Public Good — Or Commodity?

If you are reading this during daylight hours in March, chances are that millions of our children are now engaged in what’s called ‘test prep.’ Just yesterday someone showed me the March calendar for a high-achieving public elementary school: two solid weeks of the month were blocked off for “TEST PREP,” probably in caps lest any classroom teacher forget and do some real teaching.

The banality of “TEST PREP” clashes violently with the ideas I was exposed to last week. Last Thursday and Friday, I spent quality time with syndicated columnist Mark Shields, GE Chairman and CEO Jeffery Immelt, Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO), libertarian activist Giséle Huff, Stanford’s Claude Steele, Assistant Secretary of Education Carmel Martin, and Roberto Rodriguez (President Obama’s education advisor.)

These seven separate meetings (in Washington, DC and northern California) had only one thing in common: big ideas about life and learning. While their politics are different, all celebrated the human spirit. Oh, and no one talked about TEST PREP or about what is happening in real classrooms in many schools.

Both Roberto Rodriguez and Carmel Martin expressed the faith that pushing certain policy levers from Washington will produce the desired changes in 15,000 school districts and 100,000 public schools. So, for example, “doubling down” on early childhood education, as the Administration they work for has done, will dramatically increase enrollment in early childhood programs, and that in turn will lead to early reading competence. Investing $4 billion in ‘turning around’ low-performing schools will produce dramatic gains. Creating “Career and College Readiness” programs will make more kids ready for college and careers. And so forth. If either harbors doubts about the wisdom or efficacy of any of their policy initiatives, they did not let on. If either wonders whether federal policies under Presidents Bush and Obama might be responsible for the ubiquity of TEST PREP, we saw no sign.

Test Prep
Is this what test prep is doing to our students and our schools?

Senator Bennet, whose previous job was Superintendent of Schools in Denver, spoke of finding new ways to train and ‘incentivize’ teachers. “What we do now makes no sense,” he said, indicating that he wanted to use federal dollars to ‘incentivize’ school districts to use technology. He told us that he was worried about all children, not just kids in poor areas, being forced to attend schools that were failing to recognize the power of technology to radically change education.

Like Senator Bennet, Giséle Huff believes that today’s technologies can transform education.

A libertarian activist who once ran for Congress, Huff now runs a small foundation. Perhaps because her office looks out on San Francisco Bay, she used a maritime metaphor to describe public education today. “Teach for America, KIPP and other programs are building rafts for a small number of kids, and that’s fine as far as it goes,” she said. “But I am worried about the ship’s direction. We cannot abandon ship, but neither can we continue doing what we are doing; we have to change course.”

GE’s Jeff Immelt was bullish on America. He gave 10 reasons for optimism, with No. 5 being, “We do education better than anyone in the world.” As evidence, he cited the number of foreign students who come here for their graduate training. However, I’d be willing to bet a new GE dishwasher that he has no clue about what’s happening in K-12 classrooms this March.

Which brings me the question posed by Claude Steele of Stanford: Is education a commodity or a public good? If it’s a commodity, who’s buying, and what’s being sold? If it’s a public good, just what are the benefits?

Steele, the new Dean of the School of Education at Stanford, suggested a double standard is at work. “For our own children, education is a commodity, a scarce resource that we are willing to pay for,” he said. “People with resources will never give up privilege willingly,” he said, which is why, he said, “When we talk about education for others, we say it’s an ‘opportunity.’”

However, if education is a commodity to be purchased, then I say ‘buyer beware.’ When even our good schools devote weeks to TEST PREP and the subsequent multiple-choice tests, that’s an education system that is training kids as if life were a bubble test.

But life is not a series of multiple-choice questions, requiring only a No. 2 pencil. Navigating the future will require improvising, regrouping, falling down and getting up, growing and changing.

We know that the predictors of success in later life include diverse experiences in what Dean Steele calls “non-routine settings,” but what could be more routine than weeks of TEST PREP? We also know that lots of reading and the experience of ‘negotiating’ with adults and other children also are preparation for, and predictors of, success. TEST PREP doesn’t make the list.

So what on earth are we doing? “Americans are pragmatists,” Mark Shields said. “While ideologues believe that what is right works, the rest of us believe that what works is right.”

If Shields is correct — and he usually is — then most Americans must not know what their children and their neighbors’ children are doing in class. If adults knew about the mind-numbing waste of time, I believe they’d do something about it.

Immelt concluded by noting that “the highway to the future is a toll road,” meaning that we Americans have to be prepared to work creatively and aggressively if we wish to ensure our future. Hard, creative work seems like a reasonable toll to pay.

The toll barriers we’ve set up in schools, however, are entirely different. We’re training kids to think inside the box and penalizing them (and their teachers!) when they don’t.

