Arvind Mahankali Wins The 2013 Scripps National Spelling Bee

Arvind Mahankali Wins The 2013 Scripps National Spelling Bee

By Chris Greenberg

The word that won the 86th Scripps National Spelling Bee was “knaidel.”


Arvind Mahankali correctly spelled that word, meaning “a small mass of leavened dough.”

A 13-year-old from Queens, N.Y., Mahankali was one of 11 spellers to reach the final. Those 11 finalists emerged from 281 contenders. A Scripps veteran, Mahankali finished tied for ninth in 2010, tied for third in 2011 and in third place in 2012, according to ESPN.

“The words were extremely hard and there were actually a lot of the words in the finals — especially the one that eliminated Grace Remmer — that I didn’t know,” a remarkably calm Mahankali told Samantha Ponder on the stage in National Harbor, Md.

According to the official website of the Spelling Bee, the student from Nathaniel Hawthorne Middle School takes home a $30,000 cash prize along with the trophy he lifted above his head on the stage.

Pranav Sivakumar, a 13-year-old who attends Barrington Middle School in Illinois, finished in second place. He was eliminated on the word “cyanophycean.”

Eliminated in consecutive years by words of German origin, Mahankali won the 2013 tournament with the German-derived “knaidel.”

“Well, I thought that the German curse has turned into a German blessing, if you know what I mean,” Mahankali told Ponder, cracking a well-deserved smile.

Students spend year studying Dracula but are tested on Frankenstein instead

Fangs for nothing! Students spend a year studying
Dracula only to find out they should have been reading
Frankenstein two weeks before A-level exam

By John Stevens

For almost the whole  academic year, students at a sixth-form college pored over Bram Stoker’s classic horror story Dracula.

Then two weeks before their A-level English exam, they discovered that they should have been learning Frankenstein.

Their teacher had failed to notice that the syllabus changed at the start of the school year in September.

The teenagers at Newmarket College in Suffolk now face desperately having to cram the right text before the exam on Thursday.

Abbie Stallabrass, 18, said: ‘We just sat there stunned when our teacher told us. Dracula is one of three books we had been studying and it was the one we’d spent the most time on. We are certainly not as confident about the other two.

‘We now have to cram about eight months’ work into ten hours – I can’t believe it.’

College principal Dr Bob Cadwalladr said: ‘I am mortified and very upset for the four students involved and their parents. I have talked to the teacher involved about what happened, and why, and how we can avoid anything like this happening again.

‘We have made formal representation to the exam board for special consideration for the students involved as none of this was their fault. I can only apologise to the students and parents involved.’

The ‘inadequate’ college, which was criticised for poor exam results last summer, was put under Ofsted special measures last month.

It is applying to become an academy. The error was spotted when another teacher looked at next year’s syllabus and saw that the set texts had changed.

Miss Stallabrass added: ‘The teacher was being strangely nice when we went into the classroom.
‘Then she said, “There has been a cock-up and the text you have been studying has not been in the exam”.

‘I was so angry I couldn’t even speak. It makes you worry there are serious problems with communication within the school.

‘We had five hours of tuition on Friday but we’ll never get back to the standard we were at with the other book.’

A spokesman for the exam board AQA said: ‘Boards do change set texts from time to time and we ensure that we let schools know.

‘Where a school has taught the wrong text by mistake, we work with them to find a solution so that students aren’t disadvantaged. In this case, we have made arrangements that students will be able to refer to Dracula in part of their responses and their answers will be marked as normal.’

Dracula was part of the A2 exam, which is studied in the second year of A-levels. It was written in 1897, while Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was published almost 80 years earlier in 1818.

Both texts were included in the post-1800 section of the AQA English Literature A-level Gothic texts exam paper until the beginning of the academic year when Dracula was removed.

The exam blunder comes after English Language and Literature pupils at Sandown Bay Academy on the Isle of Wight were left stumped when no questions about the Harold Pinter play The Caretaker appeared in an AS paper last Friday. It, too, had been removed from the syllabus.

Aren’t Schools for “Square Pegs” Also?

Aren’t Schools for “Square Pegs” Also?

by John Thompson

L. Todd’s Rose’s Square Peg should be required reading for all teachers and school reformers. Rose, who was diagnosed with ADHD, was an impulsive and disruptive high school dropout before he became a neuroscience expert at Harvard. The blurbs on the cover of Square Peg implied it was a “manifesto” for school reforms based on “Big Ideas” and “disruptive innovation,” but it concludes in a balanced analysis of the positive and negative potential of technology.

Overall, I read Square Peg as more of a plea for old-fashioned educational and democratic values, embracing decency, dissent, creative insubordination, humor, and individuality, as well as a respect for science. Perhaps the biggest of its Big Ideas is “a student’s ability to learn depends upon his or her emotional state, which itself depends on context.” It also calls for a parent to help the child learn how to “fail well,” and to “understand his or her variability.”

Being an inner city teacher, I must add one qualification before enthusiastically praising Rose’s call for personalized learning. He tells the story of Ben Foss, who was diagnosed with dyslexia and who is now a disability rights activist. When Foss was a child and sitting in the barber’s chair, his mother respected his desire to not have a haircut, tipped the barber, and left the shop, despite being asked, “you’re going to let a four-year-old tell you what to do?”

I strongly agree with the mother’s answer, “It’s his hair.”

I strongly agree with Foss’s subsequent conclusion that the purpose of education should not be teaching obedience, but that “it’s to help you do what you want.” I strongly disagree with his omission of the other side of the story, however. Education must also teach behaviors that keep each individual from preventing others from becoming what they want to be.

