This month, we speak with Larry Johnson, associate professor in the Social Foundations of Education Program at the University of South Florida, Saint Petersburg. In his pedagogy, Johnson focuses on the complex relationship between education, culture, and society with the goal of exploring policies and practices from historical and contemporary perspectives that address structural inequality, and transforming educational institutions into sites for social justice. Johnson is notably a long-time proponent of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and variously mobilizes MMT’s insights when training our teachers-to-be. In our conversation with Johnson, we discover just how constrained the US system of public education is by wrong economic thinking and what it would mean to think otherwise. Together, we ask: How do federal interest rates shape US education policy? What do standardized tests have to tell us about neoclassical economics and the nature of money? Why is the rhetoric of education in the United States so narrowly focused on preparing students for careers? How do classist and racist myths of taxpayer financing create unequal schooling? And how could we ever reasonably hope for the political economy of education in the United States to ever be otherwise? Pondering such questions, Johnson opens a window onto his longstanding advocacy for radically rethinking US public education through the lens of endogenous public money theory.
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The following was transcribed by Mike Lewis and has been lightly edited for clarity.
Scott Ferguson: Larry Johnson, welcome to Money on the Left.
Larry Johnson: Thank you. Good to be here.
Billy Saas: We’re excited to talk to you today about the Social Foundations of Education, which is your area of expertise and something you teach about at University of South Florida. Could you start us off by telling us a little bit about what the Social Foundations of Education are and how one like yourself comes to study them?
Larry Johnson: Sure, sure. The basic idea is you are trying to look at the relationship between school and society. As an historian, I look at how education is related to political economy and ideology. That really runs throughout the social foundations field. So we’re always trying to think about how, for example, if you’re thinking about kids not doing well in school, we have to look not just at what’s happening in school, we have to look and see, poor communities often–the kids in poor communities often do badly in school because their schools are poor as well. Both the community and the school lack resources, just as an example.
Billy Saas: And we’re specifically excited to talk to you about the overlap of your research and teaching in the Social Foundations of Education with questions related to what money is and how it works. In fact, I think we have slated this episode, The Monetary Foundations of Education. What do you think of that? Does that work?
Larry Johnson: Ah, that actually might work. Yeah, yeah. Yeah, maybe even MMT is necessary for education.
Scott Ferguson: I like it. It’s just too long for our title art, but I do like it.
Larry Johnson: Okay. I got thinking about issues of the federal budget and how it works fairly early on. When I was in high school, I had a teacher. This is 1965, the year after Goldwater’s run for the presidency. And lots of students in class were Goldwater supporters. They were preoccupied with passing a balanced budget amendment, and they raise those kinds of issues in class all the time. And one day the teacher happened to say, as he was addressing some of these kids, and I can’t remember exactly the context. He told us if we went down to the IRS office in Ogden, Utah, where people in the Rocky Mountain West send their taxes every year. If we paid our taxes, we’ve got a bag full of cash and got down there and paid our taxes with cash, the IRS would shred it. And yeah, so what does that mean? And I just happen to think, well, it means the government doesn’t need our taxes to spend money. And he kind of smiled. That was the end of it. We didn’t go any farther. But I went home and asked my dad about it. And he told me, like he often did: call someone and find out, so call Ogden and find out. So I called. The receptionist was very good. She ended up connecting me with the chief economist at that IRS office. And he got on the phone and said I hear you’ve had an interesting conversation in school. So I told him about it. He said that’s exactly right. If you paid your taxes in cash, we would shred it, because we don’t need that cash. We issue the currency. And that was really interesting. And I must say, the man was very nice. He invited me to come down to Ogden to meet with him. But I was a 17 year old, I never did go. I passed up a real opportunity to learn something. And the next instance where I really got a chance to think about this was the fall quarter of my sophomore year in college, I took a class: general introduction to economics. And the fellow thought it was a guy named George Fuller, a very interesting economist who had read Keynes had read Marx. He used both in the class, and the department had assigned this class to use the Samuelson economics textbook. So what George would do is, we’d go through Samuelson and then he’d give us stuff to read to critique what was in Samuelson. A very interesting way to teach it. During that semester, he gave us a pre-publication copy of something that Hyman Minsky had written critiquing the War on Poverty as a conservative effort to address poverty. So we read that. It was fascinating to me because my dad was a Roosevelt Democrat. Although, he would say he’s a Roosevelt. One time some supercilious businessman tried to correct his pronunciation, and he asked him, How do you say the name of the animal that crows wake up in the morning, rooster or roaster. Rooster. He said Roosevelt. But he was very critical of Kennedy and Johnson, because they simply weren’t doing enough of the kinds of things that Roosevelt did to intervene directly in the economy. And of course, both of them argued that education was the way to solve poverty, which I knew even at the time didn’t make sense, but I wasn’t exactly sure how to make those arguments. So we talked about it a lot, my dad and I. When I got assigned Hyman Minsky’s piece, it really gelled, and he helped me see important ways to criticize the War on Poverty: criticizing it because it did not spend enough money; criticizing it because it wanted to change the people who were poor, instead of changing the economic system. For example, guarantee people jobs or had a full employment policy so people could work. It was always very clear that people who faced long spells of unemployment and frequent spells of unemployment are much poorer than those who are able to work continuously at a decently paying job. So that was clearly the most important thing we can do to address it. Training and stuff was not of any great interest. I wrote a paper about that the next quarter, winter quarter of 1968, in a social psychology class and the teacher was just absolutely enraged, because he was a strong supporter of the War on Poverty and believed it was exactly the way to go and education was the only solution. So we had this confrontation in the class. And, wow, this is really interesting, people really don’t like to be told this stuff. That made me even more interested, so I spent a lot more time trying to find information and then look at it. Then, when I was out of college, I was working for a community action program in Weaver County, Utah where Ogden is. I was put on the Manpower Training Council. John Kennedy passed this law to create these Manpower Training Councils around the country. The whole purpose was you got this federal money, and you could choose programs to train the poor. We were on that for a good couple of years, and it became clear to everyone on the council that this was not the way to end poverty. I mean, you’d have businessmen who really liked the idea of training workers because they want to socialize training as much as they can, the cost of training. But what we needed was more jobs in the county. We needed better paying jobs. So we all began to advocate for that sort of approach. And just reinforced the idea that what we really need is a meaningful full employment policy. I ended up getting my doctorate in education because I wanted to partly address the criticisms of education, which were unfounded, and talk about how education actually fits with our economy and what we ought to be doing, kinds of things. I was always motivated by the history of education, what people have said throughout history the purpose of education was. When I teach my classes, we often start on the first day by looking at what the Manifesto the Plebeians in the French