"A child's learning is the funtion more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Chicago's Ariel Community Academy Offers Example of Business Roundtable in Action

Guest commentary by graduate student, Kenneth Libby:
The Lessons We Teach Our Children
Kenneth Libby

"Who doesn't love to talk about money? That really makes it fun," (1) says Connie Moran, the Investment Program Director at Ariel Community Academy, a unique school operating within the Chicago Public Schools system. Children at Ariel Community Academy, serving children in Kindergarden through eighth grade, spend their day studying more than just the traditional subjects. In fact, nearly 10 percent of the school's operating budget is dedicated to a single subject: wealth management. "Like the bulls of Wall Street, the saving and investment curriculum is stampeding through the classrooms," claims a 2006 report published by the school. "Future portfolio managers, accountants, investment bankers and, most importantly, fiscally savvy young people are emerging from the Academy's unique saving and investment curriculum."(2)

Ariel Community Academy represents the public-private partnership envisioned by education reformers on both sides of the political aisle. The academy draws approximately half of their funding from the Chicago Public Schools and the other half from a private investor, the Ariel Education Initiative. As such, it is neither a charter school nor your traditional neighborhood public school. The school opened in 1996 while the Ariel Education Initiative was under the direction of Arne Duncan, the future CEO of Chicago Public Schools and President-elect Obama's choice for Secretary of Education.

Ariel Investments, a firm with over $7 billion in assets, provides the funding for the Ariel Education Initiative, a program "committed to advancing educational opportunities in economically disadvantaged areas." In addition to funding the Ariel Community Academy, the initiative funds the Extended Day Program. "In the Ariel Extended Day Program, our goal is to expose the multiple intelligences that exist within every child. Academically, culturally and physically, these students are learning that an education is not limited by time, but by their own imagination," according to Dawn Welles, the director of the program (2). Evidently, the Ariel Community Academy does not have time during the regular school day to expose children's multiple intelligences: the school recently mandated two hours of math instruction for students in grades K-5 and three and a half hours for grades six through eight.

According to Ariel's strategic plan, "teacher training in the use of technology (Learning First, DIBELS, etc.) and using technology in mathematics assessments have been effective" (3). Learning First and DIBELS represent the kind of "scientifically-based" methods capable of measuring a limited range of child's reading but utterly incapable of teaching critical thinking skills, a child's ability to connect words in print to their unfolding world, or meaningful comprehension. More importantly, these scientifically-based programs are designed specifically to raise standardized test scores with the unfortunate side-effect of stunting children's interest in reading. But at the Ariel Community Academy, high-stakes testing is big business not simply reserved for weekdays. Part of the private-public partnership includes the Saturday Morning Teacher Corp, with employees of Ariel Investments, Nuveen Investments, and Lehman Brothers volunteering to "spend two hours every Saturday morning working with third- through eighth-grade students to improve their math and reading skills and prepare them for state-required, standardized tests "(2).

The most unique project, the Ariel-Nuveen Investment Program, is intended to "demystify the financial world by providing an opportunity for the student's to manage a real $20,000 portfolio."(5) The $20,000 provided to each incoming class is managed by Ariel and Nuveen representatives until select seventh- and eight-grade students are ready to take over as the class reaches middle school. When student's graduate from eighth grade, the original $20,000 is given to the incoming class of first graders while the profits are divided in two, half to be used as a class gift to the school and the rest divided up among the students as either cash or college savings plans.

The class of 2007's portfolio shows most of their money was invested in the Ariel Fund and Nuveen Rittenhouse Growth Fund ($30,000 of the $33,000) (4). It is safe to say that most classes have their portfolio filled with Ariel or Nuveen Funds (after all, their representatives decide where the money goes until the children reach seventh grade), money used to teach children about investing in the stock market and provide a modest sum for the children's' future education. On December 31st, 2008, the Ariel Fund closed at $22.93, down from around $40.00 at the beginning of the school year in September. Nuveen Rittenhouse Growth Fund closed at $16.10, down from around $22.00 four months ago.

This year must have thrown a curveball for the program, a program suffering from the same faulty assumption of Wall Street investors: investing in the stock market guarantees a return. Upon graduating, "the original $20,000 grant is then turned over to the next incoming first grade class, making the program self-perpetuating," proclaims the Ariel website (5). The class of 2009 undoubtedly watched their portfolio shrink during 2008. How do the teachers explain the greed and corruption that brought down Wall Street and the student's portfolio? How do children feel about witnessing the beginnings of a college savings plan evaporate, knowing they'll be unable to give back to their school and next year's first grade class due to non-existent profits? How does the school manage to explain the "principles of business, economics and ownership - all of which have a lasting impact on their personal and financial growth"(6) in the wake of Treasury looting, unprecedented corporate unaccountability, and business plans guided solely by greed?

