What I Learn from My Students

I’ve spent the last semester grousing about the various deficiencies of my current undergraduate class–they’re disinterested in the world around them, they can’t write a coherent or grammatical sentence and they clearly have no idea how research differs from stream-of-consciousness-essay.

Fairness, however, impels me to note that my graduate students continue to teach me a lot.

What prompted this post were statistics contained in a student’s paper. She chose to analyze Indiana’s aggressive school privatization efforts. (For clarity’s sake, I should note here that charter schools are public schools, and thus not the focus of her analysis.)

Opponents of school privatization have emphasized the financial benefits to private contractors, and the connections of those contractors to officials in positions to enrich them. Tony Bennett and Mitch Daniels worked tirelessly for policies that–surprise!–benefitted donors and cronies; several large corporations that actively lobby for school privatization have an obvious financial interest in that outcome.  That being the case, it isn’t unreasonable to conclude that corporate profit motives are helping to drive this particular policy approach, and many observers have leveled that claim.

My student’s paper suggested a different set of motivations. She noted that the rhetoric of school choice in Indiana focuses heavily on the right of parents to send their children to a private, religious school. (She reports that public arguments elsewhere have revolved far more around educational quality.) She then goes on to share some illuminating numbers.

The Indiana Department of Education publishes enrollment data of accredited non-public schools (only accredited non-public schools are eligible to receive the Choice Scholarship funds), and according to the list of accredited non-public schools for the year 2013, 95.01% of these schools are religiously affiliated, or 310 schools out of 326 (IDOE, 2013). Of the sixteen schools that are not religiously affiliated, two are military high schools, five are alternative high schools for at-risk and troubled youth, and four are for children with special needs or disabilities (IDOE, 2013). Of the 310 religiously affiliated accredited schools in Indiana in 2013, only five are not affiliated with some denomination of Christianity (three are Islamic private schools and two are Hebrew private schools) (IDOE, 2003). For parents looking to pull their children out of public schools in favor of private schools, these eleven schools are likely too specialized to be considered a choice for any child who does not fit into the mission of those schools. The five remaining non-religious private schools are college preparatory schools, three of which are located in the Indianapolis metropolitan area and the other two in Evansville.

Apparently, the real “choice” parents are being given is between a private religious education and a public secular one (provided by a school system increasingly starved for funds).

Whether that is the “choice” privatization proponents really want to offer is an open–and interesting– question.


  1. Parents have always had the choice regarding where to school their children. Somehow this has become a confusing, garbled situation where PUBLIC school funds are now being used in private, primarily religious based schools or just a different public school chosen by parents. In the early 1970’s my oldest son was highly intelligent and needed accelerated classes, my second son was dyslexic and required special education. According to IPS I was free to provide these eductional benefits to both sons by paying for private schools and providing transportation to them. Public school tax dollars were only available to public schools. I could not afford two private schools so they did not receive the individualized education they needed. Religious based schools have always been an option for those who chose to pay for it and provide transportation.

    Now it appears to be a “gimme what I want for free” situation to educate our children. Those not qualified or not chosen to benefit by the charter schools or vouchers are stuck with leftovers in the public school system. How the hell can schools teach young children on a quality level when daily in the news the Governor and Superintendent of Schools – duly elected by the publc – can’t get along and spend valuable time with Ms. Ritz trying to do her job and Pence putting obstacles in her way. Local government doesn’t hesitate publicizing millions of tax dollars going into sports and entertainment venues and report there are no more tax dollars available for public education.

    Sheila; you say you learn from your students, too bad the government cannot learn from them regarding their educational NEEDS.

  2. As I read and grade essays from an anthropology fieldwork assignment ( RED: Eiteljorg Contemporary Art Fellowship 2013, Circle City Classic parade, Veterans Day memorial and parade, film screening of Two Spirits OR the Crispus Attucks Museum on the campus of Crispus Attucks High School)in an introductory course, I will share my insights about this undergraduate class who will graduate between 2015 and 2017.
    1. Half my students have not travelled out of Indiana prior to matriculation at IUPUI.
    2. Half my students hold full-time jobs while they are full-time students.
    3. Half my students did not know Miami, Potawatomi, Shawnee and other American Indians are alive and thriving in Indiana today.
    4. Essays of my students range in quality from Letter to the Editor through to freshman level written work. Some have little practice in essay writing and thus their essays are off-key.
    5. What is the relationship between poor performance in essay writing and the structure of the education system here in Indiana? Would money, time, travel, and access to high quality education improve performance in undergrads here at IUPUI?
    6. Thou shalt give it a try!

  3. Well, charter schools are nominally public, though charter schools and public schools aren’t treated the same.

  4. What your student points out illustrates (to me) is the dynamic that exists between Hoosier Republican politicians and the bulk of Hoosier Republican voters/supporters. At the grassroots you have a religious, conservative voter base that has a longstanding antipathy towards “Democrats”, public employees, the government, and “the poor” etc from whom they continually claim to be alienated/exploited by via taxes so called “handouts” etc etc. In particular they have decided/been encouraged by leaders to feel alienated by a secular and progressive agenda, and point to any societal failings as resultant of that agenda.
    From the “top”, you have a network of pseudo-professionals, longtime govt insiders, crony capitalists, phony policy analysts, communications wonks, and party loyalists who understand and carefully curate that discontent in order to package whatever reckless rent-seeking taxpayer funded money-makinf scheme du jour may be. Unfortunately, at present it is education.There is a great deal of behind the scenes work that goes into these efforts to holistically cultivate a culture willing to accept these lopsided deals, and it seemingly exists in such a way that you could almost call it a very loose and banal conspiracy.
    School “choice” hits on a nerve because it gives the false impression that voters are, in a way, regaining what they have felt has been lost as a result of the progressive agenda, which they hold responsible for today’s ills. Instead what you have happening is money being concentrated into fewer and fewer hands in a state that already suffers from crippling social inequality, all in the name of better education, when in fact it is all being done in the name of greed. The politicians and the cronies get richer, and the students become more isolated and conservative (i.e. indoctrinated) and the public system falls apart in a profound way. Truly sinister. When will the majority of Hoosier voters start to see through these efforts for what they really are? How bad will things have to get?

  5. There seems to be a real fetish that conservatives have to make certain segments of the population suffer and suffer greatly, while being exploited.

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