Education Pays, But Who Gets the Money? – Financialized Learning

Part II – Some Financial Issues in American Education

There are many ways financialization  affects American education – mostly harmful. By redistributing wealth upward, it gives still more advantage to students from well-to-do families, in upper class communities and schools, while making the success of middle class students harder to achieve, and leaving the outlook for those in the poorest schools and neighborhoods even more bleak. Financialization of schools as institutions – both public and private – also damages the quality of their education.

Through their influence on lawmakers, and popular media, advocates of financialization manipulate public opinions and beliefs about the importance, subject matter, and methods of education, and where to get it. And of course financialization raises the costs of education, public and private, while making it harder for school boards and administrators to meet those costs. Financiers also take advantage when public and non-profit institutions try to increase their endowments by investing in markets, and accept fund managers’ high fees , which are charged to taxpayers. 

Financialization is especially obvious in poor and racially segregated communities. Location (or geography) – Zip-code  – greatly influences educational quality. Moreover, the idea that education can liberate disadvantaged students out of their poor communities is a happy myth. In some neighborhoods – e.g. Chicago’s North Lawndale – students simply can’t get good education.

Public policies at federal, state and local levels are under the influence of financialization. These determine what groups are deserving of education support, including immigrants.  Immigrants have often been political footballs, lumped together and villified or praised, according to the interests of the disputing sides, aided by corporate media, that thrive on dramatic, misleading stories, and false views of economics and austerity. We should remember that immigrants, like most Americans, have diverse skills and goals. They may come here as educators, or have professional knowledge, skills and methods needed to educate others, as well as looking for higher education, and employment.

“Education” in every group or civilization, from prehistoric times to the present, reflects what their leaders deem important to know (not just fun or entertaining) – in ancient China, Persia, Mesopotamia, India, Egypt, Africa, Biblical Israel, Ancient Greece and Italy, Islamic Arabia, Medieval  western kingdoms, European colonial possessions (including their indigenous peoples), and the primal tribes still in South East Asia. For all those places, times, and peoples, it’s safe to say that the “most important” knowledge was connected to ‘religion’ – i.e. what the gods favor.

But late 18th century Europe saw radical changes in world view, giving up traditional religious values in favor of democratic, scientific and secular thought, which is now our controlling world view. ‘Rev Kev’ – a frequent commenter at Naked Capitalism – wryly described this group as “Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) people”.

Education (or learning) is important, of course. But for what goal, and how much of it is needed, are questions that need careful thought. It isn’t always the case that “Education Pays”, or that more education is better, though many think both claims are just plain common sense, and obvious . But ‘common sense’ is only popular opinion – easily manipulated. And whether a belief is ‘obvious’ depends on who holds it, and how carefully she examines the claim. Goals should be obtainable, or they’re just vague pie in the sky wishes.

Goals have practical qualifiers that limit them. Understanding those limits takes trustworthy information. If a student looks for help of any sort with a web search (advice, information, programs, financial aid, etc.), she’s certain to find many companies offering ‘practical’ help. In reality, their assistance may well make her goals harder to reach, or even unreachable! Don’t believe companies like State Farm who say “We’re here to help life go right”.(Insurance is a major aspect of the F.I.R.E. sector that impacts everyone, students included.)

Education or training is obviously needed by every child, to fit into a society. And when a person is old enough to make independent ‘career choices’, more education is typically needed to meet personal goals. But if ‘more education’ simply means successfully taking more and more courses in school curricula, at higher and higher levels – from pre-K through post-graduate if possible – then the generalization is risky. There are too many variables.

The value of more education to any person depends on many factors, including the quality of the schools she attends, the curriculum  she follows, her personal goals, and especially  cost. The price of education is a major social and political issue today, but the way it’s impacted by financialization is not well understood by most students. Mistaken notions of  practicality – i.e. money – are subjecting students (even in private and religious institutions) to increasing levels of debt. Encouraged and enabled by the owners of the debt pyramid, they find themselves in “debt peonage“,  not knowing why.student debt ball & chain Increasing indebtedness for ordinary people is made worse by the common notion that ‘practical life’ – i.e. money value – is directly connected to getting whatever you want. So all the money-back guarantees given to customers assuring they’ll be completely satisfied, have become almost equivalent to the belief that democracy guarantees my freedom – (read license) to be, do and (especially) have whatever I choose. Deceptive business methods meet deceptive politics here in a corrupting alliance. Giving in to these unceasing pitches on every medium, leads to slavery, in my opinion. I think current trends toward ‘practicality’ are not progressive; they are regressive.

