Monday, December 31, 2012

Elinor Tatum: NYC Does Not Need Joseph Lhota As Mayor

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Posted: Friday, December 28, 2012 10:28 am
Three years ago, the race for New York City mayor was wildly unequal in spending, yet Bill Thompson almost dashed the dreams of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s third term, losing by just a few percentage points. Today, as we face the next mayoral election, we can recall another mayor who also had already served two terms but was trying for a third, via a proxy.
Joseph J. Lhota, who is now throwing his hat into the Republican primary for NYC mayor, was deputy mayor under Rudy Giuliani, and a Giuliani crony to the fullest extent.
Giuliani, and his gaggle of misfits, ignored the African-American community, never sitting down with Black elected officials or other leaders for the eight years he was in office.
Lhota, in his role as deputy mayor, threw ethnic slurs at at least one reporter and shoved him, showing his disdain for anyone or anything that did not agree with the policies of his team.
After his stint as deputy mayor, budget director and finance commissioner, Lhota became the chairman of the MTA. In that role, Lhota went after the poorest of New Yorkers by raising both MTA fares and bridge tolls.
Now he has resigned to try to take back the city for Giuliani and, in effect, give the former mayor the third term he so badly wanted after 9/11.
But we can’t afford to allow another Giuliani-type mayor. Anyone who thinks like him, or worse, is his stand-in, stooge and puppet, and will continue to destroy the fabric of this great city.
While there is still much to learn about Lhota, what is already apparent is disturbing. His past actions provide plenty of indications as to how the poor would fare under his leadership. You think stop-and-frisk was bad under Bloomberg? Just image how bad it would be under Lhota. I think all of our Black and Hispanic males would have to stay inside 24/7 in fear of the police. That is not a city I want to live in.
We have fought hard to have a seat at the table of power—but now with the shutting out of Democrats and the minority caucus in the State Senate, we are more concerned than ever that New York is going backward.
We have done fine without Giuliani’s involvement the last 12 years. In fact, I contend that we have done better. We don’t need his divisive leadership style again.
Before Lhota is given another high office in this city, he has to prove to us—and all New Yorkers, if he can—that he’s his own man, and not a Giuliani clone.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Ludicrous Times Op-Ed Forgets Entire Year of Wall Street History