Revolution said: “All knowledge, universities, and schools have to be held in common. If they become the property of a single class, they are oppressive.” And that’s extremely important right? The enclosure movement is driving people off the Commons, and commoners said straight up: you’re not only destroying our livelihood, you are destroying the way in which we teach our children to live. By driving those people off the commons, forcing them into the cities, putting them to work in factories was destroying a way of life. It was also destroying a way of education. They were very tuned into the idea that education has to be for all. Of course, the United States gave Horace Mann who creates the common schools, so rich and poor, Muslim and Christian, would be taught in the same schools. Of course, Catholics criticized his schools for being Protestant. But that’s for another time. So that’s going on. Then, a couple of interesting things happen in the 19th century. African Americans develop very powerful arguments that education should be for liberation. It should help them think about what their freedom means and how to shape it. And of course, you had philanthropists in the North trying to impose what was called industrial education on Blacks. That didn’t have anything to do with industry. It was meant to teach Black teachers how to farm, do all these menial tasks from sunup to sundown, and then get a couple hours of education at the end. Well, let me backup. If you look at the schools that were created to train Blacks by Northern philanthropists, like Hampton Institute, and Tuskegee Institute, one in Virginia and one in Alabama. They promote what was called industrial education, which didn’t prepare Blacks to be in industry at all. These were schools to teach teachers, they were normal schools. But their idea of how to teach teachers to teach Blacks was you’d make them work from sunup to sundown, give them a little bit of training on academic subjects in the evening. But their goal was to work in schools and teach Blacks the value of labor. Odd for people who’ve labored for centuries. But that was their goal. So Blacks clearly understood that that was an education for subordination. What they needed was a much more academic education, what we think of as liberal education, so that they can think about freedom and what it means and how to shape their own freedom. In the late 19th century, you’ve got the Populists, an organization of Blacks and whites, trying to constrain the power, overthrow the power of the planters in the south, and the bankers and railroads in the North. Their conception of education was that education should help us understand the machinery of society, and how to control it to benefit ourselves. How to control it in our own interests as a large working class. Then, one of the statements that my students really gravitate to was from WEB DuBois in a commencement address that he gave at Howard University. He said, “Our task is to out-think, and outsmart the people who own the world.” So they’re very different conceptions of what education ought to be doing. Then we get from presidents of the United States, from John Kennedy, to Joe Biden, that education is about training people for work. And so we need to recognize that people have thought much more deeply about what education is, and why we ought to do it. So that’s how we start and then we move on from there to raise a whole host of issues about education, how it’s related to the economy. I don’t argue with him that there’s no relationship. For example, we know that we in our society use education to compete for things. We compete for jobs, we compete for incomes, we compete for status, and we use education in that competition. So it surely is the case that if you get more education than people in your neighborhood, you have a better chance of getting a job than the people around you. An economist named Barry Bluestone said many years ago: getting an education is like getting a new pair of running shoes to go bear hunting with your friends. On your own, you can’t outrun the bear, but all you have to do is outrun your friends, right? So the bear eats them and you survive. That helps students understand that particular way of thinking about how we use education. Again, that’s thinking just about education in a very narrow way. But it is an important way that we use education. We spend a lot of time talking about why education can’t end poverty. In recent years, we get a chance to see, for example, in 2018, there was a magnificent headline, well two headlines, in the New York Times. One was about how prisoners were being taken out of prison and put to work in factories because the factories couldn’t find enough employees. Okay. And the other one was, employers no longer require drug tests. Okay. Now, for decades, we’ve been told that these people end up in prison, they really can’t get jobs, they’re not job qualified and so forth. And the people who smoke dope, obviously, they’re unemployable. Well, it turns out, they’re not. In a tight labor market, there’s room for all those people to be employed. And that’s important, because it wasn’t that those people got an education in prison that allowed them to go work in an automobile factory. It was that we had a tight labor market, employers were competing for employees, and they wanted to expand the pool of employees. So they wouldn’t have so much pressure to pay them more. So they go into the prisons, they get workers who they would have rejected before, because they would have failed the drug test. But now they can hire them. It really is that these people are functioning as a reserve army of the unemployed, being drawn in when the labor market is tight. All of that helps students to think about education in a much broader way. That all helps students think more deeply about the limitations of the conception of education of our political leaders. They really are misleading us about the role of education. For example, we actually talked about this in class: President Clinton always talked about people who are unemployed and were not job ready, and they needed to get the training, so they would be job ready. Well, the only time you talk about job readiness is when you have unemployment, you’re a political leader, and you don’t want to say, well, I could have different policies, and then people will have jobs. Instead, you put the onus on the unemployed and say: well, they’re just not job ready. But Clinton himself, when he ran for president in 1992, the big conflict between him and George Bush Sr was how low unemployment could go without triggering inflation. Clinton said it could go down to 5.5%. George Bush thought it could only go to 6.1%. So they’re debating this, of course, and they’re saying, oh, unemployment, we have to keep unemployment high in order to forestall inflation. It’s interesting when we talk about that, just as an aside, I tell my students: now if you believe that, how would you distribute unemployment fairly? Would you have a lottery? So it’s not always the same people who get shoved on the unemployment line. But what’s interesting to note is that Bill Clinton, I had this really interesting, short article that for years I had students read. It was titled, “Professors Give the New President High Marks.” Bill Clinton was talking about how low unemployment can go without triggering inflation. Then Clinton says, “we have to have” … It’s interesting, he talks about, these people are unemployed, because we need to have high unemployment, to forestall inflation, but the people are unemployed because they’re not job ready. They don’t have the training and the skills to get the jobs. If we did that, they’d find jobs and it’d be fine. My students read that and just within a couple of paragraphs to get a chance to, okay, here, he’s saying we need high unemployment to forestall inflation. And here he’s saying, we need education so people can get jobs. But if education actually worked and people got jobs, it would undermine his effort to use high unemployment to constrain inflation. Of course, unemployment dropped to 4.0%, and we didn’t see inflation, right? Alan Greenspan, appointed by Ronald Reagan, as chairman of the Fed, continued for many years through the Bush administration through Clinton. He’s saying, well, there is this rate of unemployment that, if we fall below that it will trigger accelerating inflation. But we can’t see what it is. We know it’s there. But we just can’t see what it is. A very odd thing for someone who calls himself an Objectivist to claim, right? I mean, so anyway, you see how Clinton was just simply wrong about 3 million people not having the skills that were needed to get a job. Of course, he’s wrong about the other millions too. Under the right circumstances, of course they would have jobs. They’d be able to do just fine.
