Debating Free Higher Education

The latest issue of Dissent is centered on the theme “Arguments on the Left.” The issue brings together disparate voices from across the Left to address some of the biggest issues we are confronting today. You should read the whole thing, which includes discussions on party politics, solidarity movements, justice, civil liberties, labor, reproductive rights, anarchism, Marxism, Zionism, and religion. Here, I’m going to link to a blog-favorite: the issue of free higher education. I’ve been on team-free-higher-ed for a long time, and three smart minds debate the topic in Dissent. Here are some excerpts:

Staking out a controversial claim, Max Bruenig argues that free college is actually a regressive demand, stating that “making college more or entirely free would most likely boost the wealth of college attendees without securing any important egalitarian gains.” He continues:

Given… class-based differences in attendance levels, institutional selection, and current student benefit levels, making college free for everyone would almost certainly mean giving far more money to students from richer families than from poorer ones. Of course, providing more generous student benefits might alter these class-based skews a bit by encouraging more poor and middle-class people to go to college or to attend more expensive institutions. But even reasonably accounting for those kinds of responses, the primary result of such increased student benefit generosity would be to fill the pockets of richer students and their families.

Conceding that college is mostly a place for the privileged, Tressie McMillan Cottom explains that people often don’t attend college due to cost, but also because “going to college is complicated. It takes cultural and social, not just economic, capital. It means navigating advanced courses, standardized tests, forms. It means figuring out implicit rules—rules that can change.” She lays out the inequalities and obstacles that keep people out of college beyond cost, arguing for an expansion of the conversation beyond its usual limits. She closes with a powerful rejoinder on education as a public good:

I do not care if free college won’t solve inequality. As an isolated policy, I know that it won’t. I don’t care that it will likely only benefit the high achievers among the statistically unprivileged—those with above-average test scores, know-how, or financial means compared to their cohort. Despite these problems, today’s debate about free college tuition does something extremely valuable. It reintroduces the concept of public good to higher education discourse—a concept that fifty years of individuation, efficiency fetishes, and a rightward drift in politics have nearly pummeled out of higher education altogether. We no longer have a way to talk about public education as a collective good because even we defenders have adopted the language of competition… Those of us who believe in viable, affordable higher ed need a different kind of language. You cannot organize for what you cannot name.

Already, the debate about if college should be free has forced us all to consider what higher education is for. We’re dusting off old words like class and race and labor. We are even casting about for new words like “precariat” and “generation debt.” The Debt Collective is a prime example of this. The group of hundreds of students and graduates of (mostly) for-profit colleges are doing the hard work of forming a class-based identity around debt as opposed to work or income. The broader cultural conversation about student debt, to which free college plans are a response, sets the stage for that kind of work. The good of those conversations outweighs for me the limited democratization potential of free college.

Mike Konczal argues for debt-free college education because of the vast inequality that is increasing thanks to student loan debt. He also sketches out how the erosion of higher education as a public service is hurting the country as a whole, and how it is tied to other aspects of our economy – “public disinvestment in the states has been paired with generous tax cuts for rich individuals and corporations” and “for-profit schools that have been filling in the gaps have saddled many poor people with lifelong debts.” He also makes a strong argument for higher education’s ability to help close the gap between classes in America and bring people together in unique ways:

Education is a right that the government must grant. Higher education, then, shouldn’t be left to a handful of private schools, where administrators pursue their own objectives independent of public need, or to the market, which is only interested in how much it can profit at any given time. The point of public higher education is to collapse precisely this distance between elite and mass education, by ensuring better access and higher quality that would never otherwise be available on a large scale.

Higher education also provides one of the last spaces for young people not shaped solely by market values. The American liberal arts model is unique in that it allows for experimentation, learning, and community-building. Attacks on higher education haven’t simply been about raising tuition but about dismantling this model itself. A notable example is Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s recent attempt to remove phrases such as “improve the human condition,” “the search for truth,” and “public service” from the state university’s mission, reorienting it simply toward the needs of business.

All three of these pieces are worth reading and thinking about. I’m obviously partial to the latter two – education is a fundamental right to those who want it, a path for class mobility, a means through which to improve society as a whole, and a signifier of what we value in the communities we live in. The college population may be unequal, but – in my opinion – the idea of college itself continues to be a vital institution which we must defend.

This is just one of many conversations happening on the left – check out the rest.

Update, October 18: Sara Goldrick-Rab has also written a salvo also on the topic of free higher education. Though published by Brookings, it speaks clearly to the Left (don’t read the other stuff in the series there, which seems more like the typical). Goldrick-Rab makes clear the stakes that we’re facing. Higher education was possible and attainable for those who wanted it two generations ago, but it has been harder and harder to get precisely as a college degree becomes more ubiquitous and more necessary for our futures:

In the 1970s, targeting financial aid on the poorest individuals made sense—after all, most people didn’t want to attend college, it wasn’t required, and college costs were low enough that the Pell Grant largely covered the bills.

