6 Lessons about Life That I Didn’t Learn in College

6 Lessons about Life That I Didn’t Learn in College
by Matt OKeefe

There’s a lot of useful stuff you can learn in college if you’re the right kind of student, but it doesn’t teach you everything there is to know about life. There are all too many things that I didn’t learn in college, and you probably didn’t either. Here are 6 of the biggest shifts you’ll experience once you leave the college setting.

1. You don’t have a straight path.

Freshman year. Then Sophomore year. Then Junior year. Then Senior year. You do that on a semester-by-semester basis for four years, and then you’ve graduated from college. You probably didn’t learn in college how your path becomes a lot less clear after that. Even if you get a job right out of school (which isn’t easy nowadays) you’re still adjusting to that job, probably living in a new place and getting used to life without a GPA. It’s a whole new environment that you have to get acclimated to, and one that doesn’t come with any syllabi.

2. You can’t meet people as easily.

Once you and your friends are out of college, expect people to start moving away. What you didn’t learn in college is that once you’ve graduated, you and your friends are no longer congregated in the circumference of a school campus. Most of your fellow employees at your job probably aren’t going to be in the same age group as you, either. Life, at least at first, is probably going to become a bit lonelier. Over time you’ll build back up a group of people you can depend on and socialize with, but you probably didn’t learn the feeling of isolation that’s awaiting you in life after college.

3. You have to attend everything.

You can miss a class or two or ten at school, as long as you make it to your exams and turn in your term papers on time. You didn’t learn in college that that particular luxury evaporates once you’ve graduated. Your employer is not going to be okay with you missing a day of work, or even with you being late more than once or twice. You were rewarded for your perfect attendance record in high school, and benefited from it in post-secondary education. After that, it’s absolutely mandatory.

4. You can’t have any incomplete assignments.

Professors are sometimes willing to give you incompletes instead of Fs. You didn’t learn in college that you can’t expect that kind of lenience in the workplace. If an assignment at your job is due on Friday, you damn well have that project finished and polished by 5 p.m. on Friday. Earlier, if you know what’s best for you.

5. You won’t get new bosses every semester.

At least I hope not. Professors come and go. Even though people don’t stay at job positions as long as they used to, you’re going to typically have the same employer for more than a semester. That means you can’t risk getting on the wrong side of your bosses. Whereas spirited differences with professors are largely encouraged, conflict with your employer is almost always looked down upon. Make a good impression and stay in their good graces for as long as you stay at their place of work.

6. Success is defined by something other than a letter grade.

College, though complex, is in so many ways a simple thing. You get out into the real world for the first time. You make friends. You experience life to its fullest. All the while you find yourself getting a score from your professors at how you’re faring in school. You probably didn’t learn in college how to get a clear idea of how you’re doing. Even if you’re getting progress reports at work, you will probably never have as definitive an idea of what your boss thinks of you as you did in college.

MasteryConnect Collects $15.2 Million So Teachers Can Teach To Students And Not To Tests

MasteryConnect Collects $15.2 Million So
Teachers Can Teach To Students And Not To Tests

by Jonathan Shieber

MasteryConnect has raised $15.2 million to further market its software that it hopes will help enable educators to teach to their students, and not teach their students how to take tests.

“We’ve created a platform that lets teachers identify a student’s level of understanding against any set of standards, in real-time,” says chief executive Cory Reid.

“It’s a backlash against high stakes testing or standardized testing,” Reid continues. “Our DNA is belief in the teacher and the classroom.”

The Salt Lake City-based company’s software was developed by a serial entrepreneur and a former teacher and principal to ensure that students in a classroom were all understanding the material they were being taught. The software prompts teachers to administer quick checks for understanding that can be distributed on a mobile device, as a quiz, or through a browser.

Already, using its “freemium” model, the company’s software has users in 85 percent of school districts in the country, has been downloaded in 170 countries, and has been used to teach roughly 22 million students.

“We’ve been working on it since 2009,” says Reid. “We grew from a team of three to a team of over 75.”

The software costs $7 per student per year for a rollout across a school, or school district, but teachers can use aspects of the app for free. “Instead of a credit card payment, we want them to become evangelizers. Roughly 33% of our sales have teachers involved,” says Reid. So far, the company’s mobile apps have been downloaded 5 million times.

The core offering is an assessment suite that helps teachers build lesson plans around various standards, using resources that have been selected by teachers around the world. Teachers then have the ability to test student understanding on a yearly, monthly or daily basis (and can re-teach lessons that particular students didn’t comprehend). The company’s curricula and software also offers a more holistic assessment of a student’s results by emphasizing areas where the student excelled and areas that still need work.

International schools use the applications and software to follow the International Baccalaureate curriculum, while in the U.S. the adoption of common core standards have driven adoption.

In June, MasteryConnect bought Cambridge, Mass.-based Socrative, an in-class software program for increasing student engagement, for $5 million in cash and stock.

In a blog post explaining his firm’s investment in MasteryConnect, general partner Larry Orr wrote:

Education is a top priority in this country. Teachers and administrators are desperate to improve students’ learning in an efficient way, and are looking to technology to help them. So far, the approach to deploying devices and educational software in our schools has been haphazard and inconsistent, challenging entrepreneurs to build products useful to a large subset of teachers and learning environments.

At Trinity, we’ve looked hard to find a solution that has the potential to massively improve student outcomes while reaching as many teachers and students as possible; something that will bring teachers, students and parents closer together, and that will support the growth of next-gen teaching methods such as formative assessment. We believe we’ve found that in MasteryConnect…

10 Crazy Things in Texas’s Proposed New Social Studies Textbooks

10 Crazy Things in Texas’s Proposed New Social Studies Textbooks

By Dianna Wray

It seems the Texas education system is still nursing a hangover from the State Board of Education’s raucous culture-warrior party days. Hell, it’s possible they’re still drunk. A while back in 2009 members of the SBOE tried to cut the actual science from the state’s science standards (namely, Darwinian evolution, go figure.) Then they came back ready to swing for the fences, passing social studies curriculum standards that even a conservative think-tank called a “politicized distortion of history” driven by the evangelical Christian-right agenda.”

Well now we get to see the fruit of all that labor: the new social studies textbooks, which the SBOE will vote to approve or reject in November. These proposed textbooks were written based on the state’s new curriculum standards – standards that, it was pointed out in 2011, downplay the screwing over of Native Americans, as well as slavery, among other things. Meanwhile, the “Biblical influences” underlying America’s founding were brought front and center. The standards were put into place writing these new textbooks, and the results are questionable at best, according to a report from the progressive education watchdog group Texas Freedom Network.

Anyways, after the whole science textbook brawl, the folks at TFN were, perhaps understandably, a little leery of the efforts to create textbooks following the SBOE standards. TFN got a group of professors and academic types together to review the textbooks, and the academics were not entirely impressed. In fact, some passages apparently left them horrified, based on the report they just put out. You can read the main report and all the sub-reports that went into it, if you’ve a hankering to. We can’t say these reports are exactly knee-slapping funny, but we still found ourselves cackling with ghoulish delight at what could soon be taught as “history” and “fact” in a Texas classroom near you. Here’s a list of our favorites:


10. Moses basically invented the United States.
Surprising, we know. We honestly were under the impression that the Founding Fathers – though all likely versed in biblical scripture – relied pretty heavily on people like John Locke and company, but it seems we were misinformed, as far as these textbooks go. One textbook asks students, “Where did the Founders get their ideas?” To our surprise, Moses (as in Exodus, Ten Plagues, played-by Charlton Heston Moses) is at the top of the list. The book follows up with Locke, Charles de Montesquieu and William Blackstone, but Moses and his stone tablets are definitely leading the pack.

