Posts Tagged ‘education’

Education for Sale

graduationEarning a high school diploma is tantamount to taking your first step on the ladder of American success– wedged somewhere in between your first high school job as a pizza delivery guy and your first college job as a…pizza delivery guy.
But without that essential first step, life is…bleak.
So those who have not graduated, for whatever reason, find themselves an easy target for scammers.  And these scams represent a disturbing national trend:  Education is increasingly becoming an avenue for profit, rather than a social good.
The FTC announced last week that it is pursuing a case against several companies selling fake diplomas online.   These ‘diploma mills’ claimed customers could earn an official high school degree by paying $200 or $300 in fees and taking an online test.  Their marketing materials assured  degrees could be used to apply to college or for jobs, when in reality they are quickly exposed as invalid by potential employers and schools, according to the FTC.
Diploma mills are money makers.  One Florida company being investigated reportedly raked in $11 million from the scheme.  It makes sense: the schools prey on anxiety of people in a powerless situation looking for a quick fix.
The scam, however, reflects a few concurrent trends worth exploring:

1.) The Upward Spiral of Accreditation

The power of the paper has been steadily growing over the past decade.  Jobs that used to require a high school diploma now demand a bachelor’s or even master’s degree.  This is partly due to economic shifts.  Manual labor jobs, which did not require any specialized accreditation, have largely been replaced by more efficient technology or machinery, leading to an overabundance of labor in relation to jobs available.  To distinguish oneself among the glutted labor market, you must make yourself unique.  Adding some alphabet soup after your name (BA, MA, PhD, MD) has been the encouraged path for most– even though the degree may not in any way reflect the skill set you need for a particular job.


It leads to a perverse upward spiral of educational attainment.  If more people have high school diplomas, you need that bachelor’s to set yourself apart.  But once everyone has bachelor’s, you better get to working on that M.A. and so on.


Which leads to…


2.) The Rise of the Education-Industrial Complex

The market for education— and I specifically use the word market– is growing FAST.  And for-profit institutions have taken notice.  Hence, we see the diploma mills.  The for-profit colleges that encourage students to take on an absurd amount of debt to attain a meaningless degree (those colleges are lining their pockets with federal loan money that their students cannot hope to pay off).   The contracted charter schools that promise to run a cheap, efficient school with underpaid teachers and staff, yet somehow achieve equal education for all.  Selling education is a logical way to make a buck.


In sum, the increasing demand for a degree has led to an expanding market– and some capitalist vultures who want to suck off the carcass of education.

So what is to be done?
In theory, it would be good to reduce the demand for such meaningless and expensive paper.  People are getting degrees just to get degrees–because it puts their foot in the door (and let’s not even get started about what a barrier to success this is for people of low socioeconomic status!).
Education shouldn’t be a degree factory, though.  Education should impart on students general problem solving and critical thinking, and then maybe provide skill sets that reflects the actual job market and not the imagined one of years bygone.  This is easier said than done, however, and doesn’t address the current pressures of the labor market that are driving this demand.
In the mean time, government and social oversight of those who would take advantage of these market pressures is extremely necessary.  Education should be a public good, not an opportunity to skim off the top.  The FTC’s investigations into diploma mills and for-profit colleges are an important first step, but we also need to spread the word that not all degrees are created equal– and that knowledge is something more than the letters behind your name.

Patience: Made, not born

courtesy of FLICKR/ deux-chi

courtesy of FLICKR/ deux-chi

In The Atlantic this week, parenting/education writer Jessica Lahey stresses that we need to re-discover the lost art of patience in the classroom.
Learning requires the ability to spend time with something– to think long and critically about its components, to contextualize its existence, to absorb its complexities and nuance. It’s a rule that applies regardless of whether you are studying theoretical physics or art history.
Yet, in our frenetic Twitter-paced universe, it has become increasingly difficult for people to focus on any one thing for too long. Our world is speeding us up, and the emergence of new technologies that allow every task, detail, and distraction to occur in real-time isn’t refining our attention span (it’s a plausible hypothesis for the reason behind the precipitous rise in ADHD diagnoses in children).
I used to never consider myself a very detail-oriented person. I cruised through several jobs as youngster where I’d commit small mistakes, forget details, misplace commas, and unwittingly move decimal points. But I had enough “grow-up-and-do-your-job” moments as time went on to teach me a crucial lesson: absorbing detail requires effort. It’s a more arduous task for some than others, for sure. But, like any other skill you want to acquire, the skill of patience requires practice. And when you practice slowing down, zeroing in, and paying attention, the results can’t help but be positive.
In this age– where “natural” patience is a rarity and distractions are many– we need, as Lahey stresses, to re-learn patience. We need to practice. And the place where we can practice is in the classroom.
As a teacher, I recall frequently complaining about my students’ lack of attention span, marveling at the fact that it was difficult for some students to read through a paragraph, let a lone a full novel (I’m embarrassed to say I was one of those teachers who quickly abandoned any fiction that was too lengthy). But it never dawned on me that– just like every other technique I was modeling– I needed to explicitly teach patience as a skill.
As Lahey says:

When I hand my students novels and other projects that require close analysis, critical thinking, and patience, I challenge them to rise above the the basic skills of word recognition and reading comprehension. I am asking them to wait. To keep reading, keep listening. To be patient and formulate their opinions based on all the evidence, and then comment on what they see and hear armed with more than a sound bite, a title, or a tweet. To spend the time and have the patience to do more than look at the world, but to see it.

Conceptualizing patience (and detail-orientedness, etc.) as an acquired skill, rather than an inherent talent, could be groundbreaking in getting students to progress and develop more complete understandings of the world.

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