Today, that model is failing: the vast majority of the populace wants access to affordable, high-quality public higher education, it is required by the modern labor market, and college costs are so high that grants and scholarships provide but a meager discount restricted to only a fraction of students with financial need. Means-tested financial aid, administered via a massive bureaucracy, leaves out both the very poorest—who cannot navigate the system—and squeezes the middle-class, who are offered only loans.

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The New American MOOC

Just a little while ago I wrote a short post on Arizona State University, mostly quoting Chris Newfield’s review of University President Michael Crow’s book on his vision of the university, and already there’s another thing to note. Inside Higher Ed reports that ASU is partnering with EdX to provide the first-ever MOOC for actual college credit.

The scheme, which allows anyone around the world to take MOOCs designed by ASU professors, offers a small up-front fee and a larger fee at the end of the semester to obtain university credit. The goal is that an entire freshman year of courses will be put together so that anyone around the world can complete a year of massive, open, online college before transferring elsewhere or moving to ASU proper.

Firstly, I’m struck by the decision by ASU to essentially become the middleman for EdX – essentially laundering a MOOC. Even if the class is created by a professor, if the platform and the mode of instruction are managed by a company, are there obstacles to accreditation? ASU will be offering very different types of education – and these differences will have consequences – but the difference will also be difficult to discern. And this could apply even to non-ASU-designed MOOCs, according to John Warner:

ASU has the potential to expand their laundry service to the entire edX universe. In other words, they may do what the founding partner institutions of edX – MIT and Harvard – would likely never consider, give full institutional credit for a course taken as a MOOC outside their own institution.

This would allow ASU to not only prey upon other universities by transferring MOOC credits, but also to appropriate MOOCs designed by other universities and accepting them, effectively accrediting whatever EdX churns out.

Crucially, Matt Reed points out the fact that all of this is marketed as a breakthrough solution – but to what exactly? According to Reed, the student who could take an ASU/EdX MOOC:

could take an actual course, online or onsite, from a community college. It would cost less, and would have an actual instructor provide actual guidance and feedback  throughout the course. The credits would transfer anywhere, not just to ASU. Tuition at Maricopa — the community college local to Phoenix — is $84 per credit, as opposed to $200 for the MOOC. Even in the higher-tuition Northeast, we come in well below $200 per credit. And community colleges run full slates of general education courses.

Even better, taking the course with a community college offers access to online tutoring, library resources, and other student supports that have been “unbundled” from the MOOC.

ASU is pointing out that a student doesn’t need to pass through the ASU admissions process to take a MOOC. That’s true, as far as it goes, but community colleges are also open-admission, and have been for decades.

If the cost isn’t actually a factor, then what is the appeal? In a second post, John Warner also argues that the drawbacks from the MOOC-for-freshmen approach could be drastic too:

The true cost, however, is in accepting this kind of redefinition of what it means to pursue education, particularly in a student’s first year, which we know has an outsized importance when it comes to students ultimately succeeding.

We know more now than ever before about what kinds of experiences are most meaningful to students, the “Big 6” as defined by last year’s Gallup survey of  the degree and quality of post-graduate engagement:

  • a professor who made them excited about learning
  • professors who cared about them as a person
  • a mentor who encouraged them to pursue their goals and dreams
  • worked on a long-term project
  • had a job or internship where they applied what they were learning
  • were extremely involved in extra-curricular activities

These are, of course, things that are more difficult (or impossible) to get out of a MOOC, especially if you are the kind of student that MOOCs are supposedly expanding higher ed access to – those least prepared for traditional college.

Lastly, and not that I care too much about it, where does this leave ASU Online? ASU Online is this quasi-university program through which many people take courses and earn degrees, but it’s separate from ASU. Just like Harvard’s Extension School and dozens of other distance learning programs, the curriculum and experience are entirely divorced from students in the universities’ actual schools and departments – even if you take online classes. I took a number of online classes at ASU through my departments, but never took an ASU Online course. With the introduction of the MOOC option – effectively offering three types of online experience – how will the different courses fair? It’s unclear where this MOOC or ASU’s other recent endeavors will take the university, but I don’t like the possibilities.

The traditional higher education may not have to be traditional, in any sense of the word. But massive open courses with little support for only 7.5 weeks do not an engaging experience make. According to an ASU dean, the goal isn’t necessarily enriching lives or expanding minds, though, it’s graduating people and churning them out into the world. As  Dean for Education Initiatives Philip Regier argues, “the end goal is graduating educated university students, which this country is increasingly dismal at doing.”

