No Clean Hands

I’m responsible for the appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. Are you?

By Alicia
18th century political and moral philosopher Joseph de Maistre said every country gets the leader it deserves.  More recently, professor and public intellectual Tressie McMillan Cottom pointed out there are no innocent parties in the expansion of market-based education. That’s over two centuries of wisdom firmly identifying us, *We the People,* as just as responsible for the appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education as President Donald Trump.

How are you or I responsible for the appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education?

It was President Trump who picked her, which makes sense, as his own for-profit education company defrauded thousands of students. But you and I also helped DeVos get to her position. We’re implicated too, despite our protest of the selection of a woman who has used her financial and social capital to undermine public education. My contribution to Betsy DeVos’ appointment is that I consistently failed to pay attention to what was occurring in public education.

As a college student at a state university in Florida in the 1990’s, I didn’t notice what was happening in higher education, except issues that affected me directly, like increasing tuition rates or cuts to state-funded merit scholarship. When I began teaching as a graduate student at a state university in the northeast, I didn’t question my status as a contingent worker. Teaching freshman composition courses was a way for me to earn income and be eligible for a tuition waiver as I completed a master’s program.

AImage result for human capitallthough I had heard about the concept of human capital, it never occurred to me that the university seemed to be placing a very low value on mine. Somehow, I believed the skills and knowledge currently being used by the university to minimize costs and maximize profits would help me find well-paid employment after graduation.  I didn’t recognize that universities were increasingly operating like businesses, or that I was getting a preview of my future employment in the education sector. The mid-to-late 1990’s were a time of optimism about the economy, so it was easy to believe that the contradictions between what I believed and what I was experiencing would work themselves out.

Although I had heard about the concept of human capital, it never occurred to me that the university seemed to be placing a very low value on mine. Somehow, I believed the skills and knowledge currently being used by the university to minimize costs and maximize profits would help me find well-paid employment after graduation.

After earning a MA, I got a job teaching composition and literature classes at a community college in Kentucky. I started employment on the tenure track, but after a few years chose to adjunct instead, certain that I could find a job that was a better fit with my interests in knowledge creation and information management. And I did. The skills I’d used to analyze literature and retrieve journal articles helped me get a job as a research analyst in Wisconsin. But then came the dot-com bubble and 9/11, and the new job I’d found and really liked was gone.

By 2003 I was back to working as an adjunct, at a community college in West Michigan, where I’d moved to stay with a friend. I was making $2,500 per course, a little more than what I’d made as a graduate student. Being an adjunct meant doing all of the instructional work of a professor at less than half the pay, but at least I had a job. I was an adjunct for a year, and also worked in a public library.  I was able to parlay the skills from those positions into a job as a prospect analyst for fundraisers at a state university in West Michigan. As the state reduced its contribution to public higher education, there was new demand for *prospectors* to ID wealthy donors in hopes that they might be convinced to give to individual institutions, even as they were increasingly resistant to paying the taxes that supported the entire system.  

By my second time working as an adjunct, No Child Left Behind had been authorized, I didn’t have children, and at the time NCLB became law I wasn’t even working in education. Furthermore, the teaching I had done was post-secondary, so I didn’t see how the law was relevant to me or the students I might teach.  If anything, I thought I might have better prepared students, not less prepared.  My failure of imagination would end during my third stint as an adjunct.

When illness and my employer’s denial of my request for sick leave forced me to give up a full-time, non-teaching job, I returned to adjuncting in 2008, at the same institution where I had taught in 2003.  The Great Recession was well underway and I was finally paying attention to socio-political events, but I still didn’t understand what was happening in my classroom. I spent the next two years providing hundreds of unpaid hours of individualized instruction to both hard-working-but-unprepared and overconfident-and-entitled students during office hours. I hadn’t heard of the term *neoliberalism,* and yet I could see first-hand the poor outcomes that resulted from applying economic theory to both education workers and students. More importantly, I was both experiencing and participating in the transfer of risk from institution to individual that is a key feature of neoliberalism.

That transfer of risk is how a teacher can be held responsible for the outcomes of students who were not able to develop in 16 weeks the cognitive and executive skills to pass a college-level writing class. That transfer of risk, and the assessment, monitoring and comparison of students and teachers, is also how community colleges manage their contingent workforce and maximize tuition revenue. I spent much of my term of employment battling with students and department and college-level administrators.

When my adjuncting privileges were withdrawn, I took my dismissal hard. I was so ashamed. I’d uncritically adopted the theory of human capital I’d picked up from casual conversation and the spirit of the times: If I acquired the correct mix of knowledge and skills, desirable outcomes would necessarily follow. And yet here I was: expendable.  

