Who are the arms dealers in America’s War on Education?

You may have noticed this new report:

Nation falling behind in grads

By Michelle Maitre
MediaNews

Americans are losing their edge in a global economy because not enough young people are graduating from college, according to a report released today by a higher education think tank.

As the baby boom generation ages and retires, a well-educated corps of young people is not stepping up to take its place, and the United States is slipping behind other countries that are producing a better educated workforce, says the non-partisan National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

“Measuring Up 2006” grades each state and the nation in six areas to measure the effectiveness of higher education. The national report card on higher education is released every other year.

“The report card’s findings challenge the notion that the American higher education system is still the `best in the world,'” said James B. Hunt Jr., chairman of the National Center’s board of directors and former North Carolina governor.

“In such key areas as college access and completion, the U.S. has made little or no progress, while other countries have made substantial gains,” Hunt said. (Story.)

Well, duh. A lot of us have been screaming about the rapidity with which our ed system is going to Hell, and it’s nice to have a little bit in the way of official validation.

When I saw the headline, my instinctive reaction was that of course we’re graduating fewer people – who can afford college anymore? I was listening to an economist the other day on the radio talking about pillars of a viable middle class economy, and one of the main elements was “saving for college.” I laughed out loud and then started yelling at the radio. You can’t save for college. If you’re like most Americans, you have all you can do to make ends meet, and when tuitions at most good schools (and a lot of less-good schools) are easily topping $25K year, I’m sorry – you might borrow for college, but you won’t be saving for it.

The report agrees:

The problem is compounded by soaring college costs. The United States gets an F in affordability, the report said.

“The share of family income required to pay for a year of college has continued to escalate for all but the wealthiest families,” Hunt said. “And financial aid for qualified students who can’t afford college has not kept pace with tuition increases.”

Specifically: “From 1999 to 2004, median family income grew 13 percent and average tuition 38 percent, according to federal data…” (Source: Community College Central, as cited below.)

The cure is worse than the disease
It gets worse. A hint as to how it’s going to get worse is actually contained in the report, an evil wedge masquerading as all-American virtue. See if you can spot it:

Stanford University education Professor Michael Kirst, who studies K-12 and higher education, said the report illustrates what has been a “gradual erosion” of completion rates in the nation’s colleges. Yet the public generally maintains a high view of colleges and tends to blame failure rates on students or a lack of preparation in the K-12 system.

“The colleges have to be held more accountable and people have to put pressure on them so they can’t just put the blame onto the students,” said Kirst, who has consulted for the National Center but did not work on the report.

Those of you who shuddered at that word “accountable,” give yourself a smiley. See, accountability is a good thing, and we Americans love talking about it. We love pretending we’re being accountable. But we’re just godawful at recognizing when people are taking good words and using them to disguise bad ideas.

These days, “accountable” means “testing.” It means measuring and comparing. It means statistics – lots of statistics. However, it does not, contrary to what certain camps would have you believe, mean better learning (not unless you think education and test-taking skills are the same thing). There’s only so much a multiple choice test can evaluate, and when push comes to shove, the things it can’t measure are usually the things that matter the most.

Bad guys to the rescue
No matter how bad the problem is, there’s always somebody with a solution that will make it worse. For instance:

August 11, 2006
Panel’s Report Urges Higher Education Shake-Up
By SAM DILLON
WASHINGTON, Aug. 10 β€” A federal commission approved a final report on Thursday that urges a broad shake-up of American higher education. It calls for public universities to measure learning with standardized tests, federal monitoring of college quality and sweeping changes in financial aid. (Story.)

[sigh] The thing these people ought to know – and probably would know if they’d actually have some meaningful conversations with their faculties – is that testing isn’t teaching and Federal monitoring of statistics is damned sure no guarantee of quality. It’s a guarantee of income for companies that provide statistical measurement services, though. I’m all for sweeping changes in financial aid, although I’m just about sure that their sweeping changes and mine are different. BushCo has already made some inroads on that front – last I heard it was going to be harder than ever for students in need to secure the resources required to lock themselves into student loan debt until they’re 60.