Ludicrous Times Op-Ed Forgets Entire Year of Wall Street History

It was riotous, side-splitting comedy last week when Sanford Weill, the onetime head of Citibank, went on CNBC to announce that he thought it was time to break up the big banks.
Why this was funny: Through his ambitious (and at the time not yet legal) decision to merge Citibank, Travelers, and Salomon Brothers into one giant wrecking ball of greed, self-dealing and global irresponsibility called Citigroup, Weill more or less single-handedly created the Too-Big-To-Fail problem. You know, the one currently casting that thick, black doomlike shadow over all humanity which, if you look out your window, you can see floating over all our heads this very minute.
Nonetheless, Weill came out last week against Too Big to Fail banks. "I’m suggesting," he told astonished reporters on a live CNBC interview, "that they be broken up so that the taxpayer will never be at risk…. What we should probably do is go and split up investment banking from banking."
The interview became an instant YouTube classic. The very funniest part, I thought, was the response of Squawk Box host Andrew Ross Sorkin, the single most credulously slobbering financial reporter on the planet this side of Maria Bartiromo. Even he was so shocked by Weill’s comments that he lost his voice – "I’m speechless," he said.
At about the 1:20 mark of the clip, just after Weill offered his incredible opinion about the need to break up the banks, any sensible reporter would have pounced. Some version of, "Dude, are you high? You invented Too Big To Fail!" would have been the proper response – followed hopefully by a spirited lunge across the set to beat Weill repeatedly about the neck and head with a Swingline stapler, until he screeched out a tearful apology to every last living soul on earth.
Instead, Sorkin took another tack:
"Okay, so then the question becomes – Glass-Steagall," Sorkin said. "You’re almost referring to bringing back Glass-Steagall, in some respects."
Now, what Sorkin actually meant to say here was, "Hey, asshole, we had to repeal Glass-Steagall just to make your Citigroup merger legal, remember? And now you’re pontificating, telling us we need to bring it back? Are you joking?"
Instead, Sorkin triple-qualified the question, first by not bringing up Weill’s role in the repeal of Glass-Steagall directly, then by saying that Weill had merely "almost" and "in some respects" uttered probably the most obnoxious and enraging comments made on television by a Wall Street executive in the years since the crisis.
The rest of the tape was similarly incredible. Particularly amazing was that Weill seemed genuinely surprised by the idea that Too-Big-To-Fail had anything to do with him, like it had never occurred to him that he might be criticized for what he was saying.
Anyway, what happened after Weill's outburst was similarly fascinating. The significance of Weill’s comments, of course, is that even a man such as Sandy Weill now says the Too-Big-To-Fail model is unsustainable. If even Sandy Weill knows it by now, who else needs convincing?
This should have been a debate-ender, a signal that we can all move past the arguing phase and get to the more daunting logistical task of breaking up mega-firms like Citigroup, Bank of America, and J.P. Morgan Chase.
But it didn’t turn out that way. The dug-in stalwarts in the major financial outlets, much like Japanese soldiers still swearing allegiance to the emperor from Pacific island bunkers years after Hiroshima, came out blasting Weill for, in essence, kowtowing to (probably communist) popular opinion. The Wall Street Journal put it this way:
Mr. Weill finds himself suddenly welcome in the company of editorialists who, since the Libor scandal, have been renewing their clamor for bankers to be imprisoned, if not executed. He's become their new hero.
The inherent Stalinism of those who crave to put bankers in jail for things that aren't crimes is not unlike that of the original Stalinist – who understood that nothing of substance has to change if you've got enough scapegoats.