Scott Ferguson: So we’re getting this sense in which your pedagogy around the social foundations of education are not only situating education in a broader social context, but also in a political economic context. And that for you, and for a long time, Modern Monetary Theory, or the ideas surrounding Modern Monetary Theory have been really central. What we’re hearing is that you have a practice of orienting your students to the evidence of the world like. Like a seemingly innocuous article about giving the new president high marks on his economic discourse, how whether it’s explicit or implicit, how the Modern monetary theory perspective makes contradictions in the dominant political, economic and education discourse extremely salient, such that you can’t ignore them. You can’t pass over them. I want to go further into this project of yours. But I want to step back for a second and tell our listeners a little bit about how I’ve gotten to know you in the last year.
Larry Johnson: Yes.
Scott Ferguson: You emailed me probably about a year ago. You are a professor at the University of South Florida, as am I. You’re at our St. Petersburg campus, I’m at the Tampa campus. And you invited me to participate on a committee that you were putting together. And that all went very well. There’s no reason for me to talk about the committee work on this podcast. But I remember when you first emailed me, you introduced yourself and said, how about you join this committee? It’ll be good fun. And by the way, I’ve been practicing MMT for something like 40 years. I did like a triple take. I read the email like 10 times and I thought to myself, first of all,: what? I thought I was the only strange Freakazoid at the University of South Florida that cared about Modern Monetary Theory, let alone heterodox economics. Secondly, I was just delighted that somebody else cares. I’m not alone. And thirdly, I was pretty confused because, as far as I know, Modern Monetary Theory is not that old, right? Modern monetary theory came into being in the mid to late 90s, famously on a heterodox economics listserv. And you’re telling me that you’ve been doing this for decades. And I’m just scratching my head. Part of me thought: I’m sure he thinks he’s telling the truth, but is he lying to me? What’s going on? But then it turns out, right, that as you’ve informed our audience, you’ve actually been reading the works of the heterodox precursors to what eventually comes to be known as MMT. Right.
Larry Johnson: Okay. Yeah, yeah.
Scott Ferguson: And then MMT is a much later designation for this body of scholarship. I mean, here’s another aspect to this story that I think is defamiliarizing for me and potentially for our listeners, which is that I think of Money on the Left and our editorial collective as being, along with certain movements in critical legal studies and left law scholarship and activism, I think of us and this generation as being on the vanguard of doing interdisciplinary research with MMT principles and ideas and trying to think about what are the implications for MMT once you start taking them outside of heterodox economics as relatively narrowly defined? And it turns out, I guess you beat us to the punch a long, long time ago. So we genuflect to you.
Larry Johnson: Well, Thank you.
Scott Ferguson: But with this background in mind, I’d like to get back into some of this interdisciplinary thinking and pedagogy that you’re doing with your students around education and the political economy of education, and obviously, the sort of political and even radically political importance of education for social justice and environmental justice. But at the same time, the kind of blind spots the normative or hegemonic blind spots that position education as a kind of salve, and as a kind of excuse to perpetuate a society of austerity and all the kinds of sexist and racist and homophobic and ecocidal impulses that are behind it. And I know you’ve talked to us in our kind of preliminary conversations a lot about the way that the rhetoric and politics of testing has informed this kind of dominant impulse of austerity. I was wondering if you could flesh out some of that argument for us?
Larry Johnson: Sure, sure. Yeah, it’s useful to start with a couple of things that happened in the early 80s, particularly in 1983. Oddly enough, one year. You had the publication of A Nation at Risk; the report from the Reagan administration that claimed that schools were failing, and that’s why we were unable to compete effectively with Japan and Toyota was making better cars than Ford and selling a lot more of them. This report made a number of claims about declines in test scores, what students were and weren’t able to do. I’ll just give you a brief account of that. It has a list of 12 or 13 claims that justify their report. I always have my students go through and look at those claims. One example is that in the report, they say, there’s been an unbroken decline in science test scores for 17 year olds. And this is from the National Assessment for Educational Progress tests, 9, 14, and 17 year olds. So you wonder, well, what about 9 and 14 year olds? Well, I get my students to look up AP scores. And sure enough, those kids do pretty well. There’s no evidence of decline. Then we look at this wonderful graph, and it shows the exact data that the President’s Commission on excellence in education was looking at. You look at the 9 year olds, 14 year olds, and you see no decline in reading, math or science. Same with the 14 year olds. Then you get up to the 17 year olds, and in math and English, they’re doing just fine. But in science, they have a relatively flat line and then a little bit of a downward slope between 1980 and 1979. Before that, there isn’t any data comparable, so they project that data. They assume that well, in the sense scientists assume things I suppose –maybe not scientists, but others — that this brief downward slope they see between a couple of years, that slope continues on into the past. So they retroject or retrodict. Instead of predicting, they retrodict; they predict about the past. And they claim that the scores would have been. That’s how they claim there’s a decline in scores. My students go through and look at every one of those claims in the report, and they find not a single one of them is clearly true. They’re either misleading, they’re false, or you can’t quite be sure what they mean. One of my favorites is that the test scores of students graduating college are also lower. Well, we never had, fortunately, an FCAT testing program to test people as they graduate from college. If you go into graduate school, you take the GRE and stuff, but there’s nothing that we do, like in many states that have tests for kids graduating high school, or maybe their sophomore year in high school. But there’s nothing like that in college across the country, so there really was no way to make that comparison. But if you think about it, test scores are also lower. Well, there’s no clear meaning to it. It’s like the language of advertising. Tied, get your clothes cleaner. Cleaner than rolling around in the dirt? Sure. Yeah. It makes no sense. I have my students look at those kinds of claims. I have them look at a speech that Barack Obama gave his first year in office to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. His major Education addresses his first year in office. In this address, I haven’t listened to a clip lately, but he make some claims about Blacks test scores and test scores in general, it’s always objectionable, but he says in the course of this: if we’re looking at our international comparisons of scores in science and math, we have fallen to ninth place. Well I looked at those scores with my students, and it turns out the previous test, the United States, was in 16th Place. So if you go from 16th to ninth, are you falling or rising?
Scott Ferguson: We fell up!
Larry Johnson: We fell up. That’s right.
Scott Ferguson: A tragic ascension.
