Progressives weigh in on public education
I gave a short talk last night about issues in public education and asked, as I have been doing for several months now, what is the purpose of public education. For all the grassroots angst with public schools, unless they have a clear vision of what those schools are supposed to be doing, they are going to spend all of their time in reactive mode responding to measures they don’t like that were put into place by others who DO have a clear vision of the purpose of public education. The progressives fall heavily into that camp and have weighed in with their vision via MoveOn.org in a video series called “The Big Picture: 10 Ideas To Save The Economy.” One of the videos features economist Robert Reich laying out six key points for public education from the progressive vision.
The video’s points were summarized on Education Opportunity Network, the blog for the progressive Institute For America’s Future.
“1. Stop Endless Testing – It’s “destroying the love of teaching and learning,” he says. “Give teachers space to teach and students freedom to learn.” By now, it’s obvious the nation’s obsession with standardized testing in grades K-12 has done nothing to lift the education achievement of low-income students and create more equity in the system.
2. Limit Class Sizes – Classes should have no more than 20 students, he maintains, so teachers can give students the attention they need.”
3. Increase Funding and Services – In calling for increased federal funding for education, Reich wants to see more financial support for educating low-income students. In particular, he wants poor children having more access to high quality early childhood education and money for “community based schools that serve the whole child with health services, counselors, and after school activities.”
4. Technical Training – Questioning the current push for a universal “college readiness,” Reich calls instead for high school students to have opportunities to pursue other post-secondary education paths such as technical education. He believes there should be lots of avenues into the middle class, “not just four-year college.”
5. Make Higher Education FREE – “Higher education isn’t just a personal investment,” Reich insists. “It’s a public good.” Students of all ages need the opportunity to learn as much as they can, and when they do, society benefits by having a more educated work force and more well informed citizens capable of participating in democracy. In calling for this, Reich has joined with Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and newly declared Democratic Party presidential candidate Bernie Sanders to erase college student loan debt and ensure it never becomes an impediment to education attainment again.
6. Increase Teacher and Staff Pay – Reich points out that while investment bankers are getting paid “a fortune to tend to America’s financial capital,” we’re neglecting the pay of teachers and other public education staff who “develop the nation’s human capital.”
Let’s take a moment to examine these points.
Are we over testing in education? Yes. But will testing itself ever lead to “equity” in education, as Reich suggested, if we are defining that as equity in outcomes? No. Testing will only continue to confirm that some people come from better socio-economic backgrounds than others. What we need is an end to high stakes testing and a return to testing as one of a number of tools teachers can use for diagnostic purposes or districts can use for periodic trajectory analysis.
Will the incredibly simplified concept of Class Size Reduction lead to better education outcomes? Not likely. A good meta study done by the Brookings Institute concluded that limiting class size worked in very particular situations (low income neighborhood schools, in very early grades), but cautioned that an across the board CSR policy was not supported by the studies.
“When school finances are limited, the cost-benefit test any educational policy must pass is not “Does this policy have any positive effect?” but rather “Is this policy the most productive use of these educational dollars?” Assuming even the largest class-size effects, such as the STAR results, class-size mandates must still be considered in the context of alternative uses of tax dollars for education. There is no research from the U.S. that directly compares CSR to specific alternative investments, but one careful analysis of several educational interventions found CSR to be the least cost effective of those studied.“
The call for community based schools is another example of where cost benefit analysis would serve the public interest before money is committed in the name of caring for the children. Usually large businesses try to outsource certain jobs to be more cost effective. Here we have government trying to insource the job of parenting, taking care of the whole child, at a significantly greater cost. This is the overall vision of public education for the progressives. The child becomes the responsibility of the State and will ultimately owe its allegiance to the State, not the family.
This is made ever so clear in point #5. There is no such thing as “free” anything from the government. Just as we can’t afford to provide everyone as much health care as they want, and we can’t afford to pay senior citizens inflation equivalent social security dollars for decades after they stop working, we also can’t afford to put every child through college. The government won’t actually give every child a free education. They will exact some sort of quid pro quo. Students will owe more than allegiance to the state, they will owe time. As Benjamin Franklin said, “Time is money.” For instance, look at what the Americorps program does. They award grants for education after the student commits to working in programs that the Corporation for National And Community Service approves for ten months to a year. This becomes “free” labor for the government.
It must be noted that the legislation pursued by Warren, Reich and Sanders doesn’t exactly erase student debt. It ties student loan interest rates to banks’ borrowing interest rates, theoretically lowering the overall amount that students pay.
Once government got involved in providing student loans, they began regulating what happened on campuses, protecting their investment. We went from a collegiate system that mostly paid professors and had a few administrators, to a system with an admin:prof ratio of 2:1. The cost of higher education is going up, but that money is not going to pay high quality teaching staff. It is going to fund an ever growing bureaucracy. I suppose there is some ironic sense of justice in the progressive political class’s desire to limit student obligation to a financially bloated bureaucratic system that they created via the political process.
Point #6 is affected by this process of growing the administrative layer in education as well. In k-12 education we have seen similar increases in administrative personnel as was seen in post-secondary ed. According to a report by the Friedman Foundation For Educational Choice, while K-12 student populations have grown only 17% nationwide between 1992 and 2009, teaching staff numbers grew 32% and administrative staffing increased 46% over the same time period. Twenty-one states employ more non-teaching personnel than teachers. (Missouri is not one of those states.) Providing salaries for all those non-teaching staff means less money to pay good teachers. In addition, paying more non-teaching staff to supply the wrap around services that the progressives want will also mean less money available for teaching salaries. To get to the progressive vision of paying our teachers more, with all these other staffing wants needing to be paid, the only solution will be a large increase in overall funding for education/surrogate parenting.
We can expect Hillary Clinton, who called herself a classical progressive, to be trumpeting this vision for public education in her presidential campaign. Reich was a classmate of hers at Yale Law School and a Rhodes Scholar, like her husband, who later appointed him Secretary of Labor. Reich has a law degree, not an economics degree, but that hasn’t stopped him from promoting economic policies like those in his book, Higher Wages Can Save America’s Economy – and Its Democracy which was soundly discredited by Paul Roderick Gregory in Forbes Magazine. Gregory gave the book an F- for its “incorrect facts and his embarrassing misunderstanding of basic issues about which economists agree,” stating that Reich’s ideas come largely from Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. Reich appears ready to continue to misunderstand facts and ignore sound economic policy to shape a warped vision of education that will no doubt be carried by H.R. Clinton and cheered by progressives around the country. At least we know what their vision is.