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On Reality Asserts Itself, Mr. Babones, author of “Sixteen for ’16”, says fix the public school system by giving all kids the same education the wealthy give their children

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. We’re continuing our series of interviews with Salvatore Babones, who now joins me again in the studio. Thanks for joining us. SALVATORE BABONES, ASSOC. PROF. SOCIOLOGY AND SOCIAL POLICY, UNIV. OF SYDNEY: Thanks for having me on. JAY: So, one more time, Salvatore is an associate professor in sociology and social policy at the University of Sydney. He’s also a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. And his latest book is Sixteen for ’16: A Progressive Agenda for a Better America. So now we’re going to move on to chapter 3, Support Public Education, which you say we should do. BABONES: Absolutely. JAY: On the other hand, you say in the same chapter we actually learn very little at school. So why bother? BABONES: Well, public education is not about teaching subjects, teaching people the facts of history or the facts of science. Now, that may seem strange coming from someone with two master’s degrees and a PhD, right? But I ask people to ask themselves how much do they remember from school. Do they remember how to factor an equation? Do they remember how to diagram a sentence? Do they remember the characters in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar? Probably not. Yet they’re functioning adults who know how to live in society. Right? So education is not about the facts that we shove into heads. Education is about the social learning, about learning how to be an adult, about exposure to the adult world. And we do that through whatever subjects we think are important, but honestly, there’s no sense in which math is more important than English or that music is more or less important than science. Really, all of these subjects make the person. JAY: But your argument in the chapter is against standardized testing. BABONES: Against standardized testing. JAY: And, I mean, I’m going to play their argument, which is this came out, at least supposedly it developed because so many schools were graduating kids that could barely read and write. BABONES: Right. JAY: You know, your argument about–you use the words a factory model or a knowledge transfer model, like as you’re saying now. But you have to at least be able to have the skills to research, learn, read, and write. And on the internet now, of course, you have access to everything, but you’ve got to know how to look for it. BABONES: Sure. JAY: And the standardized testing was supposedly a solution to what they claim was teachers who were not very good at what they were doing and kids coming out not even with basic skill sets. BABONES: Sure. Look, we do have one standardized test that I will tell you about, even though I don’t really endorse standardized testing, and that’s the National Assessment of Educational Progress. It’s not a standardized test so much as it is a research tool. It’s a test that’s given to a random sample of American students every two years and has been given to a random sample of American students for 40 years. On the NAEP, the nation’s report card, as it’s called, average scores have consistently gone up for the last 40 years in both math and reading. So not only have average scores got up; the gap between races has declined, the gap between genders has declined. There’s no crisis in American public education. Right? We’re doing a perfectly good job. And we have been doing a perfectly good job for the last four decades of educating our children. JAY: But what do you make about the comparisons people do to other countries when you look–especially hard skills like math? The United States doesn’t do very well compared to many other countries. BABONES: Sure. The U.S. does abysmally on international comparisons in math. And it does abysmally for two reasons. It does abysmally first because there are many concentrated poverty schools in America, and the concentrated poverty schools tend to do poorly in these tests. They pull down the U.S. average. And more importantly, they do poorly because our educational system is not focused on the rote learning of mathematical equations, and other systems are. Look, the top performer in the OECD PISA survey, the Programme for International Student Assessment, the top performer is Shanghai, in China. Okay? In Shanghai, in China, you have students who are drilled endlesslyk They do daytime school in math, and then they go to night school in math as well. They’re drilled endlessly on math skills so that they can ultimately do well on tests like the U.S. SAT test and get into U.S. universities. Chinese parents do anything they can to get their children into American schools. Right? So there is a massive influx of rich Chinese parents getting their kids into schools, mainly in California, in Los Angeles and in the San Francisco area. JAY: But aren’t they doing very well in engineering and computer sciences and–? BABONES: Oh, no. I mean into schools, I mean into elementary and high schools. Even the Chinese parents don’t want their kids going to these quote-unquote top Shanghai schools. They try to get their kids into international schools in Shanghai which have a much more open, liberal, Western style curriculum, or they try to get their kids into U.S. public schools. Look, the Hurun Rich List survey–the Hurun Rich List in China is like the Forbes list in the United States. It’s a list of billionaires in China. They did a survey of multimillionaires and billionaires in China asking them their biggest complaints about China. And the top three, tied at 20 percent each for the top three reasons they want to get out of China and get their children out of China, is, first, the bad environment, second, tainted food, and third, poor education. They want to get their own kids out of China. JAY: And who’s producing better engineers and computer scientists and so on? BABONES: Well, I’ve had many discussions with people in the private sector about engineering skills, because I do a lot of research on China. What they tell me is that a typical Chinese engineer has about the level of competence of a U.S. engineer of one level below. So someone with a master’s degree in China is equivalent to someone with a bachelor’s degree in the U.S. Someone with a PhD in China is roughly equivalent to someone with a master’s degree in the U.S. It’s simply a myth that Chinese engineers are superior to U.S. engineers. JAY: So if the evidence is that–. I’m sorry. Finish your point. Yeah. BABONES: