Building Better Teachers

Building Better Teachers

by Sara Mosle

Mastering the craft demands time to collaborate
—just what American schools don’t provide.

Teaching dwarfs every other profession that requires a college degree. Nationwide, 3.7 million schoolteachers serve grades K–12—more than all the doctors, lawyers, and engineers in the country combined. Teacher shortages, once chronic, abated during the recession, when layoffs were widespread, but will soon return with a vengeance. Fully half of all teachers are Baby Boomers on the brink of retirement. Among novice teachers, who constitute an increasingly large proportion of the remaining workforce, between 40 and 50 percent typically quit within just five years, citing job dissatisfaction or more-alluring prospects. Given this drain at both ends of the teaching pipeline, schools will likely need to hire more than 3 million new teachers by 2020. That is an enormous talent hole to fill.

Yet the United States has, if anything, too many teacher-training programs. Each year, some 1,400 of them indiscriminately churn out twice as many graduates as schools can use. Program quality varies widely, so many would-be teachers don’t suit schools’ needs. In a scathing 2006 report, Arthur Levine, a former president of Columbia University’s Teachers College, accused many education schools of being little more than a “cash cow” for their hosting institution. Among the problems he highlighted were exceedingly “low admission standards,” a “curriculum in disarray,” and faculties “disconnected” from the realities of the classroom.

Once hired, many teachers are left to sink or swim. In recent years, several states have adopted controversial accountability measures, known as “value added” metrics, with a view toward winnowing out poor performers who haven’t produced student improvement on standardized tests; helping teachers hone their craft has seldom made it onto the agenda. But perhaps we’re finally ready to focus attention on the far bigger and more important question of how to attract and retain the top teachers we want.

This spring, the Obama administration announced plans to begin rating teacher-training programs. Consensus on what makes an effective teacher, however, remains elusive. Student achievement does not correlate strongly with teachers’ years of experience in the classroom (beyond the initial few) or with the caliber of their preparation—whether they have acquired certification, earned a master’s degree in education, or aced state licensing exams. Even particular personality traits, such as an extroverted willingness to ham it up in the classroom, appear irrelevant. The conundrum doesn’t daunt Elizabeth Green, a co-founder of GothamSchools (a news Web site originally devoted to covering New York City schools that has recently expanded to other cities and been rechristened Chalkbeat). Her book, Building a Better Teacher, couldn’t be better timed.

At the heart of Green’s exploration is a powerfully simple idea: that teaching is not some mystical talent but a set of best practices that can be codified and learned through extensive hands-on coaching, self-scrutiny, and collaboration. Yet her account suggests that implementing this vision may entail a bigger transformation than she quite realizes.

Green begins by profiling an array of educators who have been inspired by Deborah Ball, now the dean of the University of Michigan School of Education. In the early 1980s, she was a charismatic math teacher in East Lansing, Michigan, who developed a successful approach to teaching even very young children sophisticated concepts in math. Instead of relying on rote memorization or repetitive skills practice, Ball shepherded children through in-depth discussions of a single mathematical conjecture—for example, do two odd integers always add up to an even number? The students, steered along by their teacher, deliberated together to derive proofs for their various hypotheses. Some of the most exhilarating parts of Green’s book are the detailed descriptions of precisely how, and why, these lessons succeed. Ball helped other teachers adopt her techniques not through the usual education-school lectures, but through rigorous apprenticeship: mutual observation of lessons, followed by intensive dissection of what worked and what didn’t.

Green likens the approach to the Japanese practice of jugyokenkyu. “Lesson study” is the main form of teacher training in Japan, where colleagues routinely sit in on one another’s classes and then scrutinize a single session for hours, extracting general guidance for future instruction. Japan substantially outperforms America in math on international tests, and Green clearly believes jugyokenkyu is a crucial factor in the country’s success. She recounts how some of Ball’s ideas were adopted by the state of California in the mid-1980s but never had a chance to catch on: Teachers were expected to absorb the new policies, outlined in a state “manifesto,” and then revamp lesson plans on their own, with little or no training or ongoing support. Some educators didn’t even see the guidelines—all but ensuring the reforms would fail. The rollout of the Common Core State Standards appears to be replicating this dispiriting pattern in many places.

At first, Green decides that Teach for America and some charter-school leaders are now following in Ball’s and Japan’s footsteps—albeit with plenty of stumbling. She focuses on Doug Lemov, an entrepreneurial-minded educator who started a charter school in Boston in the mid-1990s and later became a managing director and teacher trainer with the Uncommon Schools charter network. As part of his job, he began compiling an inventory of effective teaching techniques. The taxonomy became a book, Teach Like a Champion, and a cause célèbre within the charter movement; videos of sample lessons circulated like samizdat literature. There’s technique No. 2, “Right Is Right”: teachers refuse to accept students’ half-baked responses to questions and insist on well-formulated, and eventually correct, replies. Technique No. 32 is “SLANT,” which stands for “Sit up, Listen, Ask and answer questions, Nod your head, and Track the speaker,” a formula for eliciting attention from students. But the motions of following a lesson, Green soon discovers, aren’t necessarily a sign of genuine engagement.

The taxonomy includes plenty of useful, even commonsense, advice. Yet Green reveals how, in practice, Lemov’s early acolytes in the charter world became obsessed with a disciplinary approach that dictated no talking in hallways, silent lunches, and skyrocketing suspensions for even minor infractions. What at first appeared to be a huge success—Lemov’s school initially posted impressive test scores—turns out to be a more complicated story. Green finds that out of some 55 students who started at the school in seventh grade, only 11 made it to their senior year, an astounding rate of attrition. A later class began with 100 sixth-grade students and was winnowed to 30 by graduation.

Japanese “lesson study,” she observes, was premised on the notion that “children needed structured opportunities to talk in order to learn.” Lemov banked on a rather different principle: that “learning first required the foundational ability to be quiet and listen.” As Green concludes, Lemov had built a vocabulary that Deborah Ball might admire for describing precisely what teachers should do in the classroom, but applied it to “a sort of teaching that she didn’t do.” Green ends up saluting Ball and Japan for getting the balance between classroom discipline and student engagement right.

But Green’s account cries out for a look at the bigger picture. She is absolutely correct about the importance of self-critical reflection and collaboration. What she is not the first, or I’m sure the last, to miss are the structural obstacles to importing such an apprentice-style ethos into American teachers’ experience. As it happens, an administrator introduced lesson study as part of the staff’s professional development at a school where I’ve worked. There was just one problem: we teachers—juggling tutoring before and after school, supervising clubs, or coaching sports—had only one period a week to meet as a group. It would be generous to say lesson study didn’t work; it never got off the ground. There typically isn’t time in American teachers’ workdays for this kind of collaborative enterprise.

That lack of time is an American anomaly, and it is key. Since 2000, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has been overseeing tests of 15-year-olds every three years among its members. The PISA exams, as they’re called, show that American students’ performance is barely above average in reading and trails substantially in math. The tests also record other information about classroom instruction around the world, and American researchers, policy makers, and pundits have pored over the results for clues to improving our schools. For example, the United States falls roughly in the middle of the pack when it comes to class size. Countries with far larger classes than we have, such as South Korea, outperform us. So do countries, like Finland, with smaller ones. Not surprisingly, some reformers have concluded that reduced class size isn’t the secret to student success.

