Don’t Worry About Grade Inflation. Worry About Grading Fairly.

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Hard work should be rewarded.

 

If you earn an A in a given class, you should get an A on your report card.

 

And this is true no matter how many of your classmates work just as hard as you do.

 

If everyone in class gives it their best shot, they should all get A’s. It is not the teacher’s job to split hairs and sort kids into arbitrary categories in order to preserve a monetary myth about grades’ value based on a model of scarcity.

 

Those who demand otherwise are under the spell of one of the oldest myths in academia – grade inflation.

 

It goes like this: You can’t give all your students excellent marks! That would devalue what it means to get an A!

 

To which I reply: Bullshit.

 

Almost every plane that leaves an airport lands safely. Does that devalue what it means to travel? When you arrive at your destination, are you upset that everyone else has arrived safely or would you feel better if some of the planes crashed?

 

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!)

 

Moreover, there is no authentic way to prove grade inflation is actually happening. Grades are a subjective measure of student learning. They are human beings’ attempt to gauge an invisible mental process. At best they are frail approximations of a complex neural process that is not even bounded temporally or causally. If a student doesn’t know something now, they may come to know it later even without further academic stimulus. Moreover, isolating the stimulus that produced the learning is also nearly impossible.

 

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.

 

A test is a snapshot of student learning. It has its place, but the information it gives you is very limited.

 

 

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.

 

I only have control over what happens in the classroom, after all. I can call home and try to work with parents, but if those parents are – themselves – absent, unavailable or unwilling to work with me, there’s little I can do.

 

And before you start on about standardized testing and the utopia of “objectivity” it can bring, let me tell you about one such student I had who was not even trying in my class.

 

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.

 

Was he smart? Yes. Did he deserve to go on to the next grade not having learned the important lessons of his classmates? No. But your so-called “objective” measure valued three days of effort over 180.

 

The problem is that we are in love with certain academic myths.

 

MYTH 1: Grading must be objective.

 

WRONG! Grading will never be objective because it is done by subjective humans. These standardized tests you’re so in love with are deeply biased on economic and racial lines. Whether you pass or fail is determined by a cut score and a grading curve that changes from year-to-year making them essentially useless for comparisons and as valid assessments. They’re just a tool for big business to make money off the academic process.

 

MYTH 2: Learning is Economics.

 

WRONG! Grades are not money. They don’t function in any way like currency or capital. They aren’t something to be bought and sold. They are an approximate indication of academic success. Treating them as a commodity only degrades their value and the value of students and learning, itself.

 

Treating grades economically actually represses the desire to learn, dispels curiosity and eliminates the intrinsic value of education.

 

So go ahead – inflate the “value” of your grades.

 

Give A’s to every student who deserves it.

 

That’s how you promote learning and fairly assess it.


 

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Gamification – The Hottest New Trend to Monetize Education

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When I was a kid, Super Mario Bros. was my jam.

 

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.

 

In fact, the Gamification industry is worth $2 billion worldwide and some estimate it to jump to $22 billion by 2022.

 

Want to teach grammar? Welcome to the good ship Verb sailing on the seas of Nouns and Pronouns. Interjections, A-hoy!

 

Wish your students knew fractions? Let them blast away the wrong numbers so only the correct numerator matches with the correct denominator.

 

That kind of thing.

 

It’s incredibly popular in some circles.

 

Advocates claim it increases student engagement and enthusiasm, provides instant feedback and the opportunity for social interactions.

 

Critics say it reduces students’ attention spans, narrows the curriculum and replaces human interaction with canned interfaces.

 

But when something is bringing in this kind of cash for big business, it’s kind of beside the point whether it works or not.

 

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.

 

In short, I’m not a fan.

 

In fact, I think gamification is one of the dumbest fads to hit public schools since standardized testing.

 

Don’t get me wrong.

 

Games can have limited use in the classroom.

 

My students love reviewing already mastered material in teams or competing against each other individually.

 

But there’s a big difference between playing Jeopardy or Kahoot with soon-to-be-tested material and plopping kids on an app or software package that pretends to teach them the concept.

There’s a world of difference between a 10-minute detour and an entire curriculum structured around game theory.

 

The biggest problem seems to be this.

