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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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Why all of these disruptions? The greatest factor may be money. The once-stable financial foundation of the nation’s education system has collapsed. Several elite institutions, such as Yale and Carnegie Mellon, along with dozens of other American colleges, have disgraced themselves by rushing to open overseas campuses in totalitarian countries—a fad that already seems to be fading, in large part because the crass money grab that motivated in has raked it far less than was hoped for. But almost every modern college and university depends on a faculty that is largely made up of temporary workers—adjuncts. Two thirds of the more than one million faculty members in the nation are adjuncts. If you still believe that universities are hotbeds of socialist agitation, ask any tenured professor how he or she feels about this culture of serfdom that buoys a shrinking number of tenured staff.

Worker solidarity and class consciousness may remain as quaint concepts in a few classrooms, but they are not a reality in university life. Adjuncts make extremely low wages, often teach at several schools, and rarely have so much as a desk or a table to use if they happen to have a spare moment before or after class. Their numbers keep growing—both absolutely and as a percentage of all people teaching in higher education institutions.

And all that slicing away at the wages and benefits of instructors hasn’t slowed down the ever-increasing cost of college. American students now have nearly $900 billion in outstanding student loans, a third of which is held by subprime lenders. This is the next bubble that threatens to burst and smear the American economy. And it resembles the housing bubble in almost every way. In housing, two generations of development and ownership—based on the steady construction of millions of modest homes and the patient building of equity in small but consistently growing increments—were replaced by an orgy of oversized homes, manic swings in value, and a collapse that threw millions of families into underwater mortgages or outright foreclosure.

In education, every virtue of the three successful waves of educational expansion and innovation has given way to a culture detached from any deeper mission, disconnected from local communities and concerns, and founded on an unstable mixture of underpaid labor and accelerating debt. Education, once the key to the nation’s advances in science, manufacturing, economic opportunity, and social cohesion, is now increasingly extractive and predatory.

 

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Twenty-five years ago, when the New York City public school system seemed permanently mired in mediocrity, a New York Times reporter asked me, “Alright, what’s the answer?”

I said, without thinking really, “One hundred nuns.”

I grew up in a Midwestern city, Chicago, where nuns and priests and ministers were very much a part of the fabric of our lives. It was a world of institutions—parishes, congregations, ward offices, ethnic societies, unions, local companies, workplaces we could see from a window in our homes and that our parents and their children, once of age, could walk to. I don’t mention this out of a sense of nostalgia or without a very clear sense of all the limitations of this world—its insularity, its hostility to the other, its cover-up of sins and abuses, its resistance to change.

And yet a hundred nuns was more than just a glib response. Those nuns embodied a sense of mission. They lived and worked in and among the communities they served. They had high expectations of themselves as instructors. And they set tough standards for their students, no matter how poor, no matter what the situation in the home, no matter how many weekend hours were spent in part-time jobs.

 
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