But class size is a crude measure of a more important, encompassing concept that is worth attending to: teacher workload. How much time do teachers spend on classroom instruction, and how much time do they have outside of class to devote to the other considerable, less visible aspects of the job: lesson planning, paper grading, conferring with students, calling parents, meeting with colleagues to discuss methods and goals. Here, the PISA results are not ambiguous. Every single country that outperforms us has significantly smaller teacher workloads. Indeed, on the scale of time devoted by teachers to in-class instruction annually, the United States is off the charts. We spend far more hours in the classroom on average, twice and nearly three times more in some cases, than teachers in any other OECD country save Chile. Finnish high-school teachers, for example, clock 553 hours in the classroom each year. In Japan, home of jugyokenkyu, that number is 500. In the U.S., it’s 1,051. (Figures for elementary and middle school show roughly the same skew.)

In practice, this means that most teachers in this country have zero time to work together on new pedagogical approaches and share feedback in the way Green advocates in her book. They rarely have an opportunity to watch other teachers teach, the single best kind of training, in my experience; they’re too busy in their own classrooms (not to mention outside them).

A big problem with American education, in other words, is how we conceive of the job. Green is right: there’s much about teaching that isn’t instinctive, and as her book usefully shows, learning how to perfect the art is demanding. It is high time to correct a common misimpression: teaching isn’t the relatively leisurely occupation many people imagine, enviously invoking a nine-to-three school day and long summer vacations, which in reality seldom exist. We think of no other white-collar profession in terms of a single dimension of job performance. We don’t, for example, regard lawyers as “working” only during the hours they’re actually presenting a case before a judge; we recognize the amount of preparation and subsequent review that goes into such moments. If teaching is such a plum post, we might ask ourselves why attrition rates are so high.

In closing, Green decides to teach a lesson herself and is thrilled to find that it goes well, thanks to so many of the techniques she learned in her reporting—and, it’s worth noting, thanks to plenty of planning. She recounts spending hours getting ready for this one lesson, selecting readings, conferring with a seasoned teacher, and rehearsing how she would present the material to the class. All this, and she wasn’t grading a single paper or speaking to parents or meeting individually with students. Such work constitutes a large portion of what teachers do each day. It’s why the job, done right, is so hard and burns teachers out so fast.

The goal isn’t to lighten teachers’ load but to redistribute it. At one point, Deborah Ball remarks that what she loves about teaching is that it is so hard—by which she means intellectually challenging and rewarding. Teaching is all-consuming, and that absorption is part of the joy of the job. But if teaching is to be a profession of the mind (as well as of the heart) that retains top talent and delivers results on the same level that other countries boast, the people who spend hours with our children in the classroom also need what they currently don’t get: the hours with peers and mentors that are essential to improving their craft.

Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone)

By Elizabeth Green

12 Things I Want My Brother to Know on His First Day of High School

12 Things I Want My Brother to
Know on His First Day of High School

by Taylor Trudon

Dear Jameson,

So I kind of can’t believe that today’s your first day of high school. I feel old — and not in a “I-watched-the-VMAs-last-weekend-and-have-no-idea-who-these-people-are” way (because I do, in fact, know who all those people are. I’m cool. See? SEE?).

High school is different now. I remember when I used to have to wait in line to use the payphone to call mom to pick me up after school. You have never used a payphone in your life. I also didn’t get a flip phone until my 16th birthday, so you already have a leg up on me with your iPhone.

Anyway, I’m not here to lament how high school is so much better now than when I was in high school (although I did have The OC and you do not, so there’s that) because in many ways, nothing has changed at all. Today, you’re starting a new school — the very same one I went to — and while I know that you’ve got this, I want to impart a few words of wisdom as you venture off into the exhilarating abyss known as high school.

1. Listen to The Smiths.
This is important. Morrissey once sang, “It takes guts to be gentle and kind.” It’s so much easier to ignore the kids who are “weird” or “different.” But you’re better than that. So be kinder than necessary and don’t laugh when those jokes aren’t actually funny.

Also, just listen to The Smiths in general.

2. Look up from your phone.
As a person who (literally) sleeps with her iPhone next to her, I know I’m not one to talk, but hear me out. 1.) It’ll reassure the parentals that you are not destroying your social skills and 2.) there’s actual stuff going on. I know Angry Birds is addicting, but when you’re looking down all the time, you could be missing out on important conversations. Yes, the world is virtually at your fingertips, but don’t forget to look up every once in a while to see the world that’s around you.

3. Mom’s a person, too. And your teachers. And your bus driver.
Crazy, right? Adults are people with feelings who have bad days and sucky commutes and car problems and maybe even not-so-nice bosses. But despite all these things, they still get up in the morning and drive you to school and spend hours on lesson plans and make sure you’re in the right place at the right time.

So ask mom how her day was. She will be floored. Do not do this every day or she might become suspicious. But every so often, disregard the fact that this is the woman who forces you to eat salad at dinner and asks you embarrassing questions about your “lady friends.”

4. You will face disappointment.
Maybe you bomb a big test. Maybe the girl who you’re crushing on with the freckles and red Converses starts dating that jerk in your algebra class. Maybe you get cut from the lacrosse team. There are going to be many, many of these times when you might even think, “This Is The Worst Thing In The World.” You will make bargains with God and not just for the snow days.

Rest assured, what it is is not the worst thing in the world. Because far worse will happen to you. The good news? These terrible things are temporary. They are waves that will crash into you, leave you nice and drenched and possibly with hypothermia, but they’ll eventually retreat. You’ll survive and when the next wave hits you, you’ll take it much better.

5. Get the SparkNotes — but read the book.
I’ll never forget the time where I was book-shamed at Barnes & Noble the summer going into sophomore year for buying the SparkNotes for Oedipus Rex. The cashier totally gave me the stink-eye and said (in the most judgmental way possible), “You’re going to actually read the book, right?” I was mortified.

Yes, I did actually read the book — but I had bought the SparkNotes first because I just assumed it would be a nightmare. No, Oedipus Rex wasn’t a walk in the park for me and there’s nothing wrong with getting a little help, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought — and I probably should have given it a chance first before determining it would be “too hard.”

Challenge yourself. Maybe Oedipus Rex won’t rock your world, but one day you will read that book that Changes Your Life Forever (shout-out to The Perks of Being a Wallflower) so don’t cheat yourself. You might be surprised.

6. Save a little money.
You’ll get your driver’s license in a few years, which will require you to drive a car. You will have to put gas inside said car. As you get older, you will find that life becomes increasingly expensive. Right now, having $30 in your faux leather wallet is a luxury. You can buy 30 cheeseburgers off the Dollar Menu at McDonald’s! You are rich! Life is great! Please understand that this is temporary, so enjoy it — and maybe consider putting a little of it aside.

7. Don’t let fear keep you from doing something.
It’s scary putting yourself out there, but try and push yourself, anyway. Join a club. Don’t see one you like? Start your own. Try out for a sports team. You might get rejected, but at least you gave it a shot. Ask that girl to homecoming. She could say no, but then she’s making the biggest mistake of her life, okay? Apply to that dream school even though the SAT requirement is double your original score. Don’t allow the “what ifs” in life to make you crazy.