Sure, Thomas Jefferson was basically cribbing from Locke when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, but really Moses was the one who helped start it all, according to this textbook (and we are using the term “textbook” very lightly.) Heck, it’s been clearly documented how the ideas of Locke, Montesquieu and Blackstone contributed to the country’s founding documents (Locke’s central ideas are either paraphrased or alluded to in the Declaration of Independence, while Montesquieu and Blackstone get mention in the Federalist Papers), but it turns out that Moses did all the heavy lifting first.

According to Perfection Learning’s textbook, the “concept” that Moses supposedly contributed to the founders: “A nation needs a written code of behavior.” And thus Moses gets the credit. Then, in a delightful bit of embroidery, Moses and Solomon share credit for helping plant the seeds of democracy “deep in human history.” We just won’t even bother to mention in the text that Moses was more into theocracy than democracy, and Solomon was a monarch, and one who believed that cutting a baby in half was a pretty fair form of justice. But yeah, sure. It was all thanks to those two.

9. “Much of the violence you read about in the Middle East is related to jihad.”
Really? It’s that simple, is it? We had no idea that all of the many tensions, tendencies and complexities – economics, natural resources, population pressures and all – that are the makeup of the complicated political, social and economic world that is the Middle East were just the cause of one little old holy war. Man, if we had known this sooner, perhaps there would be peace in the Middle East by now. Someone should hurry up and carry Active Classroom: World History over the big water to that sandy place that probably looks exactly like the cartoon world of Aladdin (complete with talking parrots) right this second. Someone needs to call President Obama right this second and say the answer to ISIS and the civil war in Syria and the mess in Iraq and the whole Israel/Palestine conflict is to be had in the pages of this one book. Send it to Congress too. Because it’s all related to jihad. We’ll bet hundreds of years of conflict over religion and, you know, oil have nothing to do with anything. Not a smidge.

8. Hindus are strict vegetarians.
Did y’all Hindus hear that? If you are having a piece of chicken while reading this, drop it immediately. According to the textbooks created along the guidelines arbitrated by the Lone Star State, you are totally doing your whole religion incorrectly. Hey, we know some Shaivites aren’t even vegetarian and that Brahmins get to eat fish and other meat, but the textbook says no meat for y’all. And these textbooks are always right. Kind of. Also, selfishness is the only form of desire, Buddhists. Adjust accordingly.

Photo from Library of Congress
Mark Twain didn’t mean “Gilded Age” as a compliment.

7. Mark Twain may have named the Gilded Age, but he was obviously wrong about it.
The Gilded Age was the best. Seriously, according to some of these textbooks, from the 1870s to about 1900, life was just grand in the United States, despite what Twain, that grouchy old writer, had to say about it. Everyone was happy. Everybody was optimistic and whistling while they worked in factories that were perfectly safe. There definitely wasn’t desperate poverty amongst millions of European immigrants pouring into this country. The fact that women couldn’t vote – and wouldn’t be able to until 1920 – wasn’t a big deal at all. See, they could get married, work as servants or shop girls, go work in factories or have low-paying but utterly respectable jobs as teachers. Plenty of options. Plus, Social Darwinism became a thing about this time, and that whole “survival of the fittest” mindset, as applied to human society, really made for a caring society. See, Twain was critical, but “most Americans were not as cynical. The dizzying array of things to do and buy convinced the growing middle class that modern America was in a true golden age,” according to Pearson Education’s United States History: 1877 to the Present. Sure. Whatever.

The cartoon that goes with the textbook thoughts on taxes. They’re agin’ ’em.

6. Nothing good has happened in society since 1927. “In the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., taxes are ‘what we pay for civilized society.’ Society does not appear to be much more civilized today than it was when Justice Holmes made that observation in 1927,” according to MacGruder’s American Government. Right, creating Social Security, ending segregation, the Civil Rights Act, the Violence Against Women Act, the Clean Water Act. Nope, none of that has made us more “civilized.”


5. Apparently we still say “negro”?
“South of the Sahara Desert most of the people before the Age of Explorations were black Africans of the Negro race,” according to World History A: Early Civilizations to the Mid-1880s. So “Negro” is suddenly an acceptable term to be used in a friggin’ school textbook. It’s pointed out in the report that use of the term is “archaic and fraught with ulterior meaning.” Reading that one sentence makes us intensely curious about what the authors of this textbook had to say about the rest of early civilization. Both curious and afraid.

4. The Native Americans hung out with the Pilgrims and the whole thing turned out just fine for Squanto and his buddies.
“In the fall of 1621, the Pilgrims included their new Wampanoag friends in a feast of thanksgiving,” according to United States History to 1877. Basically, just picture the sharing of corn and pie (because there’s always pie at Thanksgiving.) And that’s pretty much how things go for the Native Americans right up until they get to Little Big Horn. There’s no mention of the many tensions and problems, of smallpox, or Manifest Destiny or the whole brutal bloody dealings with President Andrew Jackson. Nope, just a friendly thanksgiving. Nothing else to see here. And that whole Little Big Horn thing came out of nowhere.

Sitting Bull obviously hasn’t read
this version of history.

3. “Harvey Milk was the first openly gay elected official in the United States.”

Wrong. It’s just incorrect. The mayor of San Francisco (as he was called though he was actually elected to the city board of supervisors) was one of the first but he was not the first openly gay official elected to public office (and there plenty of not-so-open ones elected before him.) Other openly gay or officials preceded him, including Kathy Korazchenko, elected to the Ann Arbor city council in 1974, and Elaine Noble, who took her seat in the Massachusetts Legislature in 1974.

The Mayor of San Francisco Harvey Milk

2. The whole segregation thing wasn’t that big of a deal.
Yep, Brown v. Board of Education only happened because sometimes “the buildings, buses, and teachers for the all-black schools were lower in quality,” according to United States Government by McGraw-Hill. Really? That was it? Most of the schools designated for African American children were gleaming marble halls of learning with adequate classrooms, teachers, books and school supplies? The Jim Crow laws didn’t place obscene limits on educational opportunities for black people? Well, then we are just flabbergasted. Why on earth did people fight the desegregation of schools so bitterly then? Why did it takes decades to get the schools desegregated – one school district in Odessa, Texas was finally ruled officially desegregated in 2010 – in Texas alone, if it was all so simple? Also, “it seems clear the days of affirmative action programs are drawing to a close,” according to MacGruder’s American Government. Huh.


 From the report
A pretty concise summary on the textbook thoughts on Affirmative Action.

1. The “Gay Liberation Movement”
The “gay liberation movement” — or as the rest of us call it the gay rights movement — was totally the same as “social upheaval” and a society that was “spinning out of control,” according to American History II: Post-Civil War America to the Present. Because obviously Stonewall and the whole thing about LGBT citizens making strides toward key civil rights advances should be associated with a crumbling society. Probably because society ceased to make any advances in civilization as of 1927. Yup, that must be it.


Why Middle School Doesn’t Have to Suck

Why Middle School Doesn’t Have to Suck

By Dana Goldstein

Some people suspect the troubles of middle school are a matter of age. Middle schoolers, they think, are simply too moody, pimply, and cliquish to be easily educable. But these five studies might convince you otherwise.

The Obama administration has lavished attention on “dropout factory” high schools and vowed to increase access to pre-kindergarten instruction. But what about middle schools? They rarely make the news, but when they do, it’s usually for unhappy reasons. In 2014, scholars from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign released a study of almost 1,400 Midwestern middle schoolers that found that about a fifth of students reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment, bullying, or abuse, often within the classroom. In some horrific cases, children have committed suicide. Then there is the matter of academic performance: According to one study, while 28 percent of Taiwanese eighth and ninth graders who take the math test associated with the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) earn scores that place them at an accomplished level, only about six percent of U.S. eighth and ninth graders do.