Larry Johnson: A tragic ascension. Yes, yes. So it’s pretty clear that Obama wanted to say something negative about education. It’s been common in politics, for presidents at least, for the last 60 or so years. Going back to the 50s and Eisenhower’s time with Sputnik being launched then people say: oh their education systems are better than ours. Which is another matter. It’s one of those things where just you see political leaders want to say something bad about the school system. And it’s very odd, like Obama, if you may recall, between the time he was elected, and when he took office, he was asked constantly about, should we clawback that money from the banks, the fees that they got. He says: no, the sanctity of the contract has to be respected. Then his first year in office, Providence, Rhode Island fires all the teachers in high school, which violated their contract, right? They hire back all but the leaders of the union there, and Obama says we should have more of this. The teachers’ contracts are like straight jackets, they’re keeping us from reforming the schools. I was asked whenever I ran into a strong supporter of Obama’s. I always ask them, I think it’s a question that he should address too, why are contracts with bankers sacred, and those with teachers profane? It’s just amazing how they maneuver to position schools and teachers as the enemy. And that means that they can deflect criticism of their policies and say, Oh, it’s a failure in education. You think about The Nation at Risk, saying, Oh, our education system explains why Japan’s able to build better cars and sell them better than Ford. Well, Japan’s economy went in the tank a couple of years after that. They didn’t say, Oh, that was their education system. And our car started selling better. They went back and said: our teachers are doing this. Of course not. Now I mean, whether we sell cars, that depends on federal policy. It depends on decisions of people that own car companies, all kinds of things, and has nothing to do with education. Education is just an excuse. Let me come back to what was going on in 1983 because it’s very useful. That year is when you see this testing regime really being put in place in southern states. Mark White, Democratic governor of Texas promises teachers he’ll give them a raise. He goes to a businessman and says we want to give teachers a raise. Well, I know you want to make sure the teachers are competent. So we’ll test the teachers, make sure they’re competent, and we’ll test the students to make sure they’re learning. So they invented this whole big testing rigmarole. Ross Perot heads up his committee that creates his reform plan. Bill Clinton in Arkansas the same year, creates a committee on educational standards headed up by his wife. And they come up with exactly the same plan they did in Texas: massive testing of teachers and students. Richard Riley in South Carolina, he became Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Education and does the same thing there. All Democrats in the south. Then Lamar Alexander, the only Republican that I’m aware of, in Tennessee implements exactly the same plan. These ideas are very prominent in the south. It’s odd because these southern states have among the worst education systems in the country. In Tennessee, they ranked 49th in per pupil spending, and their graduation rates are right at the bottom. Same with all these states. But they end up dominating national education policy. There’s no other word for it than just deplorable. These people, they are the ones who put the straitjacket on education, making it much more limited. Their focus on test scores is: we have to test students to make sure they have the knowledge that their future employers want. That’s a question that we should never ask. We need to ask, what do students need to develop fully? What do they need to interact with the world in useful and interesting ways? I mean, if their employer wants them to know something, they should foot the bill to train them. Of course, they don’t want to do that because if they train them, then they can go to work for someone else. They want to socialize the cost of training by putting more and more of the stuff in the schools. But there’s no evidence that employers even care about these test scores. Bill Gates has put hundreds of millions of dollars into improving test scores, and in the old days his job application used to be available online. It doesn’t ask you to give your high school test score. One of my mother’s great nephews, my grand nephew I guess, went to Microsoft to work. He was from California, I asked him, did they ask you for your California test scores? He said, of course not! The only ones that had to get tested were in the keyboarding pool. The typing pool, we used to call it. So they do their typing tests, but nobody else. His whole thing was to program handheld devices. He didn’t have to report his test scores.
Billy Saas: So what are those test scores doing then? On your read?
Larry Johnson: Oh, what do they do? That’s a really good question. One is you can always find a way to use them to undercut education. Think of No Child Left Behind. It divides students up into different groups based on race, whatever. And the more time the more groups you divide any larger group into, the more likely you’re going to have a group that falls below some arbitrary standard. So diverse schools. We’re gonna finally disaggregate the scores so we know how Blacks are doing, how Hispanics are doing, this and that other groups are doing. But the more groups you create, the more likely you’re going to have one group that fails. Now, I’m not just saying that off the top of my head. There were a couple of people who worked in the Bush administration who explained very clearly, when they were interviewed, that the goal of No Child Left Behind was to make schools look like they were failing and make it easier to privatize them. It’s a very simple argument. Testing goes way back. When Horace Mann created the common school system in the 1830s. He and his allies figured they were trying to promote centralizing control of the schools more in the state school board. Mann created the state school board in Massachusetts, and he was its first Secretary of Education. He and his allies created a test to test common school kids. You have to remember, common school takes you up to like the third grade, or what we would call a third grade. They had these test questions, they asked all the kids in Massachusetts, and one of the questions was: you’re in Cincinnati, Ohio, and you’re traveling to Vienna, Austria. Name of the rivers, locks and oceans you would travel through on the way. Now you have to ask yourself, do you think Horace Mann or his friends could have answered that question without looking at a globe? I couldn’t! Could I have even understood what it meant when I was a third grader? I’m not entirely sure. So yeah, and another question they had was, if you’re traveling on the Mississippi, is Cincinnati on your right or your left? That’s the question. Well, it depends whether you’re going upstream or down, right? So you literally can’t answer. So the kids didn’t do well on his test, not surprisingly. Mann could step in and say, Okay, we need greater centralization of the schools, greater standardization. People have always understood how they can use testing to achieve a political goal.
Billy Saas: Just a little anecdote, I live in New Orleans. We have a four and a half year old who’s looking to get into kindergarten, which means they’re entering into a fully charter system.
Larry Johnson: Yeah.
Billy Saas: Very overwhelming org charts. They have CEOs at each of these respective charter schools. And there was this really great pitch that they were giving, these are people representing the school system and trying to help us navigate this just circuitous and helplessly bureaucratic, but also, free market. Yay!
Larry Johnson: Which, by the way, was supposed to do away with bureaucracy, right?
Billy Saas: Exactly. Oh, my goodness, just looking at my partner the whole time I’m like, this is not efficient. One of the things is that it used to be the case that in order to get into the schools, you’d have to apply to each one, right? And there’s something like 65. Not all of them service kindergartens. So they made it more efficient by creating the one app, or the common app, where you can apply and then you just list your top 5, 6, 7 or whatever. Then you enter the lottery to find out if you get into that one. Two of the kindergartens have testing. They say that the common app is supposed to be, you fill it out, and then everything’s sorted out. It’s something that makes it easier for parents and schools and everything, and it’s universal. But then they make this qualification. This is what happened throughout the entire presentation, it was like: this is the universal policy, and here’s how it is changed at every individual school. And here’s why you as parents need to start researching last year in order to figure out where you’re going to send your kid to kindergarten. But the testing thing is something that everybody knows in that room. It felt like because charters are so dominant in New Orleans, that they don’t have to give an argument for the system. So I asked about the testing, and is that equitable. I happen to know because we’ve talked to people who’ve had students go there before to take the test that they use iPads, and they complete the tests on iPads. And there are many just sort of transparently prima fascia inequitable practices entailed. So we asked the question, how do you ensure that this is equitable? The question can’t be answered because it’s transparently not equitable. That’s why it exists, right, for separation purposes. That goes back to the testing, in general, as a premise for privatization or creating new markets, right?