8. Sleep.
As Mariah Carey once said post-breakdown (you were very young when this happened), “Sleep deprivation is real.” Go to bed. That’s all. Just do it.

9. Be a team player.
I hated group projects — mostly because I am a control freak. The cold hard truth is that you will be doing group projects for the rest of your life. Learn to go with the flow, but don’t be a pushover. Assert your ideas. Pull your weight. Don’t be “that” person who lets the work fall on everyone else. And don’t be the person who never gives a teammate a chance.

10. Grades matter, but they don’t.
Here’s the deal: Your grades matter because they will determine your GPA, which will be considered when you apply to colleges. But know that you are much, much more than some number. That doesn’t mean slack off, but I wish I didn’t obsess as much as I did because you will never remember that grade you got second semester of AP History, but you will remember freezing in the stands during your first football game, Spirit Week and staying up until 3 a.m. laughing at stupid YouTube videos with your friends. These moments are what matter.

11. You are cooler than you think.
Listen, you share your name with some of the best-tasting whiskey around so you are automatically a badass. (Just don’t drink that whiskey — yet. When you are older, we will drink it together while listening to records.) “Cool” isn’t doing what your friends are doing. “Cool” is being confident in where you stand. Never apologize for liking what you like. In the immortal words of Taylor Swift, “Haters gonna hate, hate, hate.” So you do you, dude.

12. Call me.
For real. Call me when you want someone to look over your college admissions essay. Call me when shit hits the fan. Call me when you’re at a party and perhaps you’ve made some ~questionable~ decisions. I won’t judge you. I’ll only judge you if you do something weird like wear socks with sandals. Promise.

Love you more than Taco Bell Crunchwrap Supremes (which is a lot),


Community Colleges Should Be Free

Community Colleges Should Be Free

By Joanne Jacobs

Following Tennessee’s lead, several states are considering
free tuition for community and technical college students.

Community Colleges Should Be Free, editorializes Scientific American. Community colleges train technicians for jobs in leading-edge industries and serve as gateways to higher education for first-generation, minority and working-class students.

The Tennessee Promise is showing the way. Starting next year, high school graduate will pay no tuition at two-year community colleges and technical schools.

However, many community college entrants have weak basic skills. Only 32 percent of Tennessee students complete a credential. Gov. Bill Haslam’s program includes “mentors” to help students succeed.

 To ensure that the newly enrolled reach graduation day, administrators of community colleges must emphasize accelerated remedial programs to get students through the basics and into career-related classes quickly enough to avoid the frustration and despondency that lead to elevated dropout rates.

The two-year colleges should also give serious consideration to new teaching methods that could maximize the time teachers have to interact with their students. Bill Gates, whose foundation has contributed tens of millions to remedy the failings of two-year schools, recommended in a speech last year that community colleges experiment with “flipped classrooms.” Students watch lectures from MOOCs (massive open online courses) at home. In class, instead of getting lectures, they complete homework-like exercises, with personalized instruction from professors and teaching assistants.

Oregon plans a Promise bill.  Mississippi legislators rejected the idea, but may come back to it next year. Now a Texas politician has proposed making community and technical college free to high school graduates in her state.

State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, wants the state to invest $2 billion in a Texas Promise Fund modeled after the Tennessee plan. “It is time to get Texans prepared for the jobs of the future,” said Van de Putte. Students would have to exhaust their federal grant aid and pay for their non-academic fees, books and living expenses.

In Michigan, the Kalamazoo Promise — funded by local philanthropists – guarantees college or university tuition to graduates of district-run public schools. Grades and AP enrollments are up and suspensions are way down, reports Politico. But, nine years after the Promise was announced, college dropout rates remain high for Kalamazoo students.

Brian Lindhal, a 2012 graduate of Loy Norrix High School, had a rocky start at Kalamazoo Valley Community College last fall. After earning a B in English and a D in history his first semester, he didn’t sign up for the winter term. “It didn’t click,” says Lindhal, 20, who works full-time at a company that restores garments after fires and floods. He plans to go back next semester. “I know a lot of people in other places would kill to have what I have,” he says sheepishly.

Rochester, New York also has a Promise program, writes Michael Holzman on Dropout Nation. Very few blacks — and even fewer black males — read proficiently in ninth grade and go on to earn a diploma at Rochester’s high schools. Only nine percent of blacks earned a degree in six years at Monroe Community College. The completion rate was five percent for black males.

ALEC And Jeb Bush Are Conspiring To Kill Off Public Schools For Good

ALEC And Jeb Bush Are Conspiring To Kill Off Public Schools For Good

By Dennis S

Even the most successful of power-mad schemers need reliable co-conspirators to accomplish their nefarious ends. The most power-mad of the power-mad, the American Legislative Exchange Council, relies on easily compromised spear-carriers to dominate state legislatures and push through model-legislation designed to benefit ALEC’s multi-national, special interest corporate donor base.

It was by pure happenstance I chanced upon such a co-conspirator the other day. It actually turned out to be three co-conspirators. I was digging through the South Carolina Ethics Commission’s statements of economic interests required of state and legislative office holders and their challengers. These interests include name, address, filing date, business and property interest, creditors, government contracts, lobbyist contacts and, most importantly, who is buying legislator’s votes through the section marked “gifts.”

I concentrated on my local delegation of seated representatives. On my first search, an initialism (thus termed when an acronym is unpronounceable) popped up that I’d never seen or heard of before. It appeared as SLLF. Whatever it was had gifted one of my local state delegations with a total of nearly $3,100 for the gift of a single trip. Not bad. There are some economy overseas jaunts you can take for three grand. The stipend covered ‘tuition,’ lodging and meals. As I looked at the economic interests of my other local representatives, SLLF appeared over and over. Four of my six house members accepted SLLF’s largess. This definitely called for further study.

It took but seconds to find the expanded version of SLLF. It stood for State Legislative Leaders Foundation. Here’s their charge “The State Legislative Leaders Foundation was established in 1972 as a nonprofit corporation dedicated to working with state legislative leaders in their efforts to reform the institution of the state legislature.” Reform is an interesting choice of words considering their Board Chairman is Eric Turner, Indiana House Speaker Pro Tem, who most recently attracted the attention of the legislative Ethics Commission for secretly attempting to kill a bill that would hurt his family business. Might we continue?

The Board of Directors of SLLF is split equally between Republicans and Democrats. The South Carolina member is Bobby Harrell, Republican Speaker of the House and ALEC member, who has so many ethics problems that he might as well rent office space from the state Attorney General. Another legislator lives in the stone age of insisting that the president was not born in the U.S. Yet another guy wants to teach bible studies in public schools. A board member, and Michigan Senate President Pro Tem, is a public chairperson for ALEC. All board members hold some kind of leadership position in their respective General Assemblies.

There were five meetings listed on the SLLF 2014 itinerary: The National Speakers Conference, the Ethics Leadership Summit, the Emerging Leaders Program and something called the “2nd Annual Meeting” held at the super fancy schmancy Greenbrier, replete with horse-drawn carriages. Greenbrier is a favorite snooty getaway for DC’s congressional glitterati. The fifth meeting of 2014 was jointly held in Zagreb and Dubrovnik, Croatia. That’s got to cost a few Kunas. Dubrovnik is essentially a resort city. I’d loved to know where SLLF folks stayed. It’s expensive! The Villa Orsula by the Adriatic perchance? I’d vote for anything for a few days of Orsula by the sea luxury.

