Student Achievement Opinion

Too Much Talent Chasing Too Few Opportunities

By Ronald Thorpe — March 03, 2004 12 min read
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What can economic inflation teach us about improving public schools?

Some years ago, the economist Milton Friedman provided what has become the standard shorthand definition of inflation: “Too much money chasing too few goods.” His description of the force that has such a devastating impact on a nation’s economy and quality of life might shed some light on why our public schools—and our society—are falling so far short in meeting the expectations we have for children. If so, it also might give us some ideas about how to reshape schools and other learning environments to be more effective for students and the educators who guide them.

At first glance, the comparison seems impossible. Schools do have “goods,” especially in the form of services and materials, but they hardly suffer from having too much “money” in the way Friedman used the term. But what if the money in the quote is defined not in dollars and cents but in terms of an educational currency that consists of talents, needs, and the potential for growth? And what if that currency is tallied not only according to how much each student possesses, but also includes what teachers and administrators, who are so central to the way schools work, possess? If one accepts that conceptual transfer, then schools are overflowing with this kind of money, since each student and each educator brings to the enterprise an amount larger than we can measure.

Since Milton Friedman is less concerned about the amount of money and goods than he is about the relationship between the money and goods, we need to look at the full equation.

Do schools have sufficient goods—opportunities to learn and develop—to match the money—talents, needs, and potential for growth—our students and teachers bring to the educational marketplace?

Using this definition of money, a 5- year-old heading off to kindergarten has enormous purchasing power. He or she has a rapidly developing brain that possesses more capacity to absorb information and to establish patterns for learning and living than we may ever know. That power increases every year, as he or she gains a greater understanding of self and the surrounding world. Furthermore, the rate of increase is at least in part dependent upon how effectively money and goods were matched in preceding years, because in the educational marketplace and the business of learning, each level of available and needed goods builds on the previous level, especially in the early years. It also includes the kinds of skills and habits that determine how people approach learning throughout their lives. Students who are able to make good purchases between kindergarten and 3rd grade are in a far better position to benefit from what’s available to them in later grades than those who were not as fortunate. And that same scenario plays out at each successive level, with purchasing power increasing based on the quality of previous purchases.

The converse is also true. When early purchases aren’t well-made, the value of the future purchases will be diminished not only because of the building-block nature of schools and education, but also because of the lost opportunities for cognitive and social development, many of which are tied to a period of life or are more robust at certain times in a person’s life.

Teachers and administrators are probably both part of the problem of school-based inflation and a casualty of it.

I’ve spent more than 25 years in or around schools, first as a teacher and administrator, later in foundations where much of the work I did was connected to schools, and now in public television. In recent years, I’ve had the privilege to get a close look at urban districts and to get to know many teachers and administrators. For the most part, I’ve been impressed with the people, but distressed by the conditions which are now in especially high relief as a result of massive budget cuts and as the schools get their first real taste of what the federal No Child Left Behind Act means.

What I see more often than not are schools with woefully minimal “goods” on which students and educators can spend their abundant and innate “money.” When there are computers and other forms of modern technology in schools—exactly the kinds of resources that can give learners almost unlimited access to content and the tools to do something with that content—they are seldom used. Even books are in short supply, and the print material that is around is often either out of date or of questionable value, especially for children (and parents) for whom English is not a native language. Schools have eliminated the arts from the curriculum, are charging students for athletics and other so- called extras, and slowly but surely are stripping the curriculum to its institutional pea-green walls. In short, what I see is the educational version of rising inflation, and the dysfunction that occurs when purchasing power loses its value.

Expectations, too, are in low supply. Schools are largely focused now on test scores and the kind of reporting and consequences associated with the No Child Left Behind law. What remains are lots of “drill and kill” approaches to teaching and a blind faith in remediation that promises to suck the last vestiges of joy from the learning process.

In middle and high schools, many of which are so impossibly large that their cultures are defined by anonymity and loss of identity (great threats to the healthy development of any adolescent), there are even fewer goods for students to purchase. Students who are able to learn through a textbook and a traditional teacher-centered classroom, where information is available but there is little opportunity to engage in the basic thinking and creative acts that schools are supposed to provide, do just fine, at least in terms of grades. But for students not in that relatively small group, for those with other interests and predispositions who want to leave their own intellectual and creative mark on a topic and who embrace learning as something fundamentally different from being taught, the cupboard is bare.

And so much of what is being held up as the one-and-only path to success presumes a population of students and parents who are white, English-speaking, and middle-class. The problem is, of course, that’s not the population. Learning begins with engagement—it depends on it—and when those basic connections aren’t made, it can’t go forward, no matter how many times we put students through the same experience.

It is more than ironic (some might call it immoral) that at a time when technology allows for differentiation of instruction to meet individual needs and talents, and is able to give to poor and rich alike unprecedented access to information, channels of communication, and the ability to create, we instead are seeing an ever-widening gap in the achievement levels between rich and poor and between white students and students of color. Those poor and minority students come to school with substantial amounts of academic currency to spend, but since they have so few goods to spend it on, the ravages of this inflation grow ever more debilitating in their schools.

I want to add here that I think this inflation occurs in many schools, not just in poor, urban ones, but it doesn’t show itself as readily elsewhere because the academic “purchases” that students make go beyond the schoolhouse.

Our children learn and develop according to the full array of experiences—from books in the home to family trips, from access to community sports, cultural, and service organizations to the capacity a family has to invest time and care in a child, from conditions related to health and safety to the opportunity to take music or art lessons. In more affluent homes or neighborhoods and in families where there is more support for a child and more goods of value to chase, the value of the purchasing power remains high, and the effects of school-based inflation are mitigated, perhaps even masked entirely.

