The Myth of Student Engagement

The Myth of Student Engagement

The Myth of Student Engagement

The Myth of Student Engagement

by Beth Morrow

Each day that you enter your classroom, are you educating students?

Or are you teaching at them?

Do your lessons only improve their academic knowledge?

Or do they foster their personal growth?

We all want our teaching to make a difference—otherwise, we wouldn’t spend our nights, weekends, planning periods, and, often, our own money putting together dynamic lessons we think will help students learn.

Here’s the rub: some teachers really do have student engagement going on. You know what I mean—despite the struggles we all face, their lessons always appear to be a success. Student absences are a rarity and discipline problems almost nonexistent—no one skips their class to hide out in the bathroom.

And you want that for yourself: maximum student engagement. If you just had a handful of the magic fairy dust that teacher is spreading, you’d be great, too.

But nothing you do seems to matter. New units, fresh seating charts, rewards systems (if you buy into that), class work, group work, computer work, individual work…yet nothing’s working. Maybe you need to put every lesson on the computer. Or nothing on computers. Should you adjust your lessons to read fewer books, show better movies, make more videos, have more rewards…?

Or, even more radical, you could shift your perspective to stop teaching at students and begin learning about them.

Teaching and Learning: The Chicken and the Egg

You can’t have teaching without learning something. And, as with all conundrums, there is no learning without teaching. Learning does not require a formal teacher, just a lesson with an integral meaning that speaks in a way that you understand.

But when teachers forget that a large part of being a successful educator relies on being a learner yourself, student perception begins to shift. Instead of creating a meaningful classroom experience, the classroom becomes “just a place to do work.” Instead of feeling invested in their learning, students only see more “stuff” to do.

This dichotomy cuts to the heart of the student engagement myth: that adding or changing classroom elements, doing a new project, or exposing a student to a new technology or method of instruction will magically transform apathy into a white-hot fire of curiosity.

And that couldn’t be more wrong. Igniting student passion isn’t about adding more options. Sure, there’s a value to trying a variety of approaches for the sake of exposure. But like throwing spaghetti against a wall, these changes won’t stick for long.

Why? Because you’re applying an external solution to an internal problem.

What Did the Teacher Learn Today?

True engagement comes when a teacher knows a student’s strengths and interests beyond the classroom and uses that knowledge to deepen relationships. If we go into our rooms each day to teach but not connect, we can’t expect students to care beyond a test score, if that.

Can you answer these questions about your students? If you can, how do you apply that knowledge to connect with them?

*What home issues are affecting their work?

*Do they have a non-academic passion?

*What are their favorite shows, games, songs, or books?

*Do they have a preferred learning style?

*What is their hidden talent?

*What goals do they have for themselves in the future?

And if you can’t answer those questions, it’s time to start learning. Because caring about students beyond the boundaries of the classroom is the first step of sparking engagement.

If You Want To Feel Safe On The Internet, You’re Doing It Wrong

If You Want To Feel Safe On The Internet, You’re Doing It Wrong

By Chrissy Stockton

Recently Lena Dunham’s alma matter, Oberlin College, published a guide for its professors on how to correctly use trigger warnings while teaching so that none of their students would be offended. The goal was to make the classroom a “safe space” for learning.

The guide was created by the school’s administrator’s, people who are invested in student’s happiness and satisfaction with their experience, not the quality of their education or whether they are learning to think. Oberlin’s professors were surprised (and unhappy) about the school’s idea that critical thinking and dialogue could ever exist in such a sanitized environment.

As one professor explained:

In the faculty’s eyes, trigger warnings threaten not just academic freedom but the intrinsic nature of the liberal arts educational model. “We need to … challenge students, to conduct open inquiry in classrooms, to make students feel uncomfortable,” explained [Oberlin Political Science professor] Blecher. “Making students feel uncomfortable is at the core of liberal arts education.

If you want to feel “safe,” you do not value learning, it’s as simple as that. This is like asking an athlete to train for the Olympics without going through the pain and discomfort of exercising.

But it’s a movement that’s growing — calls to  take down offensive posts and moderate comments (or delete comments sections entirely). Creating safe spaces, or taking actions with the only goal of making people less comfortable is doing them (and everyone else) a disservice. A safe space is, essentially, somewhere where you will run into zero stimuli. It is a synthetic environment where the only interaction you have is with people who agree with everything you say, it’s a request to be surrounded by yes men, essentially.

I don’t agree with the concept of creating “safe” space because in doing so you necessarily create a space where no growth can take place. If there is no stimulus to provoke change, there will not be any change. There will be no learning, no teaching, no conversation. I don’t think anyone’s goal should be encouraging people to stick their head in the sand and plant their feet firmly and wait it out until they die.

What about people who are bullied? Shouldn’t they have a safe space to not be bullied?

Well… I’m not sure. Safe spaces are a big, fat road to nowhere, I can’t, in good faith, recommend a dead end to anyone. If we’re creating safe spaces for the sake of the emotional health of a person being attacked, we might do well to remember that sheltering someone doesn’t create growth towards health — adversity does. If that’s the case, sheltering someone is harmful rather than helpful. What if our parents never let us walk because they wanted us to be safe — to protect us against a fall?

Oberlin made the mistake of prioritizing short-term user experience over the higher, long-term goal of mental and emotional growth. Let’s learn from their mistake and stop with the idea that creating “safe space” is in any way helpful

Kurt Vonnegut’s Advice To The Young On Kindness, Computers, Community, And The Power Of Great Teachers

If This Isn’t Nice, What Is? Kurt Vonnegut’s Advice to the Young
on Kindness, Computers, Community, and the Power of Great Teachers

by Maria Popova

“Teaching, may I say, is the noblest profession of all in a democracy.”

