Teaching Kids to Think

Teaching Kids to Think

by Glen Lineberry

Learning to Work = Learning to Think = Learning to Learn

I’m writing from the Arizona CTE Summer Conference in Tucson, where for the last week hundreds of Arizona teachers have been meeting and training and planning. CTE is Career and Technical Education, everything from what we called home economics and vocational training when I was in high school, to programs like nursing and robotics and cloud computing.

Here’s the kicker: CTE students across the state perform better on NCLB-mandated standardized tests, graduate at higher rates, and have a better chance of sticking it out at college than other high school graduates, including those in college-prep courses of study. And on top of all that, they graduate employable at a viable trade.

A caveat, for any budding Nate Silvers out there, I’m not claiming causality; I’m not saying that completing a multi-year CTE program is the sole reason these kids do better on AIMS (Arizona’s response to No Child Left Behind) and better at college. But the correlation is undeniable, and I’ll take anything that correlates to improved student performance and to increasing our students’ success once they leave high school.

Why do these kids do better? Some of the success is undoubtedly attributable to the fact that they’ve learned one thing well, so they’re open to learning more things. We’re all like this, if we feel pretty self-confident about something — our job performance, our karaoke talent, a compendious knowledge of cocktail recipes — then we feel okay about ourselves, and we’re ready to learn new things from other people. It’s only when we’re in a situation that makes us feel completely ignorant — imagine the architecture talk I once attended, even got there early to get a good seat, only to find out the lecture was in French — do we get shot down.

Apply this to students sitting in a high school class. A student who hasn’t done well over the years, who is several grades behind in reading or math ability, is expected to sit attentively through a class he doesn’t understand. Suppose you never quite got math, never developed an easy facility with the times tables, so the idea of variables, that “x” can be a number, isn’t something you mastered. Now imagine sitting through a semester of Algebra II — you’re just like me in that French architecture talk. You not only get nothing out of the class, you probably end up being a distraction for the other students — trust a teacher, teenagers can literally hear another student rolling her eyes.

But here’s the real reason CTE kids outperform their peers, and why we need to support and expand these programs. CTE students learn to think, and to apply knowledge to new situations. They apply basic skills in increasingly complex situations — getting the various items in a catering project to come out of the oven at the same time; by process of elimination, tracking down a glitch in a car engine or computer program; they recombine learned processes and thinking to provide emergency medical care to an accident victim — so that acquired knowledge builds toward expertise.

This is more than just academic success, though it counts as that, too. It’s way more than diagramming a sentence, or explaining how Santa Anna totally blew the Texas question. This is real-world knowledge, knowledge that makes these students better at the particular skill, and better potential employees and citizens.

And it’s where we’re headed on the academic side. Common Core Standards are all the rage, with the whole country headed to a set of national academic standards stressing higher-order thinking and problem solving. CTE is showing us the way.

So the next time you meet a teacher, thank them for their work, and for their willingness to do the work for so little pay.

But if the teacher you meet is CTE, is teaching the children in your community how to be better members of the society, listen respectfully to what they have to say, because you’ve just met someone who might just know how to get us where we need to go.

Advertisements

The Trouble With Online Education

The Trouble With Online Education

by Mark Edmundson

“AH, you’re a professor. You must learn so much from your students.”

This line, which I’ve heard in various forms, always makes me cringe. Do people think that lawyers learn a lot about the law from their clients? That patients teach doctors much of what they know about medicine?

Yet latent in the sentiment that our students are our teachers is an important truth. We do in fact need to learn from them, but not about the history of the Roman Empire or the politics of “Paradise Lost.” Understanding what it is that students have to teach teachers can help us to deal with one of the most vexing issues now facing colleges and universities: online education. At my school, the University of Virginia, that issue did more than vex us; it came close to tearing the university apart.

A few weeks ago our president, Teresa A. Sullivan, was summarily dismissed and then summarily reinstated by the university’s board of visitors. One reason for her dismissal was the perception that she was not moving forward fast enough on Internet learning. Stanford was doing it, Harvard, Yale and M.I.T. too. But Virginia, it seemed, was lagging. Just this week, in fact, it was announced that Virginia, along with a number of other universities, signed on with a company called Coursera to develop and offer online classes.

But can online education ever be education of the very best sort?

It’s here that the notion of students teaching teachers is illuminating. As a friend and fellow professor said to me: “You don’t just teach students, you have to learn ’em too.” It took a minute — it sounded like he was channeling Huck Finn — but I figured it out.

With every class we teach, we need to learn who the people in front of us are. We need to know where they are intellectually, who they are as people and what we can do to help them grow. Teaching, even when you have a group of a hundred students on hand, is a matter of dialogue.

In the summer Shakespeare course I’m teaching now, I’m constantly working to figure out what my students are able to do and how they can develop. Can they grasp the contours of Shakespeare’s plots? If not, it’s worth adding a well-made film version of the next play to the syllabus. Is the language hard for them, line to line? Then we have to spend more time going over individual speeches word by word. Are they adept at understanding the plot and the language? Time to introduce them to the complexities of Shakespeare’s rendering of character.