 

Games are not intrinsically valuable.

 

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.

 

However, the same is not true for the ends of education.

 

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.

 

Gamification divorces these two ends. It turns education from an intrinsic activity into an extrinsic one.

 

This is a big deal.

 

Students shouldn’t struggle through a reading passage so they’ll get a score or a badge. They should actually care about what they’re reading.

 

My students and I just finished reading Lois Lowry’s “The Giver,” and they loved it.

 

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.

 

Social interactions are possible here but rarely have I seen this opportunity explored. A good group project will get students more engaged socially than messaging back and forth about the software challenge du jour.

 

Education can be so much more than this.

 

Students are being robbed of authentic interactions, authentic instruction and authentic learning.

 

Not all things should be turned into a game.

 

Gamification is another example of trying too hard to market something to people who won’t actually be using it in the hopes that they won’t notice it doesn’t actually work that well.

 

The consumer isn’t the gamer – it’s the administrator who buys the program. And the people best suited to assess the program’s success – teachers and students – aren’t even part of the equation.

 

It’s about monetization, not education.

 

Mario may grab a bunch of coins on his way to save the princess, but it is the corporations who are getting rich off this sad fad.

 

All that glitters is not gold, just as all that is new and technological is not cutting edge.

 

 

Can we stop letting big business drive the field and let education be determined by educators?

 

 

Otherwise, it will be game over for an entire generation of kids duped into accepting crap for curriculum.

Economists Don’t Know Crap About Education

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I hate to be blunt here, but economists need to shut the heck up.

 

 

Never has there been a group more concerned about the value of everything that was more incapable of determining anything’s true worth.

 

 

They boil everything down to numbers and data and never realize that the essence has evaporated away.

 

 

I’m sorry but every human interaction isn’t reducible to a monetary transaction. Every relationship isn’t an equation.

 

 

Some things are just intrinsically valuable. And that’s not some mystical statement of faith – it’s just what it means to be human.

 

 

Take education.

 

 

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.

 

 

And, stupid us, we listen to them as if they had some monopoly on truth.

 

 

But what do you expect from a society that worships wealth? Just as money is our god, the economists are our clergy.

 

 

How else can you explain something as monumentally stupid as Bryan Caplan’s article published in the LA Times “What Students Know That Experts Don’t: School is All About Signaling, Not Skill-Building”?

 

 

In it, Caplan, a professor of economics at George Mason University, theorizes why schooling is pointless and thus education spending is a waste of money.

 

It would be far better in Caplan’s view to use that money to buy things like… oh… his new book “The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money.”

 

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.

 

Therefore, we should cut education funding and put kids to work in high school where they can learn how to do the jobs they’ll need to survive.

 

No wonder economics is sometimes called “The Dismal Science.” Can you imagine having such a dim view of the world where THAT load of crap makes sense?

 

We’re all just worker drones and education is the human equivalent of a mating dance or brilliant plumage – but instead of attracting the opposite sex, we’re attracting a new boss.

 

Bleh! I think I just threw up in my mouth a little bit.

 

This is what comes of listening to economists on a subject they know nothing about.

 

I’m a public school teacher. I am engaged in the act of learning on a daily basis. And let me tell you something – it’s not about merely signifying.

 

I teach 7th and 8th grade language arts. My students aren’t simply working to appear literate. They’re actually attempting to express themselves in words and language. Likewise, my students aren’t just working to appear as if they can comprehend written language. They’re actually trying to read and understand what the author is saying.

 

But that’s only the half of it.

 

Education isn’t even just the accumulation of skills. Students aren’t hard drives and we’re not simply downloading information and subroutines into their impressionable brains.

 

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.

 

When my students write poetry, short fiction and essays, they aren’t merely communicating. They’re compelled to think, to have an informed opinion, to become conscious citizens and fellow people.

 

They get grades – sure – but what we’re doing is about so much more than A-E, advanced, proficient, basic or below basic.

 

When the year is over, they KNOW they can read and understand complex novels, plays, essays and poems. The maelstrom of emotions swirling round in their heads has an outlet, can be shared, examined and changed.

 

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.

 

But shame on us for letting one field’s myopia dominate the conversation.