There are other severe problems in university classrooms across the country right now that this report doesn’t seem to have tweaked on – I expect that report in about five years. It will note that this generation students is not very good at problem-solving and lacks basic critical analysis capabilities. This won’t be a problem in a lot of places, where success hinges on performance of rote tasks. But in upper management it’s going to be a crisis, because once you get past the Jr. Manager level you need to be able to figure things out on your own. In five years, the front edge of the Millennial Generation, which has been victimized by the very kinds of “thinking” proposed in this report, is going to be in its early 30s. That’s the point where they’re going to be expected to lead, and I’m here to tell you that the ones who are actually capable of leading are going to be an incandescently hot commodity. (For the Millennials reading this, you may feel like I’m dogging your generation pretty hard. Stay with me – I think you’ll appreciate where this all winds up in the end.)

Put directly, the biggest problems in college classrooms today are a direct result of the sort of programs being proposed to solve them.

These problems stem from “accountability.” No Child Left Untested, a bonanza for educational testing corporations that was allegedly intended to make sure that schools are performing up to snuff, has assured that elementary and secondary classrooms have largely replaced teaching with teaching-to-the-test. The results have been predictable. Students who have been drilled in connecting the dots are going to be good at connecting the dots, and they can be forgiven for not cultivating skills they haven’t been taught.

Universities are currently full of good kids who are socially committed in ways the last couple generations (mine especially) haven’t been, and they’re exceptional at executing short-term tasks when they have been shown how to move from A to B to C. But they’ve never been handed something completely unknown and forced to figure it out on their own. When faced with a challenge they haven’t been shown how to address, they all-too-often go limp.

At present, our schools and faculty have no practical option but to avoid placing them in these situations, but that’s capitulation, not education, and that dog ain’t gonna hunt when these kids hit the real world.

The wisdom of Deep Marx
It would be bad enough if I were looking at this megatrend and wondering how we could be so stupid. But here’s the thing – I don’t believe I’m necessarily watching a grand miscalculation. I think I’m watching something that’s a function of design and that’s working to perfection.

I always like to stop and ask myself a basic question: Who benefits here? Whose pocket does this put money in? If this continues, who gets rich?

To quote Deep Throat, “follow the money.” It’s sort of like the basic premise of Marxism, where everything begins with the economic base. You have to look closely at the structure of wealth and consider who has the power to bend the economy to their ends. “Follow the money” doesn’t answer all questions, and frankly I’m not much of a Marxist. But in most cases, it’s a helluva place to start.

So, America’s War on Education benefits…whom?

Well, let’s see. This educational structure and philosophy produces legions of people who are dedicated and committed to what they think is right. They’re engaged in their communities, but ironically, are not equipped to think deeply about the political economy of their society. They’re team-oriented. They’re exceedingly good at short-term, clearly defined tasks. They’re far more conservative socially than the three generations that preceeded them. They place a lot of faith and trust in public and private institutions and sanctioned leaders. They generally have a great deal of distaste for the perceived cynicism of Gen Xers (a quality that Xers see as righteously justified). And they are so enculturated to the world of testing that they tend to be very quantitative in how they evaluate the world (rankings, for instance, reflect something tangible for them, and they’re used to understanding their own lives in terms of where they rank).

The cynical view of this cohort would say that they’re bred to do what they’re told and not ask questions. That they’re ideally suited for professional environments where jobs are tightly structured and goals well-defined. That they’ll be more likely to trust the company and find meaning in social circles instead of large-scale (intellectual?) movements.

Sure, it’s a lot more complex than that, and we’re advised to suspicious of broad negative typing. But the fundamental structure of this assessment can’t be easily dismissed. There’s simply too much data supporting each of these observations. (And data doesn’t lie. Just ask our champions of “accountability.”)

