Sunday, April 03, 2011

Education Fraud

Are the pages turning
And is the children learning
As we argue the merit
Of the price of fine claret
Instead of the cost
Of a childhood lost
And the fairness of doctrine
That measures by testing
Our children like bovine
Re-chewing cud while festing

Education is the name and fraud is the game. I recently wrote of the scandalous action of the US Supreme Court in declaring child labor laws unconstitutional both in 1918 and again in 1935 to allow children “more freedom.” This Dickens era approach has recently been expanded by at least three of our states. Maine, Missouri and Utah have legislation pending to strip away the effectiveness of the federal law. The connection of child labor to education is a long and sometimes puzzling one. Horace Mann, way back in the 1840s, persuaded Massachusetts and a few other states to make public schooling mandatory and free to age 16. His theory was that schooling could develop citizens of knowledge and understanding so that they might provide more for themselves and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He felt that by combining the youth of different classes into the same classrooms that society as a whole would benefit and that it would not harm industry. He also wanted to keep kids off the streets where they might be incarcerated instead of educated. Mann traveled to Prussia on his own money to observe their public school system and selected that model for Massachusetts, so there was also a call for discipline and substance in schools. He also established “Normal Schools” that had the mission of educating teachers so that coherent and quality instruction was integral with the school system.

Contrast that with today’s schools that are becoming aimless footballs that bounce along at the whim of politicians trying to create social and economic engineering by toying with basic educational purposes and encouraging a concept of “individual responsibility” in education instead of “commonwealth,” or the common good of the state. That new political emphasis has taken schools from the hands of communities and placed them in state and federal hands. Funding has changed so that states and the federal government have created grants and rules for governance that are unrelated to quality. Foremost is the unfunded federal mandate for “No Child Left Behind.” That law has created an orgy of standardized testing beginning early in the K-12 system with an apparent purpose of grading teachers instead of measuring student progress. Measurement is not inherently evil, but using measurement as a club to punish teachers is counterproductive. Punishment has also generated cheating in most districts in order to avoid the punishment of systems and teachers by closing schools and removing federal monies.

I can recall conducting monthly audits of regional offices in a property casualty insurance company. The office being inspected would take a day or two to prepare for the audit; a day or two to undergo the audit and a day or two to document deficiencies and planned corrective actions. Usually, this resulted in 20 to 25% of available time being spent either in preparation, conduct or review of the audits. That is a waste of time when real work needs to be done and practically guarantees failure the following month. Similarly in our schools, in addition to outright cheating, “NCLB” has spawned a plethora of repetitious testing so that teachers and districts can avoid punitive measures. Like an overuse of audits, it is a waste of time. No real learning gets done. Educational returns diminish rapidly and students may understand that the testing itself is the purpose of school. Some politicians love it because they can then propose closing some schools and rewarding others that have not been caught cheating. More to the point, they can justify reducing budgets and promoting a voucher system where private and religious schools are compensated instead of fixing the problem in our public systems. This is equivalent to official government sabotage and it is often promoted by those who claim “government is the problem.” The concept of initiating official competition to “improve” schools assumes that schools are like opposing athletic teams instead of institutions designed to create a better commonwealth where we, as a nation, can compete using better prepared citizens who will create the future for our nation. It is a faulty assumption and it directly destroys learning instead of creating the climate for learning. It is also a form of class warfare where the wealthy can pay for better education and the poor are captive to an unwieldy system that is being sabotaged in the name of “freedom of choice.” Education becomes an expense instead of an investment. The results are both evident and catastrophic.

Ironically, we now have Charter Schools, school vouchers and repetitive testing that adds cost without benefit to our common good. Instead of focusing our resources on providing targeted assessment and education, we squander resources on vouchers and charter school experiments, wasteful testing that now needs auditing to protect us from cheating, and attacks on teachers including layoffs and their removal from collective bargaining. None of this attacks the problem of developing effective working citizens. Instead, it concentrates budgets further and further from the sources of solving the problems and it creates a workforce of minimum wage workers who must compete with imported labor and exported jobs. Budgets must be closer to the schools. Immediate cities and towns may need to be supplemented from state and federal funds, but the further government is from the problem, the less likely that local differences and needs will be understood. With this as a trend, then education will be only for the wealthy and the poor will be unprepared to compete for meaningful work. Indeed, it is in concert with Maine, Michigan and Utah moving to re-introduce child labor. Since 1980, when many families could live on a single income, the majority of families now require two or more incomes to survive. The total average wage gain in the last 30 years has been only $300 per person while productivity has soared and CEOs have multiplied their salaries and corporate profits have reached record levels. As G W Bush famously asked: “Is the children learning?” Perhaps that conservative’s question provides its own answer. Maybe we should put kids to work to compete with their parents for diminishing wages. The minimum wage can be lowered to solve the education problem. What a concept. No schools, no budget problems, no social movement and no threat from thinking people. Conservative Utopia.

George Giacoppe
03 April 2011

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