There are reasons to be concerned about the quality of information and instruction provided by an educational institution funded by corporate interests. Can we reasonably expect the Ariel Community Academy, backed by a Wall Street investment firm, to provide a critical analysis of the market meltdown, including addressing the human impact: the loss of retirement funds, jobs, health insurance, pension plans, college savings, and homes? Do conversations about economics include addressing the record number of Americans on food stamps, currently around 10% of our population, or are they limited to opportunity costs, start-up capital, and profits? Are the economics of poverty, a topic on the other end of the financial spectrum, studied as vigorously as NASDAQ, the Dow, and international markets? You cannot indoctrinate students into the philosophy of Wall Street, while failing to study the economic conditions keeping fellow humans, including one in five American children, in the cycle of poverty.

The Ariel Community Academy's homepage includes a short video about their unique investment program. Various children describe the program, showing a clear interest in investing, stocks, portfolios, markets, etc. "I think that I actually am ahead of some other kids that aren't learning about investments and stocks," reports one girl. "I remember I got into a fight with my friend about the war in Iraq, and I look at it from a business perspective, she looks at it from 'well if we pull out da-da-das gonna happen,' and I'm like, 'well if we pull out da-da-das gonna happen to the economy.' She's like, 'Why are you talking about the economy?'"(1) The Iraq War, an immoral if not illegal act, comes down to an economic decision when we raise our children to view the world through the corporate mentality, the mentality of "future portfolio managers, accountants, [and] investment bankers...emerging from the Academy's unique saving and investment curriculum"(2). Profits, above all else; the determination to force our economy forward in pursuit of profits despite the human cost. Economists like Larry Summers and Paul Volcker (both working for the Obama administration) would be proud: they see the world through the same lens as this young Ariel Community Student taught to view events strictly on economic terms.

Ariel claims to "demystify" the stock market though a carefully managed stock portfolio. Teaching about Wall Street presents a great risk when the information is presented from an obviously biased source. The demystifying process may, in fact, rewrap our economic system in new garb, ignoring the same problems associated with neoliberal capitalism: greed juxtaposed with extreme poverty. The education dialogue often includes the need for "21st Century Skills" in the workforce presumably because there will be a demand for these skills (a proposition we should question). Undoubtedly, our children need more than the "21st Century Skills" - we need to learn to share resources, reconcile our differences, gain a deeper understanding of various world cultures and histories, and learn to take care of each other.

As an educator, hearing a child speak about the war in Iraq on strictly financial terms is a strong indication of an institution's failure to reconcile the desire for money with a humanistic approach to the world, including international politics. I cringe to hear a child speak about a war impacting the American economy, a war that has caused the death of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and undoubtedly halted the education of Iraqi children. Ariel Investments viewed the child's take on the war with enough approval to post it on their website, oblivious to the ethical shortcomings exhibited by a child indoctrinated into Wall Street's mentality: profits over people.

Ignoring the expansion of private corporations in our public education system puts us at risk of expanding the military-industrial complex into the military-industrial-educational complex, a process Henry Giroux contends has already happened through No Child Left Behind, the media, and other cultural factors. The appointment of Duncan, a CEO and not an educator, should be taken as an ominous warning for those of us opposing the private takeover of the American education system under the cloak of the “public-private partnerships”, “school choice”, and “innovation.” Ariel Investments claim to be “committed to strengthening the neighborhoods and cities in which we live and work, practicing a hands-on model of corporate responsibility.”(5) We’ve seen corporate responsibility during the last year. Our children’s education is an asset far too valuable to entrust with the same minds operating on Wall Street.


Sources:
1. Video on Ariel Community Academy website: http://schools.cuip.net/ariel/?page_id=113

2. Ariel Education Initiative Brochure 2006: http://www.arielinvestments.com/LibraryFiles//AEI/AEI_Brochure_2006.pdf

3. Ariel Community Academy Strategic Plan 2006-2008 SIPAAA report: http://www.stratplan.cps.k12.il.us/pdfs/SIPAAA/Reports/
05_15_2007_SIPAAA_ARIEL_COMMNTY_SCHOOL_3640.pdf

4. Ariel Education Initiative Brochure 2007: http://www.arielinvestments.com/LibraryFiles//AEI/AEI_Brochure_2007.pdf

5. Ariel-Nuveen Investment Program website: http://www.arielinvestments.com/content/view/108/1068/

6. Ariel Education Initiative website: http://www.arielinvestments.com/content/view/106/1066/

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