Kurt Vonnegut was a man of discipline, a champion of literary style, a kind of modern sage and poetic shaman of happiness, and one wise dad. After the publication of his now-legendary 1969 satirical novel Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut added another point of excellence to his résumé: He became one of the country’s most celebrated and sought-after commencement speakers, and like other masters of the genre — including Neil Gaiman, David Foster Wallace, Debbie Millman, Anna Quindlen, Bill Watterson, Joseph Brodsky, and Ann Patchett — he bestowed his gift of wit and wisdom upon throngs of eager young people entering the so-called “real world.”

If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice to the Young (public library) collects the graduation addresses the beloved writer delivered at nine different colleges over the quarter century between 1978 and 2004, among which are his poignant and heartening remarks to the women of the graduating class at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia, delivered on May 15, 1999 — the speech from which this entire collection borrows its title.

With his signature self-deprecation, Vonnegut reflects on the gift of compassion and how we — as a civilization, a culture, and as individuals — have failed it:

I am so smart I know what is wrong with the world. Everybody asks during and after our wars, and the continuing terrorist attacks all over the globe, “What’s gone wrong?” What has gone wrong is that too many people, including high school kids and heads of state, are obeying the Code of Hammurabi, a King of Babylonia who lived nearly four thousand years ago. And you can find his code echoed in the Old Testament, too. Are you ready for this?

“An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”

A categorical imperative for all who live in obedience to the Code of Hammurabi, which includes heroes of every cowboy show and gangster show you ever saw, is this: Every injury, real or imagined, shall be avenged. Somebody’s going to be really sorry.

Though Vonnegut described himself as a Humanist — a secular set of beliefs to which Isaac Asimov also subscribed as an alternative to religion — and even called himself an atheist in another commencement address, he points to the story of Jesus Christ not as a religious teaching but as a cultural narrative that bequeaths a valuable moral disposition:

When Jesus Christ was nailed to a cross, he said, “Forgive them, Father, they know not what they do.” What kind of a man was that? Any real man, obeying the Code of Hammurabi, would have said, “Kill them, Dad, and all their friends and relatives, and make their deaths slow and painful.”

His greatest legacy to us, in my humble opinion, consists of only twelve words. They are the antidote to the poison of the Code of Hammurabi, a formula almost as compact as Albert Einstein’s “E = mc2.”

Vonnegut makes sure his disposition toward religion isn’t misunderstood and the religiosity of these tales doesn’t obscure his larger point:

I am a Humanist, or Freethinker, as were my parents and grandparents and great grandparents — and so not a Christian. By being a Humanist, I am honoring my mother and father, which the Bible tells us is a good thing to do.

But I say with all my American ancestors, “If what Jesus said was good, and so much of it was absolutely beautiful, what does it matter if he was God or not?”

If Christ hadn’t delivered the Sermon on the Mount, with its message of mercy and pity, I wouldn’t want to be a human being.

I would just as soon be a rattlesnake.

Revenge provokes revenge which provokes revenge which provokes revenge — forming an unbroken chain of death and destruction linking nations of today to barbarous tribes of thousands and thousands of years ago.

This disposition, Vonnegut argues, is a personal choice, an individual moral obligation, something to cultivate within ourselves — even it means going against the cultural current:

We may never dissuade leaders of our nation or any other nation from responding vengefully, violently, to every insult or injury. In this, the Age of Television, they will continue to find irresistible the temptation to become entertainers, to compete with movies by blowing up bridges and police stations and factories and so on…

But in our personal lives, our inner lives, at least, we can learn to live without the sick excitement, without the kick of having scores to settle with this particular person, or that bunch of people, or that particular institution or race or nation. And we can then reasonably ask forgiveness for our trespasses, since we forgive those who trespass against us. And we can teach our children and then our grandchildren to do the same — so that they, too, can never be a threat to anyone.

He then turns an optimistic eye toward the creative arts — the music, painting, literature, film, theater, and all the humane ideas that “make us feel honored to be members of the human race” — urging the graduating women to consider how they would contribute to that world and offering them a gender-appropriate revision of Robert Browning’s famous line, replacing his word “man,” an old-timey linguistic convention denoting a human being, with “woman”:

A woman’s reach should exceed her grasp, or what’s a heaven for?

Vonnegut turns to the nature of human relationships and what he considers to be the only true source of friction for lovers, often mistaken for more superficial motives:

You should know that when a husband and wife fight, it may seem to be about money or sex or power.

But what they’re really yelling at each other about is loneliness. What they’re really saying is, “You’re not enough people.”


If you determine that that really is what they’ve been yelling at each other about, tell them to become more people for each other by joining a synthetic extended family — like the Hell’s Angels, perhaps, or the American Humanist Association, with headquarters in Amherst, New York — or the nearest church.

This, in fact — this passionate advocacy for the value of community, of finding your tribe — is something Vonnegut reiterates across his many commencement speeches. In another address, he, the father of seven children, argues that the modern family is simply too small, leaving too much room for loneliness and boredom, and advises: “I recommend that everybody here join all sorts of organizations, no matter how ridiculous, simply to get more people in his or her life. It does not matter much if all the other members are morons. Quantities of relatives of any sort are what we need.” Such counsel seems, in hindsight, particularly at odds with something else he proclaimed when he stood before the women of Agnes Scott College that spring afternoon in 1999:

Computers are no more your friends, and no more increasers of your brainpower, than slot machines…

Only well-informed, warm-hearted people can teach others things they’ll always remember and love. Computers and TV don’t do that.