Every memorable class is a bit like a jazz composition. There is the basic melody that you work with. It is defined by the syllabus. But there is also a considerable measure of improvisation against that disciplining background.

Something similar applies even to larger courses. We tend to think that the spellbinding lecturers we had in college survey classes were gifted actors who could strut and fret 50 amazing minutes on the stage. But I think that the best of those lecturers are highly adept at reading their audiences. They use practical means to do this — tests and quizzes, papers and evaluations. But they also deploy something tantamount to artistry. They are superb at sensing the mood of a room. They have a sort of pedagogical sixth sense. They feel it when the class is engaged and when it slips off. And they do something about it. Their every joke is a sounding. It’s a way of discerning who is out there on a given day.

A large lecture class can also create genuine intellectual community. Students will always be running across others who are also enrolled, and they’ll break the ice with a chat about it and maybe they’ll go on from there. When a teacher hears a student say, “My friends and I are always arguing about your class,” he knows he’s doing something right. From there he folds what he has learned into his teaching, adjusting his course in a fluid and immediate way that the Internet professor cannot easily match.

Online education is a one-size-fits-all endeavor. It tends to be a monologue and not a real dialogue. The Internet teacher, even one who responds to students via e-mail, can never have the immediacy of contact that the teacher on the scene can, with his sensitivity to unspoken moods and enthusiasms. This is particularly true of online courses for which the lectures are already filmed and in the can. It doesn’t matter who is sitting out there on the Internet watching; the course is what it is.

Not long ago I watched a pre-filmed online course from Yale about the New Testament. It was a very good course. The instructor was hyper-intelligent, learned and splendidly articulate. But the course wasn’t great and could never have been. There were Yale students on hand for the filming, but the class seemed addressed to no one in particular. It had an anonymous quality. In fact there was nothing you could get from that course that you couldn’t get from a good book on the subject.

A truly memorable college class, even a large one, is a collaboration between teacher and students. It’s a one-time-only event. Learning at its best is a collective enterprise, something we’ve known since Socrates. You can get knowledge from an Internet course if you’re highly motivated to learn. But in real courses the students and teachers come together and create an immediate and vital community of learning. A real course creates intellectual joy, at least in some. I don’t think an Internet course ever will. Internet learning promises to make intellectual life more sterile and abstract than it already is — and also, for teachers and for students alike, far more lonely.

Listen to the Teacher

Listen to the Teacher

by Kurt Wootton

During the Great Depression Myles Horton and a group of committed educators founded Highlander Folk School. Based on Dutch models of adult education centers, Horton built the school to provide a place where adults who shared a common cause could meet to hash out their ideas regarding how to better organize to promote social change. The first groups to gather at Highlander were workers and labor leaders who organized unions in the South. Later, the school would serve as a fulcrum for the civil rights movement by helping to inspire Citizenship Schools. Teachers from the black communities ran the schools themselves, focusing on teaching the basic skills of reading and writing necessary at the time for voter registration. In Frank Adam’s history of Highlander he explains, “From two words — ought and is — arises the tension out of which people will learn and act.”

Today’s school reform movement is a battle over the “is” and the “ought.” Perhaps it’s not too hard to agree on the “is” — problems we are facing in our public schools, particularly when it comes to equal opportunities for all of our nation’s youth — but what seems to be most debated is what ought to be: what are the goals of school reform and how might we reach these goals?

Unfortunately in reaching for solutions, we have silenced the voices of those who matter most. We are seeing across the United States — and in many countries around the world — the disenfranchisement of our teachers. Education policy makers at every level — city, state, and federal — have become an oligarchy that ascribes to a few common principles:

1) a school’s success or failure is determined by students’ performance on standardized tests; 2) it is the fault of teachers when students perform poorly on these tests; 3) if students do not rapidly improve, schools and individual teachers need to be held accountable; 4) accountability, by federal mandate, might involve the state taking over the school and firing all the administrators and teachers, thus “reforming” the school from the bottom up.

Such measures are often justified by policy makers with statements such as “we’re doing what’s best for the students.” However, what they often don’t take into account is the fragility of the overall school community, made up certainly of students, but also of teachers, parents, community partners, school staff, and administrators. Education relies on the day-to-day interaction among real people in a shared space. We cannot impose a rigid set of expectations and then believe that our teachers will be able to teach thoughtfully and creatively.

School principal and education writer Debbie Meier describes the critical relationship that exists between the world of the teachers and the world of the students:

Students learn a lot from the company they keep — including the intellectual habits of their teachers. We’re never going to get kids to approach science or literature thoughtfully if their own teachers do not have the space or time for thoughtfulness, much less permission to practice it. Adults need to model the habits of mind they want their students to adopt — good judgment, the exercise of reason, respect for differences, a willingness to try new things, and the courage to ask hard questions. But teachers who are “just following orders” — implementing a one-size-fits-all program in accordance with an experimental protocol — are not helping their students learn these lessons.

The National Research Council of the National Academies of Science recently reported that the most important skills students need in the 21st century workforce fall into three categories: cognitive skills, interpersonal skills, and intrapersonal skills. Two of these categories emphasize our ability to relate with others and our capacity for self-reflection and improvement. A system that views its teachers like cogs in a machine is not one that is likely to foster these skill sets at any level.

