Windfall Non-Profits and the Destructive Industry of Education


Part 1: High Schools

Oday Baddar


 

In 2010, I had begun teaching at a fancy K-12 school on the northwest 4th ring of Beijing that had over 4000 students, 260 of them in high school were enrolled in a special Australian-based program called the Global Assessment Certificate (GAC) - a subsidiary of the American College Testing company, now known as ACT Inc. I was asked to teach several of its modules (English writing and reading, listening and speaking, business studies, and study skills). Relative to other programs I had taught in prior universities and high schools, the GAC appeared to be much simpler, with each of its colorless and pictureless skinny paperback textbooks proudly stating on the first page that the purpose of GAC is to prepare students for university education.

Created in 2002, the primary objective of the GAC program's architects is to turn it into yet another authentic university preparation program (UPP), only this one was specifically designed for non-native speakers of English. If you're in education and haven't heard of it, it probably means you do not live in east and southeast Asia, where hundreds of schools and learning centers continue to deliver it. And like any other UPP, the creators' ultimate objective is to have the students' completed coursework accredited by English-speaking universities around the world as an admissions preference, requirement, or even credit-hour equivalence.

At that school, I was originally hired to teach economics, in particular the American-based Advanced Placement (AP) economics course, coinciding with College Board's premature launch of the AP Program in China (2010). College Board, of course, is the "non-profit" organization that gave us the SAT, PSAT, and CLEP exams, among other wonderful products, and is the main competitor with ACT Inc. in the United States and Canada. If AP courses were likened to heavy artillery weapons, the GAC modules would be more like swiss knives and water pistols. Since I left Beijing in 2013 when I could no longer tolerate the insane levels of air pollution, I have come to work with today's most popular (and arguably the most sophisticated) UPP of all: the British-based International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Program. Although most research will tell you that it was the Swiss who created it in the late 1960s, you'll have to look more carefully to notice that the actual shakers and makers were British and American foundations and think tanks on education, including the director of College Board's AP program, Harlan Hanson, who co-founded the International Schools Examination Syndicate (ISES) -- the IB's predecessor.

Since the world's perception is that the US and UK are, still, the top two destinations for quality higher education, it is no wonder then that these two countries' interconnected web of education agencies has a monopoly on what constitutes quality education. The Anglo-Americans not only want to draw in millions of wealthy students from all around the world and brain-drain their home countries, but they also want to "shape the future of international education," as the Council of International Schools (CIS)'s slogan goes. In partnership with high ranking universities, elite high schools, accreditation companies, UPP developers are advising schools and governments of the world on what is or isn't quality education (i.e. recreating them in their own image).

The Weapon of Choice: Standardization

These UPPs; these university admission tickets - if you will, are only worth anything as long as high-ranking universities recognize them to be so. And the only way a UPP can receive and maintain such recognition is to be measurable and scrutable by design. In other words, it must be rigorously standardized and strictly followed in accordance with the expectations that reputable universities expect of a high school education.

In all the seven elite high schools I have taught at outside the US and UK in the past 15 years (both private and public, for profit and not), I have come to find the same conflicts of interest between the school's goals and the proclaimed goals of the adopted UPPs and their accrediting partners in crime. For example, the school admins (and the government or the school owners who hired them) would rather have as many students as it is spatially and technically possible to enroll, irrespective of their qualifications and abilities to handle the UPP curricula, requirements, or assessments. While it is widely known in education circles that the larger the classroom enrollment size, the lesser the quality of learning (and the consequent lower academic achievement), a prestigeous school can't ignore how each additional student is another $10,000 to $20,000 of income per year, not including fees for transportation, lousy food, test-prep textbooks, and individuality-inhibiting uniforms.

