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Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Career College Cancer; Destroying Lives for Profit

Social Mobility, the ability to get a leg up and leverage a foothold on the ladder into vertical motion, is the holy grail for anybody who works with or lives in poverty.

For those that subsist on the ground floor, beneath the bottom rung of the American ladder, whether millionaires pay their fair share is less important than rent.

Today, Arne Duncan explained that post-secondary education is still the key to social mobility in this country. He told the American People that "Going to college, by far, is the best long-term investment any individual can make for their future."

Now, many of my students aren't even sure that they can (or even want to) finish high school. My classroom is filled with second-chancers who have already lost the ability to graduate in the traditional fashion, so when one of them comes around and decides that they want to go to college, it's a moment of celebration and it becomes our job to breathe energy into whatever has kindled the small flame inside.

But that's hard to do when college often means Everest, Devry, AI, or UEI.

A few days ago Laura, one of my students, came in to show me something. She was excited. She'd been researching colleges and had settled on one. She pulled out a brochure and my heart sank. She wants to go to UEI.

If you've not heard of it, you can use any one of the thousand other for-profit career-technical schools as a reference point. UEI specializes -- as many of them do -- in low-end certificated employment programs like "Criminal Justice" (TSA Screening, Gaming Observer, Security Guard) and Business Office Administration (secretarial school).

"What do you think?" she asked.

What do I think? I think that we need to be more specific when we talk about post-secondary education being the key to social mobility.

I think the same thing I think when any predator snags new prey. I think the same thing I do when anybody falls for a cheap line. I think the same thing I do when somebody I know tells me that they're reading Dianetics.

What do I think?

I think the for-profit post-secondary education industry is the single most horrible thing to happen to education and social mobility in this country in the last generation.

Education may be the key to social mobility, but education is not what the for-profit colleges offer.

Education cannot be done for a profit because education, the process of taking somebody who is knowledgeless and unskilled and transforming them into a skilled and knowledgeable contributor to society, is definitionally unprofitable. The people that require education require it because they do not yet have the capacity to earn. A For-Profit University cannot make money educating people, so therefore their mission is not fulfilled through education.

The for-profit nature of the institution's mission means that education is not an end product, but a means by which the institution can reap profit. And since their students are low-yield on that front, the school's chief focus is not on them. The institution's chief focus must be on the students'money-gathering properties.

Recently, the General Accounting Office investigated the for-profit university scams. They focused on 15 colleges and found that all 15 engaged in deceptive and misleading practices. Four of the fifteen engaged in outright fraud. Even Wall Street is souring on the for-profits because the model is truly unsustainable without rampant dishonesty.

Laura, just like most all of their other students, will have to take out loans and the school will do whatever it can to ensure that she receives them, including fraud, deceit, and trickery.

And what she will receive in return for her ability to gather money for her corporate master is a debt load and a useless degree that will trap her permanently in the underclass.

$10,000 in debt in order to earn $15 per hour.

$10,000 in debt to learn skills similar to the ones that we used to teach in public school vocational programs.

A poor girl will go $10,000 in debt in order to support corporate profit.

Fuck For-Profit Colleges.

That's what I think, but what do I say?

"I think it's good to be looking at college, Laura, but are you sure that this is the one you want?"

She is. She wants to do Dental Assistant.

I nod and suggest we look at the website. I pull it up and we begin to go through what she will need to do for her degree. It's an 8-month program.

I ask her whether this is what she wants to do for the rest of her life. She shrugs. "I can get a job with this. I want money."

I open the link to the required regulatory information and show her the figures. I point out that only 37% of the students finish the course in 8 months and that even then 1 in 5 are unable to find a job. Another truth of the for-profit university world is that a graduate is more work and less money than a drop-out. A person that completes the program is reflected in the job-placement statistics and, frankly, there aren't that many jobs out there for dental assistants and even fewer for other programs. It's better for the university to have students go for an extended period of time, max out their loans, and drop out before completion. The college gets the same amount of money either way.

Then I show her that the median loan debt for her program would be nearly $10,000.

She looks at me, shocked. She reaches over and goes to the "FAQ" section and tries to open the link to "How long will it take me to complete my training program." The link is broken (this is a fairly common trick in the for-profit university world. None of the FAQ links for UEI work. At the Everest College site, the link for articulation agreements from their regulatory page fails to load, so there is nowhere on the site that explains that your credits cannot be transferred to any other institution should you decide to switch).

"What the fuck am I gonna do?" She asks, "I don't want to owe no $10,000"

So I opened the LA City College website and showed her that they offer an identical program, with actual college credit, for $2,772 plus books.