It feels to me like a society of immature individuals; a child’s society. For real children, practical learning – giving them what they want – is natural and appropriate, but it may be bad or good, objectively speaking. For example, giving an infant what she wants is practical and good because it  benefits the child. Her crying will bring  responses from her caregiver (if the latter is normally decent) to provide what the infant really needs. An older child may want to take her brother’s toy, but if she learns that such behavior will bring punishment, she’ll make the ‘good’ choice  to avoid pain and gain praise. That’s practical too, and it’s proper. But children can’t be either good or bad morally; morality requires an adult understanding of principles – not just what is desired.

Whatever her age, each person aims to produce outcomes she believes are good (though her idea of good may be mistaken). We never know for sure that another person  is truly a ‘grown up’, mentally speaking. A person’s character depends on what she cares about – really loves – inwardly. She may be moral or immoral – genuine or a hypocrite. No one can see her real motives from the outside, or judge if she’s good or bad. Hence the biblical injunction, “Judge not … “

But societies can and must judge, and control their members’ actions if, and to the extent that they harm others. To make that judgment, observing behavior, genetic testing, psychological evaluation, ‘report cards’, etc. may help, but they don’t prove whether someone has succesfully learned deeper ‘life lessons’. When a child reaches school age, and continues learning into adulthood and often into higher education, she has to ask the same question. Why should I learn? Is it worth the discomfort? Businesses call this process cost-benefit analysis, but they’re only thinking in money terms. There are other kinds of benefits and costs, which get little attention.

For example, all our activities, including learning, involve short-term and long-term goals. Goals that have priority in time differ from those that have priority of importance. This distinction gets lost in the search for money, which is encouraged by those leaders of financial markets whose goal is a personal fortune, gained quickly, with no apparent regard for the long-term development of their corporations, or the real economy. The result is obvious to those who look below the surface and media hype.

Peter Georgescu – not a socialist or radical, but an experienced and successful capitalist –  argues that short-term thinking of Wall Street is killing capitalism, the economy and the society. We see this destructive impatience everywhere, in public firms’ emphasis of stock growth and shareholder value. We see it mirrored in the increasing demands and expectations of consumers to ‘get it now’! Businesses promise to deliver it today (for a big fee, of course). Witness the Christmas rush, the well-organized ‘fulfillment centers’ and the madness of delivery trucks in the holidays! In my neighborhood, the delivery rush doesn’t end with the holidays.

Why, what and how we should learn will benefit from looking again to ancient history. Aristotle suggests there’s a natural hierarchy of values or ‘goods’. He discussed this hierarchy of goals – he called them ‘ends’ – 24 centuries ago; it’s still true. Whatever we seek – our goal – seems good to us (or we wouldn’t seek it), either in itself, or as a means to something else. (E.g., a pickpocket’s theft is valuable if it yields money, which is valuable if it provides food or shelter, which is valuable if …) Most goals are sought for the sake of something else – a higher goal. But there must be a highest goal that is done for its own sake, and not for the sake of something else, or else our lives would be pointless. [Nicomachean Ethics, 1097a30-34l.

It’s not hard to see that ‘happiness‘ is that ultimate goal, as Aristotle claimed, but how to achieve happiness involves a lot of thought, work and time –  means which are not very popular today! In fact, wealth seems to be the highest goal (or good) sought by financiers, and is widely promoted in today’s society. But can a person seriously believe that money is an end in itself? Can it even be a means to happiness? And has our whole society bought into the same irrationality?

Education is a good profession, as a means to many ends, including happiness. But it’s under pressure. My young neighbor started teaching in the Chicago Public School system a couple years ago. She loves it, and is idealistic about helping kids, but she’s frustrated by the ill behavior of many of her 4th grade students (and especially some of their thoughtless parents). A few semestes ago, she reported her school might have to close a month early, apparently because of funding issues, and the threat of a teacher strike.

As a retired community college teacher from an earlier chapter in our education history, I feel fortunate for the almost 50 years’ experience I had, and the generous retirement package I received. charter schools company schoolsToday, public school teachers are underpaid and overburdened, but teachers’ unions  (which might balance the austerity push) are scorned –  the result of successful media and political campaigns to turn public schools into businesses. Recent teacher strikes in L.A. underscored the problems of financial corruption of the public school system.