After being fired, my illness worsened, and I sought work that was temporary.  That is how I became a substitute teacher.  Even after my health improved, I continued to work as sub, at first thinking a flexible schedule meant I could immediately accept full-time employment. I’ve now been subbing for 3 years. The value of my *human capital* has declined steeply since I first heard of the concept, although I have gained more knowledge and skills.  Not only have I not secured full-time employment, the average daily rate is for subbing is $75.

I want public education to embody all the positive traits denoted by the words *public* and *education.* My first step to achieving that end was to examine myself.  What do you want for public education?  What are you going to do about it?

Neoliberalism is an attractive ideology precisely because it meshes so nicely with our existing cultural norms and myths. We all want to be successful, and neoliberalism’s emphasis on quantification, organization, control, and discipline as a means of maximizing *performance* seems normal and reasonable rather than sinister. That’s why even students and teachers who are disenfranchised by a worldview that says competition is the defining characteristic of any relationship, scarcity the fundamental state of reality, and ownership and entrepreneurship the highest level of citizenship, still participate in it.

A few weeks ago I accepted temporary employment as an on-site test proctor for state assessments for a virtual charter school, despite not agreeing in principle with charter schools, exam-based summative assessments, or online education.  The position pays more than I usually earn as a substitute teacher and is much easier too. I’m also a participant in what researchers call  *shadow education,* the supplementary instruction parents and adult students use to address the failings of  the formal education system. I earn money as a tutor and academic success coach for high school, college, and graduate students. Shadow education is both a response to and result of the transfer of risk from society to individuals. It’s difficult to live within a system without adopting the culture of that system.

But I am also working to be less complicit in the full-on assault upon public education. I try to remind myself and others that education is not a product.  That understanding and expertise are knowable and observable conditions, but they don’t readily lend themselves to systematized mass production. That students, or rather, children, are not capital or resources for exploitation; neither are teachers, administrators or other school employees. That people have value because of their humanity, not just because of their predicted contribution to or detraction from economic growth. That learning has value apart from and above, say, achieving tests scores or getting a job. You should remind yourself of those truths, too, because the appointment of a philanthropist and political rainmaker to oversee public education will only heighten the consumerism and competition of the present policy-setting.

I want public education to embody all the positive traits denoted by the words *public* and *education.* My first step to achieving that end was to examine myself.  What do you want for public education?  What are you going to do about it?

Alicia is an educator who works in classrooms and other settings to help high school, college, and graduate students become better writers and users of information. She remains hopeful about finding full-time work in education. 

Want to learn more? This episode of the Have You Heard podcast features an interview with Tressie McMillam Cottom on how education, like retirement and healthcare, has become *risky.*

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9 Comments

  1. I love this! I appreciate your honesty of not realizing what was happening with public education while it was going on. But also your commitment to combatting this neoliberal nature moving forward.

    Reply

  2. There are many things in this post that I could comment about, but let me focus on a highlighted quote. Alicia says that “Although I had heard about the concept of human capital, it never occurred to me that the university seemed to be placing a very low value on mine. “, but Alicia put an equally low value on her human capital by accepting the job. If her masters degree was more valuable than the salary offered by the university, obviously she should have turned the university down. If, all things considered, the university offer was the best job available, perhaps it is the university that overestimated the value of her human capital.

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    1. Since the whole point of her piece is about missed signals, it seems odd that you would call her out for missing a signal… Also, I think you may have misread the section in question. She was referring to her time as a teaching assistant while in graduate school. Thanks for reading!

      Reply

      1. Jennifer,

        She placed an equally low value on her human capital while she was in graduate school, though the offer did include a tuition remission. What was the value of that? Again, she should have turned the university’s offer down if they placed a lower value on her services than she placed on them herself.

        As for the missed signals, it is unclear to me how assigning students to a school based on street address values them because of their “humanity”. Please explain how forcing Mah’Ria Martin to attend school in the Normandy School District and eventually the state trying to force her back into the Normandy school district when she was finally able to leave was “enfranchising” her and the other quarter of students who fled the Normandy School District.

        Reply

  3. Sounds to me like this person is “blowing hot air”… she keeps claiming to come to “realizations” of what is going on yet keeps perpetuating the issues anyway. The most glaring support of my point comes at the end of her commentary where she states,

    “A few weeks ago I accepted temporary employment as an on-site test proctor for state assessments for a virtual charter school, despite not agreeing in principle with charter schools, exam-based summative assessments, or online education. The position pays more than I usually earn as a substitute teacher and is much easier too…”

    Seems to me like she needs money like most of us “very” non 1 percenters do. So instead of earning equally low pay in another industry (say working at Trader Joe’s or bar tending), she sadly sticks to her “education narrative” (probably just because she earned her masters in the field) and stays in a series of jobs she knows perpetuate the “corporate ed” destruction. Sad that she is going through this. But teachers who are well into their pensions and may be in bad circumstances feel chained to the “corporate” nonsense because earned financial security is at stake if they pick up and leave. In a perverse way, she has not been contributing to a pension thus has a “freedom” to earn equivalent equally low pay in other fields.