Some people suspect the troubles of middle school are a matter of age. Middle schoolers, they think, are simply too moody, pimply, and cliquish— too pubescent—to be easily educable, and schools can’t do much about it. But these five studies might convince you otherwise. It isn’t that middle school kids are hopeless, just that middle schools are poorly designed to meet the needs of the students within them, a condition psychologists call a person-environment mismatch. The good news is that researchers already know what might work better.


The shift from the junior high schools of yesteryear, spanning grades seven through nine, to today’s middle schools, spanning grades six through eight, dates back to the 1960s. Back then, sixth graders were understood as emotionally pre-adolescent and biologically pre-pubescent. Today, puberty’s onset is happening months and often years earlier than it did in the 1960s: on average, at age 8.8 for African American girls, 9.3 for Hispanic girls, and 9.7 for white and Asian girls. (The most likely cause: diets high in fat and processed sugar.) Early puberty is associated with depression, misbehavior, academic struggle, and sexual initiation at a younger age. It is also closely associated with sexual harassment and bullying. Middle schools must therefore provide a supportive social environment, one that deals with issues of puberty head-on. Teachers and guidance counselors (and parents) must have frank conversations with pre-teens about healthy friendships and romantic relationships, about sexual peer pressure, and even about contraception and sexually transmitted infections. And because the adolescent brain is not at its best in the early morning, the opening bell should ring closer to 9 a.m. than to 7 or 8.

—“Onset of Breast Development in a Longitudinal Cohort,” by Frank M. Biro et al., Pediatrics, Vol. 132, No. 6, 2013


Just because middle schools have a lot of work to do on addressing the social needs of children doesn’t mean that they don’t have serious academic problems to deal with, too. Robert Balfanz, a research professor and director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University School of Education, has called the first year of middle school the “make-or-break year” for children. In 2009, Balfanz published a policy brief that drew on a study he had done of sixth graders in Philadelphia. It found that, of the students who failed either English or math in sixth grade, less than a quarter went on to graduate high school on time. Because poor attendance is a major driver of academic failure for this age group, middle schools must closely monitor absences and have an action plan in place to quickly engage both students and their families in reversing attendance problems.

—“Putting Middle Grades Students on the Graduation Path: A Policy and Practice Brief,” by Robert Balfanz, 2009, published by the National Middle School Association


Since the middle school years have a crucial impact on children’s later success, middle school teachers should be among the most elite and highly paid educators in K-12. Sadly, the opposite is the case. Many educators see placements in grades six through eight as mere stepping-stones to careers in high school, which offers more interesting course material, or elementary school, in which children are generally better behaved. Middle school teachers are also more likely than teachers of other grades to be working out-of-field, meaning in subjects they are not certified to teach, especially math and science. For that reason, teacher preparation programs should treat future middle school teachers more like future high school teachers— requiring them to take advanced classes in the subjects they will teach— and less like elementary school teachers, who receive a more generalist education. Also, middle school teachers should be given incentives to stay, like higher salaries.

—“Who Stays and Who Leaves? Findings From a Three-Part Study of Teacher Turnover in NYC Middle Schools,” by William H. Marinell and Vanessa M. Coca, March 2013, published by the Research Alliance for New York City Schools


Because the academic well-being of middle schoolers is so closely linked to their social well-being, the best middle school curricula teach kids coping mechanisms that can be applied both to completing schoolwork and to navigating adolescent friendships and dating. In one promising program, Habits of Mind, teachers work with students to develop skills such as “applying past knowledge to new situations,” “admitting you don’t know,” “listening with understanding and empathy,” “taking responsible risks,” and even “being able to laugh at yourself.” Schools as disparate as Briarcliff Middle School, in the affluent New York suburb of Briarcliff Manor, and the KIPP schools, which serve mostly low-income black and Hispanic children, are embracing this type of character education, which is based on research showing that non-cognitive skills like perseverance and future orientation can be more important than raw IQ in determining adult success.

—“Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals,” by Angela L. Duckworth et al., Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 92, No. 6, 2007


That said, an increasing number of school reformers believe it makes no sense to isolate sixth, seventh, and eighth graders in separate school buildings. In 2012, researchers Martin West of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Guido Schwerdt of the Ifo Institute for Economic Research in Munich, Germany, studied data on children in Florida and found that, across urban, suburban, and rural areas, students who attend middle schools do worse academically than peers who attend K-8 schools and are more likely to drop out of high school. While Florida students also demonstrated achievement drops when they transitioned from eighth grade to high school, the elementary to middle school drop was larger. Why? Probably because the transition to a new environment takes a toll on anxious pubescent kids. In response to these findings, hundreds of middle schools across the country, especially in cities, are transitioning to K-8 formats. Perhaps the future of middle school is no middle school at all.

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

By Nathan Collins

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous

impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.

Hiring just one additional school counselor in an average American school could have about a third of the effect of recruiting all the school’s teachers from a pool of candidates in the top 15 percent of their profession, according to a new analysis. That’s also about the effect you’d expect from lowering class sizes by adding two teachers to a school of around 500—either way, not too shabby.

School counselors do a lot more than help kids figure out what classes to take. Their primary role, in fact, is to help students work through behavioral problems, mental health concerns, and other issues that might hamper kids’ success in school and in life. But despite considerable recent attention to factors that might improve education in underperforming schools, researchers have largely ignored how much of an impact counselors have on academic performance.

Economists Scott Carrell and Mark Hoekstra took a stab at figuring out that impact by studying third, fourth, and fifth graders at 22 elementary schools in and around Gainesville, Florida, which happens to be the home of the University of Florida’s Department of Counselor Education. As part of their training, graduate student counselors intern in the area, providing extra support to the lone staff counselor in schools where they’re placed. In addition to that data, Carrell and Hoekstra knew students’ percentile ranks on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and the Stanford 9 test, both standard measures of academic progress, as well as students’ disciplinary records—most everything they needed to see what a counselor could do for a school’s academic performance.

Surprisingly, just one extra counselor can do quite a lot. After controlling for factors including school size, the proportion of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch, and median family income in the neighborhood—all shown to be correlated with academic achievement—Carrell and Hoekstra estimated that each additional counselor intern in a school reduced the number of reports of disruptive behavior by 20 percent for boys and 29 percent for girls. Test scores also rose by a little less than one percentile point—a little more for boys, and a little less for girls.

That little one percentile point is something to write home about, too. Education researchers usually report their results in terms of the standard deviation, or the amount of variation, in student test scores or teacher quality, which is typically measured in terms of teachers’ students’ test scores. For instance, an increase of one standard deviation in teacher quality is thought to result in an improvement of about one-tenth of a standard deviation in test scores—about two and a half percentile points in Carrell and Hoekstra’s study.

Put it all together, and that means it would take a massive, widespread improvement in teacher quality to improve test scores more than a single additional counselor would, or as the authors write in Economics Letters, “this suggests that hiring counselors may be an effective alternative to other education policies aimed at increasing academic achievement.”

Why Education Is My Ticket to Travel

Why Education Is My Ticket to Travel

by Katy Miller

When I was growing up in Tennessee, I had friends who took picturesque European vacations while my family stayed much closer to home. Of course, where you go doesn’t really matter so long as you’re together, and I enjoyed every trip we took to the Smoky Mountains or to Florida’s coasts.

A small part of me did wonder if my chance to see more of the world would ever come, but I figured it was useless to dwell on something so unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future.

