Saturday, November 19, 2011

Education with a Twist—An Oliver Twist

Let’s let the newt speak for himself:
You say to somebody, you shouldn’t go to work before you’re what, 14, 16 years of age, fine. You’re totally poor. You’re in a school that is failing with a teacher that is failing. I’ve tried for years to have a very simple model. Most of these schools ought to get rid of the unionized janitors, have one master janitor and pay local students to take care of the school. The kids would actually do work, they would have cash, they would have pride in the schools, they’d begin the process of rising.
I don’t know what your reaction was, but the first thing that popped into my mind was, why take it out on the janitors?  If the school was failing it wasn’t their fault.  According to Gingrich, it’s the teachers who can’t make the grade.  So why not put the kids to work following lesson plans, going over last year’s standardized tests, etc.?  There would be as much pride in this as in cleaning toilets.

But let’s not get hung up on details.  Isn’t it nice having a historian running for president—someone who knows what was really good about the good old days?


John said...

I'm no Gingrich admirer by any stretch of the imagination. But my reaction to this most recent burst from the human Roman candle was different.

Some forty-five years ago when I was in Korea as a draftee in the Army I spent weekend pass time as an English conversation resource person at a high school in Taejon. I was able to have a first-hand look at how education was done in what was at that time a very poor country with big ambitions. Most villages at that time were without running water or electricity and people still wore the traditional clothing, both men and women. There was no doubt that we were in a foreign country.

Because there was not enough money to provide free public education to everyone, students had to pass examinations starting with what we would call middle school if they were to be allowed to continue. Same for high school and, of course, post-secondary education.

Those who could not pass the tests were not accepted. But some children of families with enough money were able to continue their education through private schools. The system was exactly opposite what I had seen in America where private schools were generally the place where many of the most accomplished students were sent. Americans who send their kids to private school still tend to look down on the public school system for social as well as academic reasons. (And perhaps because some of their children need the extra help as well for whatever reason.)

Anyway, part of the public school was exactly what Gingrich mentioned, not because they were putting janitors out of work, but because that was simply the thriftiest way to take care of the facility. I have memories of seeing all the girls on cleaning day (I think it may have been every couple of weeks) with their aprons and headscarfs over their uniforms (navy skirts and plain white blouses with a pale blue plastic trapezoid sewn at the pocket) with brooms, pails and cleaning rags scouring the school from one end to the other. They did their work with pride and thought nothing of it.

I mention this only to toss out the example. As we know, the Korean economy has since become one of the most vibrant in Asia and four or five decades of hard work have served them well. I could be wrong, but I imagine that by now they can afford to educate any child, even the dullest, in a good public school.

Anonymous said...

I also think it is worthwhile to be charitable when listening to a suggestion. Yes, a big problem here is the elimination of janitorial jobs in an economy where new jobs are hard to get. But...

The idea seems to be to give the kids some kind of work other than school work; and to build up a work ethic, which could well be more valuable to them than academics if they are in such a dire situation. I know that a friend of mine who runs a small business says he finds it very hard to hire for low end jobs: too many of his new employees don't really "get" the whole work concept.

I expect anybody who comments here is probably at least middle class. The work ethic is something our parents drilled into us by example and through discipline. That's unfortunately not true for a lot of the poor, and it is one reason they have so much trouble improving their lot.

That said, I don't know that just telling them to help maintain the school would be enough. That master janitor would have to be really good to supervise so many students and have them get anything out of it beyond a resentment of drudgery. So while I can be sympathetic to the goal, it is far from clear to me that this would be effective.

Maybe I'm wrong - John, I would be very interested if you could comment on something - I am guessing that a lack of a work ethic was not a problem those Korean students had.

Anonymous said...

It is always good to read the comments from those who have made it down the road of hard knocks over the last 2 or so decades. Maybe it is true that Korea has been able to lift the boat of equality for all of it students; but then too when all are at the same level of, efforts to lift the outcome are equally divided and not skewed toward the suburbs over the inner cities. Review the difference in tax revenues for Detroit as compared to Rochester Hills, Farmington Hills, etc. if you wish to see inequality. One way to fix the problem is for Detroit to annex the suburbs to provide a better tax base. It is no longer a society which provides an equal chance to all people and the chance for upward mobility we used to experience in the seventies and eighties is long gone. Tom Hertz does a nice study defining upward mobility "Understanding Upward Mobility in America."

The days when a good work ethic and a high school diploma being the ticket to the middle class have also disappeared. I am sure you would not solely blame the high unemployment percentage rates on those with just a high school education on a lack of work ethic? And what of college with the high costs of student loans to finance college has certainly contributed to closing the door on many. I suspect our Korean Vet friend went to college on the GI Bill the same as I and when it paid for tuition. Loyola of Chicago used to be ~$300 a course in the Masters Program. I am sure it is more now. Dr. Elizabeth Warren reviews what has happened to the chances to enter the middle class; The Coming Collapse of the Middle Class."

Why is it we are willing to finance prisons at an average $24,000 per prisoner and keep captive ~1% of the total adult population, heavily skewed towards minorities, with ~50% being nonviolent, and yet we quibble over financing public schools? Is that expenditure for prisoners reaping a better result? Maybe we should teach high school students to be prison guards as it is a growing business both private and public. Another good and not a terribly long read is Dr. James Gillian "Violence: Reflections on A National Epidemic." A lack of chance in upward mobility with this generation and the previous ones will result in other economic consequences.

"Are there No Prisons??? Are there No Union Workhouses???

John said...

I came across a twisted version of the 99% meme, the Asian father's version: "You part of 99%? Why not 100%?" Indeed the work ethic has never been a problem for Korea or most of Asia for that matter. After watching this TED talk about squatter cities...

...the reason is plain. For most of the world outside our little loft it's "Root, hog, or die."

From early times America has had cognitive dissonance about education, with the academic track usually in tension with the vocational track. Occasionally the two are coupled to everyone's benefit, but most people tend to equate educational attainment with financial compensation rather than a path to understanding which may or may not result in more earnings over a lifetime. Oddly, some folks actually opt for a modest lifestyle, typically with less stress. And some, regrettably, do end up as lazy parasites.

It is a serious mistake, however, to equate achievement with a good work ethic alone. In my career as a cafeteria manager I depended on the dedication and sometimes really tedious hard work of people we carelessly refer to as the working poor. My father's family were farmers and he was an auto mechanic. So my appreciation of hard work may run deeper than that of a post-graduate seminar consisting of an academic cohort, many of whom are likely a generation distant from that "vocational" way of life.

The point about the prison-industrial complex is well-made. The same might be said for the education-industrial complex as well, with creditors gaining more from the exercise than the aggregate social improvements that are supposed to be forthcoming. Like so much of our economic system (this is still a blog about economics, I believe) a large and growing portion of what passes for "product" is, in fact, a product on paper, the result of what is sometimes called rent-seeking (although the term is not usually aimed at ALL investment income). And like medical care, which regards healthcare as a commodity rather than a social benefit, education is more about making money for the industry than improving the real product, those who graduate.

I have been the beneficiary of the GI Bill plus two extremely low-interest loans from a non-profit educational foundation that were quickly paid off soon after I got out of school. (Twice, in fact -- once midway through my undergraduate years and again after a stint as a draftee.)