The SLLF Advisory Council is made up of corporate members and Trade Associations. Over half are past or present ALEC members. I think it’s more than fair to ask what so many Democrats, including a sprinkling of real progressives, are doing in this den of political iniquity.

While NSA’ing my way through various SLLF sites, I ran into the name, Rob Scheberle. Turns out the current head of ALEC was once an Assistant VP for SLLF. That led me to another pursuit of Scheberle’s. He’s on the Digital Learning Council Leadership team as a member or adviser, along with several radical right-wing outfits like ALEC climate change denier and vehemently anti-public school, the “Heartland Institute.” One of the founders of DLC was ALEC member and former Florida governor, Jeb Bush, very possibly our next president. The co-founder was another ex-governor, West Virginia’s Bob Wise. The date of DLC’s birth was 2010.

The primary emphasis of DLC is online and virtual learning, a back door wrecking ball of public schools. In addition to Heartland, The Charter growth fund is on board as well as the extremist organization, the American Enterprise Institute.

K12 is skulking around the halls of DLC as well. K12 is a private, for profit virtual school corporation (NYSE: LRN) that has a highly misleading website in South Carolina making it appear as a public, state agency. Various sources have written that their “virtual schools” are a disaster with deep-seated attendance and graduation problems and scores in reading and math falling well short of public school averages.

An interesting minority “adviser” is Gerard Robinson. He was lured from his post as Virginia’s head of the Department of Education by Florida Governor, Rick Scott, to take the same position in the Sunshine state. What followed was a chaotic year of turmoil as Robinson turned the state’s education system on its head with a series of “reforms.” He abruptly resigned. His cred for the Florida post included his position as president of the pro-choice Black Alliance for Educational Options.

Let’s complete the circle with a closing visit to the granddad of public school dismantling, the Jeb Bush “Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE)” The title should have added “as long as that education squeezes a corporate profit out of every kid.” Or, as his Website readily attest in a listing of goals; School Choice: The foundation for excellence in education

“Families need the financial freedom to attend schools that meet their needs. The Foundation supports policies that empower families to choose a public, charter, private, virtual or home school.”

FEE commands giant donations; some in excess of a million dollars. Bill and Melinda Gates anted up a mil or so. News Corp was right up there. The DeVos Foundation (Amway) was highly generous as well. Mr. and Mrs. are huge school choice advocates. Betsy DeVos has headed the Michigan State Republican Party four different times. Charter Schools USA threw a couple of bucks Jeb’s way and the other donors knew what they were buying: a giant can of public school “Whoop A**.”

That’s the agenda. And it’s being carried out by a deceitful amalgam of corporations, foundations, politicians and extremists. Now you know of at least one of the ‘kill off public schools’ conga lines; headed by ALEC, abetted by Jeb Bush and held together with high-sounding right-wing foundations and organizations.

Your move!

Academia and the people without jobs

Academia and the people without jobs

by Ryan Anderson

The 1960s are over. When are we going to wake up and realize that it’s 2014 and our academic paradise is a smoldering ash heap, a sad leftover from thirty something years of complete and utter demolition? We no longer have a booming economy and tons of federal money going into the university system. The days of cheap, accessible higher ed are done and gone. And yet, we keep churning out graduate students as if they, too, are going to end up as university professors. As if each and every one of them will soon have their own hip little office full of books, dedicated students, and bright, starry-eyed careers ahead of them. It’s not happening. Paradise. In. Ashes.

In other words: there are no jobs in academia.

I’m a graduate student in anthropology. Ya, the discipline that Forbes rated as the “least valued” in all of the land. Lucky me. Over the years, people have often asked me: “Anthropology eh? So what are you going to do with that?” My response was invariably a version of something like “Well, there’s a LOT I can do with anthropology.” That usually followed with me thinking—hoping—that there actually was something on the other side.

There may not be anything on the other side.

Me, and thousands of others learned that lesson the hard way. We spent about a decade learning how to become academics, only to realize the dream has already passed. We’re all trained for positions that don’t exist. We’ve been prepared for a way of life that is rapidly vanishing before our eyes (the secure, tenured academic). We go into debt because of a strange “loyalty oath to an imagined employer” (as Sarah Kendzior recently put it) that certainly doesn’t come knocking the day you graduate.

We’ve been had. And we walked right into it.

I realized how bad things were when I was about half way through my PhD program—and it didn’t help that the global economy was literally crashing right when I started. You know, the whole “Great Recession” thing. After one year, I nearly dropped out. Looking back, maybe that would have been the better decision. But, for some reason, I kept going…in part because of a vague hope that things would somehow “work out.” I too pinned my hopes on that imagined employer.

No prospects yet. But I persist. I keep pushing forward, telling myself that it will be better if I just finish this damn degree. So many of us keep going. Why?

Maybe we’re all in denial. Or perhaps we believe so strongly in the potential of higher education that we choose to look the other way when we start hearing all those rumors about the dreaded, desperate job market. We believe in some idealistic, romantic version of higher education so deeply that we ignore the hard truths that stare us right in the face. Maybe our faith in the idea that learning is about more than just “getting a job” has blinded us to the fact that deeply indebted graduates with few job prospects are hardly going to be able to be those “few caring people” who can change the world.

We have to open our eyes. Because it’s pretty much impossible to change the world when you have the weight of compound interest grinding into your soul. When the debt collection letters flood you mailbox. When the phone calls won’t stop.

The reality is this: maybe we don’t want to accept reality. Maybe we simply don’t want to admit how bad things are. We don’t want to acknowledge that our prized possession—higher education—has run off the rails. We tell ourselves that the institution of higher ed is still doing fine, thank you very much. But it’s not. Imagine applying for graduate school and getting an acceptance letter that actually told you how it is in grad school:

Dear Esteemed Applicant,

We, the faculty at the University of the Real World, want to formally congratulate you and inform you that you have been accepted into our doctoral program. You will be provided funding, but unless you have a lot of financial resources, you’re more than likely going to end up with debilitating debt. Your living costs and other expenses may be overwhelming, so you’ll need credit cards and student loans to shore up your finances. We cannot guarantee any sort of employment after you spend 5-10 years of your life working your ass off in our program. In fact, getting a job in academia is beyond a long shot for most people. But hey, you could get lucky. Regardless, we’re still training students as if it’s still the 1960s. But don’t despair—you might be able to land an adjunct gig. Welcome aboard. Please pay your tuition promptly or you will not be able to register for classes. We accept Visa, Mastercard, and American Express.


Faculty of URW

What would you do if you got a letter like that? Would you accept? Hell no you wouldn’t. Yes, of course the above letter is satirical and stupid and ridiculous—but it’s not far from the truth for many students currently trying to plow through graduate school before they reach the point of complete economic and emotional devastation. Things are that bad. But you’re not going to see universities and academic departments speaking to the situation. They keep reeling those students in with stories about “career opportunities” and other good PR. Ya, right.

