Clearing the Path to Graduation: Short Cuts to the Unemployment Line

Ever since wealthy elements of the radical right (DeVos, Koch, etc) have injected themselves and their anti-democratic values into our education system, I have been warning that the agenda of these people was much larger and much more self-serving than anything they were saying publicly. Attempts to infuse their “Christian” values into our schools are barely hidden behind their claims of cost savings, teacher accountability, school choice, etc.

These motives and tactics will be the subject of a future article. Today I want to talk about the consequences of a victory by the radical right on our students. Once Governor Snyder invited voucher advocate and Mackinac Center heavy hitter, Rich McClellan, into the school aid process, all of us should have been very suspicious of any proposals coming from his group. The shady “Oxford Foundation,” led by McClellan and no one else he’s willing to share publicly, has recommended a number of changes to the School Aid Act and all of them seek to dismantle public education in favor of private, and primarily faith-based schooling. Among these proposals are:

• An increase in charter schools run by for-profit and faith-based organizations
• An accelerated embrace of untested cyber-schools
• A system that would allow school aid to follow a student to whichever school/computer/organization that student wants to use to get a diploma
• A grant to students who “graduate” early

I understand that it is possible to make an argument on how all of these things will make it easier for a student to get a high school diploma:

1) An increase in charter schools and school choice means that parents and students can take advantage of competition in the education “marketplace.” If a local public school wasn’t meeting their needs, they can move to another district, go to a charter school, or enroll in a cyber school to find the education they desire.
2) Cyber schools provide an opportunity to students who are not willing/able to sit in a classroom for 7 hours a day or who may want/need to work during the day and can take their classes at night or on weekends. Normally “disruptive” students are removed from the classroom so others can learn. Flexible, inexpensive, and self-paced education sounds pretty good.
3) Students Motivated and already “bright” students can speed through the bare minimum requirements to get finished a year early and get $2500 from the State to do so. This sounds pretty good. Students can get on to their college careers a year early and with a little bit of money to get them going. The State would save thousands by not having to pay for an extra year of education.

So what could possibly be wrong with a cheaper, quicker, and easier education? From a financial point of view, the unions will rightfully argue that all of the above panaceas are really nothing more than a multi-front war to destroy public education and the unions who serve this vital component of democracy. Charters will skim only the students who they see as a good fit in their school. The best and the brightest students will be recruited and students with special needs will be shunned because they are just too darned expensive to educate. Whatever is left of public schools will be forced to educate the most “costly” students with reduced revenues. All this is exacerbated by incentivizing top end students to get out of school early, thus allowing students to get four years worth of education while the school only receives three years of funding. Worse, students who make important, positive contributions to the school culture which benefit all students, have one less year of interactions with their schoolmates.

All of these arguments should be aired in legitimate public forums and all sides ought to have the opportunity to make their case. (It’s a little hard to be optimistic that the Michigan Legislature and the Governor will actually open these vital questions up for public scrutiny in light of the undemocratic way they pursued their Freedom to Freeload…er…Right to Work agenda.) But let’s assume that at least the Governor learned his lesson in the aftermath of his role in giving the radical right its clear path to union-busting and we have an open, honest debate about the future of public education in Michigan. Parents, teachers, administrators, school boards, faith-based groups, for-profit education entities, unions, universities, and more will all have their voice aired.

But one voice will not be heard now, and by the time it is, it will be far too late to account for these victims of the current assault on public education. That voice belongs to the students who will have paid the price for all the cost-cutting and short cuts being pushed by the Mackinac Center and the Oxford Foundation. What will we hear from the students who were given easy paths to a diploma and were “taught” through unproven and flawed cyber-schooling? When those students hit colleges and the job market with inferior skills, who will help them overcome what we’ve taken from them.

Until this morning, I thought that my continued pleas on behalf of the students who will be the guinea pigs of the radical right’s assault on public education would just not get through to the right people. But this morning I ran into this study and the results could not be more ominous for the students of our state. Under a grant from the National Science Foundation, a study was conducted of technology in the college classroom and how it is assisting in improving student learning. The summary of the study can be found here: (link). The study concludes that “(p)rofessors at top research universities are highly skeptical of the value of the instructional technologies being injected into their classrooms, which many see as making their job harder and doing little to improve teaching and learning.”