Although both the school and the UPP company are driven by the same profit incentive, UPPs would rather increase their income by increasing the number of schools they are contracted with, not the number of students shoved into classrooms. That's because in the long-run, this would hurt the UPP profiteers, either because the numbers of students who fail the program would be too high (and thus lose its appeal to the parents of prospective students who naturally seek the most certain of pathways to reputable universities), or because so many unqualified students who somehow pass the program would soon be discovered by the reputable universities they get admitted into to be unqualified, undermining the program's value and possibly leading to its rejection by universities for failing to meet their expectations. So while some UPPs may insist that high schools adhere to their criteria and specifications on matters like student qualifications, classroom size, or student-teacher ratios, the high schools usually ignore or deceive. For instance, at two of the most prestigious high schools in Beijing (namely, the Renmin University affiliated high school, RDFZ, and Beijing Haidian Foreign Language School, HaiWai) where I taught AP Economics, the school heads regularly enrolled up to 35 students per classroom -- half a dozen of whom could not construct a sentence in English.

AMY: As you can see from this pie chart, 91% of enrolled students have passed the entrance exam.
ODAY: Wait, what? How can they be enrolled if they didn't pass the entrance exam?
AMY: Well the nine percent who failed were the ones who paid a little extra on the side.
ODAY: Just curious, how much more?
AMY: I think it's close to 200,000 RMB ($30,000)

From an orientation meeting at an international school in Beijing - 2011

Is it really a surprise that hidden illiteracy is on the rise, and that it is most prevalent in the country that sprung all these UPPs and their offshoots; the preferred destination for international students: the United States1? While the global media and their brainwashed audiences are busy passing the blame onto unqualified teachers, lack of funding, bad parenting, less homework, more homework, and so on, the truth is so much simpler than you'd think. Firstly, you must ask the right question: How do students who can't string sentences together in any language pass the testing scrutiny of a multi-billion dollar industry that has hijacked the term "education"?

You see, what these ill-achievers (a.k.a. the genetically unfit for the uncreative, boring, and brainwashing educational programs that occasionally diagnose them with psychological disorders requiring medication) end up doing is pay money under the table for others, usually experienced teachers, to research and write their essays and other homework, which are then submitted as their original work. Others pay for advanced copies of the final exam questions or marking schemes. Some teachers even assist students cheating free of charge, because their jobs depend on students meeting performance benchmarks! Of course, Some of you reading this might chuckle and say "not in my school." Yes, in your school too!

No Child Left Behind

The incentive to enroll as many students as it is spatially possible is coupled with another contradictory and unwritten school policy: no student is allowed to fail (except in cases so extreme that nothing can be done to prevent them). In Amman, one of the prestigeous IB schools I taught at had recently expelled a high school student indefinitely, for being irredeemably belligerent and abusive towards students and teachers, only they have him come in on specific dates to sit in a solitary room to take the assigned exams. This is what I mean when I say that schools will bend over backwards to prevent a student from failing. Once again, this is true for both public and private schools, for profit and not, because in all school types the inflow of funds depends largely on reputation, and reputation depends largely on passing rates.

To achieve the 100% passing rate goal, a weaker program like the GAC offers its students unlimited retakes of any assessed work, within any given semester, until they pass; like the American GED exam, which was created by the same Iowa professor who had created the ACT, the womb that delivered the GAC. In other words, the 100% passing rate is embedded in the program's design. As for stronger programs like the IB and AP, indefinite retakes are made more difficult (once a year), which is partly why they are recognized by universities for being relatively more reputable.

Infinite second chances are one of the few school tactics to then delegate the responsibility of passing students onto the poor teacher, who is then simultaneously required to meet the UPP's standards and pass the genetical misfits aforementioned. This means that teachers who want to keep their jobs would have to enable cheating somehow, even if by simply looking the other way. But more often than most would imagine, teachers also actively help students pass. And to make things worse, the students, class after class, year after year, become aware of this unwritten school policy and take advantage of it, like when they disregard all deadlines or stop getting any work done. Even parents play along and search for any excuse to find the school at fault, in the hope that their children's scores get revalued (and in most cases they get their way, because school admins have a stake in score revaluation too). Unfortunately, as a consequence of this theater, most students eventually lose any meaningful sense of responsibility, knowing that their academic success is no longer primarily dependent on their performance, but on the school staff's acquiescence. And in the unlikely event that a private school does not play along, the parents can always relocate their children to another school that will, thus depriving them the pesos. And with public schools, low scores would deprive them from government funds.

