Standardized Testing Creates Captive Markets

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It’s easy to do business when the customer is forced to buy.

But is it fair, is it just, or does it create a situation where people are coerced into purchases they wouldn’t make if they had a say in the matter?

For example, school children as young as 8-years-old are forced to take a battery of standardized tests in public schools. Would educators prescribe such assessments if it were up to them? Would parents demand children be treated this way if they were consulted? Or is this just a corporate scam perpetrated by our government for the sole benefit of a particular industry that funnels a portion of the profits to our lawmakers as political donations?

Let’s look at it economically.

Say you sold widgets – you know, those hypothetical doodads we use whenever we want to talk about selling something without importing the emotional baggage of a particular product.

You sell widgets. The best widgets. Grade A, primo, first class widgets.

Your goal in life is to sell the most widgets possible and thus generate the highest profit.

Unfortunately, the demand for widgets is fixed. Whatever they are, people only want so many of them. But if you could increase the demand and thus expand the market, you would likewise boost your profits and better meet your goals.

There are many ways you could do this. You could advertise and try to convince consumers that they need more widgets. You could encourage doctors and world health organizations to prescribe widgets as part of a healthy lifestyle. Or you could convince the government to mandate the market.

That’s right – force people to buy your products.

That doesn’t sound very American does it?

In a Democratic society, we generally don’t want the government telling us what to purchase. Recall the hysteria around the Obamacare individual mandate requiring people who could afford to buy healthcare coverage to do so or else face a financial tax penalty. In this case, one might argue that it was justified because everyone wants healthcare. No one wants to let themselves die from a preventable disease or allow free riders to bump up the cost for everyone else.

However, it’s still a captive market though perhaps an innocuous one. Most are far more pernicious.

According to dictionary.com, a captive market is “a group of consumers who are obliged… to buy a particular product, thus giving the supplier a monopoly” or oligopoly. This could be because of lack of competition, shortages, or other factors.

In the case of government mandating consumers to buy a particular product, it’s perhaps the strongest case of a captive market. Consumers have no choice but to comply and thus have little to no protection from abuse. They are at the mercy of the supplier.

It’s a terrible position to be in for consumers, but a powerful one for businesspeople. And it’s exactly the situation for public schools and the standardized testing industry.

Let’s break it down.

These huge corporations don’t sell widgets, they sell tests. In fact, they sell more than just that, but let’s focus right now on just that – the multiple choice, fill-in-the-bubble assessments.

Why do our public schools give these tests? Because peer-reviewed research shows they fairly and accurately demonstrate student learning? Because they’ve been proven by independent observers to be an invaluable part of the learning process and help students continue to learn new things?

No and no.

The reason public schools give these tests is because the government forces them. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) requires that all students in grades 3-8 and once in high school take certain approved standardized assessments. Parents are allowed to refuse the tests for their children, but otherwise they have to take them.

It wasn’t always this way. When the act was first passed in 1965, it focused almost entirely on providing students with equitable resources. That all changed in 2001, with the passage of No Child Left Behind, a reauthorization of this original bill. And ever since, through every subsequent reauthorization and name change, the federal law governing K-12 schools has required the same standardized testing.

The testing corporations don’t have to prove their products. Those products are required by law.

It’s one of the largest captive markets in existence. That’s some 50.4 million children forced to take standardized assessments. The largest such corporation, Pearson, boasts profits of $9 billion annually. It’s largest competitor, CBT/ McGraw-Hill, makes $2 billion annually. Others include Education Testing Services and Riverside Publishing better known through its parent company Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

If many of these companies sound like book publishers, that’s because they are or their parent companies are. And that’s no coincidence. It’s another way they bolster their own market.

Not only do many of these testing corporations make, provide and score standardized assessments, they make and provide the remedial resources used to help students pass.

So if your students are having difficulty passing the state test, often the same company has a series of workbooks or a software package to help remediate them. It’s a good business model. Cash in before kids take the test. Cash in when they take it. And if kids fail, cash in again to remediate them.

Ever wonder why our test scores are so low? Because it’s profitable! The money is all on the side of failure, not success. In fact, from an economic point of view, there is a disincentive to succeed. Not for teachers and students, but for the people who make and grade the tests.

But that’s not all.