 

No one seems all that interested in my economic theories about how to maximize gross domestic product. And why would they? I’m not an economist.

 

However, it’s just as absurd to privilege the ramblings of economists on education. They are just as ignorant – perhaps more so.

 

It is a symptom of our sick society.

 

We turn everything into numbers and pretend they can capture the reality around us.

 

This works great for measuring angles or determining the speed of a rocket. But it is laughably unequipped to measure interior states and statements of real human value.

 

That’s why standardized tests are inadequate.

 

It’s why value added teacher evaluations are absurd. It’s why Common Core is poppycock.

 

Use the right tool for the right job.

 

If you want to measure production and consumption or the transfer of wealth, call an economist.

 

If you want to understand education, call a teacher.

Study Suggests Bringing “No Excuses” Discipline Policies from Charter to Public Schools

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The teacher begins class by taking out her Glock.

 

She casually walks to the front of the room and shoots a misbehaving student in the head.

 

All the others immediately begin working on their assignment.

 

It sounds like something from a horror movie. But it’s actually not all that far away from what real researchers at the Brookings Institution and Princeton University are suggesting we do.

 

Sarah Cohodes has written a new report called “Charter Schools and the Achievement Gap” that praises “No Excuses” discipline policies at urban charter schools and suggests they be more widely implemented at traditional public schools serving the poor and students of color.

 

I wish I were kidding.

 

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.”

 

That’s perhaps the most immediate concern brought by Cohodes research – it proposes to evaluate a discipline model based solely on its academic results and completely ignores other aspects of the student experience. For instance, how does the model affect students’ social and emotional development? Is it harmful to students’ curiosity, self-motivation and psychological well-being?

 

Pardon me, but these are important issues.

 

I don’t care if my fictional teacher’s shoot first discipline policy gets students to do exceptional classwork. My daughter will not be enrolled in that class – nor do I expect anyone would want their child to learn in such an environment regardless of how well it maximized test scores.

 

Let me be clear. This is hyperbole, but with a point.

 

“No Excuses” discipline policies don’t result in any gunshot wounds or deaths (to my knowledge), but they do create environments that are not conducive to the flourishing of children.

 

 

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 not school. It is prison.

 

And it’s unsurprising that these sorts of discipline policies are found at urban charter schools like the KIPP network serving mostly poor and minority students.

 

Cohodes champions them because – in her view – they get results.

 

I say that she is missing the point.

 

Her view of what is important in school is far too narrow.

 

Moreover, it’s based on a misconception of what constitutes academic success.

 

Cohodes concludes “No Excuses” policies work solely because schools with such policies tend to have students who get higher test scores.

 

This is to make a few assumptions.

 

First, it assumes that the number of students weeded out by such discipline policies isn’t significant enough to wipe out the apparent increase in scores. The punishment for breaking the rules at these schools is often detention, suspension or expulsion. Every child who is enrolled at the beginning of the year isn’t there by testing time. How do we know that the school hasn’t lost so many students who couldn’t obey the rules that they wipe out any gains in testing?

 

Second, she is assuming standardized testing provide accurate assessments of knowledge and skills. This is far from an accepted premise. These tests have repeatedly been shown to be both economically and racially biased. Cohodes is assuming that since the students scoring better on the assessments are still poor and predominantly black, what they’re being tested on is fair.

 

Standardized tests are poor assessments. Multiple choice exams do not possess the flexibility to allow for creativity and depth of knowledge. They simply expect a “standard” student to think a certain way and reward dissimilar students for conforming to that standard.

 

“No Excuses” charter schools may be better at getting different children to act and think alike, but that is not necessarily an endorsement.

 

Cohodes concludes that these gains in test scores are ultimately beneficial because they will lead to success at college. However, numerous studies have shown that charter school students end up dropping out of college at higher rates than traditional public school students. They simply haven’t learned how to motivate themselves to learn without the rigid, military structures of the charter school environment. One can imagine similar outcomes for charter students (successful charter students) who immediately enter the workforce.

 

None of these considerations make it into Cohodes research.

 

She jumps from the brilliant standardized success of “No Excuses” charter schools to the need to include these policies in traditional public schools.

 

Cohodes worries that the charter school sector can never fully compete with traditional public schools, so we need to make traditional public schools more like charter schools.