How the Wall Street Journal can bring up the LIBOR scandal – both a textbook case of antitrust crime and more or less the ultimate example of insider trading, with banks trading against their own secret, non-disclosed manipulations of interest rates – and lump it in with things that supposedly "aren't crimes" is beyond mind-boggling. People can and do go to jail in America for smoking marijuana or selling food stamps for rent money, but apparently it reeks of Stalinism to even suggest that even one person should go to jail for manipulating an $800 trillion market. Moreover Weill, far from simply being one of the last people on earth to admit the obvious truth about Too-Big-To-Fail banks, has instead just crossed over into the Stalinist camp.  
But the Wall Street Journal didn’t even win the prize for most preposterous response to the Weill episode. That award went to former Treasury advisor and semi-disgraced financier Steve Rattner, who wrote a truly incredible piece in the New York Times editorial page about why Weill is wrong.
Rattner’s piece, entitled, "Regulate, Don’t Split Up, the Big Banks," admitted that Weill’s comments "shook the New York-Washington axis."
"It was as if John D. Rockefeller had proposed the breakup of Standard Oil," Rattner wrote.
But he went on to say that Weill’s musings were "an ill-advised distraction." The reasons he gave for believing this are astounding. And what's astounding is not just that he has these opinions, but that his "reasons" got past the Times editors, who should have blanched at publishing such gross inaccuracies.
Here is the crux of Rattner’s argument:
A bit of recent history: none of the institutions that toppled like dominoes in 2008 — the investment banks Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, the mortgage-finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the insurance company American International Group — were commercial banks.
So the bank merger frenzy that Mr. Weill set off in the late 1990s was not the proximate cause of the financial crisis.
There are so many things wrong with this passage, it’s hard to know where to start. But let’s take the most obvious problem: He’s lying!
Not just some, but many of the institutions that "toppled like dominoes" in 2008 were giant commercial banks of the TBTF type. Does Rattner remember Washington Mutual, which was only the sixth-largest commercial bank in America when it collapsed in 2008? How about Wachovia, the fourth-largest?
More to the point, does he not remember all of the other commercial banks that required massive federal bailouts to avoid "toppling like dominoes" that year?
Weill’s entire argument, remember, isthat these big banks should be broken up so that the taxpayer doesn’t have to rescue them. And Weill should know, because his Frankensteinian creation, Citigroup, required a $45 billion federal bailout and hundreds of billions more in federal guarantees.
Actually the total outlay for Citigroup was $476 billion in cash and guarantees – they were the biggest single bailout recipient, if you’re counting, with another classic post-Glass-Steagall creation, Bank of America, bringing up the rear with $336 billion in cash and guarantees.
All of the major commercial banking giants received massive amounts of federal aid. Chase, depending on how you look at things, either received just $25 billion or about twice that, if you include tax breaks and inducements to buy Washington Mutual and Bear Stearns. The story is similar with Wells Fargo, which took $25 billion in TARP money and also accepted enormous tax breaks in return for its "help" in buying Wachovia.
Rattner wrote some other crazy things. He said, "it is wrong to think we can shrink [banks] to a size that eliminates the 'too big to fail' problem without emasculating one of our most successful industries."
One could go on at length in answering this ludicrous passage, pointing out for instance how insane it is for Rattner to call TBTF banking "one of our most successful industries" when the business is now known all over the world to be so totally corrupt that nobody was even surprised when they found out that global interest rates were being manipulated. Or when basically the entire banking industry has been downgraded to near-junk status thanks to the widespread perception that their balance sheets are a travesty of phony accounting and unrealized losses.
But this would just be beating a dead horse. These arguments have been made over and over again. Even Sandy Weill is making them now. But everybody knowing the truth and everybody doing something about it are two different things, as we’ll likely spend the next years, or even decades, finding out.