By now a general picture should be emerging. If you need lots of workers who are good tactically and who aren’t terribly prone to boat-rocking, then moves to replace real teaching with test-driven training is probably good for you. Since you deal with employees now, you have likely formed opinions about how you’d like the next wave of workers to look.

Pure conspiratorial genius, perfect coincidence, or a backlash in the making? (Fnord)
I apologize for the occasional oversimplification in the interest of making a point. I’m pretty sure the Illuminati aren’t getting monthly status updates from the Secretary of Education.

But we’re stupid if we don’t examine the larger dynamics that shape our world, and whatever you may think of my conclusions, there are lots and lots of facts to be weighed here.

In the process of trying to unravel the deep motivations underlying certain policy propositions, it’s not unreasonable to ask ourselves about the interests of powerful people, either. If you saw a strategy for making yourself and those close to you rich, while at the same time insulating your family from the sorts of hostile influences that posed the greatest threat to their well-being, you’d probably act on that strategy, wouldn’t you? Why is it not logical to assume that the most powerful members of our society do the same, and why is it unreasonable to note that our richest and most powerful folks a) tend to know each other, and b) tend to have a lot in common?

Nothing radical about that. Basic human nature.

This is all well and good, but as Howe and Strauss point out in Millennials Rising, a powerful collective can be led in a number of directions. To this end, we ought to ponder an interesting “backfire” scenario (especially if we’re the sorts who need hope in our lives).

One really important thing to understand about Millennials is that it has grown up in relative affluence, but it doesn’t see itself that way. Plenty of research shows that Millennials views the financial condition of their lives so far as normal, not special. Add to this the fact that the generation has a powerful sense of entitlement, owing to a lifetime of being cherished and rewarded reagrdless of achievement. Self-esteem has not been linked to accomplishment, and as a result they expect to be validated and respected unconditionally.

We might see in this a particular way of viewing the eventual results of these proposed policies. If these kids are prevented from attaining a middle class existence (or something on a par with what they grew up in), we might all of a sudden see their many innate strengths – team-building, social networking, civic engagement – turned against those they feel are responsible for their plight. If they correctly identify the interests behind these policies, we might see things getting inteesting for the metaphorical arms merchants fueling our current War on Education.

And that, folks, is how a generation I have been very worried about might ultimately prove to be greater by far than my generation. True, this is only one scenario swimming in a sea of complexity and I don’t have a crystal ball. But education is the single most critical factor in a culture’s hopes for the future, so we’re having a very real, very important conversation here. There’s ample value in thinking our way through as many possibilities as we can.

[THX angliss]
:xpost:

[Art: THX to Scott Morris of Debt-On.com for use of his illustration above. Kinda makes a point, huh?]

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14 comments

  1. First, thanks as always (no matter how often unspoken) for a lucid and cogent examination of a complex and critically important issue.
    But I’m surprised at you πŸ˜‰ No mention of branding re the following:
    And they are so enculturated to the world of testing that they tend to be very quantitative in how they evaluate the world (rankings, for instance, reflect something tangible for them, and they’re used to understanding their own lives in terms of where they rank).
    As I read those lines, I was shocked at how *instantly* amihotornot.com came to mind, however appalling a concept, however so-last-timeperiod it may be. Hell, for that matter, Cosmopolitan was the second name to come to mind, associated by urban males from the left to the right coast with relationship *fear* for the quizzes so many of us have endured. If you scored between 15-25, you’re in hot water and sleeping on the sofa tonight. Even where the branding is missing, we’re *constantly* ranking ourselves and everyone else now. We’re not just trying to learn more about relationships, religion, and politics, we want to know which percentile we’re in when it comes to, well, *everything*. Certainly less recognizable but nevertheless constantly lurking just a few links away from almost any discussion, at least online, there’s thespark.com and quizilla.com. And who can scroll through pages of personal blogs at LiveJournal and MySpace without spotting at least a smattering of quizzes ranking us on such essentials as “what imported cheese am I most like”? When’s the last time I bought anything at Amazon without first looking at a product’s rating or without first considering exactly how many people found a review useful, however poorly written and obviously unenlightened it might have been?
    It’s ubiquitous. I think it’s very telling that not only does the ranking, scoring, calculating the percentages and odds mentality pervade our politics and education, but our daily lives and our personal relationships as well. And it seems that the cart and the horse are running neck and neck, because it’s that same generation which earned your consideration, the Millenials, that drives this blitz of ratemyratings.com websites and online memes, compelled by their upbringing to find out if they have enough bilirubin in their output and in turn, to drive the mechanism behind it all, making that figurative bilirubin a lucrative commodity for any number of marketing and and internet solutions providers out there.
    Carts, horses, eggs and chickens. I’ve gotten so lost in the mishmash of percentages that I must be part of the 83 out of 98 people with a 4% chance of reading my muddled screed that *really* need a program to make sense of the players, ranked, naturally, by popularity.