Maybe if universities didn’t keep undermining and eviscerating their own education, like ASU does (not just through MOOCs but through corporate initiatives, tuition hikes, heavy teaching loads, etc. etc.) the country wouldn’t be so dismal at graduating educated students. Maybe if our universities and our governments doubled down on improving education rather than “disrupting” and “innovating” our way into a deeper hole, things might start improving.

The New American University

Over at the Los Angeles Review of Books, Christopher Newfield has a review of Michael Crow and William Dabars’ new book, Designing the New American Universityin which he gives a cogent analysis of Arizona State University, its vision for the future, and the national higher education ground on which it stands.

Newfield summarizes Crow and Dabars’ overview of ASU’s achievements – including expanding access, increasing diversity, and providing a better education, all in a state with politics such as Arizona’s. He also gives a fair assessment of Crow’s vision for the “New American University,” a moniker he has trotted out for the last decade as president of ASU. This vision is blatantly for access and equality – Newfield calls it “anti-elitist” and I don’t think he’s wrong. ASU’s claim to excellence has long been its willingness to welcome all and provide them with a quality education. This is an important part of the New American University’s vision. But, not for nothing, Newfield looks at how ASU has operated in the current climate of austerity and belt-tightening and finds a lack of vision:

Arizona’s state legislature cut higher education appropriations 32 percent from 2006 through 2011. Then the legislature delivered another 25 percent cut in 2011–’12. While I was writing this review, they voted another 14 percent cut for 2015–’16. As a share of Arizona’s general fund, higher education spending has been cut in half since 1982 (from 20 percent to 9 percent). While ASU was working on its eight NAU goals and making some impressive progress, its public funding base was being cut exactly as though it were the Old American University that has become a political whipping boy.

ASU’s response to these public cuts has been similarly traditional. Arizona was one of four states that saw its public universities double their tuition fees between 2006 and 2011. (California and Hawaii being two others.) ASU student loan debt now averages something over $21,000, up about 20 percent since 2008. ASU has used ever-increasing student body growth to generate ever-increasing enrollment revenues. Many of the new students were assigned to branch campuses or to online programs where costs are lower. Meanwhile, Crow was trying to increase other revenue streams (corporate partnerships, philanthropy) by raising ASU’s research prestige, which means offering special working conditions and internal subsidies for research teams on whose productivity ASU’s rankings climb would depend. Crow played the conventional game by growing enrollments and then using these revenues to support research outputs and reputation. To the extent that ASU uses low-cost enrollment growth to cross-subsidize showcase research, the NAU is welding its superstructure to a traditional budget base.

When he turns to the way forwards, Newfield identifies positive steps in the “New” part of the New American University. He finds a desire for nonhierarchical innovation among the main principles of Crow and Dabars’ vision, and goes on to outline why more universities don’t adapt such models (a section well worth reading). It’s worth noting that, while faculty aren’t up in arms about the New American University and ASU has actually found ways to operate without the levels of adjunctification that many other universities have endured, many of these changes are still extremely hierarchical.

While I was at ASU there was a rash of school and department closing. Within four years as a Education major I was a part of the Mary Lou Fulton College of Education, the College of Teaching and Educational Leadership, and I finally graduated with a degree from the Mary Lou Fulton Teacher’s College. These closings and mergers (there were three different education schools with different focuses and on different campuses as recently as 2008) were met with anxiety from some members of the graduate education population. Other departments were similarly reshuffled with little input from those working within the systems themselves. Combining schools or departments doesn’t always ensure that everyone gets the resources that they need and deserve. I am all for interdisciplinary studies (most of my education has been such), but as I’ve argued before, knocking down departmental barriers needs to be done by scholars and on scholar’s terms. There is a difference between “collaboration across traditional disciplines” and imposed interdisciplinarity.

Indeed, Newfield makes sure not to conflate Crow and Dabars’ dislike for elite, selective colleges with any hopes that they take a stand against the corporatization of universities:

At crucial points, the authors trundle in villains from central casting: “Faculty committees tend to deliberate while shifts in policy, culture, and technology flash by at warp speed,” etc., etc. Collaborative design cannot possibly move forward when the executive party feels entitled to judge (and lecture) the rank-and-file designers on the basis of off-the-shelf imperatives about disruptive innovation. Crow and Dabars miss an opportunity to advocate for fully inclusive collaborative design techniques. I wish they were as anti-managerial as they are anti-elitist.