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Monday, July 30, 2012

NY State Students Are Not Prepared For College

May 25, 2012

Albany’s Unkindest Cut of All

IN most states, top-ranked high school seniors are shoo-ins to attend their local state universities. But that’s not how it goes in New York these days. In one recent, glaring case, the valedictorian of a rural school district outside Rochester was rejected by a nearby State University of New York campus — not because her grades were too low, but because her high school didn’t offer the courses needed to compete for college admission.
Such stories are becoming increasingly common across New York State. Poor school districts are being forced to cut electives, remedial tutoring, foreign languages and other programs and services to balance budgets. Many schools in less prosperous areas face what the state commissioner of education calls “educational insolvency.”
The obvious losers are students, who will be less prepared for graduation, college and their careers. But ultimately, all New Yorkers will suffer as the lack of skilled workers becomes a long-term drain on economic activity across the state.
Only five years ago, the state committed to pumping $5.5 billion into classrooms, with 72 percent slated for the neediest schools, whether in urban, rural or suburban communities. This commitment, similar to those made in other states, came after 13 years of litigation by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, based on the state Constitution’s guarantee of a “sound, basic education” for all students. Unfortunately, that progressive commitment was abandoned as the state faced fiscal hard times.
New York started cutting education resources in 2009. The federal government stepped in that year with stimulus money directed at schools, which temporarily cushioned the blow, but was not enough to stop the onset of classroom cuts.
The problem grew worse in 2010 and 2011, when Albany made $2.7 billion in school aid cuts, resulting in the loss of 30,000 educators and increased class sizes at two-thirds of the state’s schools.
The program cuts ranged from summer school to Advanced Placement courses, but the cuts have been harshest in poor communities. Over all, cuts to poor and middle-class schools were two to three times larger per pupil than those imposed on wealthy schools.
For example, Poughkeepsie, with a student poverty rate of 80 percent, has cut its full-day kindergarten to a half day, while wealthy Jericho offers high school classes in fashion design and civil engineering. Scarsdale offers 22 Advanced Placement courses, while poor and rural Massena, in New York’s North Country, offers only two, even though many colleges now give A.P. courses greater weight than S.A.T. scores in admissions.
On top of the multiyear cuts, the state has made it harder for school districts to get more money. A new statewide cap on how high local revenues can be raised is further exacerbating educational inequities. The cap limits property tax hikes to 2 percent, which may sound fair but actually contributes to school inequality: the permitted tax increase raises a lot more revenue from million-dollar homes for wealthy schools than it raises on $100,000 homes for poorer schools. And a newly implemented cap on increases in state education aid means that even with a slight restoration of state aid this year, schools are still forced to make cuts.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has been the most vocal proponent both of cutting and capping state school aid and of capping local revenues. He has dismissed the impact that cuts and caps would have on schools — a position that becomes harder to maintain as district after district reports dire circumstances.
Simultaneously, Mr. Cuomo has been a proponent of trendy “market reforms,” like increasing the role of standardized tests in evaluating teachers and using the same tests to make school districts compete with one another for resources. These so-called reforms may be cheaper, but they are no substitute for the proven programs that are being cut.
Around the world, countries with the top-performing schools, like Finland, Singapore and Canada, all emphasize equity in school financing to provide added resources for schools in poorer communities. These international leaders also emphasize ensuring that all students have access to a high-quality curriculum and providing all teachers with support to continuously improve their skills — instead of forcing teachers and schools to compete for artificially limited pools of money.
Governor Cuomo has promoted himself as a leader in education policy. His mastery of Albany’s famously dysfunctional politics has made him one of the nation’s rising political stars. But the results in the classroom do not match his rhetoric — and unless our state government changes course on education funding policy, they never will.
Billy Easton is the executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Jaye Bea Smalley: High Expectations And Special Education