Chinese math scores on standardized tests are higher than American math scores on standardized tests. But what we want from people is not performance on standardized tests. What we want from people is to be good engineers. JAY: So what’s driving standardized testing in the United States? Why is it so predominant? BABONES: Oh, I think it’s a misplaced agenda that people on the right wing of American politics prey on the fears of parents in order to try to privatize their schools, in order to drive out costly programs like music and art education. I mean, there are schools that are giving up on PE and library in order to be able to sit kids in front of computers to practice math equations. Now, I have a master’s in applied mathematics, and even I think that’s ridiculous. If you want to learn mathematics, you should be a broadly educated person who, yes, studies algebra, who studies calculus. It’s wonderful to study these subjects. But to rote drill them over and over is purely useless. JAY: You know, it’s particularly of interest in Baltimore, where a lot of the public schools are not functioning very well, and kids are coming out sometimes not literate, although it’s not just in Baltimore; it’s a problem across the country. And the argument goes, without this kind of testing, you can’t make things any better. Now, I’m not sure it actually is getting any better in Baltimore with the testing. BABONES: Look, if you want to have good policy, look at wealthy people. Don’t listen to what they say. Follow what they do. The children of the wealthy don’t go to schools that are dominated by standardized testing, where they sit in front of computers and do practice tests administered by a private corporation or private vendor that supplies the school. The children of the wealthy go to schools where they have a lot of freedom, where they have very small classes, where there are lots of teachers and teachers’ aides, where the average student-teacher ratio is ten students per teacher and the teacher might also have a teacher aide, instead of a public school where there are 30 kids per teacher and the teacher does not have a teacher aid. It’s all a matter of resourcing and poverty. Right? If you want your children to do well like the children of the rich do, we should be having your children go through the same curriculum with the same resourcing level as the children of the rich have. JAY: Yeah. I heard this argument from a teacher who was at a protest who said exactly this. BABONES: It’s that simple. JAY: He says, you want to improve the school system, just get us the same student-teacher ratio they have in the private schools. BABONES: Exactly. Exactly. JAY: And give more resources and training to teachers on these things. BABONES: Oh, look, I believe in unionization for teachers because it protects their ability to follow their conscience and do what’s best for their students. I think teachers should be treated as professionals. I think teachers should be well paid. But fundamentally the big number above everything else is the student-teacher ratio. JAY: One of the arguments you make, one of the reasons the private sector is not hiring more people is they don’t need to in order to–you don’t use this terminology, but it’s more or less that in terms of maximizing the return on capital invested, they don’t need to hire more people. But if they also–they meaning, those, the 1 percent or however you want to describe the elites that govern this country, have they also discovered they don’t need people to be all that educated? In fact, maybe it’s better if they’re not. BABONES: Oh, they don’t need people who are very educated. The question is: what is education for? For the last 20 or 30 years we have bought the argument that education is for getting you a job. No. I mean, education is for making you a citizen. And I keep coming back to where we started off with, that I’m a conservative. Right? I mean, what education is for is turning out American citizens. That’s why we have public education. If education is all about a job, why should I pay taxes to support someone else’s kids? I mean, I don’t have children, but I pay taxes every year. Why? Because I’m turning out American citizens through the education system. JAY: But if you’re really going to take that seriously, it’s a real threat to the system, because that means people actually learn some history and how we got here, in which case they’re going to make much more serious demands on the system. BABONES: Absolutely. And I think people should be making more serious demands on the system. I mean, I think that citizenship and the creation of a human being who can operate autonomously in a social environment, who can be part of society, is the ultimate goal of education. And of course to do that you have to be able to read, you have to know some history. But you should also be able to play a musical instrument. You should also maybe speak a foreign language. You should also know a little bit of art. You should also play sports. Right? I mean, the whole idea that students should be doing nothing but learning math and should not play baseball or football is ridiculous. JAY: Most importantly, I think, has been the cutback on the study of history. I know it’s been taking place across the United States and Canada. I’m on an advisory committee for a master’s in journalism program at a university in Ontario, and you can graduate from a master’s in journalism with one high school history credit, and you never have to take history again. BABONES: Right. Right. No, I agree with you. History is instrumental to the teaching of citizenship. Right? You can’t be a good citizen unless you know where your country’s been, unless you know what your country is. And not just your country. You should know how it’s situated in the rest of the world. But that’s not the focus of the so-called reform efforts coming from the right wing in America. JAY: Well, not just the right wing. I mean, this is coming as much from the–it depends how you define the right wing. BABONES: Well, it depends how we define right wing. JAY: If you want to include the leadership of the Democratic Party BABONES: From the poor pro-corporate interests. The pro-corporate interests are not interested in teaching history. The pro-corporate interests are interested in grading people, that is, in taking–. JAY: You include the leadership of the Democratic Party. BABONES: I include the leadership of the Democratic Party in this. They’re interested in evaluating students, that we can grade them from lowest-performing to highest-performing, and then we can put them in jobs