Shock Doctrine in our Schools

Our schools are ripe for exploitation by people who are not really interested in education. With the explosion of new technologies, and financial pressure on the school system, education has become destabilized, leaving policy makers and educators in a state of confusion about what education is, and how it can be implemented.

The situation can be understood in terms of Naomi Klein’s book, The Shock Doctrine, which examines the way in which capitalists exploit the confusion and shock that follows a catastrophe. When a society becomes destabilized by an external force (either natural or man-made), it is easy to take advantage of the people’s confusion, anxiety and economic paralysis.

Klein argues that following the ideas of economist, Milton Friedman, capitalists deliberately look for destabilization, and even purposely create it, in order to be able to establish control over the newly emerging order. As an example, she cites the situation in Iraq in which Haliburton and Blackwater corporations were able to establish a base after the Coalition forces unleashed their “Shock and Awe” campaign.

Klein implies that the sequence of events in Iraq were deliberately planned so that private corporations, in which high level politicians and their cronies are heavily invested, would benefit. Her assertion is that the premise for invading Iraq (What was it again? Terrorist cells? Weapons of mass destruction? Regime change?) was really a ruse. This assertion is extremely disturbing, but even if it’s not true, it’s hard to deny that corporate interests can benefit from destabilization, and that the interests of the corporation may not benefit the people who have been destabilized.

“Shock and awe” in education is caused by two things: the explosion of digital technologies and social media, and capitalist ideals. These two phenomena are destabilizing education.

Teachers are competing with these technologies for children’s attention. With students inextricably and constantly connected socially through digital technologies, teachers are outside the loop. The students are part of a very engaging social network, and they spend hours a day passively sitting in front of screens, receiving hit after hit of pleasure hormones from their gaming and their social feedback. The situation puts teachers at a loss. They have a subject to teach, but they find it difficult  to keep students’ focus sustained long enough  for them to internalize a new concepts. How can they compete with the ever-present screens? In the search for answers, teachers are motivated to try any ideas that might work.

On top of digital technology is increasing financial pressure and suspicion from the free market ideologues who control the economy. Teacher and school performance are now being evaluated by people who are not trained in the profession. Evaluations are based on how well students do on high stakes, standardized examinations. NGOs like the Fraser Institute contribute to the destabilization by publishing school rankings based only on student test scores, and by lobbying government.

All the while, the free market entrepreneurs are searching for ways to streamline funding for education, thereby reducing their tax mandate. Their agenda is based on two philosophical beliefs: first, the belief that schools can do more with less (the efficiency model); and second, that the only subjects worthy of being taught in schools are subjects that offer job-related skills. The rest can be cut away. Those who want it can pay for private lessons.

Confusion in the school system creates a situation that businesses can exploit. It provides a market where corporations can swoop into schools, promoting products that offer solutions to the problem of engaging students. School districts, facing huge financial shortfalls, are under pressure to accept this intrusion of corporate interests. An example of this phenomoneon can be found in the Huntsville, Alabama school district, which faced a $22 million shortfall and moved to a district-wide online curriculum, hiring Pearson Education Inc to deliver it using such technologies as essay-grading software.

Under this kind of pressure, teachers and administrators have much to gain when they buy into the corporate agenda, especially when the corporation, using euphemistic terms like “flexibility” and  “partnerships”, is able to convince educators of the effectiveness of their technologies. When the privatization happens, the educators who have bought in to the corporate agenda will be the ones left standing, as they will not only accept the agenda unchallenged, but they will also assist in its implementation. Young teachers who lack job security and the critical thinking that experience offers, are especially susceptible to this agenda. Similarly, administrators who would like to advance their careers are wise to lead the parade for privatization interests.

A body that attempts to prevent privatization is the teacher union, but teacher unions are are facing a serious “shock and awe” campaign of their own. The privatization ideologues know that unions stand in their way, so they lobby policy makers to create heavy-handed legislation that bypasses negotiation with the union, and denies the union’s right to strike. Typically this legislation is unconstitutional.

The union’s only recourse is to fight the legislation in the Supreme Court, but doing so involves so much time that by the time their case is won, the policy has already gained a foothold in schools. Furthermore, the union faces such huge legal fees that it becomes cash-strapped. This puts pressure on the members to increase their contributions to the union. They start to question the union’s effectiveness and purpose.

