Some people see it as a mere transaction, a job: you do this, I’ll pay you that.
The input is your salary. The output is learning.
These are distinctly measurable phenomena. One is calculated in dollars and cents. The other in academic outcomes, usually standardized test scores. The higher the salary, the more valued the teacher. The higher the test scores, the better the job she has done.
In this framework, the teacher has no autonomy, no right to think for herself. Her only responsibility is to bring about the outcomes demanded by her employer. The wants and needs of her students are completely irrelevant. We determine what they will become, where they will fit into the burgeoning economy. And any sense of curiosity or creativity is merely an expedient to make children into the machinery of industry and drive the gross domestic product higher to benefit our stock portfolios and lower corporate taxes.
Thus we invent charter schools – institutions funded with tax dollars but not necessarily subjected to any other regulations – not run by elected school boards, not accountable to the public for how they spend that money or educate the children under their authority. They are subject only to the rules of the free market. The invisible hand guides all.
Because, you see, the hidden premise in all this nonsense is that you are not the boss.
The community is not in control of this system – the business world is. Everyday people who might be parents or taxpayers or voters or concerned citizens – at best we are just consumers. It’s not our role to do anything but choose the simple, watered down options presented to us. If we try to exercise our rights through collective action – including our right to vote – that’s unfair and will be met with the rule of capital as speech until we’re drowned in it – in fact, drowned out.
Businesses are on every corner, but they aren’t set up for the convenience of those living there.
Ethnic isolation – whether caused by poverty, legal coercion, safety in numbers or white flight – often puts the segregated at a disadvantage. It creates a quarantined economy set up for profiteers and carpetbaggers to get rich off the misery of the poor.
The system is set up to wring as much blood as it can from people forced to live as stones.
These businesses aren’t located in the suburbs or wealthy parts of town. You find them typically in the inner cities and poor black neighborhoods. They promise temporary help with one-time purchases and unexpected expenses, but in truth most are used to pay for necessities like rent or food.
They end up trapping users in a debt spiral where they have to take out payday loans to pay off previous payday loans. This is mostly because these loans are made based on the lender’s ability to collect, not the borrower’s ability to repay while meeting other financial obligations.
And these are just two of the most common features of this predatory economy – capitalist enterprises designed to enrich businesses for exploiting consumers beyond their ability to cope.
Others include high priced but limited stock grocery markets, fast food restaurants, gun stores, inner city rental properties and charter schools.
Think about it: (1) charter schools disproportionately locate in poor black communities, (2) offer the promise of relief from inequality but end up recreating or worsening the same unjust circumstances and (3) they are often owned by rich white folks from outside the neighborhood who profit off the venture.
Who attends charter schools and where are they located?
The charter sector represents only a tiny fraction of students attending public school.
This doesn’t come close to a majority for any racial group. Consider the fact that authentic public schools enroll approximately:
•7 million black students (14% of the total)
•12 million Hispanic students (24% of the total)
•24 million white students (48% of the total)
More students of all ethnicities attend authentic public schools than charter schools – by orders of magnitude. However, those that are enrolled at charter schools are not distributed evenly. Charter schools do educate a disproportionate percentage of students of color – especially among Hispanic students.
Why? Do black and brown families seek them out or is it just the opposite – charters seek out melanin abundant children.
So like liquor stores and payday lenders, charter schools are disproportionately located in highly segregated, urban communities often with a majority black and Hispanic population. And since they are businesses (unlike their authentic public school counterparts), they literally target this demographic because it fits their profit model.
These are the people they think they can sell on the charter model. And they often do.
How do charter schools disadvantage the students enrolled there?
Like other vulture capitalist enterprises, they exploit the students they purport to serve by convincing people of color to accept fewer services than they already get at authentic public schools.
Charter schools are permitted to run without elected school boards. Decisions are often made by appointed bureaucrats behind closed doors. They are not required to hold public meetings or present school documents as public records. Parents have no way of having their voices heard except that they can take it or leave it.