efficiently, the highest-performing students in the highest-paid job, the lowest-performing students in the lowest-paid job. And that’s not what education should be about. JAY: It shouldn’t be. But if you have real education, then people are going to start to question who has power, who has ownership, and how do you actually have real democratization. BABONES: Well, I think we should have this. I mean, education in America has historically been something that’s very local, that is community-based, that people had a lot of say in what was taught in their own schools. Parents were invited into schools, welcomed in schools. Now, what I’m describing there is a rich person’s cooperative private school today. But that’s also the public school of 50 years ago. Right? It’s the American tradition that education should be about forming citizens. It’s only in the last 20 or 30 or 40 years that it shifted to education being about a high-stakes gamble to get yourself a higher-paying job in life. JAY: Yeah. But education, even–when I–. BABONES: It’s always been connected. JAY: Yeah, but when I grew up, education, in terms of if you talk about history and mythology, it was crap, frankly. I mean, we grew up with the Cold War mentality and the Cold War version of history and so on. BABONES: Sure. JAY: But I take your point. At least there was some value in actually graduating with some skill sets of reading and writing and having some comprehension of life. BABONES: Look, I used to work in a very technical job on Wall Street doing financial risk management for a major U.S. financial conglomerate, and my job involved doing risk analysis of credit card portfolios. I never used any of my advanced mathematical training. I sat in front of a computer and I moved levers here and there and saw what came out in terms of a value added according to a certain marketing proposal. Now, I’m not saying we don’t need to know mathematics. I’m not saying it’s not valuable. I’m saying that most engineers, most finance people, most people working in insurance companies today rarely use mathematics, never use calculus, you know, never use algebra. At most they have to be numerate. Well, all of this emphasis on math education, look, it’s not misplaced. My mother’s a math teacher. I teach social statistics. I think it’s great to know some mathematics. But I don’t think it’s any more important than knowing history and social studies and art and music and gym. JAY: Which is all being gutted in the public– BABONES: Which is all being gutted– JAY: –in the public system. BABONES: –in order to increase test scores on math and English, because math and English are on the SAT test and math and English are in the international comparisons. And the core curriculum increasingly focuses on math and English. JAY: Okay. Let’s go on to the next chapter, which is Medicare for all. BABONES: Medicare for all. JAY: So we’ve done a lot of this on The Real News Network, as anyone watches knows. But the basic argument. Go ahead. BABONES: It is very simple. Medicare works. It doesn’t work perfectly, it has problems, but it works. It works much better than the private health care system. And it is meaningless, it is ridiculous to have everybody over age 65 covered by national health insurance and not cover the rest of the population. If it’s good for people over age 65, it’s good for people over age 60, it’s good for people over age 50, it’s good for everybody. JAY: So we’re not going to get into the details of this, because we’ve done this on The Real News dozens and dozens of times. But I have a question. I don’t know if you have–’cause you’ve done a lot of country comparative work. BABONES: Right. JAY: It’s not like capitalism is fundamentally different in Canada or Europe. I mean, they have the same thing: they invest money, they want a maximum return, and so on and so on. In all those countries, it was in the interest of the system itself to have a national health care plan of one form or another. This is the only place in the industrialized world that doesn’t have one. Why? BABONES: In every country, it’s been a political battle, and in every country the progressive forces have won and gotten themselves universal health care. JAY: But that included sections of capital that saw the need for a national plan. Like, for example, the auto industry in Canada, supported having a national plan because it was way cheaper for them, frankly, than having to pay individual–in highly unionized places, it was costing them a lot of money for health care. BABONES: Yeah. Look, the problem here is the problem–as in much of American policy, the problem is inequality. And the problem is inequality because when you have very high inequality like we have in America, corporate executives don’t take positions in the interest of the companies. They take positions in the interest of themselves. Right? So it may not be in the interest–I’m sorry. American companies would benefit enormously from having universal health care in America. All their employees are covered, the don’t have to worry about it, the don’t have to offer health insurance, they don’t have to worry about their sick employees not showing up to work. Everybody’s covered. But rich American individuals who run those companies would have to pay higher taxes. And that’s what it comes down to in the end. Yes, there are some industries that would lobby against universal health care, but most industries would benefit. But it’s the same with universal health care as it is with high marginal tax rates. I mean, if you think about it, why does the American Chamber of Commerce care about tax rates? After all, their members are corporations. They don’t pay individual income taxes. If anything, they should be thrilled. Tax rich people more and provide more infrastructure for their businesses to run. They’re against it because their chief executives are against it. And their chief executives make enormous amounts of money. They don’t want to pay taxes and they don’t want to support education and they don’t want to pay for health care. JAY: Okay. We’ll continue this in one more segment. Please join us with Salvatore Babones on Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network.


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Dr.Salvatore Babones is the author or editor of eight books and more than two dozen academic research articles. His academic research focuses on income inequality, economic development, and statistical methods for comparative social science research. He writes a weekly column for the website and contributes to progressive websites and newsletters across America.