The job market in academia isn’t just lukewarm. It’s not “Well, it could be better.” It is, as Karen Kelsky once said, imploding. Meanwhile, many tenured faculty members continue to stand on the sidelines, safe in their own positions, as the collapse ensues:

today’s tenured professors indeed accrued privilege by virtue of birth: they were born early enough to enter the job market and rise through its ranks before the total implosion of the university hiring economy. Yes, the academic job market was tight in the 1980s and 1990s. Sure it was; I was there! But tight is not the same thing as decimated. The tenured may have struggled mightily to find work, but there was still work to find, when universities had not yet begun the aggressive process of downsizing, shrinking the faculty, and eradicating lines.

Megan McArdle’s piece on Bloomberg builds off Kelsky’s
argument, and puts the brutality of the situation into sharp relief:

academia is now one of the most exploitative labor markets in the world. It’s not quite up there with Hollywood and Broadway in taking kids with a dream and encouraging them to waste the formative decade(s) of their work life chasing after a brass ring that they’re vanishingly unlikely to get, then dumping them on the job market with fewer employment prospects than they had at 22. But it certainly seems to be trying to catch up.

Ok, sure, there are some jobs in academia. But the chance of getting one of them is so infinitesimally small that grad students might be better off buying quick-picks at the local 7-11 than spending 6-10 years of their lives slogging away at a PhD that doesn’t even lead to anything remotely worth the time and effort. It seems that everyone knows about the bad job market. We all know. But for some reason the grad students keep trudging forward. Behind them, legions of new graduate students send in applications and willingly join the whole fiasco. It all begins to look like The Grapes of Wrath, when thousands and thousands of people made their way to the golden hills of California…only to find out that all of the promised jobs didn’t exist and people were so desperate they were willing to work for almost anything. We all know how that turned out. Can anyone say “cheap labor source”? Yet we keep going. Hoping.

This isn’t a new story. Early in 2013, Sarah Kendzior highlighted the role that faith—or hope—plays in maintaining the current status quo:

The most unnerving thing I see in the job market nowadays—academic or otherwise—is people working in terrible conditions in the hope of a future that never comes. Hope is something you should have for other people, not for yourself. Hope holds you down and blinds you to possibilities.

The future that never comes. That’s what keeps us all going. So we work harder, hoping to be the one who makes it through. Hoping that just one more grant, paper, or presentation will be the magic bullet that leads to success. Despite all the evidence, despite the odds, we push forward. We all push—and we end up crushing ourselves like a frenzied crowd.

The numbers are not on our side. If you don’t believe me, have a look at this chart. Do you see? That’s approximately 36,000 new PhDs each year, and only around 3,000 new positions created.

Do the math.

Specifically relating to anthropology (my discipline), check out some of the stats from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. According to the BLS, there were approximately 6,060 anthropologists and archaeologists at the time of the survey. A paltry one percent of them worked at universities, colleges, and professional schools—and those who did made less, on average, than all the rest.

Back in February 2013 Matthew Wolf-Meyer wrote this post about job prospects in anthropology. He mentions the BLS claim that there would be 21% growth in anthropology-related jobs. On the surface, that looks promising. But he takes a closer look at the numbers. First, he points out, the number of PhDs granted in anthropology has greatly increased over the past two decades (up from 341 in 1991 to 555 in 2011). Second, the actual number of jobs is still pretty low. With a 21% increase, the approximately 6100 jobs in 2011 would translate to about 7400 jobs by 2020. By his calculation, this would lead to about 300 new PhDs out of work each year “for the foreseeable future.” The final issue Wolf-Meyer highlights is the fact that most of the actual growth will be in contract archaeology (CRM) and consulting work. The numbers—just like the rumors we all hear—are telling us that academia is not going to be an option for many—if not most—new graduates. And yet, we persist. The applications keep getting sent.

When will it stop?

The title of this essay is a play on the title of Eric Wolf’s 1982 Europe and the People Without History. That title, as Wolf explained in his introduction, was meant to be ironic. His book wasn’t written to imply that there really were people out there who had no history before the Europeans arrived. His whole book is about the fact that all those “others” are clearly and undeniably a part of the human story. They have always had history, and been a part of history. His point was that there are no people without history—but there are people who are actively left out of history. Wolf’s project was meant to address that very problem, to make explicit those other histories that are often cast aside, forgotten, and marginalized. Because those histories matter. Especially if history is supposed to be something more than just the propaganda of the victorious.

There are histories and stories missing from the narrative we tell ourselves about academia and higher education. We tell stories of success. These are the stories that drive the whole system. This is what pulls in thousands of undergraduates, and what motivates others to continue on into graduate school. Everyone loves a success story. Besides, success sells. But what of academia’s others? Who are academia’s people without history?

They are ones who didn’t make it. The ones who went through the system, but whose careers didn’t pan out well enough to end up on department home pages or university press releases. They are the people who can’t be used to recruit new students, whose stories don’t give us a wondrous picture of higher education.

My title is also written with more than a little irony. The “people without jobs” aren’t all simply jobless. They just don’t have the right jobs to be included in academia’s big self-promotional story. They are academia’s others. The ones who aren’t working as deans, provosts, and department chairs. They are the adjuncts, the lecturers, the people who work at Home Depot or spend their nights as waiters and waitresses. They ended up switching careers, starting all over, or worse. Their stories give us another view of academia. Another version of events. Their histories—contrary to the shiny pages of university websites—tell us what higher education isn’t doing. Their voices can tell us what went wrong, and what needs to change.

Our paradise burns. We stand by watching. We burn with it. We have to change the narrative. We need to listen to those other voices.

The First College in the U.S. to Open Without Any Books in its Library

The First College in the U.S. to Open Without Any Books in its LibraryFlorida Polytechnic University
by Letitia Stein

TAMPA Fla. (Reuters) – The library opening with the first day of classes on Monday at Florida’s newest college features a sunlit arched roof and cozy reading chairs – but not a single book.

A fully digital library is among the futuristic features of Florida Polytechnic University’s striking dome-shaped building, designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava.

“It’s a boldly relevant decision to go forward without books,” said Kathryn Miller, the university’s director of libraries.

The inaugural class of 550 students, offered scholarships covering tuition to attend a public university so new it’s not yet accredited, can access more than 135,000 ebooks on their choice of reader, tablet or laptop.

A bookless library is a rarity among U.S. colleges but reflects the high-tech ambitions of the university in Lakeland, Florida. Rising along a drab stretch of highway between Tampa and Orlando, Florida Polytechnic envisions building a technology corridor in the image of Silicon Valley.

Florida Polytechnic University
Florida Polytechnic University

Without stacks to organize, librarians staffing the main reference desk, which is called a success desk, will steer students to tutoring resources and train them in managing digital materials.

While the library is not paperless, students are discouraged from using its printers too much, Miller said. They can buy traditional textbooks in the bookstore, or digital texts when available.

Old-fashioned books can be requested on loan from libraries at Florida’s 11 other public universities.

Florida Polytechnic budgeted $60,000 to buy titles through software allowing students one free browse. With the second click, the university purchases the digital book.

“Instead of the librarian putting books on the shelf that I think would be relevant, the students are choosing,” Miller said.

Florida Polytechnic University
Florida Polytechnic University

Robust digital resources in an academic library are not unusual, she said, but most also have traditional books. The college consulted with similar libraries run by NASA and a mostly digital medical school library at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.

