High School Dropout Rate: Solutions for Success

High School Dropout Rate: Solutions for Success

by Matthew Lynch

This week I’ve been blogging about the bleak numbers that surround the national high school dropout rate and examining more closely the underlying causes. Many of society’s other problems – like unemployment, poverty and overcrowded prisons – can all be linked back to the individual decision to quit high school. It seems that this one factor is an indicator of other difficulties throughout the dropout’s life and it has a negative impact on society as a whole.

If we know that earning a high school diploma is the first step to a better life then that is a starting point for focus. So what can be done to increase the percentage of high school graduates?

Involvement from the business community

The economic impact of high school dropouts cannot be denied. As I mentioned Wednesday, the nation as a whole will miss out on an estimated $154 billion in income over the lifetimes of the dropouts from the Class of 2011. From a business perspective, this is a missed opportunity. There is money to be made and an economic boost is possible – but only if these students stick around long enough to obtain a high school diploma, and potentially seek out college opportunities. Georgia is a great example of a state that has taken advantage of the business community to help improve graduation rates. Areas like Atlanta Metro have some of the strongest business leaders in the nation, and school officials have begun to call on them for guidance and funding when it comes to improving graduation rates.

The report Building a Grad Nation 2012 found that between 2002 and 2010, Georgia showed high school graduation rate improvement from 61 to 68 percent, in part because of involvement from the business community. In that eight-year span, the number of “dropout factories” (schools with 60 percent or lower graduation rates) fell from 1,634 to 1,550. Making graduation numbers an issue of economic stability, and having backup from business leaders, is just one step toward reducing dropout numbers.

Further support outside the classroom

As discussed already, risk factors for dropouts include coming from low-income or single-parent families. Teachers simply cannot address the academic and emotional needs of every student within normal class time, so programs need to be in place for students who are at risk for dropping out. A pilot program in San Antonio called Communities in Schools has set out to accomplish this through offering on-campus counseling services for students on the fence about dropping out. The program offers a listening ear for whatever the students may need to talk about, from lack of food or anxiety about family financial woes. Of the students in the program in the 2012 – 2013 school year, 97 percent obtained a high school diploma instead of dropping out. While students can certainly talk about their studies, the main point of the program is not academic. It is simply a support system to encourage students who may be facing life obstacles to keep pushing forward to finish high school. These programs are often what students need to feel accountability toward the community as a whole and also worthiness for a high school diploma.

Earlier education for all

Much of the attack on the dropout rate happens when teens are already at a crossroads. In truth, the learning and social experiences they have from birth influence their attitudes about education, society and their own lives. Perhaps the dip in dropout rates in the past four decades hinges on another statistic: from 1980 to 2000, the number of four-year-old children in the U.S. enrolled in preschool programs rose from half to over two-thirds. Pre-K learning is only an academic right (free of charge) in 40 states and in 2012, total funding for these programs was slashed by $548 million. Instead of putting money where it belongs – upfront, at the beginning of a K-12 career – lawmakers could be contributing to a higher dropout rate, and economic cost, in future decades. It’s time to stop making the high school dropout issue something that is confronted in the moment; prevention, as early as pre-K learning, is a long-term solution.

What do you think? What is the solution to the high school dropout crisis?

I Quit Teach for America

I Quit Teach for America

by Olivia Blanchard

Five weeks of training was not enough to prepare
me for a room of 20 unruly elementary-schoolers.

I am sitting in a comfortable gold folding chair inside one of the many ballrooms at the Georgia International Convention Center. The atmosphere is festive, with a three-course dinner being served and children playing a big-band number. The kids are students at a KIPP academy in Atlanta, and they are serenading future teachers on the first night of a four-day-long series of workshops that will introduce us to the complicated language, rituals, and doctrines we will need to adopt as Teach for America “Corps Members.”

The phrase closing the achievement gap is the cornerstone of TFA’s general philosophy, public-relations messaging, and training sessions. As a member of the 2011 corps, I was told immediately and often that 1) the achievement gap is a pervasive example of inequality in America, and 2) it is our personal responsibility to close the achievement gap within our classrooms, which are microcosms of America’s educational inequality.

These are laudable goals. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, white fourth-graders performed better than their black peers on 2007 standardized mathematics exams in all 46 states where results were available. In 2004, there was a 23-point gap in mathematics scale scores between white and black 9-year-olds, with the gap growing to 26 points for 13-year-olds.

But between these two messages lies the unspoken logic that current, non-TFA teachers and schools are failing at the task of closing the achievement gap, through some combination of apathy or incompetence. Although TFA seminars and presentations never explicitly accuse educators of either, the implication is strong within the program’s very structure: recruit high-achieving college students, train them over the summer, and send them into America’s lowest-performing schools to make things right. The subtext is clear: Only you can fix what others have screwed up. It was an implication I noticed when an e-mail I received during Institute, the five-week training program, referring to “a system of students who have simply not been taught.” The e-mail explained, “That’s really what the achievement gap is—for all of the external factors that may or may not add challenges to our students’ lives—mostly it is that they really and truly have not been taught and are therefore years behind where they need to be.”

I later asked a TFA spokesperson if this e-mail reflects the organization’s official views on traditionally trained teachers. He denied that TFA believes “the shortcomings of public education” to be “the fault of teachers. If anything,” he added, “teachers are victims of more-structural problems: inequitable funding; inadequate systems of training and supporting teachers; the absence of strong school and district leadership.” Nonetheless, at the time, the dramatic indictment of America’s non-TFA teachers would stay with me as I headed into the scandal-ridden Atlanta Public Schools system.

In the weeks between accepting the offer to join TFA and the start of our training, I was told by e-mail that “as a 2011 corps member and leader, you have a deep personal and collective responsibility to ground everything you do in your belief that the educational inequality that persists along socioeconomic and racial lines is both our nation’s most fundamental injustice and a solvable problem. This mindset,” I was reminded, “is at the core of our Teach For America—Metro Atlanta Community.”

At the time, I appreciated TFA’s apparent confidence in me as a leader. I assumed that I would learn the concrete steps I needed to achieve this transformation during the training program. Instead I was immersed in a sea of jargon, buzzwords, and touchy-feely exercises. One memorable session began with directions for us to mentally “become” two of our students. After an elaborate, 32-slide reflection guide, we were asked to close the session with a “Vision Collage,” for which we were handed pre-scripted reflections. “One person will volunteer to read his/her line first. After one person reads aloud, another should jump in, so that one response immediately follows another—without any pauses.” At this stage in training, most of us were still struggling to grasp the basics of lesson planning. (According to TFA this exercise is not a part of the formal training program.)

Typical instructional training included only the most basic framework; one guide to introducing new material told us to “emphasize key points, command student attention, actively involve students, and check for understanding.” We were told that “uncommon techniques” included “setting high academic expectations, structuring and delivering your lessons, engaging students in your lessons, communicating high behavioral expectations, and building character and trust.” Specific tips included “you provide the answer; the student repeats the answer”; “ask students to make an exact replica in their notes of what you write on the board”; and “respond quickly to misunderstandings.” After observing and teaching alongside non-TFA teachers at my placement school, I can confidently say that these approaches are not “uncommon.”

