Achievement Gap Narrows As High School Students Stagnate

Test Scores Show Achievement Gap Narrows
As High School Students Stagnate — NAEP Report

by Joy Resmovits

Despite the popular hand-wringing over America’s schools, younger students are actually performing at significantly higher levels in reading and math than they were in the 1970s, according to a new government report.

The report also shows a dramatic gradual reduction of the so-called “achievement gap,” the gap between scores of ethnic minorities.

But the findings aren’t all positive. Since 2008, only 13-year-olds posted score increases. The overall results illustrate two fundamental problems: It’s easier to boost scores in math than it is in reading, and the test scores of older students have not increased.

The report, released Thursday by the National Center for Education Statistics, the U.S. Education Department’s research arm, includes results on a test known that is the long-term trends version of the National Assessment for Educational Progress. NAEP is known as a gold standard of assessment, because it samples students from across the country in a secure test that does not impact teacher evaluations or student promotions. The long-term exams, called the “Trends in Academic Progress,” differ from the other better-known NAEP tests because they have tested students at ages 9, 13, and 17 on the same material since the 1970s.

The report relies on NAEP data from the 2011-2012 school year, and tested 26,000 students in public and private schools. Students are measured on a 350-point scale, according to the report.

On average, 9-year-olds’ scores increased from 208 to 221, or 13 points, on the reading exam between 1971 and 2011-2012. With a score of 221, students are expected to “make an inference based on explicit information in a biographical sketch,” but likely can’t do things like find similarities between two characters or identify a paragraph’s main topic, the report says. Thirteen-year-olds’ scores increased by eight points, from 255 to 263, a level which means they cannot “support an opinion about a story using details.” Seventeen-year-olds only grew 2 points over that period, scoring a 287, a level at which they can “use understanding of a poem to recognize” the poem’s speaker but not explain key parts of the poem’s topic.

In math, 9-year-olds increased their scores from 219 to 244 — or 25 points — between 1973 and 2011-2012. Thirteen-year-olds showed an increase from 266 to 285, or 19 points. Seventeen-year-olds grew 2 points over that time, and actually scored 2 points below their average of 308 in 1999.

“It shows that high schools aren’t doing a great job,” said Mark Schneider, the former NCES commissioner who now works as a vice president at the American Institutes for Research. “Schools are lying about the quality of the education they’re giving: They call pre-algebra algebra, they call algebra calculus, they’re giving higher grades in teaching watered-down curricula — because we’ve told them to get better.”

Daria Hall, who directs K-12 at the Washington, D.C.-based education lobbying and advocacy group the Education Trust, agrees. “High school-level material is complicated and really requires deep subject knowledge on the part of teachers,” she said. “Having teachers who don’t know their subject knowledge, that doesn’t work.” She described the “notion of achieving education as inoculation,” where younger students who are taught to read “are perceived as good to go, but we’re falling off after that.”

The scores also might mask further improvements. Since the exam is given to certain age groups and not specific grades, the population taking the test has changed. For example, Thursday’s study found that 13-year-olds now are much more likely to be in seventh grade than they were in the 1970s, when most students of that age were in eighth grade. “If you think about that, these are kids that have had one year less schooling,” Schneider said. “There’s a heavy lift going on.”

And at the 17-year-old level, said NCES deputy commissioner Peggy Carr, the flatness of scores might also reflect population changes. The dropout rate for black and Hispanic students especially, she said, has been slashed significantly since the 1970s.

“A lot more students are staying in school more than they have in the past,” Carr said. With all those new students, “it’s a good thing they’re not going down.”

In reading, the score gap between black and white 17-year-old students was cut in half, narrowing from 53 to 26 between 1971 and 2011-2012. The Hispanic-white score gap at that level was also cut in half, decreasing from 41 to 21 between 1975 and 2011-2012. In both cases, the changes can be explained by the significant score increases among minority students — notable especially because white students only gained 4 points in that period.

“Our black and Latino 9-year-olds are performing in math where their 13-year-old counterparts were in the early 70s,” Hall said. “That’s real progress. We’ve cut achievement gaps in the early grades by nearly half. We will never say that’s good enough but it’s important to acknowledge the progress that we have made, especially in the context of an acrimonious education debate. People say our schools are getting worse but you have some objective evidence of people saying no, that’s not the case.”

Most of the movement in scores was buoyed by score increases at the lowest levels — but top performers have been mostly flat, something that worries Schneider. “We have a consistent national policy that started in the 1990s that said we care about closing performance gaps and race gaps, and now, at least in 9- and 13-year-olds, we have actually accomplished a lot: The race gaps are closing, the bottom scores are coming up faster,” he said.

“If you look at the top performers — nothing. … I wonder the degree to which we have not paid sufficient attention to the top performers; the assumption is they’ll take care of themselves, but I’m not so sure.”