As it turns out, that chance never did come — at least, not in the way I would have envisioned it. I’ve still never had the typical experience of booking a round-trip ticket from the US to Europe to sightsee for a few weeks. Instead, I’ve lived in Europe for chunks at a time thanks to relentlessly hunting down scholarships and grants (and just plain penny-pinching) to fund otherwise out-of-reach pursuits.

Round 1: Oxford, England


Magdalen Tower, Radcliffe Camera, St John’s College; Photo Credits: Katy Miller

My first opportunity to visit Europe came during my junior year at university. I’d always wanted to study abroad, but my full-tuition scholarship didn’t contribute much toward such far-flung adventures. That summer, I juggled three jobs at over 60 hours per week, a period punctuated by the potatoes I ate straight out of the microwave and little else. Somehow I managed to scrape together the funds I needed, and off I went to Oxford, England.

It was a magical time within an insular fairy tale, despite my unfortunate diet of frozen pizza. I visited ruins and palaces, took frequent trips to London, and even managed to squeeze in budget flights to Italy and France (which involved questionable lodging choices like sleeping outside the Milan Central train station).

Round 2: Manchester, England


John Rylands Library, Whitworth Hall, Peak District; Photo Credits: Katy Miller

That was the end of my travels for two years until I was able to obtain several postgraduate scholarships and boarded my second-ever European flight to begin a master’s degree at the University of Manchester.

While at Manchester, which is located in northwest England, I explored the North and the Midlands in my spare time. The gorgeous Peak District quickly became my favorite place in England, and I took cheap trips to nearby Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. I even got to see Austria during a holiday break.

My decision to do a degree abroad was a marvelous one indeed, but I assumed that after it was over, I would be headed back to the United States for good.

Round 3: Córdoba, Spain (and beyond)


Patios sculpture, Palacio de la Merced, Casa del Bailío; Photo Credits: Katy Miller

I’ve recently finished that degree but have not ended up back in the states — at least, not yet. This time, the third round of living abroad has nothing to do with my own education but with that of my partner. He decided that an international masters degree was for him, too. Now we live together in gorgeous Andalucía region of Spain during his funded MSC that will later take us to Portugal and then back to England.

Before this newest adventure, I’d never been to Spain before, nor thought that I would make it there anytime soon. Nonetheless, here I am.

Generous grants and scholarships have provided the chance to live in places my partner and I couldn’t even have visited on our own small budgets, and for me, that imbues these years with even more value. So if your own pockets are as shallow as mine, don’t despair just yet. I haven’t seen nearly as much of the world as have some, but I’ve seen more of it than I ever imagined I would. That in itself is enough for me.

High School drama teacher on leave for role in video

Etiwanda High School drama
teacher on leave for role in video

By Liset Marquez

A longtime drama teacher at Etiwanda High School has been placed on paid administrative leave – and could be facing disciplinary action – for his acting role in former student’s web series which showed him smoking what appeared to be marijuana.

Christian Kiley received a letter on Aug. 20, informing him of the decision to “allow the District to conduct a preliminary investigation to determine the next steps to be taken,” said William Trejo, Kiley’s attorney.

But the attorney for the teacher said Chaffey Joint Union High School District failed to respect the free speech rights of its employees.

“Mr. Kiley feels very strongly that the District is retaliating against him for the exercise of his artistic choices,” Trejo said in an email. “Mr. Kiley believes, and I strongly agree, that this is a First Amendment free speech that is being impinged upon by the District’s action. Even if no discipline is ultimately issued, Mr. Kiley and other teachers will feel the chilling effect upon their free speech rights through the District’s unwarranted action.”

Mat Holton, superintendent with the school district,
said he could not comment because it is a personnel matter.


Holton said no administrative hearing has been set
at this time because the issue is still being investigated.

The issue stems from a pilot Kiley participated in on July 28 with several of his former students. The students had just started filming a web series called “Skidz” and were hoping it would get picked up by a cable channel. The show follows the two main characters, Damien and Zach, as they get into mischief and a cast of supporting characters who make the issue worse. Damien Darr, 20, co-created the show with his Cal State Fullerton classmate but also included three former Etiwanda students.

In the first episode, the drama teacher portrays “Bummy” a homeless man who asks two of the protagonists if they had any marijuana to smoke.

“The District seems to take issue with the mature themes in the pilot video; even though Mr. Kiley’s participation was during the summer break and did not involve his capacity as a teacher,” Trejo said.

Trejo questioned if Kiley would be treated the same if he appeared on the critically acclaimed AMC show involving drugs called “Breaking Bad.”

The original video was removed from the Internet by one of the producers when Kiley was placed on leave. It was only on an age-protected YouTube channel for 15 hours and garnered 65 views.

Kiley has been employed at the school since 2005 and has gained a reputation for helping students interested in pursuing a career in the entertainment industry. At the school, Kiley has led the drama program to win numerous competitions and the production of original student plays.

“He’s a mentor and someone you could come to about your artistic questions,” Darr said.

Darr said he was surprised to learn Kiley was in trouble for participating in the video. They have since recast Kiley’s role and shot another version of the first episode with the new actor, he said.

In the original scene with Kiley, the three characters appear to smoke marijuana but Darr said it was an herbal cigarette.

“He didn’t do anything inappropriate,” he said. “I just think he was just practicing what he teaches.”

In 2013, Kiley was the recipient of a scholarship from the National Shakespeare Competition allowing him to attend the “Shakespeare at the Huntington,” held at the Huntington Library in Pasadena.

Trejo said Kiley is not seeking any compensation but wants to be reinstated and have this cleared from his records. Kiley was not compensated for his work.

Education researchers don’t check for errors — dearth of replication studies

Education researchers don’t check for errors — dearth of replication studiesGrowing of larch buds
by Jill Barshay

Education theories come and go. Experts seem to advocate for polar opposites, from student discovery to direct teacher instruction, from typing to cursive hand-writing, and from memorizing times tables to using calculators. Who can blame a school system for not knowing what works?

One big problem is that education scholars don’t bother to replicate each other’s studies. And you can’t figure out which teaching methods are most effective unless the method can be reproduced in more than one setting and produce the same results.  A new study, Facts Are More Important Than Novelty: Replication in the Education Sciences, published August 14, 2014 in Educational Researcher, found that education researchers have attempted to replicate other researchers’ results only a scant 0.13 percent of the time. Compare that with the field of psychology where there’s a 1.07 percent replication rate, eight times as much as in education. By contrast, replications within the field of medicine are commonplace and expected.

“When we teach science, we teach students that it’s important for other people to get the same findings as you,” said Matthew C. Makel of Duke University, one of the study’s co-authors. “Replication is a key part of the error-finding process. In education, if our findings cannot be replicated, we lose a lot of credibility with the scientific world and the greater public.”

“Error  — or limited generalizability — won’t be found if no one looks,” he added. “And our findings show that, for the most part, in education research, we aren’t looking.”

Makel and his University of Connecticut colleague Jonathan Plucker conducted a text search through the entire publication history of the top 100 education journals and found that only 221 out of more than 165,000 scholarly articles were replication studies, in which researchers tried to reproduce the results of earlier studies. (The 221 includes both exact replications and approximate ones where the experiments were tweaked a bit, say, to see if the intervention would work with a different type of student).

You’d think in education, where best practices could actually help millions of children, there would be a priority on reproducing results. So why so little replication?

Part of it is unique to education. In psychology, for example, you can reproduce results fairly easily using another group of 25 undergraduates in a laboratory or clinic setting. In education, it’s far more complicated to find similar groups of students in similar school settings. Often poverty levels and racial makeups vary.  And no two teachers are the same. Each will invariably put his own spin on the teaching method being tested. Many parents and school leaders are understandably reluctant to experiment on children at all.