Similarly, I agree with the author’s principal’s actions after Rose punched a high school student who was bullying a friend. The principal gave him a one-day suspension and a discrete “thumbs-up.” Had an inner city principal showed such leniency, though, it would have placed Rose and his friend in danger of retribution and contributed to a dangerous school environment.

That disclaimer aside, let’s get back to the wisdom of Square Peg. Firstly, in contrast with the pseudo-science that informs the data-driven school “reform” movement, it is based on solid scientific methods. In contrast to market-driven “reformers” who want everyone to be on the same page of their standards-driven schemes, Rose benefited from teachers who encouraged dissent. In contrast to corporate reforms that use technological gimmicks, such as bogus “credit recovery” tutorials to “pass students on,” Rose learned the old-fashioned way – by dealing with failure.

It is a sad irony that digital pioneers, who are themselves so creative, have funded “reforms” that have largely imposed educational monocultures, curriculum narrowing, and nonstop test prep on poor schools. (And don’t get me started on the contemporary “teacher quality” movement that seems devoted to banning square pegs from the teaching profession.)

In contrast to the bubble-in accountability movement, which focuses on a narrow part of children’s intellect, Rose focuses on the emotional side of learning. In contrast to “No Excuses!” “reformers” who see stress and punishment as good, Rose acknowledges that a little stress can help a person learn, but that too much stress prevents it. He gives no support to the technocrats who seek to impose the optimal amount of stress on all of our nation’s students and educators.

Among the best successes described in Square Peg are mentorship and positive peer pressure. It also makes the case for high-quality pre-school for inner city kids where teachers learn to speak softly and help children feel secure. Teachers and parents must be trained to create positive feedback loops, but when they don’t work, Rose advises, “try a few ‘random acts of kindness.'” Build on children’s strengths, he advises, but when remediation is necessary, at least help a child break free from one “cognitive unicycle” that keeps sabotaging him or her.

I especially loved Rose’s advice to add “nuance to your curiosity about your child’s behavior. … Ask why he or she behaved that way in that context.” Even better, never punish a child by using his “little islands of competence” [such as basketball] as “bargaining chips.”

Rose does not overreach. He describes the potential of several hybrid learning technologies and the successes of a few charter schools. He also acknowledges Diane Ravitch’s concern that technology will produce schools where, “the poor get computers [and] the rich will get computers and teachers.”

Rose does not pull any punches in criticizing “the million dropout march,” which is public education. But, neither does he resort to the blame game. Consequently, Square Peg reminds me of the great opportunity that was squandered when the contemporary school “reform” sought shortcuts in improving our complex educational system and thus made its command and control features even more brutal.

Rose seems to have the ear of several Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, however, so maybe they will heed his advice regarding our “endless variety of brains.” If they read Square Peg, maybe corporate “reformers” will learn from their mistakes and stop trying to turn public schools into sped-up assembly lines preparing kids to be cogs in a Model T assembly line.

Half of College Grads Are Working Jobs That Don’t Require a Degree

Half of College Grads Are Working Jobs That Don’t Require a Degree

by Susan Adams

As the mother of a child who is finishing his junior year in high school, I am, like many parents in my shoes, in the throws of anxiety about where my son will go to college in 2015. Occasionally, between obsessing about his slipping grades in pre-calculus and Spanish and trying to figure out whether a school like University of Chicago should be on our “target” or “reach” list, I get a fleeting but deep pit in my stomach about a much more serious issue: where, and more importantly if, he will find a job when he finally gets his degree.

Then last week I received a report from consulting firm McKinsey, done together with student website Chegg, which is making that pit in my stomach deeper. In October and November of last year McKinsey surveyed 4,900 former Chegg customers, a mix of young people who went to private, public, vocational and for-profit institutions. The findings are truly sobering. Nearly half of grads from four-year colleges are working in jobs that don’t require a four-year degree. A striking sub-fact: grads from public universities are 11% more likely to feel overqualified than those who went to private schools. I would have thought it would be the other way around.  The study cites a Bureau of Labor Statistics number that underlines the McKinsey findings: 48% of employed U.S. college grads are in jobs that require less than a four-year degree.

Even more chilling than those numbers is a figure I read some time ago that I can’t get out of my head: In 2011, 1.5 million, or 53.6% of college grads under age 25 were out of work or underemployed, according to a 2012 Associated Press story that used an analysis of the U.S. government’s 2011 Current Population Survey data by Northeastern University researchers, plus material from Drexel University economist  Paul Harrington, and analysis from liberal Washington, D.C. think tank, the Economic Policy Institute.

If only my son were a STEM kid, meaning that he were interested in science, technology, engineering or math. The McKinsey study says that 75% of those grads are in jobs requiring a four-year degree. Instead my child will be at the bottom of the bar graph, just two slots up from visual and performing arts, where only 43% are in jobs requiring a four-year degree. He is likely to graduate with a social science degree, where only 54% have jobs that require a four-year diploma.

Another frightening statistic from the McKinsey report: A third of grads don’t feel that college prepared them well for the world of work. Again, the visual and performing arts students are faring the worst: 42% feel that college didn’t prep them for employment, followed closely by social science grads, at 36%.

But thank goodness for one ray of light in this study: 77% of graduates of the top 100 four-year programs (based on the U.S. News and World Report rankings) who worked part-time, did internships or employee mentorships felt prepared for work, compared with 59% who lacked such experience. Still, they may have felt prepared but it’s not clear they got hired. An Accenture poll I wrote about earlier this month shows that while 72% of 2011/2012 grads had done internships, only 42% said the internships led to jobs.

Then comes what may be the most depressing part of the survey, headlined “regrets.” Half of grads say they would choose a different major or school if they could do their education over. It’s not surprising that the visual and performing arts majors have the most regrets, with 47% saying they would study something else given the chance. For social science majors, it’s 39%.

