Sunday, June 09, 2013

Collectivized children

All Your Kids Are Belong to Us

In the interest of full disclosure, my wife is head of an innovative private start-up school in Austin. My son is a student there, along with six other great kids. Last week we celebrated the school’s first anniversary. My wife was glad to break even. Maybe next year she’ll be able to pay herself a small salary. But she isn’t really in it for the money.

In our city, however, voters just approved two bonds for the government schools totaling $489.7 million. Yet despite having to compete with “free,” and being forced to subsidize her competition, my wife goes on. You see, she is a true believer—in her educational philosophy, in her school community, and in our son.

Perhaps you can imagine our consternation when we saw this:

"We have to break through our kind of private idea that kids belong to their parents or kids belong to their families and recognize that kids belong to whole communities."

Those are the words of Melissa Harris-Perry, a Tulane professor of political science and television personality, speaking in a controversial MSNBC spot.

There is probably no greater threat to real community than the conflation of community with State power. Yet look around: You can see this conflation used almost daily to justify all manner of injustices. And many of these injustices are committed against children.

I realize evoking “the children” is almost always a cheap rhetorical tactic—a conversation killer, maybe the punch line of a joke. But education is as personal for my wife and me as it is an issue of general principle. All around us, people are using the vagaries of community not only to achieve any of a thousand illiberal ends, but to perpetuate the government school system and specifically to propagate the idea that children are the property of the State.

At The Freeman we’re familiar with all sorts of collectivist bromides. Still, if I had read Harris-Perry’s sentence above in isolation, I might be tempted to give her the benefit of the doubt—especially if we think of community not as the state, but as what it is and should be: the voluntary association of people who find one another, work together, and provide assistance to each other in times of need.

Community is not something that can be fashioned by elites or simply coerced into being. It is an emergent phenomenon. It is the product of intertwining commitments. Community is built by a free people and held together by invisible bonds—bonds of love, charity, and trust. Community cannot be fashioned by State largesse, central planners, or police power. So, yes, communities can certainly participate in the development of children.

But Melissa Harris-Perry is not talking about real community:

"We have never invested as much in public education as we should have because we've always had a private notion of children; your kid is yours and totally your responsibility. We haven't had a very collective notion of these are our children."

Let that settle for a moment.

Award-winning education reformer John Taylor Gatto, who understands real community, has written volumes about the effects on children of 12 years in government schools:

Inevitably, large compulsory institutions want more and more, until there isn’t any more to give. School takes our children away from any possibility of an active role in community life—in fact, it destroys communities by relegating the training of children to the ends of certified experts—and by doing so it ensures our children cannot grow up fully human. Aristotle taught that without a fully active role in community life one could not hope to become a healthy human being. Surely he was right. Look around you the next time you are near a school or an old person’s reservation if you wish a demonstration.

I don’t have to look. I remember it well: “Line up.” “Remain in your seats.” “Raise your hand.” “Open your books…” “Head down on your desks.” “The bell is about to ring.” “Today we’re covering…” “You’re tardy.” “Tests up to the front.” “You passed.” “You failed.” “CAT” “ACT” “SAT” “State standards” “No talking.” “Pass up your work.” “First period, second period, third period, lunch.” “No, you can’t go to the bathroom.” “You were so obedient today; here’s a sticker.” It often seems more like an internment camp than a community.

But if Harris-Perry had been talking about a more Aristotelian idea, we might have concluded she was speaking figuratively, perhaps idiomatically about the relationship between families and communities. After all, we human beings need each other to develop fully, and a good-neighbor ethic is perfectly consistent with an individualism that respects freedom of association. I call it “rugged communitarianism.”

But Harris-Perry’s worldview is not rugged communitarianism. It is ruthless collectivism. It’s a worldview that compels people to sustain a system that cartelizes teachers and alienates children from the very communities in which they will eventually have to live.

What’s most troubling to me is that Melissa Harris-Perry claims State ownership of children before a very nice camera, in a most unapologetic fashion, so as to be piped into the living rooms of a lot of people. She represents millions. Her words and image were taken and packaged up by complicit producers, color treated, and allowed to represent the ethos of an entire television network.