I am shifting my weight uncomfortably in a plastic classroom chair on an Atlanta summer afternoon. Our adviser interrupts lunch by asking us to pause to spend a few minutes reflecting on what brought us to TFA in the first place. After the requisite reflection time, and after turning off the room’s lights, Alicia begins to share a story about growing up with a single mother, culminating in an emotional appeal to do whatever we can to help “our kids” in the future. Although I have always found Alicia to be rather stoic, she suddenly begins sobbing when relaying this story. After regaining composure, she makes it clear that we are meant to follow suit. One by one, until the 12th person has spoken, we deliver either tearful accounts of personal hardship or awkward, halting stories recounted by people uncomfortable with the level of intimacy. While talking to other TFA teachers from different schools over dinner, I learn that other groups had nearly identical sessions.

Once the school year began, I found myself teaching in a 500-student K–5 school with two other corps members and three TFA alumni. The school’s other 30 teachers had gone through some version of a traditional teaching program, involving years of studying educational theory and practice, as well as extensive student teaching. As I got to know my new colleagues and some level of trust was established, it didn’t take long to discover that TFA’s five-week training model was a source of resentment for these teachers. Not only were we youngsters going into “rough” schools with the stated goal of changing what they had not been able to, but we had done this with only half a summer’s worth of preparation. I began to understand why my TFA status instantly communicated to other teachers that I found myself superior.

Although I felt bad that TFA had created a system that caused a rift between corps members and traditional teachers, I didn’t have much time to worry about that. The truth was, the five-week training program had not prepared me adequately.

During my training, I taught a group of nine well-behaved third-graders who had failed the state reading test and hoped to make it to fourth grade. Working with three other corps members, which created a generous teacher-student ratio, I had ample time for one-on-one instruction.

That classroom training was completely unlike the situation I now faced in Atlanta: teaching math and science to two 20-person groups of rotating, difficult fifth-graders—fifth-graders so difficult that multiple substitute teachers would vow never to teach fifth grade at our school again.

I had few insights or resources to draw on when preteen boys decided recess would be the perfect opportunity to beat each other bloody, or when parents all but accused me of being racist during meetings. Or when a student told me that his habit of doing nothing during class stemmed from his (admittedly sound) logic that “I did the same thing last year and I passed.” The Institute’s training curriculum was far too broad to help me navigate these situations. Because many corps members do not receive their specific teaching assignments until after training has ended, the same training is given to future kindergarten teachers in Atlanta, charter-school teachers in New Orleans, and high-school physics teachers in Memphis.

I was not alone in my trouble with student behavior. Gary Rubinstein, a 1991 TFA alum and an outspoken critic of the organization, believes the training sets teachers up for failure: TFA teachers “don’t know how to deal with discipline problems, because they’ve never dealt with a class with more than 10 kids—there’s no way to deal with so many potential problems when they’ve never been practiced.”

Jessica Smith, a corps member I recently called up, agrees. “I’ve struggled with behavior management,” she admits. (As with all the names of teachers I spoke to for this article, “Jessica” is a pseudonym.) Though training includes some instruction in student discipline, “I didn’t really have the training to know how to give consequences consistently,” Jessica said.

I asked if she reached out for support. “I think I talked to every person I knew to talk to, even our region’s executive director,” Jessica recalled. Although TFA ultimately did send in a behavior-management expert, “The person who finally came in to help me came at the end of February for a 20-minute session.” Is this a representative experience? It’s hard to say. “We provide training in behavior-management techniques,” a TFA spokesperson said when asked about Jessica, “but corps members are expected to adapt their training to their unique school culture. We also provide continuing support for corps members who have trouble fitting in.”

Jessica has decided not to return to TFA for a second year. She said she was so unsupported that she felt justified reneging on her two-year commitment. “Yes a commitment matters,” she wrote, “but staying isn’t necessarily helpful to your kids or anybody.” Jessica said that after she notified local TFA leadership of her decision, the reaction was severe. “They chewed out my character and made personal allegations,” she said. She was told, she recalls, that she would “personally have to deal with remorse and regret.”

On its website, TFA makes a bold claim that “By the end of Institute, corps members have developed a foundation of knowledge, skills, and mindsets needed to be effective beginning teachers.” Training is supposed to include teaching “for an average of two hours each day … observed by experienced teachers,” “extensive lesson planning instruction,” and constant opportunities for feedback. Personally, I taught two 90-minute classes per week, a far cry from the 10 hours per week described in the publicity materials—and “experienced teachers” usually meant new TFA alumni with two years of classroom experience.

“It is certainly possible that [you] got less classroom time than promised,” the TFA spokesperson told me. “But we work to avoid that situation. During summer Institute, we work with 120 different schools, and there is variation in the schedule, which we don’t always control.” The spokesperson added that “as part of Institute, our CMs have access to two different coaches: a coach/adviser that we hire and train as well as a veteran teacher from the local school or district with whom we are partnering.” Although my group was assigned a veteran teacher during Institute, she did not have a substantive role in our training, and halfway through the summer she was implicated in the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal.

Compared with the experiences of other Teach for America teachers, though, my placement and training were actually fairly lucky. I know more than one Religious Studies major who arrived in Atlanta ready to teach elementary school, only to be told that she was being reassigned to teach high-school mathematics. Of course, becoming “highly qualified” to teach upper-level math meant passing the state teaching test in that subject, and some recruits found out midway through the summer that they had failed. After being recruited by TFA, successfully completing training, and hearing time and again that we would be supported throughout the hiring process, we received the following e-mail, a terse reminder of how alone we actually were:

If you did not pass your exam, you will have to Emergency Release from the corps—your position will be reserved for the [next] Academic Year and you will not be required to attend Institute. You will be able to apply for open positions within Teach For America, receive guidance on how to apply to other opportunities within the Atlanta area, and be able to use the Teach For America Corps Member Computer Lab and Resource Room as needed during your transition.

At a party last year, I met one former TFA recruit who had failed the state’s notoriously difficult special-education exam. After I complimented her espadrilles, she replied that she’d gotten them at a discount through her retail job. Shocked that she hadn’t been placed elsewhere, I thought back to the e-mail we had received. Having a reserved spot in next year’s corps isn’t much help to 22-year-olds who have uprooted their lives for a teaching position they believe to be all but guaranteed.

I am standing, arms crossed, back hunched, whispering with Ms. Jones, as we sort supplies our students will need for the Criterion Referenced Competency Test. In the last few free minutes before testing begins, Ms. Jones is sharing her candid, and often hilarious, views on first-year teaching. “It’s wrong!” she whispers passionately, her eyebrows shoot up far into her forehead. Ms. Jones is known as a no-nonsense veteran teacher, and I had found her quite intimidating before I realized she is incredibly kind. “It’s wrong to put teachers in the classroom with no experience, Ms. Blanchard. I went through a teaching program, and I taught in four different classrooms before I ever had these kids on my own.” Looking at Ms. Jones’ perfectly behaved, high-achieving third-graders and comparing them with my own unruly students, I can see her point. The intercom buzzes to announce a five-minute warning before testing will begin, and that reminds Ms. Jones of the labyrinthine set of test procedures to come. “Make sure they have their pencils, Ms. Blanchard, we can’t have any testing irregularities. You know we have to cover ourselves. Everyone’s watching this building, and I don’t know about you, but Ms. Jones is not fixing to be on Channel 2 tonight.”

