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Public Good -- Or Commodity?

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If you are reading this during daylight hours in March, chances are that millions of our children are now engaged in what's called "test prep." Just yesterday someone showed me the March calendar for a high-achieving public elementary school: two solid weeks of the month were blocked off for "TEST PREP," probably in caps lest any classroom teacher forget and do some real teaching.

The banality of "TEST PREP" clashes violently with the ideas I was exposed to last week. Last Thursday and Friday, I spent quality time with syndicated columnist Mark Shields, GE Chairman and CEO Jeffery Immelt, Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO), libertarian activist Giséle Huff, Stanford's Claude Steele, Assistant Secretary of Education Carmel Martin, and Roberto Rodriguez (President Obama's education adviser).

These seven separate meetings (in Washington, D.C. and northern California) had only one thing in common: big ideas about life and learning. While their politics are different, all celebrated the human spirit. Oh, and no one talked about TEST PREP or about what is happening in real classrooms in many schools.

Both Roberto Rodriguez and Carmel Martin expressed the faith that pushing certain policy levers from Washington will produce the desired changes in 15,000 school districts and 100,000 public schools. So, for example, "doubling down" on early childhood education, as the Administration they work for has done, will dramatically increase enrollment in early childhood programs, and that in turn will lead to early reading competence. Investing $4 billion in 'turning around' low-performing schools will produce dramatic gains. Creating "Career and College Readiness" programs will make more kids ready for college and careers. And so forth. If either harbors doubts about the wisdom or efficacy of any of their policy initiatives, they did not let on. If either wonders whether federal policies under Presidents Bush and Obama might be responsible for the ubiquity of TEST PREP, we saw no sign.

Senator Bennet, whose previous job was Superintendent of Schools in Denver, spoke of finding new ways to train and 'incentivize' teachers. "What we do now makes no sense," he said, indicating that he wanted to use federal dollars to 'incentivize' school districts to use technology. He told us that he was worried about all children, not just kids in poor areas, being forced to attend schools that were failing to recognize the power of technology to radically change education.

Like Senator Bennet, Giséle Huff believes that today's technologies can transform education.

A libertarian activist who once ran for Congress, Huff now runs a small foundation. Perhaps because her office looks out on San Francisco Bay, she used a maritime metaphor to describe public education today. "Teach for America, KIPP and other programs are building rafts for a small number of kids, and that's fine as far as it goes," she said. "But I am worried about the ship's direction. We cannot abandon ship, but neither can we continue doing what we are doing; we have to change course."

GE's Jeff Immelt was bullish on America. He gave 10 reasons for optimism, with number five being, "We do education better than anyone in the world." As evidence, he cited the number of foreign students who come here for their graduate training. However, I'd be willing to bet a new GE dishwasher that he has no clue about what's happening in K-12 classrooms this March.

Which brings me the question posed by Claude Steele of Stanford: Is education a commodity or a public good? If it's a commodity, who's buying, and what's being sold? If it's a public good, just what are the benefits?

Steele, the new Dean of the School of Education at Stanford, suggested a double standard is at work. "For our own children, education is a commodity, a scarce resource that we are willing to pay for," he said. "People with resources will never give up privilege willingly," he said, which is why, he said, "When we talk about education for others, we say it's an 'opportunity.'"

However, if education is a commodity to be purchased, then I say 'buyer beware.' When even our good schools devote weeks to TEST PREP and the subsequent multiple-choice tests, that's an education system that is training kids as if life were a bubble test.

But life is not a series of multiple-choice questions, requiring only a No. 2 pencil. Navigating the future will require improvising, regrouping, falling down and getting up, growing and changing.

We know that the predictors of success in later life include diverse experiences in what Dean Steele calls "non-routine settings," but what could be more routine than weeks of TEST PREP? We also know that lots of reading and the experience of 'negotiating' with adults and other children also are preparation for, and predictors of, success. TEST PREP doesn't make the list.

So what on earth are we doing? "Americans are pragmatists," Mark Shields said. "While ideologues believe that what is right works, the rest of us believe that what works is right."

If Shields is correct -- and he usually is -- then most Americans must not know what their children and their neighbors' children are doing in class. If adults knew about the mind-numbing waste of time, I believe they'd do something about it.

Immelt concluded by noting that "the highway to the future is a toll road," meaning that we Americans have to be prepared to work creatively and aggressively if we wish to ensure our future. Hard, creative work seems like a reasonable toll to pay.

The toll barriers we've set up in schools, however, are entirely different. We're training kids to think inside the box and penalizing them (and their teachers!) when they don't.

TEST PREP education probably doesn't descend to the level of a "public evil," but it's certainly not a "public good." And if it's a "commodity," it's bargain basement, yard-sale stuff.