Larry Johnson: Yeah. So we wouldn’t test kids unless we wanted to say they were different and deserve something different, unless we had some other goal.
Billy Saas: Exactly. Right. So when you are outlining this history, you’re drawing a line between Alan Greenspan’s theory of engagement with NAIRU to funding for education.
Larry Johnson: Yeah.
Billy Saas: The fact that the chair of the Federal Reserve is in a roundabout, but maybe not so roundabout way, determining the boundaries of education policy. It seems like you do this very deductively over the semester with students. How do you end up at the end of the class without there being a kind of revolt and tearing down the walls of the classroom itself?
Larry Johnson: Well, yeah, that’s so funny, worded that way, because one of the things I do is when we’re looking at the criticism of education, I quote from Alan Bloom’s book. He wrote a book criticizing schools and stuff, and he says in there: the American education system has totally collapsed. We’re sitting there and I say, look around, collapsed right? Here you are in college.
Scott Ferguson: Is this The Closing of the American Mind?
Larry Johnson: Yes, yes. Thank you.
Billy Saas: The roof might be collapsing in on you. But the firmament is there.
Scott Ferguson: Yeah because it’s underfunded.
Larry Johnson: Yeah, we get a chance to look at another strand of those kinds of arguments.
Billy Saas: But it seems like it is quite literally, you are inducing a revolution or a full scale change in thought and how we understand or are educated to understand what education is and what it’s for. Maybe you could share anecdotally what the student response is to this kind of cumulative macro picture, political, economic situation in education?
Larry Johnson: Sure. You know, it’s surprising I taught this way at Utah for a number of years. Then, when I came to St. Pete, when I came to USF, it was really interesting. The very first semester that I taught here, I had some incredible students, one of whom ends up on the faculty with me now. But on their own initiative, they continued to meet after the end of the semester, to continue to talk about what to do with these ideas. I’ve had other students tell me that they have taken what they’ve learned and tried to figure out how to use it in an age appropriate way with their students in elementary in high school. I had one woman, this was actually at Utah, who tried to figure out what she could do with this stuff, what she would do teaching first graders, so they could get a foundation so they could resist propaganda later on. Yeah, surprisingly enough, she actually applied for — there was a national group that was providing money, they just chose one person. It was for somebody who was trying to have a transformative career in education. Here she was, and most of these people are already teaching, and they’re coming back for masters and doctors. She was an undergraduate, and she applied with her ideas, and she ended up being a finalist for this. She didn’t get it, but she went a long way. Much further than I expected. It’s interesting to me, I mean, I have students who come back three, four or five years later and say: when we were in class, I thought it was a bunch of garbage. But now I’m out there teaching, I can see why you had to think about this stuff. They’ll talk about how their curriculum is indoctrinating the students with neoclassical economic ideas beginning very early in grade school. So they’re thinking, okay, now that I have different ideas, how do I respond as a teacher? What can I do? They often come back and ask me and I’m not always much help. I’m usually a listener and ask them questions, try to figure out okay, what do they want to try to do? Okay. You want your students to understand this? Their first graders. Okay, how do you get them to think about this so it doesn’t fall back on the standard “the federal budget is like the family budget.” Okay, how do you help them to do that? And how do you help them understand that the federal government issues currency? Once you understand that it changes everything.
Billy Saas: The fact that it prints the currency, that it makes the currency, that it circulates the currency is, in this case, maybe not as important as highlighting that, at the same time, it doesn’t do it. Like when it doesn’t want to do it, and to what ends it is not?
Larry Johnson: Oh, yeah.
Billy Saas: To those first graders, the reason that we don’t have music class anymore is because the chair of the Federal Reserve thinks that unemployment is too low or whatever, right?
Larry Johnson: Yeah, so we’re gonna cut everything back. And that means you’re gonna have less in school. Now, they’re not gonna have less in school up on the east hillside where the rich kids go, but we’re gonna have to get by without trumpets and clarinets, for band class.
Billy Saas: Because our test scores are low.
Larry Johnson: Because our test scores are low. That’s right.
Scott Ferguson: I can speak from experience that …
Larry Johnson: Please do.
Scott Ferguson: Teaching some of these fundamental principles of public endogenous money gets easier and easier the younger and less indoctrinated your audience is. I can say this about my own children. I mean, my now 15 year old, I think I probably started talking about MMT when he was four, four and a half, and I never stopped. It’s very easy to just begin with money is something that is public and comes from the government and is organized by the government. It is given out and not given out in different ways. Where teaching MMT gets very, very challenging is when you have to cut through all of the neoclassical assumptions and garbage and even cut through some of the more critical approaches to political economy that sometimes come out of the Marxist tradition, and Polanyi, and some of these other traditions. It’s when you have to unwind those worldviews when things get very difficult. The basics of MMT, I mean …
Larry Johnson: Are pretty easy to understand.
Scott Ferguson: Pretty easy. I mean, some of the stuff about the interest rate is supporting this and that and the financial system. We don’t have to talk about that with the four and a half year old. But nevertheless, I think it is a lot easier. I’m actually curious to hear you talk a little bit about pushback, if you get any? When I’m teaching, I don’t get a lot of pushback, but I will get a lot of bewildered faces. Like huh? But I know you’ve told me about, I think I recall, parents have contacted you kinda wagging their fists on some of this stuff?
Larry Johnson: They’re less resistant!
Scott Ferguson: Yes, yes. They think I’m indoctrinating their child. But what I found exciting about all those things is that the students were going home and talking to their parents and their spouses and their kids about all this stuff. I mean, that’s great. Yeah, I’m happy to talk to any of them. We don’t have to agree. It’s about, you know, stating the debate.
Larry Johnson: That’s exactly right. I always hide behind that.
Scott Ferguson: No, but it is both true.
Larry Johnson: It is. I’m not trying to change what you believe, I want to change what you understand. I want to help you to understand things that you may not have understood before. You can think about this. And I know my students will think about it for years, and come back and tell me they’ve continued to think about this stuff.
Billy Saas: Well, I think that you’re talking about the deductive approach, as I’ve called it, where you’re putting the evidence in front of them in sequence over time so that it’s not … If it’s indoctrination, it’s very passive, right?
