Mat here. The edtech newsletter put out by EdSurge asked its subscribers today what they thought of an article in the online Wall Street Journal written by Andrew Coulson of the Cato Institute, entitled “America Has Too Many Teachers.” I started drafting an email to them about my thoughts on it, and just couldn’t stop writing about how troubling the article was, so I thought I ought to post it to the r&d blog. Here goes:
Andrew Coulson was professionally weaned on the “monopoly power” of Microsoft, and now gets paid to spew nonsense by the Cato Institute, originally founded as the Charles Koch Foundation, so we should know just what interests he is advancing when he writes about transforming education. He doesn’t care about actual learning or creativity, the things that really bring value to life and to society, but to a bottom line–presumably to Koch’s bottom line. Thus, we get heartless and arrogant statements like this: “America’s public schools have warehoused three million people in jobs that do little to improve student achievement—people who would be working productively in the private sector if that extra $210 billion were not taxed out of the economy each year.”
I’m not even interested in the accuracy of his statistics about “student achievement” and graduation rates, which I presume are selectively chosen to serve predetermined ideological commitments and large corporate interests (literally, verifiably, that’s who he serves). Getting into the fray on that issue is a trap: the real problem lies in the values presented. According to Coulson, a teacher’s effort is useless and students’ time is wasted if at the end of it all, students don’t fill in more correct bubbles on a scantron sheet than the students of the previous year. That’s how we find out if “additional three million public-school employees we’ve hired have helped students learn,” Coulson says, by looking “at the ‘long-term trends’ of 17-year-olds on the federal National Assessment of Educational Progress,” certainly not by looking at the actual teaching and learning going on inside and outside of classrooms. This is an insult to anyone who has ever worked as a teacher (which Coulson hasn’t, or at least doesn’t mention in his bio) and can easily be seen as an absurdity by anyone who thinks about it for a moment. There is no logic to this, and since this man is not an imbecile, we can see what this is: intellectual dishonesty from a right-wing ideologue.
Ideology and the Misuse of “Fact”
I don’t want to distract from the central issue that Coulson’s entire value framework about education is wrong, but his factual basis for distinguishing the merits of public and private schools doesn’t even exist, for one simple reason: the NAEP includes the results of students at private schools. And then there’s the “Cautions in Interpreting NAEP Results,” provided by the NAEP itself: ”Simple or causal inferences related to, for example, student group membership, the effectiveness of public and nonpublic schools, and state- or district-level education systems cannot be drawn using NAEP results.” But who cares about such intellectual niceties, when there’s an ideological interest to advance?
Test results don’t adequately reflect learning, thus their representation of the quality of teaching is even more illusory. And perpetual increase in test scores year after year is a chimerical goal, one we know tends to promote corrupt statistical manipulation when financial incentives are tied into it in any way. Even if tests did adequately reflect learning on the subjects being tested (and they don’t), they offer such a narrow indication of learning as to miss almost all of the qualities of intelligence, creativity, empathy, passion, perseverance, and so on that actually matter in a successful or satisfying human life. One look at the test scores and academic records of our most successful creative minds (they tend as often as not to be “low achievers” on standardized indicators) should put to rest this fatuous line of reasoning. Both in the actual human value of education and in the capital return on investment (which is the only thing Coulson seems to care about), our successful creatives show something else matters much more, something fuzzy and human and hard to quantify and statistically control with machines: inspiration, or to put it another way, love of learning. I can say that I enjoyed standardized tests more than most students and scored at the top of them all, but even for me they didn’t inspire, nor did they even hint at the direction of all that did inspire. Fostering a curiosity fueled by the delight in discovery must be education’s central mission if we want a better society and, yes, if we want a better economy.
Coulson makes his interests most plain when he describes public teachers as “people who would be working productively in the private sector if that extra $210 billion were not taxed out of the economy each year,” and threatens that “to avoid Greece’s fate we must create new, productive private-sector jobs to replace our unproductive government jobs.” It’s a cruel irony, since the tragedy of Greece’s fate, as with countries around the world facing similar crises over the past few decades, is precisely that avoidable debt problems have predictably forced privatization of industries dedicated to the public good at fire sale prices so that others can make billions. This is part of a corporatist playbook used all over the world, as Naomi Klein demonstrated in the Shock Doctrine, and Koch, Murdoch, and others have set public schools squarely in their sights for the American version of “austerity.” It should come as no surprise that this article is written by an agent of Koch, and published by a mouthpiece of Murdoch, the Wall Street Journal. According to Coulson, teaching is a “productive” job if it is done by a private for-profit company, and unproductive if it is done by a public institution, and those that would financially benefit from this idea are willing to do anything to support this “productive” shift to the private sector–cook the books, juke the stats, hire some “experts,” there are a million ways for money to manufacture truth. As Coulson says in the excruciating video conversation between corporate toadies on the WSJ website, his goal is to ”inject competition, consumer choice, and even the profit motive into education.” It is distasteful, but illustrative, that he refers to students as “consumers” of education, and calls public education a “monopoly” without meaningful competition. You know, he’s right, Americans have always been troubled by the library monopoly, and the highway monopoly, and the fire department monopoly. Public education is in fact much more competitive than these other public services, with thousands of private, parochial, charter school, and homeschool options that have been available to students for centuries. As Coulson’s cherished NAEP points out, “Private schools represent about 25 percent of schools in the nation.” But Coulson is not advancing a reasoned line of argumentation, and against such empty rhetoric the gods themselves contend in vain. When Coulson offers his final corp-speak soundbite, “We need to replace the status quo monopoly with a dynamic educational marketplace in this country,” we know how to read it: “Show me the money!”
Not Enough Teachers!
German artist Joseph Beuys made the point that “capital is the human ability for creativity, freedom, and self-determination in all their working places,” and worked to show that “the idea of capital could change, away from an understanding of capital as a changing fate, where everybody’s dignity is exchanged as a commodity…to shift to a democratic regulator of everyone’s work, creativity, and dignity.” In this, he advocated for a view that “every human being is an artist” and that “all work that’s done has to have the quality of art.” He proudly said that he considered teaching to be his greatest work of art. I agree with this expansive view, that all people should consider themselves to be artists, and that all should likewise consider themselves to be teachers. And not just consider themselves as such, but actively dedicate themselves as such. Everyone is a teacher, everyone is a student, and everywhere is a classroom. Perhaps it will be that we will have fewer professional teachers in the future (though the claim that we must because we can no longer afford teachers is dangerous misinformation–look at the military and intelligence budget!). But we must continue to develop more and more teachers, until everyone is actively and proudly teaching. Companies like Skillshare and projects like Trade School point the radical way forward in this regard, and give me hope that whatever happens with the corporate takeover of public education, the democratic multitude will prevail in making the whole world one big campus for passion-driven learning.