“Digital in some ways is better. People can find things easier, and they can discover more things by accident,” said Carrie Russell, a policy analyst for the American Library Association.

The downsides include the difficulty of preserving information when technology changes, she noted, and licensing agreements that can require paying annually rather than owning outright.

“In the past, you could buy a reference book and it could sit on your shelf for 120 years,” Russell said.

Several thousand such traditional books were inherited by Florida Polytechnic and are gathering dust in an off-campus library shared with a nearby community-based college.

The titles can be browsed digitally and requested online from the new, bookless library.

How to educate Americans for jobs? Ask the Germans, employers urge

How to educate Americans for jobs?
Ask the Germans, employers urge

By Jon Marcus

INDIANAPOLIS — Two years. That’s how long it takes William Lankin’s fast-growing electrical contracting company to teach new hires with four-year university degrees the tricks of the trade.

These college grads “have learned the book stuff, but they don’t have real-world experience,” said Lankin, vice president of Industrial Electric. “They don’t know how to work with other people, or subcontractors — how to actually do business.”

Bringing them up to speed while paying them a salary is time-consuming and expensive, and even then there’s no guarantee that they’ll be good enough to keep. Which only complicates the original predicament: In spite of the still-soft job market, companies like Lankin’s can’t find enough qualified workers.

Now some hiring managers, a few policymakers, and a handful of community colleges are accepting help to solve this problem from an unexpected source: the Germans.

Students at Ivy Tech Community College. (Photo: Ivy Tech Community College)

Through an initiative being quietly promoted by the German embassy, U.S. colleges that consider themselves part of the greatest higher-education system in the world are importing the German model of career and technical education to keep up with a demand they can’t fill: for Americans with the right skills to work in mid-level fields.

“We said, ‘What is the best model?’” said Sue Smith, vice president for technology and applied sciences at Indiana’s Ivy Tech Community College, which has teamed up with Lankin’s company to create a program for prospective employees based on what the Germans do. “And, quite honestly, the German model is the best model.”

It consists of a so-called dual system of education and training that combines a few days a week of classroom instruction at vocational schools with on-the-job apprenticeships that are designed to lead to full-time jobs for which graduates are ready straight out of school. The German students also receive a form of credential called a certification qualification.

This simple setup keeps German industry humming, and youth unemployment down to about 8 percent — less than half of what it is in the United States — according to the German embassy.

By comparison, routes to similar careers in the United States are convoluted and confusing, even as the need for workers to fill them escalates, a study by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development found.

The kinds of education required for these mid-level jobs — many of them in manufacturing industries that are expanding quickly in states including Indiana — are also getting more sophisticated. By 2018, two-thirds of all jobs in the United States will require more than high school degrees, the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce estimates.

And while colleges and universities are scrambling to keep up, business doesn’t think they have.

Ninety-six percent of chief academic officers from colleges and universities say their institutions are preparing college graduates for work, but only 11 percent of business leaders say they’re getting what they need, the Gallup polling organization found in a survey for the Lumina Foundation. (Lumina is among the funders of The Hechinger Report, which produced this story.)

About 30 companies and 30 community and private colleges are turning to the Germans, embassy spokesman Markus Knauf said. Most of the programs are still in the planning stages, though a few are under way. In addition to Indiana, they’re in California, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Ohio, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. “Why not? Different methods of education can be very effective,” said Debra Kerrigan, dean of workforce training and continuing education at Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis, which has teamed up with a local plant of the Swiss equipment manufacturing company Bühler to deliver the classroom portion of the German-style apprenticeship-and-classroom combination.

Students at Ivy Tech Community College. (Photo: Ivy Tech Community College)

Many of the companies that are participating in these pilot programs are German owned, mainly because they’re already familiar with the system. About 3,400 German companies operate in the United States, the embassy says, though Ivy Tech is also launching collaborations with Cummins Engines and Chrysler.

“German companies get it right away,” Smith said. “You don’t have to explain it to them like you have to with the American companies.”

And there are a number of them in Indiana, whose history of German immigration continues to connect it with German culture, officials there say.

“There’s a lot of similarity between the way Hoosiers do things and the way Germans do,” said Sven Schumacher, honorary German consul to Indianapolis, who wears a lapel pin with the German and American flags and speaks of holding meetings about the education initiative at German companies based in Indiana over sausage and sauerkraut. “I think that’s helpful in understanding this, and I think it’s why German companies come to this state.”

Starting in the fall, Ivy Tech students will spend three days a week in class and two at companies like Lankin’s, where they will be paid for their apprenticeships. The college plans similar programs in advanced automation and robotics at the request of employers that run large assembly plants. Participants are expected to include traditional-age students and also people who want to change jobs or find new careers.

The Obama administration also likes the idea. It has announced a consortium of community colleges and industry to create an even broader system under which students would get academic credit for apprenticeships that Vice President Joe Biden said offer “a pathway to the middle class” and “a pipeline of skilled workers for employers.” Still, to catch up with Germany on a per-capita basis, the United States would have to add 2.5 million apprenticeships. About 358,000 exist today, according to the Center for American Progress, many of them organized not by companies but by unions.

Only about 10 percent of American 18- to 22-year-olds get on-the-job training, the OECD reports.

One reason is that it’s expensive. Ivy Tech has persuaded some of its corporate partners to reimburse the tuition of students who successfully complete their apprenticeships and stick around to work, for instance.

In Germany, employers pay 75 percent of the $19,850 annual cost of each trainee, and the government covers the rest.

“I don’t think there are a going to be a lot of companies that are going to be able to invest this kind of money,” Kerrigan said.

For students, on the other hand, it could be a good deal. Getting an academic degree before going into a mid-level profession adds an average of up to 18 percent to average salaries for men and 23 percent for women, the OECD estimates.

Lankin thinks it’s worth the investment — and that the long-established German system could help solve his staffing problem.

“They’ve been doing this for years,” he said. “That’s been the German philosophy for a long time: to train you for a job.”

Michael Brown’s High School Is An Example Of The Major Inequalities In Education

Michael Brown’s High School Is An Example
Of The Major Inequalities In Education

by Rebecca Klein

Before Michael Brown became a symbol of racially charged unrest, he was a recent high school graduate days away from starting college.

That high school diploma was hard-earned, his mourning mother has said. “Do you know how hard it was for me to get him to stay in school and graduate?” she told news station KMOV. “You know how many black men graduate? Not many.”

For 12 days now, protesters in Ferguson and across the country have been chanting Brown’s name as they rail against racial profiling and unequal treatment at the hands of law enforcement. It has meant a jolting start to the fall semester this week for students at Normandy High, a school of about 1,000 in Wellston, St. Louis county.

Everyone is going to be talking about Mike. What’s going to happen to the one who shot him? Why did they shoot him?” one student, Zaria Trotter, told NBC about the new school year.

Brown intended to attend Vatterott College, a trade school, where he would learn how to become a heating and air conditioner technician. But a deeper look at his alma mater, where about 83 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunchand dropout and suspension rates are well above state averages, highlights the inequities he faced while growing up, what he overcame to graduate, the uneven playing field his peers are left to navigate — and how the school is emblematic of a system that’s failing low-income kids.