From there, Newfield moves to a second criticism of the book (and Crow’s broader narrative) – a lack of demand for public funding of public universities. In the book, Crow and Dabars call mass funding of public higher education an “unattainable societal goal.” This is a perfect sum of Crow’s moderate fight against defunding in the Grand Canyon State, one which has caused nearly annual tuition increases in all three state universities. (Insert my all-too-frequent reminder that the state constitution calls for free higher education). Newfield closes with this wonderful conclusion on the New American University and the current higher education context in which it sits:

Crow and Dabars are right to want new public universities to replace the Harvard standard. Their book is worth reading just for that discussion. They also support “massive change” and celebrate moon shots. So then, how about these two moon shots? First, use ASU to model nonhierarchical collaborative design, design that replaces finance-driven restructuring supervised by academic executives. Second, call for the doubling of public funding of public universities (which shouldn’t be difficult as we have recently halved it), in tandem with a halving of tuition (which shouldn’t be difficult as we recently doubled it). Make “free college for all” a medium-term national goal. We did free K–12 a century ago. We did a moon shot for the actual moon. We can obviously do the same thing for correctly funded 21st-century public colleges and universities. But we need people in Crow’s position to tell the truth about the power shifts and the public money that the next-generation, democratized public university will require.

A Reminder to Arizona Lawmakers

Saturday morning, after a marathon night of whatever it is lawmakers do, the Arizona Legislature passed a new budget. The budget does many things, like “balance the budget.” It also does things like completely eviscerate higher education.

The cuts include $99 million taken from state universities and 100% elimination of state funding for Pima and Marciopa County community colleges (the two biggest counties in the state). Education funds that are opened up for K-12 schools include an open door for charter school expansion as well. And for the poor, cash assistance limits were cut in half and medicaid faces sizable cuts too. (Here’s a more in-depth article on the cuts). This will only exacerbate the ongoing trend of the increasing costs of getting a college education in the state of Arizona.

Why are state lawmakers doing this? Because they think they can. As the Arizona Republic editorial makes clear, “this deeper-than-expected raid on higher education is not a consequence of scarce financial resources. It is the result of ideological absolutism — and misplaced ideology, at that.” They link the budget decisions to the overwhelming number of lawmakers who have signed no-tax-increase pledges. Last week, ASU’s State Press lambasted Gov. Ducey’s logic, stating:

After campaigning on a promise to run the state like a business, Ducey has failed to enact one of the basic concepts of economics: making wise investments to ensure a stable and profitable future. Ducey and Arizona Republicans have made an all but official declaration that the education of future generations is less important than the feelings of millionaires on tax day.

I’d like to remind all of the state lawmakers that carved a giant chunk of funding from universities and carried out a scorched earth policy on community colleges of one important fact. While many of them find a pledge to not raise taxes to be a Very Important Document, there is another document that says:

The university and all other state educational institutions… shall be as nearly free as possible.

Yes, that would be Article 11, Section 6 of the Arizona Constitution.

ASU May Merge with a Private Business School

Left and right, things that have been funded by, built by, and supported by the government in the name of the public good have been ushered behind the closed doors of private corporations through the privatization of roads, parks, schools, and of course – universities, which does hell on the public good. The opposite of that (nationalization? eminent domain? socialism?) doesn’t happen much in these United States, but it might be happening in Arizona higher education. ASU and the Thunderbird School of Global Management have announced an impending merger.

Now, before we move forwards, I should say that I’m probably jumping the gun in saying this is the opposite of privatization – so let me issue a disclaimer that I am actually highly skeptical, as usual, of the latest move by ASU. Now:

Arizona State University and the Thunderbird School of Global Management have announced that they’re merging, with Thunderbird coming under the control of ASU (and the Arizona Board of Regents). The Glendale business management school has been facing financial woes and even considered a joint venture with a for-profit university, but the deal fell through.

As a result, ASU and Thunderbird will merge and the financial problems will (hopefully) be resolved, Thunderbird will gain more resources from joining a large university, ASU’s business programs will expand to include Thunderbird’s many international executive programs, and Thunderbird’s staff will join ASU. The information that’s lacking so far is how exactly this merger will be carried out, so keep an eye out.

ASU was in the news last year for the opposite of this – that is, privatization – happening at another professional school. As early as 2010, the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at ASU has been playing with the idea of privatization, arguing that state funds have reduced but also arguing “why not?” Here’s an article quoting Paul Berman, Dean of the Law School:

Berman, however, believes higher tuition can be justified.

As his yardstick, he uses what in-state students pay at the Top 40 law schools as rated by “U.S. News and World Report.” ASU is No. 28.

“If you look at all 40 of them, our in-state tuition is lower than all but four,” he said. And even the tuition for those who are not state residents is below the half-way mark.

Berman said the school already has requested that the Board of Regents allow tuition for Arizona residents to go up by $1,500 for next year. “We’re not talking about large increases,” he said. Berman said that, even with that, attending ASU will remain lower than what is being charged at those other Top 40 schools.

And here’s Vice President of Public Affairs Virgil Renzulli:

“It has been shown at other universities that there are certain very popular graduate and professional programs that can do well, even thrive, charging higher rates… The idea is to move to a tuition level that would be more market-driven than state-subsidized.”