Our community colleges are overcrowded. They are trimming programs left and right, their campuses aren't clean and shiny, but they are the socialized alternative to the privatized, for-profit, trap and they do an amazing job for our young people.

We look at the program together, we look at the costs, the classes, the books (LACC's website doesn't require you to give contact information before you can review the programs, another way they are different from the for-profits. LACC won't call students 180 times to try and convince them to attend. They attract students by being good, they don't have to promote themselves through high-pressure sales tactics, glossy ads, and deceit.

By the time we're done, she's sold.

Socialism works when it comes to education. And even though Republicans are hell-bent on destroying public education so that their corporatist backers can reap more profit, they haven't closed them all yet, so that's where Laura will go instead.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Marvin Does Time: Why a Kid Chooses Jail Over School

Marvin, who I've written about earlier, is back in jail. He was part of a chainsnatch robbery and even though he didn't snatch the chain himself he was there and he was on probation so he's back inside. He could be released back to probation if he were willing to go back on house arrest and attend school, but he says he'd rather stay in jail. His incarceration saddens and frustrates me both personally and professionally.

Mainly, I'm frustrated because he has chosen to stay in jail rather than be put on house arrest because he would be forced to return to school.

This isn't because he comes from a bad family. He doesn't. His mom and dad are good parents and hardworking people. They are supportive, intelligent, and both understand the value of -- and are willing to support -- his education.

It is more related to the fact that he doesn't come from a bad family and the dissonance between his reality and his personal narrative is painful. Each of us has a dominant narrative into which we incorporate the events and interactions of our daily existence and Marvin's narrative is founded in badassery. He wants to be hard. He wants to be a thug and it is easier to align himself with his story in lock-up than it is in a classroom.

But it's not just that. There are dozens of kids that fall away from our school each year and many of them don't have a thug narrative and aren't involved in gangs and crime. For many of them their narratives are victim-based or built around self-loathing. But in all cases our schools have played a huge roll in creating the circumstances that make dropping out seem like a valid and reasonable choice.

We tell kids that school is vital. We tell them that getting a high school diploma is the most important thing that they can do. We beg, we scold, we yell and we cheer all in an effort to squeeze another graduate out of the tube. Our national emphasis is on graduation. High school is the only time in any of our lives when entire institutions are willing to bend over backwards in order to ensure our success. High school students are rewarded for attendance and for academic achievement. There are even movements afoot to pay students money to attend and succeed.

But at the same time, we treat them like criminals.

The article on Common Dreams today regarding the 'School to Prison Pipeline' starts like this:

Metal detectors. Teams of drug-sniffing dogs. Armed guards and riot police. Forbiddingly high walls topped with barbed wire.

Such descriptions befit a prison or perhaps a high-security checkpoint in a war zone. But in the U.S., these scenes of surveillance and control are most visible in public schools, where in some areas, education is becoming increasingly synonymous with incarceration.

That article concerns itself with the aggressive policing and policy enforcement by schools and school police which has the potentiality to destroy students. It's a real issue, but the problem is both older and more institutional than that:

Our schools manufacture alienation.

I've written about this in more detail before, but it is important to remember that our schools were designed in part with the advice and consult of Andrew Carnegie and other Gilded Age industrialists in order to tailor the educational product to the needs of the product's consumer. Since most public education products would be working in an industrial setting, it made sense to acculturate them to factory life in their adolescence so that they would be able to make the jump from pupil to cog with little added training.

Factories needed workers who responded to bells.

Factories needed workers who were capable of basic math and literacy.

Factories needed workers who were able to follow directions.

Factories needed workers who did not question authority.

Factories needed workers who did not attempt to think beyond the requirements of their duties.

Factories needed workers who were conditioned to repetitive simple tasks.

So schools tailored their factories to produce factory workers. They even designed the schools to resemble the factories in which their products would labor later in life.


But there are no more factories and the institutions, pathways and methodologies we have spent a century creating, that we cling to because this is how we've always done it, are now anachronistic and ridiculous. For the last thirty years, our schools have been home to a massive self-defeating hypocrisy where we are using a factory model in an attempt to create knowledge workers.

We tell our kids to think for themselves because the modern workforce needs critical thinking, but we punish them for doing so when their analyses don't match the conclusions required by the tests.

We encourage kids to be individuals, but reward conformity and punish dissent within the massive institutional system that is public education.

We want kids to be self-regulating, but still demand absolute obedience to tardy-bells.

We implore kids to express themselves, but we still don't allow them to question authority.

We rhapsodize about creativity, but we don't allow kids to apply it to our curriculum which is forged in steel.