The culture of the Ivory Tower is also to blame. Professors live by a “publish or perish” mentality. Their tenure, prestige and research funding are often based on how many articles they can get published in leading journals. And the editors and reviewers of these journals (staffed by fellow university professors) have a bias toward the new and the novel.

I talked with Steve Graham, an Arizona State University professor of education, who has edited five education journals. He says he gets 600 submissions a year for Educational Psychology alone, and thus has “the luxury to be very choosy.” He says he doesn’t publish replications studies “unless they cover new ground” (a sort of contradiction in terms). “We want studies that have significant new impact,” he said. “There’s a bias built in. I’m not saying it’s a good thing. It’s a problem. I recognize it.”

The problem affects Graham directly because his own research work involves metastudies of how to teach writing — that is, he synthesizes other researchers’ papers on effective writing instruction to figure out what works. The lack of duplications makes his work difficult. “I got a lot of noise in my metaanalyses,” he explains.

Graham suspects that if there were more research funds earmarked for replications, more academics would apply for them and conduct replication studies. (Foundations out there: hark, there’s a new way to fix education!) The American Psychological Association, also worried about the dearth of replication in its field, is looking to launch a new journal exclusively devoted to publishing replication studies. Perhaps education can create one too.

To be sure, Makel’s and Plucker’s word-search methodology — where they looked only for variants of the word “replicate” — may be exaggerating the lack of scientific process in education research. Neil Seftor, an economist at Mathematica, runs the What Works Clearinghouse for the Department of Education. He specifically examines what the majority of scientific studies say about the best way to teach, or about a particular curriculum or textbook.  He admits that exact replications are rare, but says he wouldn’t be interested in exact replications such as those in a laboratory setting. “What you want in education is evidence over a variety of settings in the real world — urban areas, special ed,” Seftor said. When he searches for studies on new interventions, he said he often finds dozens of papers on each one, but they might not have the word “replication” anywhere in their text.

“I don’t think it would be fair to say that they’re all these educational approaches out there and they’ve only been studied one time,” Seftor said.  (Admittedly, many of the studies Seftor looks at are unpublished and financed by the developer of the curriculum.)

Seftor, of course, would welcome more scientific studies on education theories. Often, when he is developing practice guides for teachers, the teaching methods recommended by experts don’t have much scientific evidence to support them.

In the meantime, the American Educational Research Association (AERA), which publishes a number of top education journals including Educational Researcher, decided last year (2013) to publish AERA Open as a new open-access research journal, and is specifically encouraging the publication of peer-reviewed replication studies in it. It just began accepting submissions on Sept. 15.

Maybe, once we see more replication studies in print, we’ll be able to judge whether they can filter down to the classroom and improve instruction.


Education With a Debt Sentence

Education With a Debt Sentence

By Astra Taylor and Hannah Appel, TomDispatch

Imagine corporations that intentionally target low-income single mothers as ideal customers. Imagine that these same companies claim to sell tickets to the American dream—gainful employment, the chance for a middle class life. Imagine that the fine print on these tickets, once purchased, reveals them to be little more than debt contracts,  profitable to the corporation’s investors, but disastrous for its customers. And imagine that these corporations receive tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies to do this dirty work. Now, know that these corporations actually exist and are universities.

Over the last three decades, the price of a year of college has increased by more than 1,200%.  In the past, American higher education has always been associated with upward mobility, but with student loan debt quadrupling between 2003 and 2013, it’s time to ask whether education alone can really move people up the class ladder. This is a question of obvious relevance for low-income students and students of color.

As Cornell professor Noliwe Rooks and journalist Kai Wright have reported, black college enrollment has increased at nearly twice the rate of white enrollment in recent years, but a disproportionate number of those African-American students end up at for-profit schools. In 2011, two of those institutions, the University of Phoenix (with physical campuses in 39 states and massive online programs) and the online-only Ashford University, produced more black graduates than any other institutes of higher education in the country. Unfortunately, a recent survey by economist Rajeev Darolia shows that for-profit graduates fare little better on the job market than job seekers with high school degrees; their diplomas, that is, are a net loss, offering essentially the same grim job prospects as if they had never gone to college, plus a lifetime debt sentence.

Many students who enroll in such colleges don’t realize that there is a difference between for-profit, public, and private non-profit institutions of higher learning. All three are concerned with generating revenue, but only the for-profit model exists primarily to enrich its owners. The largest of these institutions are often publicly traded, nationally franchised corporations legally beholden to maximize profit for their shareholders before maximizing education for their students. While commercial vocational programs have existed since the nineteenth century, for-profit colleges in their current form are a relatively new phenomenon that began to boom with a series of initial public offerings in the 1990s, followed quickly by deregulation of the sector as the millennium approached. Bush administration legislation then weakened government oversight of such schools, while expanding their access to federal financial aid, making the industry irresistible to Wall Street investors.

While the for-profit business model has generally served investors well, it has failed students. Retention rates are abysmal and tuitions sky-high. For-profit colleges can be up to twice as expensive as Ivy League universities, and routinely cost five or six times the price of a community college education. The Medical Assistant program at for-profit Heald College in Fresno, California, costs $22,275. A comparable program at Fresno City College costs $1,650. An associate degree in paralegal studies at Everest College in Ontario, California, costs $41,149, compared to $2,392 for the same degree at Santa Ana College, a mere 30-minute drive away.

Exorbitant tuition means students, who tend to come from poor backgrounds, have to borrow from both the government and private sources, including Sallie Mae (the country’s largest originator, servicer, and collector of student loans) and banks like Chase and Wells Fargo. A whopping 96% of students who manage to graduate from for-profits leave owing money, and they typically carry twice the debt load of students from more traditional schools.

Public funds in the form of federal student loans has been called the “lifeblood” of the for-profit system, providing on average 86% of revenues. Such schools now enroll around 10% of America’s college students, but take in more than a quarter of all federal financial aid—as much as $33 billion in a single year. By some estimates it would cost less than half that amount to directly fund free higher education at all currently existing two- and four-year public colleges. In other words, for-profit schools represent not a “market solution” to increasing demand for the college experience, but the equivalent of a taxpayer-subsidized subprime education.

Pushing the Hot Button, Poking the Pain

The mantra is everywhere: a college education is the only way to climb out of poverty and create a better life. For-profit schools allow Wall Street investors and corporate executives to cash in on this faith.

Publicly traded schools have been shown to have profit margins, on average, of nearly 20%. A significant portion of these taxpayer-sourced proceeds are spent on Washington lobbyists to keep regulations weak and federal money pouring in. Meanwhile, these debt factories pay their chief executive officers $7.3 million in average yearly compensation. John Sperling, architect of the for-profit model and founder of the University of Phoenix, which serves more students than the entire University of California system or all the Ivy Leagues combined, died a billionaire in August.

Graduates of for-profit schools generally do not fare well. Indeed, they rarely find themselves in the kind of work they were promised when they enrolled, the kind of work that might enable them to repay their debts, let alone purchase the commodity-cornerstones of the American dream like a car or a home.

In the documentary “College Inc.,” produced by PBS’s investigative series Frontline, three young women recount how they enrolled in a nursing program at Everest College on the promise of $25-$35 an hour jobs on graduation. Course work, however, turned out to consist of visits to the Museum of Scientology to study “psychiatrics” and visits to a daycare center for their “pediatrics rotation.” They each paid nearly $30,000 for a 12-month program, only to find themselves unemployable because they had been taught nearly nothing about their chosen field.