Senate Student Loan Proposals Fail To Advance As Rate Surge Looms

Senate Student Loan Proposals Fail To Advance As Rate Surge Looms

Some 7 million college students will see their borrowing costs double next week after Republicans and Democrats paid little attention to the issue for 11 months, then spent the past month vainly squabbling over a solution.

Senate Democrats on Thursday rallied against a potential bipartisan compromise ahead of Monday’s deadline. Republicans ruled out a temporary one-year delay. The White House played both sides in the hopes of avoiding blame for the interest rate hike.

“Students across this country would rather have no deal than a bad deal,” said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.).

If the political stalemate holds, during the upcoming school year more than 7 million undergraduates from lower- and middle-income households will take out subsidized Stafford loans that will carry interest rates of 6.8 percent, rather than 3.4 percent. Though the federal government pays the interest while borrowers remain enrolled in school, the increase will lead to an extra $1,000 owed over the typical 10- to 12-year life of the average borrower’s loan.

Meanwhile, Bill Dudley, Federal Reserve Bank of New York president, quashed hopes that the Fed may step in to aid existing borrowers, whose cumulative $1.2 trillion in debt risks dampening consumption and impeding economic growth as student debt repayment crowds out household spending and auto and home purchases.

During a news conference, Dudley dismissed claims that the Fed’s efforts to reduce borrowing costs have not aided borrowers with student debt and argued that a refinancing scheme was best left to Congress. “I think this is really out of the Fed’s purview,” Dudley said.

Thursday’s events show that policymakers’ claims of wanting to help student borrowers may not square with their actions.

The jockeying comes as legislators and policymakers attempt to reduce borrowing costs for millions of current and future students by moving from a system in which Congress sets rates on federal student loans to one in which rates are tied to the U.S. government’s cost of borrowing.

Many Democrats want to base student loan interest rates on the government’s short-term borrowings, ensuring low rates for students. Republicans and the White House prefer tying student loans to 10-year Treasuries, which carry higher interest rates.

The U.S. government is forecast to record a $51 billion profit this fiscal year from the federal student loan program, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. Nearly all new loans for higher education are provided by the government.

Referring to the profit figure as “billions of dollars off the backs of our students,” Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) said: “I don’t think that’s a result that we want.”

Earlier this month, the agency estimated that the government would generate $184 billion in profit for loans made from this fiscal year through 2023, not including $15 billion in profit the government booked this year from loans made in previous years. The U.S. government has made nearly $120 billion in profit from student borrowers and their families over the past five fiscal years.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), speaking Thursday on behalf of a half-dozen Democratic senators gathered for a Capitol Hill news conference, said: “We here are committed to wringing those profits out of the student loan program.” Warren said earlier in the week that it was “time for the government to stop making a profit off our students.”

Because of the way the CBO calculates budget figures, any changes in the student loan program that reduce expected future government profit would appear as if they are adding to future budget deficits. Republicans have previously seized on such items to accuse Democrats of wasteful spending, even when the claims are based on little more than budget gimmickry.

While Congress fights it out, the White House is punting.

The Obama administration initially proposed a long-term fix in its 2014 budget that would have tied loan rates to the 10-year Treasury note, and have fixed the rate for the life of each loan. The proposal included no cap on interest rates.

Since then, the White House has seen a bipartisan plan that includes some aspects of its proposal, but almost 40 Democrats in the Senate support the short-term fix put forward by Sens. Reed, Warren, Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).

The White House is said to be working behind the scenes to drum up support of a long-term proposal that would immediately tie student loan rates to 10-year Treasuries, though it has not publicly chosen to firmly support either of the current Senate proposals.

The six Democrats proposed a one-year delay that would move the rate hike deadline to July 1 of next year, when Congress will be campaigning in advance of November’s midterm elections.

A similar two-year delay failed to advance in the Senate during a vote earlier this month, even after the White House expressed support. Senate aides said the new proposal likely would meet a similar fate.

Republicans immediately decried the short-term fix proposal.

“As a result of their obstruction, the Democrat-led Senate will leave town and allow interest rates on some new student loans to increase on Monday,” said Mitch McConnell, Senate Republican leader.

Stabenow said the proposal would be voted on July 10. “The White House is completely in support of what we are doing,” she added.

Matt Lehrich, White House spokesman, said: “The Senate is working hard to prevent student loan rates from doubling, and will take action in the next few weeks to fix this problem. We are confident they will get there, and that the solution will include retroactive protection for students who borrow after July 1st so that their student loan rates don’t double.”

Mary Kusler, the chief lobbyist of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, said she has “no idea” where the White House stands. “They’re interested in getting a deal here,” she said. She added that the NEA would oppose variable interest rates if caps are kept in place.

The bipartisan deal, struck by Sens. King, Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), would reduce borrowing costs over the short term, but would likely increase them after a few years as the economy improves and interest rates rise.