Authentic public schools have to accept all students who live within their boundaries.
Charter schools are not required to accept all students who live in their coverage areas or even all who apply for enrollment. They can and often do cherry pick the easiest students to educate. The can dissuade special needs students or students with less stable families from applying by forgoing special services and/or requiring prerequisites like costly uniforms and parental voluntarism. Or they can simply choose whomever they wish from the applicant pool and claim the decision was based on a lottery that never needs to be audited for fairness.
But that’s just academics. There are even clearer economic indications of how charter schools squander the tax dollars that fund them while authentic public schools are more stable and provide better value for the money.
•In 2011 and 2012, the federal government gave $3.7 million in taxpayer dollars to 25 Michigan “ghost” schools that never even opened to students.
•In California, more than $4.7 million in federal taxpayer money was handed out to create charter schools that subsequently closed within a few years.
•In Ohio, out of the 88 schools created by planning and implementation grants under the federal “Charter School Program” (CSP) for state education agencies between 2008 and 2013, at least 15 closed within a few years; a further seven schools never even opened. These charters received more than $4 million in federal taxpayer dollars.
There is even more evidence that charter schools are not nearly as stable as authentic public schools.
So charter schools provide fewer services, worse results, and a greater chance of closure or wasting limited funding without even opening at all – not a good return on investment for students of color.
And who owns and operates these charter schools?
There has been very little research on this topic.
The most detailed information I could find comes from the charter school industry, itself, specifically the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), a nonprofit that describes itself as “committed to advancing the public charter school movement.”
According to the NAPCS, about one-third of charter schools in 2016-17 were operated by management organizations that run multiple schools. This includes KIPP, Success Academy, Green Dot Charter Schools, Uncommon Schools and Rocketship Charter Schools.
The remainder (57%) are owned by what they call freestanding charter schools – which just means organizations that run only one school.
These institutions can be run by a wide range of groups including religious organizations and local business organizations such as chambers of commerce or economic development authorities.
They are a kind of “false consciousness,” an extension of the segregation economy exploiting black and brown children.
They are disproportionately located in poor and minority neighborhoods because operators think they can sell their educational model to people of color fed up with the inequality of their neighborhoods.
Yet they provide fewer services at greater cost to black communities – they convince impoverished minorities to give up the few educational guarantees they already have in favor of a worse situation. And the result is a continuation or worsening of the status quo while enriching vulture capitalists.
It’s a scam, a flimflam ripoff, a bamboozling hoax.
Like the liquor stores and payday lenders that dot the inner city landscape, charter schools are yet another way to exploit black people for the crime of putting their faith once again in capitalism to break their chains.
“With the state providing no state support for mandatory charter school tuition costs,” the study says, “the increases in this single budget item have the potential to decimate school district budgets.”
“Charter school tuition charged to Pennsylvania public schools is calculated as if charters had to provide the same services public schools have to provide, such as transportation—they don’t. Also, the tuition bill public schools pay to charters is calculated as if every student cost the same to educate—they don’t.
According to the American Journal of Public Health, 93% of New York City restaurants earn an “A” from the health department. Does that shake your faith in the food service industry? Would you feel better if more restaurants were unsanitary? Would your food digest more efficiently if there were more people going home with stomach pain and food poisoning?
Of course not! In fact, these stats actually reassure us about both industries. We’re glad air travel and eating out is so safe. Why would we feel any different about academia?
The idea of grade inflation is a simple imposition of the concept of economic value onto learning. It has no meaning in the field of academics, psychology or ethics. It is just some fools who worship money imaging that the whole world works the same way – and if it doesn’t, it should.
It’s nothing new.
Conservatives have been whining about grade inflation for at least a century. It’s not that the quality of teachers has declined and they’re letting all their students pass without doing the work. It’s that certain types of curmudgeons want to justify their own intelligence by denying others the same privilege.
It’s the “I’ve Got Mine” philosophy.
