Education Commodity Proposition

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Zak Stein:

"An oversimplification similar to the labor commodity proposition accompanies the use of large-scale standardized testing infrastructures. It is this oversimplification that I have referred to as the education commodity proposition (Stein, 2016; 2019).

Testing can be used to put a number on a “unit” of education, giving it a quantitative value and making it amenable to certain kinds of decision-making calculations, such as cost-benefit analysis and the estimation of returns on investment. That is, testing allows educational processes to be conceived as if they are no different from other commodities, simplifying their representation to monetary transactions that can be considered in terms of economic efficiencies. I discuss the education commodity proposition in both of my books. In this guest column I offer only an overview of the problem space.

On the Return of Investments in Education

The clearest examples of the education commodity proposition involve those who invest in educational processes, such as governments, philanthropies, and venture capital. Simply put, if the amount of education you are getting for your investment is represented (only or predominately) by the numbers generated on tests, then moving these numbers becomes the only way to “see” those changes in the value of the educational process, which is the intended result of the investment. If you do not measure it you cannot monetize it, and if you cannot monetize something then you cannot technically “see” if an economic investment has worked. This summarizes the main problem facing governments that invest tax dollars in public education and are then required to demonstrate that this public money was well spent. The watchword here is “accountability.” In these situations test scores are used to translate (or re-represent) the value of educational processes in economic terms. The same kind of decision procedures are used by philanthropic donors and venture capitalists, both of whom must demonstrate due diligence when putting money toward the improvement of education. Improvements can only be monetized if they can be measured in ways amenable to quantitative demonstrations of return on investment.

The education commodity proposition also frames the decision-making of those who are responsible for organizing educational institutions. It impacts the thinking of school leaders who are concerned about their own budgets and the effectiveness and efficiency of their internal policies. For example, the value of a new math curriculum is easily turned into a question about the relationship between its cost and the test-score gains that result. If the math curriculum that produces the best scores is too expensive, then the next best affordable option will be chosen, often irrespective of other salient differences between the two curriculums. Curricular decision-making becomes guided by the calculus of cost-benefit analysis, which removes a wide variety of complex considerations from the table by distilling the problem down to its “essence”: economic efficiency. More importantly, suppose this next best curriculum produces test-score gains but causes students to dislike math, creates misunderstandings not detected by the test, or results in teacher burnout. These are just a few examples of differences in educational value that easily and regularly escape measurement and therefore are not included in the official calculation of what a curriculum is “worth.” Because of the ubiquity and pressure of economic issues in schools, even the most well-meaning leaders often find themselves trapped by the terms and “logic” of the educational commodity proposition.

On the “Value-Added” by Teachers

Teachers occupy a unique position in school systems because, according to the terms of the education commodity proposition, they can be understood as selling a distinct type of educational labor. That is, they exchange their ability to teach for the means of their livelihood. This is important because above all other educational goods potentially conceived as commodities (from books to computers), it is teaching that has the most potential to add value to educational processes. It is also one of the most expensive aspects of schooling. Therefore, teaching is (and has been since the late nineteenth century) one of the central focuses of testing-intensive determinations of the value of educational processes. Yet like all forms of labor, teaching is inalienable from the teacher. Unlike improved school buildings, lunch programs, or technologies, determinations of the educational value-added by a teacher concerns the work done by an individual who can adapt the nature of that work to the methods used to determine its value. Teachers often come to understand their own work according to the measurement categories used to determine its value, which can distort educational processes in profound ways.

The problem of determining the educational value-added by individual teachers easily lends itself to simplification through cost-benefit analysis via testing. Two cheap inexperienced teachers whose students show moderate gains can be hired for the price of one veteran teacher whose students show gains that are only slightly larger, controlling costs while providing for twice the number of students. Of course, there are countless undetected forms of educational value provided by teachers that are not factored into such calculations, such as their ability to foster independent thinking, deal with interpersonal struggles, or bring hope and humor into the lives of their students. Likewise, bad teachers can raise test scores while off-loading the collateral damage done by their pedagogy onto unmeasured facets of students’ lives by creating toxic levels of stress, promoting mind-numbing test prep approaches to learning, or by simply focusing attention only on those students whose improvements are key to raising the aggregate class score (e.g., ignoring the top of the class who will score well regardless, as well as the bottom who will score poorly even if they show gains).

This is how the education commodity proposition comes to structure the thinking and actions of teachers: they adapt their teaching to the terms used to quantify it. The full range of educational values made possible through a teacher’s abilities cannot be represented in terms of test-score gains, so teachers put their energies toward those values that can be. While tenure and seniority can limit the impact of this approach to quantifying educational value, they do not eliminate it. This is because students (and their parents) and administrators often perceive a teacher’s value according to the terms of the education commodity proposition, even if the teacher does not (Ravitch, 2013).