The current interest in school “choice” – including mention in Trump’s 2019 State of the Union – is a term that covers many risky ideas. E.g. Charter Schools appealing to choice, are able to filter out the more needy students through test scoring, leaving public schools with more budget constraints, teachers with larger classes and lower wages, and communities with fewer successful students.

Evaluating public education at any level, place or time, requires comparisons, which are necessarily relative. Evaluation is necessary, but difficult, and complicated by vague terminology. For instance, educational achievement – meaning a person’s (or group’s) knowledge – may be high, low or average, compared to some other person (or group). A person’s (or group’s) achievement now may be compared to what it was earlier, showing trends, which need to be judged. Are they improving? Relative to what?

Pulling together all this network of comparative achievements in the education of any person or group necessitates measurement – usually by “assessment tests”, given by an administrator or teacher (or self-taken by the student) – to discover her degree of mastery, and the effectiveness of methods used. But to what end or purpose? Assessment is meaningful only if it serves to judge how well a student and/ or her school, has met the goals or purposes either had in mind. That judgment is called evaluation.

Here’s a short tutorial from Penn State’s  IT Learning and Development website, that’s supposed to help understand Tests, Assessment and Evaluation. It doesn’t show much understanding of how to use on-line methods. The tone is condescending, like talking to children, not college students. Not good methodology!

The terms achievement, evaluation, assessment, tests, teaching and learning  in these paragaphs (and the online tutorial) above are probably unclear, confusing or off-putting, which underscores an important point. I don’t think they help educators’ work. Like most professions, the world of teacher education and teaching / learning includes too much jargon – ‘edubabble‘ – often hiding what is obvious, questionable or even false. That’s not helpful in the search for knowledge.  Relatedly, the fast growth of technology is not only hard to incorporate effectively; it also risks more damage to students’ and teachers’ ability to think well – i.e. critically. No, I’m not against technology.

Despite the difficulty of judging the good (or the bad), given all the hype, such judgment should be the basis of our choices about education – the first thing students, educators and schools should have in mind. And that judgment requires having a standard. What might that standard be? Where do we find it? Is it personal (e.g. what I want – what I dream of doing or becoming)? Is it a group norm? A professional concensus? A creation of lawmakers? A principle or ideal? Does a true standard even exist, or is everything relative?

Understandably, answers to these questions are presently up in the air. The divisive political atmosphere keeps American lawmakers from agreeing on standards of any sort that truly represent their constituents’ welfare. So students (and their families) are left to make choices based on slick marketing of competing companies and institutions, which compare  ‘them’ to ‘us’, and always find in favor of ‘us’. As my mother used to tell us, “Comparisons are odious”; someone always comes up looking bad. But rankings are popular, nonetheless.

Think of these examples of rating: the Annual U.S. News & World Report school rankings; and the Rate My Teacher/ Professors apps. How can what is equivalent to a popularity contest – a ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’ poll – possibly guide a person to a good education? We need objective standards, including comparisons to what has worked or not worked elsewhere. Popular media won’t educate us about education; they take part in the on-going Closing of the American Mind, published 30 years ago.

More than a third (37% by census reports) of young Americans (age 25-34) have a college degree as of 2017. (Not surprisingly, the percentage is lower among older graduates who were in school decades ago.) But the U.S. international rank has dropped, and is lower than Russia’s. Nor has it kept up with other countries, in so-called “tertiary education” (any post-secondary training, from trade skills to doctorates and post-doctorate specialties). Perhaps more importantly, these higher degrees are less equitably distributed in the U.S. than in other countries.

“American exceptionalism” is an old myth that still keeps too many citizens from bothering to look at foreign lands, and compare results, best practices or standards. I do think other nations are more successful in many areas of learning. One place to see that is The International Programme for Student Assessment (PISA), which ranks 15 year olds for their skills in Math, Science and Reading, in 70 nations. The scores for all three averaged together show that Singapore ranks #1 of 70 nations, while the U.S. is #31 (behind Russia, and way behind China).