By the end of the school year, I felt like I would scream if I ever heard the phrase cover yourself again. Within Atlanta Public Schools, this phrase embodies a general spirit of fear and intimidation, not to mention sad tolerance for the fact that teachers are seen as little more than passive cogs in the wheel of the city’s education machine.

Valuable minutes of classroom instruction time were lost to filling out accident reports when kids occasionally fell out of their chairs or poked each other with pencils. If two students began arguing and one child angrily vowed to “get” the other, I was always advised by fellow teachers to write up the incident on Atlanta Public Schools letterhead immediately, thereby “covering” the district if the threat materialized and parents were feeling litigious. What our students needed the most in these situations, it seemed, were conflict-management skills and character education, but unfortunately these interventions do not sufficiently “cover” the adult interests of the district. When I was once asked to fill in for an unexpectedly absent colleague, one of her second-graders chose to confide in me about his abysmal home life. He explained, with wide and trusting eyes, that his mother’s boyfriend enjoyed getting drunk, abusing the family, and sometimes shooting at the kids with a BB gun for fun. I immediately reported the incident to an administrator, who reacted with what appeared to be annoyance that one more paper had to be filed at 3:00 p.m. on a Friday. This was an administrator who really does care about children and wants to improve their lives—but the all-important duty of covering the legal interests of the district can make crucial social work feel like just another rubber stamp.

I’d been at TFA training, about to head into this system, when the official report on the cheating scandal in the Atlanta Public Schools was released. My immediate reaction was shock that so many teachers could be complicit in something so outrageously dishonest. Midway through the school year, though, I came to understand exactly how it had happened. APS has some of the best teachers in the country, but surviving in the district means covering yourself, and during standardized testing this means ensuring objective success. In a top-down, ruthless bureaucracy like APS, teachers are front-line foot soldiers, not educators encouraged to pursue their calling.

Atlanta Public Schools teachers spend countless hours teaching to exhaustion, spending their own money on classroom supplies, and buying basic necessities for their poorest students, only to be reminded constantly that their job performance will be judged according to test answers bubbled in by wobbly little fingers barely able to hold a pencil upright. Teaching children is inherently much more intimate, messy, and personal than any office job could ever be. It’s about guiding, pushing, and spending most of your waking hours with other people’s children, whether they need a Band-Aid, a bear hug, or a fresh set of markers that their parents can’t afford. Many teachers in schools like mine would agree that often the most-struggling students improve in ways that will not be reflected on the state test. They might learn to say please and thank you, or they might master a set of academic skills that still will not be enough to pass on-level, or they might gain a healthy dose of self-respect. After a year in this environment, I realized I could understand how, when the annual testing frenzy rolled around, a lot of teachers chose to put their heads down, tune out, and cover themselves.

Teach for America cited the Atlanta scandal as a sad example of what is wrong with education’s status quo, one of the many reasons America’s schools need even more reform and innovation. But what occurred to me, as I worked my way, ill-prepared, through Atlanta Public Schools, was that the two systems are not as far apart as either might like to suggest. TFA is at least as enamored of numerical “data points” of success as APS is. TFA strongly encourages its teachers to base their classes’ “big goals” around standardized-test scores. Past and present corps members are asked to stand to thunderous applause if their students have achieved some objectively impressive measure of achievement, and everyone knows that the best way to work for and rise through TFA ranks is to have a great elevator pitch about how your students’ scores improved by X percent.

Nor is the organization a stranger to controversies involving performance measurement. On its website, TFA claims that “Teach For America corps members help their students achieve academic gains equal to or larger than teachers from other preparation programs, according to the most recent and rigorous studies on teacher effectiveness.” But TFA’s ability to rate the performance of its own teachers has been heavily criticized; a Reuters article in 2012 pointed out that TFA’s 2010 federal grant of $50 million was based on the organization’s internal data “showing that 41 percent of its first-year teachers and 53 percent of its second-year teachers advanced their students by an impressive 1.5 to 2 years in a single school year.” When asked about the origin of these statistics, TFA’s former research director, Heather Harding, admitted that many teachers provide performance statistics based on self-designed assessments. Reuters quoted Harding saying, “I don’t think it stands up to external research scrutiny.”

The TFA spokesperson maintains that the comment “was taken out of context,” and that Simon was “merely pointing out that internal research referenced in a grant application does not meet the same level of rigor as external research, although both show the positive impact our corps members are having on students.”

Whether or not the numerical data is broadly accurate, I can attest to the pressure within TFA to produce proof of student gains without much oversight or guidance.

By the end of my time at TFA and Atlanta Public Schools, I came to feel that both organizations had a disconnect between their public ideals and their actual effectiveness. APS invests in beautiful new buildings and glossy public-relations messaging, only to pressure its teachers into pedagogical conformity that often prevents them from reaching the district’s most remedial students. Likewise, TFA promotes a public image of eager high achievers dedicated to one mission, reaching “Big Goals” that pull students out of the achievement gap, where non-TFA teachers have let them fall. But in my experience, many if not most corps members are confused about their purpose, uncertain of their skills, and struggling to learn the basics.

TFA often cites research showing that its teachers perform well in relation to other teachers; a spokesperson I talked to said that, “In terms of the external research, the most-rigorous nationwide studies on TFA to date, by Mathematica and CALDER, found TFA teachers to be at least as effective as other teachers at the schools where they teach. A follow-up analysis of the Mathematica data showed that Teach for America teachers produce significant student achievement gains in math, regardless of how well students were performing beforehand.” Referencing statewide studies of teacher effectiveness, TFA’s website notes that studies in Louisiana, North Carolina, and Tennessee all “found that corps members often help their students achieve academic gains at rates equal to or larger than those for students of more veteran teachers.” A just-released U.S. Department of Education study of secondary math teachers showed Teach for America teachers to be more effective than other teachers at their schools. According to the study, students with TFA teachers scored higher on end-of-year exams than their peers in non-TFA classrooms—the difference is equivalent to 2.6 extra months of classroom time.

I have no reason to doubt studies showing that TFA teachers are more effective—after all, they are recruited from a pool of the country’s hardest-working college students, and good teaching is nothing if not hard work. But Teach for America aspires to close the achievement gap by training teachers that are significantly better than educators already in the system. Can simply being “at least as effective as other teachers” really be cited as success?

I am sitting in a black, leather office chair in my new Washington, D.C., office. I have just been hired at a private company whose vision statement says nothing about closing the achievement gap, and the time has come to send TFA an e-mail announcing that I am leaving the program. I have only completed one year of my two-year commitment, knowing full well that this kind of mission-shirking is seen as a very serious, selfish betrayal within TFA. However, the reality is that my employer has been Atlanta Public Schools, my contract with the district was only for one year, and most of my teaching experiences have been defined by the messy struggles of Atlanta Public Schools, not the comfortable mantras of TFA. I struggle to summon the guilt I know I am supposed to be feeling. My large-screen computer monitor rests sturdily in front of me, and the cursor on an empty Word document blinks. What can I say to them?, I wonder. I steel myself against the possibility of criticism, against accusations of apathy, inability, or lack of leadership.