The decision to privatize, expand class size, and raise tuition for the hell of it hasn’t moved forwards a ton – but it hasn’t stopped either. ASU will soon be breaking ground on a new downtown campus for the law school, a move which doesn’t necessarily further privatization, but the larger building is within the vision outlined above of increasing admissions. So, with ASU simultaneously privatizing one professional school while using another to take over a private institution, I will continue to say that ASU is a university to watch. You know, in case you weren’t already reading about Starbucks partnerships or police abuse of a WOC professor.

 

Arizona State University of Starbucks

On Monday, Starbucks announced that it was launching a new program through which it will help many of its employees pay for undergraduate education at Arizona State University’s ASU Online program. Here are some of the details of how it would work:

Tuition for an online degree at ASU is about $10,000 a year, roughly the same for its traditional educational programs. For the freshmen and sophomore years, Starbucks and Arizona State say they will put around $6,500 on average toward the estimated $20,000 in total tuition.

To cover the remaining $13,500, workers would apply for financial aid. Since Starbucks workers don’t earn a lot of money, many would likely qualify for a Pell grant, said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of EdVisors.com, a website about paying for college. If a worker qualified for a full Pell grant of $5,730 a year — or $11,460 over the two years — he or she would theoretically be left with about $2,040 to pay out of pocket.

The program would work similarly for the junior and senior years, except that Starbucks would reimburse any money workers end up having to pay out of pocket. Starbucks said most of its workers have already started school, so could potentially finish off their degrees at no cost if they applied for the program.

At first, it piqued my interest to hear that ASU was involved in such a project. ASU has long been involved in efforts that purport to expand access to quality university education, but has also engaged in moves that collapse schools and programs (which eliminates jobs and takes power away from faculty), demote staff to the status of at-will employees, and continually raise tuition.

But agreeing to pay for employees’ education is a good move, even if it does nothing to salvage the crisis of public education. And yet there are hidden aspects of this deal that are important to shed light on. Firstly, the program hopes to offer a diverse education to Starbucks employees, but having the selection of majors offered at one university’s online wing is actually quite narrow. As this piece finds, even the students featured in an NYT article about the program may not actually be able to study what they want.

In addition, online-only education is not a tried-and-true provider of education, especially for working students who have not been exposed to higher education before. Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor of education policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, linked to this 2011 study [pdf] on online education and its effectiveness for low-income and underprepared students by Shanna Smith Jaggers. In short, online classes saw more low-income and underprepared students withdraw, and many of these students were less likely to return to continue their education. Learning online is as much of a learned skill as learning in the classroom, only online degrees and courses often come with less support for students. I took at least four online classes while at ASU, and only one was as rigorous as in-person courses and provided similar levels of support.

But the more important point here is that Starbucks employees are not being offered free education at Arizona State University, my alma mater and an arguably decent school from which to earn a Bachelor’s. The Starbucks program funnels workers through ASU Online, a joint-venture between ASU and Pearson, the for-profit publishing and ed tech company. The venture overcharges online students, students who may be receiving less support and less freedom in their studies and cost the university less money, but who pay roughly the same tuition as on-campus students. As one article mentions:

Arizona State University Online, a revenue-sharing relationship between Pearson, a for-profit company best known as a publisher, and Arizona State University (ASU), yielded $6 million in profit in 2011 for ASU. Projections are that it will yield $200 million in profit by 2020. Many other non-profit colleges with large online programs tout the substantial profits generated by online programs that are re-invested in on-ground facilities. Thus, online students are being substantially overcharged to generate profits that subsidize face-to-face learners, faculty and administrators.

This type of revenue-sharing happens a lot at universities between departments (the humanities often subsidize the sciences), but the inclusion of a for-profit company makes this deal smell of something far worse. Pearson has long-been a part of the ed reform movement, standardizing and assessing real education into oblivion. That it operates as a “partner” in ASU Online is a shame and a sign of how the top echelons at ASU view education.

This agreement between ASU and Starbucks is supposed to be about providing free education to lower class workers. But according to Starbucks CEO, about 70% of Starbucks workers are current in college or aspire to go. These students, working at Starbucks across the country, will now have to transfer to ASU Online if they want to take advantage of their employers’ benefits – and Starbucks is eliminating its tuition reimbursement program for the City University of Seattle and Stayer University next year in order to commit to the ASU Online endeavor.

As Melissa Byrne points out, this is mostly as PR stunt for Starbucks, whose executives have come straight out and said that they hope this will attract a better class of workers. And ASU hopes to continue to expand its growing online presence and push President Michael Crow’s “New American University” vision one step further. For many of Starbucks’ workers, this program will expand access, but access to what? And what will happen when they fail to finish because they were pushed into a program that was ill-suited for them?