Yet more sobering news that I fear will affect my son: 40% of grads from the nation’s top 100 colleges couldn’t find jobs in their chosen field. In this measurement, social science grads are at the very bottom. Only 36% are working in their field of choice. Visual and performing arts grads are doing better, at 42%. At least there is a consolation prize if my kid gets into a top 100 school: He will earn 17%-19% more than students from other schools.

But back to more depressing news: Six times as many graduates are working in retail or hospitality as had originally planned. Since there are 1.7 million grads who are getting bachelor’s degrees this year, that means 120,000 young people are working as waiters, Gap salespeople, and baristas because it was the only work they could find.

I talked to Andre Dua, a McKinsey director who co-leads the firm’s education practice in North America, in hopes of finding a shred of encouraging news for my would-be liberal arts graduate. Will the employment outlook be as dim five years from now? At first Dua demurred, saying “your career prospects are highly variable depending on where you go and what you studied on the one hand, and what you do to prepare yourself on the other hand.” In other words, if you’re a STEM kid who does lots of internships, you’ll probably be fine. If you’re a liberal arts kid, not so much.

Dua made the interesting observation that university leaders and boards of directors are lavishing attention on digital instruction, including Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), while virtually ignoring the fact that masses of students are working in jobs that they say don’t require a degree. The solution, says Dua: Find a way to teach “soft skills” like how to work effectively in teams, under pressure and with clients and customers.

Though the economy may be improving, he notes, my son will probably face a tough job market when (let’s hope!) he graduates five years from now. “There’s no reason to believe that it’s going to go back to the time when it’s simply enough to have a degree,” says Dua. “We’ve entered a time when it’s necessary to have competencies in addition to the credential of a degree.”

Getting Our Youth Back to Work: Policy Lessons From Around the World

Getting Our Youth Back to Work:
Policy Lessons From Around the World

by Andreas Schleicher

If there’s one lesson we’ve learned over the past few years, it’s that we cannot simply bail ourselves out of a crisis, we cannot solely stimulate ourselves out of a crisis and we cannot just print money our way out of a crisis. But we can become much better in equipping more people with better skills to collaborate, compete and connect in ways that drive our economies forward.

There is no group for whom this is more important than today’s young people. Between 2008 and 2011, the gap in unemployment rates between higher- and less-educated youth widened dramatically. While young people with advanced skills have weathered the crisis reasonably well, those without foundation skills have suffered. Unemployment among young people without a high school education soared 20 percent in Estonia and Ireland and 15 percent in Greece and Spain. The short-term impact on individuals, families and communities beg for urgent policy responses; the longer-term impact, in terms of skills loss, scarring effects and de-motivation, will affect countries’ potential for recovery. Without the right skills, people will languish on the margins of society, technological progress will not translate into economic growth, and countries can’t compete in the global economy.

What’s often overlooked amid the grim statistics is that a few countries, like Austria, Chile, Germany and Korea saw a sizable drop in unemployment rates among their low-skilled youth. What this tells us is that, with the right policies and economic environment, we can do something about this and it seems to boil down to three actions: build the skills that foster employability; give young people the opportunity to make their skills available to the labor market; and ensure that those skills are used effectively at work.

To begin, we need to be able to anticipate the evolution of the labour market: we need to know what skills will be needed to reignite our economies. The coexistence of unemployed graduates on the street, while employers say they cannot find the people with the skills they need, shows clearly that more education alone does not automatically translate into better jobs and better lives.

We need to put a premium on skills-oriented learning throughout life instead of on qualifications-focused education that ends when the working life begins. We need to tackle unacceptable rates of school dropout by offering more relevant education and second-chance opportunities, and by offering work experience to young people before they leave education.

OECD’s Learning for Jobs analysis shows that skills development is far more effective if the world of learning and the world of work are integrated. It’s not difficult to understand why. Skills that aren’t used can atrophy. And, compared to purely government-designed curricula taught exclusively in schools, learning in the workplace allows young people to develop “hard” skills on modern equipment and “soft” skills, such as teamwork, communication and negotiation, through real-world experience. Hands-on workplace training can also help to motivate disengaged youth to stay in or re-engage with the education system.

But building skills is the relatively easy part of the plan; far tougher is providing opportunities for young people to use their skills. Employers might need to offer greater flexibility in the workplace. Labor unions may need to reconsider their stance on rebalancing employment protection for permanent and temporary workers. Enterprises need reasonably long trial periods to enable employers giving those youth who lack work experience a chance to prove themselves and facilitate a transition to regular employment. And some countries may need to review the minimum wage for younger workers to make it easier for low-skilled young people to get their first job and discourage early school leaving by lowering the opportunity cost of staying on at school.

Last but not least, if all of this is about more than getting youth temporarily off the street, we need to ensure that talent is used effectively. Skills mismatch is a very real phenomenon for youths that is mirrored in people’s earnings prospects and in their productivity. Knowing which skills are needed in the labor market and which educational pathways will get young people to where they want to be is essential. High-quality career guidance services, complemented with up-to-date information about labor-market prospects, can help young people make sound career choices.

We also need to maintain and expand the most effective active labor-market measures, such as counseling, job-search assistance and temporary hiring subsidies for low-skilled youth; and we need to link income support for young people to their active search for work and their engagement in measures to improve their employability.

But none of this is going to work unless everyone is involved: governments, which can design financial incentives and favorable tax policies; education systems, which can foster entrepreneurship as well as offer vocational training; employers, who can invest in learning; labor unions, which can ensure that investments in training are reflected in better-quality jobs and higher salaries; and individuals, who can take better advantage of learning opportunities and shoulder more of the financial burden. It’s time for all of us to take the lessons we learned through the crisis and turn them into a sustainable plan to get our young people back on the path to prosperity.