The kindergarten student and the first-year teacher are in similar situations: The system can serve them well and launch them into a future of possibilities; or it can immediately begin to limit them.

Teachers and administrators are probably both part of the problem of school-based inflation and a casualty of it. When the system becomes fixated on test scores, the first reaction of teachers and administrators is to clear the decks of anything that isn’t directly tied to those tests. Even when their instincts tell them that their students have a better chance of achieving in environments that reflect the ever-expanding universe of learning, they buckle under the pressure to remediate, to drill, to toe the line so as not to become the target if test scores don’t go up. But if the economics lesson applies, if the metaphor tells us anything useful, educators who succumb to these instincts are moving in exactly the wrong direction by further limiting the goods that are available. Indeed, they are exacerbating the problem.

Administrators, and particularly school principals, are being held more responsible for the achievement of the students in their schools, but are being given fewer resources to get the job done. The job itself is often defined in ways that are antithetical to learning, especially when it comes to leaving “no child behind.” One need only to look at the straitjacketed approach to implementing Reading First, the potentially powerful federal initiative to ensure that all children learn to read, to see how little authority an administrator has in designing reading instruction for children whose first language isn’t English. Schools are forced to use basal readers on these children—a methodology that experience tells us won’t succeed—or risk losing millions of dollars in federal funds, which from a political perspective is untenable. School administrators, especially the ones who really do understand instruction and what it takes to create learning environments that are differentiated by child and designed to meet local circumstances, are bringing great amounts of capital to their work, but they find an empty warehouse of goods. Inflation spirals on.

Long before the No Child Left Behind Act was a federal law—even before it was the motto of the Children’s Defense Fund—we could see the cumulative impact this kind of inflation has on teachers over their careers as a result of the basic culture of schools and the profession itself. Since teaching and learning are so inextricably bound—perhaps even synonymous—having access to meaningful learning is a natural and regular need for teachers, yet such expectations have not been central to the profession, especially in terms of high-quality experiences. One presumes that teachers are attracted to the field because of their love of learning, and that passion is a powerful currency. But with so little to spend it on, the value of the currency declines over time.

Imagine the ideal and idealistic first-year teacher racing headlong into the profession, full of commitment to the students and to the business of learning and teaching. She knows something about content, something about how to connect her students to that content, and although she knows there is much, much more to learn about students, subjects, and teaching, a long career stretches out before her during which she can pursue her goals, acquiring more and more skills along the way. Her enthusiasm and optimism, by themselves, are worth a fortune, even without adding in the knowledge and skills she brings to the work fresh out of college, teaching certificate in hand. What kinds of goods exist to sustain her over a 25- to 35-year career?

In this regard, the kindergarten student and the first-year teacher are in similar situations: The system can serve them well and launch them into a future of possibilities; or it can immediately begin to limit them, to replace high expectations with compromises that feed, over time, on themselves and ensure that the years to come will be too often defined by lost opportunities.

Some answers to how to increase the supply of goods for students and teachers are inevitably found in technological advances, which have barely found their way into schools and, when they have, are seldom used effectively. Computer technologies and the Internet offer access to a vast collection of the world’s resources. The technology itself, when properly exploited, provides tools that allow users to construct all kinds of new knowledge and to do things with that knowledge that simply weren’t possible previously. Digital technology allows sound and image to come into classrooms (and any venue) through video and audio resources available when the teacher and student need them, rather than according to broadcast schedules or through cassettes and VHS tapes. And learners can connect to people and organizations throughout their state, the country, and the world. One might understand why schools were such limited institutions 50 or even 25 years ago, but to remain that way today, with the cost of such opportunities so relatively low, is indefensible.

Technology is only one answer. The bigger answers come from a general rethinking of the culture of schools, a change in basic expectations and an understanding of what learners—young and old—need. It comes down to knowing how important it is to attend to both the quality and quantity of goods that are available and to make sure they are truly worthy of what students and teachers bring to this marketplace.

If the economic metaphor has anything to add to our thinking about education, we should be aggressively increasing the supply of goods available in schools, not pulling in the shutters.

Yet most indicators show schools moving the other way. How are we ever going to provide a supply of goods worthy of our children’s learning potential when elementary schools, for example, are so focused on tests that they are canceling recess to provide more time for test prep, when remediation is funded and enrichment eliminated, and when school technology budgets are slashed because there is no scientifically rigorous evidence to connect their use with improved test scores? One might think that the use of these technologies in nearly every profession, every walk of life (to say nothing about where our young people naturally choose to invest their time and resources when they aren’t in school) would be empirically persuasive and proof enough.

No one has ever tested the efficacy of textbooks in classrooms, yet their place remains both secure and privileged.

In economic terms, when there is too much money chasing too few goods, the value of money decreases, making it difficult to tell what goods have true value and what goods acquire false value simply because they are the only game in town. Inflation throws everything out of balance, and the resulting chaos places individuals and society at risk. The level of dysfunction increases, and if nothing is done to restore the balance, things fall apart.

If the economic metaphor has anything to add to our thinking about education, we should be aggressively increasing the supply of goods available in schools, not pulling in the shutters. We should be doing everything we can to expand the high-quality opportunities in which students and educators can invest that abundant intellectual and creative capital that they bring to the business of learning and which is the great hope for our collective future.

Ronald Thorpe is a vice president and the director of education at the public-television station Thirteen/WNET New York, serving the greater New York City metropolitan area.

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