The group proposes to set rates for undergraduate students at 1.85 percentage points above the yield on 10-year Treasuries, 3.4 percentage points above 10-year Treasuries for Stafford loans taken out by graduate students, and 4.4 percentage points above the 10-year note for PLUS loans, which are used by graduate students and parents of undergraduates who exhaust federal borrowing limits.

The plan resembles Obama’s, though the rates are a bit higher.

The bipartisan agreement also faces an uphill climb, particularly after interest rates shot up in recent weeks on speculation that the Fed would soon curb its easy-money policies. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note has jumped to 2.49 percent as of Thursday’s close, from 1.66 percent on May 1, according to the Treasury Department.

The situation has split advocacy groups. The Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank and advocacy group with a student chapter that often operates in tandem with the administration, has not publicly voiced support for any existing legislative fix — despite the looming deadline.

“I don’t think there’s any specific proposal that we’ve seen offered at this point that we would say is the exact proposal that we would want to see enacted,” said David Bergeron, the group’s postsecondary education vice president and a former administration official. “There are elements in each of the proposals that have the base for an approach that is most beneficial to students.”

Bergeron added that he thinks the administration has changed its views on rate caps after student groups slammed its budget proposal.

Groups such as Young Invincibles and the Public Interest Research Group, though, are rallying students around the short-term extension. “The Manchin plan doesn’t get to where we want to go,” Lindstrom said. “It violates the principle of first do no harm: it keeps the rate low by jacking up the rate for borrowers within the first several years.”

Young Invincibles’ policy vice president Rory O’Sullivan said his group expects the doubling of the rate to unleash waves of student advocacy that pushes the Senate to vote for a short-term fix on July 10. “Once members of Congress see that students are faced with rates having to double, which they will be on Monday, members of Congress are going to want to fix it.”

Reed asked for patience on Thursday, arguing that the one-year delay would enable lawmakers to devise a better scheme for current and future borrowers.

“It will give us the time and the incentive and I hope the inspiration to look at this whole issue of financial debt and student debt in a comprehensive way, not just tinkering on the edges in terms of rates but looking at refinancing options for example and thinking how we can help students who are already struggling with debt to reduce their debt,” Reed said.

He added, “We can not burden future generations with great debt.”

4 changes to English so subtle we hardly notice they’re happening

4 changes to English so subtle we hardly notice they’re happening

By Arika Okrent

Everyone knows that language changes. It’s easy to pick out words that have only been recently introduced (bromance, YOLO, derp) or sentence constructions that have gone out of style (How do you do? Have you a moment?), but we are constantly in the middle of language change that may not be noticeable for decades or even centuries. Some of the biggest and most lasting changes to language happen slowly and imperceptibly. The Great Vowel Shift, for example, was a series of pronunciation changes occurring over 350 years, and not really noticed for over 100 years after that. It resulted in an intelligibility gap between Modern and Middle English and created the annoying misalignment between English pronunciation and spelling. But it was impossible to see while it was going on.

These days, however, it is possible to spot subtle linguistic changes by analyzing large digital collections of text or transcribed speech, some of which cover long periods of time. Linguists can run the numbers on these large corpora to determine the direction of language use trends and whether they are statistically significant. Here are 4 rather subtle changes happening in English, as determined by looking at the numbers.

There are a number of verbs that can take a complement with another verb in either the “-ing” form or the “to” form: “They liked painting/to paint;” “We tried leaving/to leave;” “He didn’t bother calling/to call.” Both of these constructions are still used, and they have both been used for a long time. But there has been a steady shift over time from the “to” to the “-ing” complement. “Start” and “begin” saw a big increase in the “-ing” complement until leveling out in the 1940s, whiles emotion verbs like “like,” “love,” “hate,” and “fear” saw their proportion of “-ing” complements start to rise in the 1950s and 60s. Not all verbs have participated in the shift: “stand,” “intend,” and “cease” went the “to” way.

English has been getting more progressive over time — that is, the progressive form of the verb has steadily increased in use. (The progressive form is the –ing form that indicates something is continuous or ongoing: “They are speaking” vs. “They speak.”) This change started hundreds of years ago, but in each subsequent era, the form has grown into parts of the grammar it hadn’t had much to do with in previous eras. For example, at least in British English, its use in the passive (“It is being held” rather than “It is held”) and with modal verbs like “should,” “would,” and “might” (“I should be going” rather than “I should go”) has grown dramatically. There is also an increase of “be” in the progressive form with adjectives (“I’m being serious” vs. “I’m serious”).

It’s pretty noticeable that words like “shall” and “ought” are on the way out, but “will,” “should,” and “can” are doing just fine. There are other members of this helping verb club though, and they have been on a steep climb this century. “Going to,” “have to,” “need to,” and “want to” cover some of the same meaning territory as the other modal verbs. They first took hold in casual speech and have enjoyed a big increase in print in recent decades.