Study: “Human Intelligence is on the Decline”

Research Shows Idiots Are On
The Rise, Intelligence On The Decline

by Daniel Doherty

Yah don’t say. Setting aside the fact that literacy rates are generally higher today than they were, say, a hundred years ago, can there be any doubt that people are becoming increasingly less intelligent? A new study merely “suggests” human intelligence is in free fall, but I don’t think it takes a social scientist or dedicated academic to reach that conclusion. Do you?

Our technology may be getting smarter, but a provocative new study suggests human intelligence is on the decline. In fact, it indicates that Westerners have lost 14 I.Q. points on average since the Victorian Era.

What exactly explains this decline? Study co-author Dr. Jan te Nijenhuis, professor of work and organizational psychology at the University of Amsterdam, points to the fact that women of high intelligence tend to have fewer children than do women of lower intelligence. This negative association between I.Q. and fertility has been demonstrated time and again in research over the last century. But this isn’t the first evidence of a possible decline in human intelligence.

I didn’t think so. Maybe one reason why so many Americans are less intelligent today than they were a century ago is because of the utter filth we expose children to these days. Instead of reading or attending the theater, for example, children nowadays watch MTV and play violent video games to pass the time. Progress!

Of course this is not to say that these types of “activities” aren’t entertaining or fun or even necessary at times, but it is a fact of life that such forms of entertainment do not help one grow intellectually. Only long hours of studying and reading and oral communication can do that – things we, as a society, no longer seem to value as much as we once did. In other words, I don’t think I need a scientific study to convince me that human intelligence “is on the decline.”

The Benefits And Downsides Of Looping Teachers

The Benefits And Downsides Of Looping Teachers

by Jennifer Rita Nichols

In many schools, looping has been integrated as a regular procedure. It has become normal for students to spend more than one year with the same teachers. Of course, as with any methods or practices, there are pros and cons that need to be considered when deciding if looping can enhance learning at your school and if it could be something you wish to implement.

Personally, I have been teaching many of the students in my own class for three years now. When my fifth graders pass into sixth grade next year, I will teach them once again – so they will have had me as a teacher for four years. Our school uses a multi-level approach, where classes have students at different grades and levels. I have personally encountered many positive and negative effects of this model.

Benefits of Looping

Relationships With Students

I know my students very well. I remember the stories they used to tell, the games they used to play, and even the Pokemon they used to like. We can look back and laugh at shared experiences from previous years, and also look ahead to what things we might do next year. There is a level of trust that can only be built up over time. They feel comfortable talking to me as a trusted mentor, and will often even share stories that most students would not typically share with their teacher. We have developed a high level of caring and respect in our classroom.

Relationships With Parents and Families

I also know the parents of my students very well. I have been working with them for several years now. As each new school year comes along, I welcome back the same groups of parents along with their children. They know the way I work, as well as what to generally expect during the year. They feel comfortable talking with me or sending me questions about assignments or grades, which can make things much less complicated than when parents need to adjust to completely different ways of working each year.

Understanding Student Needs

I know what my students’ strengths and general weaknesses are right from the first day of school. I can remember where they started from, the progressions they have made, and what goals we still need to work on. I can remember the skills that each student struggled with the year before, as well as what tasks they usually excel at. There are no wasted days at the beginning of the year – coming back from summer vacation is like coming back after a long holiday. We catch up on what everyone did, then pick up where we left off, with new skills and projects to work on. I also know what triggers my students, for good or for bad. I know who works well together and who should be kept apart.

Promotes Teacher Innovation

You just can’t teach the same thing every year when you have the same students! On top of that, I teach different grades each year, which means new skills and competencies to develop according to the education programs we follow. When you have the same students for multiple years, you need to think of new projects, new texts to read, new activities to do, and new units to cover. It really prevents teachers from reusing the same materials over and over for years on end. I also find that it keeps me up to date with new technologies and ideas in education, as I spend time searching for new things to incorporate into my classes.

Benefits Classroom Management

When you start teaching the students in your class, you establish routines and procedures for almost everything. There are rules to follow, and consequences/punishments for stepping out of line. There are times when students should be reading quietly, and times when they should be writing their homework in their agenda. They need to share certain resources in turn, and learn what you accept and don’t accept from each of them. Often, there are a few students who seem to only start ‘getting’ the routines near the end of the year. Then, off they go into a new class with new procedures to learn. In my class, the students come in September already aware of what I will tolerate, as well as what I expect from them. New students pick things up quickly as they integrate into our well-established group.

Downsides of Looping

Teachers Can Get ‘Too Comfortable’

While you can’t work on exactly the same tasks and projects each year that you loop, it is easy to fall into a certain complacency. The parents know you, the students know you, and you have built up trust and a reputation with stakeholders. As with anyone that is doing the same job for a long time, you need to be conscious of not allowing yourself to do less than your best. Letting things slide, or even going as far as to ‘live off your reputation’ without living up to it anymore, can impact the education your students are receiving.

Students Adapt Less to Change

While the chaos that usually starts a school year can mean that a great deal of time is spent learning about each other in class, as well as on behaviours and general management, there are also benefits to that disruption. In life we need to be able to adapt to changes. When each year is very similar to the last in structure and attendance, then the students do not need to really adapt to new ways of working the way they do when everything changes each year. I have a student with autism for whom this is very reassuring, but for others I try to change things up a bit here and there to still have them get used to surprises and rearranging the way they function. Also, when things have been done a certain way for several years, it can be difficult to change. As a teacher, you want to learn from your experiences and change your actions/reactions to reflect new understandings. You’ll find with looping that you encounter a fair amount of resistance and ‘we always do it like this, you never made us do that’ comments.