New special education policies vs. failed special education policies by Jaye Bea Smalley

There are City Council hearings on the DOE’s new special education initiative tomorrow, Tuesday, June 12, starting at 1 PM at 250 Broadway. The DOE is intent on pushing through this initiative despite the fact that their own power point [see slide 13] shows no gain in attendance or achievement for students with disabilities who were moved into general education classrooms in Phase I of the initiative. Moreover, the DOE special education reference guide provided to principals tells them they must enroll any students suitable for inclusion in regular general education classrooms until the class size hits the contractual maximum of 25 in Kindergarten, 32 in grades 1-5, and 30 or 33 in middle school (depending on whether the school gets Title one funding.)  
This is the first time I have seen DOE openly mandating maximum class sizes in any grade since 1990, when the first state class size reduction program began; defying both state-mandated Contracts for Excellence goals and the supposed autonomy of principals to use available funding to reduce class size if they so choose.  Finally, the same document contains clear warning with a punitive tone to principals, unlike any I have seen before in a DOE directive:
If patterns of recommended programs suggest inappropriate recommendations that do not seem in the best interest of students, central teams will conduct a more intensive audit of student IEPs. For recommendations that are not in the best interest of students, regular progressive disciplinary measures for school leaders and IEP teams will apply.
In my mind, this has the potential for disaster; for both general education and special education students crammed into classes of up to 32 – with insufficient attention and support.  The below was written by Jaye Bea Smalley, an expert parent on this issue,who is head of the Citywide Council on Special Education.    -- Leonie Haimson
With an assault of school co location/closing hearings slated for most of the year and testing scandals making national headlines, the education advocacy community can focus attention on the reform.  With the recent funding changes and mounting concerns brewing at the school level, I don't see anyone winding down for summer break.  I serve on the Citywide Council on Special Education (CCSE) as the co-chair.  This is my second term since it was reconstituted under the reauthorization of mayoral control in 2009. We have been in dialogue with the DOE and multiple stakeholders regarding the phase one and the implementation of the special education reform for two years now.  I would like to provide my perspective on the special education reform.  
I became involved in my leadership role as a result of my personal experience: I am a parent of two children with disabilities; they have very different needs, one doing quite well with a program in the spirit of the reform.  That’s right, I said in the spirit, not embracing the reform.  I thought this would be a good time to give my perspective on the reform.  With all the stuff circulating, I feel there are some key points missing that are needed to fully contextualize it all.  
The reform isn't failing students with disabilities, well at least not yet, the current system is.  In NYS 8.4% of 8th grade students with disabilities were proficient in reading according to the 2011 ELA results.  Less than 1% were above proficient. 
It is important to consider that the majority of students are classified as learning disabled, followed by speech and language impaired.   
The data presented to date on the reform is irrelevant.  Phase one schools moved more students to a LRE [less restrictive environment] is meaningless without considering the progress of those students.  The graduation rates they show moving a hair are completely pathetic.  They should all be buried until they get within the same universe as any other group.  To complicate matters, one year of ELA/Math scores is not enough call to draw an association between the two.  Most of the people reading this are familiar with the problems of only giving schools three years to show progress.  
Has the DOE failed to inform the public on the results of the reform?  Yes. See the CCSE's questions and DOE responses.  They should identify best practices from schools which have been able to best utilize their resources to ensure the continuum of services is delivered to give SWDs more access to the general education curriculum and environment.  They should identify changes to budget allocations to better serve all students inclusively.  They should identify instructional strategies put in place for SWDs that become strategies for their general education peers.  All of these should be institutionalized so they are shared among parents, the public and educators. There are schools out there, but how are the practices being systemically shared?  
Articulating students who require services 20%-60% of the day are going to get double amount of funding following them.  How do we know what those dollars will be spent on and that that they will go directly toward resources to support them?  After all, the money is following the student right?  Veronica Conforme, the CEO for DOE told me that most successful schools did not use different resources, but used their existing resources differently.  Wait, hmmm is the money really following the student?  
Parents and community members have been frustrated by the lack of accountability at the network level for some time.  The answer is that they are a support department.  So what is a support department doing monitoring placements for LRE and deciding which principals have suspicious referral patterns?  That seems like regulation, not support.   Do networks have the authority to this monitoring?  LRE is an indicator IDEA monitored by the state at the district level as part of our IDEA state performance plan.  We have heard detailed plans for professional development (PD) of network staff but very little if any for comprehensive at the elbow PD in schools.  When you consider the direction for class size and capping this does not bring comfort to anyone.  
While I realize this may all be kosher from a contractual and legal standpoint, it is beyond the moral brink.  Class size is one of the most tried and true research based methods for ensuring educational progress.  Many parents are unaware that the state raised the level of SWDs that could be in a co-teaching class from 12 to 14 with mandate relief last year.  [LH note: the DOE is also mandating that SWDs be placed into general education classes with no limit to the number, until the total class size reaches the contractual limit of 32 in grades 1-5, and 30-33 in MS; see above.] The argument to the legislature was that it would only be for instances when general education students already in the class started to receive services, not to add additional SWDs.  I am curious to see how this plays out in articulating grades across the city.
Yes, it is all truly outrageous, unconscionable, and all the more reason to count down the days until we have a new Mayor.  Yes, there will be some children who are not served well due to these policies.  Yes, they have tons of litigation coming their way, and rightly so.  Having said all of this, I still see opportunity for our students with disabilities.  Something had to change.  In the words of independent living father, Ed Roberts, maximum danger equals maximum opportunity.  He believed when things get really bad and you are most vulnerable, you have the most significant opportunity for change.  Ending mayoral control would solve many problems but not the progress of students with disabilities.  The reform gives parents an opportunity to push for systems change.   
Before there was ever a reform, some people had successfully fought for our children to be educated in program and schools that did not traditionally welcome students with disabilities including myself and living legend Ellen McHugh. She will tell you, this is hard work.  In many instances children do need very specific programs.  However, many children with learning disabilities are placed in self-contained programs that lower expectations and ultimately put a Regents Diploma out of reach.  We should fight for the reform to be implemented properly; with full support for our students, teachers and schools and with transparency.  We should expect fidelity in the implementation; consistent communications and full parental engagement.  

