27 June 2012

The purpose of public education?

"At times of falling school budgets any surplus cash should be reinvested in schools rather than into people's bank accounts; this is irrefutable but it is not the core of the argument," Estelle Morris wrote in the Guardian recently about the need to resist any intrusion of "for profit" schools into the United Kingdom. "Profit can drive improvement. But the financial bottom line will never provide the motivation to deliver what we want and need from schools.

"There is a moral purpose that underpins education and, although by itself it is not enough, it must be the driving force. Without it, it's too easy to accept that it's not worth trying, yet again, to help a child to master a skill, or to rationalise that the social class divide is something we'll just have to live with. Understanding this moral purpose for education is not the preserve of those in the public sector; others bring the same passion and determination and share in the same joy success brings, but all this feels strikingly at odds with the drive for profit. Value for money, certainly; careful management of resources, essential; but there can only be one set of shareholders – and that is the children."
The recent drama at the University of Virginia - the "termination" and restoration of President Teresa Sullivan - should push us into a much deeper conversation about the purposes - moral, political, societal - of public education. And if it might do that, then Helen Dragas and her co-conspirators on the UVA Board of Visitors will have done us a great - if fully unintentioned - service.
US News and World Report ranks universities,
even high schools, like commodities,
feeding the worst kinds of pressures on
public education.
"It's tough to condone vandalism, but one can't help but feel a bit of satisfaction at the temporary defamation of the historic Rotunda at the University of Virginia," wrote Susan Milligan in US News and World Report, a publication whose own greed does a steady and continuous disservice to American education.

'"G-R-E-E-D," the vandal spray-painted in a message that was then speedily painted over. It's a message that the board of the university should hear, even if the mode of communication was inappropriate...
"No doubt," Milligan continues, getting to the heart of the matter, Dragas's collaboration with the mandarins of the university's Darden School of Business to force corporate profit-seeking concepts on the nation's oldest public university,  "Universities are a business, and must adhere to budget limitations. But the basic mission of a corporation is to make money for its shareholders. A university is meant to educate people—yes, even people who might run private corporations someday. If an institution of higher education were to conduct itself according to corporate principles, it would only accept students who can pay the entire cost of tuition with no help from the school or government aid. It would give "A"s to those who brought the most money into the school—perhaps by being a great athlete who attracted ticket-payers to the field—instead of to those who performed well academically. It would pay more to professors whose graduates went into higher-paying fields, instead of those who taught liberal arts or music.
Therein lies the heart of the matter best discussed by Irish President Michael D. Higgins in his book Renewing The Republic. As Higgins points out, there is a sphere of "public spaces" which must not be invaded by the greed of the private, the selfishness of the private, even the individual intention of the private. "Public Spaces" which must - if we are to be functioning societies, Irish, English, Scottish, American, whatever - remain as shared, community, unselfish spaces which put "us" ahead of "me."

Education, "Public Education," is one of the spaces, perhaps the most important of those spaces. And as such, it must never be tainted by either of the forms of selfishness prominently on display at the University of Virginia in the past two weeks. The first form was abundantly clear, the refusal of certain "capitalists" to understand the concept of "public space." The other, more obscured, the refusal of certain academics to understand that a "public space" must change with the public.
"President Teresa Sullivan has been reinstated as president of the University of Virginia. There have been a million theories about why she was asked to resign. Many think economic dynamics and political partisanship are primarily at fault. But based on my own research on trustee decision making, I see common human failings at the heart of this crisis. Understanding these failings is the key to drawing the right lessons from these events," writes , Associate Professor, Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education, University of Michigan, at Huffington Post, in what I might consider to be a classic academic exercise in trying to make a major issue fit one's area of interest.

"I found many instances, both large and small, of moral and ethical transgressions by trustees. But I also found that trustees rarely intended to act unethically, instead justifying their choices as "win-win propositions" in the best interests of the university. Even the most egregious acts were often covered up by this kind of "justified reasoning." But Bastedo does then raise two key issues which relate to the universal assumption of self-possessed expertise about education: (see Lasic, Thompson, Socol: Why is everyone an expert on education?)

"This is a moral seduction - a gradual process by which people come to believe more in the fundamental rightness of their own judgements than in the organizational mission as constructed by others. It is a very human process, informed by recent developments in decision theory. As decision makers, we have a number of cognitive biases that cause us to prefer our own judgments over those made by others, and we create rationalizations to justify our desired conclusions.