None of this would matter to society as a whole if there were any indication that privatization leads to improved education for ALL students. But such is not the case. In fact, as charter schools have become the norm in many U.S. states, research has shown that students’ learning has not improved. In fact, the opposite seems to be true. Worse, the students who lose out in the charter model are those who have low socio-economic means – the poor.

This is the exact problem that a publicly funded school system was intended to address. Public schools were meant to offer every person an opportunity to improve himself. They were intended to be a great equalizer, like publicly funded law courts. Years ago, a well-funded public education system was considered to be the bedrock of an egalitarian society – as American as apple pie, if you will. We seem to be moving further and further away from this ideal.

Financial Incentives in Schools

A few years ago, the BC Government changed how schools are funded. In the recent past, a school received full funding for a student who was registered at the school. Now, a school receives funding based on how many classes are being attended by students. On the surface, this seems like a good way to do things (Why should a student who is only registered in 5 courses require the same funding as a student who is registered in 8?). However, the result of this change has been harmful to schools. It fails to take into account certain realities. What’s worse is that this formula leads to a lowering of standards, as now there exists a financial incentive to offer easier courses in order to keep kids enrolled.

One reality left unaddressed by the per course formula, is the needs of students who have learning disabilities. Some students, more than you might guess, can not handle a full course load. These students will enroll in fewer courses, but they still need a place to go while they are at school. And they need extra learning support for the courses they do take. Even though they may only take five courses, they still need as much – maybe even more –  teacher time than a student taking eight.

Many students suffer from mental illness, which impacts their ability to cope with course loads. These students need counseling, sometimes hours a week, but there is nothing in a funding formula to reflect this fact. They may be spending fewer hours in the classroom, but they require more – much more – teacher, counselor and administrator time than the “healthy” kids. This need is something that I don’t believe policy-makers are aware of. In addition, with so many students taking online courses, kids are often at the school without a class to go to. They require supervision, and they use the facility. They use the washrooms, the weight rooms, the music room; they can be disruptive to classes in session as they walk through the hallways. They are really creating more need for custodial care, while the schools receive less funding.

Perhaps a more disturbing problem is the fact that when schools are funded according to the number of courses students take, they are incentivized to offer courses that students won’t drop.

I taught a Psychology 12 class a couple of years ago. The concepts in a psychology course are challenging. A large part of psychology is the use of science to evaluate the validity of social and philosophical constructs. To understand the epistemological, scientific, and philosophical premises of psychology, one must become familiar with a new vocabulary. Psychology requires a bit of understanding of statistics. It is not simply sitting in circles and discussing dreams. When I introduced the class, I had thirty-three students registered. After my first assignment, a third of the students dropped the course, realizing that it was going to require more than simply attending classes.

I felt terrible about this situation, but the problem was not me. I was assured by many teachers of “academic courses” (philosophy, physics, chemistry, calculus) that this was a normal phenomenon. Students realized that this would not be an easy credit, and they were simply not willing to do the work required. Because they didn’t need the credit, they dropped the course. After all, why would they take an elective that could harm their GPA if they didn’t put effort into it?

Because they dropped the course, the school lost funding. If I had structured the course to have no homework requirements, or no writing requirements; if I had structured the course to just be a fun discussion of psychological concepts, I might have been able to hold on to some of those students. But I would not have been able to effectively teach them psychology, and I would not have been able to evaluate their learning. Students know when a course is “a joke”, and many would have gladly accepted course credit for something that was “a joke”. Administrators do not like losing students (and their funding). A lot of administrator praise goes to teachers who have full classes, and who are “successful” with students who “struggle”. I was incentivized to “lower the bar”, in order to be such a teacher.

Governments have become obsessed with “efficiency”, but in their efforts, they can unwittingly overlook problems, or cause problems. Schools are large, cumbersome institutions that look after needs far beyond “imparting knowledge”. Governments need to re-evaluate the services that schools provide, and create funding formulas that properly incentivize schools. In a world that clamors for more individualization of education, this is going to require more funding than ever. In a quest for efficiency, the cuts have gone too deep.

I could not feel proud of our democracy.

I took a little overnighter to Victoria, BC with my wife, Joan, our 12 year-old daughter and her friend. The weather was glorious, the sun making a rare appearance. Being relative novices to the ferry, we were excited to be on it, and we really enjoyed the journey to the Island. Victoria is a lovely city, full of history and charm. Our spirits were high.