I try to distance myself from TV rhetoric, hysterical talking points, or the otherwise squirrely narratives of an increasingly polarized media. But Harris-Perry’s words chilled me to my bones. I knew once I saw that commercial I could never let my child set foot in a government school.

It’s not just because I think of my son as belonging to me, though admittedly he’s mine in some limited sense. I think of my son as also belonging to himself, more and more every day. He is in the process of becoming the captain of his own life. He is not the product of a five-year plan. Nor is he a bucket into which any expert’s contrived curriculum should be poured like so much thin gruel. My son is an amazing person ready to undertake learning pursuits that could go down any of a million forking paths. At six, he is certainly no pliable drone to be molded by standardization and trained to serve Harris-Perry’s collective. And he won’t be at 16 or 26, either.

My son, like almost every other child, is an autodidact. Unlike other children, though, he is a member of a dynamic school community that includes people of all ages. He is not the product of a State contrivance—a Skinner Box that requires he sit at attention at one desk arranged 5 x 5 while a State employee reads from a script. My son’s school community is much more robust than any institution that purports to prepare children for life by taking them out of it. And his community is as unique as he is, because each member of that community is unique and their collective actions are the product of intimate, localized processes. The pedagogy offers a living quest, not standardized tests.

In Melissa Harris-Perry, I had seen the face of statist collectivism. It was soft, sweet and delivered at very low cost to millions in a glossy TV ad. Thankfully, a lot of people were outraged by that MSNBC spot. But some weren’t.

In fact, people who think like Melissa Harris-Perry are legion. Many are parents. Generally, they work in education, at all levels, feeding like parasites on the wider economy. In fact, they are educating most people’s kids. And that is why, year by year, more people sound like Harris-Perry. She is the product of an ideology forged in Bismarck’s Germany, refined in Mussolini’s Italy, and given expression in our U.S. school system. I’m sure a great chunk of Americans saw the Harris-Perry ad on television and nodded their heads as if someone—finally—had brought clear articulation to what they’d secretly believed all along: Government is our parent.

As Gatto reminds us: "Institutional leaders have come to regard themselves as great synthetic fathers to millions of synthetic children, by which I mean to all of us. This theory sees us bound together in some abstract family relationship in which the state is the true mother and father; hence it insists on our first and best loyalty."

The public school system—planned for your kids by central power elites—is the status quo. It has been for a long time thanks to the fully subsidized childcare it offers. Those who express any skepticism about this scheme are painted as radicals, or worse—uncaring, atomized individualists. People like Gatto, whom I quoted above, are considered fringe. Why? Because, as Gatto himself reminds us, “The sociology of government monopoly schools has evolved in such a way that a premise like mine jeopardizes the total institution if it spreads.” Gatto describes teacher innovation or system critiques of the schools cartel as a “bacillus” the system must eradicate.

Any system is composed of agents who benefit from the system, so the system wants to protect and perpetuate itself. And you know, that’s kind of understandable. But behind this dangerous conflation between community and State power in education, there is also an ideology. It is like a religion, only its adherents worship government.


Brightest pupils targeted in new British standards drive

Secondary schools will be ordered to prepare more pupils for top universities amid claims from Ofsted that large numbers of the brightest teenagers are failing to reach their potential.

The education watchdog will tell teachers to do more to stretch children between the age of 11 and 18 to prevent the most sought-after higher education places being dominated by students from a small number of elite schools.

It is believed that comprehensives will be told to set and stream pupils by ability and ensure talented teenagers sit the toughest A-level subjects that are currently seen as a route into leading universities.

Sir Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector, claimed it was a “big issue for our country” that so many bright students failed to achieve their potential at secondary school.

Speaking recently, he criticised the fact that just four private schools and one sixth-form college now send more pupils to Oxbridge than 2,000 state comprehensives combined.

An Ofsted analysis has shown that around one-in-five pupils who gain top scores in English and maths at the age of 11 currently fail to go on to gain A* or A grades in GCSEs at the end of secondary education.

Next week, the watchdog will publish a major report into the reasons why so many comprehensives are letting down the most able pupils.

“It will be a ground-breaking report that will say some important things about the standard of provision for our most able pupils,” Sir Michael said.