Remember, program goals and services are still mandated.  Parents’ rights have not changed.  The one thing the DOE is saying that advocates and savvy parents have always said for years is to develop meaningful IEPs. Agree on the goals; without meaningful goals, you can't plan for the most appropriate services and programs.  Then work with the school to decide what programs and services they can deliver to ensure your child makes adequate progress and meets those goals.  Don't agree if you are not confident or in full agreement that they will implement the services and/or program.  Take one year at a time, it is reasonable to think that that your child who is in full time ICT in 4th grade may not need a full time ICT program in middle school. 
Ultimately, schools that are successful in educating students with disabilities inclusively have a culture that supports it: a culture of high expectations for all students, hard work and problem-solving in a supportive environment for staff and open communication with all parents.  -- Jaye Bea Smalley

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Diana Ravitch: The Bizarre Editorial in “The New Republic” against Teacher Tenure

Now that I have a blog where I can write what I want, when I want, I have the luxury of revisiting some good and bad ideas. In this post, I will revisit a really pernicious idea that appeared about a month ago in The New Republic. You see, the odd thing about our culture is that it is so attached to the present moment that anything that happened or was written about a month ago tends to disappear in the ether. But this editorial was so outrageous that it still annoys me, and I want to explain why.
In an editorial called “Making the Grade: The Case Against Tenure in Public Schools,” the editors argued that it was a fine idea to remove any job protections from public school teachers because they don’t need them. In making this assertion, the editors of this once-liberal magazine were giving support to the far-right Virginia legislature, which was at that moment not only trying to strip teachers of tenure but to require women to have “a trans-vaginal ultrasound before having an abortion.” The editorial of course condemned the latter as harsh, but thought that the far-right effort to remove job protection from public school teachers as a “halfway decent idea.” Indeed, the editorial went on to decry teacher tenure as “the least sane element” in our country’s education system.
The editorial claimed that after a few years, teachers get job protection that “makes it extremely difficult to fire them for the rest of their careers.” The source of this claim is the conservative National Council on Teacher Quality. TNR goes on to say that university professors deserve tenure because they are “our country’s idea factories,” so they must be free to explore unpopular ideas and to be protected from “ideological or intellectual retribution.”
By contrast, the editorial maintains, K-12 teachers need no such protection. They don’t create ideas, they don’t delve into controversial subjects. Their job is so important that they should be fired if they aren’t doing it right (let us assume for the moment that “doing their best work at all times” in Virginia means teaching what the Virginia legislature wants to hear and not teaching what it finds abominable).
The Virginia bill was not perfect, sniffed the editors, because “it allowed teachers to be fired for any reason,” and predictably those darn Democrats, so “beholden to teachers’ union,” were able to block the measure. So, for the moment, until Virginia elects a few more conservative Republicans, Virginia teachers still have tenure. The editorial, sorry to see their position embraced mostly by far-right Republicans like Rick Santorum and Chris Christie, called on President Obama to join them in calling for an end to tenure for public school teachers.
What’s wrong with this argument? First of all, tenure for teachers is not lifetime tenure. It is not analogous to the job protection enjoyed by lifetime professors, which is almost beyond challenge. Teacher tenure means the right to due process, nothing more, nothing less. After a teacher has served satisfactorily for a period of years, depending on state law, an administrator decides whether the teacher should receive the right to due process. If administrators are awarding due process to incompetent teachers, then we have an administrator problem.
Once a teacher has the right to due process, she cannot be fired capriciously. She is entitled to a hearing before an impartial administrator, where facts are presented about her performance. If the arbitrator agrees that she should be fired, she is fired. There is nothing comparable in higher education, where tenure means lifetime job protection.
Is there too little turnover of teachers? Not at all. Some 40% or more of those who enter the teaching profession are gone within the first five years. No other profession has the same degree of turnover. Some were fired; some left. That suggests to me that we don’t do nearly enough to support teachers and help them get better at their job.
But why do teachers need due process rights? Are they merely transmitters of information or do they too deal in ideas? I would argue that teachers must be free to teach and students must be free to learn. In the states trying so hard to eliminate teacher tenure–and in those that long ago succeeded–teachers put their jobs in peril if they teach about evolution, abortion, global warming, or many of the other hot-button issues of the day. If they teach a book that offends community values (and the American Library Association has a list of the 100 most-challenged books of the year, which includes Harry Potter books), they can be fired.
The New Republic should be pleased with the law pleased by the law passed recently in Louisiana. Bobby Jindal’s Legislature stripped tenure from the state’s teachers. It is odd to see a once-liberal magazine echoing the principles of the far right. And disheartening to hear the claim that public school teachers need no academic freedom.
An editorial like this one is symbolic of the collapse of the liberal center.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Assailed Teacher: Corporate College