A computer teaches a child what a computer can become.

An educated human being teaches a child what a child can become. Bad men just want your bodies. TVs and computers want your money, which is even more disgusting. It’s so much more dehumanizing!

The latter, of course, is something only a man can say — but given what a warm-hearted and thoughtful man Vonnegut was, the safe and decent thing to do would be to attribute such a well-meaning but ignorant remark not to ill intent but to his all too deeply engrained Y chromosome, or more precisely to his having unwittingly swum with the current his whole life.

More importantly, however, it’s interesting to consider that Vonnegut — writing in 1999, before Facebook and Twitter and most current thriving online communities existed — so readily dismisses the connective potentiality of “computers” (and even advises those women who may want to pursue motherhood to “keep that kid the hell away from computers… unless you want it to be a lonesome imbecile”) while in the same breath urging us to seek out “a synthetic extended family.” He even admonishes: “Don’t try to make yourself an extended family out of ghosts on the Internet. Get yourself a Harley and join the Hell’s Angels instead.” One ought to wonder how Vonnegut might feel if he were alive today to witness many of these initially online-only “ghostly” connections blossom into deep and real relationships offline, the best of them of the lifelong kind.

A curmudgeonly celebrator at heart but a celebrator above all, Vonnegut then returns to his optimistic vision for these young women’s lives:

By working so hard at becoming wise and reasonable and well-informed, you have made our little planet, our precious little moist, blue-green ball, a saner place than it was before you got here.


Most of you are preparing to enter fields unattractive to greedy persons, such as education and the healing arts. Teaching, may I say, is the noblest profession of all in a democracy.

(A necessary aside here: If any of Vonnegut’s words to the young women appear patronizing, this is more a function of the genre than of the man: Lest we forget, the basic rhetoric of the commencement address is one where a patronly “father figure” (or a matronly “mother figure”) gets up in front of a green crop of young minds and proceeds to dispense wisdom on how to live — wisdom that comes from a hard-earned, know-better place of having lived it himself or herself. The very point of a commencement address, it’s safe to say, is to be willingly patronized.)

Vonnegut’s closing remarks are, perhaps unsurprisingly, a gladdening celebration of books and reading:

Don’t give up on books. They feel so good — their friendly heft. The sweet reluctance of their pages when you turn them with your sensitive fingertips. A large part of our brains is devoted to deciding whether what our hands are touching is good or bad for us. Any brain worth a nickel knows books are good for us.

He concludes with a wonderful anecdote about his Uncle Alex, from which this entire collection borrows its title:

One of the things [Uncle Alex] found objectionable about human beings was that they so rarely noticed it when they were happy. He himself did his best to acknowledge it when times were sweet. We could be drinking lemonade in the shade of an apple tree in the summertime, and Uncle Alex would interrupt the conversation to say, “If this isn’t nice, what is?”

So I hope that you will do the same for the rest of your lives. When things are going sweetly and peacefully, please pause a moment, and then say out loud, “If this isn’t nice, what is?”

And just to drive his point home in the most heartfelt way possible, Vonnegut ends with a soul-warming exercise:

That’s one favor I’ve asked of you. Now I ask for another one. I ask it not only of the graduates, but of everyone here, parents and teachers as well. I’ll want a show of hands after I ask this question.

How many of you have had a teacher at any level of your education who made you more excited to be alive, prouder to be alive, than you had previously believed possible?

Hold up your hands, please.

Now take down your hands and say the name of that teacher to someone else and tell them what that teacher did for you.

All done?

If this isn’t nice, what is?

If This Isn’t Nice, What Is? is a spectacular read in its entirety, brimming with Vonnegut’s unflinching convictions and timeless advice to the young.

The College Contraction Has Begun

The College Contraction Has Begun

by Hamilton Nolan

Last year, US college enrollment registered a notable decline for the first time in decades. The college boom had peaked. Now, the contraction begins.

It starts around the margins—community colleges and shitty “for profit” colleges losing students who recognize that they are not necessarily a good investment. A year ago, experts said that “signs point to 2013-14 being the year when traditional four-year, nonprofit colleges begin a contraction that will last for several years.” That prediction appears to be coming true.

Bloomberg today surveys the doom that is now creeping into the smaller, weaker, less popular, less financially stable class of private four year colleges. As their own enrollment declines—and without the huge endowments necessary to fill the holes—they risk falling into “death spirals” of continuing cuts and falling popularity, until nothing is left. After the shock of the recession, the weak of higher education are beginning to fall by the wayside:

Moody’s, which rates more than 500 public and private nonprofit colleges and universities, downgraded an average of 28 institutions annually in the five years through 2013, more than double the average of 12 in the prior five-year period.

Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen has predicted that as many as half of the more than 4,000 universities and colleges in the U.S. may fail in the next 15 years.

Assuming this comes true, it sure does suck for the poor beleaguered bastards trying to build a career as a college professor—but not so much for college students, whose financial burden is so high that having a relatively higher quality pool of institutions to attend could be a net positive. If people find out that college degrees don’t pay off in the way they thought, they will not enroll in colleges, and some colleges will fail. Better, in the long run, than a bunch of zombie schools desperately trying to suck in any revenue stream at all to stay alive. That’s ultimately a waste of a lot of time, money, and effort.

Many deserted college campuses would make great paintball fields.

Why Teaching Poetry Is So Important

Why Teaching Poetry Is So Important

The oft-neglected literary form can help students learn in ways that prose can’t.

by Andrew Simmons
16 years after enjoying a high school literary education rich in poetry, I am a literature teacher who barely teaches it. So far this year, my 12th grade literature students have read nearly 200,000 words for my class. Poems have accounted for no more than 100.

