An Education Dystopia

Last week, I discussed what I take to be very strange arguments charter school advocates make about neighborhood schools being segregated along class lines. I find the arguments strange because charter schools don't do anything to desegregate schools and their own advocacy frequently includes boasting about just how class-segregated charter schools are as well as defenses of their teaching methods that are straightforward arguments in favor of class-segregated schooling environments.

Although I didn't dwell to much on it in my last post, the latter argument regarding teaching methods is one that has started to really trouble me of late, and I want to explain why here.

The Poor Methods

To rehash slightly, one of the flash points of the charter school debate concerns harsh methods used at some charter schools. These methods include cutting out subjects not relevant to testing, spending an extraordinary amount of time on test preparation, publicly shaming students with low scores, generally subjecting students to extreme pressures so great that some literally piss their pants, demanding silence and conformity reminiscent of bootcamps, and so on.

Critics of these methods, in addition to describing them as objectively bad and abusive, also point out that rich parents would never tolerate schooling methods like that, and, indeed, schools rich children go to do not use these methods. Because many high-level charter school advocates are quite well off, this critique often puts them in the uncomfortable position of arguing in favor of subjecting certain populations of children to harsh methods that they would not and do not allow their own children to be subjected to.

One common rebuttal to this criticism proceeds by arguing that poor children and rich children just need different kinds of instruction. Because of the difficulties faced by children deprived of steady streams of socially adequate resources, they cannot be taught in the same manner as rich childen. The poor need the Poor Methods while the rich need the Rich Methods.

Inegalitarian Dysoptia

I have no idea if this Poor Methods theory has empirical support behind it, but it's not totally implausible to think that children fighting material deprivation have different learning needs than those living in extreme surplus. Children that live in poverty have measurably elevated stress levels and often display symptoms of PTSD. Poverty, just like environmental lead exposure, physiologically poisons children and disrupts their functioning. And thus, just as you might have to teach a lead-poisoned child differently than one free of exposure to destructive toxins (e.g. with the Lead Methods), you might have to do the same for poor kids via the Poor Methods.

What's so dystopian about this, initially, is that child poverty and inequality are problems of our own making. Charter school advocates, often because of their conservative temperament, assume child poverty in the background as if it is some natural feature of life. But in reality, the uniquely sky-high child poverty levels seen in the US are a function of the country's uniquely bad economic institutions.

The US sits at the bottom of the OECD in how much of the national product it dedicates to public family benefits, above only Turkey:

In more advanced countries, the enormous financial burdens of parenthood are significantly softened by such things as universal per-child cash benefits, in addition of course to paid family leave and child care benefits. In the US, the poor receive scarcely little family benefits, the very poor especially.

If we had even just some of the family benefit programs common elsewhere in the world, we would see our child poverty rate plummet. I estimated previously that a universal per-child cash benefit of $300 per month would cut child poverty rates by 40-50%, while also significantly boosting the standard of living of all children, including those currently just above the poverty line and those in deep poverty who won't be entirely pulled out of it by the benefit.

While this might seem like an absurdly high estimate, it's actually entirely consistent with the results seen by the latest country who tried this basic strategy. After the UK began expanding its family benefits in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it saw child poverty (under the UK's absolute measure) fall by 53% in a decade.

Its relative child poverty fell dramatically as well, in nearly lock step with benefit increases:

All of this is to say that our child poverty crisis is basically a choice we've made as a society. You pick high-child-poverty economic institutions, and lo and behold, you get high child poverty.

What this means then, coming back to the dystopian character of the charter school argument, is that we are effectively, at step one, deciding it's pretty cool to go ahead and put huge swaths of the country's children into poverty or near poverty. Then the resulting inequalities of that decision end up so severe that, at step two, we decide (perhaps even reasonably) that the poor kids and the rich kids cannot even go to the same schools with one another. What's worse, we decide that the poor kids (who again are poor because of our inegalitarian system) must go to hellish-sounding bootcamp schools for most of their waking childhood life while the rich kids go to much more relaxed schools with greater subject diversity and freedom.

If this Poor Methods theory ends up playing out, truly imagine how dystopian it could get. I can't get out of my head the vision of two schools sitting right by one another. The children of retail and food service workers file into the school using the harsh Poor Methods while the children of professionals and managers file into the school using the relaxed Rich Methods. Then I imagine having to explain to kids as they file into their segregated schools why they have to go through one door rather than the other: "well you see, our system makes it such that some people have a lot while others have very little."

Is this what the charter school advocates envision? Is that not what it would look like to have class-adapted schooling methods operating at optimal levels? It's an inegalitarian nightmare.

When you get to the point where your social inequality is so high that 6-year-olds of different classes can't go to school together, you've hit a tipping point that should make you pause and reconsider how screwed up things really are. When your theory-of-the-second-best considerations have you arguing for placing little kids in different buildings and treating them very differently because their parents have different jobs, something's gone seriously awry.

If charter school methods are truly going to be justified on this Poor Methods basis (as opposed to a basis that suggests they would actually be good for all kids), then charter schools cease to be (as they are often sold) a location of great egalitarian hope, but instead become quite clearly an inegalitarian hellscape, an almost surreal daily performance of brutal social stratification.