When I click Gmail’s Send button, though, I am flooded with relief rather than dread. Because the truth is, by finally showing I don’t believe that American education can be saved by youthful enthusiasm, I feel more like a leader than I ever did inside the corps.

Five Things Online Students Want from Faculty

Five Things Online Students Want from Faculty

By Rob Kelly

Through regular student feedback, Jennifer Luzar, associate professor of language arts at Northwood University, has compiled the following things students want in their online courses and ways that she has adapted her instruction accordingly.

1. Quick responses

From the time she started teaching online, Luzar has made it a point to respond as soon as possible to her students. The typical reply from students is, “Wow! Thanks for the quick response,” as if this is not usually the case. “I used to be surprised by that because I feel that as online instructors it is our responsibility to try to get back to these people as quickly as possible,” Luzar says.

To meet this standard, Luzar uses her smartphone to reply to students wherever she may be. “It’s usually a quick yes or no, and the students can get on with their work,” Luzar says. When she recommends to colleagues to do the same, they often bristle at the thought of the online course intruding on other aspects of their lives. To this she replies: “Think about how much easier your personal life is going to be if you can answer a quick email at home at 7 p.m. instead of waiting until 8 the next morning and having 100 emails in your inbox. By then the student is annoyed or freaked out. The quicker you can get back to the students the better. They really appreciate that.”

To help minimize the number of student emails, Luzar encourages students to post their course management/logistical questions to special forum within the course and to monitor it frequently. Students often can answer each other’s questions before Luzar even sees the question. (She logs in to the forum several times a day to affirm correct responses from fellow students or provide the correct answer.) Having this forum reminds students that the instructor is not the only person with the answers and that “we are not here at their beck and call. This is a way to empower them to help one another and to be drivers of the course,” Luzar says.

2. Instructor presence

Students want to know that there is a real person teaching the course. Luzar has several ways to convey this sense of presence. One way is to include “a little bit about what’s going on with me” in the weekly announcements and by sharing photos or stories. (“I always say, ‘This is optional,’” Luzar says.)

She also includes a weekly one-minute video that introduces the unit. This provides “a constant feeling that there is a person on the other end,” Luzar says. These videos are informal and intended to be timely and personal, so she may talk about current events and mention students by name.

Luzar also uses video in a more formal way each week, condensing a weekly lecture into five minutes. She records these in a studio and reuses them in future sections of her courses.

3. Reminders

Many of Luzar’s students are nontraditional learners trying to keep their busy lives on track. Based on suggestions from students, Luzar provides reminders and forecasts to help students manage their time. Reminders let students know when things are due and forecasts come at the end of the week and alert students about what to expect in the next two weeks. Reminders and forecasts are in red to help students see them at a glance.

4. Easy-to-access course design

Students appreciate having all the content for a unit in one place instead of having things buried within folders. “The fewer clicks the better,” Luzar says.

This idea came from feedback from students. The students were frustrated that they couldn’t get back easily to where they’d been as they navigated the course. They had to click on exterior links to open attachments.

Luzar’s approach to course design is to keep it simple. Although her approach does not use all the features of the LMS, but students have reacted positively to it, and it makes her work easier. “Just because the tools are there doesn’t mean that you have to use them. You have to figure out what your students like and what is within your comfort zone and then merge the two,” Luzar says.

5. Fun, interesting discussion formats

Luzar divides the class into five-member discussion groups and assigns each member with a unique role in each discussion. For example, she’ll have one student serve the role of David Letterman, creating a Top 10 List-style summary of a chapter in the textbook. Another will take on the role of Ann Landers and write a question-and-answer-type column based on the chapter’s material. Another group member, “Oscar,” (as in the Academy Awards) reviews the discussion, and gives awards for exemplary posts in the discussion board, and explains why.

“Students love that. … It teaches them to think differently, perhaps extend their thought or rearrange or cross-reference it. And so that really seems to get people going and lot of times, if I change the discussion roles, students will email and say, ‘Can I be Dave next time?’

“I think we do these types of assignments or discussions or classroom interactions in the face-to-face classroom, so I really believe with a little creativity anything you can do face-to-face can be modified in the online environment. And the students appreciate it.”

Teacher Burnout Is Real — 4 Ways to Avoid It

Teacher Burnout Is Real — 4 Ways to Avoid It

by Franchesca Warren

You wake up one morning sweaty, out of breath and with a throbbing headache. You take every pain medicine available, but you still feel like crap. Determined to finish out the school year strong, you continue to teach until the last day of school. Despite your optimism you still cannot “shake” the feeling that maybe teaching is not the career you can stay in for the long run. You find yourself feeling:

  • under appreciated for the work and hours you put in the classroom
  • confused about expectations and priorities of your ever changing jobs
  • concerned about job security with education budgets being slashed
  • overcommitted with the ever changing responsibilities of a teacher
  • resentful about duties that are not properly compensated

If you feel like this, you may be experiencing teacher burnout.

Not only is teacher burnout a real condition, during the last months of school it can seem like a insurmountable feeling to overcome. During the last eight weeks of school this is traditionally the time when teacher burnout is alive and kicking down our door. We not only feel physically tired from all of the end of the year shenanigans, but we are mentally burned out.
We start to do the following just to make it through the day:

  • It takes us longer to get out of bed in the morning and by night fall we’re falling a sleep on the couch.
  • We grimace at the thought of having to stay after school extra days to grade papers.
  • You get annoyed by the littlest things that occur in your classroom.
  • You find yourself using your planning period to search for jobs OUT of education.

With teachers knowing, recognizing and experiencing burnout, we still find ourselves barely hanging on to our sanity by the last day of school. So the age old question remains — how can teachers take these last couple of days of school and make them their best?

1. Decide what’s important to finish the school year strong.
How many teachers have been in this predicament? You have exactly 20 assignments ( a mixture of homework and projects) that you have to grade before you can close out your grade book. You’re staying up all night just to get them graded and many times are walking into the schoolhouse “cross-eyed” due to lack of sleep. When you get to your class your’s irritated and you’re going through two to three red pens a day by the amount of grading you’re doing. So what do you do?

I recommend to take a “step back” and decide what’s important. If all of the graded work is homework does it make sense to grade every single piece of it? Would it be better to choose a couple of homework assignments to randomly grade and focus on higher weighted assignments? If you have a little longer left in school and want to assign homework, but don’t have the time to grade it, would it be better to assign homework from an online system that will instantly grade it for you like Study Island, USA Test Prep or Carnegie Learning? The point of grading is to give feedback to students, but many times if you get behind in grading that short window of time when feedback is effective can be lost . So to avoid predicaments like this, try to organize your time and be selective with your grading.

2. Plan activities in the summer that have NOTHING to do with school.
Toward the end of the year, it never fails, I start to receive emails about summer opportunities for me to teach summer school or lead a summer program. While the pay seems great, I always reply “no” because I realize that all money is not good money. You see I use my eight weeks in the summer to do what I like to do. Sometimes I decide to run a half marathon or take swim lessons, while other times I elect to sit on my porch and just relax. Whether I plan a summer full of activities or a decide to just relax, I realized years ago that teachers need to take the summer to work on their dreams and ambitions.