This is a shame—not just because poetry is important to teach, but also because poetry is important for the teaching of writing and reading.

High school poetry suffers from an image problem. Think of Dead Poet’s Society’s scenes of red-cheeked lads standing on desks and reciting verse, or of dowdy Dickinson imitators mooning on park benches, filling up journals with noxious chapbook fodder. There’s also the tired lessons about iambic pentameter and teachers wringing interpretations from cryptic stanzas, their students bewildered and chuckling. Reading poetry is impractical, even frivolous. High school poets are antisocial and effete.

I have always rejected these clichéd mischaracterizations born of ignorance, bad movies, and uninspired teaching. Yet I haven’t been stirred to fill my lessons with Pound and Eliot as my 11th grade teacher did. I loved poetry in high school. I wrote it. I read it. Today, I slip scripture into an analysis of The Day of the Locust. A Nikki Giovanni piece appears in The Bluest Eye unit. Poetry has become an afterthought, a supplement, not something to study on its own.

In an education landscape that dramatically deemphasizes creative expression in favor of expository writing and prioritizes the analysis of non-literary texts, high school literature teachers have to negotiate between their preferences and the way the wind is blowing. That sometimes means sacrifice, and poetry is often the first head to roll.

Yet poetry enables teachers to teach their students how to write, read, and understand any text. Poetry can give students a healthy outlet for surging emotions. Reading original poetry aloud in class can foster trust and empathy in the classroom community, while also emphasizing speaking and listening skills that are often neglected in high school literature classes.

Students who don’t like writing essays may like poetry, with its dearth of fixed rules and its kinship with rap. For these students, poetry can become a gateway to other forms of writing. It can help teach skills that come in handy with other kinds of writing—like precise, economical diction, for example. When Carl Sandburg writes, “The fog comes/on little cat feet,” in just six words, he endows a natural phenomenon with character, a pace, and a spirit. All forms of writing benefits from the powerful and concise phrases found in poems.

I have used cut-up poetry (a variation on the sort “popularized” by William Burroughs and Brion Gysin) to teach 9th grade students, most of whom learned English as a second language, about grammar and literary devices. They made collages after slicing up dozens of “sources,” identifying the adjectives and adverbs, utilizing parallel structure, alliteration, assonance, and other figures of speech. Short poems make a complete textual analysis more manageable for English language learners. When teaching students to read and evaluate every single word of a text, it makes sense to demonstrate the practice with a brief poem—like Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool.”

Students can learn how to utilize grammar in their own writing by studying how poets do—and do not—abide by traditional writing rules in their work. Poetry can teach writing and grammar conventions by showing what happens when poets strip them away or pervert them for effect. Dickinson often capitalizes common nouns and uses dashes instead of commas to note sudden shifts in focus. Agee uses colons to create dramatic, speech-like pauses. Cummings of course rebels completely. He usually eschews capitalization in his proto-text message poetry, wrapping frequent asides in parentheses and leaving last lines dangling on their pages, period-less. In “next to of course god america i,” Cummings strings together, in the first 13 lines, a cavalcade of jingoistic catch-phrases a politician might utter, and the lack of punctuation slowing down and organizing the assault accentuates their unintelligibility and banality and heightens the satire. The abuse of conventions helps make the point. In class, it can help a teacher explain the exhausting effect of run-on sentences—or illustrate how clichés weaken an argument.

Yet, despite all of the benefits poetry brings to the classroom, I have been hesitant to use poems as a mere tool for teaching grammar conventions. Even the in-class disembowelment of a poem’s meaning can diminish the personal, even transcendent, experience of reading a poem. Billy Collins characterizes the latter as a “deadening” act that obscures the poem beneath the puffed-up importance of its interpretation. In his poem “Introduction to Poetry,” he writes: “all they want to do is tie the poem to a chair with rope/and torture a confession out of it./They begin beating it with a hose/to find out what it really means.”

The point of reading a poem is not to try to “solve” it. Still, that quantifiable process of demystification is precisely what teachers are encouraged to teach students, often in lieu of curating a powerful experience through literature. The literature itself becomes secondary, boiled down to its Cliff’s Notes demi-glace. I haven’t wanted to risk that with the poems that enchanted me in my youth.

Teachers should produce literature lovers as well as keen critics, striking a balance between teaching writing, grammar, and analytical strategies and then also helping students to see that literature should be mystifying. It should resist easy interpretation and beg for return visits. Poetry serves this purpose perfectly. I am confident my 12th graders know how to write essays. I know they can mine a text for subtle messages. But I worry sometimes if they’ve learned this lesson. In May, a month before they graduate, I may read some poetry with my seniors—to drive home that and nothing more.


How Engaged Are Students and Teachers in American Schools?

How Engaged Are Students and Teachers in American Schools?

By Anya Kamenetz

Gallup recently released a major report on the State of American Schools. Their data paints a picture of schools performing as a complex ecosystem, with the wellbeing, engagement, and performance of teachers, students, and principals all intertwined.

The report combines decades of surveys of 5 million American teachers and principals with the results of the Gallup Student Poll, now billed as the largest survey of American students with 600,000 5th through 12 grade participants, and several large follow-up studies. Gallup’s also drawing on its background developing the Employee Engagement Survey, which has been administered to a total of almost 30 million people in all professions.