Through our top-down mandates and ubiquitous talk of “accountability,” we are discouraging teachers from fostering creativity and innovation in their own classrooms. Lately, I was having dinner with a teacher at a high school that fired all its teachers and then was “reconstituted,” to use the Department of Education’s term. I remember walking down the hallways of this urban school many years ago and feeling such a strong sense of community and warmth. I asked him if the school still felt like this after the draconian changes. The teacher responded, “I’ll tell you the truth Kurt, the school has lost its sense of humanity.”

Yes, we do have a great deal of work to do, particularly around providing equal educational opportunities for students in all of our public schools. In the tradition of Highlander, we must take a critical look at the “is” and find ways to reach the “ought.” Also like Highlander we must arrive at solutions by honoring the intelligence, creativity, and the on-the-ground knowledge of the dedicated teachers in our nation’s schools. Perhaps by working alongside rather than against teachers, we can shift the educational climate back to a place where the very humanity of the student and the teacher are valued again.

The Art of Innovation

The Art of Innovation

by Walter E. Massey, Ph.D.

Recently I delivered the closing keynote address at the Committee on Institutional Cooperation’s Global University Summit to a group of higher education leaders from around the world on the topic of innovation — or more specifically, “developing talent to drive innovation in a global society.” The audience consisted of presidents, chancellors, and provosts of major research universities from around the world. As president of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), I was the lone representative from an art and design school, so I took the opportunity to share what institutions like mine can contribute to global innovation.

As a longtime cultural enthusiast, yet somewhat new president of a school of art and design, I have a newfound appreciation for the importance of the kind of education offered by these schools. Subsequently, my views on what drives innovation in society have broadened as a result of being in this new world. As a physicist and erstwhile “science guy,” I have honed my views on innovation through the lens of science and technology — and the established and almost canonical scientific paradigm.

An oversimplification of that paradigm goes like this: basic research uncovers new insights and understandings leading to engineering and new products, devices, and methodologies, which then spawns new innovative enterprises.

This paradigm was promoted by Vannevar Bush, which led to the founding of the National Science Foundation in the U.S. His seminal report, “The Endless Frontier,” made the case for government support of fundamental research because that underlying research would lead to new intellectual frontiers, which would lead to economic development. This paradigm has worked and in many ways is still valid.

However, a closer examination of the innovative process reveals it is not that simple or straightforward. We certainly need more scientists, engineers, and mathematicians, but we may have been missing an opportunity by not more effectively engaging in the innovative process one of the most creative groups in our society — artists and designers.

At SAIC, our curriculum is based on an interdisciplinary approach to art, design, and innovation. Sculpture students take writing classes; writing students study designed objects; design students enroll in art history classes; and art history students use the wood and metal shops.

Our students have the freedom to design their own pathways. They move freely among disciplines to integrate content and technique. They cut across boundaries. They create hybrid practices, and they explore all aspects of their creativity in order to address complex issues. Students at many other art and design schools have similar experiences. This kind of education is exactly what is needed to develop the talented individuals who will drive innovation in society — the kind of people that columnist David Brooks described in a recent New York Times editorial entitled “The Creative Monopoly.”

In that article Brooks discusses how we live in a culture that nurtures competitive skills, such as rigor, reliability, and discipline. All necessary, but these skills need to be supplemented with traits such as alertness, independence, and the ability to reclaim forgotten traditions. He argues, “Creative people don’t follow the crowds. They seek out the blank spots on the map. Creative people wander through faraway and forgotten traditions and then integrate marginal perspectives back to the mainstream. Instead of being fastest around the tracks everybody knows, creative people move adaptively through the wildernesses nobody knows.” In other words, they innovate.

We have a laboratory at SAIC called Knowledge Lab. This is a place where students and faculty collaborate around the topics and processes of knowledge, innovation, and research. They collectively identify important subjects — such as energy, waste, or urban agriculture — undertake in-depth research, and formulate interdisciplinary projects aimed at the production of new knowledge, which can make a meaningful contribution to understanding these issues.

This knowledge leads to socially responsible individuals who will have an impact on society — individuals like SAIC alumna Emily Pilloton (MFA 2005). A designer, builder, and high school educator based in North Carolina, Emily founded the nonprofit design firm Project H to use creative capital to improve communities and public education from the inside out. She also set up Studio H, a one-year program that teaches design thinking and vocational construction skills within the public school system. Over the course of one year, Emily’s high school students earn 17 college credits in a studio environment, and earn summer wages to build the architectural community project they have spent the school year designing.

Alumni like Emily reinforce the fact that all over the world, artists and designers are engaging with timely issues and working with unexpected communities in innovative ways. Whether the issue is sustainability, public education, or social justice, artists and designers engage, adapt, reimagine, and continue to move the definition of innovation forward.

As Congress Fiddles, Students and Schools Do a Slow Burn

As Congress Fiddles, Students and Schools Do a Slow Burn

by Dennis Van Roekel

The NEA convention always inspires me, and the meeting this year was no exception. Everyone in attendance could sense our members’ passion for public education, and our willingness to take charge of our professions in order to help students achieve.