The hotel I had booked is right across the street from the legislature building, so for a short cut to get to the Royal BC Museum, we crossed through the legislature grounds. I recalled the two times I had been on the lawn protesting government laws, one of which has been renounced as “unconstitutional” by the Supreme Court, the other being weighed in the courts. The memory made me smile a bit, as I recalled some of the people I was with, and our passion.

After a visit to the museum and a late lunch, we returned to the hotel for a rest. We didn’t go back outside again until after dark. At night the legislature is framed in white lights, looking quite pristine. I wanted to say something philosophical about how beautiful the building was, and how it represents a beautiful ideal, being the very place where our democracy is enacted. I wanted to be proud of our democratic process in which very polarized political views can find a place for civil debate.

I said something, but my words felt hollow. Considering the behaviour of so many of our high profile politicians, I could not feel proud of our democracy. Our present government has been cited ten times by the International Labour Organization for violations of the rights of workers. The same government has passed laws that have violated our own constitution, and it has been implicated in many public scandals, some criminal. It has used every form of manipulation, including paid-for advertising, to convince the public of the viability of its policy, and to establish its partisan brand, rather than simply release its policy to the press and let the public debate on its merit.  It has been behaving in a decidedly un-democratic way.

It was just a moment on a peaceful stroll at night. The pride I feel for my country is rooted in its adherence to the ideals of democracy. Our ancestors went to war for them, shed blood for them. It’s hard to clearly express the thought that darkened my sentiment. It was like an out-of-tune instrument in a symphony.

Key questions in education

After many years of teaching, I wonder about some of the directions we’re heading in education. I’m not sure that parents and upper level policy-makers – even “experts” are aware of what’s actually going on in classroom. I’m not sure about the validity of some of the assumptions we make about how students learn and what they need to be successful in school. Meanwhile, our unchecked assumptions about what students need have led to new initiatives in education, most involving digital technologies. Some claims that teachers make about the success of their initiatives go unsubstantiated. For example, people who are using various lesson techniques (say… iPods in the classroom) are reporting success, but no one seems to question whether the success is:

a. achieved to the same degree it would be using more traditional techniques

b. able to generalize to a setting outside of a particular teaching scenario

c. a reflection of how the teacher measures success (e.g. more participation? improved reading skills” more fun?).

Technologies are coming out faster than we are able to evaluate their efficacy. Teachers are being rewarded for ascribing to technological models: winning acclaim and sometimes promotion for spearheading change using technological initiatives. Education ministries are looking at exploiting digital technology’s power to reach many people at once as a way to decrease the need for teachers’ and students’ presence in classrooms. Many students are taking online courses. It seems to me that we are on an inexorable path toward change, without really pausing to examine whether this is a good idea.

What follows is a list of sevenquestions that I consider to be essential, followed by my speculations about the answers.

1. Can we assume that all students are always motivated to do the work required to improve their skills?

I don’t believe we can. I believe that there are some students who either don’t know why they are attending school, or just plain don’t want to be there. I also believe that there are students who, despite being perfectly capable of participating fully in their education, prefer not to engage in the work. Furthermore, I believe that many who ARE motivated to do well will do the minimum amount of work they can to get the grades they expect. For a surprising number of students, a 50% pass is the end goal.

This all says more about human nature than it does about teaching and learning, but we would do well not to fool ourselves. Despite the efforts of the most competent teachers, students will not always learn as much as they can.

2. Can we hold teachers accountable for the failure of students to engage in school?

I believe that teachers should be evaluated on their ability to provide meaningful, organized, engaging instruction. Teachers and schools must do what they can to make learning accessible, without lowering expectations. There is much research in the field of learning theory and cognitive psychology that can advise teachers about best practice. However, if students actively resist the direction and effort of the teacher, learning will not occur. In such a case, the teacher should not be held accountable for a student’s failure. Furthermore, the teacher has an ethical obligation to accurately report the student’s lack of progress, and to carefully consider whether the student should be allowed to proceed to the next level. In the vast majority of cases of failure to learn, the teacher is not to blame. Above all, schools should not pander to students’ desire for fun and easiness over substance.

3. Should schools be learner-centered?

No. They should be learner-focused, but learning-centered. Schools are places of learning, not social clubs or health spas. Not all learning can be fun. All courses have expectations that must be met by students. Teachers should not be pressured to make courses meet students’ expectations. The school’s primary purpose is to impart knowledge, skills and attitudes, not to entertain students or to provide day care. Although a successful teacher must do his best to tailor his instruction to meet the needs of the individual learners, his curriculum is not learner centered. Instruction is learner-centered; curriculum is not. Otherwise the whole idea of education would be absurd.