Update: Be sure to check out Tressie McMillan Cottom’s piece on this, in which she links ASU-Starbucks endeavor to what for-profit universities have been doing for decades.

You Only Take Standardized Tests Once or Thrice a Year

Fresh off of my soap box from last night’s long rant on Teach for America, I came home today to see that a high school student was suspended for scrawling “YOLO :)” on the essay portion of the STAAR, one of Texas’s standardized tests, and tweeting it to school officials. First off, this dude is awesome and I wish I could give him a high five. The test he was taking was completely unnecessary for him to take, a separate standardized test was his high-stakes test, yet he was forced to take the STAAR to help calibrate it for future test-takers. The same thing happened when I was in high school – freshmen took the Terra Nova (seriously, who names these things) which was merely a metric for comparisons to other schools, while sophomores took AIMS (and upperclassmen retook AIMS as needed) in order to meet the requirements for graduation.

Secondly, here’s Natalia Cecire:

Kyron Birdine’s exceedingly mild rebellion and its consequences suggest, too, that if anything they are even more rigidly policed than they were in the 90s. I remember how each student was interpellated into the role of a potential cheater, a potential violator. Make sure you have the right kind of pencils, make sure you have extra, eyes on your own paper, also cover your paper in case someone else might look over because if someone else cheats off your paper you are then a cheater too. I don’t know about cell phones; in Virginia in the 90s they were considered evidence of dealing drugs and banned from public schools.

But the testing is also as arbitrary as it is compulsory. From the Gawker article linked above:

As the Dallas Observer notes, Kyron are being forced to take both the new State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) test and the old Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) test, even though only the TAKS will count.

“He and any other Texas students who entered ninth grade before the 2011-12 school year are still evaluated on the TAKS test,” the Observer explains. “They’re still required to take the STAAR, but mainly so the state can get data they can use to tweak the test before it really matters.”

“It wasn’t for a grade,” Kyron told WFAA’s News 8. “Colleges don’t see it. It didn’t benefit my personal life at all.”

Students in Birdine’s year were, in other words, being used as a data source to help calibrate the new test. I know I had to do this too, on the SAT–I took an analytical reasoning section, but the scores didn’t count for anything because it was new; they just collected the data and used it to calibrate the scoring. I’m sure that’s a standard procedure now as in the 90s. It disturbs me a little, though, that it’s never occurred to me before that standardized testing companies shouldn’t get to waste students’ time and collect their data for free—let alone compulsorily.

Cecire identifies a serious problem here. Students are being forced to take tests that do nothing but provide testing companies with information. And they aren’t compensated, save for a late start in subsequent years, or maybe a longer lunch before periods 1-3 start in the afternoon on weird-testing-schedule-day. On top of the fact that teachers are taking more and more time away from actual instruction to dedicate to test preparation, and on top of the funding set aside for implementing these tests that don’t really serve a purpose (high stakes or not), we’re unfairly roping the students into serving as data points. With six different classes, each with their own assignments, and lives outside of school, I can think of a myriad better ways that youth could be spending this time rather than bullshitting through a test that has no effect on their lives.

In closing, here’s a bubble answer sheet one of my high school students handed in last spring. It was either the back of the final or a spare sheet, I can’t recall, but in light of this latest incident it’s pretty perfect.

#YOLO~~~~

#YOLO~~~~

Against Teach for America

I’ve never been a big fan of Teach for America, and in the last few years I’ve grown to downright hate the organization. And yet, I’ve never actually explicated about it on this, my more enduring venting platform. Now seems like the time, though, as a conference called Free Minds, Free People is organizing against TFA this summer. This is happening despite TFA’s broad popularity among education “reformers” and neoliberal bureaucrats that would love nothing more than to break teachers’ unions and privatize the education sector. Can you tell a rant is forming?

None of this is groundbreaking opinion if you’ve been paying attention to the education scene. Governments at all levels are tightening their purses when it comes to education, and public schools are doing what they can to continue teaching the students entrusted to them. And by doing what they can I mean by and large students are being funneled into giant classrooms where they’re being prepared for the next standardized test. Social studies took the brunt of the class size increases while English, math, and more recently science absorbed the standardized testing aspect. But right now the English classrooms and science labs are growing too, and there’s perennial talk of state-standardized social studies exams. And as this continues across the country, some states are working hard to shut down teachers’ unions and shuttering schools. Only now are we finally seeing resistance, but even this is a little defense against an onslaught of government and business efforts to radically alter education for the worse.

Enter Teach for America. Plucking college graduates from across the country, TFA throws them into a summer preparation course before placing them in some of the toughest communities in the country to serve students in dire need of a quality education. Instead, students on the margins are being taught by brand new, untested and unqualified teachers who have only committed to two years of teaching before they move on to graduate school in fields only tangentially related to education like administration, psychology, or business. The aim of the organization is to concentrate not on actually helping students in need but instead on providing top college graduates with experience before they move on to other fields.