The passive in English is usually formed with the verb “to be,” yielding “they were fired” or “the tourist was robbed.” But we also have the “get” passive, giving us “they got fired” and “the tourist got robbed.” The get-passive goes back at least 300 years, but it has been on a rapid rise during the past 50 years. It is strongly associated with situations which are bad news for the subject — getting fired, getting robbed — but also situations that give some kind of benefit. (They got promoted. The tourist got paid.) However, the restrictions on its use may be relaxing over time and get-passives could get a whole lot bigger.

Manga and anime declared good study tools for kids

Manga and anime declared good study tools for kids
by Rachel Tackett
Children’s books and television shows these days are nothing compared to the ones that many of us had growing up. At least that’s what we tell ourselves. I think back fondly on those days of watching Rugrats and Scooby Doo marathons and scoff at the thought of modern-age children rotting their brains with Spongebob and Annoying Orange. But the fact of the matter is that letting kids subject themselves to those books and animations is important to the development of reading comprehension and critical thinking skills, though the shows now seem like garbage to our fully-developed minds.

In Japan, the same sort of issue arises with kids becoming obsessed with manga and anime. Parents may try to insist that their children put away the comics and pick up a real book. Some may even go so far as to throw out their child’s comic magazines as they begin to pile up. However, according to one of the professors at Tama University, Yuichi Higuchi, in his short essay “Are you a Bad Parent?” keeping kids away from their anime and comics is a terrible thing to do!

Let’s start with the manga. According to Professor Higuchi, reading and rereading the same manga many times over is the best way for children to naturally develop their language skills. This refers to more than just basic comprehension of the plot, which can generally be achieved after one quick read-through. For a child to pick up on the deeper meaning behind the words—the foreshadowing and the nuanced humor, hidden between precise turns of phrase and balanced visual depictions—it takes at least two or three reads for the full breadth of the story to unfold.

Every time a child rereads their manga of choice, there is something new that they discover. The words and speech patterns make a little more sense and the meaning behind them becomes that much more clear. Every time a child reads that story their ability to comprehend it expands just a little. They are learning in a way that they love, so why not show some encouragement when they toss aside their textbooks for a well-worn comic?

But what about anime? At least with manga, Japanese kids are getting in a bit of kanji practice, yeah? Anime uses pictures to convey its story, rather than writing. And yet, Professor Higuchi insists that anime also has ways of raising a child’s reading comprehension. The secret is providing discussion which leads to critical thinking.

If your kids love anime, then they’ll love to share the experience with you and to talk about it. Engaging them in something that they love can be both fun and eye-opening. All it takes are some simple questions like, “What was the most interesting part?” to get their brains cooking up some comparisons and judgments. Now, you don’t want to kill their joy by firing of standardized test questions in the middle of the show, but even saying things to yourself like, “ I wonder why the character did that…” can inspire critical thinking in children.

In addition, anime can drastically broaden a child’s vocabulary. Not everything that comes up is as inappropriate as Naruto’s “Harem Technique” or as nonsensical as Ichigo’s “Heaven Chain Slaying Moon” sword.

What it really comes down to is that there’s no good reason to separate kids from the things that they’re interested in. With manga and anime in particular, there’s great potential for learning language skills.

Personally, I’m just happy for the implication that the next time I prepare for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, I can read manga rather than textbooks. The thought of studying has finally been made fun!

Goldman Sachs Gets Into Public Education

Goldman Sachs Gets Into Public Education

By DSWright

The corporate “ed reform” movement to privatize public education is quite lucrative – public education spending runs in the billions across the country. So should anyone be surprised that Wall Street has stepped out of the shadows to get in on the action?

Wall Street has already been the funding base for Michelle Rhee and other privatizers but has always presented itself merely as trying to benevolently control people not control people to exploit them. But now Goldman Sachs is creating new financial instruments to finance public education.

Goldman Sachs is making its second foray into an experimental method of financing social services, lending up to $4.6 million for a childhood education program in Salt Lake City. This “social impact bond,” in which Goldman stands to make money if the program is successful but will lose its investment if it fails, will support a preschool program intended to reduce the need for special education and remedial services. The upshot, in theory, is that taxpayers will not have to bear the upfront cost of the program…

“Social impact bonds are an entirely new way of financing things that have traditionally been paid for either through philanthropy or by taxpayer dollars,” said Alicia Glen, head of Goldman’s urban investment group.

Quantifying Wall Street’s “social impact” should prove interesting. And guess what other lucrative public services industry Goldman has gotten into?

Though the effectiveness of this type of financing remains unproved, it has gained a prominent adherent in New York City, which allowed Goldman to invest nearly $10 million in a jail program last year. The city was the first in the United States to test social impact bonds.