In 2010, an undercover investigation by the Government Accountability Office tested 15 for-profit colleges and found that every one of them “made deceptive or otherwise questionable statements” to undercover applicants. These recruiting practices are now under increasing scrutiny from 20 state attorneys general, Senate investigators, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), amid allegations that many of these schools manipulate the job placement statistics of their graduates in the most cynical of ways.

The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, an organization that offers support in health, education, employment, and community-building to new veterans, put it this way in August 2013: “Using high-pressure sales tactics and false promises, these institutions lure veterans into enrolling into expensive programs, drain their post-9/11 GI Bill education benefits, and sign up for tens of thousands of dollars in loans. The for-profits take in the money but leave the students with a substandard education, heavy student loan debt, non-transferable credits, worthless degrees, or no degrees at all.”

Even President Obama has spoken out against instances where for-profit colleges preyed upon troops with brain damage: “These Marines had injuries so severe some of them couldn’t recall what courses the recruiter had signed them up for.”

As it happens, recruiters for such schools are manipulating more than statistics. They are mining the intersections of class, race, gender, inequality, insecurity, and shame to hook students. “Create a sense of urgency. Push their hot button. Don’t let the student off the phone. Dial, dial, dial,” a director of admissions at Argosy University, which operates in 23 states and online, told his enrollment counselors in an internal email.

A training manual for recruiters at ITT Tech, another multi-state and virtual behemoth, instructed its employees to “poke the pain a bit and remind them who else is depending on them and their commitment to a better future.”  It even included a “pain funnel”—that is, a visual guide to help recruiters exploit prospective students’ vulnerabilities. Pain was similarly a theme at Ashford University, where enrollment advisors were told by their superiors to “dig deep” into students’ suffering to “convince them that a college degree is going to solve all their problems.”

An internal document from Corinthian Colleges, Inc. (owner of Everest, Heald, and Wyotech colleges) specified that its target demographic is “isolated,” “impatient” individuals with “low self-esteem.”  They should have “few people in their lives who care about them and be stuck in their lives, unable to imagine a future or plan well.”

These recruiting strategies are as well funded as they are abhorrent. When an institution of higher learning is driven primarily by the needs of its shareholders, not its students, the drive to get “asses in classes” guarantees that marketing budgets will dwarf whatever is spent on faculty and instruction. According to David Halperin, author of Stealing America’s Future: How For-Profit Colleges Scam Taxpayers and Ruin Student’s Lives, “The University of Phoenix has spent as much as $600 million a year on advertising; it has regularly been Google’s largest advertiser, spending $200,000 a day.”

At some schools, the money put into the actual education of a single student has been as low as $700 per year. The Senate’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee revealed that 30 of the for-profit industry’s biggest players spent $4.2 billion—or 22.7% of their revenue—on recruiting and marketing in 2010.

Subprime Schools, Swindled Students

In profit paradise, there are nonetheless signs of trouble. Corinthian College Inc., for instance, is under investigation by several state and federal agencies for falsifying job-placement rates and lying to students in marketing materials. In June, the Department of Education discovered that the company was on the verge of collapse and began supervising a search for buyers for its more than 100 campuses and online operations. In this “unwinding process,” some Corinthian campuses have already shut down. To make matters worse, this month the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announced a $500 million lawsuit accusing Corinthian of running a “predatory lending scheme.”

As the failure of Corinthian unfolds, those who understood it to be a school—namely, its students—have been left in the lurch. Are their hard-earned degrees and credits worthless?  Should those who are enrolled stay put and hope for the storm to pass or jump ship to another institution? Social media reverberate with anxious questions.

Nathan Hornes started the Facebook group “Everest Avengers,” a forum where students who feel confused and betrayed can share information and organize. A 2014 graduate of Everest College’s Ontario, California, branch, Nathan graduated with a 3.9 GPA, a degree in Business Management, and $65,000 in debt. Unable to find the gainful employment Everest promised him, he currently works two fast-food restaurant jobs. Nathan’s dreams of starting a record label and a music camp for inner city kids will be deferred even further into some distant future when his debts come due: a six-month grace period expires in October and Nathan will owe $380 each month on Federal loans alone. “Do I want to pay bills or my loans?” he asks. Corinthian has already threatened to sue him if he fails to make payments.

Asked to explain Corinthian’s financial troubles, Trace Urdan, a market analyst for Wells Fargo Bank, Corinthian’s biggest equity investor, argued that the school attracts “subprime students” who “can be expected—as a group—to repay at levels far lower than most student loans.” And yet, as Corinthian’s financial woes mounted, the corporation stopped paying rent at its Los Angeles campuses and couldn’t pay its own substantial debts to lenders, including Bank of America, from whom it sought a debt waiver.

That Corinthian can request debt waivers from its lenders should give us pause. Who, one might ask, is the proper beneficiary of a debt waiver in this case? No such favors will be done for Nathan Hornes or other former Corinthian students, though they have effectively been led into a debt trap with an expert package of misrepresentations, emotional manipulation, and possibly fraud.

From Bad Apples to a Better System, or Everest Avenged

As is always the case with corporate scandals, Corinthian is now being described as a “bad apple” among for-profits, not evidence of a rotten orchard. The fact is that for-profits like Corinthian exemplify all the contradictions of the free-market model that reformers present as the only solution to the current crisis in higher education: not only are these schools 90% dependent on taxpayer money, but tenure doesn’t exist, there are no faculty unions, most courses are offered online with low overhead costs, and students are treated as “customers.”

It’s also worth remembering that at “public” universities, it is now nearly impossible for working class or even middle class students to graduate without debt. This sad state of affairs—so the common version of the story goes—is the consequence of economic hard-times, which require belt tightening and budget cuts. And so it has come to pass that strapped community colleges are now turning away would-be enrollees who wind up in the embrace of for-profits that proceed to squeeze every penny they can from them and the public purse as well. (All the while, of course, this same tale provides for-profits with a cover: they are offering a public service to a marginalized and needy population no one else will touch.)

The standard narrative that, in the face of shrinking tax revenues, public universities must relentlessly raise tuition rates turns out, however, to be full of holes. As political theorist Robert Meister points out, this version of the story ignores the complicity of university leaders in the process. Many of them were never passive victims of privatization; instead, they saw tuition, not taxpayer funding, as the superior and preferred form of revenue growth.

Beginning in the 1990s, universities, public and private, began working ever more closely with Wall Street, which meant using tuition payments not just as direct revenue but also as collateral for debt-financing. Consider the venerable but beleaguered University of California system: a 2012 report out of its Berkeley branch, “Swapping Our Futures,” shows that the whole system was losing $750,000 each month on interest-rate swaps—a financial product that promised lower borrowing costs, but ended up draining the U.C. system of already-scarce resources.

In the last decade, its swap agreements have cost it over $55 million and could, in the end, add up to a loss of $200 million. Financiers, as the university’s creditors, are promised ever-increasing tuition as the collateral on loans, forcing public schools to aggressively recruit ever more out-of-state students, who pay higher tuitions, and to raise the in-state tuition relentlessly as well, simply to meet debt burdens and keep credit ratings high.

Instead of being the social and economic leveler many believe it to be, American higher education in the twenty-first century too often compounds the problem of inequality through debt-servitude. Referring to student debt, which has by now reached $1.2 trillion, Meister suggests, “Add up the lifetime debt service that former students will pay on $1 trillion, over and above the principal they borrow, and you could run a very good public university system for what we are paying capital markets to fund an ever-worsening one.”

You Are Not a Loan

The big problem of how we finance education won’t be solved overnight. But one group is attempting to provide both immediate aid to students like Nathan Hornes and a vision for rethinking debt as a systemic issue. On September 17th, the Rolling Jubilee, an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street, announced the abolition of a portfolio of debt worth nearly $4 million originating from for-profit Everest College. This granted nearly 3,000 former students no-strings-attached debt relief.