Persistence of Negative Relationships

While maintaining an ongoing relationship with a respected teacher can really benefit students, being forced to continue classes where more of a negative relationship is present can really be detrimental to student advancement. Not all students like every teacher. Sometimes relationships are difficult and volatile. It’s normal. Certain personalities just seem to fit together less gracefully than with others, and some mixes can even prove to be hazardous to your sanity. If a negative relationship exists between any students and the teacher, then looping can prevent all parties from building new, and more positive, relationships the following year. Looping can also lead to judgements being passed on students based on preconceived notions. If a student has always been difficult in previous years, then it can be hard for you to notice they’ve changed and to react accordingly. Having to form new relationships, with new teachers, can sometimes give students that chance that they need to start over and build a new reputation.

Less Exposure to Different Teaching/Learning Methods

Every teacher adopts methods that work for them and fit with their style and personality. In any school, just walk between different classes and observe them each in turn. We all teach differently. We may be covering the same programs, but delivery varies greatly from one teacher to the next! While it’s great for students to become comfortable with the way their class is structured, it’s also great for them to be exposed to as many different ways of learning as possible. We all need to find strategies in life that suit us, and school is a the perfect place to try out different things and figure out what works.

Teachers Are Less Comfortable And Skilled At Every Level

Since starting at my school, I have taught every grade level from two to six. The differences between levels can be huge! While my second graders were learning to read and write better, my sixth graders were busy converting fractions to decimals and writing comparative essays. We all have certain niches. Personally, I prefer teaching the higher levels – grades five and six. That doesn’t mean I dislike the younger students, but I am more comfortable with the material covered by the older ones. Other teachers absolutely love teaching very young students. We all tend to be best when we are doing what we are really skilled at, and having a teacher switching grades each year can mean that they pass through the phase where they excel, then spend years teaching where they are less comfortable. Some core subjects, such as mathematics, also tends to be very particular to teach. Not everyone is able to teach advanced math well, and this can become a problem when teachers loop with classes. It should also be noted that a looping teacher needs to become very familiar with the education program at every level they teach, rather than become an expert for a particular level.

Even after considering the challenges and benefits of looping, it can be a tough decision to make. In my own experience, I have enjoyed it very much. The benefits have outweighed the drawbacks, and I am very happy with the relationships I have with my students and their families. When they move on to high school, I truly miss having each and every one of them in my class, as they are all there long enough to create their own ‘dent in the couch cushion’.

Would I suggest looping to others? Yes, I would. Any teacher that is willing to put in the extra effort required to keep things fresh and innovative in their classroom can make this model work wonders. There’s no better sense of community that can exist than when it is created and allowed to exist over time.

How Can Wal-Mart REALLY Help Improve Our Schools?

How Can Wal-Mart REALLY Help Improve Our Schools?

by Peter Dreier

Last month, the Walton Family Foundation, led by heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune, announced an $8 million grant to StudentsFirst, headed by Michelle Rhee, the ousted chancellor of the Washington, D.C. school system. This grant came on top of the $3 million the foundation had already donated to the group since 2010.

Rhee’s tempestuous tenure as head of the DC schools between 2007 and 2010 left behind a legacy of alleged cheating on standardized tests, a demoralized teaching staff with high turnover, and an increased achievement gap between low- and upper-income children. Soon after she left that job, she started StudentsFirst, which is now based in Sacramento, and has operations in 18 states. It recently donated $350,000 to LAUSD school board races, backing candidates who support its agenda of high-stakes testing, private charter schools, and school vouchers. Nicholas Lemann’s devastating profile of Rhee in the current issue of the New Republic exposes her misguided and hypocritical educational agenda.

Rhee has become the public face and top salesperson of a growing corporate-backed effort to privatize America’s public schools. They view Los Angeles as ground-zero. Some of America’s most powerful corporate plutocrats — including Microsoft founder Bill Gates, LA business mogul Eli Broad, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, media mogul Rupert Murdoch, and the Walton family — are using LA’s schools as a laboratory for their view of educational “reform.” They think public schools should be run like corporations, with teachers as compliant workers, students as products, and the school budget as a source of profitable contracts and subsidies for textbook companies, consultants, and others engaged in the big business of education.

They are part of an interconnected network of wealthy corporate leaders and philanthropists (including local billionaires like Eli Broad, Jerrold Prenchio, and Peter and Megan Chernin) who have funded think tanks, advocacy groups, and political campaigns to promote their agenda. In Los Angeles, they have bankrolled the Coalition for School Reform, LA’s Promise, Parent Revolution, and the Los Angeles Fund for Public Education — all front groups designed to sell their version of school reform.

The Walton Family Foundation calls itself “the largest private investor in education reform initiatives,” having made over $1 billion since 2005 to organizations that support school privatization, charters, and vouchers. In addition to StudentsFirst, these include the Milton Friedman Foundation for Education Choice and the Alliance for School Choice, where Walton family member Carrie Walton Penner (granddaughter of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton) sits on the board. In 2006, her husband, Greg Penner (who serves on Wal-Mart’s board), spent $250,000 to oppose a statewide ballot initiative that would have created a universal preschool system to give California’s children a much-needed leg up in early education. It also would have created thousands of good jobs for preschool teachers.

As a business chain, Arkansas-based Wal-Mart has spent a fortune — in philanthropy and campaign contributions — trying to break into the Los Angeles retail market with its low-wage retail stores. But the Walton family is also trying to use that fortune to bring Wal-Mart-style education to Los Angeles.