After all, that’s why we became educators. We’re here to help students, not wage political battles. Yet sometimes those battles are necessary — and this is one of those times. The outcome of the 2012 elections will greatly influence our ability to help students. And there’s no better example than the issue of taxes, which has been in the news lately.

President Obama has proposed ending the Bush tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans — those with annual incomes above $250,000. He also wants to extend tax cuts for the middle class, which will expire at the end of the year if no action is taken.

This is the right path to rebuild our economy. The wealthiest Americans need to pay their fair share so our nation can invest in public education and other important programs. And our economy, while growing, is still fragile. This is no time for a tax hike on the middle class.

Unfortunately, Mitt Romney and the Republican leaders in Congress are refusing to compromise on this critical issue. Their “politics of obstruction” would hold middle class families hostage and threaten our entire economy.

The urgency cannot be overstated. If Congress fails to take action this year, our federal budget faces automatic cuts that will devastate public education. According to an analysis by NEA, federal education funding would drop to levels not seen in a decade, even though our public schools now serve 5.4 million more students than they did 10 years ago.

From pre-K to higher education, nearly all federal education programs would be slashed, including Title I, IDEA, after-school programs, rural education, English Language Learner grants, and career and technical education.

As educators, we realize how badly these cuts would harm students:

    16 million children living in poverty;
    Students in small, rural communities;
    Children attending Head Start programs;
    College students who help meet expenses through work study.

It is shameful and outrageous to try to balance the federal budget on the backs of our youth. Our greatest resource is the ingenuity and creativity of the American people — but that resource will be squandered if we fail to give our children a quality education.

I am excited about putting the strength of our three million members to work for the benefit of students. In order to have that opportunity, however, we must work to elect candidates — at the local, state and national levels — who will stand up for public education at this critical time.

Our children deserve policymakers who are committed to adequate resources, enlightened education policies, and building a better, stronger future for our public schools and universities.

What Happened to the Astronauts-to-Be?

What Happened to the Astronauts-to-Be?

by Hali Felt

I.

In December of 1942 an English, music and philosophy major named Marie Tharp took a big risk. At the time she was a student at Ohio University, and she’d seen a flier for the University of Michigan’s accelerated wartime geology program hanging outside of her adviser’s office. “It only takes two years,” this adviser told her when she asked about the program, “you don’t like it, you can do something else.” With his support and that of her father, Tharp decided to graduate early. In January of 1943 she stepped off a train in Ann Arbor, into a snowstorm so thick she couldn’t see the ground in front of her.

By 1945 Tharp collected her master’s degree in geology and was working for an oil company in Oklahoma. By 1946 she was bored and had started attending night school to earn a degree in math; by 1948 she had moved to New York and convinced the director of the newly-formed geophysical lab at Columbia University to hire her as a research assistant. And, in the nearly 30 years that followed, she created maps of the entire ocean floor, sketching the 70 percent of the Earth’s surface that had been invisible until she came along, sparking a scientific revolution with her discoveries.

II.

During my childhood, when a newly-introduced adult asked a bunch of kids what we wanted to be when we grew up, we would belt out a string of professions that sounded perfectly reasonable to us — Astronaut! Artist! Archaeologist! — but outlandish to the adult. We would be met with the oh-aren’t-you-precocious smile. I don’t find myself crossing paths with many small children these days, but I know this interaction still happens: the students at the large research university where I teach write about it — unprompted — again and again. It’s a shared experience, this moment when a child realizes her dreams can be analyzed for feasibility.

Since I started teaching, the number of students who enter my classroom in August undecided about their majors seems to have remained steady. What has changed in the past few years, however, is the number of students who fall into a group that tends to be — how should I put this — very decided. These students don’t just have one major, they have two or three. They don’t want to graduate having devoted four years of their lives only to neuroscience — they want to make sure that their resumes reflect that they were also devoted philosophers and linguists. Some of these students are truly interested in forming interdisciplinary connections. But most of those double and triple majors eventually reveal that their motivations have to do with something much different. They are, they tell me, “being realistic.” “Covering all the bases,” they reply when I ask what exactly that means.

Where are the astronauts, artists and archaeologists? Where does all of their childhood exuberance go?

III.

Think about the stories that reporters, documentary filmmakers and the producers of reality television tell you about how scientists spend their time. Picture the vulcanologist, bracing himself against the rugged slope of some volcano in South America. Picture the marine biologist swimming with sharks, a beam of sunlight piercing the turquoise water to highlight her valiance. Just think about an expedition — any expedition — scientists spending weeks or months trekking through subzero temperatures in the Antarctic, bushwhacking through dense vegetation and humidity and malarial mosquitoes in the Amazon, coaxing gear-laden Land Rovers across sub-Saharan deserts. And don’t forget the recent developments in white collar citizen science: movie director James Cameron’s solo submarine dive to the Challenger Deep; PayPal co-founder Elon Musk’s recent attempts with SpaceX; and the announcement of a venture by Planetary Resources, a company backed by the billionaire co-founders of Google, to survey and then mine minerals from asteroids orbiting close to Earth.

