Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Opinion: Teach for America


K-State's recruiter for the Teach for America program called me this morning. They send top students into low-income classrooms to teach, basically, on the assumption that they're an under-served group. It was kind of a crappy conversation. When I told her that my priorities for the future weren't leaning in that direction, she decided to fight me on it by talking about the statistics for the low-income schools and pointing out the 'economic necessity' of getting a better education to them. That didn't last; after about two minutes of explaining my opinions on the relationship between economics, hierarchy, and education, she said "well, I guess that tells me what I need to know." I didn't get much beyond, "I don't think class mobility should be a major priority, sorry." And I'll probably never get another charity/volunteer program call again. She was not pleased.

I don't know exactly how to feel about being this type of asshole. I don't enjoy it, obviously, and given that I decide how outspoken I am about what I think, it would be much nicer to just keep my trap shut under most circumstances. I don't really have a problem with TFA - people can spend their time however they like - but I'm not going to lie and say that I agree with the jist of the thing when I don't.

But she got me thinking on the topic of education, so I might as well follow through and talk about it somewhere, because it does beg the question. What's wrong with making an ideal of class mobility? What's wrong with using education with that as a goal? How could anyone think there's something wrong with it? Taking for granted that I don't see egalitarianism as a serious goal in and of itself, aren't there still good reasons for delivering education with that goal, even if we know it won't ever be perfectly equal?

Nope. I should have written the second post on hierarchy before publishing this, because this is exactly the kind of thing that's addressed by my thinking there, but this is the order it comes in, so here we go.

I'm going to basically break this down into two reasons, two "ex"s.

Expenditure

Getting this out of the way, there are people who think that we don't spend money on low-income students, or at least we don't spend as much as we do on others, which is simply false and it hasn't been that way since the Johnson administration. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elementary_and_Secondary_Education_Act
So the question isn't whether or not our spending on students is unequal. It is unequal, and in the progressive's preferred direction. The question is whether it's unequal enough. And I think it's plenty unequal, thanks.

There is a difference in paper qualifications between teachers at bad schools and great schools, but it isn't huge. There are no high school dropouts teaching high school classes; really, you have to have at least a bachelors with a teaching certificate or a masters to teach at almost any school. So teachers pretty much everywhere have the capacity  and knowledge to teach, so long as students have the motivation to learn. Nor are there significant differences in classroom size or any other major metric besides results. The image of the caring but frazzled, overworked teacher needing more help and more equipment that's unavailable due to shitty budgets might sell well among certain audiences, but it doesn't get much reinforcement by anything factual. Even crappy schools have knowledgeable personnel that, if a student shows a desire to move up, will certainly help. It's just that truly great teachers are rare, and most of them would probably prefer the more rewarding path of going to a community which has a stronger culture of learning. The most extreme divergence in teacher qualifications comes between public and private schools, and much of the 'decline of education' can be explained by pointing towards the massive proliferation of new parochials, a boom industry since the late seventies. Students with involved parents, the ones who used to raise the bar at public schools, now attend elsewhere and the remaining dregs lose that many more good examples to follow.

But anyway, here's what I think from an economic perspective. The problem isn't differences in funding or teacher quality. In every school, there are good students and bad ones. You've been there; the motivated ones sit to the front, pay attention, ask questions and have answers to the questions they're asked by even the most mediocre teachers. The good ones find a way to learn. The bad ones just go with the flow and sit to the back, doing the minimum or less. The good students are acting economically; their attention and effort creates an better learning environment. If they can't get it learned in the classroom, they will study outside of it. I've learned and gotten A's in classes of over two hundred people, and so have thousands or millions of other students. I also know people who have flunked out of courses where the enrollment was in the single digits. So, people learn with a different level of efficiency. This isn't to say that there's no difference between one school and another, one community and another, but the differences largely revolve around factors beyond money. They are cultural factors connected with this learning efficiency that can never be made totally equal among every child.

If you take the students that learn efficiently, combine them with the best teachers, it stands to reason that you will get some spectacularly great results. That could be this country's future brain trust. But because we focus on NCLB and raising the lowest to the level of the moderately okay, we spend a significant amount of money on the least interested and really probably under-serve the most gifted and motivated kids with the system as it stands. The most used argument for increasing education spending generally goes something like this: by pushing more education broadly, a more competitive marketplace is built that raises standards, pushes innovation, and increases broad quality of life for everyone. But if you were allocating our educational resources, as a nation, towards the students who have the best chance of producing wealth and innovation, then the high achievers coming from good families and communities are the kids you want to target. The problem is opportunity costs. We might care about this if we didn't hate hierarchy so much, but we do, telling ourselves that the system is unfair (which it is by an egalitarian standard and always will be), or worse, what kids end up successful and what kids don't is meaningless and arbitrary in some deeper philosophical sense.