Since 2000, the Walton family — none of whom live in Los Angeles — has poured more than $84 million into campaigns, candidates, political action committees and institutions which support privatization. They have donated to charter schools and organizations that support them, such as Green Dot Schools, ICEF schools, and the Los Angeles Parent Union, as well as candidates or political action committees which support diverting tax dollars away from public schools to charter schools. LA already has more charter schools than any other district in the country.

The Waltons want to turn public schools into educational Wal-Marts run on the same model of corporate-style “efficiency.” They want to expand charter schools that compete with each other and with public schools in an educational “market place.” They want to evaluate teachers and students like they evaluate new products — in this case, using the bottom-line of standardized test scores. Most teachers will tell you that over-emphasis on standardized testing turns the classroom into an assembly line, where teachers are pressured to “teach to the test,” and students are taught to define success as answering multiple-choice tests. Not surprisingly, the billionaires want their employees — teachers — to do what they’re told, without having much of a voice in how their workplace functions. That means destroying the teachers’ main line of defense against arbitrary management — their union. Rather than treat teachers like professionals, they view them as the hired help. But they have an entirely different set of standards when it comes to judging charter schools.

In fact, there’s little evidence that private charter schools and vouchers — the Waltons’ two big obsessions — are effective at boosting students’ learning outcomes. A 2009 study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University discovered that only 17 percent of charter schools provided a better education than traditional public schools. Thirty-seven percent actually offered children a worse education. In other words, on balance, charters make things worse, even though many of those schools “cream” the best students from regular public schools.

If the Waltons really wanted to make positive change in children’s educations and lives, they would steer far clear of Rhee and her troublesome track record. There’s a better solution to the difficulties facing urban schools — one where the Waltons could easily take the lead and have an incredible impact.

Many studies show that parents’ incomes are the best predictor of students’ academic performance, which results in a wide “achievement gap” between affluent and low-income students. Wal-Mart contributes to this gap. It is not only the nation’s largest private employer, with well over 1.3 million employees, but it also has the largest number of poverty-level jobs in the country. The Waltons could end to the company’s longstanding practice of keeping its employees in poverty, with low wages, poor benefits, and unpredictable schedules that make parenting even harder than it already is.

If instead of funneling their fortune into failed movements like StudentsFirst, Wal-Mart and the Waltons paid their workers a fair wage, they could improve the lives and economic standing of Walmart employees and their children. Paying a living wage at Walmart would be a much more effective “education reform” strategy – one that would lift working families out of poverty while improving educational outcomes for our children.

20 Things Most Americans Don’t Know About History

20 Things Most Americans Don’t Know About History

By Nico Lang

Did you ever read Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen? If not, you should. It’s a book full of fascinating insights into the sides of history we’re never allowed to see, a warts-and-all look at the flaws that make history interesting. With Loewen in mind, I concocted a list of 20 things most Americans don’t know about history. (I imagine many people in general don’t know these things, as a 2008 poll showed that two-thirds of British teens thought King Arthur was real; another half thought Richard the Lionheart was fictional.) Some of these facts are Loewen-isms, others are well-documented elsewhere.

History is something that’s best shared with others, debated and endlessly discussed. What we think we understand today we often find out know nothing about tomorrow. That’s what gives history power. It’s alive.

1. Thanksgiving wasn’t originally intended to be a holiday celebrating multicultural togetherness, the ritual observance of over consumption and James Bond marathons. The original proposal was to give thanks…to the Constitution. George Washington’s original proclamation in 1789 asked for a day of “prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.” To paraphrase a line from Gigli, “Gobble gobble, it’s government time.”

2. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s real first and middle name weren’t Martin Luther. His first name, like his father’s, was Michael. The Michael Kings changed their chosen names after a trip to Nazi Germany, although both of them lived and died under the legal name of Michael King. Jr. almost wasn’t even a doctor. Years after his death, Boston University concluded that King plagiarized much of his doctoral dissertation but felt that “no thought should be given to the revocation of Dr. King’s doctoral degree” because of his passing. There was just no point anymore to taking the doctor title way. Besides, he did some pretty awesome stuff to balance it out.

3. When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus, it wasn’t her first altercation with that bus driver. Parks had been ejected by the same driver 12 years earlier for refusing to board in the back of the bus after she had already paid up front. Meaning that Parks was a career bad-ass.

4. Although Jamestown is often credited as the first British colony, it was only the first as far as the British were concerned. The Spanish beat them by a cool half century, setting up St. Augustine in Florida in 1565. Reports are that neither camp even counted as the first overseas visitors to settle in North America. It’s well-known that the Vikings settled in Newfoundland (hence the name) around the year 1001 CE, but less so that Africans had been making boat trips to the “New World” prior to Columbus’ voyage. Native Americans also landed in the Netherlands (then Holland) around 60 BCE., beating the Vikings by a millennium. Eat that, Scandinavia.

4.5. Side fact: Vikings never wore horned helmets. That idea came out of the myth-making of the 16th and 17th century Europeans, who viewed the vikings as warrior crusaders with wings and horns on their heads.

5. We think of dirty politicking as a relatively new trend, but our negative campaign ads can’t beat the ones of the past. An attack ad on FDR claimed, “If he became convinced tomorrow that coming out for cannibalism would get him the votes he so sorely needs, he would begin fattening a missionary in the White backyard come Wednesday.” When fighting Lincoln, opponents went after his looks: “We know Old Abe does not look very handsome, but if all the ugly men in the US vote for him, he will surely be elected.” But my favorite, ever, was written about Grover Cleveland. It goes, “We do not believe the American people will knowingly elect to the Presidency a coarse debauchee who would bring his harlots with him to Washington.”