 

However, I cannot imagine many parents would jump at the chance to have their children treated like prison inmates for the chance of higher test scores.

 

Unlike charter schools, public schools have school boards. They have to make their decisions in public and are accountable to voters who can come to the public meeting, protest and even run for a seat on the board themselves.

 

In short, this is a terrible idea.

 

It is somewhat staggering that a grown adult could look exclusively at the data and come to such a conclusion without considering what it means for flesh-and-blood students.

 

Not only that, but we’re talking about predominantly black and brown students. Is it somehow more acceptable because we’re talking about turning schools serving darker skinned students into Guantanamo Bay? Would it be as acceptable for rosy cheeked affluent white kids?

 

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.

Tax Cuts Are Theft.

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Ben Franklin famously said that nothing is certain in this world except death and taxes.

 

But in our modern age, that might have to be amended to read, “death and tax cuts.”

 

These days, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle can’t figure out how to govern without continually cutting taxes – and invariably the beneficiaries of such largess are the rich.

 

No one likes paying taxes.

 

You do a job, earn money and have to give a portion of it to the government.

 

But no one likes going to the dentist, either. Yet it’s something most adults do because we understand its necessity. We know that ignoring basic dental hygiene and avoiding regular dental check-ups will most likely result in halitosis, mouth pain and the eventual decay of our teeth.

 

There are similar societal problems with tax avoidance, but we’ve been tricked into willful ignorance.

 

The rich have paid for an army of economists, libertarians and other would-be thinkers to come up with justifications for avoiding taxation as much as possible.

 

It’s completely disingenuous. This is prostitution as philosophy. It’s whoring out one’s mental faculties to come up with a smoke screen behind which the wealthy can get away without paying their fair share.

 

The idea basically comes down to this: taxation is theft.

 

The government has no right to tax its citizens because it only gets rights from the consent of the governed. People can only give the government rights they already posses. Since they don’t already have the right to tax each other, they can’t give that right to the government.

 

It’s pure sophistry.

 

It imagines a mythical world without government and then tells a story about how that government got its power. But few of us have ever lived in a world without government. Neither did our parents or grandparents back through the mists of prehistory. In fact, it is hard to conceive of a time when people existed with no social structure at all from which individuals could then cede rights to a collective group.

 

And once government exists, each individual citizen owes it a debt. We owe it for all the public institutions from which we benefit. If we went to public school, for instance, we owe it for our education. Even if we were educated privately, we owe it for being able to live in a society where most people are educated since the great majority of those people received that education from public school.

 

It only takes a moment of reflection to see the complex web of benefits every person receives from society that come from some public services. Think of the inventions funded at least in part by government investment. Think of the safety we enjoy due to law enforcement and the military. Think of the roads and infrastructure that allow us to live at a high standard.

 

These are all provided by government, and no matter how rich or poor you are, you have benefited tremendously from being a part of it.

 

As such, you owe that society a certain portion of your income to help support this system.

 

It’s not exactly complicated. But certain economists make it complicated in a cynical shell game while their masters getaway without paying their debts.

 

And when they do, who has to make up the difference? You do!

 

It’s not taxation that’s theft. It’s tax avoidance and – often – tax cuts.

 

No one gets rich because they’re inherently better than others.

 

A person worth $500 million is not 500 million times better than a person worth $1. They are both people and equally as valuable. Nor does income equate to how hard someone works. Many billionaires spend their days lounging around the pool drinking piña coladas. Many poor people spend their days scrubbing floors and toilets. The biggest difference between the two is luck.

 

The wealthy most often are rich merely because they won the lottery of birth or their business ventures succeeded due to pure chance. And even in the rare instances when people made a lot of money because of their intelligence or savvy, that doesn’t justify them being so unequally rewarded by our society compared to those of us without such talents.

 

If you judge a person solely on his/her bank account, you misjudge the majority of the population.

 

Some policymakers will acknowledge these points but still insist on tax cuts based on misconceptions and/or lies about how economies work.

 

They’ll say the United States already has some of the highest taxes in the world. We need to cut taxes to be competitive.

 

However, this is not true.