We see the same thing with Baby Boomers who grew up in the counter culture and pushed for progressive values in their youth. Once they got everything they wanted for themselves, they became conservatives in their old age and worked to deny the same things for subsequent generations.
It’s the very definition of Age scoffing at Youth – a pathology that goes back at least to Hesiod if not further. (Golden age of man, my foot!)
The important thing is not grade inflation. It is ensuring that grades are given fairly.
If students work hard, they should be rewarded.
I am very upfront with my students about this. And doing so seems to have a positive and motivating effect on them.
This year, I had students who told me they had never read a book from cover-to-cover before my class. I’ve had students look at their report cards in shock saying they’ve never received such high marks in Language Arts before. And doing so makes them want to try all the harder next year to repeat the results.
They leave me excited about learning. They feel empowered and ready to give academics their all. Because the greatest lesson a teacher can instill is that the student is capable of learning.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t just hand out these grades. Students have to earn them. They have to demonstrate that they have actually learned something.
Everyone rarely measures up to the challenge. But that’s not the point. Everyone COULD. There is nothing in my design that prohibits that outcome. I don’t start with the assumption that I’ll only have 3 A’s, 4 B’s, 10 C’s, etc.
In fact, it is THAT scarcity model that dumbs down academics. If I grade on a curve like that, I have to give out a certain number of high marks regardless of achievement. I’m committed to giving out those 3 A’s regardless of whether that trio of students deserve it or not. However, in my abundance model, I give exactly the number of A’s that are deserved. If that’s zero, no one gets an A. If that’s everyone, then everyone gets an A. It all depends on what students actually deserve, not some preconceived notion about how the world works.
To do this, I give very few tests. I just don’t find them to be very helpful assessments.
Most of my grades are based on projects, homework, essays, class discussion, creative writing, journaling, poetry, etc. Give me a string of data points from which I can extrapolate a fair grade – not just one high stakes data point.
This may work to some degree because of the subject I teach. Language arts is an exceptionally subjective subject, after all. It may be more challenging to do this in math or science. However, it is certainly attainable because it is not really that hard to determine whether students have given you their best work.
Good teaching practices lend themselves to good assessment.
You get to know your students. You watch them work. You help them when they struggle. By the time they hand in their final product, you barely need to read it. You know exactly what it says because you were there for its construction.
For me, this doesn’t mean I have no students who fail. Almost every year I have a few who don’t achieve. This is usually because of attendance issues, lack of sleep, lack of nutrition, home issues or simple laziness.
He never turned in homework, never tried his best on assignments, rarely attended and sleepwalked through the year. However, he knew his only chance was the state mandated reading test – so for three days he was present and awake. The resulting test score was the only reason he moved on to the next grade.
After school, I couldn’t wait to take on the role of plucky plumber Mario or his brother Luigi. I’d jump on a few turtle shells, bounce over a bottomless pit and smash just the right secret brick to get my flashing star power up and wipe the floor with endless levels of Koopa Troopas.
But through it all, I never really learned anything.
With the possible exception of a few Italian stereotypes, the only knowledge I gained was where the warp zones were, which blocks to hit and the muscle memory necessary to defeat the next bad guy.
However, now-a-days that’s all changed.
Someone in marketing and accounting has decided that the same techniques I used to save Princess Toadstool would make an exceptional method of pedagogy.
They call it gamification, the process of making academic lessons, courses and objectives look more like video games.
Sure, the process has applications in the business world and advertising, but its biggest market has been education.
It’s the latest form of snake oil out of the cobra factory, and your teacher may be forced to pour it into your children’s brains.
That’s just Education 2018. Under the old model, the hucksters would have to approach each teacher one-at-a-time and convince them to try the shinny new toy in the box. But when you remove teacher autonomy, that frees all the used car salesmen to go right to the one person in your district – often the technology coordinator or academic coach – who controls the purse strings and convince him or her to buy what they’re selling.
They are good or bad based on the amount of fun they provide the user.