On Students as Consumers and Products

Students themselves are subject to the terms of the education commodity proposition in more complex and ethically fraught ways than any other participants in the educational system. According to the terms of the education commodity proposition, students are cast as consumers of educational goods who are free to make complex judgments about the value of the institutions they choose to enter. Of course, younger students technically have no choice because their parents or guardians choose for them as proxies, but the idea remains that families have an interest in making informed decisions about the value of their educational options. Because school systems are routinely ranked according to test scores, test results often determine what neighborhood or suburb a family chooses to live in; the more affluent the family, the easier it is to make that educational criterion a top decisive priority.

Regardless of where students go to school and the range of options that are open to them, in the United States they are forced by law to spend a large portion of their waking hours in school until the age of 16, or 18 in some states. Even at the college level, where students are finally free to choose for themselves where to go or whether to go at all, the economic drawbacks of not attending college are perceived to be so great that it has become a kind of forced choice. Those who do not attend typically describe themselves as unable to go (usually for financial reasons); they do not describe themselves as unwilling or as not wanting to go (Darling-Hammond, 2010). This means that the marketplace for education is unlike the marketplaces that exist for other goods. Markets for the vast majority of other goods are not predicated on legally mandated consumption or long-term negative drawbacks resulting from a failure to consume (notable exceptions are the health care and insurance industries). The contemporary rhetoric concerning “school choice,” which leans heavily in favor of a privatized school system that functions more like a “true marketplace,” tends to ignore the fact that the vast majority of marketplaces are entered and exited voluntarily (Ravitch, 2010). However, educational primary goods are not commodities, they are entitlements—access to these goods is a basic right—and their just dissemination requires decision-procedures that transcend but include those emphasized by the education commodity proposition (Stein, 2016).

Student loan debt in the United States alone constitutes one of the largest speculative bubbles in modern times. To get a sense, I simply used a common Internet search engine to answer basic question about the state of student indebtedness. The debt crisis is no secret and does not require special research skills, and our complacency is yet another sign of how the education commodity proposition has saturated into our culture. Currently the total student loan debt in the United States is estimated to be approximately $1.5 trillion and growing daily (close to $3,000 per second by some estimates). The average individual owes over $37,000, but a growing percentage owe over $150,000. The average monthly payment is $393, but ranges up to over $1,000 for some private loans and/or combinations of loans across multiple financial service providers. Student loans are paid off over an average of 20 years, with many only finally being settled in old age, if ever. Approximately 5 million federal student loan debtors are in default, a number that is also growing daily. At any scale this is a lot of money. More disturbingly, at the rate things are going it appears that much of the educational debt currently owed will never be repaid. A loan is taken out to get certain skills, which then lead to a job providing reimbursements insufficient to repay that loan. This pattern is systemic. This is why I called the student debt situation a speculative bubble. All parties are banking on the diploma being worth a certain amount on the labor market, but often it is not.

Understand also that many schools and colleges are themselves in various forms of debt. The same financial institutions loaning to schools that want to build new classrooms are also loaning to students who want to fill those new classrooms. The schools take the student loan money and use it to pay off debt, essentially paying the bank back with the bank’s own money. At the end of the day it is the students who are paying interest for decades after graduation, essentially footing the bill for the whole operation. This is similar in structure to the speculative real estate bubble that contributed to sinking the U.S. economy in 2007–2008. In that case it was the same banks financing developers to build houses that also financed the mortgages of people who wanted to live in those houses. These schemes all work fine until one of the parties fails to come through, which is inevitable. It is usually the person taking out the mortgage or the student loan who pays the price when the spreadsheets need to balance out (Harvey, 2016).

The point here concerns the broad injustice and inefficiency of running a debt-based system of education, which requires that vast populations take on personal debt to gain access to basic educational goods. Thoughts of future debt payments influence how students choose their major and then their job, and prospects of taking on more debt limits access to graduate school. Those who attend school do so knowing that the cost is perpetual indebtedness. This encodes a monetary logic into the educational experience—the “logic” of the education commodity proposition.

The role of student-as-consumer undermines the role of student-as-learner. When a consumer has taken out a loan to make their purchase, they tend to be quite concerned about their return on investment and will often pull “the customer is always right” card. This blurring of the distinction between student and consumer is the root of some difficulties on college campuses, where students are increasingly seeking to censor the ideas they disagree with. They are aware that each moment they are on campus is costing them future income and freedom; they are consumers going into debt to be in school. They are thus entitled to “have it their way,” as they would when purchasing any other commodity. Where the consumer is always right, the learner is actually interested in being proven wrong and in benefiting from that experience. Because education is presented as a commodity (and not as a basic right) some students understand themselves merely as consumers of educational goods.

As important as these reflections are, the idea of school choice and the related analogy of the student-as-consumer can sometimes obscure the fact that students are also the product of the educational system." (