Once you have a system in place, things can become static. Once districts already have the books and resources to pass the tests, the testing corporation has less to sell them, the market stagnates and thus their profits go down or at least stop growing.

The solution once again is to create yet another captive market. That’s why Common Core was created.

These are new academic standards written almost exclusively by the testing corporations and forced on districts by federal and state governments. Under President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top initiative, $500 million in federal education grants were tied to adopting these new standards. States were coerced to push Common Core on their districts or else lose out on much needed funding.

This resulted in the need for districts to buy all new materials – new text books, new workbooks, new software, etc. It also required the states to order brand new standardized tests. So once again the testing industry cashed in at both ends.

And these tests were more needlessly difficult so more children would fail and need costly remediation.

Was there a pressing academic need for these new standards? Was there any evidence that these standards would increase student learning? Were there even any independent studies conducted to attempt to prove a need?

No. This was a total money grab. It was naked greed from one industry completely enabled by our lawmakers at the federal and state levels.

Republicans made noises against it, and some still do. But consider this – the overwhelming majority of state houses are controlled by the GOP. They have the power to repeal Common Core at any time. Yet almost none of them did or do.

Ask yourself why. It has nothing to do with the Democrats. Republicans are owned by the same masters as the so-called liberals – these same test corporations.

You have to understand that our government is no longer ruled by the principle of one person, one vote. Money has become speech so wealthy corporations get a huge say in what our government does.

If an industry gets big enough and makes enough donations to enough lawmakers, they get the legislation they want. In many cases, the corporations write the legislation and then tell lawmakers to pass it. And this is true for lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Standardized testing and Common Core are one pernicious example of our new captive market capitalism collapsing into plutocracy.

Our tax dollars are given away to big business and our voices are silenced.

Forget selling widgets. Our children have BECOME widgets, hostage consumers, and access to them is being bought and sold.

We are all slaves to this new runaway capitalism that has freed itself from the burden of self-rule.

How long will we continue to put up with it?

How long will we continue to be hostages to these captive markets?

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Education Does Not Cure Poverty – It Cures Ignorance

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What good is an education?

Will it get you money? Will it make you rich?

No. Not really.

And that’s one of the biggest problems with American public school policy of the last 15 years. It misunderstands the purpose of the very thing it purports to promote.

Poverty is skyrocketing. It’s been on the rise for at least three decades, but since the economy collapsed in 2008, the ranks of the poor have swollen like an untreated wound left to fester and rot.

We could be doing something about that. We could be working on a jobs package – on something to get people back to work. Instead we crowd around unemployment data and clap each other on the back because on paper it looks like we’ve overcome this obstacle.

Unfortunately, we haven’t.

Since President Barack Obama took office, there have been less people out of work than during the disastrous Bush years. However, most new jobs created since the crash only pay minimum wage. The good jobs are drying up and being replaced by poverty wage employment. And that’s not even counting the hordes of people who’ve given up even looking for a job but don’t merit a mention in these Pollyanna publications!

So how do we truly answer this dilemma? How do we get America back to work?

According to our policymakers, through magic.

Provide people more training, they say. Make sure those out of work obtain new skills and the next generation receives a rigorous education.

It’s the kind of solution our grandparents – who lived through the Great Depression – would have laughed to silence. Give someone a book, put them in a school, place them before a teacher and – POOF – they’ll be able to get one of the nonexistent well paying jobs that – may I repeat – DON’T EXIST!

It’s not that we have an unskilled workforce. We have more people than ever with Doctorates and Masters degrees living on food stamps. The problem is lack of well paying jobs. We’ve tax sheltered, down sized, and corporatized America into a land where the rich play Monopoly with all our cash while the rest of us subsist on McJobs.

Claiming that education alone can resolve this problem is like saying all a starving person really needs is a fork and spoon. But that won’t help if he has nothing to eat!

It should be no surprise that those championing our school system as a silver bullet to our jobless nation speak out of both sides of their mouths. On the one hand, they say, education can save us. On the other, they say, if education was better we wouldn’t need saving. And since they’re almost exclusively employed by the same people who gobbled up all the jobs in the first place and then spat them out to China, it’s a travesty that anyone listens to them.

They’re not offering a solution. They’re making a last ditch effort to clear the board of any remaining public money – education dollars.