The ideas seems so simple, but after servicing children (and their parents) for 200 days straight, all educators need a break. The break should have nothing to with education and should allow us to relax our brains for a moment. I usually recommend that teachers try not to work during the summer and instead use that time rejuvenate their love for education. That may mean being at home and watching reruns of “Breaking Bad” or spending your time catching up on our recreational reading. I’ve watched co-workers of mine, use the summer to do recreational things such as running marathons, traveling over the world or taking on a totally new career. As you plan your summer think about that and use your time to rejuvenate your ind and soul.

3.Reflect on what you’ve learned this school year.
A couple of days after school is out, our minds are still spinning about what happened during the last 180 days of instruction. Many times while we’re grimacing about situations that weren’t so wonderful, we are also smiling about all of the things that were awesome. So instead of letting those experiences die, why not take time to journal how your school year actually went? The only way to became a better practitioner is to reflect in your time in the classroom. So use this summer to journal what worked well in your classroom and the areas that you need to work on for the following school year. Maybe you spent too much time at your school and you need to schedule more time for you to work on yourself. Reflection is a powerful self awareness tool so schedule out a few hours a day to reflect and renew your mental state.

4. Realize that the shenanigans with closing out the end of the year have nothing to do with you as an educator.
How many times have we had an angry parent want a conference on the last day of school to discuss a grade or worse, to demand more work in order for their child to pass. While experiencing these harrowing incidents with parents, your principal or other co-workers, it’s important to realize that craziness is bound to happen at the end of every year. The difference is how you respond to it. For example, whenever I’m confronted with a parent who is upset about a grade, I always bring all of my “artifacts” that I’ve collected from trying to help their child. If a parent gets too intense during the conference, then I always excuse myself and let my administration handle the parent. The point is, I realize that the end of the year is stressful for parents, teachers, students and administrators so anything done during that time, I don’t take personally.

In the end, teacher burnout is real and in order to overcome it you have to employ some strategies for your mental and physical health. To read The Educator’s Room first published book, Keep the Fire Burning: Avoiding Teacher Burnout, please click here.



Books in the Home Are Strongly Linked to Academic Achievement

Books in the Home Are Strongly
Linked to Academic Achievement

By Tom Jacobs

Test scores from 42 nations provide evidence
of the benefits of having a home library.

With the school year ending and report cards being issued, plenty of parents are no doubt wondering what they can do to boost their children’s academic performance. Newly published research suggests there is a simple and effective answer: Build up your home library.

“We find that books in the home have a positive payoff in improved test scores throughout the world,” writes a research team led by University of Nevada-Reno sociologist Mariah Evans. “The relationship is strong, clear, and statistically significant in every one of the 42 nations (we studied).”

Evans made this same point in a 2010 study, which found “home library size has a very substantial effect on educational attainment.” Her new research confirms that conclusion using data from even a larger number of nations—42, rather than the 27 in the earlier report.

It also rebuts critics who contend that having books in the home “merely signals children’s elite status to gatekeepers, who then grant them unjust advantages.” To the contrary, Evans and her colleagues find books “especially benefit children from disadvantaged families.”

“They enhance the academic performance of children from families as all educational and occupation levels,” the researchers write, “but the enhancement is greater for families with little education and low-status occupations.”

Evans and colleagues Jonathan Kelley and Joanna Sikora examined data from the Program for International Student Assessment, a project of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Academic achievement of participating students (most of whom were 15 years old at the time of the study) was determined by a test that the researchers describe as “carefully designed, comprehensive, structured to minimize class and ethnic bias, and anonymously graded.”

Data was also collected on family demographics, as well as the number of books in the student’s family home. (There was no information available on the specific types of volumes.)

The results were unambiguous: “Regardless of how many books the family already has, each addition to the home library helps children do better (on the standard test),” Evans and her colleagues report.

This held true even after parents’ occupations and education level and family wealth were taken into account. What’s more, the effect was consistently found in both rich and poor nations; in countries with economic systems that lead toward capitalism and socialism; and “in Asia as well as Europe and the Americas,” they add.

Within nations, “The gains are not equally great across the entire cultural hierarchy,” the researchers write. “They are larger at the bottom, far below elite level. Each additional book has a greater impact on the performance of someone who only has a small home library than it does on the performance of someone from a home overflowing with books. The second book and the third book have much greater impacts than the 102nd or 103rd.”

Still, that 100th (or 500th) volume says something important about the household environment.

“A home with books as an integral part of the way of life encourages children to read for pleasure and encourages discussion among family members about what they have read,” Evans and her colleagues write, “thereby providing children with information, vocabulary, imaginative richness, wide horizons, and skills for discovery and play.”

They concede that their research leaves something of a chicken-and-egg question: Are books in the home merely an indication of that sort of “scholarly culture,” or does their presence create an intellectually stimulating family environment?

While the answer isn’t clear, the researchers point to recent research suggesting that “books themselves do matter.”

“If so, a strong policy recommendation in favor of book drives is justified,” they conclude, adding that providing children’s books to young mothers may be a very good idea.

Being read to, reading for yourself, discussing what you’ve read—that’s the sort of positive spiral that can lead to greater academic achievement years down the line. The Cat in the Hat may turn out to be the catalyst between the covers.

The college graduation rate is flawed — and hard to fix

The college graduation rate is flawed — and hard to fix

by Libby Nelson

College commencement season is filled with stories of unlikely victories against overwhelming odds. A mother of three in Arizona who dropped out of college in the ’90s is finishing her bachelor’s degree with a 4.0 GPA. A 62-year-old grandmother in Pennsylvania took classes online to get the degree she needs to advance at work in the oil industry. A single dad and veteran is graduating magna cum laude in engineering technology.

But these accomplishments are invisible to the federal government, who won’t count any of these students — or thousands of others — when it calculates the most widely circulated college graduation rate.

Elin Nordegren, Tiger Woods’ ex-wife, graduated from
Rollins College this year. Because she took nine years
to finish college, she isn’t counted in federal graduation rates.

Fifty-nine percent of students at four-year colleges earn a degree within six years. That’s the national version of the measurement colleges are required to use for their own graduation rates according to a 1990 federal law.

What that rate should say is “59 percent of students at four-year colleges who have never been to college before, and who enroll full-time in their first semester earn a degree within six years at the same college where they started as freshmen.”

That leaves out students with some college credits who never finished a degree and are coming back to try again. It leaves out students who transferred during their college careers, as 9 percent of students did in the most recent academic year. And it doesn’t say what happens to the remaining 41 percent who didn’t complete.

Getting more people through college has become a national priority, but the federal statistics don’t necessarily show whether the US is succeeding or failing.

“There’s a big focus on making sure that students receive the value they deserve for the money they’re investing,” says Christine Keller, an associate vice president at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, which wants to replace the federal graduation rate with a different measurement it helped develop.

For some colleges, it matters that we’re counting wrong

Community college students in particular aren’t well-represented
in the graduation rate statistics. NBC Universal

Graduation rates can have consequences. A business group put up billboards in Austin and Dallas in 2011 to criticize the local community colleges’ graduation rate: The federal rate says just 4 percent of students in Austin community colleges graduate within three years.