1. Graduation Rates At Normandy Are Low

According to Missouri data from 2013, the four-year graduation rate for Normandy High School was 53 percent, compared to 86 percent in the state as a whole. For context, the national high school graduation rate reached a historic high of 80 percent in 2012.

4-Year And 5-Year High School Graduation Rates
2013 data is from the Missouri Department of Education.

2. Suspension Rates Are Soaring

About 60 percent of students in the mostly black school had at least one in-school or out-of-school suspension in 2011, according to data collected by the Office of Civil Rights. This is far greater than average nationwide rates of suspension. What’s more, there’s a clear racial element to who is being punished and who isn’t: A nationwide OCR report found that black students were suspended around the country at a rate of 16 percent during the 2011-2012 school year, while white students were suspended at a rate of just 5 percent.

Civil rights advocates often advertise the negative impact of suspensions on students,saying they have a “push out” effect and make students more likely to drop out before attaining a high school degree — a factor that could contribute to Normandy’s low graduation rates.

Daphne Dorsey, spokeswoman for Normandy School District, said the numbers listed in the Office of Civil Rights report weren’t accurate, even though they were provided by the district. “The people who were here when that report was done –- they’re no longer here,” she said. Dorsey also noted that the district has made an effort to offer students more support and curb suspensions.

“The administration in place at the high school and middle school really didn’t address what resulted in those suspensions [in 2011],” she said. “If a student was out of uniform, they were suspended instead of finding out why they were out of uniform.”

3. Normandy High School Has Been Noted For High Rates Of Violence

In 2013, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote an article dubbing Normandy “the most dangerous school in the area.” According to the article, in 2012 the school reported 285 discipline incidents that resulted in suspensions of 10 days or more. Only one other high school in the state had a higher rate of incidents that year, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Dorsey said a zero-tolerance policy in place that year inflated the numbers, misrepresenting the school.

In a newsletter to parents that October, the school explained the situation. “Infractions such as insubordination, uniform violation, horseplay, truancy, and tardiness would have warranted a one-, two-, three-day suspension in many school districts; however, in Normandy, those students were given an automatic 10-day suspension,” Assistant Superintendent of Administrative Services Dr. Trish Adkins said in the newsletter.

Indeed, the number of 10-day suspensions significantly decreased in 2013, according to state data.

4. The State Has Labeled Normandy A “Failed District”

normandy high school missouri
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that Normandy School District lost accreditation in 2012 after it was labeled a “failed district” due to low standardized test scores. Out of over 500 school districts in Missouri, only three are without accreditation, according to Sarah Potter, the communications coordinator for the Missouri Department of Education. Since then, the district has been renamed the Normandy Schools Collaborative and was taken over by the state.

After Normandy’s district lost its accreditation, students there were allowed to transfer to better districts under Missouri state law. But the transfers stirred up controversy. MSNBC reported in 2013 that nearly 25 percent of students in the district opted to leave for better options.

Additionally, parents at the high-performing schools that Normandy students were to attend were not thrilled about the arrival of the new teens:

“I deserve to not have to worry about my children getting stabbed, or taking a drug, or getting robbed,” one mother said at a school board meeting at the time in response to the pending arrival of Normandy students, according to MSNBC.

Chris Krehmayer, president and CEO of Beyond Housing, a St. Louis organization that works to improve the communities surrounding Normandy schools, said he attributes Normandy’s poor test scores to the tough circumstances faced by the district’s children, rather than poor classroom instruction.

“Right now the schools have lost their accreditation, which clearly is not a good thing,” Krehmayer told The Huffington Post. “The dynamics of the population is not unlike many places across the country. Over 90 percent of children receive free and reduced lunch, and the school has an annual mobility rate of over 50 percent. [Academic] challenges are not always about teaching and learning in the classroom, but about what’s happening in the life of the child.”

5. It Is Located In A State Where Poor Schools Often Get The Least Funding

Missouri received a D on a 2014 school funding report card that measures how states distribute funds to low- and high-poverty schools in the state. School funding in Missouri is slightly regressive, so that the poorest schools often receive the least funding, even though those students may need the most support. Overall, the report found that only 14 other states had school funding distribution systems that were more unfair than Missouri’s.

A 2012 report from the Center for American Progress reiterates this point. According to the report, Missouri is a state where “children attending school in higher-poverty districts still have substantially less access to state and local revenue than children attending school in lower-poverty districts.”

Unfortunately, Missouri is not alone. Across the country, places like Pennsylvania and Illinois also have unequal school funding systems that often leave the poorest students with the least resources.

6. Few Students Participate In Competitive Classes

According to 2011 data from the Office of Civil Rights, of the 1,064 students attending Normandy High School at the time, only 4 students were enrolled in a calculus class — less than 1 percent of the school — and 33 students were enrolled in physics class — about 3 percent of the school. By comparison, according to 2009 data from the National Center for Education Statistics, 16 percent of graduates nationwide had taken calculus in high school and 36 percent of graduates had taken physics.

Standardized test scores at Normandy High are also low. About 50 percent of the graduating 2013 class from Normandy took the ACT, with an average score of 16.8, according to data from the Missouri Department of Education. By comparison,students in the state received an average score of 21.6.

Finally, significantly fewer Normandy students went on to attend four-year universities than in the rest of the state in 2013. While nearly 37 percent of Missouri high school graduates went to a four-year school, about 20 percent of Normandy graduates did, according to state data.

…But Things Could Get Better

Dorsey told HuffPost that students were greeted at school on Monday by clergy members and parents holding supportive signs. Even though she said there was a “sense of loss” in the school community, students came ready to learn. The school made counselors available to students if they wanted to chat, although Dorsey said that by Tuesday she did not think counselors had been utilized much so far.

“We have great students in our district. We emphasize learning, academics; our students are caring. They’re involved. … They do a lot of different things,” said Dorsey. “There is a negative perception … but … the students who came to school today, they were upbeat, they were enthusiastic, and they were excited to be back at school.”

Krehmayer of Beyond Housing was one of said supporters who came to Normandy to cheer kids on during their first day.

“It was full of enthusiasm and excitement,” said Krehmayer. “There was no sense of ‘wow this is a bad place to be.’”

Michelle Rhee’s real legacy: Here’s what’s most shameful about her reign

Michelle Rhee’s real legacy: Here’s
what’s most shameful about her reign

by Matt Bruenig

The “education reform” leader who just stepped
down gets plenty of criticism. But people overlook this

In the last week or so, Michelle Rhee stepped down from StudentsFirst, an education reform organization that she founded four years ago. During her tenure at StudentsFirst, and before then, Rhee meticulously crafted her image as a firebrand who intended to shake up education in the country. Although most of the coverage of Rhee and her departure has focused on her education theatrics, her remarks on the issue of child poverty have been far more troubling.

In debates about education reform, one very common pattern of arguments has emerged. Education reformers like Rhee jump into the forum and confidently proclaim that poor students are failing to acquire good educations because of bad schools and bad teachers. Then, those who actually know things about child poverty respond that poverty, by itself, is a massive impediment to educational attainment because of its damaging effects on human functioning.