Larry Johnson: Very much, yeah.
Billy Saas: And can’t be considered indoctrination to the extent that you’re just sort of questioning things, right?
Larry Johnson: Yeah, and it’s funny how students will come to insights. I remember, I was talking about a student we were talking about. Actually, this is kind of funny because I often these days will show undergraduates and graduates the little collection of video clips that one of Stephanie Kelton’s postdocs did where they have people talking about the budget deficit and all that stuff: Obama leads, oh, we’re out of money. We have to get our credit card with the Bank of China, blah, blah, blah. They’ll watch that, and we’ll talk about it. Along the way, we’ll talk about Obama. This is very interesting in, say, 2018 when unemployment had dropped down well below 4%. We talked about Obama, what his beliefs were about the budget, which was always interesting. I’ll mention, you know, his position was that unemployment couldn’t drop below 5.4%. without triggering inflation. 1/10 of a percent better than Clinton, right?
Scott Ferguson: Progress!
Larry Johnson: Yeah, progress. Yeah. This kid who had been pretty quiet most of the semester, pipes, and he says, but he was wrong, wasn’t he? I said yes! And for that student, that conversation opened it up, and he’d go back and look at stuff we’d read, that he just hadn’t comprehended. But for some reason, understanding it that day opened up the whole semester for him.
Scott Ferguson: You never know when it’s gonna happen.
Larry Johnson: That’s right. It’s kind of the neatest thing. Yeah. Wow, you have a kid back there. He doesn’t say much. He’s kind of you know, morose. He’s just coasting through. And then suddenly, something happens. And you figure a lot of stuff out.
Scott Ferguson: We’d like to talk to you a little bit about the history and structure of school financing in the United States. And neither of us are experts at this.
Larry Johnson: Me either, there are people that know a lot more about this than I do.
Scott Ferguson: Okay, well we still want to pick your brain. As you know, we became interested in this question in higher education, which has an entirely different financing structure, and its own history. We were responding to the calls for downsizing, and austerity, and the elimination of departments, and greater adjunctification, and the exploitation of staff and students and graduate workers, et cetera, et cetera, especially during the pandemic. And the idea was that there was some natural occurrence of this virus and yeah, and state state revenues were going to drop. And so there was really no choice but to not not let the crisis go to waste, so to speak. And to cut, cut, cut are already struggling Universities, especially the big public ones. And we came up with a proposal that understood money as public and as endogenous. And as designed. We called it the uni short for university, a kind of university currency. But we named it the uni to rhyme with Muni, because the Federal Reserve, we’re mounting with all kinds of Windows, so to speak, for various sectors to take advantage of to stabilize their liquidity access. And they have opened up a Muni right. Liquidity facility. And we were first arguing that, well, if it’s good enough for municipalities, why isn’t it good enough for big public university systems? And then over time, we began to experiment and rethink this. And later on, we were thinking, well, maybe we can, we can structure the financing of the public university system across the country, via the Treasury, and maybe we can bake this into the proposed public Banking Act. And this can be public financing as needed for the public purpose through these major centers of research, and these economic anchors and all kinds of regions. And you’re familiar with this proposal. I think a lot of our listeners are familiar with this proposal. And what I would say is, you know, this, this would be interesting to me to contemplate, for K through 12, which I’ll just say what little I know about K through 12 financing, which is that it’s his Historically tied to property taxes, I think at the county level, which is already deeply classed and perpetuates the myth, that taxpayer money finances, things instead of, instead of anchoring the currency, and, you know, we we draw on the work I’m not sure if you’re familiar with her work. Her name is Camille Walsh. She’s a historian who wrote a book called racial taxation that’s all about tracing the kind of rhetorics of taxpayer citizenry, taxpayer citizenship, in the history of American education, policy and politics, and and essentially making the argument that this becomes a highly racialized in addition to a class category, that that of course, justifies, justifies the perpetuation of itself. So I’m wondering, what do you know about the financial structure of K 12 education in our country? And how would you maybe recommend going about transforming it with public, endogenous money in mind?
Larry Johnson: Yes, very much. Yeah, actually, let me shift gears a little bit, and talk a bit about the effort to restrain the universities. As you may know, in the middle of the 20th century, Republican and Democratic governors had created a higher ed system in California, that was tuition free. You did not pay tuition from community college up through your doctorate if you’re a resident of California. When Ronald Reagan decided to become a right winger, he was the perfect candidate for them to run for governor and he succeeded. He set about attacking universities right away, because universities, of course, he and his allies saw as the origin of the civil rights movement at colleges and universities. The origin of the anti war movement, blah, blah, blah and set the state police out to pull protesters down the marble steps at the administration building there at the University of California, bouncing off the marble steps. Then, even though tuition free colleges and universities were very popular in California, he was determined to impose tuition. A guy who was working in the Nixon administration named Roger Freeman went out to consult with Reagan to help him do this. Freeman was quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle as saying, we have to be careful about who we let into and through our universities, because we are in danger of creating an educated proletariat, and that’s dynamite. Spiro Agnew said, straightforwardly, we’re letting too many Blacks into the universities, we need to stop that. Nixon himself made several comments about making universities more expensive. Now, universities were free in California, but across the country, they were much, much cheaper than they are today. When I was a sophomore in college, it’s actually in the economics class I told you about. I wrote a paper that compared tuition in the state at universities that were designated the liberal arts university in the state, sometimes people call them flagship universities like University of Florida here. Then the state universities like Florida State and Utah State, and then state colleges, like Weaver State College in Utah and well New College here. I looked at all 50 states and I looked at their liberal arts university, the State University often had been called agricultural colleges in the past, agricultural mechanical colleges, and then they were all universities, the University of Utah, Utah State University, Colorado, Florida, Florida State. Then, the college system. In the university system, our tuition, across the country, paid between 11 and 14% of the cost of the college education going through a bachelor’s degree. The rest was paid by the state, some federal money, grants, other things, some foundation money. But, state appropriation was a big chunk. Tuition paid a very small percentage. If you looked at the state colleges, that tuition covered about 7% of the cost of the students’ education. People that allied themselves with the right wing of the Republican Party, not the Lincoln wing, which is rapidly disappearing. Their goal was to make universities more expensive, and restrict and make administration more controlling, so they could make the universities do what they wanted, rather than have them be an independent source of criticism, and so forth. They were really pushing that idea and trying to make it so that universities were not as open or inviting or accessible to nearly as many students. Some people say they didn’t anticipate the students would be willing to go into debt with student loans like they have been to get a college education, which really shows how important they are to students. Maybe they were, and that was okay, because that would then strengthen the banks, you had all this debt to the banks. In any case, their goal was to change the universities so they were not criticizing the church and the state. Going back, I used to joke with people all the time. Universities need to understand why Roger Bacon was willing to go to prison in the 13th century. Universities have a long history and have a long history of challenging sources of power. That’s an essential part of what universities are. That’s not the only thing universities do, but it’s one thing they have done, certainly from time to time. So, if you’re representing an authoritarian wing of politics, you want to restrain that at the very least. You want to focus universities on doing things that will benefit corporations or the capitalist class, generally. You don’t want them to be a source of criticism. One way to do that is by restricting access to universities by the working class.