Some people like to twist this around, blaming the teachers for enabling the cheating in the first place, as Steven D. Levitt showed in his best seller: Freakonomics. And if caught, the admins can act as though they had no idea; a bad apple that needs disciplinary action. But that's like blaming the smiling girl at a McDonald's drive-thru for the rise in the national obesity rate.

For years I wondered: Why would a prestigeous school risk getting caught and labeled as an enabler of plagiarism? The answer turned out to be much simpler than I had imagined. Prestigeous schools are practically immune because, unlike the fast food industry, the interests of all five stakeholders are aligned: The school owners, the students and their parents, and the school admins and teachers are all benefiting from it! Why would any of them rat on the very organization that is supporting their careers and fulfilling their goals in life? Who gains exactly when plagiarism is reported, or when the program is exposed for being antithetical to education? No one! Indeed, as long as no one points out that the emperor is naked, the parade can continue and no one will be harmed. As for the UPP profiteers, the sixth stakeholder, despite their endless warnings of plagiarism and its consequences, even they would not want to expose misconduct to the public, because it will also reflect badly on them and may negatively affect their projected profits.

So while it is part of a prestigeous school's strategy to guarantee success to its customers, flaunting their consecutive passing rates of 100% over the years, they must still act very cautiously to maintain the fa├žade. Similarly, the headquarters of UPPs are aware of these conflicts of interest, and so they spend a great deal of money improving and repackaging their products to satisfy their main sources of credibility: universities and, to a lesser extent, boards of education. And with reputation being the source of their greatest power and greatest weakness simultaneously, they take costly precautionary steps to ensure their perceived integrity, like maintaining an internal department to manage quality assurance and academic honesty. This includes periodic visits from inspectors to client schools and immediate containment of any leaked cases of academic misconduct.

If a UPP inspector detects plagiarism in a client school, the school will most definitely get a slap on the wrist behind closed curtains. In the summer of 2013, a GAC inspector did just that to a school in Beijing when a math teacher got caught filling out his students' multiple-choice test papers (he wanted to avoid wasting time with the ridiculous indefinite retakes he had to administer). The 30+ students still got awarded the fake marks, while the school got a paperless warning. So long as the incident is not leaked to the public, especially via credible mainstream media sources, the incident never really happened. The GAC profiteers did not want to agitate their relations with such a reputable and very profitable school, especially when the school owners are also GAC shareholders. Instead, amends were made, followed by promises of "never again," which both sides understood to mean: never again get caught.

Like any business that overcharges its customers for a worthless product, reputation is the one element that could make or break a UPP business and its client schools. That's because reputation is what gives them recognition by the prestigeous universities that parents want to send their children to. If a school's (or a UPP's) true worthlessness becomes common knowledge, universities will be the first to cut ties and distance themselves, and the parents (for private schools) and the government (for public schools) would follow suit, which can be a fatal hit to the UPP and the school. Suppose a school honestly upholds a zero-tolerance policy on plagiarism of any kind. In that case, it would no longer be able to maintain a high passing rate. So in that case, why would a parent send their child to a school that does not guarantee them a path to a prestigeous university? Or think about it this way: If a school shows an inadequate record of passing rates (say at 70%) -- probably because it plays by the rules and holds students responsible for their learning -- the parent may see this as a risk factor. Would they enroll their children and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars over 15 years of "education" for just a lousy 70% chance? That's like going to an expensive steak house that tastes good only 70% of the time. Why take that risk when that other fancy restaurant/school just around the corner has a proven record of 100% satisfaction rate?

The same dilemma exists for public schools, only instead of worrying about parents' approval, they have to worry about the approval of their main source of income: the government. In the US, the greatest country in the world, government funding for public schools is correlated with and based on student test scores.

"Houston's board of education, for example, offers up to $3,000 annually to teachers whose students meet performance benchmarks and up to $25,000 to administrators whose schools meet state performance guidelines".2

And when students don't do well, the government often punishes the school by cutting existing or promised funds. Like with private schools, there is a direct monetary incentive to inflate student scores, without cheating if possible. But the stakes are too high, and if not by detectable cheating, then by the undetectable and more common type of cheating: the transformation of the entire educational system into a gargantuan test-preparation workshop.