On its face, this response should pose no particular problem for education reformers. If they want, they can synthesize these two points by saying that both poverty and bad schools drag down educational attainment, and that we should therefore target both. Under such a synthesis, the reformers would come out in favor of very simple and empirically proven ways (they love data!) to dramatically reduce child poverty, and also make the case for their specific education reforms. But, with few exceptions, they don’t do that.

Instead, would-be reformers like Michelle Rhee totally abandon advocating for poverty reduction in favor of flavorless, politically neutral policies that don’t offend big donors. Generally, the refusal to recognize the role poverty plays in diminishing educational attainment forms three themes. In the first, reformers claim that people who chalk up low educational attainment to poverty are just excuse-making. This is, of course, manifestly absurd: Someone who says educational outcomes are harmed by poverty is not making an excuse out of poverty; they are identifying it as the (or a) cause. To argue such explanations are really excuses is as absurd as saying that Michelle Rhee is using “bad schools” as an excuse for low educational attainment. In other words, the “excuse” gambit is both false and nonsensical.

The second theme is a kind of slick resignation that morphs back into support for old policies that are unrelated to poverty reduction itself. The reformers accept finally that, yes, poverty is an independent problem. They accept that, all else equal, child poverty will absolutely drag down educational attainment. Yet the rhetoric associated with this kind of acknowledgment of poverty doesn’t stick, and reformers are always quick to follow up the concession with the same old solutions they’ve always hawked, which comprises the final theme.

This third theme usually features reformers like Rhee simultaneously admitting what is obvious — child poverty is an independent drag on educational attainment — without having to endorse doing anything about it. Instead, they insist that reforming education is the only way to do anything about poverty to begin with, so the acknowledgment that poverty is an independent harm in terms of education never inspires any direct action to repair it. Instead, only indirect action through education reform is ever advocated. This is convenient for their cause – and their fundraising campaigns — but it’s totally dishonest and harmful to poor kids.

At the very least, education is not the only way to solve child poverty. (In fact, it’s not even clear that it is a way to solve child poverty.) And to determine that, we don’t have to go with gut feelings.

What we know of all the empirical data recording child poverty rates and their changes is that the best, easiest and most efficient way to cut child poverty is through transfer programs. We could cut child poverty in half tomorrow – that’s a 50 percent reduction in poor children — if we wanted to, for little more than 1 percent of the GDP. All it would take is a child allowance, similar to many programs already extant in a slew of countries. Better yet for all the ed-reforming data lovers, we can actually track the rate at which transfers reduce child poverty – and they do so very, very well.

Yet from Michelle Rhee and her celebrated class of reformer compatriots, there’s no word on reducing child poverty head-on. The failure to endorse direct child poverty reduction, even after recognizing it as a serious contributor to educational problems, is either a function of Rhee’s own conservative politics or her abject pandering to her rich, corporate donor base. It’s popular to mock those who remark that education reform is “corporate,” but the organizations emblematic of ed reform are, in fact, funded by extremely wealthy people and corporations – like Wal-Mart. With backers like that in her corner, Rhee can’t ever push child poverty reduction sincerely because it generally means policies that make such donors less rich in order to make poor students less poor.

And this is the ultimate failing of this whole education reform business, really. Through extraordinary amounts of money and carefully collected social, political and cultural capital, they are the most preeminent movement for helping poor children in this country. All national conversations about child poverty happen fully within their court, according to their terms.

Yet, because they are led by people who are either ideologically, or out of convenience due to donors’ preferences, against policies that would dramatically cut child poverty, they are limited in what they can actually accomplish. Despite their rhetoric, (poor) students are never actually placed first, but always second behind the distributive political preferences of the rich. Rhee and those who follow in her wake will drill on trying to squeeze out some marginal gains here and there through school reform, all while ignoring and minimizing powerful, tested solutions so as to make sure people don’t aim at child poverty itself. When you absolutely dominate the national discourse on how best to help poor children, as Rhee and her cohorts have for so long, such a posture is extremely shameful and damaging.



This is educational ‘innovation’?

This is educational ‘innovation’?

By Valerie Strauss

The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, which brings the world the international testing program of 15-year old students known as PISA, just issued a new report called “Measuring Innovation in Education: A New Perspective, Educational Research and Innovation.”

Yes, the OECD is measuring innovation in education. There are, of course, innovation metrics for evaluating businesses, but schools aren’t businesses and shouldn’t be operated as if they were. So what exactly constitutes “innovation” in the educational world as viewed by the OECD?

Here’s how the OECD introduces the report on its website here:

Do teachers innovate? Do they try different pedagogical approaches? Are practices within classrooms and educational organisations changing? And to what extent can change be linked to improvements? A measurement agenda is essential to an innovation and improvement strategy in education. Measuring Innovation in Education offers new perspectives on addressing the need for such measurement.

The executive summary of the report starts like this:

The ability to measure innovation is essential to an improvement strategy in education. Knowing whether, and how much, practices are changing within classrooms and educational organisations, how teachers develop and use their pedagogical resources, and to what extent change can be linked to improvements would provide a substantial increase in the international education knowledge base.

Measuring Innovation in Education offers new perspectives to address this need for measurement in educational innovation through a comparison of innovation in education to innovation in other sectors, identification of specific innovations across educational systems, and construction of metrics to examine the relationship between educational innovation and changes in educational

To the OECD then, at least as far as this report, what it determines to be “innovations” are part of educational improvement strategies. So what does the section say is the biggest organizational educational innovation “in policy and practice” in the standardized test-obsessed United States that is supposedly improving school systems? I gave it away: the use of standardized tests to monitor progress, as if standardized tests really do measure student progress. Assessment experts always note that standardized tests measure only a narrow band of a student’s knowledge and skills.

The report says in the section about the United States:

The United States’ top organisational innovation was the use of student assessments for monitoring progress over time. Between 2000 and 2009, the United States saw a 24% point difference in the percentage of 15-year-old students in schools where assessments are used for monitoring progress from year-to-year; as of 2009, over 97% of all American secondary students were enrolled in schools using this practice.

Here are the top five U.S. “innovations in organizational practice and policy”:

1) More use of student assessments for monitoring school progress
2) More use of assessments for national or district benchmarking
3) More use of assessment data to inform parents of student progress
4) More external evaluation of secondary school classrooms
5) More parental service on secondary school committees

And here are the top five U.S. “innovations in pedagogic practice”:

1) More observation and description in secondary school science lessons
2) More individualized reading instruction in primary school classrooms
3) More use of answer explanation in primary mathematics
4) More relating of primary school lessons to everyday life
5) More text interpretation in primary lessons

(Is more of something genuinely innovative?)

Note that none of these mention the use of technology or computers.

How do the U.S. “innovations” compare to other countries and school systems included in the report? You can see for yourself here, but as an example, the top innovation in organizational practice and policy in Hong Kong was “more peer evaluation of teachers in primary and secondary education.” In Korea, the innovation in organizational practice and policy was “more peer evaluation of teachers in secondary education.” In Singapore, it was “more use of incentives for secondary teachers.”

The United States at this point appears to be standing alone in its obsessive use of standardized tests as important measures of accountability in education.

Incidentally, the school system that has come out on top in the last two administrations of the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment  (PISA) is Shanghai, and Shanghai is considered dropping out of PISA. Why? Shanghai officials want to de-emphasize standardized test scores.