6. Woodrow Wilson was a huge fan of the movie Birth of a Nation, as he went to school with Thomas Dixon, who wrote the play the movie is based on. When the notoriously racist film debuted, Wilson is reported to have said, “It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” Although many defenders of Wilson’s racist tendencies have tried to say the quote was misattributed and Dixon made up the quote to endorse the film, Wilson held a private screening of it at the White House, making it the first film ever shown there. Scholars claim that Wilson himself loved “darky” jokes and felt that segregation was a “rational, scientific policy,” placing many noted segregationists in his cabinet.

7. We all know that old-school Coca-Cola put cocaine in their drinks, but did you know Bayer coined “heroin” as a thing and produced opium products, encouraging you to use these “medical breakthroughs” on children? They also invented mustard gas. It was a simpler time. You might wonder then, with the backing of corporate America behind drugs, what got us anti-drug legislation. Racism. In 1878, San Francisco saw the first anti-drug laws pass as a way to stop people from frequenting opium dens. City officials claimed, “Many women and young girls, as well as young men of respectable family, were being induced to visit the Chinese opium-smoking dens, where they were ruined morally and otherwise.” If you’ve seen Reefer Madness, this logic will make much more sense to you contextually.

8. Although her claim to fame was as the subject of The Miracle Worker, Helen Keller had a second career: as a socialist activist and organizer. Keller advocated for rights of the differently abled, women’s suffrage and birth control and was a noted pacifist. The radical thinker was also an opponent of Woodrow Wilson (who was against universal suffrage) and supported Socialist candidate Eugene V. Debs in his presidential runs. Because of her impairments, the media universally discredited her organizing work. A Brooklyn publication wrote that Keller’s socialist “mistakes sprung out of the manifest limitations of her development.”

9. Napoleon is a short man’s idol, a sign that perseverance can overcome even a little obstacle like being a wee man. However, Napoleon wasn’t short — at least by the standards of his day. M. Bonaparte stood 1.58 meters tall (or a little over five feet), well within the average of the compatriots of his era. Instead of suffering from a lack of height, Napoleon reportedly was stricken with far worse: hemorrhoids. Some scholars even suggest that a terrible flair up of butt pain cost Napoleon the Battle of Waterloo.

10. We’re all pretty aware that Disney and elementary school lied to us about that whole Pocahontas thing, but how much? Well, she was twelve when Smith and his compatriots first embarked on their whirlwind New World adventure. Meaning there was no tasteful, PG romance with John Smith (aka cartoon Mel Gibson), she probably didn’t paint any of the colors of his wind and she didn’t save his life. She did, however, run away to Europe with John Rolfe, but the romance there was also dubious. The devout Rolfe reportedly fretted over “marrying a heathen” and their marriage was as much about sustaining peace in the colony as it was his affection for her. Pocahontas’ thoughts on the arrangement are unknown; although she was often treated with respect and admiration in London, she was just as often a curiosity and an object of derision. Many referred to her as “The Virginian Woman.” She died in 1617 while attempting to come back to the New World with Rolfe.

11. Edison was a brilliant man who help invent many things (like the phonograph, the mimeograph, the carbon microphone and moving pictures) but the light bulb is technically not his to claim. Edison developed the technology concurrently with Joseph Swan, a Briton who worked independently of Edison, although each knew the other was developing the technology. Although Edison is credited with inventing it, Swan holds the authorship for the bulb.

12. When you’re a kid who isn’t doing well in school (particularly math) Einstein is often held up as an example. “Einstein was a terrible student,” your parents remind you, “and look at everything he achieved!” Unfortunately, that’s not true. Einstein was a highly gifted and accomplished student. We misinterpret Einstein receiving 4s in school as a sign of poor performance (akin to a “D”) but those were actually high marks of the era. Einstein not only aced math but his parents bought advanced textbooks for him, as he often kvetched that formal education was “holding him back.”

13. It’s widely believed that Vincent Van Gogh cut off his ear to win the heart of a woman, but that’s not the case. A later story posited that Van Gogh lobbed it off after a particularly nasty fight with his friend, the painter Gauguin, and then handed it off to a prostitute in a brothel before returning home that evening to catch some shut eye. Normal day for Van Gogh. But a recent theory claims a different (and more plausible) reason that he wasn’t a rightly talker: Gauguin, a skilled swordfighter, likely cut it off in a duel. I like this better, only because it makes him seem less crazy. The man shot himself in the chest and slowly died, penniless and believing himself to be forgotten. He’s been through enough.

14. We are told that witches were “burned at the stake” during the Salem Witch Trials — because “burning witches” has a nice ring to it, eh? It also makes me a little hungry for carnitas. But anyway, nobody actually got burned. During the notorious witch hunt, nineteen accused practitioners of the dark arts were hung and one defendant was crushed to death with stones.

15. Many people believe that Abraham Lincoln might have been our first gay president — because of those much ballyhooed pillow talks with Joshua Speed, who Lincoln shared a bed with for many years. But unfortunately, such was a common practice of the era and doesn’t necessarily prove hanky-panky. However, we did have a queen in the White House elsewhere: one Ms. James Buchanan, our only Bachelor president. Buchanan’s sexuality was much whispered about on the hill, as was his closeness with William Rufus King. Andrew Jackson gave the two of them the nickname of “Miss Nancy and Aunt Fancy” and others called King “Mrs. James Buchanan.” A common euphemism for their relationship was to label them “Siamese Twins,” the sotto voce name for same-gender couples of the era.