If only the teachers had taught us better, they say, we’d all be able to have a corner office in the sky. But since those evil, lazy educators are doing such a bad job, we need to close as many schools as possible to save those kids. And then we can privatize them and swipe even more of that sweet, sweet public money to the 1% who can run charter schools and cut student services while scarfing up the rest as yummy profit.

To prove this thesis, policymakers force untested and irrational reforms on public schools – standardized testing, computerized test prep, Common Core. When none of this works (as planned), they simply blame the educators who never wanted any of this in the first place. But it helps us serve up teachers on a silver platter as the scapegoat of the day.

These so-called reforms solve nothing – they just make things worse.

Furthermore, they’re a distraction, smoke and mirrors so we won’t see the real issue of how we’re being swindled by the 1%. After all, THEY were the ones who got us into this mess in the first place! They were the ones who crashed the economy – not Mrs. Jones, the local science teacher.

We should know this already. It’s out in the open and easy to see. The media is not doing its job of reporting the truth. The public is being dazzled by propaganda that appeals to our basest selves. But most importantly, we’re being fooled because we no longer remember what education is for!

Even under the best of circumstances, education does not make someone rich. That’s not it’s goal. It never has been. Education seeks to enrich people’s minds, not their bank accounts.

Yes, there is a relationship between the two, but its several steps removed. A well educated person may be able to more easily obtain money than an uneducated one. She may be more prepared for a well-paying job. However, being prepared is rarely what makes someone rich.

People gain wealth most often by inheriting it (See Paris Hilton, Bill Marriott, Mitt Romney and Donald Trump). Others get money by cheating the public out of it. This takes a person with a weak moral code, not necessarily strong book smarts. For instance, look to the Walmart model of selling groceries cheaply by paying poverty wages to employees who then must rely on the federal government to survive and thus can only afford to shop at Walmart. That’s not smart. It’s sociopathic. Anyone could have thought that up, but it takes a person with a stunted conception of the value of other people to actually do it.

More important than a college degree are connections. The Rich know the right people. They have contacts in high places with whom they can barter for lucrative tips, jobs and partnerships. They have friends on Wall Street who can tip them off when a stock is about to rise or fall. They know editors at prominent papers who have no problem changing the headlines to match a preconceived narrative rather than the facts on the ground.

Again, that doesn’t require all A’s on your report card. It’s the result of a lottery of birth, social standing and an undeveloped sense of fairness.

There are some people who actually do gain riches on the merits of their intellects. But they are few and far between. Even among them there is a large portion who are more lucky than genius. I love Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, but it doesn’t take an Einstein to come up with it. Sometimes the gods of finance just smile on hippy dippy flavors with fun names.

Since the ancient world, thinkers have postulated that the purpose of education is not to increase material gain – it is to become a better person. The Ancient Greeks believed that there is value in knowledge and wisdom that doesn’t translate into gold. Aristotle called it eudaimonia or human flourishing. The best life includes wisdom.

This builds on the philosophy of Socrates – one of the founders of Western thought – who famously said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” We have strayed far from these ideals. Today we might say the unreciprocated action is unworth doing. If something doesn’t translate into cold, hard cash, it is considered weak, a wasted effort. Even philanthropy has become a way to gain control over the industry you’re ostensibly trying to help. (See Bill Gates immense influence on Education policy.)

In their hearts, most teachers would side with Aristotle and Socrates over the Waltons and Gates’. And that’s why our corporate masters look down on us. We represent an ethos that they have abandoned and tried to destroy.

They tell themselves the fairy tale that wisdom means cheating others out of money. The removal of ignorance, they say, is the removal of any obstacles toward clawing and punching your way to the top.

But true wisdom recognizes that people are more than mere animals. We do not need to continue the Darwinian struggle of survival of the fittest among ourselves. We can cooperate. We can value each others lives. We can love.

If people valued this kind of knowledge over money, what would happen to the rich? Wouldn’t it prove that they have wasted their lives betraying and manipulating the less fortunate? Wouldn’t it reveal the poverty of their souls?

Because if people were truly educated, they would see these sick, twisted individuals for whom they really are. And we would demand justice. Not so that we could replace these penny-ante tycoons with our own wealth addiction. But instead so that we could all live in peace and bask in the joy of knowledge, compassion and an unending quest to chip away at our own ignorance.


NOTE: This article also was published in the LA Progressive and on the Badass Teachers Association blog.