4. Is choice important to student learning?

Yes. Good schools offer electives that are attractive to a variety of different students. As students gain a general understanding of the world, it is natural for them to want to specialize. There is also some benefit in allowing students to investigate topics that are interesting to them in project-based scenarios.

5. Should students be able to choose how and what they learn?

Not always. Every content area has basics that must be learned whether they are engaging or not. For example, any successful student of piano knows that arpeggios and scales are not as engaging to play as sonatinas and nocturnes, but they are important rudiments to the development of technique that allows for specialization. No amount of salesmanship by the piano teacher is going to engage the student in practicing scales. No student should be allowed to take a course he is not prepared for.

6. Is an “inquiry-based” approach to learning the best way to engage and teach students?

I am quite certain that inquiry is at the heart of learning. For example, through directed inquiry and well-selected readings, students will be able to gain an understanding of literary themes and of symbolism. In such a scenario, the teacher’s role is to guide the inquiry. Once the child is engaged in the inquiry question, he will need the teacher to direct him to the answer (or just tell him the answer). Inquiry-based teaching is very demanding in terms of resources, especially if students are to choose their own inquiry, because the teacher will have to creatively inject learning goals into to the students’ project, rather than rely on a prescribed one-size-fits-all content as we have done in the past. Smaller student to teacher ratios will be necessary.

7. Does digital technology enhance learning?

No. While I believe there are many instances in which digital technologies can help with teaching and learning, they will never replace good teaching. Technology has its benefits. It offers instant access to factoids, which can shortcut the teacher’s and students’ search for exemplars of knowledge. It can also be used to disseminate  myriad information to multiple audience members instantaneously. A case in point is the variety of Youtube lessons that help do-it-yourselfers like me to fix their cars. In the name of efficiency, it is natural that digital technologies will be exploited. But I believe we must proceed with caution. For example, we know that kids are spending a lot of time in front of computer screens. A lot of people find it disconcerting that kids are opting for digital games rather than outside play. Scientists are postulating  links between the increase in on-screen gaming, and ailments such as obesity and attention deficit. There is even talk of students being “addicted” to online technology. At the very least, this concern should be raised before we wish for every student to have a computer screen in the classroom. It will be interesting to learn what the next few years of research show us.

Public Education – Some Inconvenient Truths

It seems that much of society has lost touch with the humanitarian principle behind public education. Many politicians eschew the idea outright, favouring a privatization model. And there’s something unnerving about the lamblike compliance of public school teachers and administrators with the those who would privatize education. Without much question, educators are welcoming policies that effectively erode truly “public” education. The phenomenon would suggest to me that people don’t actually understand the philosophy behind public education: the idea that if all children are given free and equal access to schooling, we can break the cycle of poverty through enlightenment – that we can be a truly equitable and just society – that through public education, poor kids will have the same access to schooling as rich kids. Everyone will have his chance.

Few people would dispute the nobility of the sentiment that all children, regardless of their economic means, should have access to education, but it seems that few people understand the implications of such an ideal when it comes to implementation. If education is to be truly accessible, it needs to fulfill five conditions:

1. Schools must not allow students with money to have an advantage over students without money.

2. Schools must offer full service. In other words, every school should offer all of the courses that are important to the development of young minds that will make up a happy and prosperous citizenry.

3. Schools must be non-sectarian. They must allow for happy participation by all people regardless of race, religion, or political affiliation.

4. Schools must be inclusive. That is, they must include students who have non-traditional abilities: those who are intellectually challenged or physically challenged.

5. Schools should be free from proselytizing or interference by agents who would subvert students’ thinking in a way that limits their freedom of choice. Students are vulnerable to this kind of interference, as they lack the maturity to think critically about the messages they receive.

The first premise is violated constantly. An ugly fact of our society is that there are students who, for one reason or another, simply can not get money from their parents. They can’t get money for supplies, field trips, student fees, or performances at school. Schools are usually very good at trying to identify the students who can’t afford such costs, and exonerating them from having to pay, but even this practice of charging everyone and then providing for those who can’t afford, is less than ideal. When this is done, the poor are identified – perhaps not to everyone else, but they themselves are reminded that they are a burden to the rest. This is not a positive message for a child to receive. This issue is difficult for schools, as there just isn’t enough money to provide students with what it sees as valuable to a well-balanced education. The drama department does not have enough money to pay for materials to build sets. The tech-ed department does not have a budget that allows the purchase of wood or tools. The English department certainly can’t afford to bring students to a performance of  Shakespeare. So schools charge.