Our aspirations are digital, but our actions are still industrial and for children who grow up in neighborhoods like Marvin's, where they are told over and over again that school is their only way out, confusion and frustration feed their often destructive narratives. Confusion and frustration are a short straight path to alienation.

And for Marvin and other kids like him, alienation means being more comfortable behind bars than in class.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

An Open Response to Drs. Biggs and Richwine at the Heritage Foundation

Dear Drs. Richwine and Biggs:

I read the Heritage Foundation Report on Teaching this morning. I found it because it was referenced at Daily Kos and I read it through over lunch.

It had me thinking all day about my chosen profession.

Your facts weren't necessarily wrong, and your conclusions were predictable. You don't like the idea of public education -- you see it as a government intrusion into a marketplace that should be dominated by private industry -- and so it's really no surprise when you extend your distaste to us who do the dirty demon work of socializing and educating America's youth.

So yes. Yes we are compensated well in excess of our private school counterparts. Yes we generally scored more poorly on the SATs than our private sector counterparts. Yes we still have pensions and job security.

Yes. Yes. Yes.

But. But But But.

But I have mentored a lawyer and a transplant surgeon who were making mid-career switches. neither lasted a year in a job that I do with pleasure. Those coming from better-compensated fields are much less likely to stay.

But I have watched private school teacher after private school teacher earn their credentials so they could come join us in the pay-haven of public schools only to turn around and go back to where there's toilet paper, working copiers, student loads under 100, and students they weren't afraid of.

But, just like all front-line civil servants, we are exposed to the capricious and sometimes vindictive wishes of the populous. We have our job security because without it, we could not be effective.

But I did well on my SATs because I had parents who weren't willing to let me do poorly. They paid for special intensive classes. My 1340 was as much the result of money as it was the result of brains. Were yours so different?

And a special but for those of us who willingly work in places like Watts:

But without us, our country may never be able to recover from the damage that's been done by years of social and political neglect.

As we are seeing on the national and international scale right now with the Occupy Movement, the social contract that bind a people and their government has frayed in the middle class.

But there isn't an Occupy Watts because in Watts and neighborhoods and communities like it around the country, the social contract has already snapped. It was ripped asunder generations ago in a massive display of frustration and instead of being renewed, it was replaced with a simple detente.

For most of the rest of us, this detente has been easy to mistake for renewal, but it is not.

But the students I see everyday don't make that mistake. The children of the detente are not raised in a world where government provides safety and ensures the ability of its citizens to exercise the rights endowed to them by their creator. The children of the detente are raised to see authority with a skepticism that many of the middle class have only learned to adopt later in life and with a cynicism that is heartbreaking.

In the detente, social services are often viewed as entitlements instead of a leg up because in the detente, there is no easy foothold.

In the detente there is no Officer Friendly.

In the detente, the assumption is that teachers and social workers hate their jobs.

In the detente, nobody chooses to be a lifer.

But if we are ever to renew the contract with the urban poor, it is going to be the teachers, police, and social workers that do it. It certainly won't be politicians or Ph.Ds.

And unless the contract is renewed, the libertarian/conservative dream world where opportunity is a choice for all will never come to fruition.

With this in mind, I ask that you, Drs. Richwine and Biggs, reflect for a moment. If we are dumb and overpaid, then we should not be entrusted with the daily diplomacy necessary for renegotiating a broken social contract between a betrayed people and the government they believe has betrayed them.

Maybe you, good Doctors, and your friends at Heritage should be the ones who must always keep in mind that every negative interaction you have during the course of your day while you attempt to do good is a concrete confirmation of hopelessness.

Maybe you should be the ones to inspire change in bad habits that were years in the making. Our students are often a bundled soft core of fear and hurt wrapped in a cage of steel and covered with a soft, thin, skin, and I must warn you that you need to be careful on your approach because piercing skin means hitting steel.

But maybe you would be better suited to unbuckle the taught steel that has been forged inside our students by crime, poverty, hopelessness and the deep belief that nobody cares about them.

Maybe you will be willing to take the time to dismantle the metal-hard shields through long-term, honest, earnest, relationships.

Maybe you would better suited to the burden of knowing that if you make a promise, if you create an opening into the hurt underneath, that you had better be there to see it through or you will have destroyed an opportunity to heal a child and the country in which you both live.

Maybe you would be a better representative of the state than me and my colleagues who are dumb.

Maybe you know a better way to convince a child that the American Promise hasn't been broken.

But unless you are willing to unleash the power of your naturally high SAT scores to help us, you should probably shut the fuck up.