Take, for example, a statistic my friend (a former TFA-er) told me: Teach for America has the same number of staff tasked with recruiting at Columbia University as it does tasked with organizing teacher placement for all of the New York City area. That number is two. You could also take this professor’s widely-shared reasoning for why he refuses to let TFA recruit in his classroom:

Never, in its recruiting literature, has Teach for America described teaching as the most valuable professional choice that an idealistic, socially-conscious person can make.  Nor do they encourage the brightest students to make teaching their permanent career; indeed, the organization goes out of its way to make joining TFA seem a like a great pathway to success in other, higher-paying professions.

Three years ago, a TFA recruiter plastered the Fordham campus with flyers that said “Learn how joining TFA can help you gain admission to Stanford Business School.”  The message of that flyer was “use teaching in high-poverty areas a stepping stone to a career in business.”  It was not only profoundly disrespectful to every person who chooses to commit their life to the teaching profession, it advocated using students in high-poverty areas as guinea pigs for an experiment in “resume-padding” for ambitious young people.

Treating youth in need as stepping stones to graduate school is but one of the major flaws with TFA. TFA’s woefully inadequate preparation for its teachers and tremendous lack of support for them is exacerbated by the fact that the two-year volunteers crowd out qualified teachers who are looking for work and create cracks in the fragile labor system that is teaching. I studied for four years and spent over 1000 hours teaching – including a semester in my own classroom – just to gain the experience and tools needed to be a good teacher, and even then I knew I had several years to go before I would be able to say that I excelled at the job. I’m desperate to get back in the classroom now solely because I want to continue that climb. But if I were to join TFA, I would be out the door and onto the next professional achievement outside the classroom before I could even get the hang of taking attendance. That is, of course, if I were accepted by TFA, which is notorious for rejecting people who want to be teachers and accepting future leaders in business and administration.

One former TFA-er reflected on the statistics of TFA teachers versus new, credentialed, trained teachers:

 Compare the performance of Teach For America corps members to another cohort: credentialed, non-TFA corps members. The same study indicates that novice TFA teachers actually perform significantly less well in reading and math than credentialed beginning teachers at the same schools. Keep in mind that to “perform significantly less well” as a teacher is quite literally to have a group of 10, 100, or even 200 students learn less than they would had you not been their teacher.

If you’re interested, you can read others’ thoughts on TFA here and here. While I think he gives a little too much credit to TFA, this former participanstill advocates for shuttering the program, citing the experience at his school:

The other problem is the wasted investment a school makes in a teacher who leaves after just a few years. Sadly, I’m a poster child for this. I remember my last day at my school in Colorado, as I made the rounds saying goodbye to veteran teachers, my friends and colleagues who had provided me such crucial support and mentorship. As I talked of my plans for law school in Chicago, and they bade me best wishes, I felt an overwhelming wave of guilt. Their time and energy spent making me a better teacher – and I was massively better on that day compared to my first – was for naught. The previous summer I had spent a week of training, paid for by my school, to learn to teach pre–Advanced Placement classes. I taught the class for a year; presumably, I thought, someone else would have to receive the same training – or, worse, someone else would not receive the same training. All that work on classroom management and understanding of the curriculum, all the support in connecting with students and writing lesson – it would all have to begin again with a new teacher. (Indeed, my replacement apparently had a nervous breakdown and quit after a few months. She was replaced by a long-term substitute who one of my former colleagues must write lesson plans for.)

This teacher goes on to inspect the budget of TFA and it reflects what was mentioned above: 40% of TFA money doesn’t even show up in the classroom. Keep in mind that a number of school districts hire TFA teachers instead of experienced, certified teachers who want to be teachers. As cities like Chicago move towards mass closings of schools and cities like Philadelphia privatize their school districts, and teachers that remain employed in the schools that remain open find themselves saddled with excess work that stresses the system to its breaking point, TFA is breaking apart teachers – the only group still working to actually educate students. It’s efforts like this, aimed at keeping needy students in the margins in order to benefit elite future business and law school students while our school systems crumble, that tears me up. Teaching is my absolute passion, and I’m sitting here watching the whole education system torn down by TFA, by high-stakes testing, by No Child Left Behind, by Race to the Top, by reformers, by administrators, by governments. But these groups and objects have operated all as one. As Andrew Hartman explains, in a brilliant look at TFA:

TFA, suitably representative of the liberal education reform more generally, underwrites, intentionally or not, the conservative assumptions of the education reform movement: that teacher’s unions serve as barriers to quality education; that testing is the best way to assess quality education; that educating poor children is best done by institutionalizing them; that meritocracy is an end-in-itself; that social class is an unimportant variable in education reform; that education policy is best made by evading politics proper; and that faith in public school teachers is misplaced.

