but why would that be the motivation?

While Lafer acknowledges that there are legitimate debates among people with different ideological positions or pedagogical views, he thinks big corporations are actually more worried about something far more pragmatic: how to protect themselves from the masses as they engineer rising economic inequality.

As Lafer sees it, we are headed for a new system in which the children of the wealthy will be “taught a broad, rich curriculum in small classes led by experienced teachers. The kind of thing everybody wants for kids.” The rest of America’s children will be trapped in large classes with a narrow curriculum taught by inexperienced staff —or through digital platforms with no teachers at all.

Most kids will be trained for a life that is more circumscribed, less vibrant, and, quite literally, shorter, than what past generations have known. (Research shows that the lifespan gap between haves and have-nots is large and rapidly growing). They will be groomed for insecure service jobs that dull their minds and depress their spirits…

In other words, dismantling the public schools is all about control.

The linked article develops these themes, and readers who want to explore them more fully are welcome to click through and do so.

I know that even paranoids have enemies, but this argument strains credulity. I don’t quarrel with the assertion that many of these “reforms” are wrongheaded and detrimental to the national interest. (Vouchers, for example, are supported mainly by people who think they can make a profit and religious zealots who want public money to support their parochial schools.) The unwillingness of so many “haves” to pay the taxes that support the social and physical infrastructure that enabled their good fortune is selfish and despicable, but the policies they are pursing can be debated–and their dangers exposed–on their own (dubious) merits.

The problem is, if the gap between the rich and the rest isn’t reduced soon, we are likely to see more overheated accusations along these lines–along with more class-and-race-based animosity.

We’re entering the social danger zone.

 

Follow The (Lack of) Money

After the West Virginia teacher’s strike, Vox published a fascinating graphic–an interactive database.

The article itself focused on the pay of teachers in West Virginia, and demonstrated how the buying power of those salaries–which remained essentially flat– had been eroded over the years by inflation. Accompanying the article was an interactive feature that allowed readers to see how their own states measured up.

I looked at Indiana.

The first graph showed average teacher pay (both elementary and secondary) over a fifteen-year period, in dollars, and not adjusted for inflation, both for Indiana and nationally. At the beginning of the fifteen years, national pay averaged $46,752 annually, and Indiana’s teachers came close to that average, at $45,791. By 2016, a significant gap had developed: national salaries averaged $58,950, but the average in Indiana was $50,554.

The graph that really “told the tale,” however, took the same time period and adjusted those numbers for inflation. That graph showed that teachers in Indiana have actually sustained a 15.1% pay cut over the past 15 years.

This is worse than the nation as a whole, where teachers have had their pay cut by an average of 3 percent when we adjust for inflation.

And since 2009, teachers in Indiana had their pay cut by 9.7 percent.

The interactive graph was followed by a table showing where each state’s education funding comes from. In Indiana, 9.8% comes from the federal government, 59.1% from the state, and 31.1% from local government.

There’s an old adage to the effect that “You get what you pay for.” Here in Indiana, the General Assembly came close to passing a bill that would have allowed school systems to hire classroom teachers who lack education credentials. As local media reported,

Like the rest of the country, Indiana is struggling to find enough qualified teachers to fill its public school classrooms. Lawmakers have proposed a possible solution: unlicensed teachers.

Right now, traditional public schools can only hire teachers who’ve met the state’s licensing requirements. While there are alternative paths to teaching, the traditional route to a license is a college teacher preparation program, student teaching and licensing exams in content and pedagogy, the actual practice of teaching.

Several recent studies have told us what most Americans already know: pay matters. The scholarship confirms that teacher salaries are linked to employee retention and that higher pay draws smarter people to the field and the classroom.

In most states, teachers are required to obtain a master’s degree. People with such credentials have options beyond the classroom. Very few of them are in a position to forego thousands of dollars annually in order work at jobs they may love, but that’s what we are asking them to do.

