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How Predatory Reformers Are Destroying Education and Profiting at Our Children's Expense

Online courses can't replace the good old fashioned teaching methods we once pioneered but are now driving Finland's educational success.

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These three waves of educational innovation shared some common characteristics. Again, they were highly decentralized. They were connected to local people in local places with local histories and cultures. They were all profoundly pragmatic, integrating work as a part of the curriculum in the case of the first wave of small colleges, responding in part to the region’s need for workers in the case of the high school movement, both reacting to the demand for qualified labor and increasing the capacity of young and adult learners in the cases of community and vocational schools. At the same time, two of the three waves, the small colleges and high schools, were also socially radical—embracing the goals of freedom for slaves, access to education, and equity for women long before the broader culture and other institutions followed suit. These waves of change were led and shaped by a mix of people who were, for the most part, the opposite of charismatic. And these institutions were, at the start and for many decades, financially sound—publicly funded, “owned” by a broad range of local taxpayers, not overly dependent on government subsidies or on market gimmicks.

 

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Today, many of the qualities that informed the three successive waves of educational expansion and innovation have been turned on their heads, as school districts are increasingly affected by forces far removed from local communities and utterly disconnected from local interests, dynamics, and needs. These forces tend to militate against the pragmatic principles upon which the expansion was based.

One of these forces is financial. State support for public colleges and universities has dropped from a little over 38 percent in 1991–1992 to 24 percent in 2008–2009. Community colleges scramble for available funding that may or may not connect to the felt needs of their immediate communities. A case in point is the College of DuPage, just west of Chicago. The campus is a beehive of more than 26,000 attendees. Many of the young students seek a less expensive alternative to four-year schools and many of the older students look for skills to advance careers or to lead to new jobs. According to local business operators, in the office parks and light-manufacturing areas near the school, well-paying jobs go unfilled because applicants lack the skills and training to handle the higher-tech work. The funding to make this obvious connection between willing students and well-paying work is limited and hard to access. So the school largely ignored this enormous opportunity until pressured by DuPage United, a local affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation, which I help to manage. Meanwhile, state funds were available for a new Homeland Security Education Center and for a facility that features a few hotel rooms and a wine cellar. While the security and hospitality industries do provide job opportunities, the wages and benefits offered by the manufacturing sector are significantly higher.

Another influence is the race to be “elite,” or more elite, particularly among the top ten percent of colleges and universities, whose operators apparently think lavish facilities and plentiful administrative staff attract the best students. Princeton, for instance, recently started work on a $330 million “arts neighborhood.” The rail spur off the Northeast Corridor Line of New Jersey Transit, called the Dinky, will be altered, and a new Princeton train station will be built. New housing and arts-related facilities will spring up. This massive project follows a math library designed by architect Frank Gehry and a science building that cost the earth.

In 2010 the editor of the alumni magazine of Yale, my alma mater, wrote an essay that began this way: “The 1,100 Yale managers who had filled Battell Chapel were utterly silent when President Richard Levin . . . told them . . . . ‘We have more people working’ in business and administrative staff at Yale ‘than best practices suggest we need.’” To call this an understatement is to say the very least. An institution with about 11,000 students and 9,000 staff somehow allowed its management corps to reach the almost incredible number of 1,100. The president said that the process of assessing the staffing level would be deliberate and that no one should panic.

 
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