The Assailed Teacher Blog
I grew up in a poor, single mother household. My mother stressed to me from a very early age the fact that I would be going to college. It was more than an expectation. It was a fait accompli. The prophecy ending up fulfilling itself and I am grateful to my mother until this day.
Now that I am a teacher, I find myself doing the same thing with my students. I speak to them as if college is a fait accompli. There is no talk about if they go to college, onlywhen they go to college. The high school in which I work has a good track record of getting the vast majority of its graduates into pretty decent universities.
By exhorting my students to go to college, I felt as if I was acting as society’s balance wheel, as Horace Mann might say. It is understood that the children of the wealthy will go to very good universities no matter their intellectual capacity. Why should my students not be held to the same, or even better, expectations?
Many years ago, I had a student that entered my class hating history. By the end of the year, she had told me that I had made her love the subject. She was not lying, since she ended up declaring it as her college major. I used to be heartened when I discovered former students decided to major in the humanities whether it be history, English or philosophy. My goal as a history teacher has always been to cultivate engaged and thoughtful citizens. No area of study does better at accomplishing this than the humanities.
But my feelings about college have undergone a change in recent years. At the start of the Occupy Wall Street protests, its critics sneered that the protestors were just a bunch of lazy do-nothings who majored in Liberal Arts only to find that they could not make a living with their degrees. Indeed, one of the first thoughts that ran through my head when I heard about my former student majoring in history was “what is she going to do with that degree?”
Reading David Brooks’ piece in yesterday’s New York Times only reinforced my pessimism about college. Without intending to, Brooks put his finger on everything that is wrong with college today.
Colleges are supposed to produce learning. But, in their landmark study, “Academically Adrift,” Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa found that, on average, students experienced a pathetic seven percentile point gain in skills during their first two years in college and a marginal gain in the two years after that. The exact numbers are disputed, but the study suggests that nearly half the students showed no significant gain in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills during their first two years in college.
And then he goes on to say
This is an unstable situation. At some point, parents are going to decide that $160,000 is too high a price if all you get is an empty credential and a fancy car-window sticker.
Brooks is a Neocon who speaks in the cold language of economics. To him, colleges “produce” knowledge and critical thinking skills are something that can be quantified in percentiles. Parents and students are consumers entitled to get the most in return for the big bucks they shell out for higher learning.
Unfortunately, Brooks reflects the way we have come to view college and, indeed, all types of schooling in the United States.
There was a time when America’s institutions of higher learning were the envy of the world. People were able to major in the liberal arts and have assurance that there would be some sort of livelihood to be made from it: teaching, writing, museum work, public leadership, etc.
But one of the impacts of the Neocon coup of the past 35 years is a massive disinvestment of government and private funding for the arts. Fewer opportunities exist to make a living with one’s mind. This has been coupled with massive cutbacks in government support for universities. There was a time when university presidents were eminent scholars with a solid intellectual track record. Now, they are more likely to be business people who can balance the books. One of the ways they do this is through raising tuition rates which, by 2012, have become astronomical.
This also has led university presidents to trim the fat, so to speak. Undergraduate professors are more likely to be underpaid adjuncts. Most importantly, universities market their vocational programs and networking opportunities over of their intellectual rigor. The most popular majors are the ones that guarantee some sort of pipeline to a future career: business, education, public policy, non-profit management, etc. History, English and philosophy are withering on the vine in favor programs that promise credentials and contacts. Indeed, it is considered irresponsible, lazy and unambitious to major in a purely intellectual subject.
How can it be otherwise? If you are going to force incoming freshmen to go into six-figured debt upon enrollment, then it is only fair to try to guarantee them some sort of livelihood that would enable them to repay those debts after graduation.
This is what education reformers talk about when they say they want education to prepare students for the 21st century. We are living in a knowledge economy, an information age, where students need a college education to make them into the types of workers the economy demands.