"We also tend to overestimate the value of our own experiences, and to discount the value of the experiences of others, even when they have better information than we do. We tend to access information that is biased in our own favor, and to employ reasoning that suits our needs at the time. And as these decisions progress, we tend to escalate our commitment to existing actions rather than pay the price for a change in course."
Both sides in the UVA battle suffer dramatically from moral seduction. Both sides dramatically overestimate the value of their own experiences.

Student protest at the University of Virginia
We understand the absurdity of the stockbroker, hedge-fund manager, software executive, lawyer, or doctor assuming they know as much about education as "we" do - after all, they would not allow us to trade their stocks, market their software, try their cases, or do their surgeries just because we have the same experience with their field that they have with "ours." Some of us - maybe a limited number in the United States, understand what is fundamentally wrong with corporate strategies in the public sphere, especially in education, where we believe it is morally wrong to worry about profit and efficiencies when our mission is the future of all humans. But do we truly understand the limitations on our experiences which we accept? which we allow? which schools of education often actually encourage?

My experiences with "Jefferson's University" are limited, but I once spoke to a "Technology Tea" at the Curry School of Education there, a moment apparently (from what I've heard) best remembered for my use use of "the f- word" (I offer apologies, what can I say, I'm from a Land Grant University). But what I heard from the PhD students there was a steady stream of thinking based in the belief that American education consisted almost entirely of students exactly like those in the room, or those on the campus in Charlottesville. With that assumption came a belief that, if change was needed at all, the change should be slow and, to use President Sullivan's word, "incremental."

Now, both Teresa Sullivan's current institution, the University of Virginia (founded 1819 on plans by Thomas Jefferson), and her former institution, the University of Michigan (founded 1817, twenty years before Michigan achieved statehood), are "institutions" in every sense of the word. Tradition-bound "public ivies" where change comes slowly, if at all, and where education - at least this rarefied level of preparation for leadership - is primarily considered a privilege of the elite. But because both institutions see themselves as provinces of America's wealth leadership, they find that America's wealth leadership sees themselves as "stockholders" - by both contributory support and by privilege.

"There can only be one set of shareholders – and that is the children." Morris wrote, and she is right. The children, and our collective future. Every student abandoned because we seek efficiency, or seek to divert money to corporate profit, or divert money to testing which informs us not at all, has incalculable human and societal costs which all of our children will bear. And every student abandoned because schools will not change from what is comfortable and familiar to an older generation has incalculable human and societal costs which all of our children will bear.

And this is true whether the issue is how Education PhDs are given out or what a curriculum for eight-year-olds looks like. It is true whether the issue is money spent on elementary school technology or who gets admitted to the University of Virginia. It is true whether the issue in seventh grade seating or the power of the Graduate Record Exam.

Carl Anderson asked me
, at EdCamp-Minnesota, what the purpose of school was, and I answered, "The purpose of school should be that everybody has the most possible choices in everything they do." And morally, politically, societally, I'm going to stick with that.

Because I want our schools to help kids get ready for an unknown future, in a way which will not just make them "good, productive citizens" but happy humans as well. Happy humans capable of making all of our worlds better, whatever the next hundred years brings.

And I'm going to tell you that doing that will cost money, lots of it. It will use up much time - very inefficiently - because the raising of the next generation has never been, and will never be, efficient (no matter what Ellwood Cubberley, Woodrow Wilson, or Bill Gates has thought). And it will require a radical re-imagining of every school, from the local kindergarten to the University of Virginia because the 18th and 19th centuries which informed the structures of both are long, long gone.

If the University of Virginia wants to be something other than a province of a pre-ordained elite, than saying "no" to the corporate interests which wanted Sullivan ousted is just a tiny part of what must happen - neither incrementally nor by top down order - but organically and everywhere in the university.

If your school or school district or division seeks to be something other than an institution of social reproduction and wealth preservation, then it must not just say "no" to corporate intentions but also "no" to teachers or administrators saying "no" to change in order to preserve their own comfort.

What is the purpose of public education? Why should any student attend our school? What is the ethos which drives us? If we can not answer these questions coherently, if we can not act on our beliefs coherently, we must step aside, as perhaps everyone in the leadership of the University of Virginia ought to do.

- Ira Socol

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