 

In 2014, total US tax revenue equaled 26 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) – well below the 34 percent average for developed countries, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

 

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Of all OECD countries, only Korea, Chile and Mexico collected less than the United States as a percentage of GDP. In many European countries, taxes exceeded 40 percent of GDP. But those countries generally provide more extensive government services than the United States.

 

Some will argue that tax cuts are necessary to boost the economy. However, we have countless counterexamples to this popular fabrication. For instance, when President George W. Bush cut taxes from 2001 – 2007, the average annual growth rate was far below the average growth rate for any other period after World War II. In fact, only corporate profits experienced rapid growth. Over all, this expansion was among the weakest since World War II.

 

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In short, the US is doing a terrible job providing every citizen with the benefits of our society. We are disproportionately rewarding the rich while forcing the rest of us to pay for the services from which we all gain. Moreover, other countries provide even more bang for that buck.

 

Now this doesn’t mean that the government should tax us all into the ground.

Nor does it mean that the government should spend our tax dollars willy-nilly.

 

Taxation needs to be fair and spending needs to be regulated.

 

But constantly cutting rich people’s taxes is immoral. It is unfair to the majority of people making up the difference and struggling to survive when government services lag behind need.

 

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Our public schools are suffering under strategic disinvestment. Especially in poor neighborhoods that often disproportionately serve people of color, public schools cannot keep up with children’s needs. They aren’t providing an equitable level of service with those schools in richer, whiter neighborhoods.

 

Our policymakers try to solve the problem with charter schools, vouchers, standardized tests and Common Core. And the results have only been a worsening situation.

 

The real solution is simple – increased funding through fair increases in taxes on the wealthy.

 

Tax cuts are popular, but every time we let the rich get away with paying less, we have to either take more from the poor or take the knife to public services.

 

This affects the poor immediately in the form of reduced services, but it affects the rich, too. They have to live in a world where the majority has less – this means increased crime, increased drug abuse, increased ignorance, etc.

 

As a society, we must get beyond the selfish urge to look out only for what seems best for ourselves and our immediate friends and families. We must look out for our entire society. We must look out for the needs of everyone in it.

 

Otherwise, when we fall for these economic fallacies, we’re only stealing from ourselves.

Standardized Testing Creates Captive Markets

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It’s easy to do business when the customer is forced to buy.

But is it fair, is it just, or does it create a situation where people are coerced into purchases they wouldn’t make if they had a say in the matter?

For example, school children as young as 8-years-old are forced to take a battery of standardized tests in public schools. Would educators prescribe such assessments if it were up to them? Would parents demand children be treated this way if they were consulted? Or is this just a corporate scam perpetrated by our government for the sole benefit of a particular industry that funnels a portion of the profits to our lawmakers as political donations?

Let’s look at it economically.

Say you sold widgets – you know, those hypothetical doodads we use whenever we want to talk about selling something without importing the emotional baggage of a particular product.

You sell widgets. The best widgets. Grade A, primo, first class widgets.

Your goal in life is to sell the most widgets possible and thus generate the highest profit.

Unfortunately, the demand for widgets is fixed. Whatever they are, people only want so many of them. But if you could increase the demand and thus expand the market, you would likewise boost your profits and better meet your goals.

There are many ways you could do this. You could advertise and try to convince consumers that they need more widgets. You could encourage doctors and world health organizations to prescribe widgets as part of a healthy lifestyle. Or you could convince the government to mandate the market.

That’s right – force people to buy your products.

That doesn’t sound very American does it?

In a Democratic society, we generally don’t want the government telling us what to purchase. Recall the hysteria around the Obamacare individual mandate requiring people who could afford to buy healthcare coverage to do so or else face a financial tax penalty. In this case, one might argue that it was justified because everyone wants healthcare. No one wants to let themselves die from a preventable disease or allow free riders to bump up the cost for everyone else.

However, it’s still a captive market though perhaps an innocuous one. Most are far more pernicious.

According to dictionary.com, a captive market is “a group of consumers who are obliged… to buy a particular product, thus giving the supplier a monopoly” or oligopoly. This could be because of lack of competition, shortages, or other factors.

In the case of government mandating consumers to buy a particular product, it’s perhaps the strongest case of a captive market. Consumers have no choice but to comply and thus have little to no protection from abuse. They are at the mercy of the supplier.