Be honest. No one really cares if Link puts together the Tri-force. No one is losing any sleep over rampaging Metroids on the loose. No one is putting out an Amber Alert the next time Princess Peach is inevitably kidnapped by Bowser. The only thing that matters is if meeting these objectives and countering these fictional bad guys is fun and exciting.
People care whether you can read and write. You may lose sleep over being unable to add, subtract, multiple and divide. Co-workers will be alerted if you don’t comprehend the basics of science and history.
And the higher the skill we’re aiming for, the greater the degree of importance.
After the first few chapters, they weren’t reading for a grade or to please me, their teacher. They truly wanted to know what would happen next. And to fully understand that, they had to exercise and refine their reading skills.
Look at it like this.
When I was playing Super Mario Bros., I often took a few warp zones to the last board so I could beat Bowser quickly and win the game. But that means I skipped over most of the first seven boards.
This didn’t matter because the only reason to play was to win. But if those first boards had included something important to the experience, skipping them would have greatly diminished my experience.
Gamification reduces learning until its meaningless. Why would anyone want to know something unless it carried with it a video game like reward?
And that’s merely the worst part.
In practice, most of the applications and software being pushed on kids to increase enthusiasm and motivation aren’t really very much fun at all. After a few times through, there isn’t much reason to plow through exposition heavy content with little to do. This material doesn’t connect to students’ lives, it doesn’t foster authentic competition, it doesn’t stoke their sense of wonder – it’s just a boring set of hoops to jump through to satisfy the instructor.
Admittedly, it does provide instant feedback, but that doesn’t matter if students don’t care about the matter at hand.
Some things are just intrinsically valuable. And that’s not some mystical statement of faith – it’s just what it means to be human.
Economists love to pontificate on every aspect of the student experience – what’s most effective – what kinds of schools, which methods of assessment, teaching, curriculum, technology, etc. Seen through that lens, every tiny aspect of schooling becomes a cost analysis.
His argument goes something like this: the only value of an education is getting a job after graduation.
Businesses only care about school because they think it signifies whether prospective employees will be good or bad at their jobs. And students don’t care about learning – they only care about appearing to have learned something to lure prospective employers. Once you’re hired, if you don’t have the skills, employers have an incentive to give you on the job training. Getting an education is just about getting a foot in the door. It’s all just a charade.
Students are engaged in the activity of becoming themselves.
Education isn’t a transaction – it’s a transformation.
When my students read “The Diary of Anne Frank” or To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, they become fundamentally different people. They gain deep understandings about what it means to be human, celebrating social differences and respecting human dignity.
Caplan is selling all of that short because he sees no value in it. He argues from the lowest common denominator – no, he argues from the lowest actions of the lowest common denominator to extrapolate a world where everything is neatly quantifiable.
It’s not hard to imagine why an economist would be seduced by such a vision. He’s turned the multi-color world into black and white hues that best suit his profession.
In a way, I can’t blame him for that. For a carpenter, I’m sure most problems look like a hammer and a nail. For a surgeon, everything looks like a scalpel and sutures.
Let’s return to the hyperbolic situation with which I began this article.
The noise of a gunshot brings the principal racing to the classroom.
She notices the slumped bleeding body of the shot child and walks up to the teacher ready to physically disarm and arrest her. But then she notices all the rows of neatly placed desks and the children diligently doing their work.
She glances down at a paper here and there and notices that the children are getting most of their work correct.
So she turns to the teacher and says, “Carry on, Ms. C. You seem to have everything under control here.”
For instance, at a New Orleans charter school, students were punished for not standing straight, not sitting up straight, for putting their heads down, for closing their eyes for too long, for not tracking speakers correctly with their eyes! Between classes students had to walk single file between the wall and a line marked with orange tape. And they had strict dress codes.
This is what happens when you let economists set public policy.
It is essential that we include parents, teachers, psychologist and even students in the processes. Otherwise, we’ll continue to get heartless number crunching offered as sincere solutions to our problems.