In a recent post, Chris Arnade compared the American education system to strip mining, an analogy that Patrick Deneen uses in his book Why Liberalism Failed. A similar analogy comes to mind to describe charter schools—a public policy tool that until recently earned bipartisan favor. If our education system is an intellectual strip mine, charter schools often function like the educational equivalent of factory farming. The charters that are most often championed are highly efficient, responsive to market pressure, and intuitively attractive on paper. But they achieve their success only through a mechanistic and denaturing process, one which distorts the very good they were designed to provide.

The proponents of charter schools, both on the left and the right, tend to hang their hats on ironclad results. Those on the right fall back on longstanding arguments about the efficacy of free-market competition; those on the left tolerate this libertarian mechanism for the sake of getting closer to equality of opportunity. These advocates tend to focus on college, viewing college admissions and graduation as a sign that students have received a vastly superior education and a surefire way out of poverty. And while the debate over charter schools often escalated into battle over data interpretation, the goal itself goes unscrutinized.

Herein lies the problem. Most charter schools themselves equate good results with their students’ ability to get into college. A majority of the ten largest charter management organizations (CMOs) in the country make college attendance their explicit goal. “Uncommon Schools,” according to its mission statement, “operates outstanding urban public schools that close the achievement gap and prepare students from low-income communities to graduate from college.” “Uplift’s big goal is for 70% of its graduates to earn a college degree within six years.” “From Pre-Kinder to 12th grade, IDEA Public Schools is focused on sending 100% of our kids to college.” A handful of these share almost identical language in their mission statements, like KIPP (“college, career, and beyond”), Imagine Schools (“college, career, and life”), Aspire (“every child’s aspirations – including college”), and Success Academy (“prove children from all backgrounds can succeed in college and life”). At these schools, it is considered a best practice to name every homeroom after the college that its teacher attended, so that cohorts of students are referred to as “NYU,” “Boston College,” “Michigan State” and so on.

I would argue that this is inimical to both education and equality. It hurts education because when schooling is primarily utilitarian—laser-focused on getting into college—it’s almost impossible to teach students to think for themselves or develop a sense of curiosity and self-motivation. In fact, a single-minded focus on test outcomes and college admissions isn’t even a particularly good way to achieve the more modest goal of rote memorization; usually students know a lot about their favorite subjects because they care about those subjects, and that sort of care is hard to foster when you tell students that they’re primarily learning for some extrinsic reward. Of course, for many students, college is a worthwhile goal and a good—but a disproportionate focus on college crowds out the many other goods and goals associated with education.

Furthermore, to achieve their college attendance goal, many CMOs adopt what is called a “no excuses” model (even when they disavow that particular title). The key feature of this model is a rigid system of behavior management, designed to bolster academic standards and improve test results. Joan Goodman, an education researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, describes a lot of these management practices. One feature is a totalizing array of rules, dictating student behavior down to where they place their hands during a lesson, where they’re allowed to look, and whether they make even the slightest noise. Another feature is a token system of rewards and punishments, which target even minor infractions that are incidental to the learning. The main point of these practices—a point that is often made by charter schools—is that every second is indispensable, every distraction is automatically a loss of time, and so it’s important to “sweat the small stuff.” Goodman refers to this as “broken windows” schooling; the parallels with broken window policing aren’t difficult to detect.

In a democracy, education plays the vital role of preparing citizens for self-rule. The term “liberal education” has a twofold meaning. First, it implies an education free (or liberated) from the demands of work; this is what separates the liberal arts from the servile arts. Second, it suggests a result, a training for freedom, which ought to be the natural outcome of an education that is not merely servile. By embracing an explicitly utilitarian end of education, these schools simply reject the tradition of liberal education, and it shows in their practice. It’s difficult to foster the habits of independence (in thought or action) when almost all of a student’s behavior is dictated by rules for the sake of an extrinsic reward.

An objection to my argument is that a liberal education isn’t helpful for those trapped in poverty. It’s more important, the argument goes, to solve the problem of inequality (or poverty) by getting disadvantaged students into college, which will improve their employment and earning prospects.

But this approach obscures the problem of poverty in America. It is, at best, a sort of distraction, a way of pretending to have an easy answer to poverty and inequality. For many students, college can be more like a bad fit than the answer to every woe. As Arnade points out, many students are not interested in or inclined towards the kind of work you do in college. Telling these students that they ought to go to college, that the way to a better life is to plunge into the meritocratic race, that what they really need is more grit and structure and accountability—this is an attractive story to those who have succeeded by narrow meritocratic standards, but it often comes off as a slap in the face to those who haven’t. It ultimately diverts our attention and efforts away from other approaches to poverty that don’t involve cramming students into the managerial elite’s mold.

In fact, the “college-as-the-answer” mantra feeds some obvious forms of inequality. It involves, first of all, justifying the disproportionate influence of the managerial class. If college is the answer, robust power for those without credentials is a marginal issue. This paradigm of success removes the impetus to create good-paying jobs that don’t require credentials. Of course, school leaders aren’t in the business of creating jobs, but they should perhaps think twice before pointing at college admissions as the conclusive sign of a good education.

It also creates what might be called an inequality of recognition. If college is the answer, those who don’t go are the unlucky exceptions who couldn’t make it—or who weren’t pushed hard enough. Again, Arnade argues that a lot of people simply don’t adopt the “front row” value of careerism; if given the choice between staying near their community or moving away for college, they would pick the former. To tell these students that the true mark of achievement is a college degree—and the kind of career that goes with a degree—is to disparage that choice. Schools are in a unique position to serve those in Arnade’s “back row.” Rather than force-feeding “front row” values, these schools should champion non-college paths and provide an education that is valuable regardless of which life path a student takes. That’s hard to do while referring to student cohorts as “UCLA” or “Williams College”—or while doling out excessive punishments for minor infractions.

Our neoliberal orthodoxy—which seems exalt the ideal of autonomy—handicapped the working class and working class jobs. By cheering on “no excuses” charter schools, the answer it provides is to simply “save” underprivileged children from the working class, and to do so through applying broken windows principles to education. Again we find libertarianism for some, authoritarianism for others. And this is a good sign that we should reconsider our basic assumptions about the purpose of education.

John Sailer
John Sailer is senior fellow and director of university policy at the National Association of Scholars.
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