It’s a terrible position to be in for consumers, but a powerful one for businesspeople. And it’s exactly the situation for public schools and the standardized testing industry.

Let’s break it down.

These huge corporations don’t sell widgets, they sell tests. In fact, they sell more than just that, but let’s focus right now on just that – the multiple choice, fill-in-the-bubble assessments.

Why do our public schools give these tests? Because peer-reviewed research shows they fairly and accurately demonstrate student learning? Because they’ve been proven by independent observers to be an invaluable part of the learning process and help students continue to learn new things?

No and no.

The reason public schools give these tests is because the government forces them. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) requires that all students in grades 3-8 and once in high school take certain approved standardized assessments. Parents are allowed to refuse the tests for their children, but otherwise they have to take them.

It wasn’t always this way. When the act was first passed in 1965, it focused almost entirely on providing students with equitable resources. That all changed in 2001, with the passage of No Child Left Behind, a reauthorization of this original bill. And ever since, through every subsequent reauthorization and name change, the federal law governing K-12 schools has required the same standardized testing.

The testing corporations don’t have to prove their products. Those products are required by law.

It’s one of the largest captive markets in existence. That’s some 50.4 million children forced to take standardized assessments. The largest such corporation, Pearson, boasts profits of $9 billion annually. It’s largest competitor, CBT/ McGraw-Hill, makes $2 billion annually. Others include Education Testing Services and Riverside Publishing better known through its parent company Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

If many of these companies sound like book publishers, that’s because they are or their parent companies are. And that’s no coincidence. It’s another way they bolster their own market.

Not only do many of these testing corporations make, provide and score standardized assessments, they make and provide the remedial resources used to help students pass.

So if your students are having difficulty passing the state test, often the same company has a series of workbooks or a software package to help remediate them. It’s a good business model. Cash in before kids take the test. Cash in when they take it. And if kids fail, cash in again to remediate them.

Ever wonder why our test scores are so low? Because it’s profitable! The money is all on the side of failure, not success. In fact, from an economic point of view, there is a disincentive to succeed. Not for teachers and students, but for the people who make and grade the tests.

But that’s not all.

Once you have a system in place, things can become static. Once districts already have the books and resources to pass the tests, the testing corporation has less to sell them, the market stagnates and thus their profits go down or at least stop growing.

The solution once again is to create yet another captive market. That’s why Common Core was created.

These are new academic standards written almost exclusively by the testing corporations and forced on districts by federal and state governments. Under President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top initiative, $500 million in federal education grants were tied to adopting these new standards. States were coerced to push Common Core on their districts or else lose out on much needed funding.

This resulted in the need for districts to buy all new materials – new text books, new workbooks, new software, etc. It also required the states to order brand new standardized tests. So once again the testing industry cashed in at both ends.

And these tests were more needlessly difficult so more children would fail and need costly remediation.

Was there a pressing academic need for these new standards? Was there any evidence that these standards would increase student learning? Were there even any independent studies conducted to attempt to prove a need?

No. This was a total money grab. It was naked greed from one industry completely enabled by our lawmakers at the federal and state levels.

Republicans made noises against it, and some still do. But consider this – the overwhelming majority of state houses are controlled by the GOP. They have the power to repeal Common Core at any time. Yet almost none of them did or do.

Ask yourself why. It has nothing to do with the Democrats. Republicans are owned by the same masters as the so-called liberals – these same test corporations.

You have to understand that our government is no longer ruled by the principle of one person, one vote. Money has become speech so wealthy corporations get a huge say in what our government does.

If an industry gets big enough and makes enough donations to enough lawmakers, they get the legislation they want. In many cases, the corporations write the legislation and then tell lawmakers to pass it. And this is true for lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Standardized testing and Common Core are one pernicious example of our new captive market capitalism collapsing into plutocracy.

Our tax dollars are given away to big business and our voices are silenced.

Forget selling widgets. Our children have BECOME widgets, hostage consumers, and access to them is being bought and sold.

We are all slaves to this new runaway capitalism that has freed itself from the burden of self-rule.

How long will we continue to put up with it?

How long will we continue to be hostages to these captive markets?