This is exuberant science. That’s why such stories get communicated to the public. Because they’re exciting, shiny tales, full of exotic locales, cutting edge technology, the bountiful wealth one assumes is funding all of it, and dogged participants who are energetic, extroverted and fearless.

What aren’t these stories? Realistic.

IV.

Marie Tharp didn’t pursue being a scientist until the end of her undergraduate career. Her choice had nothing to do with her gender, for Tharp’s parents always encouraged their daughter’s intellectual pursuits; her soil surveyor father regularly took her out into the field with him to “read nature.” Rather, she focused on the humanities because of something that had happened in middle school, where she’d had a class called Current Science. The stories of enterprising scientists she heard from her teacher in that class were simply too exciting, she told an interviewer late in her life. There couldn’t, she remembered her younger self thinking, possibly be anything left for her to discover.

But several things happened as Marie Tharp grew older, things that don’t seem to have taken place for the children currently growing into young adults. Recall the words of Tharp’s adviser, encouraging her to go to Michigan’s graduate geology program: you don’t like it, you can do something else. Think about her scientist father, who had taken her out into the field with him to model for her his daily work, encouraging her to pursue a career in a field that only a handful of women had entered.

No one, in other words, ever encouraged her to be realistic.

V.

The average American young person has grown up seeing the oh-aren’t-you-precocious smile in response to her exuberant childhood career aspirations. She has grown up during a major economic recession, has perhaps seen her parents lose their jobs and struggle to pay the mortgage. Maybe she sees herself as the source of financial hope for her family because she can go out and get an education and leverage that education into a job that’s well-paying enough to keep her parents afloat.

When this young woman is confronted by narratives of swashbuckling scientists, she does not see herself. She sees exuberance, but knows that exuberance is unrealistic. She needs encouragement to take risks, but has learned that risks are a luxury. If only she could see the bigger picture, the grand outline of how the scientist got from point A to point B, life and work intertwined, got to hear the details of the struggles and failures. If only she knew that Marie Tharp attended almost 20 schools before graduating from high school, that her mother died when she was 15, that it took her until the end of college to find the right path, that she had a soft high voice but used it to be assertive anyway. Maybe then this young woman could imagine herself as a scientist, and that would be encouragement enough: confidence to hold out for the unrealistic.

The American Myth of Social Mobility

The American Myth of Social Mobility

by Howard Steven Friedman

We Americans cherish our national legends about the “American dream” and have always perceived that our country, the land of opportunity, allows for greater mobility than the countries of Europe and Asia, with their feudal histories and perceived rigid class structures. This belief in the “American dream” is evidenced by surveys showing that Americans have a greater faith in their country being a meritocracy than citizens of nearly every other country on earth.

Regardless of political philosophy, few would argue that a society with little social mobility is a good thing. Societies in which there is little opportunity for social mobility will lack incentives for people to strive. Those born in lower socioeconomic classes will be resigned to their station in life, a self-destructive pattern that all countries seek to avoid. Countries that generate opportunities for all of their citizens to succeed will maximize the talent pool of their population, while countries that fail to do so will fall behind, relying on the talents of only the privileged few.

Measuring social mobility usually involves examining the relationship between the income of one generation and that of the following generation. We expect there to be some correlation between the incomes of the two generations; after all, it is reasonable to assume that wealthier parents provide not only material assets to the next generation but also attributes that may aid their wealth generation. Wealthier parents are typically more educated, are able to invest in their children’s development, and tend to entertain higher expectations that their children will gain success.

The quantitative expression of this mobility measures how much the variability of a son’s income can be explained by the father’s. If the father’s income can be used effectively to predict the son’s income, then that would suggest that there is little mobility: Richer fathers would have richer sons, and poorer fathers would have poorer sons. Alternatively, if there is no relationship between the father’s income and the son’s income, this would suggest perfect mobility — i.e., the chances of a son having a high income would be independent of the father’s income.

Cross country comparisons have been performed for a number of years using different measures where the countries included Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Sweden and United States. The studies have examined income mobility elasticity (the percentage of increase in a son’s income associated with a 1 percent increase in the father’s income), correlations between income of two generations as well as examining the probability of someone born in one income level moving to another. All of these studies have drawn the same conclusion, that the United States has lower, not higher, mobility than other wealthy countries. For example, in the studies on income mobility elasticity, it was seen that an American man’s income is nearly twice as reliant on his father’s background as a Canadian man’s.

One interesting study examined the probability that a son will remain in his father’s income quintile, where a quintile represents one-fifth of the population ranked from lowest to highest income. In that study of six countries (Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway, the United Kingdom, and the United States), the data demonstrate that 42 percent of the American sons of fathers born in the poorest quintile landed in the poorest quintile themselves. This rate of the persistence of poverty was far higher than the 30 percent found in the United Kingdom and well above the 25 percent to 28 percent range found in Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and Norway.