Though Wall Street will likely have to hire experts for its jail investments as going to jail is a foreign concept to banksters.

Utah is not the first nor likely last investment Wall Street is making in public education. Goldman Sachs urban investment group also made investments in a charter school program backed by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Newark Mayor Cory Booker.

Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, whose urban investment group helped finance the project, said projects like Teachers Village are exactly the types of opportunities they look for to support economic growth…

“We like to make investments where there will be the greatest return,” Blankfein said before the event. “We think the greatest return opportunity is when you can plant a seed for something, and from that other buildings come into the neighborhood.”

After crashing the housing market Wall Street needs new domains to manically pump and dump and public services – schools, jails, parking meters – seem to be the new hot spot. People often wondered why Wall Street was funding Michelle Rhee and all these privatization programs, now we have our answer. Talk about a captive market. If Wall Street doesn’t get paid your kids don’t get educated. So pay up, or else.


Stop Summer Brain Drain

Stop Summer Brain Drain: 10 Everyday Ways to Stay Sharp

By Alexandra Mayzler

For every student counting down to or embracing the start of the beloved lazy days, there’s a teacher and parent worrying about the notorious summer brain drain. And while as educators we know how vital it is for kids to maintain learning through the break, we also understand how important it is for students to decompress from a stressful school year. To help students stay fresh without feeling like they are still in school, here are 10 suggestions for how to sneak in a little learning into daily activities.

1. Numbers and words with friends. Students are spending a ton of time with technology. Encourage them to play vocabulary or math skills games with friends.

2. Visit museums. Cultural centers often have wonderful exhibits and summer programs for kids. Have your child research and pick a day-trip of the week (or month).

3. Swap and trade. Challenge kids with a daily math problem. Have siblings or friends text math problems that they come up with for the other to solve. They’ll be busy trying to stump each other while practicing math.

4. Watch Jeopardy. Dedicate a night a week for Jeopardy. Participate in the game with homemade buzzers.

5. Write a review. It’s empowering for kids to be able to share their opinions. Have your child write a review for the books he reads over the summer. Post the review on online book sites and get excited when other readers find the review helpful!

6. Go on tours. Whether furniture or a chocolate factory, take the chance to explore how things are made.

7. Speak fluently. Practice makes perfect when it comes to foreign language. Bring your child to a restaurant that has menus in different languages. Challenge her to read and order in the foreign language she’s learning in school.

8. Be a critic. Upgrade family movie night by inviting your child to critique the movie you’ve watched. Encourage him to read other critics and learn the style of commentary.

9. Stop and brainstorm. When you’re driving or walking down a street, every time you come to a stop at a red light, come up with as many words as you can to rhyme with the name of the street. Or if the streets are numbered then add, multiply, or subtract the digits.

10. Wikipedia challenge. Who shares your name? Wikipedia it and dig deeper to learn more. You can find historical figures with your name, or even cities and civilizations that shared your name. Follow back links as topics interest you and see where they take you.

Summer is a great time to turn learning into a game. In addition to our tips, think about how daily activities can be turned into mini review sessions so that students feel ready to tackle next year’s challenges.

The solution to US public schools is not corporate America

The solution to US public schools is not corporate America

We’re slashing K-12 funding and teachers and then turning our
schools over to private operators. This is hardly good ‘reform’

by Daniel Denvir

America’s K-12 schools are being hollowed out, dismantled and converted to private management. It’s the ultimate outsourcing of our children’s futures.

In Philadelphia, one of America’s largest school districts, layoff notices were recently delivered to 3,859 teachers, aides, administrators and other staff. In Chicago, 850 teachers and staff are being let go. Nationwide, a staggering 335,100 teachers and other local public school jobs have been lost from June 2009 to May 2013, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

It’s easy to blame those layoffs on the sour economy, but that’s only part of the story. The education “reform” movement, a code for privatizing schools, has been using the economic crisis to push its agenda. After the public schools have their budgets and staff cut, private management companies offer to come in and save the day.

Thirty-five states have reduced education funding since 2008, according to a September 2012 report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Seventeen states cut more than 10%. Under Governor Rick Perry, Texas reduced state funding to public education by a full 25% between 2002 and 2012.

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett has cut nearly $1bn. Now, the state-run School Reform Commission is demanding $133m in union concessions, mainly from Philadelphia teachers – even though higher pay is necessary to attract the most talented to the neediest districts. Philadelphia teachers already make less than counterparts in more well-to-do suburbs.

There is a profound disconnect between tragedies playing out in school rooms nationwide and a national political conversation dominated by a “reform” agenda that seeks to remake public schools in the image of corporate America.