The authors of this article have both been part of this effort. To date, the Rolling Jubilee has abolished nearly $20 million dollars of medical and educational debt by taking advantage of a little-known trade secret: debt is often sold to debt collectors for mere pennies on the dollar. A medical bill that was originally $1,000 might sell to a debt collector for 4% of its sticker price, or $40. This allowed the Rolling Jubilee project to make a multi-million dollar impact with a budget of approximately $700,000 raised in large part through small individual donations.

The point of the Rolling Jubilee is simple enough: we believe people shouldn’t have to go into debt for basic needs. For the last four decades, easy access to credit has masked stagnating wages and crumbling social services, forcing many Americans to debt-finance necessities like college, health care, and housing, while the creditor class has reaped enormous rewards. But while we mean the Jubilee’s acts to be significant, we know it is not a sustainable solution to the problem at hand. There is no way to buy and abolish all the odious debt sloshing around our economy, nor would we want to. Given the way our economy is structured, people would start slipping into the red again the minute their debts were wiped out.

The Rolling Jubilee instead raises a question: If a ragtag group of activists can find a way to provide immediate relief to even a few thousand defrauded students, why can’t the government?

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s lawsuit against Corinthian Colleges, Inc. is a good first step, but it only applies to specific private loans originating after 2011, and it will likely take years to play out. Until it’s resolved, students are still technically on the hook and many will be harassed by unscrupulous debt collectors attempting to extract money from them while they still can. In the meantime, the Department of Education (DOE)—which has far greater purview than the CFPB—is effectively acting as a debt collector for a predatory lender, instead of using its discretionary power to help students. Why didn’t the DOE simply let Corinthian go bankrupt, as often happens to private institutions, and so let the students’ debts become dischargeable?

Such debt discharge is well within the DOE’s statutory powers. When a school under its jurisdiction has broken state laws or committed fraud it is, in fact, mandated to offer debt discharge to students. Yet in Corinthian’s opaque, unaccountable unwinding process, the Department of Education appears to be focused on keeping as many of these predatory “schools” open as possible.

No less troubling, the DOE actually stands to profit off Corinthian’s debt payments, as it does from all federally secured educational loans, regardless of the school they are associated with. Senator Elizabeth Warren has already sounded the alarm about the department’s conflict of interest when it comes to student debt, citing an estimate that the government stands to rake in up to $51 billion dollars in a single year on student loans. As Warren points out, it’s “obscene” for the government to treat education as a profit center.

Can there be any doubt that funds reaped from the repayment of federally backed loans by Corinthian students are especially ill-gotten gains? Nathan Hornes and his fellow students should be the beneficiaries of debt relief, not further dispossession.

Unless people agitate, no reprieve will be offered. Instead there may be slaps on the wrist for a few for-profit “bad apples,” with policymakers presenting possible small reductions in interest rates or income-based payments for student borrowers as major breakthroughs.

We need to think bigger. There is an old banking adage: if you owe the bank $1,000, the bank owns you; if you owe the bank $1 million, you own the bank. Individually, student debt is an incapacitating burden. But as Nathan and others are discovering, as a premise for collective action, it can offer a new kind of leverage. Debt collectives, effectively debtors’ unions, may be the next stage of anti-austerity organizing. Collective action offers many possibilities for building power against creditors through collective bargaining, including the power to threaten a debt strike. Where for-profits prey on people’s vulnerability, isolation, and shame, debt collectives would nurture feelings of strength, solidarity, and outrage.

Those who profit from education fear such a transformation, and understandably so. “We ask students to make payments while in school to help them develop the discipline and practice of repaying their federal and other loan obligations,” a Corinthian Colleges spokesman said in response to the news of CFPB’s lawsuit.

It’s absurd: a single mother working two jobs and attending online classes to better her life is discipline personified, even if she can’t always pay her loans on time. The executives and investors living large off her financial aid are the ones who need to be taught a lesson. Perhaps we should collectively demand that as part of their punishment these predators take a course in self-discipline taught by their former students.

Hannah Appel is a mother, activist, and assistant professor of anthropology at UCLA. Her work looks at the everyday life of capitalism and the economic imagination. She has been active with Occupy Wall Street since 2011.

Astra Taylor is a writer, documentary filmmaker (including Zizek! and Examined Life), and activist. Her book, The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age (Metropolitan Books), was published in April. She helped launch the Occupy offshoot Strike Debt and its Rolling Jubilee campaign.

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Ego, money and false promises: Michelle Rhee’s big secret and the collapse of education “reform”

Ego, money and false promises: Michelle Rhee’s
big secret and the collapse of education “reform”

by Jeff Bryant

There’s big money in education “reform,” and now it’s
flowing to tech companies that want to disrupt public schools

When Michelle Rhee left the center stage of the movement known as “education reform,” inquiring minds wanted to know why.

Was it because “she didn’t play well in the sandbox.” Was it to solidify her and her husband’s image as “the next Bill and Hillary Clinton?”

But here’s one theory that no one seemed to consider: It was a good business decision.

Regardless of how you feel about Michelle Rhee, you have to admit she has been an adroit business person – tapping into a growing market demand, using a clever publicity campaign to reach celebrity recognition, outmaneuver her competitors (such as teachers unions), and amassing significant amounts of capital to roll out a formidable new “product,” her organization StudentsFirst.

So it’s not beyond reasonable to wonder if Rhee got out of the business of “education reform” while the gettin’ was good and left StudentsFirst at a time when it has likely peaked in influence and may even be in decline.

If that’s indeed the case, is Rhee’s exit the first sign of a larger exodus from the reform movement soon to follow? Is the whole enterprise known as education reform starting to go south? And if so, where is all the big money behind it going to go to next?

Becoming the Bickersons

Perhaps Rhee realized, just in time, the reform venture was turning into a money pit, as forces and personalities dragged the effort down with inefficiency, contention and lack of productivity.

Take what’s going on in the saga of lawsuits against teacher labor contracts.

In their eagerness to lower the professional status of teachers and dilute their job protections, lead plaintiffs in two New York City lawsuits against teachers’ job protections are now squabbling with each other.

As Chalkbeat New York reported, a judge recently consolidated the two lawsuits into one, but the plaintiff in the first suit, Mona Davids, “made it clear that she wasn’t interested in forging a unified effort” with the person leading the second, Campbell Brown.

Brown, a “news-anchor-turned-activist” with a history of attacking teachers unions and challenging the due process teachers get when their employment is threatened, leads the group Partnership for Educational Justice. Her group contends, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal, students suffer from laws “making it too expensive, time-consuming and burdensome to fire bad teachers.”

Brown’s ventures are closely tied to TNTP, the group formerly known as The New Teacher Project. TNTP is another organization founded by Rhee that is strongly associated with attacks on teachers’ unions and job protections.

Brown may play well with Rhee and her colleagues, but the harmony appears not to extend to just any old “reformer.”

As the independent blog site Eclectablog recently explained, Brown appears to have forced out the attorneys representing the Davids lawsuit, so she can remain the figurehead. In an interview with the blogger, Davids, and her associate in the lawsuit Sam Pirozzolo, accuse Brown of acting “like a playground bully.” Davids and Pirozzolo contend Brown threatened “everyone who supported them to isolate them and leave them without resources so that she and her group could take over their suit once it was consolidated with hers.”

When asked why Brown would do this, Davids and Pirozzolo stated, “She wants to be the next Michelle Rhee … This is all about her.”