This same study on income quintiles examined what might be called the rags-to-riches version of mobility, looking at the percentage of sons born to fathers in the poorest quintile who ended up in the wealthiest quintile. The U.S. rate was 7.9 percent, far lower than that of the other countries, where rates ranged from 10.9 percent to 14.4 percent. Some of this measured immobility may derive from America’s striking income inequality; that is, an American born into the poorest quintile has farther to travel to reach the highest quintile than those in countries with greater income equality.

Overall, these statistics are very depressing for those who subscribe to the notion that America is a meritocracy and a “land of opportunity.” We see that there is far less social mobility in the United States than in other countries and other studies have shown clearly that this mobility is declining.

Many cite education as the key to socioeconomic mobility, and here the inequalities in the American educational system clearly play a role. For example, the United States Department of Education has shown that the highest performing eighth graders from low socioeconomic backgrounds have about the same chance of completing a bachelors degree as the lowest performing eighth graders from high socioeconomic backgrounds. Translation: When it comes to higher education, the amount of money your parents have is much more critical than academic potential, and higher education is a key to socioeconomic mobility. But the inequalities of opportunity start far earlier than the eighth grade. Children from lower income families are about 20 percent less likely to attend pre-primary school than those from middle income families.

Education makes a difference, as the facts make clear. Of the adults who grew up in low-income families but earned college degrees, only 16 percent stayed in the lowest income quintile. Of the adults who started in the lowest income quintile and failed to earn a college degree, 46 percent stayed there. End inequality in education, and we strike a blow for social mobility — although persistent disparities in income by race and gender still need to be addressed.

Clearly, these data fly in the face of the American dream — the idea that you can be anything you want to be if you just work at it. Rather, they point to a rigid and entrenched structure of wealth at odds with our American sense of this being the land of opportunity.

Note: Many of the studies on income mobility examine the relationship between a son’s income to that of his father, rather than looking at female incomes so as to avoid combining gender bias issues into the analysis.

This article is based on excerpts from the recently released book The Measure of a Nation: How to Regain America’s Competitive Edge and Boost Our Global Standing

A key goal in ‘Measure of a Nation’ is to compare the United States to other wealthy countries, with the idea being to identify which countries are performing the best in each area of interest: health, safety, democracy, education and equality. In each of those areas, the countries that are performing the best are examined to determine which best practices might be applied here in America. Leading countries were labeled Stars and lagging countries were labeled Dogs.

In order to do this analysis, we selected the subset of countries that are both wealthy (nominal GDP per capita over $20,000) and have a population greater than 10 million (upper third of national populations, no city-state countries) as a comparison group. This comparison group consists of 14 countries: Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Japan, Portugal, The Netherlands, South Korea, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Kids Cheat Just Like Their Business Role Models Do

Kids Cheat Just Like Their Business Role Models Do

by Susan Antilla

A friend wrote me last week to say how troubled she was by this stunner from her 19-year-old: The freshman at a private liberal-arts college told her mom that cheating on exams was standard operating procedure at school, and that she fully expected that cheating would be an everyday thing once she got into the workplace, too.

“To really get ahead, and get what you want in the business world, it is absolutely necessary to cheat,” the student told her horrified mother. Forgo a chance to cheat and you’re foolishly transferring a perfectly good opportunity to some other cheater who will reap the benefits, she said.

Though she’s years from gainful employment, the young woman has something in common with lots of people already securing a paycheck in the job world.

In a survey of 500 financial professionals in the United States and the United Kingdom released Monday, one-quarter said they believed “that the rules may have to be broken in order to be successful.” Asked whether they thought their competitors would break the law to get ahead, nearly 40 percent in the survey sponsored by New York law firm Labaton Sucharow said yes.

Though it’s tempting to minimize these dysfunctional ethics as just a sleazy financial industry thing, the problem, of course, infects business on Wall Street and off. In January, the not-for-profit Ethics Research Center said that 13 percent of the 4,600 employees it surveyed across a range of industries last September perceived pressure to compromise standards at their jobs. That was a five percentage-point increase from 2010. Don’t expect any miraculous turnaround. Boding poorly for the future is that more employees are reporting retaliation after they speak up, and thus are increasingly afraid to expose unscrupulous practices.

So when you think about it, no mom or dad should be shocked that young people look upon dishonesty as a tool in a go-getter’s quest for success.

And parents themselves play a part in the messages they send about attaining goals at any cost. New York City officials said Monday that 70 students at Stuyvesant High School had been involved in a cheating scheme last month. During a foreign-language exam on June 18, the principal confiscated a cell-phone from a student who was texting messages to fellow students. Using data found on the student’s phone, a subsequent investigation uncovered additional cheating during previous tests, including three Regents exams.

In the ensuing press coverage, much was made of the stressful demands on Stuyvesant teenagers to meet expectations in a school that sends graduates to places like MIT and Brown. “Most of the students come from families where the goal is ‘Ivy League school or bust’; you either go to an Ivy League school or you haven’t lived up to your potential,” one Stuyvesant grad told the New York Times.

Feel sorry for the Stuyvesant kids if you want, but I don’t. At some point, people in charge have to come down hard on cheating, whether it happens in the classroom or in the corner office. Now wouldn’t be a bad time to start.

