We often treat K-12 education and higher education as if they have nothing in common, as if they possess completely separate values and have developed in complete isolation from each other. But in this age where the American technocratic and the plutocratic elites want to privatize everything, there are clear connections behind and between emerging trends in corporatized K-12 education reform and with the rise of for-profit colleges and universities. These trends and connections aren’t good ones for the mass of American students, particularly for those who are poor and of color.
It’s pretty simply really. Both public education and postsecondary education have been under attack from profiteers and the politicians who do their bidding for at least a quarter century. In particular, the issues have been how to improve public schools so that poor Black and Latino kids can graduate high school on the one hand, and how to modify higher education so that the adult version of these kids can obtain a serviceable certificate or degree on the other. With these changes comes the theme of a watered-down education for the poorest twenty-five percent of Americans. It’s the new pathway to a sub-living wage job and tens of thousand of dollars of student loan debt.
A better way of presenting this reality, though, would be to overlay my own educational journey as a poor African American growing up in Mount Vernon, New York onto this corporatized educational insanity. I would’ve gone to public school to be sure. But instead of the SRA exam test that I took every year between third and sixth grade (not a high-stakes test evaluating teaching effectiveness, by the way), I would’ve seen some sort of comprehensive reading/mathematics test from at least second grade on.
Given where I grew up, instead of having a group of veteran Black teachers for most of elementary schools, I would’ve ended up with some teachers from Teach for America or The New Teacher Project. For the technocrats surely would’ve held my teachers responsible for the sixty-percent poverty rate at my elementary schools, um, I mean, the low test scores. Teachers from these alternate certification programs tend to be well-meaning, perhaps even extremely smart, but not passionate or fully trained teachers. Certainly not like the highly dedicated African American teachers I had at Nathan Hale (now Cecil Cooper) and William H. Holmes Elementary, who held us all to high enough standards to prepare me for a gifted-talented magnet school program known as Humanities.
Of course, given the resources devoted to high-stakes testing, and the constant practice tests, there would’ve been the virtual elimination of music, art, PE, and creative writing. With that shift, there wouldn’t have been a Humanities Program, just a few classes for the best and brightest students. Instead, the option of a private charter school or a KIPP program may have been a possibility. With an average cost of $10,000, however, I doubt a $1,000 or $2,500 voucher would’ve made it possible for me to attend the one, and with KIPP schools being all about discipline, I would’ve thrived there about as much as fish thrive in the desert.
I would’ve moved on to middle school and high school, received algebra in ninth or tenth grade (if at all), struggled to enhance my reading, writing, science, math and other skills, and otherwise would’ve goofed my way to a high school diploma. Would I have taken an AP class, or had a Meltzer as a history teacher, or taken the PSAT or SAT? I’m not sure, but highly unlikely. Still, I would’ve graded with a diploma, with proof that my education was the equivalent of an average ninth or tenth grader’s, confirmed by a decade of standardized state tests!
Then, after three to five years of struggling to find full-time work above minimum wage, or after several years in the military, I’d make the choice between a University of Phoenix, Kaplan University, DeVry University or some other for-profit college. I’d discover quite quickly that I was wholly unprepared for even the most watered-down online college curriculum, taking courses in a four, six or eight-week format (instead of the typical ten or sixteen-week semester format).
There would’ve been no agonizing choice between Columbia University and the University of Pittsburgh, no switch of majors from computer science to history, no big moment in my development as a person. All because I wouldn’t have had the kind of earth-shattering experience that attending college full-time and in-person often can be.
Somehow, if I’d somehow survived the first semester or first year, I might’ve eventually graduated, albeit with a degree that will be of limited use in obtaining a good living wage. And with $70,000 in student loan debt and a degree from a disreputable for-profit college, forget about me going to graduate school to be a professor.
That’s what this K-16 system will lead to. Money flowing into the hands of illegitimate technocrats, testing companies, charter schools and for-profit institutions. Money and influence flowing from entities like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Teach for America. A permanent, if slightly better educated, low-wage underclass. That’s the now and future construction of K-16 education if we allow these trends to continue.