If there is a general decline in education, the reasons I would gravitate towards to explain it are cultural. The teachers are no longer treated like authority figures by the students, the parents don't trust the teachers, and everyone in the situation feels like they're getting screwed when they really just aren't listening to each other. There's a certain amount of this throughout the entire culture, which is one reason those private schools continue to be so popular, I'm sure. But just about everywhere, the teachers have the knowledge necessary to do the job. The values of the communities they teach in aren't conducive to doing it, and until there's some serious discussion of this, there's no point to throwing good money after bad. I'm also not sure why I should want to screw the most education-friendly communities out of drawing the best talent for the sake of communities that currently don't have it... unless you assume that it's morally right to level the playing field. And if you think it's morally right that the best teachers end up with the worst students, then some of those teachers might disagree with you.

Expectations

This is my big issue with programs like TFA. Continuing to push the rhetoric that the students are fine and it's the teachers and institutions that are fucked up promotes an attitude that the system owes everyone a totally equal shot at success. Sounds great, but success is a relative matter; you only do well in comparison to others, which makes the playing field inherently competitive. If it's a competitive playing field, and you promise "success", then everyone who doesn't end up fairly high in the emergent hierarchy is bound to be disappointed. 

ALL the expectations here are on the system instead of the subject: The expectation for the kid to care, the expectation for the parents to care, the expectation that they will do the caliber of work necessary for success is taken for granted in all the assumptions at work here. Meanwhile, the expectation that teachers will care and administrators are sending in qualified teachers into every classroom is stated only cynically. 

The issue of responsibility is not new and might sound tired coming from me, but you know perfectly well that, at the end of the day, YOU control your educational destiny. And if you lived with the notion that failure in the job market might actually mean a serious personal failure that you had to take responsibility for, then the calculations for how you approached education might change. As it is, we have plenty of tools in our grasp to tell us where opportunities are going to be in the economy years from now, and most of the people I know don't focus on that at all. They want what they want, and think they deserve it.

This generation is particularly bad about handling their future realistically; everyone feels entitled to pursue their dreams, they've wasted billions of public dollars on degrees that are clearly worthless, and too many of them will set up a drum circle in front of a corporate building to protest the situation. Meanwhile, jobs like electrician and plumber have plenty of opportunities waiting - there's a shortage going on globally, and it's been there for years - but no one wants to get into skilled trades because everyone knows that such positions doesn't lead to society looking at you like a success. You can own your own business doing skilled labor like that and make plenty of money, most of the trades require little expensive formal education, but what matters is the perception of high place in the social hierarchy, and a plumber is simply too much of a fucking commoner.

But markets work because people go to where the money, and therefore the demand, lies. Markets don't work because go after your dreams with all your heart and freedomy freedom. You are subject to the market, and attempts to put up a cushion between you and the consequences of your decisions have their own consequences to society's perceptions. No, when you pursue a vocation without bowing to market demand, you take your future in your own hands, and it can't be any other way. But that isn't to say that it doesn't make sense for the kids to do what they do; they have every incentive to do it. More than ever, someone will cover you, there are those programs and sympathetic ears everywhere to help the unemployed, and it's not your fault. Why not take a chance on your fantasies? Settling for less is for losers, right? 

Blame is always a political matter anyway, but if you're looking for ethical consistency in a society that promotes individualism, then the blame here should be placed on parents or, young as they are, students themselves. That's harsh, but placing blame on the education system, or the teacher, or the curriculum is just arbitrary. It takes the pressure off the student to fix the problem to the greatest of their ability; the purpose behind it has everything to do with empathy and guilt and little to do with actually solving problems. Solving problems might mean creating security, stability, a sense of place, and having a cultural attitude that says that your dreams need to be weighed against risk. In Studs Terkel's classic documentary book about vocation, Working, most laborers in the early seventies said that they hoped that their children wouldn't have to do the work they were doing, that they wanted their kids to go to college, which was guaranteed success at the time. Well, that's what we created. Now that the dick-swinging phase appears to be over, it might be a good idea to accept being working class, living on a budget and with minimal ostentation, and exchanging excitement for continuity and community. But we won't actively promote that idea. It doesn't sound good, so it won't sell well.