The so-called school reform movement declares that public education has failed American students. But in reality, it is the policies of brutal austerity, relentless standardized testing, and teacher bashing that ensure failure – and promote privatization as the only solution. And so the beast is starved: fewer resources, fewer teachers, fewer aides to make schools safe and a worse education. Better yet, the more teachers employed in typically non-union charters, the weaker the political movement to defend public schools.

The budget crises in Philadelphia, Chicago and other cities is decades-long in the making. But it is most recently the product of callous, Tea Party-inspired policymaking at all levels of government. The stimulus package saved many education jobs, but it was too small to staunch the shortfalls inflicted by economic crisis and exacerbated by austerity-minded state governments. And although state tax revenues are finally tilting upward, the sequester promises federally induced pain. Title I funding targeted to schools serving the poorest students will be cut by $725.8m, according to the US department of education.

Federal and state cuts have also redistributed the burden of funding education from the state to local governments, a sharply regressive move that forces the poorest school districts to raise taxes on poor residents who can least afford to pay.

Meanwhile, Wall Street profits are up, in some part thanks to millions in transfers from broke school districts and local governments. In Philadelphia, the school district has lost $161m to interest-rate swap deals signed with Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and Wells Fargo. They went sour after the very same banks pushed the economy into oblivion. As a result, the cash-strapped schools must borrow more money from, well, the banks.

The motivations animating the self-described reform movement include ideological fervor, pecuniary self-interest and a sincere desire to help. But all have persistently sought to take advantage of budget crises to further their agenda. Last week, the Philadelphia City Paper uncovered a secret poll recommending that Governor Corbett exploit the Philly schools crisis to attack the teachers union – in an effort to boost his flagging reelection prospects.

The gamesmanship is part of an ongoing battle over who will control public education dollars, and to what end. Self-described reformers propose busting teachers unions, increasing the stakes of high-stakes standardized tests and pushing districts to spend a growing share of their shrinking budgets on privately managed charters.

They have the support of the very same Republicans who champion school budget cuts and also of “reform” Democrats such as President Obama. His Race to the Top initiative has doubled down on No Child Left Behind’s failures: states and school districts are being pushed harder to expand charters and to judge teacher and school success by deeply flawed test scores.

In Pennsylvania, the secret poll advocating an attack on teachers was funded by the reform group PennCAN, one of many in a rapidly expanding galaxy of well-financed lobby groups campaigning for increased private management and anti-union measures. The movement is funded by wealthy donors and foundations, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wal-Mart fortune-derived Walton Family Foundation.

Privately managed charter schools have, alongside teacher contracts and school closings, become an emotionally charged point of contention. Some charter schools are fantastic. But a charter school movement that seeks a wholesale conversion of school districts to private management, and that opposes oversight of the many corrupt or academically mediocre schools, poses an existential threat to public education.

This crisis, which has persisted as disparate local debates, may soon coalesce into a national conflict. The schools hurt the most are those that have long been underfunded, segregated institutions struggling to educate poor black and Latino students. But today’s cuts are reaching into working- and middle-class towns and suburbs, and turning schools across the country into dreary, boring, arts and creativity bereft boot camps for standardized test preparation.

In Seattle, hundreds of students and teachers refused to take or administer high-stakes standardized tests. This after Atlanta schools superintendent Beverly Hall and 34 others were indicted as part of a investigation that concluded a culture that accepted “no exceptions and no excuses for failure to meet targets” was at the root of widespread test cheating.

In New York, mayoral candidates have made the criticism of Michael Bloomberg’s school reform agenda a centerpiece of their campaign. In Philadelphia, mass student walkouts have protested the “doomsday” budget and hunger strikers are pledging to refuse food until more than 1,200 aides critical to school safety are rehired.

Most importantly, striking Chicago teachers created a new model for defending public schools in 2012. Educators received widespread public support after building strong community coalitions, and making it clear they fought not only for parochial job interests but also for fair funding, rich curricula and for schools as community institutions.

The reform movement perceives economic crisis as an opportunity to exploit for political gain. But the movement may have overplayed its hand, as increasing numbers of students, parents and teachers identify education austerity with the bipartisan prophets of “school choice”.

Was adopting Common Core a mistake?

Was adopting Common Core a mistake?

California signed on to new curriculum standards under pressure. But will they help?

by The Times editorial board

Think back to the dark days of 2009, when school districts in California and across the nation faced dire budget shortfalls. States would have done almost anything for extra money, and when the Obama administration dangled Race to the Top grants in front of them, many of them did indeed race to adopt the policies that would win federal approval — such as including student test scores in teachers’ performance rankings and adopting common curriculum standards.

Because public education falls almost entirely under state authority, this sort of arm-twisting was the only way the administration could persuade states to do its bidding. The No Child Left Behind Act, the school accountability law adopted during the George W. Bush administration, also used money — federal Title 1 funding for disadvantaged students — to press its rigid standards on states.