Scott Ferguson: So can you speak to the problem of K through 12 financing? And if we were going to harness the powers of public endogenous money, that’s just step one. What happens when we need to implement it and implement it in a democratic and inclusive way?
Larry Johnson: Right, right. I think the problem there would look very much like the problems with universities. How would you make sure it would be used for things that benefited the students or society, rather than some other interests in the community?
Billy Saas: Say a CEO.
Larry Johnson: Yeah, paying a CEO. We know with charter schools, they pay their CEOs far more than school principals get paid. In New York, an organization had two charter schools, and the CEO over this, they called it a network of charter schools, was paid more than the Chancellor of Education in New York.
Scott Ferguson: I like that you laugh at these atrocities. I think it’s healthy.
Larry Johnson: The only way you can keep fighting. But Juan Gonzalez has written some really neat stuff back in the days when he worked for the New York Daily. He had some really neat articles about what’s going on with charter schools and how they were paying their CEOs exorbitant sums. And of course, that’s what they cared about. You take the Pay for Success stuff that Barack Obama promoted, and George Bush actually started, but they would pay people to …Like the banks, social impact bonds. You get some money from Goldman Sachs. Actually, in Utah, Goldman Sachs was part of this. They came in and they offered programs for disabled kids. Then, each year that those disabled kids stayed out of special education classes, stayed in regular classes which reduced the costs, Goldman Sachs got paid for it. Which, to my mind, is insane. For Goldman Sachs, it was a way for them to get money out of the public schools. This is a big deal. If you read Barack Obama’s Every Student Succeeds Act, it’s filled with that. Obama takes away states’ right to limit or prevent charter schools. He says, Every state, if they’re going to receive Title One money, has to allow charter schools. And all the states have to engage in what he calls Pay for Success, this whole system where somebody comes into the program, and it works, you pay them. Like with Goldman Sachs in Special Ed, if you continue to see benefits in your schools, then they’re entitled to get some kind of compensation, because they’re continuing to benefit the school system. That’s a very destructive way to treat the education budget. People have to realize, public education has a budget of right around $800 billion. Students don’t often realize that. That’s a lot of money. If you can privatize this and still keep that money stream going, you can make a lot of money. If you can get even a small share of that, the biggest share of that is state funding. Federal funding is a chunk of it, and then you’ve got local millage and so forth, it provides some of that. That’s a lot of money to spend. You divide it up per student, and you see it’s not a whole lot per student. But the problem is, it’s not distributed equitably. Schools that serve wealthy families may, as Jonathan Kozol points out, get 10 times what schools serve poor families get per kid. Certainly, two or three times as much. I mean, I’ve seen those examples myself. If you think about what happened in South St. Pete, when they re-segregated the schools, they actually reduced the funding going to the segregated schools that would serve just Black kids on the south side. It’s just remarkable. That happens partly because we don’t have a strong enough democracy to control it. We’ve limited the vote, we’ve restricted voting in ways where, if you’re in one of those communities, you simply it’s harder to vote, you don’t have the standing to go to the school board and speak. So I often tell students, if we want to improve the schools, we have to make sure we have universal suffrage. Everybody votes, everybody gets counted. You have to have universal employment, job guarantee, everyone has a job. I used to spend a lot of time organizing poor people to go to the school board. They would ask these people, I mean, they would show up certainly in a different quality of clothing than the school board members wore, for the most part. They would ask these people what they did for a living, and they’d say I’m unemployed. Once they said they were unemployed, you could see people stopped listening. They just don’t have the standing to be heard. So you have to organize in other ways to get their voices heard. You have to put pressure on the board in other ways. But if we had a job guarantee, those people would have standing to speak for their own kids to push for the schools to serve their own kids. Then, I think you could have a chance. One, you could prevent the kind of destructive use of funding or use of funding to destroy schools that serve poor kids. You could actually have people getting something better out of that. Say for example, we had a government through whatever mechanism was willing and able to willing, obviously they’re able to issue the currency so that we could have more money for schools. Really, for poor schools, schools serve kids who are disadvantaged in a variety of ways. That would be great. But unless we control the political situation, that money wouldn’t be spent where I would argue it needs to go. We’ve got to address that political issue so that no matter how much money we can create, it goes to the right places. Don’t use it to fund wars. We use it to actually provide a decent education for kids. I’m always amazed at how committed parents are to education. They need to get that support, the money coming into their schools. We people talk about the schools here in St. Pete, how terrible they’ve gotten after resegregation. But still, most of the parents even though they know there’s a lot of violence in the schools, they know the teacher turnover is high, they have the least experienced teachers, and a curriculum that they don’t necessarily find engaging. But nonetheless, they send their kids there because they believe that the kids will get something valuable. That’s true across the country. I remember attending a conference 30 years ago where a woman was talking about the schools in Chicago, and she described them grimaced, the way Jonathan Kozol describes the schools in his book and in poor communities, especially poor Black communities. The window encasements are falling in, there’s sewage coming up through the drains, or even out on the playground. She describes the schools, and then she shifts and she talks about only 57% of the students graduating. I’m sitting there thinking: if I had a school look like that, I wouldn’t go. I would just tell my parents, I’m not going. But 57% of these kids persisted and graduated from high school. That’s remarkable. That’s an extraordinary commitment to schooling. We ought to support that by actually spending the money. It’s hard to imagine how you would organize a movement to get that funding now from state legislatures. But if you could use the issuing of currency to take away their argument that they can’t afford it, then at least we would talk about it in real terms. It’s okay, well, this is what the kids need. We don’t want to give it to them. It forces them to say, we don’t want to give it to them rather than what we can’t afford.
Scott Ferguson: It forces the class and racial and, and sexual politics to the forefront rather than having those be hidden behind seeming not laws of nature and economics.