“Is that a good use of tax $?” the billboard asked. But the federal rate graduation rate measured just 6 percent of the community college’s total enrollment. The other 94 percent weren’t first-time students, weren’t attending full-time, or both.
It’s not just a public relations problem — 25 states are now basing a small slice of public colleges’ funding on their performance, which can be measured in part by graduation rates.

The government measures the graduation rate this way for a reason

Full-time students are more likely to finish college. Students who drop out for years and later return wreak havoc on the calculations; if they took a semester of classes, dropped out, enrolled again 10 years later, and finished their degree on time, did it take them four years or 14?
And because a law prohibits the federal government from tracking data on individual students, figuring out with certainty what happens to transfers is tricky. So is deciding whether a college deserves credit, blame, or something in between if a student decides to attend somewhere else and gets a degree there instead. So the measurement isn’t arbitrary. It’s just incomplete.
“It was feasible for the data systems at the time” the 1990 law was passed, says Jack Buckley, a former commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics. “We are in a much different world in terms of accountability.”

How different would a more inclusive graduation rate be?

The National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit, provides an idea with its own measurements. Colleges submit data to the clearinghouse, which has information on more than 90 percent of college students nationwide.
The group doesn’t calculate an overall graduation rate for four-year colleges, and it includes students who attend half-time or more. So it’s hard to compare the rates directly with the federal numbers.
Still, the clearinghouse found that 60 percent of students who start at a four-year public college earn a bachelor’s degree somewhere within six years; at private colleges, 70 percent do so within six years. Both are about 5 percent higher than the federal graduation rate. (For-profit colleges have the lowest graduation rate of around 40 percent, but are also underrepresented in the database compared to other colleges.)



And in each sector, at least 9 percent of the remaining students are still enrolled and are still working to finish a degree.

That’s not great news if they’re taking on debt to do so, but it reflects reality: for many college students, life gets in the way of attending full-time all the time. About 59 percent attend part-time for at least a semester.

There may be change on the horizon

The Education Department measures other graduation rates, Buckley says: four-year rates, five-year rates, even rates that allow colleges to report transfers. Beginning in 2016, still more graduation rates will try to capture everyone.
But Congress will still require colleges to report the same rate they use now. So it’s not clear if those other measurements will get traction.
The holy grail for many data advocates is a federal system that tracks individual students, much as the clearinghouse does. That would eliminate any uncertainty about whether students have dropped out, transferred, or something else. But Congress, citing privacy concerns, forbade the creation of such a database in 2008.
The Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities and other groups have developed an alternate graduation rate that uses data from the clearinghouse to show what actually happens to students after they enroll.
Using that rate, known as the Student Achievement Measure, can make the colleges’ individual results look different. And it makes the flip side of the graduation rate — students who the government says didn’t graduate — look a lot more hopeful. At the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, 75 percent earned a degree within six years (compared to 64 percent in the federal measurement). And just 10 percent aren’t either graduates or still in college somewhere.



That’s at least a little more worthy of celebration at graduation time.

Is going to college still worth it?

For the vast majority of students, yes, yes, it is.

The reason is that people who go to college, even if they don’t graduate, make significantly more money than people who don’t attend. College graduates make, on average, roughly $30,000 more a year than high-school graduates who never went to college, according to the Hamilton Project’s calculations. That adds up to an income boost of over $500,000 more over the course of a lifetime. People who attend but don’t graduate from college make about $8,000 more a year than high school grads who didn’t go to college, which adds up to more than $100,000 extra over a lifetime.


How American Universities Turned Into Corporations

How American Universities Turned Into Corporations

by Andrew Rossi

A profitable student loan market has fueled an arms race among colleges and universities, along with an astronomic rise in tuition that seeks to capture the student loan dollar through increasing fees.

Colleges Are Buying Stuff They Can’t Afford and Making Students Pay For It

Colleges Are Buying Stuff They Can’t
Afford and Making Students Pay For It

by Michelle Chen

With tuition costs more than doubling over the past generation, and student debt now exceeding $1 trillion, everyone knows the cost of college is too damn high. About 40 million people nationwide are weighed down by education debts that often reach into the tens of thousands. But those numbers are just a sliver of the bleak shadow that Wall Street casts over higher education.

A new study on debt across the higher education system reveals that the massive debts borne by both students and their institutions has climbed to about $45 billion per year. So the debt-related payments to the financial sector—including Wall Street investors, institutional lenders and the mammoth federal student loan system—drive about one tenth of all spending on higher education nationwide. These debt-servicing costs are tied to tuition lending as well as financial debts accrued by schools themselves, which finance investments of all kinds, from professors’ salaries to libraries to indulgences like sports teams and administrators’ bonuses.

According to researchers with University of California–Berkeley’s Debt & Society Project, a project of the Center for Culture, Organizations, and Politics with research support from the American Federation of Teachers, the a key factor in the rising cost of college is driven by expenditures largely unrelated to either the quality of the education, teaching or maintaining campus facilities. Rather, college is getting unimaginably expensive for both institutions and students because it costs so much to finance the business of education, thanks to Wall Street lenders. While there are many controversial budget items in higher education—critics lament bloated administrations and the cost of sports teams and flashy amenities—the report focuses on debt itself, and the massive volume of borrowing, as a major overlooked burden on institutions.

Even among graduates of public colleges, the average debt burden has more than doubled between 2001 and 2009, from about $9,440 to $21,100, mirroring the debt trendlines for graduates of private non-profit institutions. That means that for a typical poor single parent, the projected cost of her student loans may well have doubled in the years it takes to earn her degree as she juggles a job and night classes. And she’s likely facing other crushing debts on top of that: a recent Pew study links high student debt burdens among households of adults younger than 40 with higher total debt, including mortgage and credit card costs, which in turn aggravates the lifelong wealth gaps that higher education was supposed to help alleviate.

But the more shocking findings of the study are on the institutional side, where “colleges and universities also have a debt problem,” the researchers say. Since 2002, both public and private nonprofit colleges and universities have seen their debts soar, in large part through municipal bonds, and interest payments on those debts nearly doubled to $11 billion in 2012.

So the rising total cost of higher education stems not only from massive borrowing by low and middle-income students, who are largely doing so out of economic necessity, but from the heavy borrowing of colleges, often for questionable purposes.

Should we care that our college experiences are being funded by borrowed money? Here’s why: in recent years, the machinations of financial markets have become increasingly entangled in budget decisions, and often those decisions have little to do with educating students. The spike in borrowing costs isn’t just reflecting trends in interest rates, enrollment or the cost of professors’ salaries—the study found neither the interest rate per se nor instructional costs alone to be the primary factor. In many cases, schools are just borrowing for huge capital investments that help the college market itself, such as gleaming new football stadiums and shiny dorm buildings.

Researchers found that “at both public and private four-year institutions, the largest share of their borrowing costs were for investments in amenities like recreations centers, dining halls, and athletics.” The focus on prettying and branding the campus reflects the commodification of the “college experience.” Over the past two decades, the report says, “colleges have expanded amenities…to attract more students willing to pay higher tuition and fees.”