TEST PREP education probably doesn’t descend to the level of a “public evil,” but it’s certainly not a “public good.” And if it’s a “commodity,” it’s bargain basement, yard-sale stuff.

14 thoughts on “Public Good — Or Commodity?

  1. Yes, “most Americans must not know what their children and their neighbors’ children are doing in class.” Or perhaps its not as bad in suburban schools, and they don’t know how bad it is in inner city schools. You’ve peeked my curiosity more. In your opinion, what does the President know about the effects of his policies?


  2. As soon as we understand that there is little relationship between performance on tests and actual knowledge the better. I recently blogged about the HAM cram course I took that allowed me to gain an amateur radio license without really teaching me anything about to use a HAM radio! (

    I understand that legislators and bureaucrats are looking for a means of accountability regarding the money they spend on education. One would not want schools wasting their money on expensive toilet seats or wrenches, after all. But there’s a lot of smart people in and out of education who know that there are other ways of accounting for payback than a simply fill-in-the-bubble multiple guess test.


  3. “Both Roberto Rodriguez and Carmel Martin expressed the faith that pushing certain policy levers from Washington will produce the desired changes in 15,000 school districts and 100,000 public schools. So, for example, “doubling down” on early childhood education, as the Administration they work for has done, will dramatically increase enrollment in early childhood programs, and that in turn will lead to early reading competence. Investing $4 billion in ‘turning around’ low-performing schools will produce dramatic gains…”

    Yes, but HOW are they determining which schools are low-performing? I’ll answer my own question…by looking at standardized test scores that schools are required to give. Stakes are set high (loss of jobs, restructuring of schools, retention of students) so schools feel pressure to provide some “TEST PREP.” If kids aren’t ever given practice filling in bubbles they become anxious and don’t do well on high stakes tests.

    I’m not suggesting that everything in the system is a perfect, but I do challenge everyone who feels the need to judge schools to go spend some REAL time in classrooms. I think there should be high expectations for students and teachers, but let’s be realistic. If you were a doctor who couldn’t cure all illnesses, should you lose your job? What if you were a lawyer who lost a few cases? A dentist who couldn’t get everyone to floss daily? Some of the circumstances of their jobs are not in their control.

    I agree, something needs to change, but I don’t think the people in the place to make these changes are not well enough informed about reality.



    • I cant even do one pull up. Believe me Ia0keep tryading. Ia0do watch these videos and am quite ameazd and wonadder will Ia0ever be able to do someadthing like that? It is amazading because Ia0do ciradcuit trainading workadouts and also have indian clubs and aa012lb ketadtle bell that Ia0workadout with. However, when it comes to push ups or pull ups Ia0can hardly do them. What am Ia0doing wrong? Aa0woman should be able to do these types of workadouts too right? thanks


  4. I’m a retired DCPS math teacher.
    On my blog, Ive taken a detailed look at the released items on the DC NCLB math tests for the grades I taught. The lack of correlation between the prescribed curriculum and the actual test is stunning — and what’s more, it’s now policy to let teachers know in advance which few topics will be tested. Therefore, all those weeks of TEST PREP are as you say, John, an utter waste of the students’ time and the public’s funds. And are boring as all get out.
    I and Gary Rubenstein and the EPI have documented how VAM scores, which are calculated by manipulating those idiotic NCLB scores over time, are unstable and don’t even give teachers themselves any guidance on how to improve their teaching. They certainly shouldn’t be used to guide hiring or firing policies.
    Numerous studies have shown that charter schools on the average do worse or the same as the regular public schools they replace.
    Teachers need more and better Pre-service training than they currently get, so why TFA Inc gets about $50k per head when they deliver utterly untrained teachers is an example of propaganda winning out over public policy.
    Yet the current crop of educational DEformers, led by Duncan, Rhee, Obama, Klein, and others think we should keep doing these insane policies harder and faster.
    It truly is crazy.


  5. It’s far from just the poorer urban schools that teach to the tests and do test prep! Our grandchildren in suburban schools have been devoting significant time since late January for “SOLs” that are taken in late April / early May!

    The federal and even the state governments (and of course the venture philanthropists – what an appropriate descriptor – the foundations as well) need to understand is that mandates especially from afar will NEVER be effective! Each school has a different combination of culture and education issues; INDEED there are different combinations in each classroom! On numerous occasions, I taught two sections (similar cross-section of students) of the same course the same semester. Beyond the individual struggles od different students, there were routinely different overall class reactions to the same material. To use an available script OR A MANDATED APPROACH guarantees failure for most Learners!

    Suggestion: forget the mandates, build community support, support teacher efforts which they were educated to do, AND limit government efforts to supporting resource proposals to enable teachers to optimize effective learning.