Sadly, the school hasn’t taken the opportunity to expel the student/cheaters, much the way many businesses let rogues stay in their jobs. Our executives-of-the-future must wonder what planet we’re on when we give those sermons about ethics.

On Long Island last fall, seven high school students — and young people who posed as those students — were arrested. Kids who were trying to get into college paid brainiacs to pose as them and take the SAT and ACT exams. The imposters pocketed between $1,500 and $2,500 apiece for their labors.

Schools try lots of things to keep students on the straight and narrow. Some insist that students sign a promise not to cheat before they begin an exam. Others, like Princeton University, require ethics training before freshmen begin their Fall classes.

Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist at Duke University who recently published The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, says both measures are useful, but that many people need constant prompting to do the right thing. In his experiments, which for the most part use college students, the professor learned that cheating can be so contagious that even subjects who think they are wearing fake designer sunglasses are more inclined to cheat than those who think they’re wearing the real thing. (In fact, in Ariely’s experiment, all were wearing the same glasses.)

He also found that, after he gave some subjects the chance to cheat on a test and exaggerate their results, they quickly persuaded themselves that they’d actually earned the score. It’s hard not to be reminded of the self-puffery we see from some of the more mediocre players in finance.

A policy that solves at least part of the cheating problem can be found on Wall Street, of all places. The brokerage industry has a self-regulatory organization, The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority Inc., that has often been too soft on its members over the years, but does get one thing right. When brokers cheat on a licensing test administered by Finra, they get kicked out of the industry.

Brokers try to challenge that, of course. One guy who impersonated his boss at a Finra exam — the impersonator presumably was the smarter of the two — got caught, and appealed to the regulator that his stressful life had included an abduction by terrorists and the looting of all his assets.

A Finra hearing panel said it was sympathetic to the man’s pressures. But the rules are the rules, Finra said, and the broker was history. CEOs and school principals would do well to be just as uncompromising. Our kids have caught on that anything less is an invitation to game the system.

Teach the Non-Controversy

Teach the Non-Controversy

by David Tallmon

It is an exciting time for physicists. They have experimentally confirmed the existence of the Higgs boson, something postulated decades ago by theoreticians to reconcile seemingly contradictory evidence from previous experiments. The Higgs boson is arguably the most important science discovery of this young century because it helps unify particle physics under what is called the Standard Model by affirming how particles have mass. One important lesson from this discovery is that sometimes it takes decades to produce experiments to support or reject hypotheses.

Another important lesson from this newsworthy event is that it highlights what makes science, science. Namely, that one must posit testable hypotheses to do science. That is, if a question or theory about how the natural world works can be turned into a testable and falsifiable hypothesis, then it is a scientific question. If a question cannot be falsified, or disproved, it is not scientific. Science progresses by transforming raw ideas, however outrageous or iconoclastic, into formal statements that can be tested with results that either support or refute the initial idea.

Although this might seem a trivial point to some, I think we scientists have failed to teach the general public that falsifiable hypotheses lie at the core of science. One of the consequences of this failure is that we continue to waste time debating the role of evolutionary biology in public schools. Every year at least a few state legislatures propose bills to weaken the teaching of evolution in our schools. This year, legislators in Oklahoma, Alabama, Tennessee, and Missouri proposed bills that would weaken the teaching of evolution in public school science courses. There will be more bills elsewhere next year.

Make no mistake, evolution provides the mechanisms by which the simple building blocks of DNA has been assembled into the vast living beauty that surrounds us. It has remained largely unchanged for over 150 years. In fact, discoveries such as DNA (among the most important discoveries of the 20th century) and the development of the field of population genetics have filled-out, refined, and strengthened Darwin’s initial idea of evolution by natural selection (among the most brilliant insights of the 19th century).

Just as physics is integral to understanding how the physical world works, evolution is integral to understanding the unity and diversity of life forms and how they change over time. Until a better theory comes along, evolution is the Standard Model of biology. It is a falsifiable theory and has withstood repeated rigorous tests. Do you have to understand evolution to be a surgeon? No, just as you do not have to have a deep understanding of physics to fly a plane or know the subtleties of organic chemistry to fill a prescription. But I certainly want my doctors and pilots and pharmacists to understand these fields because they make them better professionals. And for some professions, a profound understanding of these sciences is absolutely necessary. Still, I’d like everybody to have at least an appreciation of these sciences because they make the world a more sensible (and satisfying) place.

Understanding evolution needn’t cause one to abandon one’s god, moral code, or respect for life. Many brilliant scientists have reconciled their spiritual beliefs, however fundamentalist or liberal, with evolutionary theory and have emerged both devout believers and insightful scientists. They seamlessly function in the spiritual and scientific worlds. One of the things I enjoy most as a teacher is seeing my senior biology students have an “aha” moment when they realize how much evolution makes sense as a mechanism to explain the diversity of life, and that they do not have to abandon their morals to appreciate its elegance.

We need to make sure the general public understands that science is about proposing testable mechanisms for how the natural world works. Let us teach evolution (and particle physics) in our science courses. Let us teach religion in our religion courses. Let there be no controversy; they address different topics. Science is a method of learning about the world that need not be threatening. To suggest otherwise is to add sound and fury that divert resources away from learning how the world works. Our students deserve better. Our society deserves better.