The Gallup polls ask students, teachers, principals, and other professionals about their levels of hope, emotional engagement, and well-being at work or school. While these qualities may seem like frills, they’ve been demonstrated over time to have powerful correlations with harder metrics, like a company’s profits or a school’s test scores. For example, in 2009, Gallup studied 78,000 students in 160 schools in eight states, finding that a one-percentage-point uptick in a school’s average student engagement was connected to an average six-point increase in reading achievement and eight points in math. Similarly, Gallup researchers have found in peer-reviewed studies that their “hope” measure was a better predictor of grades in college than SATs, ACTs or high school GPA. In a third study, students’ levels of hope accounted for almost half of the variation in math achievement and at least one-third of their variation in reading and science scores.

Brandon Busteed, the executive director of Gallup Education, says that in some ways, the point Gallup is making with this line of research is even more “provocative.” “We definitely want to show that these quote unquote ‘soft’ measures move the quote unquote ‘hard’ measures, like grades and test scores,” he said. “But we’re also asking: is engagement more important or are grades more important? If you ask a parent whether they’d rather have a kid who is getting mostly As and is only mildly interested in what they’re learning or mostly Bs and is super engaged, I can tell you what most parents would pick.”

So how are we doing on these soft measures? According to the survey, 55% of American students scored high on engagement, and just one in three score high on all three measures of hope, engagement and well-being.

Engagement measures have a lot to do with relationships and feeling valued. So it’s not surprising that there’s an intimate connection between the schoolroom engagement of students, and the workplace engagement of teachers. As the saying goes, “Our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions.”

Gallup found that students who agreed with the following two statements: 1. “My school is committed to building the strengths of each student” and 2. “I have at least one teacher who makes me excited about the future” were 30 times more likely to be engaged.

Unfortunately, most teachers are not in a position to share excitement with students. About 70% are classified as disengaged, which puts them on par with the workforce as a whole. This is surprising in some ways, because teachers score close to the top on measures that indicate that they find meaning in their life and see work as a calling. Unfortunately, the structures that teachers are working in–which may include high-stakes standardized testing and value-added formulas that evaluate their performance based on outside factors–seem to tug against their happiness. “The real bummer is they don’t feel their opinions matter,” Busteed says. K-12 teachers scored dead last among 12 occupational groups in agreeing with the statement that their opinions count at work, and also dead last on “My supervisor creates an open and trusting environment.”

K-12 teachers scored dead last among 12 occupational groups in agreeing with the statement that their opinions count at work, and also dead last on “My supervisor creates an open and trusting environment.”

This takes the measure directly to the top. Gallup’s study found that principal talent had a powerful impact on teacher engagement, which in turn affects student engagement. They recommend that principals adopt a more collaborative management style and help new teachers acclimate by putting them together to form partnerships with more experienced teachers.

Surveys and polls aren’t perfect, of course. But overall, the message of this research is a powerful indicator that we need to do a better job at looking at the full range of factors that affect school performance. Gallup is promoting its student poll to districts as another means of making decisions about what really counts in school.

Changing Our Education System One Programmer At A Time

Changing Our Education System One Programmer At A Time

by Jon Auerbach

In the off chance you’ve been sleeping under a rock with no Wi-Fi for the past 20 years, here’s some news: The U.S. educational system is under attack from multiple fronts and is on the verge of being reshaped by a profound entrepreneurial uprising.

This is acutely evident in higher education. Colleges are in an unsustainable arms race of spending on non-teaching lures – football stadiums and sushi-laden cafeterias – to attract students who can neither afford the cost of education nor find jobs to repay their debt once they’re out in the real world.

With more than $1.1 trillion of outstanding student debt, up to 40 percent of recent college grads are either unemployed or underemployed. In 2010, the unemployment rate for young workers aged 16-24 hit 19.6 percent, the highest since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking unemployment in 1947. The next time you go to an amusement park, think that one in four park workers has a college degree.

As is often the case, change is coming from entrepreneurs looking to reshape education. After all, this stems from a real need on the part of startups to attract and retain great engineers. In most startups, the hardest jobs to fill are positions in core technology, product design and product management.

Educational startups used to be off-limits for entrepreneurs. The space was filled with a collection of schools and administrators resisting change and innovation. But in the past few years, two things have happened that offer real opportunity. First, the state of education is being challenged by systemic problems. And as software has become more approachable to the masses, it has led to a grassroots movement toward innovation in education.

The first forays into educational overhaul were companies like Khan Academy, which that took educational content and re-packaged it into forms that youth could relate to. The snack-size learning modules of Khan Academy mirrored videos that students were watching in their free time, and they became hits in their own right on YouTube.

A second wave of entrepreneurs then created massive open online courses, or MOOCs, with more in-depth content in the form of start-to-finish courses. Companies like Udacity, Coursera, Udemy and others give students an opportunity to take longer-length classes on their own time and often for free. And they aren’t alone. In the last several years, we’ve seen the rise of other online coding programs like Codecademy, which became popular after helping its students get into coding through its initial New Year’s Resolution challenge. In fewer than 48 hours, Codecademy was able to sign up 97,000 students.

These companies are all exploiting a huge gap in American education. In 2013, only about 31,000 students in the U.S. took the Advanced Placement Computer Science (CS) exam. This was less than 1 percent of total AP exams for the year and about the same number as those who took the Studio Art 2-D Design AP exam. By contrast, nearly half a million American students took the AP English exam. One reason for this disparity is a dearth of trained CS teachers in middle and high schools. With few trained teachers, even students interested in learning CS in high school have no formal option – last year, one student in the entire state of Mississippi took the AP CS exam.