Looking at math scores alone shows the U.S. ranked as #39 (and Russia, #25). Why is this so, and what can it teach us? Take Russia, for example, putting aside for the moment all the negative reports in corporate media. Russians have excelled in math education for a long time – since Peter the Great set out to ‘westernize’ his country. But his efforts didn’t affect the illiterate masses. The 1917 Bolshevik revolution changed that, mandating universal public education, from roughly ages 5 through 15. Emphasis was on skills that best served the country’s economic growth, which meant especially math, science and technology.

After WWII, the ‘Iron Curtain’ descended, and Cold War thinking absorbed the USSR, and the USA (together with the allies of both). With a weaker economy (in terms of GDP), but a stronger government (as a dictatorship), the Kremlin was able to mandate the structure and success of those courses we now call STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), and become a second super power. Recently there is renewed interest in Russian teaching principles and approach, especially in these math oriented subjects.

I used these approaches in 1964 (following a stint in the Army), as a new high school teacher. Excellent texts had been developed specifically to meet the Russian challenge. They were difficult, but the school  was private, and expected hard work from everyone. It was the middle of the two-decade Vietnam War. Sputnik had changed U. S. education greatly.

Today Russian Math schools are blossoming around the country, primarily in affluent populations, but also in some disadvantaged school districts, as after school work. Not surprisingly, the approach hasn’t taken hold in public school curricula. One reason is that many students are simply unused to being active and aren’t willing to engage to the degree required, so they are fearful and negative; they prefer to memorize methods rather than to understand. Another problem is to train the teachers. But good habits take practice.

Russia launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957, successfully winning a challenge by the International Geophysical Year (1957-1958), and gaining both useful data and world-wide PR. Worried by this Soviet technology success, Congress established NASA – which Eisenhower signed into law in 1958. Yuri Gegarin’s space flight on April 12, 1961 caused another American reaction, with JFK’s speech on May 25 to a special joint session, pushing to land people on the moon and bring them home safely “by the end of the decade”. The Apollo 11 flight, launched on July 20, 1969, accomplished that mission with 3 military astronauts: Collins, Armstrong and Aldrin.

My reason for this history reminder is to show the influence of international relations on educational policies. The Sputnik era and the Apollo missions weren’t just a pissing contest between two belligerent powers. They were costly efforts to master the technology to give one of those powers clear military supremacy – heavily influenced by the ‘military industrial complex‘ that Eisenhower warned against in 1961.What resulted was the nuclear arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States (and some other nations), which included policies of mutual deterrence (or mutual annilation).

These evolved further – spurred by various accidents and close calls – into the 1987 treaty  aiming at weapons reduction.  The USSR failed in 1991, but Russia and the U.S. began collaborating again in space exploration. In 1998, The International Space Station (ISS) project was agreed to by Russia and the US, as well as many other international partners. Once again, the Russians are ahead, and once again, our current administration is reacting – this time with a threat to cancel the treaty  of 30 years ago, saying that Russia is not in compliance.

Better STEM education is encouraged by both sides of the U.S. political divide, but why it’s important to the nation gets varied answers. Those on the right want to increase multinational corporate business – especially those in the military industrial complex. This is abetted  by the present administration’s belligerent cold-war rhetoric. Those on the left want to reduce our assumed role as policeman of the world, have more collaboration than confrontation, and use our technical knowledge for peaceful purposes, like fighting environmental degradation, encouraging real economic growth, increasing employment and wages, and disributing wealth more equitably.

Both right and left may advocate for increased education in the fields that promise better incomes, but give little meaningful fiscal support to that cause, in budgets. A beneficial spinoff of more STEM education could be to help students understand the mechanisms which deceptive financial industries use to dominate the economy, and protect themselves from ‘debt peonage’.

The critical, analytic thinking skills that STEM and Russian Math emphasize can also help legitimate businesses compete on an even field. Under the influence of Wall Street, old “trust busting” laws against monopolies have been weakened, especially in the F.I.R.E. sector, but also in retailing companies like Walmart and Amazon. A more educated public can understand the harmful fiscal policies of government, and the mistaken macro-economic theories used to justify them. 

I still support capitalism, but not what we see today, most of which is based on myth. Free markets, free competition and free customer choice are empty memes. Improvements to the economy and the society are possible, given enough public awareness and suitable governance. This is why I worry about education and its discontents. Serious thought about some of these issues is beginning to reach some  mainstream media. But ordinary citizens pay little attention to the assumptions underlying the policies – only to how those policies affect them. Better education can begin to change that dynamic. I wrote a brief introduction to the topic that may be helpful to show the basics: Inequity, Iniquity and Debt – A Critical Overview of Money-Making, Macro-economics and Debt.