“It’s a big issue for our country. Do we need more youngsters from the state system to get into universities? Yes, we do.”

The report is likely to call a greater use of setting and streaming – rather than teaching in mixed-ability groups.

This follows comments by Sir Michael last year when he warned that mixed-ability classes were a “curse” on both bright and low-skilled pupils.

According to previous Ofsted figures, just 45 per cent of the 22,834 lessons observed by inspectors in 2010/11 employed some form of setting by ability.


Compliance toll a lose-lose game for Australian universities

LET'S hope that the mooted review of red tape in higher education is quick, accurate and decisive. The weight of regulatory compliance confronting the sector is monumental, to the point where institutions must consider regulation among their greatest risks.

What passes for regulation at present seems more akin to paranoia. Rather than a sensible underpinning of quality in the sector, regulation has become an obsessive overburden that is stifling development and innovation.

And the cost? The public appropriations to run the regulator pale into insignificance by comparison with the real cost to the sector. The cost of compliance, in the hundreds of millions, must rankle university leaders as they contemplate cuts to fund Gonski reforms.

Private providers in the sector also are hit hard. At their scale, they simply can't absorb the compliance overburden without risking their whole operation.

And the apotheosis of compliance overburden? The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency.

The national regulator is fast engulfing the sector with controlling tentacles pushing into the furthest corners of institutional life. The cost to the sector is high, the threat to institutional autonomy real and regression to a TEQSA-determined norm spine chilling.

The impost of escalating compliance on higher education is amplified by opportunity cost. Resources lost to compliance reduce teaching and research quality and stifle innovation. It's a lose-lose game.

Several universities are in the middle of the TEQSA re-accreditation exercise. Here, swaths of academics and administrators struggle to interpret the regulator's requirements for quantitative and qualitative data. Time is eaten up compiling and delivering portfolios, responding to interrogatories, correcting errors of fact and misinterpretation, commenting on the regulator's drafts and ultimately responding to commendations and recommendations in the public arena. And then they must prepare for regulatory follow-up that demands to know of any change in circumstance in the interim.

Universities now have risk managers, risk assessors, quality assurance directors and departments and the back-up dedicated to regulation.

University committees, executives, legal officers and vice-chancellors oversee TEQSA reporting, pore over responses, handle the misinterpretations and design the communication strategies to cope with the agency. It's a monster. Compare all this with the more rational peer and self-regulatory regime that previously served the universities and the community well.

Recall that the compliance overburden came to pass because a few private providers played wide and loose with international student visas, dodgy courses, poor services and insufficient financial viability.

The upshot? Universities and the best of the private providers now find themselves in a web of regulation that has punished the entire sector, rather than just dealing with the recalcitrants.

Draining resources, though, is not the only problem of this overburden.

Compliance is taming the sector. Fear of the regulator's red flag embeds timidity, works against diversity and pushes the sector towards a line of regression.

The capacity of an institution, public or private, to develop a world view, shape a vision and innovate is at risk.

Colouring a different teaching and research profile, shaping distinctive graduates and creating innovative ideas is the lifeblood of any institution. A monocultural approach to sector regulation, imposing sector-wide standards and metrics, pushes institutions towards a norm - or, if they resist, into liminal existence.

This is particularly true in the case of private providers. By and large this sector provides a valued education to many Australians.

The best private providers are agile and innovative. They maintain quality programs and deliver highly proficient graduates into the professions and industry. They are highly focused, often specialising in areas that universities will not or cannot offer. They have a different but valuable approach to education from the universities.

Yet they fall within the purview of TEQSA and are little appreciated or understood. The regulator has a conventional and university-led view of higher education culture, and it seems determined to push this orthodoxy hard into a diverse sector in which private providers are integral but different.

A one-size model may be convenient to the regulator but tough on quality private providers, especially those in more liminal areas, which may be the real movers and shakers of the sector.

Ironically, TEQSA itself is now at risk because it seems determined to regulate from a position of singularity.

The agency has failed to recognise that a flexible, contextualised and nuanced model is needed, one that moderates risk for all concerned but encourages innovation and respects difference. And one that is more in tune with Australia's diverse regions, communities and democratic ethos.


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