In the long run, however, these amenities often don’t pay off in terms of revenue for the schools, which grow increasingly beholden to bond investors. Those financiers, in turn, often favor not the highest-quality schools but rather “the safest prospects for investment.” Because of market pressures, the researchers warn, “bond markets can reward behaviors that generate greater revenue but are at odds with the goals of public higher education.” In other words, do you want your university’s future budget projections dictated by a Moody’s rating?

Charlie Eaton, one of the co-authors of the report, explains via e-mail that at all levels, the financing of higher ed—both for student borrowers and schools themselves—is increasingly involved in private markets:

The increasing finance costs are because increased tuition, room, and board costs have left households with no alternative but increased borrowing, and colleges have used debt and equity capital in ways that drive up costs for students even as state funding has been cut.

In the long term, Eaton says, “further research is needed to assess whether current borrowing rates are sustainable.” But demand for enrollment and academic needs is rising, and while debt will continue to swell, eventually, “colleges may need to reduce borrowing for amenities like luxury dorms and recreation centers and prioritize borrowing for instructional investments.”

The Wall Street influence in higher education is most acute in the for-profit college industry. These schools, which tend to take the form of sketchy diploma mills and lavishly marketed distance-learning schemes, operate primarily as educational storefronts for private equity firms. According to the report, “this finance-driven model is very efficient at increasing enrollment and generating profits. It has a poor track record, however, when it comes to helping students successfully graduate and preparing them for a competitive labor market.”

Many for-profit institutions have come under fire from Congress recently for their notoriously shoddy graduation rates, and those who do obtain degrees often struggle with poor job prospects, while saddled with loads of debt.

Whether a school is operating as a nonprofit or for-profit, the debt cycle pushes students to rack up unaffordable federal loans and drags students, families and schools into long-term economic insecurity. And ultimately, when an educational structure premised on borrowed resources starts to implode, taxpayers are robbed of the social promise of government-subsidized schooling.

Congress is now debating policies to help alleviate college debt, including reforming bankruptcy rules. But the Berkeley report places the debt crisis in the context of the overarching financialization of higher education. As Wall Street and the federal student loan system lord over the country’s campuses and tie education, society’s supposed great leveler, to volatile financial markets, we ought to ask not just whether getting a college degree these days is “worth it,” but who gets to determine how much it costs.

‘Empathetically Correct’ Is the New Politically Correct

‘Empathetically Correct’ Is the New Politically Correct

by Karen Swallow Prior

The movement for “trigger warnings” in college classrooms is part of a
troubling trend toward protecting people from their own individual sensitivities.

When I was attending graduate school in the late 1980s and early 1990s, political correctness reigned supreme. Lassoing the powers of language, literature, and the law, the movement dubbed “PC” initially worked toward the good goal of greater inclusiveness for marginalized communities.


Eventually, however, bloated by the riches of the ivory tower of academia and provoked by the excesses and exclusivity of the good-ol’-boy culture of Wall Street, political correctness morphed into a tyranny of speech codes, sensitivity training, and book banning. Its reach lingers still, most recently exemplified in the decision by a state panel in Nevada not to name a cove after Mark Twain because of the author’s racist 19th-century views toward Native Americans.But it seems political correctness is being replaced by a new trend—one that might be called “empathetic correctness.”

While political correctness seeks to cultivate sensitivity outwardly on behalf of those historically marginalized and oppressed groups, empathetic correctness focuses inwardly toward the protection of individual sensitivities. Now, instead of challenging the status quo by demanding texts that question the comfort of the Western canon, students are demanding the status quo by refusing to read texts that challenge their own personal comfort.

In the foreword to Amusing Ourselves to Death, his iconoclastic jeremiad on entertainment culture, Neil Postman invokes George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. In noting the contrast between their two dystopian visions of the future, Postman notes, Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.
Orwell envisioned an external form of control that becomes internalized—essentially, political correctness. Huxley envisioned an internal form of control that becomes externalized—empathetic correctness. And Postman thinks Huxley’s was the more accurate prediction.

The most jaw-dropping display of empathetic correctness came in a recent New York Times article reporting on the number of campuses proposing that so-called “trigger warnings” be placed on syllabi in courses using texts or films containing material that might “trigger” discomfort for students. Themes seen as needing such warnings range from suicide, abuse, and rape to anti-Semitism, “misogynistic violence,” and “controlling relationships.” Astonishingly, some of the literary works advocates claim need warning labels for adult college students are often read by high school students, such as The Great Gatsby and The Merchant of Venice.

The purpose of these trigger warnings, according to one Rutgers student calling for them, is to permit students to either plan ahead for “tackling triggering massages” [sic] or to arrange “an alternate reading schedule with their professor.” The student, a sophomore and, surprisingly, an English major (once upon a time, English majors clamored for provocative books) advocates professors warning students as to which passages contain “triggering material” and which are “safer” so that students can read only portions of the book with which “they are fully comfortable.” He explains, For many students, trigger traumas are daily, painful experiences …

However, by creating trigger warnings for their students, professors can help to create a safe space for their students — one that fosters positive and compassionate intellectual discussion within the collegiate classroom. He contends that “many of our students enter—and exit—our University with serious traumas, which can cause emotional or psychological distress within our own classrooms.” Thus, a similar proposal under consideration at the University of California, Santa Barbara, would allow students who might be traumatized by challenging material to miss classes containing such material without a grade penalty.

I’m not entirely unsympathetic. As an English professor, I had a student—a rape survivor—express feeling traumatized by classroom discussion of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. I learned about her difficulty only following her repeated absences from class. A trigger warning might have prevented—or perhaps merely ensured—these absences. But a person traumatized by reading a Victorian novel is a person in need of help, and the entire episode brought about the small crisis which resulted in a more important outcome: getting her connected with a college counselor.

As Conor Friedersdorf points out in his article “What HBO Can Teach Colleges About ‘Trigger Warnings,’” it’s perfectly reasonable to recognize a likely trigger for a situation like this one that involves victims of clearly defined, identifiable and treatable traumas such as rape. But it’s another thing altogether to apply warning labels to any and all material that might challenge any possible sensitivity cultivated within an entire generation of overprotected kids.

Yet empathetic correctness is not limited to Millennials with hovering parents and veterans suffering from PTSD. In response to the recent Supreme Court decision upholding sectarian prayers in town meetings, Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne declared that the ruling fails the “empathy test”: To understand why religious freedom matters, put yourself in the position of someone who is part of a minority faith tradition in a town or nation that overwhelmingly adheres to a different creed. Then judge public practices by how they would affect the hypothetical you.

This act of empathy helps explain why religious liberty in the United States is such a gift.
However, many would argue that religious liberty (along with all the other liberties) in the United States isn’t a gift but a right. The kind of thinking that sees liberty as a gift, and therefore optional, is not far from the kind of thinking that views challenging reading material in college as optional as well. How can empathy even be cultivated apart from a willingness to have our preconceptions and our very comfort challenged? The sort of citizenry that demands warning labels on the best gifts of civilization is a citizenry ill-equipped to maintain such rights.

Of course, empathy is a virtue. Ironically, it is a virtue cultivated, recent studies have shown, by reading great literature—the very works some want accompanied by warning labels. But studies have also shown that, good as it is, empathy is not enough to advance the social good. In a column titled “The Limits of Empathy,” David Brooks writes about a 2011 study on empathy. “The problem,” Brooks reports, “comes when we try to turn feeling into action. Empathy makes you more aware of other people’s suffering, but it’s not clear it actually motivates you to take moral action or prevents you from taking immoral action.”