Now, if I were to do this TFA thing, I might actually tell the kids that. And I would probably get fired. See, I would be a shitty teacher anyway.

Ex's and Ideals

The position that people should start from an equal position but don't contributes to a social atmosphere where blame is constantly thrown at authorities and is shirked by others. And the idea that your life is yours, whether your opportunities are equal to those of a Rockefeller descendant or not, suffers. I don't have a problem with people getting an education, but let's be honest about what an education is good for. 

General ed has two primary functions. One is to give young people a basic and necessary skill set for use in the adult world, a basic standard. The population at large needs to know how to read, write, and count money in order to function. Schools, as they are, already fall short of teaching some necessary skills; personally, I think they should teach better finance and contract comprehension, along with significantly stronger economics classes (of course I would think that). I would say that we should teach ethics, too, but that would require agreement on what is ethical, which we clearly don't have.

The second function is to help kids figure out where their real talents lie. This is the best reason for as broad an education as possible, although basic coursework can't tell you whether you'd be happier as an accountant or an actuary because it simply isn't going to be that detailed. You just go in and get a general feel for what subjects are good for you... then hopefully look at the BLS website to figure out if there's going to be a market for that skill. If we did that, our schools would be more successful at getting kids prepared for the world as it is.

By the way, if you're looking at school as tool for maintaining standards instead of indoctrination, then it should obviously not be used to push any sort of ideological purpose. Nor does education really have value for creating a higher-quality voter, although some people insist that opposing political opinions have more to do with ignorance than their own ideology's shortcomings. I think there are a lot of people who support education - their kind of education - for that reason. Meanwhile, the more education I get, the more conservative I become, unlike most people I've known. Even though teachers do occasionally try to push their personal values on students, opinions really have little to do with the data you're receiving in the classroom and everything to do with your personal inclinations and preferences, which get set in you long before an advanced education starts.

But almost all the ideals at play here go along with the modern version of liberal ideology. Liberals like to look at their morals, which are intuitively empathetic for many, as true in some non-ideological sense of the word. They like to say, "we all want children to have a better education" as if what makes education better or worse had already been agreed on. Then, when the results of the education aren't an increasing egalitarianism in statistical form, they chalk it up as a failure. They look at education almost like religious people look at church; education is enlightenment, it's a general social good with no downside, and providing less than the maximum level your society can, to everyone, is almost heretical. Same goes for health care, which might as well be the same issue; cost is frequently no object and inflation has been the result, because they're humanists and think that money doesn't measure anything all that relevant when compared to the individual's pleasure or pain. The tenor of that woman who called me today sounded similar to what I imagine a missionary sounds like when talking about going into the Amazon jungle to preach to the heathens who have never heard the word of God. No sacrifice is too great. Lots of education talk works with this kind of zeal, too. KIPP schools are lauded for their ability to bring greater success to low-income students... by giving every student an inordinate amount of personalized attention, and reinforcing lessons at home, since KIPP students come from families self-selected to be willing to sacrifice for their child's education, which is fine but obviously useless as a large-scale educational plan.

At least TFA doesn't cost taxpayers money. But beyond that, for most ideas concerning this redistributive education, all the problems that usually plague the ideas of modern liberals show up: the assumption that moving towards equality instead of an agreed-upon definition of merit is philosophically correct; the desire to use government power, particularly for distributing anything connected with well-being; the assumptions that money will come from taxing the rich, and will therefore be never-ending; the assumption that people are essentially the same, that the ones on the bottom just want a chance while the ones at the top are corrupt assholes; that systemic inequality is preventing a better world; that the student's relationships with family and community are either not the problem, or are only a problem because of money. It's all here.

The arguments are kind of vindicating for me, though. Implied in all this is an assumption that pursuing the highest possible level of financial status is what everyone wants or should want, that it's more important than family or friends or neighbors or traditions or any of those little local elements that make people who they are. Obviously, we are what we do, and how profitable it is, which is what happens when you base too much of your worldview on statistics. But it is right in line with where I stand on how people operate: power first. They've just stripped all the subtleties away from it.

But I happen to think that class differences are unavoidable and necessary, that greater expenditure on education at the federal level is stupid, and that these types of conversations undermine the concept of merit, which is absolutely necessary for maintaining the legitimacy of a society organized around individualism. Still, good luck to TFA. I'm sure I'll never hear from them again.

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