Education reform is a hot topic today, which has been through many iterations in my life, and long before. It must decide what constitutes a good society for itself, but also in relation to other nations. What skills do citizens need to bring that about? How can those skills best be attained? How will that learning process be provided and paid for? And how should the training and rewards of that learning be alotted in a fair and just way? These are all ethical, philosophical, political and (of course) economic questions, not answered quickly, nor put into practice easily.

Some recent efforts towards education reform provide examples of what does not work. A few high profile billionnaire philanthropists have gained praise by ‘adopting’ various underserved schools, or funding programs to help disadvantaged students. Their intentions are admirable, but their typical corporate, top-down mindset, and emphasis on business practises, can actually damage students’ chances for success. These criticisms are made in Andrea Gabor’s After the Education Wars, here summarized in Lynn Paramore’s review:

“Over the last few decades, the handiwork of a tiny group of philanthrocapitalists and business tycoons with names like Bill Gates and the Waltons, of Walmart fame, have channeled their vision of corporate-style education reform into a series of deeply flawed programs, from George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind,” based on a fraudulent testing regime in Texas, to President Obama’s “Race to the Top,” which fused teacher evaluations to test scores and pushed to privatize more schools.”

Disagreement is inherent in any ed reform effort. For instance, what is the best way to test student success? Ideally, tests should involve applying what a student knows to  situations (or very realistic simulations) she’s likely to encounter in ‘the real world’ – i.e. in her chosen occupation or profession. But this is hard to do. So when large companies get contracts to create and administer tests for thousands of classes, and tens of thousands of students, they tend to go for huge generalities, far from anything resembling the varied strengths, experience and interests of real people. This is one reason some advocates for ed reform recommend eliminating standardized tests altogether!

Changing views about testing reflect trends towards individualization, which in turn reflect  larger social and political trends discussed above. “What have you done for me lately?”  is certainly not a new question; it’s just more openly expressed today. Individualism in the ’70s brought on talk among educators about different ‘learning styles‘. Although that concept has been debunked, it’s a myth still widely believed among teachers. This enables technology (financialized of course) to offer more services – this time for ‘individualized learning’ – in both public and private school settings.

For example, in the website of Calvert – a private ‘on-line’ K-12 school, you see technology takeover, especially in its home schooling programs. Every service is by internet, except telephone calls.

For public schools, individualized learning – under several names, including the current “adaptive learning” – is also a lucrative field for financialization. It can be packaged attractively, and sold as texts in school settings, or an on line aid, for homework, tests, etc. One company – Knewton (catchy title, right?) – started as a technical aid for adaptive learning programs, based on AI and funded by venture-capital. The company’s founder – Jose Ferreira – was so enthusiastic about the power of AI he was accused of selling “snake oil“. For a time, Knewton’s services were used by Pearson – the world’s largest publishing company. Now Knewton competes with Pearson and McGraw-Hill as an online learning source (mostly providing homework practice and testing), with questionable results at high cost. By contast, Open Educational Sources (OER) are free. But whether either works as well as classroom interaction remains to be shown.

Speaking in terms of any person’s growth, welfare and happiness, I’m sure there’s no limit to the value of learning throughout life. Many fine academics have researched and experimented in the past, and continue to research and experiment about the nature of learning, and propose philosophies and methodologies of education [E.g. Jean Piaget, Jerome Bruner, Benjamin Bloom, L.S. Vygotsky, and K. Patricia Cross]. Speaking in practical terms, ordinary citizens can certainly get along without being academically sophisticated about worldly matters, or understanding high levels of abstract philosophy.

After a long, long teaching career I remain stubbornly sure of a few things about good education:

(1) It’s not just another product to sell in our consumerist culture; 

(2) it’s not primarily to help us get what we want, but to know what we should want;

(3) it’s not about private beliefs, personal goals or competition; it is about objectivity, tolerance and modesty;

(4) we can’t find freedom, fulfillment or happiness without knowing reality, and education is ultimately the search for reality;

(5) what children and most adults think is real isn’t;

(6) finding reality is not natural or easy;

(7) no one can become educated who doesn’t want to be;

(8) teachers cannot educate, but they can point the way, and inspire.

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