It’s not hard to extrapolate the findings of this study to what’s happening in the high schools. If college professors already know that more “technology” doesn’t mean better learning, how are college admissions offices going to evaluate students who come largely or exclusively from a cyber-learning environment.

The proliferation of on-line colleges which cannot gain accreditation from any reputable monitoring system will be about the only colleges who will be willing to take these students on. So an inferior high school education will be followed up on with an inferior college degree from a paper mill “university.” Does anyone honestly think top ranked universities like Harvard, Northwestern, the University of Michigan, and more will be accepting students from Michigan’s inferior secondary system over students from states who actually had to endure the rigors of a genuine education and who actually learned that the growing of a student mind takes a lot more than a clear path to a diploma?

I am not suggesting that we turn back the clock to the good old days of the chalk board and the one-room schoolhouse. I am suggesting, however, that we approach the proposals to add more technology, and to clearing as many obstacles toward earning a diploma, with genuine studies to determine if these changes are in the best interests of students, and not just the people who stand to profit from the changes and who will be able to push their private, often religious beliefs, onto our students. People will easily be able to argue that there are cost savings in what the radical right is pushing. On its surface, that seems to be the only thing that matters in Michigan politics anymore. Regardless of the costs that cannot be measured in state tax dollars, there are going to be costs down the line that we will have trouble overcoming. Poorly trained workers become poorly paid workers. Students who take short cuts to graduation may find themselves seeking cuts in the unemployment line.

I am not arguing that reforms in public education must be made (again.) I am not arguing that technology will play an increasingly important role in the education of our students. I am not arguing that there are ways to save money to ease the burden on our taxpayers without sacrificing quality education. I AM arguing, however, that any change must be motivated by the right things. Making money for education corporations, saving money for the sake of saving money, appeasing wealthy members of the radical right, and making education “easier” are all invalid motives. They will undermine public education that will produce inadequately prepared students which will lead to more costs for the state and more challenges for democracy. Those things may be on the agenda of the radical right, but they don’t belong on ours.

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2 Comments on “Clearing the Path to Graduation: Short Cuts to the Unemployment Line”

  1. Alex Yerkey February 18, 2013 at 12:14 am #

    What are your thoughts on a European model of K-12 education — in which four-year-university-bound students and those headed for careers/vocational education are separated around the 8th grade?

    Would career- or vocational school-bound high schoolers be seriously disadvantaged by receiving an online high school diploma? Would they not be able to gain acceptance to trade schools or community colleges? Would they not be able to gain acceptance to lower-echelon state schools (Michigan directional schools, GVSU, SVSU, and schools of similar ilk)? Are there job opportunities they would be able to get right out of high school with a standard high school diploma that would be unavailable to them with an online diploma? The only serious disadvantage seems to be that the Harvards, MITs, UChicagos, and Michigans of the world would be less likely to accept them. Were these schools seriously on the table for students with low-to-middling GPAs and low-to-middling SAT/ACT scores? Would the existence of the online option deprive students who were bound for four-year institutions of the opportunity to take a standard college-prep curriculum chock-full of accelerated, honors, and AP courses?

    I agree with the side of the argument that represents every dollar spent on charter and cyber schools as a theft from public schools because, in a very real way, they are. Spending on these alternatives to public schools delivers a demonstrably worse education for those students who take them while degrading the educational experience for those students who remain in public schools. If these schools were not funded at the expense of public schools, or were not allowed to poach the best and brightest students from public schools, would the same issues exist? Clearly, these “reforms” as proposed wouldn’t solve any of the major issues facing Michigan’s educational system, but are they per se bad or is the problem just in the details of the proposals?

    • Mark Pontoni February 19, 2013 at 1:24 pm #

      Alex,

      There’s no doubt that the “one-size fits all” model adopted in Michigan is severely flawed and punishes students. The loss of “vocational education” (now called Career Tech) in many districts sets a lot of students up for failure. If the measure of “success” in high school is passing Algebra II and putting up a 20 or higher on the ACT, then many (most?) of our students are going to be labeled failures despite the fact that they don’t need either the ACT nor Algebra II to succeed in life.

      There are various European (and Asian) models which “triage” students as young as third grade and set them up in an education program that best suits their apparent aptitudes. Are these systems perfect? Of course not. But they do offer multiple paths to success and that seems to make a lot more sense than what we’re doing here.

      I’ll be looking a little more closely at the Finnish model and the movement in Seattle to get away from standardized tests in an upcoming article.

      Thanks for reading!

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