  6. You are so right that life is not a multiple-bubble test. However, we need to suggest some solutions. The political climate is such that we will not get away with no testing at all. Students need to know how to problem solve and apply the lessons that they have learned. A terrific test has already been created and is currently being used by progressive schools, the College and Work Readiness Assessment ( This test presents case studies to students who then must apply their reading, writing, mathematical and reasoning skills to formulate a solution. A teacher cannot prepare for this test except to ensure that her students are competent in these areas. For public schools, this test may seem too expensive, but I wonder if it really is when compared with the huge amounts poured into individual school, then district, then state tests for each subject. This is just one test. Yes, it does skip over some scientific and historical “facts” but do we want our children to memorize the facts or follow and critique the scientific and historical logic presented to them in everyday life? I challenge any state to allow a school or a district to use this test and see the results of freeing their parents, students, and teachers to educate. I do not work for nor am affiliated with the Council for Aid to Education which has created this test.


  7. Bought time you got it right! The “silent majority of educators” has helped to perpetuate the disturbing infleunce of test prep and test taking. Let’s see, how many educators in this country? Wake up sleeping giant!


  8. Interesting round-up of “big name” people. Did Mr. Immelt happen to provide any information about how GE got away with paying $0 dollars in federal taxes in 2010 on $13 + billion dollars of profit? And are President Obama’s advisors truly so unaware of the hugely negative unintended (hopefully unintended!) consequences of their policies? The so-called reformers and policy wonks who pushed the excessive accountability and punitive consequences that came with NCLB are the ones to blame for the wasted weeks of test prep. When America wakes up and listens to the REAL education experts–the people who work every day in real classrooms and real schools–then maybe we have a chance of having schools where lifelong learning, not how well someone can memorize and regurgitate facts, is the desired outcome and driving force for the teaching and learning.


  9. That you even have to ask whether education should be considered as a public good or as a commodity demonstrates how far we have fallen as a democratic society. We are continuing the privatizing of the commons and of all government functions. In national security, much intelligence work, logistics for the military, even security for top officials in Iraq was no longer the province of service men and women, but provided by for-profit entities that somehow managed to be exempt from oversight by either the US government or the Iraqi government, thus leading to abuses and even atrocities.

    We have seen the US Congress cripple the Postal Service by forcing it to prefund health care benefits in a way that commercial competitors of USPS do not have to do, thereby benefiting the likes of Federal Express and UPS, and leading to cuts of services particularly to rural areas (which of course are not profitable for the private firms).

    The privatization of education and its noxious effects can clearly be seen in the for-profit colleges and universities, which advertise incessantly on tv in the DC area where I live, and which might well not be able to function without the funds from the federal government by which their students pay – and get ripped off. The Washington Post Company is now largely dependent upon its Kaplan educational subsidiary for its profits.

    When we commodify education, it ceases to offer the opportunity for real advancement from more modest background that it did in the past.

    Remember, one of the most important things in building the middle class was the post WSWII GI Bill, which enabled many to obtain educations previously unreachable for them.

    We have always had issues of inequity in education, which is one reason Lyndon Johnson – who began his work career as a teacher in schools full of poor kids in Texas – pushed for the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

    Now we starve public schools, put mandates on them that consume time and resources and deprive many students of real learning opportunities. We bash teachers and their unions, in order to further deprofessionalize education, Teach for America with its untrained minions continues to garner unwarranted praise in major publications, support for politicians across the political spectrum, funding from the Federal government at a time when its fiscal holdings now exceed $300 million, in some cases with regular teachers being discharged (in Charlotte-Mecklenburg) while TFAers are maintained.

    At the same time, poor people and minorities are having barriers imposed to their participation in the political processes by noxious and quite possibly unconstitutional (until the Voting Rights Act is reversed) new obstacles to voting. we unleash corporate interests and the ability of the rich and powerful to dominate the political process by equating unlimited money with unlimited political speech. Which reminds one of the old axiom that freedom of the press exists only for he who owns the press.

    We are not only in danger of losing public education. We are in serious danger of losing democracy.

    We will have only ourselves to blame.


  10. I’ve become accustomed to using the extended keywords in IAR’s EW IDE to define hardware registers at specific addresses. All hardware registers are defined as volatile, and read only registers are also defined as const. This was to both provide our engineers (myself included) with registers that look like variables instead of pointers to variables, and also to provide more efficient code, as additional variables wouldn’t be required in RAM to access hardware registers. The tradeoff being that the code won’t easily port to other IDEs. That’s always been fair in our projects, as we rarely move between IDEs when developing for a particular part, and the hardware registers need to get redefined anyway (and most likely the usage of them) if you are switching to a new processor.


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