"But that's the name of the game," said one colleague of mine who currently teaches IB Psychology, defending her teaching-to-the-test approach. "The syllabus is so restrictive and demanding that I don't really have time to teach the really interesting stuff. And let's face it, these kids need to pass!"

Indeed, why would a teacher care about a genuine education if he or she truly cared about the future of the students they loved? When IB scores came out below the benchmark for one subject at the prestigeous school I taught at recently in Amman, all the teachers of that particular subject were offered conditional renewal contracts in January: if their students' IB scores go below their benchmark once again come July (when the final scores come out from the IB headquarters), their contracts would automatically be voided. They had to wait till July to find out whether or not they still had a job at the school they had been teaching at for more than five years! Needless to say, they immediately started looking for teaching jobs elsewhere, and some of them did not wait for the scores to come out and left the school well before July in protest of the unfair and humiliating offer.

Do the headquarters of UPP businesses know about these conflicts of interest? UPP insiders have confirmed to me on numerous occasions that they unsurprisingly do. Such discrepancies in the mission of education and the client school are acceptable as long as it is unknown to the general public. Sure, they are fully aware of the conflicting interests, but then again there is something of much greater interest that unites them: the river of money that eternally flows into their bank accounts. For each additional "qualified" student enrolled in a UPP, both profitability and reputation increase; both feed each other's growth. To schools and UPPs, education is not an end, but a means to an end; an end worth hundreds of millions of dollars, even when they claim to be non-profit.

Money and Education Don't Mix

If delivering quality education was a serious objective, why do schools ask their teachers to teach subjects they know nothing about, just to avoid having to hire and pay new teachers who are experienced in those subjects? Why was one colleague of mine asked to teach GAC science, English, and mathematics in the same semester to over-populated classrooms in Beijing? And why did they have a golf instructor teach economics at a college in Connecticut? None of this is news or unfamiliar to those who have been involved in education for a while. If quality of education was a true objective, schools wouldn't gut the arts out of their curricula. Who decided that mathematics and economics are more essential to our lives than music and sports? If education was truly important, why do governments in developed countries continue to cut spending on education3? The fact of the matter is that schools, private or public, are not in the business of delivering education, but in the business of appearing to be delivering it. Besides, since when do semi-intelligent human beings expect quality from mass production?

Do universities that end up accrediting UPP modules or courses know about the dust under the carpet? Of course they do. And as long as it is under the carpet, they don't really mind. By accepting to accredit a student's UPP work, they entice both the student and their parents to enroll into their very accommodating university. It's basically a promotional discount from universities who are not ashamed to remind prospective students of the tuition money they could save, all to increase their income from an increased student pool, especially international students who pay out-of-state tuition (usually triple what an in-state student pays in the US). High schools and UPPs have essentially restructured their entire educational system to whatever prestigeous universities expect or require. Today, a high school's ranking and popularity is not based on the quality of education it provides, but on the number of its graduates that are admitted to top colleges and universities around the world. And parents don't care either. They are generally not interested in what their children learned, but in what score they got on their report cards. And the saddest part of all this is that the majority of students, the most important of all stakeholders, don't expect nor desire to learn anything, but to be prepped well enough to pass their tests.

 

Nov 22, 2011
Edited: Dec 5, 2016

Part 2: Universities
Part: [1], [2], [3], [4]


Notes:
  1. Alexander Gong, (2010), US Students Trail in International Test Scores [Last accessed Sept 08, 2012]
  2. Van Thompson, (2013), Do Standardized Test Scores Factor in to How Much Money a School Will Receive? [Last accessed Dec 11, 2016]
  3. UK: Education funding cuts are 'biggest for 50 years', (2011), The Independent; US: Higher Education Funding Cut by $89 Billion Over 10 Years in Obama Budget, (2011), Bloomberg News; [Last accessed Sept 08, 2012]