  2. This is an absolutely spectacular follow-on that does a beautiful job fleshing out an area I sort of glossed. Trust me – I damned sure THOUGHT about the branding angle, and you should SEE the Marketing to Millennials program that I shop to prospective clients. I can go on for days…
    Would you PLEASE go post this comment at 5e and fortysomething and neph_politics and democrats, where I x-posted. Or pull it out as a top-page blog entry on your site so I can link back to it?

  3. Consider me floored πŸ™‚ I’ve posted with some intro text on my own LJ and just plain verbatim in reply to your post at 5E. If *you* think it’s worth linking, by all means please do. I’m always happy to contribute my 2 cents *g*

  4. Gen Y is a term that gets used, but it’s a bad one. Since it’s Gen Y following Gen X, it tends to suggest that Y is somehow a continuation of X. That couldn’t be more wrong – Mills are a direct reaction against X. Also, when you use a term like that you describe them in terms of another gen’s identity and not their own (which is why I also hate the term “Echo Boomers”).

  5. As the article suggests at the end, I’m REALLY hoping you’re the solution.
    My own gen has had plenty of back and forth over the problem/solution thing. We’ve had remarkable accomplishments, but we simply refuse to admit that we exist as a collective entity, and that almost feral individualism gets in the way of broad reforms….

  6. Who are the arms dealers…?
    Suddenly 1984/Brave New World come to mind.
    This is the kind of crap that I see everyday coming home in my kids class folders and that scares the hell out of me about them in their future.
    My dad had a small plaque on his desk in college that I now own. It had one simple word – “THINK”.
    I’m afraid now that my kids will look at that and say “Oh Dad, that is sooo yesterday” or, worse, “Huh?”
    linky

  7. If these kids are prevented from attaining a middle class existence (or something on a par with what they grew up in), we might all of a sudden see their many innate strengths – team-building, social networking, civic engagement – turned against those they feel are responsible for their plight.

    Which will inevitably be “The Faggots.”
    Followed by the Jews. Followed by “Liberals” … whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean anymore.
    Just like happened the last time. And the time before that. And the time before that.

  8. Re: Who are the arms dealers…?
    For me, the worst case is what I think is happening more and more and more. They think they’re thinking, but they aren’t. They’re regurgitating.

  9. Your comment just nails it. I think somewhere in here is a whole ‘nother blog looking at how our culture is just WAY too in love with numbers, stats, metrics, and all manner of quant. The Enlightenment privileged the rational in all its forms, and that was certainly a wonderful thing. But in doing so, it has often led us to place too much emphasis on quantification, which even when it doesn’t lie outright sometimes leads us to truths that are a mile wide and an inch deep.
    Then we begin institutionalizing this bias like never before with the Millennials, and all of a sudden we have the phenomenon you’re pointing to.
    Not good. Not at all.

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