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Glass examines American trends, fate of public education

September 26, 2008

Regents' Professor's book shows how economics and demographics prevail in education policies

Arizona State University Regents’ Professor Gene V Glass paints a grim picture of public education in 21st Century America. He sees an economically strapped society moving more toward cheapening education, resegregating students and focusing on the end-result rather than the learning experience.

His new book, Fertilizers, Pills & Magnetic Strips: The Fate of Public Education in America, is an eye-opening analysis of how education policies in the United States are degrading public education and quasi-privatizing education for the White middle class at public expense. His research explains how contemporary education debates are the result of demographic and economic trends that occurred throughout the last century. He also envisions a challenging future for public education as the minority segment of the general population grows and the Baby Boomer population ages.

“All of the big movements and debates in education—charter schools, vouchers, virtual schools, tax credits, open enrollment—allegedly are about quality education and international competitiveness,” Glass said. “In fact, they are not truly about that at all. They are about the aging middle class trying to cut support for public institutions that increasingly are serving people not like themselves.”

Academics and education policymakers are lauding the book for examining the consequences of current policies that Glass contends are more about cutting costs than improving public education. Professor Patricia Gandara co-director of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California-Los Angeles, said Washington policymakers listen when Glass talks.

“He is a respected scholar who has been at the forefront of designed methodologies to test the strength of the evidence for educational outcomes,” she said. “His blunt critique of the blinders that education policymakers have had on over the last few decades as they have shaped policy, largely in a knowledge vacuum, has to be heard.”

David Berliner, ASU Regents’ Professor of Education and author of The Manufactured Crisis, calls Fertilizers, Pills & Magnetic Strips “the first credible book of the 21st century to anticipate the future of public education."

At first glance, the book’s title appears to have nothing in common with education. Glass takes a historical perspective on how social change in the 20th century altered the course of public schooling. He was inspired by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel, which called upon only basic material and biological forces to explain why Western European civilization dominated the world.

Glass, an expert in educational leadership, policy studies and psychology in education at ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton College of Education, began looking for the underlying causes of the country becoming a rapidly aging population with an explosive Hispanic underclass.

He found that the advent of fertilizers and other agricultural technologies in the early 20th Century caused a huge increase in agricultural productivity that ultimately led to America’s transition from a rural to an urban society. Later, advancements in medical technologies and pharmaceuticals, such as birth control pills, allowed people to determine the size of their families and extended their lifespan. Finally, the development of magnetic strips altered the spending and saving habits of Americans with the easy swipe of a plastic card.

“It was kind of an eye opener to me that we can talk on and on about ideas and political movements and, in the final analysis, things like economics and demographics will prevail in determining what happens to culture and public institutions like education,” Glass said. “Today, Americans are living longer with little savings and a lot of debt. All of these things have very big implications for public education.”

In his book, Glass explains that retiring Baby Boomers want to hold down property taxes, one of their few non-discretionary expenses. However this also is the largest source of funds for public education, so as these dollars dwindle, education policymakers seek more ways to cut costs. Some parents then use publicly funded options to benefit only their own children’s education, such as charter schools, private schools and home schooling.

Arizona’s education tax credit, for example, can be used for private school tuition. Rather than providing low-income students the opportunity to attend private schools, Glass said, the tax credit is cutting the cost of private education for the wealthy and resegregating students.

“The White middle class is trying to find a quasi-private school experience for their children to remove them from the schools with minorities in them,” he said. “Charter schools in no way reflect the ethnic composition of the community they are in. Even the charter schools located in mixed-ethnicity suburban areas tend to be largely White. They are even resegregating the student populations inside the school building. The majority of advanced placement students are White.”

Arizona, which ranks next to last in per public expenditures, also implemented high-stakes testing, which Glass condemns as a step backward academically. “Everywhere you look, the middle schools and secondary schools are collapsing the curriculum down to basic skills. It’s cheaper,” Glass said. “They see the whole curriculum as preparing the children for these high stakes tests. High-stakes testing cheapens education.”

He added that the fastest growing trends in education, virtual school and home schooling, are a lucrative business that have “degraded education and created an empty experience for children.” He points to a remote Colorado town with a population of about 300 people that is the site of a virtual school. He said the online venture has enrolled about 5,000 students and is collecting millions of dollars in tuition.

“I don’t think any of this has to do with quality education at all. It’s all about saving money,” Glass said. “Arizona is the microcosm of what the whole country is going to be in 20 to 30 years—a third Hispanic and an old, retired and a financially-strapped middle class.”

Gandara said she still has hope that the nation will not embrace Arizona education policies and treatment of minorities, but acknowledged the state is “an example of how badly things can go if we do not wake up and heed Glass's call.”

Glass readily admits his pessimism for the future of public education. “What happened to a richer concept of what education could be?” he asked. “All of these trends are going to continue to grow in the United States. It’s a very grim outlook for public institutions of all kinds. The only hope that exists is in the production of quality teachers.”