Race to the Top pressured financially strapped states to adopt education policies that varied widely in their value. Many of the policies, such as the push to tie teacher evaluations to student test scores, were not backed by any sort of evidence. Yet they were adopted quickly because of application deadlines, and there was little time for thoughtful crafting of new rules.

EDUCATION: California Schools Guide

Yet for all the excitement, Race to the Top provided little actual cash. California would have received a one-time award of $700 million — less than 2% of what it spends on education every year. It failed to win a grant, but nonetheless had committed itself, as most states did, to the Common Core curriculum standards that the Obama administration supported. Implementing the standards, which are set to take effect in a year, will cost the state well over $1 billion.

Was adopting Common Core a mistake? A lot depends on how well it’s carried out. In theory, the new standards, which cover only math and English for the moment, look promising. They’re intended to foster more analytical thinking and polished writing — important preparation for higher education — and to minimize rote memorization. At the same time, there are valid concerns about mandates to reduce the amount of fiction read in English classes and about material that won’t be taught because of the focus on learning fewer subjects in more depth. Implementation so far has not been promising. Schools in New York state have been rattled by the start of Common Core-based tests even though the curriculum isn’t in place and the teachers haven’t been trained. As Los Angeles Times staff writer Howard Blume recently reported, there have been missteps in California, such as when schools in the Santa Ana Unified School District tried to start the new curriculum before the state had approved its own version or adopted instructional materials.

Now that the costs and complications of Common Core are becoming better known, both liberals and conservatives have expressed some buyer’s remorse. School administrators and teachers say it will be a long time before schools will be up to speed on the new curriculum, and that it would be unfair to judge schools and teachers based on the tests during the early years of implementation. Tea party Republicans complain about the federal government’s interference in curriculum, and a few states have withheld funding for the start of the new standards — though no one forced them into this to begin with.

Resistance among conservatives seems to be more about picking a winnable battle against President Obama than providing the best possible education for students. Concern that the rollout of the new standards is moving too fast for thoughtful, successful implementation is better grounded; we’d rather see a smoother, more successful implementation than further disruption in schools. In any case, test results during the first years should not be counted until teachers have gained training and experience in the new curriculum and the kinks have been worked out.

Whether Common Core will provide the promised results remains to be seen, but the ruckus over it — as well as over other reforms passed in an effort to win Race to the Top grants — shows this much: States are better off adopting new educational policies because they’ve been shown to work better for students rather than because they come with a financial prize attached.

The Decline and Fall of the English Major

The Decline and Fall of the English Major

By Verlyn Klinkenborg

In the past few years, I’ve taught nonfiction writing to undergraduates and graduate students at Harvard, Yale, Bard, Pomona, Sarah Lawrence and Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. Each semester I hope, and fear, that I will have nothing to teach my students because they already know how to write. And each semester I discover, again, that they don’t.

They can assemble strings of jargon and generate clots of ventriloquistic syntax. They can meta-metastasize any thematic or ideological notion they happen upon. And they get good grades for doing just that. But as for writing clearly, simply, with attention and openness to their own thoughts and emotions and the world around them — no.

That kind of writing — clear, direct, humane — and the reading on which it is based are the very root of the humanities, a set of disciplines that is ultimately an attempt to examine and comprehend the cultural, social and historical activity of our species through the medium of language.

The teaching of the humanities has fallen on hard times. So says a new report on the state of the humanities by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and so says the experience of nearly everyone who teaches at a college or university. Undergraduates will tell you that they’re under pressure — from their parents, from the burden of debt they incur, from society at large — to choose majors they believe will lead as directly as possible to good jobs. Too often, that means skipping the humanities.

In other words, there is a new and narrowing vocational emphasis in the way students and their parents think about what to study in college. As the American Academy report notes, this is the consequence of a number of things, including an overall decline in the experience of literacy, the kind of thing you absorbed, for instance, if your parents read aloud to you as a child. The result is that the number of students graduating in the humanities has fallen sharply. At Pomona College (my alma mater) this spring, 16 students graduated with an English major out of a student body of 1,560, a terribly small number.

In 1991, 165 students graduated from Yale with a B.A. in English literature. By 2012, that number was 62. In 1991, the top two majors at Yale were history and English. In 2013, they were economics and political science. At Pomona this year, they were economics and mathematics.

Parents have always worried when their children become English majors. What is an English major good for? In a way, the best answer has always been, wait and see — an answer that satisfies no one. And yet it is a real answer, one that reflects the versatility of thought and language that comes from studying literature. Former English majors turn up almost anywhere, in almost any career, and they nearly always bring with them a rich sense of the possibilities of language, literary and otherwise.

The canon — the books and writers we agree are worth studying — used to seem like a given, an unspoken consensus of sorts. But the canon has always been shifting, and it is now vastly more inclusive than it was 40 years ago. That’s a good thing. What’s less clear now is what we study the canon for and why we choose the tools we employ in doing so.

