Monday, June 01, 2015

Big Money Undermines Higher Education

Education and business isn’t quite the pair as, say, horse and carriage or love and marriage, but the association seems to be getting stronger every semester.

Consider the business perspective and the logic of its exponents.

Education, a $1 trillion business according to the Education Industry Associationis the only 'enterprise' that hasn’t changed in a fundamental way in the last hundred years. A teacher walks into a classroom, the undisputed source of knowledge and wisdom, and lectures to a captive audience. The hope is that some of that knowledge and wisdom may hold and help students attain the goals they aspire to.

But it’s a hit-or-miss game because there is no accountability and no rigorous method for measuring whether or not the students have learned anything.

So why not apply business principles to enforce accountability and measure scientifically the ‘product’ (education) being delivered to the ‘clients’, that is, the students? If there are ‘dead woods,’ incompetent teachers, in the system, replace them with competent ones. After all, there is a huge pool of available teachers, particularly technologically-savvy young and idealistic shapers of minds, adept at delivering lessons in the native media of digital-age learners.

Successful corporations are ruthless pruners. They incessantly demand accountability from their employees who must earn their wings every day by contributing to the ‘bottom line’ in some tangible and measureable ways. Fail and you are out. Succeed and your incremental raise is more or less guaranteed when evaluation time comes around.

Can anyone argue with this line of thinking? Why not bring the pressure of the market to bear on a moribund educational system and infuse it with vigor and excellence? Why not put in place a rigorous system of checks and balances to extract value from the billions of dollars the government spends annually on public education, instead of letting it disappear down the black hole of unaccountability?

The logic is flawless.

And there’s the rub: Flawless is theoretical and rarely practical.

The major business practices applied to education so far has had no significant impact on the state of education in general and on the performance of students in particular. In many cases, it has made things worse.

Here’s a partial list of such practices, and their impact, or lack thereof.

1. Hire name-brand CEOs, preferably charismatic fundraisers, to transform educational institutions into profit centers. Stellar student performances are bound to flow.

The diagnosis is in and it is grim. Escalating salaries of University presidents, extensively documented and available online
is turning institutions of higher learning into corporations with even less accountability than before. Only to the willfully blind is it not clear that Wall Street principles and educational principles are incompatible. Education comes from the word ‘educere,’ which means to draw out or unfold the powers of the mind. Well-connected presidents can raise endowments that reach the stratosphere, giving bragging rights to ivory towers and their lesser brethren but it does nothing to unfold the power of the mind, the raison d’etre for institutions of higher learning.

One side-effect of turning colleges and universities into mini or full-fledged corporation-like entities is the hiring of administrators at the expense of teachers. A significant portion of the state and federal funding for schools go to pay for these administrators whose impact on student performances is negligible.

Another is the insidious effect of ideologues and political operators on higher education. As big money pours in from influential donors who have no interest in the power of the mind (in fact, they would like it to remain dormant as it suits their agenda) but everything to do with influencing administrators, faculty and students to promote corporate interests and vote for their hand-picked candidates. No doubt about it: The financial elite is subverting the purpose of higher education for their personal interests.

Between 2005 and 2013, for instance, the billionaire Koch brothers have invested at least $68 million on college and university campuses, paying for faculty, research and publications. You can check if your school is receiving Koch funding here.

When the focus is on profit rather than on truth, ‘higher education’ degenerates into dogma and despotism flourishes at the expense of democracy.

2. Tenure is a prescription for failure, since it is virtually impossible to fire incompetent but tenured teachers. Hire full-time teachers only when compelled to. Appoint as many part-time and adjunct faculties as possible. Let them do the bulk of teaching. Since part-timers have hardly any overhead (including such mundane stuff as health coverage), in glaring contrast to full-timers, the savings can add up and profit soars.

But what are the facts on the ground?  Students are more frustrated than ever before. They are not getting the education they deserve since part-time faculty cannot give them ‘office hours’ (difficult, since they have no offices) as they travel from campus to campus (‘freeway fliers’) to teach, hoping to somehow cobble together enough cash to pay for basic necessities. Demanding part-timers to become primary education-givers makes all the sense in the world from a corporate perspective but it does nothing to promote the well-being of either part-timers or students.

3. Include as many Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) as possible in the curricula. That eliminates the need for maintaining in-house resources and faculty for critical courses, leading, again, to ‘massive’ savings.

Well, MOOCs were supposed to liberate students from the limitations of their own institutions, allowing unfettered access to instructions from the best and the brightest stars in the firmament of higher education. The business model is compelling: For the price of a fast Internet connection, institutions can offer students top-quality education while eliminating the need for teachers in some of the core and critical subjects. The savings could then be applied to help students attain their goals.

It turns out that the savings, if any, have not resulted in improving the lots of students, such as offering more required classes during more flexible hours. MOOCs are not what they have been touted to be. At their best, they can act as supplemental instruction to traditional classroom teaching but it is clear by now that ‘MOOCotopia’ is not going to lead to ‘edutopia.’

4. Technology can save education by cutting costs and empowering students to take responsibility for their own education. Technologists and ‘educational entrepreneurs’ would like to eliminate the middleman, that is, the teachers, and let students learn what they want to, when they want to and how they want to, by using the magic of technology, each new iteration promising faster and better education. To paraphrase Thoreau, ‘In technology is the preservation, that is, the fulfillment, of students.’

We have been down this road before. Technology has made access to information easier and data crunching faster but in terms of enhancing critical thinking and improving performance, the needle hasn’t budged a bit. No technology can replace thinking, doing and making connections between insights and ideas.

5. Invest heavily in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) courses because that’s where the demand is and that’s what can guarantee the employability of students. If STEM can guarantee the maximum Return on Investment (ROI), why not put all the efforts there? The implication, of course, is that such subjects as English, philosophy, history, and in general  what we may call ‘The Arts’, may bring students personal satisfaction but no living wage in the fiercely competitive global market. Interdisciplinary studies? What benefit can they possibly have when specialization is the key to survival?

Much has already been written about the fundamental purpose of education and the
short-sightedness of putting all educational eggs in the STEM basket. The Washington Post columnist Fareed Zakaria, author of In Defense of a Liberal Education, has pointed out why America’s obsession with STEM is bad for the nation’s future: ‘A broad general education helps foster critical thinking and creativity. Exposure to a variety of fields produces synergy and cross fertilization. Yes, science and technology are crucial components of this education, but so are English and philosophy.’ 

The New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, author of Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania, quoted his English teacher about the purpose of higher education: ‘It is for developing the muscle of thoughtfulness, the use of which will be the greatest pleasure in life and will also show what it means to be fully human.’

STEM courses can develop such muscles but so can anthropology and art history and English. And it is interdisciplinary studies that have led to some of our most remarkable and serendipitous discoveries since antiquity.

The intertwining of education and Big Money creates a highway that leads to nowhere. Colleges and universities must rethink the purpose of higher education and ward off any attempt by agenda-driven, wealthy ideologues to subvert this purpose.

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