How Predatory Reformers Are Destroying Education and Profiting at Our Children's Expense
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Combine this evangelical embrace of online alternatives with the willful naiveté regarding questions of power and profit—who controls and who benefits, who loses influence and who pays the price—and you have the two essential ingredients for another in a long line of costly and destructive sideshows.
This entire experience has the same feel and dynamic as our nation’s most recent infatuation with the complex, radical, transformative high-tech “advance” in housing finance that led to the financial collapse of 2009 and the slow-motion depression we still struggle to escape. I vividly recall a breakfast meeting with an intelligent and well-intentioned housing official at the highest level of New York City government in 2006. He had recently attended a meeting of the smartest people in housing finance, led by the whip-smart son of a billionaire philanthropist. They had been discussing securitization and other strategies to expand home lending. As with MOOCs, one of the rationales was that it would enable people, poor and urban, to enter the housing market. As with MOOCs, it was incredibly complex and technical. In fact, my breakfast partner, now a top-level federal official, said, “Only seven people in the world really understand how it all works.” I remember saying that this didn’t seem to me to be a good thing. Meanwhile, under the cover provided by academic economists and government agencies, rip-off artists were peddling sleazy subprime mortgages out of strip malls in Fort Lauderdale and Los Angeles, to borrowers who would end up in foreclosure and bankruptcy a few years later.
Colleges strapped for cash are already cutting staff, introducing MOOCs, and hoping for the best. Once the instructors have been removed and the budgets have been trimmed, it will be difficult to return to what we could call a more relational approach to education. The new MOOC entrepreneurs know this. The college bureaucrats whose interest is to protect or even expand their fiefdoms while paring away at the instructional staff know this. Those who simply hate teachers associations or what they think of as the progressive tilt of colleges and universities relish this. And those who believe that all associations are now passé, that in this post-institutional world the online consumer should be free to find the perfect virtual product, are cheered as their fantasies of the future morph into new realities.
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We are a long way from the local connections, the local relationships, and the local interaction of early denominational colleges, high schools, and community colleges. In these three waves of institutional development, the major dynamic moved mostly from the inside out—from the interests, needs, perspectives and cultures of local communities into and through the schools that they created and sustained. A critical mass of those locally based institutions sparked a chain reaction: the training of well-equipped and capable scientists, engineers, farmers, welders, teachers, secretaries, business managers and founders, and many others. This farm system produced talented players by the millions. And those players invented, built, and steered the social and economic engine of the nation for more than 150 years.
Today, that dynamic has reversed. Since about 1975, local institutions found themselves reacting more and more to external forces—budget cuts at the state level, mandates from the federal government, various market “solutions” that masked further losses of local identity and control, failed corporate models of supervision and management that added endless layers of supervisory staff. Work, pragmatism, usefulness—the values that formed the foundation of many of the most remarkable educational institutions in the nation—are now sniffed at by the distant governmental and academic elites making the decisions. Alongside a commitment to pragmatic and this-worldly usefulness, many of the institutions created during the three waves of expansion also have a clear sense of a social mission. Most modern schools have neither.