The second premise, that schools must offer full service, is related to the first. The BC Ministry of Education has recently changed the funding of schools in such a way that schools are not funded per student, but they are funded per seat taken in each individual class. The result is that if enrolment in a particular class is low, the school may not be able to afford to run the class. This has led to either the overstuffing of classes that depend on smaller sizes (shop, instrumental music, home economics), or their outright cancellation. The solution has been to assign classes to one particular school (where they can be overstuffed) and to ask students to go to that school if they want to attend that class.

If students need to travel to another region to get the courses they want or need, some students will be at a disadvantage. Students depend on their parents. If parents can’t or won’t provide for them, then through no fault of their own, some students are being left behind. So, for example, if a student who would like to take physics does not have the support of her parents, she will not be travelling across town to the science academy; she will have to attend school in her neighbourhood, where physics might not be offered. Providing a bus only partly mitigates this problem, as there are myriad complications of being out of one’s neighbourhood. For example, in a group project, the bussed student will have difficulty scheduling collaboration time. Furthermore, some students need to work to support their families. Scheduling classes outside the neighbourhood can be very disruptive.

Up to this point in BC, public schools have been very good at satisfying the third and fourth conditions of being non-sectarian and inclusive, but we face a danger. Many policy-makers are looking at chartered schools as an option. Chartered schools are government-funded, but the money is given to private non-profit organizations who administer the actual schooling. These organizations often have philosophical interests that are not consistent with universal education. For example, a religious group might run a charter school, or a business that has a stake in a certain political ideology. These schools are exclusive by definition, as they tend to focus on certain specialties like business, science or fine arts, and within their individual structures, they actually limit choice.  If you enrol in a specific charter school, you have made your choice, therefore you will subscribe to their narrow curriculum. Usually the top level administrator in these schools is not trained in education. Ironically, policy-makers tend to use words like “flexibility” and “choice” when they advocate for the charter model, but their real attachment to the model is that it is able to eliminate “inefficiencies” like the hidden costs of inclusion or choice.

A public school has as its goal the provision of an education that will create happy, balanced and productive individuals, and not to further adherence to a certain world view (e.g. a religion) or to focus on a certain target group (e.g. musicians). Conversely, charter schools do have specific outcomes in mind. Therefore, they run the risk of having their provision for exceptional learners to be only a side interest. Those who don’t fit the mould are at risk of having an education that is less learner-need-centred.

The fifth condition of public schools, the need to be free from manipulation by private interests, is one that for a while now has not been met. Schools are entering into exclusivity contracts with businesses. A typical example is the vending machine contract. Most schools have vending machines that allow students to buy snacks. Typically, these snacks are not particularly nutritious. In exchange for the advertising and profiteering that the private corporations receive, the school gets a kickback. Many schools actually have private restaurants providing food, rather than cafeterias. Surely in such scenarios, the children’s best interests are at the risk of being compromised to the profit motive. Consider the score clock that has been provided to the students by a soft drink company. In exchange for that clock, the school is required to be loyal to the company and its affiliates. The students are exposed daily to the company’s logo.

This is manipulation of the most vulnerable in a place where manipulation shouldn’t occur. But worse is the schools’ dependence on the private support. If ever a corporation were to start taking more than a proprietary interest in the schools, the schools would have to either surrender to the corporation or go without the money that the companies provide. It is easy to imagine a scenario in which a teacher points out how the school’s sponsor corporation is using unethical business practices (like having sweat shop workers create its computer components) and the corporation taking exception. Imagine a charter school run by an energy corporation. How would its board of directors feel about science teachers showing overwhelming evidence that our dependence on fossil fuels is contributing to global warming, and its resulting catastrophes? Schools are underfunded by the government based on the expectation that they can make up the difference in these private-public partnerships. But how long before the private partners start calling the shots. The further we surrender control of our funding to private interests, the more we risk dangerous manipulation of a non-sectarian liberal education.

The public needs to be more aware of what public education is, and its value in a free-thinking, democratic society. People need to know that although public education is very costly, it is only vehicle that can truly promote equality. Educators themselves need to be re-educated about the value and meaning of public education. Whenever we reduce funding to the system, or delegate control of it to private interests, we are putting it at huge risk.