Education: Seeing Through the Racket

Some years ago one could still hear the mirthful laughter and pitying disgust when Frank Barone (played by the late Peter Boyle), the curmudgeon father of Raymond in the sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond, having been accused of not caring about his children’s education responded in his usual cynical manner ‘Let me tell you something: Education is the biggest scam going today’. Fast forward some years later and one may be forgiven for actually giving the old man some credit for insight.

What should one think when several weeks ago officials at Claremont McKenna College admitted that for years a senior administrator had been reporting inflated SAT scores in order to boost the school’s ranking in the U.S. News & World Report annual ranking issue? Or that tuition at public college and universities has skyrocketed 40% from 2001-2006 and that a typical American college graduate leaves school with a debt of $17,500 to go with their degree?

And it’s not just at the university level. About a year ago parents of a four-year-old sued York Avenue Preschool in Manhattan for not adequately preparing their daughter for the exams necessary for acceptance into elite prep schools and eventually the Ivy League. According to the suit the child in question was lumped closely with younger children thereby dumbing down the four-year-old age group’s lesson plans. While it is just and easy to criticize a parent that would sue a preschool for inhibiting their child’s collegiate future, what should the school expect from a parent paying $19,000 a year for preschool (that was the price listed in the lawsuit, according to the York Avenue Preschool’s webpage the price for four year olds has climbed to $25,925)?

Then recently several New York City newspapers were full of lists of individual ratings of thousands of city teachers based on what is called value-added analysis. Value-added analysis uses complex mathematical formulas (which, depending on which formula is used, can include factors such as English proficiency and income) to predict how individual students will perform on future standardized tests. The ratings were listed for 12,000 teachers who taught forth through eighth grade English or math between 2007 and 2010. Value-added alleged analysis calculates a teacher’s effectiveness in improving student performances on standardized tests, based on past test scores. The forecast figure is compared to the student’s actual scores with the difference considered the ‘value added’, or subtracted, by the teachers. If a teacher’s students performances on average fall short of predicted results a teacher is deemed ineffective. This type of analysis currently accounts for 20-25% of a New York City new teacher’s evaluation. While nobody denies such statistical analysis holds some insight (along with plenty of uncertainty since there are many different factors that may or may not be incorporated into a given formula–different states calculate it in different ways), it was perfectly obvious that the real motive of New York’s media was less educational and more an effort to discredit the city’s teachers’ union.

So there you have it: from pre-k through university. One of Barack Obama’s more famous sound-bytes as presidents was to declare: “In the 21st century, the best anti-poverty program around is a first class education.” This comes in the midst widening economic disparity and a tuition bubble that mirrors the housing bubble that led to the economic crash from which the country has yet to recover.

As far as universities go there have been no shortage of reasons and solutions put forward. Many reasons for the tuition bubble reflect the economy as a whole: decreased state budgets, rising healthcare costs, the influence of the Ivy League (their resources make other universities spend more), and of course simple greed.

This greed, especially surrounding public universities, was illustrated nicely by Kevin Carey in The New Republic:

Imagine you’re in the business of selling apples that cost $1 on the open market. Then the government decides more people should have the opportunity to buy apples and society would be benefit from a net increase in apple consumption. So it decides to drop the price of apples to 60 cents. Sometimes it does this by giving you 40 cents for every apple you sell, on the condition that you start selling apples for 60 cents. Sometimes it gives people vouchers worth 40 cents that can only be used to purchase apples from approved vendors. At first the policy works splendidly.

Effectively in that apples (i.e. college) is less expensive so more people buy them. However before long the apple vendor evaluate the situation and say “Hey, the market price of an apple is still $1. Would it be great to charge $1 for apples and still get 40 cents from the government for every apple I sell?” Since raising the price all the way up to $1 in a single shot would jeopardize political support for the program itself, the raise comes two, three, four, five percent at a time. When questions arise vendors could simply claim that apple production is expensive and that extra money is needed to make the very best apples. As Carey points out apple quality, like quality education, is largely subjective, so it’s a hard claim to dispel. Meanwhile the extra profits can go into hosting grand weekend sporting events and other goodwill builders and/or lobbying the government on whether any new seller can become an approved vendor worthy of subsidy, thereby severely limiting competition.

Carey’s solution to all this is for the government to create a framework allowing other, low-cost organizational entities to be recognized as providers of higher education. These organizations would not have to be colleges at all (Carey sites an Artificial Intelligence course taught online by two Stanford professors to 20,000 students around the world as an example) and in that case not needing approval from independent accrediting bodies run by existing universities, as recipients of federal aid are today.

In his book Aftershock: the next economy and America’s Future, Robert Reich put forward the idea that all America’s public universities should be free with graduates paying a certain, fixed percentage of their taxable earnings, he estimates maybe 10%, for the first their first ten years of full time work to fund current students tuition (students who choose to go to private schools should be would be eligible for federal loans and not be prey to private lenders).

While bursting the tuition bubble in a way that would lower costs and broaden access to higher education is very important the discourse about education’s importance in the ‘21st century economy’ misses a much larger point. The point is simply whatever the importance placed on a college education jobs needing a college degree of any kind are a comparably small part of the American economy. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) only 20% of jobs in 2010 required a bachelor’s degree, while 26% did not even require a high school diploma, and 43% required only a high school diploma or an equivalent. As Jack Metzgar points out in an excellent piece on the Working Class Perspectives blog, this doesn’t figure to change much over the coming decade. The ‘knowledge economy’ is growing. It needs more than 6 million people with MAs or PhDs now and will need over a million more by 2020. Yet this will be less than 5% of the economy. Expand this to include jobs needing more than a high school education of the percentage is still less than one-third of all available jobs in 2020. That will encompass a lot of jobs (about 44 million) and within those fields that fall within that number more education does lead to more financial success.

But most of the economy isn’t there. According to the BLS the three largest employment categories now and the near future are office and administrative support occupations, sales and related occupations, and food preparation and serving occupations. Other industries that will produce the largest amounts of jobs in 2020 are child care workers, security guards, janitors and cleaners, home health aides, and construction workers. The conclusion to draw is the best anti-poverty program cannot be a first class education when more than two-thirds of our jobs don’t require anything of the kind. The best anti-poverty program would be higher wages for the jobs Americans actually have now and will have in at least the future.

Metzgar puts it nicely:

If we were serious about eliminating poverty or restoring the credibility of the American Dream or simply respecting lifetimes of hard work, we would be debating how to raise wages directly- how to make it easier for workers to organize themselves into unions, how to get the federal minimum wage higher and on a steady inflation-adjusted escalator, whether to require some kind of workers council for all employers, and then legally require that benefits of productivity growth be shared with workers.

In other words the 21st century solution to poverty is the same age-old solution that worked for generations past: working class organization, collective action, progressive legislation. For decades the harsh message to the American working class majority has simply been if you want success and security then don’t be working class. It’s past time to recognize the cultural toxicity of this and to wake up to the timeless truth that solidarity and community are more significant for our country than high-end preschools, the right college, and exploitive college debt. It’s as true in the 21st century as it ever was before.

Joseph Grosso is a librarian and writer who lives in Brooklyn, New York. Read other articles by Joseph.