[…]

Successful charter schools, [TFA founder Wendy] Kopp maintains, also stop at nothing to remove bad teachers from the classroom. This is why charter schools are the preferred mechanism for delivery of education reform: as defined by Kopp, charter schools are “public schools empowered with flexibility over decision making in exchange for accountability for results.” And yet, “results,” or rather, academic improvement, act more like a fig leaf, especially in light of numerous recent studies that show charter schools, taken on the whole, actually do a worse job of educating students than regular public schools. Rather, crushing teacher’s unions—the real meaning behind Kopp’s “flexibility” euphemism—has become the ultimate end of the education reform movement. This cannot be emphasized enough: the precipitous growth of charter schools and the TFA insurgency are part and parcel precisely because both cohere with the larger push to marginalize teacher’s unions.

[…]

From its origins, the TFA-led movement to improve the teacher force has aligned itself with efforts to expand the role of high-stakes standardized testing in education. TFA insurgents, including Kopp and Rhee, maintain that, even if imperfect, standardized tests are the best means by which to quantify accountability. Prior to the enactment of Bush’s bipartisan No Child Left Behind in 2001, high-stakes standardized testing was mostly limited to college-entrance exams such as the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). But since then, the high-stakes testing movement has blown up: with increasing frequency, student scores on standardized exams are tied to teacher, school, and district evaluations, upon which rewards and punishments are meted out. Obama’s “Race to the Top” policy—the brainchild of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the former “CEO” of Chicago Public Schools—further codifies high-stakes testing by allocating scarce federal resources to those states most aggressively implementing these so-called accountability measures. The multi-billion dollar testing industry—dominated by a few large corporations that specialize in the making and scoring of standardized tests—has become an entrenched interest, a powerful component of a growing education-industrial complex.

Teach for America. High-stakes testing. Charter schools. Union-busting. School-closing. It’s all part of the same, terrible effort to throw our education system in the trash, and I’m glad to see more people resisting. With the economy making its slow climb out of the recession, many states are gaining or expecting surpluses. Schools are right to demand that this money go into education and not into privatizing more of our public goods. Teachers are organizing, and hopefully it isn’t too little, too late. The fight’s just starting, but – with hope – we can save our schools.

Arizona Universities Keep Hiking Tuition

On Friday I saw two pieces of jarring news: that tuition at Arizona universities had gone up 96% since 2007, the year I started my undergrad at ASU; also, that tuition has increased in 18 of the last 20 years. Tuition hikes were a frequent and terrible thing while I was a Sun Devil – in short span the state government cut the $1 billion higher ed budget in half. I was privileged enough that my parents had agreed to help me with my tuition, but I knew a lot of people who worked all semester long in order to pay for the next semester – and each year that got harder.

And yet, I never stopped to think about how rapid the change between 2007 and 2011 was compared to years prior. Anne Ryman, who covers higher education for the Arizona Republic, sent me this link [pdf] on tuition over the last 20 years. The shift in the scale of tuition hikes is pretty dramatic, so I decided to graph it out. The result is not a happy one:

azbor tuition

And I’m not 100% sure if this data includes university-imposed fees – which fall outside of what the Arizona Board of Regents approves. when I started high school in 2003 the tuition hikes had just begun in earnest – they stood at $3,593, and when I started at ASU it was a few dollars shy of $5000. When I finished my student teaching and graduated in 2011 it was $9,716 for the seniors that I had taught. And subsequent freshmen continue to pay more and more.

On Friday, the university presidents issued their proposals for next year’s tuition. Arizona State is proposing a 3% increase which will bring it within a stone’s throw of $10,000 – touting the small increase as the lowest in the past decade. The University of Arizona proposed the same percentage (they’re already above $10,000), and Northern Arizona University asked for 5%. If these are all approved, the three universities in Arizona will be over or dangerously close to $10,000 tuition a year. With that in mind, if you take a glance at Article 11, Section 6 of the Arizona Constitution, you will see the words: “The university and all other state educational institutions… shall be as nearly free as possible.”

Who’s in Their Corner? Obama and Chicago’s Picket Line

Senator and Presidential hopeful Barack Obama, in November, 2007:

“Understand this: If American workers are being denied their right to organize and collectively bargain, when I’m in the White House, I’ll put on a comfortable pair of shoes myself. I’ll walk on that picket line with you, as president of the United States of America. Because workers deserve to know that someone’s standing in their corner.”

That didn’t happen in Wisconsin. Or Indiana. Or Ohio. Chicago’s teacher’s aren’t in a showdown over collective bargaining so much as larger class sizes and longer days with less pay, but the question remains: do teachers deserve to know that someone’s standing in their corner?