12 Ways to Educate Yourself Without College

12 Ways to Educate Yourself Without College

by Blake Boles

It’s popular to criticize college today. No matter which way you look, somebody is writing about a student loan horror story, declining academic standards, disruptive technological change, or the narrow work options available to graduates.

Criticizing is easy, of course. Offering solutions is hard.

The reality is that college fills many valuable roles today. It offers young adults the chance to build hard skills (e.g. writing) and soft skills (e.g. teamwork), be part of an exciting community, live independently, get exposed to new ideas, and signal employers with an (increasingly devalued, but still valuable) college degree. College is pretty much the only place that bundles all these good things into one convenient package deal. That’s why, despite the voluminous criticism, college as we know it won’t disappear anytime soon.

But in an era of skyrocketing tuition fees combined with widespread economic austerity, millions of students will find themselves unable or unwilling to finance the college package deal. Yet they’ll still want, and need, to gain a higher education.

Luckily, higher education doesn’t have to be delivered by a college institution. You can gain skills, community, independence, exposure, and work opportunities by piecing together a self-directed, a la carte curriculum of real-world projects. It’s a like a design-your-own-college-major program — but without college or its inflated costs.

Self-directed learning is one solution to the college debate, and certainly not the only one. But unlike other solutions, you can begin self-directed learning immediately, without spending a ton of money or waiting for policy makers or university administrators to change their ways. And perhaps most importantly, self-directed learning builds serious personal entrepreneurship: an incredibly valuable “soft skill” in an era of rapid economic change.

Here are 12 ways to begin pursuing your own self-directed higher education, right now, without college:

1) Kickstart something. Organize a Kickstarter or IndieGoGo campaign to raise money for one of your creative projects, upcoming trips, or educational ventures. You’ll learn how to develop a product line, manage a budget, and market yourself with social media. Here how to get started.

2) Write for an audience. 19-year-old Jason Lovett publishes short Kindle guidebooks; 20-year-old Weezie Yancey-Siegel interviews people she admires; 24-year-old Cameron Lovejoy shares poetry from his life on the road. No matter how you do it, writing for an audience sharpens your mind and helps you figure out what other people find valuable. (For fastest learning, work with a professional editor and solicit as much reader feedback as you can bear.)

3) Take free or cheap introductory courses in multiple subjects. Introduce yourself to fascinating new ideas, people, and potential career paths using Coursera, The Floating University, Skillshare, Khan Academy, TED talks, DO lectures, Academic Earth, Udemy, or local community college classes.

4) Compose a goal list and share it publicly. Think of this as your self-directed syllabus. Sharing it publicly will help keep you on track, as you’ll feel accountable to the friends and family who read it and get excited about your projects. (Here’s my list.)

5) Recruit a mentorship team. Assemble a small team of trustworthy and knowledgeable people from whom you can seek guidance for your self-directed journey. If possible, include someone who currently works in your field of professional interest. Search Zero Tuition College to find mentors who understand the self-directed path.

6) Develop a hands-on skill. Think: cooking, electrical work, sports instruction, or automotive repair. Such skills aren’t easily offshored or automated and therefore offer an excellent part-time or fall-back work option (as well as much-needed relief from a computer screen). Don’t dismiss such work as intellectually devoid; it’s not.

7) Couchsurf and volunteer your way across a country. International travel can be an incredible learning experience if you take the time to immerse yourself in the local culture. Do this—and save lots of money in the process—with the websites Couchsurfing, HelpX, WWOOF, and WorkAway.

8) Start a tiny business. It doesn’t cost a lot of money to start many types of businesses — perhaps $100 — and you don’t have to think of it as a long-term venture. Whether you succeed or fail, you’ll learn powerful lessons that most colleges can’t teach.

9) Teach. Record a series of instructional videos (they might land you a New York Times piece), offer a free online course, lead a hands-on class, tutor someone, or create a workshop for a conference.

10) Enhance your peer community. Face-to-face community is a vital part of higher education. Without being formally enrolled, you can find community through online interest groups, local events, and workplaces. If you’re seeking a huge concentration of 18- to 25-year-olds, simply move to a college town and join an off-campus student house.

11) Practice, deliberately. “Deliberate practice” (DP) is the psychological process through which people attain deep expertise. Unlike regular practice, DP involves custom-tailored instruction accompanied by immediate, high-quality feedback. You can use DP to become a better violinist, swimmer, artist, or businessperson. But more importantly, you can learn the methodology behind the process and apply it to everyday learning situations. Start here.

12)   Build an online portfolio. Demonstrate your capacities to potential employers by creating a website that tells your story, displays your biggest accomplishments, and highlights the value you’ve created for other people. When someone asks you what you’ve been doing with your time instead of college, point them here. And keep your eyes on Degreed, RadMatter, and Knowit: new ventures that may help you quantify your self-directed learning and enhance your portfolio.

These are just a few ways to start giving yourself a well-rounded higher education without college. Do you have other suggestions? Please share them in the comments below.