A technical narrowness, the kind of specialization and theoretical emphasis you might find in a graduate course, has crept into the undergraduate curriculum. That narrowness sometimes reflects the tight focus of a professor’s research, but it can also reflect a persistent doubt about the humanistic enterprise. It often leaves undergraduates wondering, as I know from my conversations with them, just what they’ve been studying and why.

STUDYING the humanities should be like standing among colleagues and students on the open deck of a ship moving along the endless coastline of human experience. Instead, now it feels as though people have retreated to tiny cabins in the bowels of the ship, from which they peep out on a small fragment of what may be a coastline or a fog bank or the back of a spouting whale.

There is a certain literal-mindedness in the recent shift away from the humanities. It suggests a number of things. One, the rush to make education pay off presupposes that only the most immediately applicable skills are worth acquiring (though that doesn’t explain the current popularity of political science). Two, the humanities often do a bad job of explaining why the humanities matter. And three, the humanities often do a bad job of teaching the humanities. You don’t have to choose only one of these explanations. All three apply.

What many undergraduates do not know — and what so many of their professors have been unable to tell them — is how valuable the most fundamental gift of the humanities will turn out to be. That gift is clear thinking, clear writing and a lifelong engagement with literature.

Maybe it takes some living to find out this truth. Whenever I teach older students, whether they’re undergraduates, graduate students or junior faculty, I find a vivid, pressing sense of how much they need the skill they didn’t acquire earlier in life. They don’t call that skill the humanities. They don’t call it literature. They call it writing — the ability to distribute their thinking in the kinds of sentences that have a merit, even a literary merit, of their own.

Writing well used to be a fundamental principle of the humanities, as essential as the knowledge of mathematics and statistics in the sciences. But writing well isn’t merely a utilitarian skill. It is about developing a rational grace and energy in your conversation with the world around you.

No one has found a way to put a dollar sign on this kind of literacy, and I doubt anyone ever will. But everyone who possesses it — no matter how or when it was acquired — knows that it is a rare and precious inheritance.

Wrong is Right? Chinese students fight for the right to cheat

Wrong is Right?

Chinese students and families
for the right to cheat their exams

by Malcolm Moore

“We Want Fairness. There Is No Fairness If You Do Not Let Us Cheat”

Beijing: What should have been a hushed scene of 800 Chinese students sitting their university entrance exams erupted into siege warfare after invigilators tried to stop them cheating.

The relatively small city of Zhongxiang in Hubei province has always performed suspiciously well in China’s tough ”gaokao” exams, winning a disproportionate number of places at the country’s elite universities.

Last year, the city was cautioned by the province’s education department after it discovered 99 identical papers in one subject.

This year, a pilot scheme was introduced to enforce the rules.

When students at the No.3 high school in Zhongxiang arrived to sit their exams this month, they were dismayed to find that they would be supervised by 54 randomly selected external invigilators.

The invigilators used metal detectors to relieve students of mobile phones and secret transmitters, some of them designed to look like pencil erasers.

A team of female invigilators was on hand to intimately search female examinees, the Southern Weekend newspaper reported.

Outside the school, officials patrolled to catch people transmitting answers to the examinees. At least two groups were caught trying to communicate with students from a hotel opposite the school.

For the students, and their parents waiting outside, the new rules went too far. As soon as the exams finished, a mob swarmed into the school in protest.

”I picked up my son at midday. He started crying. I asked him what was up and he said a teacher had frisked his body and taken his mobile phone from his underwear. I was furious and I asked him if he could identify the teacher,” one of the fathers said to police.

By late afternoon, the invigilators were trapped as students pelted the windows with rocks. Outside, more than 2000 people had gathered, smashing cars and chanting: ”We want fairness. There is no fairness if you do not let us cheat.”

The protesters claim cheating is endemic in China and that sitting the exams without help puts their children at a disadvantage.

Teachers took to the internet to call for help. ”We are trapped in the exam hall,” wrote Kang Yanhong, an invigilator, on a Chinese messaging service. ”Students are smashing things and trying to break in.”

An invigilator named Li Yong was punched in the nose by a father. Mr Li had confiscated a mobile phone from his son and then refused a bribe to return the handset. ”This supervisor affected [my son’s] performance, so I was angry,” the man, named Zhao, told police.

Hundreds of police cordoned off the school and the local government conceded that ”exam supervision had been too strict and some students did not take it well”.

In Paris, meanwhile, a 52-year-old woman faces prosecution after being caught trying to sit a baccalaureate English exam in place of her daughter. Dressed as a teenager, including Converse trainers and low-waisted skinny jeans, the woman made it into the exam hall at a Paris high school. But a supervisor soon realized the woman was an impostor and alerted the principal.

The woman now faces fraud charges. Her daughter could be banned from public exams for five years.