We shouldn’t be surprised if teachers in many (if not most) states who want to stay in the classroom follow the lead of West Virginia.

At some point, our slavish devotion to unrealistically-low tax rates has to give way to the need to pay for effective governance and necessary public services, including but not limited to education.

It’s like the old bumper sticker used to say: “Think education is expensive? Try ignorance.”

We’ve been trying ignorance for far too long, and thanks to the Trump Administration, the GOP and the NRA, among many others, we’re learning just how expensive it can be.

 

A Lesson On Know-Nothingness

Paul Krugman recently delivered a lesson on “Know Nothingness”--both as historical reference and descriptive term:

If you’re a student of history, you might be comparing that person to a member of the Know Nothing party of the 1850s, a bigoted, xenophobic, anti-immigrant group that at its peak included more than a hundred members of Congress and eight governors. More likely, however, you’re suggesting that said person is willfully ignorant, someone who rejects facts that might conflict with his or her prejudices.

The sad thing is that America is currently ruled by people who fit both definitions.

The parallels between anti-immigrant hysteria in the mid-19th century and today are too obvious to require enumeration. Krugman does, however, enumerate several, pointing out that the countries considered “shitholes” in the 19th Century –especially Germany and Ireland–differ from those in Trump’s dark-skinned category today.

It isn’t just bigotry, of course. It’s profound ignorance.

But today’s Republicans — for this isn’t just about Donald Trump, it’s about a whole party — aren’t just Know-Nothings, they’re also know-nothings. The range of issues on which conservatives insist that the facts have a well-known liberal bias just keeps widening.

One result of this embrace of ignorance is a remarkable estrangement between modern conservatives and highly educated Americans, especially but not only college faculty. The right insists that the scarcity of self-identified conservatives in the academy is evidence of discrimination against their views, of political correctness run wild.

Those of us who work in the academy know firsthand that this accusation of discrimination is utter bullshit.

Case in point: my office in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs is on the same floor as that of professors in the Kelley School of Business. When I first joined the faculty, twenty years ago, a majority of those professors self-identified as fiscally-conservative Republicans. They continue to be conservative, but very few of them are still Republicans. When the party rejected science, evidence and scholarly research, they left.  As Krugman says of the science professorate, “When the more or less official position of your party is that climate change is a hoax and evolution never happened, you won’t get much support from people who take evidence seriously.”

But conservatives don’t see the rejection of their orthodoxies by people who know what they’re talking about as a sign that they might need to rethink. Instead, they’ve soured on scholarship and education in general. Remarkably, a clear majority of Republicans now say that colleges and universities have a negative effect on America.

Krugman then points to research showing the growing importance of “clusters of highly skilled workers” who create what he calls “virtuous circles of growth and innovation.” Those clusters disproportionately emerge around universities.  In 2016, voters largely divided along educational lines, with the better-educated, rising regions carried by Hillary Clinton, and more rural, under-educated and less skilled regions going for Trump.

The anti-education, anti-evidence, anti-science voters who remain in the GOP are also disproportionately likely to express tribal, White Christian beliefs: creationism, rather than evolution, America as (their version of) a Christian Nation.

Newsweek recently reported

Evangelical Christians overwhelmingly support President Donald Trump because they believe he’ll cause the world to end.

Many have questioned why devout evangelicals support Trump, a man who has bragged about sexual assault, lies perpetually and once admitted he never asks God for forgiveness. Trump’s lack of knowledge of the Bible is also well-known.

Nevertheless, many evangelical Christians believe that Trump was chosen by God to usher in a new era, a part of history called the “end times”….  the time when Jesus returns to Earth and judges all people.

Are people who hold these beliefs representative of Christianity? No. Are they rare on most university faculties ? Yes, and for obvious reasons.

When knowledge and expertise are devalued, when empirical evidence is scorned, when the weighty and complex search for meaning that characterizes serious religiosity is replaced with superstition, rejection of reason and fear of the Other, the know-nothings have won.