16. Evidence also indicates that we may have had our first bisexual or lesbian first lady. FDR was a well-documented philanderer (even Hyde Park on Hudson, the recent biopic on him, isn’t shy about it) and his marriage to Eleanor Roosevelt may have been a marriage of convenience. Mrs. Roosevelt’s letters to her longtime best friend, Lorena Hickok, indicate a relationship that went beyond traditional female bonding. Their correspondences were shockingly intimate; Roosevelt often wrote lines like, “Never are you out of my heart” and “I wish I could lie down beside you tonight & take you in my arms.” Hickok and Roosevelt’s family burned the letters after Eleanor’s death, but Mrs. Roosevelt’s close friend Gore Vidal (himself bisexual) long affirmed the letters’ truth until his death last year.

17. The Civil War was a little more complicated than you were taught. Although we’re told the North and South fought over the issue of slavery, the reasons are also far more mundane. The rebel South was seen as an insurrectionary state and a potential competing power that needed to be stopped. In truth, many Northerners fighting didn’t give a damn about slavery and the Southerners enlisted were too poor to actually afford slaves. The Emancipation Proclamation was, in part, a way to convince any blacks who might be fighting for the South to join the other team. Lincoln himself once commented, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.” By “freeing” the slaves, Lincoln hoped to cut off the South’s resources and preserve the union.

18. Also, World War II is tricky, from a moral standpoint. We like to believe that in 1940s, Americans were these armed crusaders fighting for the rights of all, but the Depression also led to a rise of antisemitism in the U.S., just like in Europe. Disney cartoons from the era are fraught with anti-Semitic caricatures, and right-wing leaders accused FDR of allowing his administration to be run by Jews. Henry Ford even printed the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a notorious anti-Semitic screed detailing a Jewish plan for world domination, in his corporate newsletter. Polls in 1938 showed that around 60% of Americans at the time deemed Jews “greedy and dishonest,” and by 1945 (aka the end of the war), Americans believed Jews had “too much power” in the United States.

19. There’s more. Believe it or not, the revered Rockefeller Foundation funded many of the German programs for eugenics, like the one that employed Josef Mengele before he found himself at Auschwitz. Many in the United States supported the forced sterilization of the differently abled, mentally ill and criminals and anyone they deemed sterilizable. These folks included being “depressed,” “deviant” or “sexually wayward,” which often included homosexuals. (Remember: Homosexuality was classified as a disease until 1973.) Indiana passed the first forced Sterilization Bill in 1907 — followed closely by California, then the forced sterilization capital of America. The Oregon Board of Social Protection (originally the “Oregon Board of Eugenics”) performed the last ever forced sterilization in the U.S. In 1981. That was a scant 30 years ago.

20. The Korean War (also called the “Forgotten War”) never actually ended. The U.S. and North Korea agreed to a cease-fire on July 27, 1953 until the two sides could reach a “final peaceful settlement.” This settlement never happened and an actual peace treaty never signed. As you can surmise, we’re fighting many of the same battles today.

School’s Out for Summer–Now What?

School’s Out for Summer–Now What?

by Laysha Ward

As millions of children start streaming out of schools for a much-anticipated break, it’s important to remember that there is a price to pay for summers free of learning. Students who don’t engage in educational activities over the summer lose between one and three months of learning every year on average. In reading, the loss is cumulative; by the end of sixth grade, students who lose their reading skills over the summer will be as much as two full years behind their classmates.

So, for all the critical focus on how to improve the time our children spend in schools, we should also be looking at the time they spend away. And everything should be on the table–from how parents keep their kids engaged at home, to the prioritization of structured summer learning camps, and even the length of the school day, school week and school year.

We know from more than 100 years of research that the “summer slide” affects kids at every grade level, and across all economic categories. While the setback is often more pronounced in communities lacking resources, money does not buy immunity. If you don’t stay engaged, you lose ground.

There are some easy steps. Parents and caring adults can help students develop a simple plan to stay sharp even during the slower days of summer. Start by familiarizing yourself with the new Common Core Standards, and know what your child will be expected to know in the upcoming year. Make reading a priority; just six grade-level books can prevent any summer reading loss at all, and many schools provide a summer reading list tied to the next year’s curriculum. Family travel can be filled with lessons and learning–from calculating miles per gallon, to reading the history of different places on the itinerary.

For parents who don’t have easy access to resources, or the time between jobs to fully manage their kids’ summer learning experience, most communities offer support in the form of programs that keep children engaged in reading and other skills.

While all of those things can help, they may not be enough for a U.S. school system falling behind in the global economy. We are still leaving millions of children behind each year, and even our top performers are struggling to compete with the rest of the world. If we’re serious about closing those gaps, we may ultimately need to consider other solutions, such as providing more opportunities for school-based learning during the summer months or even reimagining the school calendar itself.

Remember that an extended summer “vacation” is a hangover, at least in part, from an earlier, more agrarian society, where kids were needed at home in order for families to thrive. Today’s families are more likely to need their children as prepared as they can be for an increasingly competitive and increasingly global job market. And for that, our students very likely need more time focused on learning.

That’s an enormously complicated proposition, I know. The list of challenges and implications is daunting, and tempts us toward the status quo. But here’s what we know: the status quo isn’t working. If our goal is to set up our students for success, we should not be deterred by the challenges. We should not be afraid to put everything on the table in the search for what’s best for our kids.

Maybe I’m the wrong person to talk about the merits of a summer free from work and learning. That was never an option for my siblings and me. As kids, we spent our summers working the large family garden like dinner depended on it (which it often did). At night, we discussed and debated important issues of the day and because I was fortunate to be raised in a family that loved stories, we read.

Not everyone is as lucky. And so as students across the country wait in anticipation for that final bell to ring, I think it’s important to ask: what will they be up to this summer? And is the time away from learning worth the price that many of them will pay tomorrow?