Now a third wave of startups is sprouting up to tackle the dearth of vocational CS training with intense, in-person training. Companies like The Flatiron School, which I recently invested in, and the Turing School, are teaching students in short-term immersion programs. They tend to attract very motivated students, many of them mid-career in non-technical professions, who spend day and night learning coding over short periods of time. After completing their programs, the students have the technical skills employers are looking for, and they are highly marketable. In fact, Flatiron boasts nearly 100 percent job placement.

These schools are tapping into a large societal demand. Vocational training is the wedge to begin a 21st century institution of higher learning. And the schools are in good company. As Avi Flombaum, one of Flatiron’s founders, likes to remind people that Harvard was started in 1636 as a vocational training school to prepare a future generation of clergymen.

Teaching to the Test?

Teaching to the Test?

Unrealistic goals set for students, have many educators teaching to the test.
Some teachers who find themselves being held accountable for underachieving students are having to find alternative measures to beat the system.

By Graeme Paton

Teachers admit to “teaching to the test” having been put under pressure to effectively cheat the exams system, according to research by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers

Teachers are being put under pressure to effectively cheat the exams system because of pressure to hit “unrealistic and fallacious” exam targets, according to research.

Staff admit to “teaching to the test” and offering a deliberately narrow timetable to maximise children’s grades and give a generous impression of school standards, it was claimed.

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers claimed that the target culture in schools was having a negative impact on children’s education.

Almost eight-in-10 teachers surveyed by the union insisted that the pressure to hit exam benchmarks made it “hard to teach a broad and balanced curriculum”, suggesting they were focusing on subjects such as English and maths while ignoring “non-core” disciplines including the arts, PE and religious education.

More than a third also admitted to “making students spend as much time as possible practising tests”.

The disclosure comes amid Government threats to turn schools that consistently fall below official benchmarks into independent academies under new leadership.

Last year, almost 800 primary schools failed to meet targets designed to measure standards in the three-Rs, while 154 state secondaries missed minimum benchmarks for GCSEs.

Ministers insist that targets have an overall galvanising effect on school standards by inspiring teachers and pupils to raise their game, with figures suggesting the number of “failing” schools was much higher before the last General Election.

But research by the ATL suggests that teachers are routinely being forced to manipulate lessons to reach preset goals.

Speaking before the union’s annual conference in Manchester on Monday, Mary Bousted, general secretary, said: “An over-emphasis on targets is having a hugely detrimental impact on children’s education. In too many cases, meeting the targets seems to be more important than children learning and gaining important knowledge and skills.

“Many teachers complain about being set unrealistic or fallacious targets that have little regard for the children they are teaching.”

The ATL surveyed 944 teachers as part of the latest study.

Some 79 per cent said targets prevented them teaching a broad curriculum, while 60 per cent admitted they “teach to the test”. More than a third said they spent “as much time as possible practising tests”.

In a further disclosure, 38 per cent of teachers said they do less practical work and 37 per cent admitted to skipping topics that they know will not be tested in an exam.

One secondary school teacher from Peterborough told researchers: “Targets tend to lead to manipulation of grades and achievement.”

Another secondary teacher from Milton Keynes added: “The schools with the best results are often those that have worked out best how to play the system.”

How Teachers Make Cell Phones Work in the Classroom

How Teachers Make Cell Phones Work in the Classroom

by Tina Barseghian

When we talk about using cell phones in class, we’re not just talking about using cell phones in class.

The idea of mobile learning touches on just about every subject that any technology addresses: social media, digital citizenship, content-knowledge versus skill-building, Internet filtering and safety laws, teaching techniques, bring-your-own-device policies, school budgets.

At its core, the issues associated with mobile learning get to the very fundamentals of what happens in class everyday. At their best, cell phones and mobile devices seamlessly facilitate what students and teachers already do in thriving, inspiring classrooms. Students communicate and collaborate with each other and the teacher. They apply facts and information they’ve found to formulate or back up their ideas. They create projects to deepen their understanding, association with, and presentation of ideas.

In the most ideal class settings, mobile devices disappear into the background, like markers and whiteboards, pencil and paper – not because they’re not being used, but because they’re simply tools, a means to an end. The “end” can be any number of things: to gauge student understanding of a concept, to capture notes and ideas to be used and studied later, to calculate, to communicate, to express ideas.


In Ramsey Musallam’s A.P. Chemistry class at Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory in San Francisco, cell phones are a natural extension of the way he communicates with his students.

As soon as kids walk in, Musallam sends out a text blast through Remind101, asking them a challenge question that’s related to the day’s lesson. “First person to tell me the units on K for a second order reaction gets chocolate,” he types and sends off. His students know he does this regularly, so they’re constantly anticipating the question during the day, in and out of class.

“Sure, that’s kind of cute,” he says, admitting that it can be seen as gimmicky. “But more importantly, in my mind that’s saying, ‘You’re carrying around something that I can contact you with.’ It’s a fun ways to stay motivated in our day, which can be pretty dry sometimes. It’s a chance to think about what we’re learning outside the context of state testing.”

Once the class settles in and things are rolling along, the steady hum gets louder when kids are excited or working together, then quieter again when they’re working out problems on their individual little whiteboards (to be clear, these are not digital).

Musallam constantly walks around, sending out directives – “Write the answer on your table!” ““I want you guys to come up with an answer now, and text it in,” “What’s the ridonculous choice out of all these answers here?”

Students work in groups, and when they have a question, they call him over. He arrives with iPad in hand and records his voice and his writing on the iPad, which he immediately uploads to the class website so other students can benefit from the explanations instantaneously. (This, by the way, is another form of flipped teaching, he says.)