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  4. It is sad that two commenters are blaming the victim herself. There are millions of fairly young people who are also suffering in nearly the same circumstances. The details may be different, but literally millions of young people believed the myth of self-improvement through education — and they racked up degree after degree, at great expense (in tuition paid, being saddled with tens or hundreds of kilobucks in student loans, and in deferred wages not earned while in college & grad school) only to find that the vast majority of positions available in higher ed pay very little (minimum wage), have no job security or benefits; those who go into K-12 teaching find that they are utterly unprepared for the 70-90 hour work weeks, the lack of autonomy, the requirements to engage in educational malpractice, and being blamed and shamed for imaginary thought crimes and for not being able to solve nearly every societal problem the US is prone to. So they end up quitting, often emotionally shattered.
    This young lady explains how it was in her particular case — and SHE gets blamed? These trolls have been taking lessons on how to debase people from Cheeto45 himself.
    Have they no shame?
    No need to answer that.

    Reply

    1. I was not thinking of the young lady as a victim, though if she was told that getting a masters degree was a guarantee of X amount of income by someone, I suppose you might think of her as a victim. Who do you think victimized her?

      It seems that she was not saddled by “tens or hundreds of kilobucks” because she received a tuition waver with her financial aid package. I have told my students and my children that it is foolish to attend graduate school without that level of financial aid.

      I have been teaching at the university level for over a quarter century, never in a tenure track or tenured position. No job security other than my ability to convince my department chair and college dean that I do a better job of teaching economics than any replacement they are likely to hire at my salary. I have earned a comfortable living because I have a terminal degree in my field (perhaps the poster earned an MFA, which would be a terminal degree in her field as well) and am in a field that roughly trains as many PhDs as there are job opening for PhDs. English departments award twice as many PhDs annually than there are openings for for English PhDs. I have no doubt that people with a masters have a hard time competing with doctorates in the academic market.

      If someone invests a great deal of time and effort into obtaining a skill that many people have or on which society places little value, it is not surprising that the financial rewards to that skill are very limited.

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  5. Alicia, don’t beat yourself up for taking 25 yrs to see the bigger picture of a phenomenon that was developing as you participated in it. In my & my family’s anecdotal experience, the learning curve is usually 35 yrs, so good on ya for getting there quicker. I am thinking esp of healthcare & our small self-empl fam biz, & my smart, fiscally-conservative Mom who was still talking small-gov lo-reg govt even as steeply-rising health ins began biting into biz profits in ’70’s– & her shrewd move to grab one of the last available longterm hc policies in the ’80’s (as a way to pass biz assets to next gen), still thinking in Gr Depr free-falling capitalism paradigm ‘sauve qui peut’ while health corps racked up huge profits & lobbied govt to grow even bigger. By ’90’s she was onto the rigged game & in ’00’s pronounced both parties as bought-out pols w/ unconscionable morals. [35 yrs]

    The only reason I recognized that ’90’s Dems were perpetuating & exacerbating voodoo economics by calling it ‘third way’ [neoliberalism] was because I was already 35 when Reagan came along, & could call on memories of a different paradigm. (At 35, it was obvious to me that Reagan [then Bush Sr then Clinton then Bush Jr] admins were untying every post-Gr Depr legislative knot placed between the public & repeat of Gr Depr, so intermediate stock crashes & 2008 fin crisis came as no surprise.)

    Realistically, one must participate in the developing political phenomenon in order to make a living in one’s field of study, & that makes you neither contributor nor victim. TE’s suggestion that you should simply turn down low-salary offers & hop to another field is unrealistic & impractical.

    My millenial sons are musically-talented techies. A field that was always dicey, but once gleaned a middle-class living. Digitalization busted that down to a lower-wkg-class living by ’90’s, but the possibilities for improvement grow annually– the field changes w/the economy, & the growing 1% elite will pay whatever for live entertainment , the next new musical thing, & lessons for their kiddies. I don’t see that as victimization nor participating in their own demise; I look at it as do what you love & get paid for it.

    By all means, fight politically against neoliberalism/ privatization & a return to valuing the common good: we must get the $ out of politics [campaign/ lobbying reform], legislate to overturn the Cit-United decision, & support election reform like FairVote’s ranked choice voting.

    Meanwhile, do what you love & are qualified to do if you can make a modest living at it– supplementing your income by helping kids learn, even if w/in a paradigm w/which you disagree, does not negate the fact that you are working w/kids to help them improve their skills. That in no way means you are “responsible for the appt of Betsy DeVos as Secy of Ed.”

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