Citing as examples prison guards in Nazi concentration camps who wept while murdering their prisoners and experimental subjects who registered emotional distress when ordered to administer electric shocks to fellow subjects, Brooks explains, “Empathy orients you toward moral action, but it doesn’t seem to help much when that action comes at a personal cost.” More than empathy, Brooks argues, what advances social good is encouraging and empowering people to “debate, understand, reform, revere, and enact” a moral code and a sense of duty. Not coincidentally, such has been the traditional purpose of higher education.

Empathy even has a dark side, argues Paul Bloom in his “case against empathy.” Countering a spate of pro-empathy books and studies in recent years, Bloom argues that empathy “is parochial, narrow-minded, and innumerate. We’re often at our best when we’re smart enough not to rely on it.”

Flannery O’Connor—a writer whose works are rife with warning label-worthy violence—famously said that sentimentality always leads to the gas chamber. Without any external anchor in law, mores, or trusted guides—or any openness to being challenged in one’s thinking—empathy turned inward will lead each of us to our individual prisons of the self.

How Not to Defend the Humanities

How Not to Defend the Humanities

by David McCabe

Anyone who pays attention to higher education in this country knows that teachers in the humanities feel undervalued, besieged, and at risk of becoming thoroughly marginalized. If not yet on life support, the humanities at best seem to have entered urgent care after a long slide into senescence, with college administrators wondering whether extensive intervention is really worth the effort. This situation naturally causes concern to anyone who sees in the humanities not just extraordinary manifestations of the human spirit (think Plato, Shakespeare, Titian, and Toni Morrison) but also a collective body of work that can help us understand and navigate such difficult issues as love, death, meaning, God, evil, eternity, failure, and sacrifice, to name but a few of the challenges a person might be expected to reflect on in the course of a life. The question, then, is how to persuade those outside the humanities of the value of what happens there.

At a recent colloquium at my college diagnosing the state of the humanities (which took place because at least two weeks had passed since our last colloquium diagnosing the state of the humanities), one of the speakers, the former president of an excellent liberal arts college, enumerated three kinds of reasons we might offer to defend study in the humanities: the political, the professional, and the personal. Her enumeration of this three-pronged strategy echoes, I think, a general trend among those who speak on behalf of the humanities. One cannot doubt the sincerity of such advocates. I fear, however, that all three approaches defend the humanities in the wrong way. It’s important to see why.

The political defense stresses how humanistic study helps create reflective citizens who are able both to assess public policy and to attend carefully to others’ views. Set aside the controversial claim that the humanities do this in ways markedly superior to the natural and social sciences. Even if one grants that, it seems to me deeply wrongheaded to defend our sustained engagement with such works as Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Vermeer’s The Music Lesson, Bach’s Mass in B Minor, or Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, on the grounds that such encounters create democratic citizens.

We give such things our sustained and serious energies not because of something else that engagement makes possible, something subsequent to our involvement with the works themselves, but because of the value of experiencing the worlds those works create, the way such encounters expand, deepen, and clarify our understanding of human experience and the world around us. Indeed, defending the humanities by invoking the virtues of citizenship reminds me of the line by the great British soccer coach Bill Shankly, who, when asked if he viewed soccer as a matter of life and death, replied, “Oh, no. It’s much more important than that.” With all due respect to the virtues of democratic citizenship (and all of us today lament their general absence from our political scene), the other issues confronted in the humanities (see above: love, death, meaning, etc.) are surely at least as important. After all, the point of liberal democracies, and so of the democratic virtues that support them, is to create conditions in which we can lead our lives as we wish and engage as best we can with the challenges and opportunities that mark a distinctively human life.

The professional defense of the humanities, which stresses how much employers value the particular skills that the humanities instill, seems to me similarly misguided. The problem is not that the claim is false: the humanities do put a premium on clear writing, fluency of expression, and interpretative skills that employers in an information age will surely value. (I intentionally omit here one oft-cited skill, critical thinking, because the idea that this is not taught in disciplines outside the humanities strikes me as thoroughly ridiculous.) Instead, the problem with the professional defense is that there is probably not a single story of a successful humanist scholar who pursued the humanities for that reason, and this makes all of us in the humanities imposters, purveyors of bad faith, when we offer that defense. None of us started reading Beckett, or decoding Velazquez, or pondering Eliade because we thought it would help get us a job.

More likely we just thought it was worthwhile, maybe even cool, and we enjoyed ourselves. Imagine someone encouraging a young LeBron James to play basketball because the skills of teamwork, sacrifice, commitment, and so on will help him in later life. Such arguments (which wouldn’t work anyway) just misunderstand the reasons someone plays basketball , and they are similarly off-base in explaining the appeal of the humanities.

The personal defense, which locates the value of the humanities in the enjoyment and satisfaction that students will find in such study, comes closer to the truth. But it too can easily go astray. It goes wrong, I think, if it suggests that our pursuit of some humanistic field is simply an optional choice we make as a matter of individual taste, along the lines of my penchant for loose-fitting sweaters or interest in South Asian cuisine. The more we defend the humanities by appeal to our own idiosyncratic interests and personalities, the harder it becomes to make a claim for the deep and abiding importance of the material itself. That’s a losing strategy.

True enough, from the outside perspective we might identify particular reasons that explain why I was drawn to my field, you to yours, etc. But from the inside, we have to believe (have to, that is, to justify the relatively modest pay, years of solitary struggle, professional uncertainty, frequent travel from one job to another, etc.) that what we have committed ourselves to is worthwhile not just because we like it or because of how we are built, but because it captures something distinctly important, something any right-thinking person should be interested in as well.

Here someone will interject: “Wait a minute. Don’t scholars in all disciplines – in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences – feel that way about their own field? Isn’t your claim for the great value of the humanities something that teachers and scholars in all disciplines would make as well?” My goodness, I hope so! This is something to celebrate, not to explain away or apologize for. Consider in this context the familiar metaphor of a marketplace of ideas. In an important respect this characterizes a university community, where different disciplines present themselves to undergraduates in pursuit of worthy student majors. If humanists hope to succeed, they will have to communicate with clarity, honesty, passion, self-awareness, and vigor – none of which, I suspect, is likely to mark the teacher who defends the humanities by invoking an ideal of citizenship, or the need to get a job, or the satisfaction of some particular personality quirk.

This kind of spirited discussion about the importance of our various disciplines – carried on in a spirit of mutual interest, respect, and comradeship, and marked by an awareness of our own deep ignorance of other fields of study – seems to me not just an ineliminable aspect of a community of scholars, but a terrifically healthy one. It can occur only if we humanists are (like our colleagues outside the humanities) candid and forthcoming about our reasons for caring so much about the work we do. No one goes into the humanities for reasons political, professional, or merely personal. We do so because devoting ourselves to some particular field strikes us an especially exciting and appropriate way of leading a life, because the work required seems to us noble, challenging, and rewarding, and because we love it. The greatest threat in defending the humanities is that our true motivation become the love that dare not speak its name. We must not let that happen.