“This way, if I need to explain a common question, everyone can access it,” he says. “I don’t have to repeat myself going from group to group.” But rather than stop what everybody else is doing so he can explain a concept, students can watch the video he just created if they need to. “I’ll just tell them to look at the online tutorials to find out about common questions,” he says.

During class, he asks students to take a multiple-choice quiz and send in their answers through a poll on their cell phones. The students’ votes are immediately displayed on the projector that’s hooked up to Musallam’s laptop.

This is key, Musallam says, because seeing the answers that get the most votes makes a big impression on his students. “If they all held up note cards that said their answers — A,B,C or D — the visual of the ‘distractors’ [the wrong answers] wouldn’t be as  powerful,” he says. “And this makes the experience more immediate. I want it to be as rich and as visual as possible. I want them to see things, not just know it.”

Musallam can list a litany of reasons why and how mobile devices spice things up in class. “The data integration wouldn’t be as rich, the experience wouldn’t be as dynamic, the cognitive load is higher,” he says.  But even though all but one of his students have cell phones and use them for polling and instantaneous quizzing, it’s clear that they would be just as rapt in the classroom activities without them; they’re not necessarily fixated on the fact that they’re using cell phones or that they’re seeing instantaneous results of their polls. Their eyes and ears are on him.

What makes Musallam’s class an interesting case study is that his teaching practice is based on a specific technique: he incorporates peer-instruction and inquiry-based learning, mirroring Harvard professor Eric Mazur. The videos and polls just help support that.

“I’m using it in the context of peer instruction, which is research based. You get anonymous feedback, which is great, and kids see all that information condensed,” he says. “Sometimes it’s just cute and fun and that wears off. But much more often, it’s more efficient and meaningful, and it makes the classroom feel like a bigger place.”

Seventh-grade history teacher James Sanders, who teaches at Kipp San Francisco Bay Academy, makes the analogy of the cell phone as a tool being used in a modern-day shop class: It makes things a lot easier.

Though every student in his history class has a Google Chromebook, only 60 percent have what he calls “smarter” phones, and many have iPod Touches. So he has students work in groups of three or four.

Using Socrative, an app that shows real-time poll results for both multiple-choice and short-answer quizzes, he challenges his students at the end of class to answer specific questions in order to get a broad look at whether they understood the concepts discussed that day.

But with subjective topics like world history, and a challenge like “Write one or two sentences why the Aztec Empire fell,” how can students convey a deep, meaningful understanding in just a couple of sentences?

“Writing concise paragraphs explaining complex concepts is incredibly powerful,” Sanders says, adding that the class also works on research papers and projects around historical characters in addition to these short polls.

The tool also allows students to read each others’ responses, which allows for a “deeper level of analysis,” he says. “I can ask them to write their answers on paper, submit it, review it myself, and then choose one or two to highlight in class, but the idea of having these tools is that it augments our skills as teachers. To be able to ask a question of 30 students and get response instantaneously just speeds up the learning process, rather than waiting for individual students to respond.”


But for every teacher who’s able to seamlessly integrate cell phones and other mobile devices, there’s another who doesn’t see the transformation as easily. Paul Barnwell, who now teaches English and digital media at Fern Creek Traditional High School in Louisville, Kentucky, decided to stop using cell phones in class after giving it a go with an eighth-grade class.

Barnwell bucked the school’s policy and used Poll Everywhere for both multiple-choice and open-ended exit poll questions. About three-quarters of the students had cell phones at the time.

“The kids were pumped up to use their taboo devices,” he says. “After a few trials, they quickly understood how to submit their answers, and the engagement factor was high since their responses popped up onto the projected screen.”

But he was uneasy with excluding those who didn’t have a phone or the ability to text. And, he said, some of the “class clowns” took advantage of the anonymity of the polling to text inappropriate statements.

“I decided it wasn’t worth the time or the hassle,” he says.

Barnwell doesn’t like the idea of letting students Tweet information to a common address and hasn’t found an application that “promotes efficient ‘best practice’ yet. “But I’m also not seeking it out,” he says, adding that because he’s got 10 desktop computers in his current class, students can use them for research projects and looking up facts online.

Barnwell hasn’t given up completely on cell phones, though. “If I can plan a lesson to ensure that high-level thinking is encouraged and greater participation, I might try phones again,” he says. “As far as polling and other simple uses, I see little benefit at this point. I can’t stand how most teenagers thoughtlessly and even belligerently use Twitter.”


It’s not uncommon for kids to use cell phones for inappropriate behavior at school. But some believe that when students misuse the devices at school, teachers must step in.

“It’s our responsibility as educators to teach kids how to interact with the world,” Sanders says. “Those interpersonal human conversations are incredibly valuable.”

At Sacred Heart, where Ramsey Musallam teaches, the school’s cell phone policy is shifting, as they try to sort out their social policies.

“Right now, kids can’t use cell phones unless a teacher instructs them, but that’s evolving,” says principal Gary Cannon. But if kids are using them to take pictures, they’re not reprimanded by faculty.

The staff fully recognizes that the cell phone is just a tool. Twitter and texting are just tools used to say or do what might happen in the hallways and dining halls regardless.

“The challenge is giving them a sense of a digital footprint,” Cannon says.

For Musallam, that’s all part of how he sees his job as an educator.

“I’m here to serve my students,” he says. “If we can leverage cell phones in a way that’s meaningful, I’m going to do it.”

More College Students Battle Hunger As Education And Living Costs Rise

More College Students Battle Hunger
As Education And Living Costs Rise

by Tara Bahrampour

When Paul Vaughn, an economics major, was in his third year at George Mason University, he decided to save money by moving off campus. He figured that skipping the basic campus meal plan, which costs $1,575 for 10 meals a week each semester, and buying his own food would make life easier.