And David Brooks the Neocon has a perfect way to get the colleges to do the bidding of this brave new economy.
One part of the solution is found in three little words: value-added assessments. Colleges have to test more to find out how they’re doing.
It’s not enough to just measure inputs, the way the U.S. News-style rankings mostly do. Colleges and universities have to be able to provide prospective parents with data that will give them some sense of how much their students learn.
There has to be some way to reward schools that actually do provide learning and punish schools that don’t. There has to be a better way to get data so schools themselves can figure out how they’re doing in comparison with their peers.
That is correct, Brooks wants the type of education reform that has destroyed the K-12 system to metastasize to the college level.
In this proposal is the assumption that learning is the responsibility of the teacher. No learning means bad teachers. Value-added data will weed out the bad professors and, hopefully, “punish” them.
Even when students reach the ages of 18-22, reformers do not expect them to take any initiative at all for their learning. It is all on the teachers. Students are just passive vessels. The professors must open up their students’ brains and pour knowledge in.
This is exactly the type of view Brooks has because this is the type of worker of tomorrow corporations want. They do not want workers who are curious enough to seek knowledge or wise enough to know what they do not know. Instead, Brooks wants a college system where students sit there and receive. He wants a system where the professors have to dumb down the curriculum because their students have been trained to tune out anything that is boring or not immediately relevant to them.
David Brooks wants a college system where students are vegetables. These vegetables will go on to be the non-questioning, uncurious workers and consumers of tomorrow.
This is why I used to be encouraged when former students decided to major in the liberal arts. We live in a nation of Fox News, MSNBC and Jersey Shore veg-heads. To speak economically, there is a demand for critical thinkers and engaged citizens. Liberal arts degrees go a long way towards providing our country with the types of citizens we need. As a history teacher, I used to think I had done my duty if I could help inspire even one student to pursue a life of the mind.
Now I am not so sure. Some of my former students might become active citizens who care about the direction of the country and the world. At the same time, they have dug themselves into horrific debt in order to get there. Our society does not value people who live by their minds enough to reward them with high-paying jobs. In short, I fear that I may have been encouraging my students to make themselves into debt slaves.
Our universities are quickly being sacrificed to a regime that seeks to organize every aspect of our lives for us. It is a regime that tells us what to value, who to vote for, what to buy and where to work. The only hope we ever had to fight against this are the millions of people capable of independent thought and action. These are the people who seek knowledge on their own, are able to read books from cover to cover, are able to express themselves clearly and are able to question the assumptions of the age. I had always seen a college education as a big step towards developing the skills to be an independent thinker.
Yet, our universities are becoming little more than vocational training centers whose value is measured in the jobs for which they can credential their students and the networking opportunities they provide. They still cultivate the life of the mind, but it is the closed and passive mind. It is the mind that blames teachers for its own stupidity. It is the mind trained on little more than a steady diet of overly specific, overly technical jargon that has no relevance outside of the vocation one chooses. It is a mind so compartmentalized and boxed in that it is incapable of critical thinking or questioning.
Sure, there will still be liberal arts programs, but these are becoming luxuries that only the very wealthy can afford. Everyone else is forced into a college major that promises to help them repay the obscene debt that must be incurred upon entering.
David Brooks seeks to complete this ominous trend. Through value-added testing, he hopes to compartmentalize knowledge into factoids like in public schools. Its aim is not to measure learning. Its aim is to make college students see themselves as passive vessels. Its aim is to give college students all the excuse they need to stay vegged out. "Oh well, if I don't do well on this test, the teacher gets blamed. It must be their fault."
This is because they are not students at all, but consumers. And what are consumers? They are people presented with a choice. They have no right to question those choices or come up with choices of their own. Instead, they must choose from what the corporate masters decide to present to them. Do you want a business, education or public policy degree? Do you want to work with computers or numbers?
And what if someone wants to be a thoughtful and engaged citizen?
Sorry, that is not a choice.
Welcome to corporate college, where you pay through the nose for the privilege of ignorance.