Brown’s antics have also been noticed by Gloria Romero – another mover and shaker in the education reform movement, credited with creating what have become known as “parent trigger” laws to enable charter school takeovers of public schools.

Romero recently wrote on the website of a California news outlet that Brown’s scene-stealing has become the norm now of “the politicized world of education reform and the power brokers leading it.”

Not to be outdone in the ego department, Davids held a news conference to complain about the situation, where she handed out fake $100 bills with Brown’s face on them. “It’s our lawsuit,” she was quoted by Chalkbeat. “We filed first.”

And to think that everyone was under the impression this was “all about the children.”

Reforming What “Doesn’t Matter That Much”

Egos aren’t the only thing getting in the way of efforts to get rid of teachers’ job protections. An effort in Missouri to create a state constitutional amendment denying teachers those protections was recently abandoned by the group leading the campaign, despite a very large donation from a major political donor in that state. A spokesperson for that campaign explained, “the timing is not right.”

“Timing” in this case is being used as shorthand for “unpopular.”

As a new poll – the second installment of the annual survey conducted by PDK and Gallup – found, “a majority of Americans (77 percent) continue to trust and have confidence in their public school teachers.”

Further, most experts see any relationship between teachers’ job security and student achievement as mostly a “red herring,” which is how the economist Jesse Rothstein recently described these tenure lawsuits on the Washington Post’s Wonkblog. “It just doesn’t matter that much … if you got rid of tenure,” he stated.

Writing at the Huffington Post, historian and professor Yohuru Williams observed, “The champions of corporate education reform insist that efforts to strip teachers of the procedural guarantees of due process embedded in tenure are somehow an extension of the Civil Rights Movement.”

But then Williams detailed how it was tenure that actually protected black teachers from a backlash of racially motivated teacher firings after the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board that forcibly integrated public schools. “If not for tenure,” he contended, “officials … might have succeeded in firing teachers as retaliation for involvement in Civil Rights activities or simply because of their race.”

He continued: “When so called ‘reformers’ like Campbell Brown try to make the case that tenure extends teachers an unfair guarantee of employment unlike other public servants, she is more than stretching the truth. To be clear, when confronted with inequalities in pay and the denial of tenure to Black teachers, the NAACP did not argue for an end to tenure, but for the extension of the same basic protections of due process to Black teachers … The lack of resources, bloated class sizes, high stakes testing, and zip code discrimination are real problems – not teacher tenure.”

So there you have it: a deeply unpopular campaign driven mostly by ego, money and false promises that in the long run “doesn’t matter much.” No wonder the wheels are coming off the reform cart.

Suffering From Over-Promises

Attacks to teacher tenure aren’t the only reform venture proving to be a rough road if not a downright blind alley.

As education policy analysts Matt Di Carlo recently observed on the blog site of the Albert Shanker Institute, education reform suffers from a “fatal flaw.”

He wrote, “This ‘movement’ (to whatever degree you can characterize it in those terms) may be doomed to stall out in the long run, not because their ideas are all bad, and certainly not because they lack the political skills and resources to get their policies enacted. Rather, they risk failure for a simple reason: They too often make promises that they cannot keep.” (emphasis original)

Di Carlo recounted the “inflated expectations” of the reformers, particularly those made by Michelle Rhee when she led the school system in the District of Columbia. “Rhee predicted that her district would be the highest performing in the nation within five years,” Di Carlo remembered.

D.C.-based blogger G.F. Brandenburg has gone into significantly more detail about Rhee’s overreach on his blog. Brandenburg, a retired math teacher, has been painstakingly combing through “50 measured targets” Rhee and her successor, Kaya Henderson, have pledged to achieve through their reform efforts. So far, he has found that “exactly one and one-half of the goals were reached … That is a score of 3 percent.”

The reform movement’s fatal flaw is not Rhee’s alone. As Di Carlo explained, “The public is peppered with unrealistic promises or plans to ‘close the achievement gap’ within ridiculously short periods of time, slogans such as ‘college for all,’ and talking points, such as the ubiquitous ‘fire the bottom teachers’ illustration, that imply the potential for huge short-term improvements.”

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan insisted his reform plan would “turn around” 1,000 schools every year for five consecutive years. Education policy leaders in Tennessee promised to “move the bottom 5 percent of schools to the top 25 percent within five years.” State reform leaders still talk with a straight face about making all students “proficient,” the goal of the now reviled No Child Left Behind law.

Now Duncan’s plan, grandiosely branded Race to the Top, is widely viewed as a “flop,” and a recent and comprehensive gauge on Tennessee student achievement – the state’s own assessments – shows that student performance levels have barely budged at all, even decreasing slightly in grades 3-8 for reading.

Whither “Reform”?

To prop up the faltering reform movement, rich private foundations – Broad, Bloomberg, Walton, and others – recently coughed up $12 million to start a new blog site Education Post to be led by, according to the Washington Post, Peter Cunningham – a former “communications guru” for Secretary Arne Duncan.

Cunningham announced that the purpose of his endeavor was to start a “new conversation” about education policy and reform – “an honest, open conversation … based on the facts.”

First, if Cunningham really wanted a “conversation” about education, it wouldn’t take $12 million to start one. Lots of people are willing to engage in that for free.

Second, it’s really doubtful that a mere $12 million – surely to these folks – is going to come up with a whole lot more “facts” and “honest” evidence than what the billions of dollars invested by the reformers have already come up with.

No, efforts such as Education Post seemingly amount to little more than a rear guard as the serious money heads elsewhere.

Get Ready for the Next Education Miracle

Judging from the latest report on the booming ed-tech industry, the big money headed out of school reform town is going to greener pastures. As ed-tech guru Audrey Watters observed on her own Hack Education blog, “Financing in Ed Tech has shown a clear upward trend, with consistent growth since 2010. Funding in 2013 represented a 212 percent growth in the sector since 2009. Deals have grown as well, with 334 deals occurring in 2013 representing a 35 percent year over year growth from 2012. Notably, 2014 is seeing funding and deal activity on pace to top 2013′s previous investment highs.”

In fact, ed tech companies raised $159 million in August alone, according to the website Edsurge.

Bolstering the bonanza are the very same think-tank cheerleaders who propped up previous education reform policy proposals with “research.” As Waters noted, “Research conducted by Matthew M. Chingos and Guido Schwerd argues that Florida Virtual School students ‘perform about the same or somewhat better on state tests’ than traditional public high school students.” Her prediction: “Expect these findings to be trotted out in future ed reform arguments.”

Already, there are news reports in mainstream media promising these new education technologies will forever change “the classroom as we know it,” ushering in a new era of “active learning” (while seated at a computer?) where children “absorb factual knowledge on their own time” (like you did when you were a kid?).

The fact that about 70 percent of America’s elementary schools still rely on slow Internet connections – and many schools in rural areas can’t get on at all according to the Hechinger Report – seems to matter little.

And there’s already even a scandal, just like the ones education reform folks brought us. As the Los Angeles Times has been reporting, the new controversy engulfing that school district is a “$1.3-billion technology project” involving superintendent John Deasy and technology providers.

A report from a school board member found that the bidding process the district administration conducted to acquire new iPads and software “may have had the appearance of favoritism toward Apple, which supplied the iPads, and Pearson, which provided the instructional software. Soon after, district emails were released that showed Deasy and former Deputy Supt. Jaime Aquino had begun discussing a possible contract with Apple and Pearson two years before the bidding for the project began.”

No one but Deasy himself seems to doubt there could possibly be anything wrong with that.

So maybe it’s time to stick a fork in education reform, and get set for what the shiny, new ed-tech industrialists are going to bring us.

No doubt, it’s going to be great business.