But he had trouble affording the $50 a week he had budgeted for food and ended up having to get two jobs to pay for it. “Almost as bad as the hunger itself is the stress that you’re going to be hungry,” said Vaughn, 22, now in his fifth year at GMU. “I spend more time thinking ‘How am I going to make some money so I can go eat?’ and I focus on that when I should be doing homework or studying for a test.”

A problem known as “food insecurity” — a lack of nutritional food — is not typically associated with U.S. college students. But it is increasingly on the radar of administrators, who report seeing more hungry students, especially at schools that enroll a high percentage of youths who are from low-income families or are the first generation to attend college.

At the same time that higher education is seen as key to financial security, tuition and living expenses are rising astronomically, making it all the more tempting for students to cut corners on food.

“Between paying rent, paying utilities and then trying to buy food, that’s where we see the most insecurity because that’s the most flexible,” said Monica Gray, director of programs at the College Success Foundation-District of Columbia, which helps low-income high school students go to college.

As campuses look for solutions, the number of university food pantries has shot up, from four in 2008 to 121 today, according to the Michigan State University Student Food Bank, which has advised other campuses on starting them. Trinity Washington University in the District opened one in September, and the University of Maryland at College Park is looking into opening one.

In the fall, GMU started a voucher program, using donations from the campus food service and others, to provide food coupons to needy students. And this year, Feeding America, a national hunger-relief charity, will for the first time include in its quadrennial survey a breakdown of college students seeking food assistance.

Although there are no comprehensive nationwide surveys of student hunger, experts said, there is evidence that it is rising and may be much higher than the national average for all age groups.

A University of Oregon survey this year found that 59 percent of students at Western Oregon University had recently experienced food insecurity. The figure was 21 percent in a 2009 report on students at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 14.5 percent of U.S. households fall into that category, which is associated with lower academic achievement.

“Campuses across the country are starting to realize that there is that sector of people who don’t know where their next meal is coming from,” said Nate Smith-Tyge, director of the MSU Student Food Bank. “It’s not only a moral issue but also a curricular and academic issue.”

At College Park, where the most common meal plan costs $2,065 a semester, campus dietitian Jane Jakubczak has in the past two years seen a sharp rise in students who can’t afford proper nutrition — a shift she attributes to changing demographics.

“In the past, not everyone went to college,” she said. “Now our society is realizing that a college degree is really essential in terms of getting anywhere in your career. . . . A few have mentioned that they’re the first generation going to college, and that, mixed with the economy, I think it may just be that perfect storm of what’s going on.”

Difficulties of budgeting

When students try to save by living off campus and eschewing the meal plan, they often find that budgeting for food can be difficult.

“If you have only $10 a day, how do you keep within that budget and make sure you’re getting your nutritional needs met?” asked Karen Gerlach, vice president for student affairs at Trinity, where an increasing number of students come from low-income households and some also support families.

Sometimes, Gerlach said, “it is a choice between whether they buy a book for class or they put food on the table for their family.”

Full-time students generally do not qualify for food stamps unless they are the sole supporters of a child younger than 12, said Alex Ashbrook, director of D.C. Hunger Solutions, an organization that seeks to reduce hunger among District residents.

“A lot of people tend to think that when you go to college you’re on the meal plan or the university is taking care of you, but for millions of students attending college, that is not the case . . . and with groceries rising and D.C. being a particularly expensive city, you’ll see that magnified,” she said.

Stigmas about seeking help

Sometimes students don’t know about campus programs that offer help. But many are also reluctant to ask.

“We’ve had kids who’ve called us and said, ‘I haven’t eaten for two days,’ ” Gray said. “Often they’re pretty humiliated because it’s not an ask they want to make. It’s easier to talk about the cost of books or tuition.”

Joe Bradley, 22, another GMU student, couldn’t ask his parents for help. He moved out of his family’s house after a fight with his father and spent a semester homeless and hungry while eating friends’ leftovers and trying to keep up with school.

“Going to sleep hungry, it’s kind of a lonely feeling,” he said. “I felt weak a lot.” He eventually dropped out and now lives with his brother in Nevada.

Counting hungry students is hard because the issue is often shrouded in shame. On a Facebook page called GMU Confessions, an 18-year-old student with three part-time jobs confided anonymously last month that “I send my parents 50 dollars every month just so that they can manage to buy groceries, I have a 5 meal per week plan and I’m like REALLY REALLY hungry all the time.”

The student said she was considering suicide, prompting other students to offer her meals from their plans. Yara Mowafy, a senior there, said she had tried a couple of years ago to start a program that would redistribute unused meals from student plans to needy students, but the university had told her that it did not have the budget for it.

Instead, she and another student founded the voucher program, which has helped 12 students, with four or five more showing interest. “We expect more are out there,” Mowafy said, adding that the program is planning an ad campaign to spread awareness.

But the stigma remains. A 21-year-old student from Gray’s program who graduated from Ballou High School and is studying visual arts and graphic design at Penn State thought he would save money by moving off campus his junior year.

He works at Home Depot and cooks at home, with a grocery budget of $100 every three to four weeks. “Right now, I don’t have enough food in my house till the next paycheck,” he said.

His best friend sometimes treats him to meals, and when he is desperate, he borrows from relatives. But as the first in his family on track to graduate from college, he doesn’t like to ask.

“I like to provide for myself,” he said. “It’s the worst feeling you can think of to ask for somebody’s help in your time of struggle.”

Instead, he said, he plans to move back on campus next year.