Larry Johnson: Yes. We can never explain why we can’t afford it here, but up there, suddenly, we can afford it. We can afford it last year there, but not this year here. Yeah. That funding is always used to dodge what needs to be done, dodge having to say straight out what they’re actually doing. If we took care of the funding issue, then we can have a much more vigorous debate about what we ought to do, and why we ought to do it. That’s not it’s not a very technical discussion of school finance. It’s what matters. Yeah. That’s an important part of how I see this. It takes one of the most destructive arguments that never leads anywhere off the table. Because now they can’t use it. We understand we can spend the money if we choose to. That’s what we have to address if we choose to. What do we choose to do? Clearly a political problem. Yeah.
Billy Saas: What a wonderful way to start winding down. Probably a good place to end it but I can’t help myself. I like in my classes where we talk about the job guarantee. I have a similar sort of let’s take steps there and kind of stumble into the revelation and see how encompassing this is. I like to pose the question, visa vie education and money, what would happen to education if there were a robust, strong, universal job guarantee where the jobs paid well, had benefits, did not require in most cases, or if any, credentials in the same way, because you’re learning on the job, right? You’re learning the job while doing it. What do you think would be maybe the most radical changes if we had a robust job guarantee?
Larry Johnson: I actually asked my students exactly the same question. If we had a job guarantee. What would that mean for education? How would education look differently? How could it look differently? My students, probably because they’re my students, then say: then we could do the things we ought to do in education. We can help students understand the world. We can help them study examples of how people built coalitions to get something they want in the world, that kind of thing. And it would take the straitjacket of job preparation off of us.
Billy Saas: What’s exciting and makes me a little bit anxious is, it reduces the priority of education in its kind of strongest rhetorical sense, as we’ve been critical of it. Right, it becomes less important.
Larry Johnson: Yeah, you know, it’s funny, I actually have had a student say, only one, fortunately, in 30 years, that: if we do that, how are we going to motivate students to do well in school, if we can’t tell them they have to do well in school in order to get a job and they need a job in order to survive? Well, then you have to find other ways to make what you’re teaching valuable to the student. I remembered going through school having teachers constantly talk about, when you’re in third grade, or well, my third grade teacher didn’t do this. When you’re in second grade, my second grade teacher actually did this: when you’re in sixth grade, you’ll need to. Everything’s about preparation for the future, and then in junior high it’s: you’ll need this for high school, and you’ll need this when you apply for a job. I had my student read a piece which actually addresses this question. The people who pushed vocational education, really, were able to establish this idea that the purpose of schooling is job preparation. So they get a chance to read some of the people who make these arguments and they read a really nice piece from a different perspective, comes back and says, …Herb Kliebard characterizes this process: All education is just shilly-shallying, waiting for the future. There’s nothing of value in itself at the time. And arguing as Dewey did, that we need to make education valuable to kids at that time. We have a sense that there are many things they need to understand about the world in order to make the world the place that serves them, a good place for them to live. They need to understand those things. They need to have those conversations. They need to be educated and learn things so that they can have those conversations. Like Blacks in the 19th century wanted education, to give them the intellectual tools that they needed to discuss what freedom would mean for them.
Billy Saas: The return to education as liberation. Yes. Not shilly-shallying your way to a job. Well, increasingly, the carceral apparatus of the state is working to ensure that you are there shilly-shallying, and you have no other option.
Larry Johnson: That’s right. Yes, for sure. And nothing else can be of any interest to you. I was like my parents’ attitude. When I was growing up, we didn’t have much homework in public schools, not in grade school. The only time you had homework was if you were sick, and you missed a few days, and sent some stuff home to catch up. In high school, not a lot of homework. I tried to do most of my work in and around my classes. So when I got home, my time was my own, I could do other things. My parents really supported that. Don’t just stay locked into school. You don’t want to be someone who comes home and then just goes into your little cubicle and continues doing schoolwork. This is the time for you to do other things you need to develop other things. If you do that, you’ll get more out of school. So that was a really interesting approach. They were very clear about that. My mother was a schoolteacher. They just said, you can’t have everything revolve around school. I was so surprised when I came to Florida. I happened to go to an eye doctor’s office, right when I got here, and a secretary was bemoaning how she had spent four hours the night before helping her second grader with homework. What can you do to a second grader, that would take four hours, it would be in any way useful. Of course, what you find out with all this crazy homework is the parents do it. Because it’s not of any value to the kids. They can understand it. I noticed that my great grandkids get assignments. I remember this a few years ago, they gave my great grandson something to do on the computer. The computer program was so clunky, it was virtually impossible to figure out what he was supposed to do. They gave instructions very briefly at the beginning, then you entered in part you’re supposed to do. There was no way to go back and listen to the instructions without exiting, and going back and starting. I was sitting there watching him and I said: boy, you are patient, you must have gone out and started that five times to get clear on the instructions. He said yeah, it’s what I have to do. I said I would have given up.
Billy Saas: Near guarantee that that software cost the school quite a bit of money and was sold by a private vendor who contracted someone else out to slap it together and there was no oversight.
Larry Johnson: Oh, gosh, I’m absolutely sure that’s true.
Scott Ferguson: And that’s why there’s homework.
Larry Johnson: Yeah, that’s why there’s homework and homework that can’t be done. What better way to do it, than you ensure?
Billy Saas: The lesson that you’re supposed to learn is very clearly secondary to the lesson that you’re actually learning about how impossible this whole thing is.
Larry Johnson: Yes, yes. I could never understand how students, I mean, clearly, well, off family students managed to get through this stuff. Maybe it’s just because school makes a decision that they will get through. It doesn’t matter what they actually do. How do they learn to pass these tests? One of my students said, Well, one thing if you’re lucky enough to go to school in a rich community, you learn you don’t think about anything too much. You learn what you’re supposed to say, and that’s what you do. I had a student who I thought had misread a passage and something we’d read the other day. I criticized her and gave her that feedback. She got back and said, No, no, this is what the piece said, and this is what I said. She copied and pasted from each. And I looked at it and I thought, I think you left a note out of what you said, and she got back to me. She says, Yeah, I did. I left a note out of it. And I said, Well, you were willing to read the feedback, and follow up on it. That’s the whole purpose of this. If you had gone through this in a discussion group, I would have given you full credit. You went through with me, I probably would still give you full credit. She was willing to come back and challenge my feedback, which I thought was excellent. That’s what you hope your students will do. So look at it, think about it, try to understand it, and come back. So I said, You’re doing everything I could ask of the student.
Scott Ferguson: I think that is a beautiful place to end our conversation. Larry Johnson, thank you so much for joining us on Money on the Left.Larry Johnson: Thank you. It was great talking to both of you. Take care.
* Thanks to the Money on the Left production team: William Saas (audio editor), Mike Lewis (transcription), & Robert Rusch (graphic art)