Against tenure? Here’s why you might want to make an exception for your child’s teacher

Against tenure?  You might want to make an exception for your child’s teacher
By Lee Kronert

I get it. When a worker consistently fails to measure up to standards on the job, that worker deserves to be fired. Yet in the public school system, a very different code is in operation.

Granting lifetime tenure is not the best way to run a business. In fact, the CEO at the bank has it within his power to dismiss a worker if he doesn’t like that employee’s work. However, that same banker cannot apply that rule to his child’s teacher who is not performing to his expectations in dealing with his child’s raucous classroom behavior.

The public school teacher is a mirror. Parents see the reflection of their children when a teacher shares the truth about what he or she witnesses in the classroom. When the teacher holds up the mirror, some parents do not like what they see. Some will even deny the image and blame the teacher.

In today’s classrooms, there are a number of children who misbehave, refuse to complete work, skip class, and disrupt the atmosphere of learning. On many occasions a warranted consequence is handed out in the hope that it teaches the child accountability for his or her actions. However, there are times when parents balk at such attempts to teach culpability and a confrontation ensues.

From experience I can tell you administrators do not always support their staff. Teachers do get reprimanded. Teachers do get in trouble. Teachers, just like other employees, are held accountable for their actions. And of course, this is as it should be. Yet, could you imagine if every teacher who displeased any parent or administrator or student was fired because someone doesn’t like what he or she sees in the mirror?

Tenure is being attacked from all sides, including via the Common Core.The controversy surrounds the importance placed on state exams. A teacher’s personal evaluation score is now partially based upon what percentage of students pass this particularly difficult test. The exam itself is poorly written, ambiguous and changes every year, leaving teachers in the dark about what topics will be stressed.

This evaluation process has been conceived with the goal of showing due cause for challenging a teacher’s right to tenure. Teachers whose students do not meet a certain achievement levels when scored on the entire class grade population can be deemed ineffective.

So what about the children who defiantly choose not to learn, or miss school often? Is it fair that they count against a teacher’s evaluation, too? What about those teachers who are designated to teach only the low achieving students?

I know of many exceptional, caring teachers who have been given an ineffective score because of the population of students they have been assigned to teach. Should they be fired because of the scores of kids who have struggled with either math or reading since they began school?

Lee Kronert

Furthermore, teachers are not permitted access to former exams and given no guidelines to follow when preparing students. The secrecy is so blatant that State Education Departments have threatened serious consequences to any teacher who even attempts to note or memorize test contents. It’s not right and it is certainly not a level playing field of evaluation.

I believe that the motive for Common Core State Standards is to bolster the fight against teacher tenure by assigning unfair “ineffective” labels to teachers hampered by the system.

People think tenure for a teacher implies lifetime job security. It does not. Tenure insures that teachers receive due process. For example, if the local school board is having budget issues, they cannot simply dismiss the higher paid teachers in order to hire younger ones at half the salary. Tenure also shields them from the constant attacks against not only their teaching ability but often their character.

Are there probably teachers who we all wish had chosen a different profession? Of course, there are. I had poor teachers and I’m sure you have, too. And yes, tenure did protect them from losing their jobs. I get it. Yet to jeopardize an entire profession’s employment stability because of the very few inept, would be a catastrophic decision.

Tenure is the foundation of the education system in America. It tells the students, parents and administrators that we are here to stay and you had better get on with what we are trying to present as a solid education.

Does the pruning process hurt sometimes? You bet it does. But pruning a child requires effort, commitment, vision, and the tenacity to see the final result through. Support tenure. Protect our teachers
Dr. Lee Kronert is a math teacher and chiropractor from Porterville, New York. He is the author of Don’t Blame the Messenger, a pro-teacher novel.


A simple way to help poor kids succeed: make sure they actually go to school

A simple way to help poor kids succeed:
make sure they actually go to school

by Libby Nelson

Here’s a deceptively simple way to close part of the achievement gap between poor and wealthy students: make sure that poor students are in school as much as their richer peers.

A recent study found that absentee rates could explain up to 25 percent of difference in math scores between low-income students and less disadvantaged ones. Getting kids to come to school seems like an obvious way to help them score better on tests and eventually graduate. But it’s often overlooked in favor of more complicated, more controversial, and more interesting interventions. Here’s why attendance is incredibly important, and why it’s a tough problem to solve.

A surprisingly high proportion of students in some areas miss a lot of school

students in classroom
Being in the classroom is really important. 

Going to school is required by law, and studies tend to assume that schools are following through. Schools aren’t required to report how many students are chronically absent, so very little national data exists on how often students miss school. Even the definition “chronically absent” varies, although the generally accepted definition is around 20 days of school per year.

Studies based on samples of students in several states suggest that as many as 15 percent of students might be chronically missing school, according to a study from Johns Hopkins University. In Oregon, almost one-quarter of students missed at least 18 days of school in one school year. Two studies — one in Baltimore, one in Florida — found that between first grade and middle school, almost half of students missed at least a month of school in one year.

Those missed days add up. The 20 percent of students with the worst attendance records in Florida missed the equivalent of an entire year of school between first grade and eighth grade. The situation in Baltimore was even worse: 40 percent of students missed the equivalent of an entire year during their elementary school years.

The one predictor of poor attendance: poverty

food bank lunch packing
A volunteer packs food to be sent home with students who get free and reduced lunch. 

Students from low-income families are more likely to be absent than students who are not. In Maryland, the Johns Hopkins study found, students eligible for free or reduced price school lunch missed school at double the rate of their wealthier peers. In Georgia, 70 percent of chronically absent students are from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Missing school means they fall even farther behind. Children who are chronically absent in preschool and kindergarten are more likely to be held back in the third grade. As early as sixth grade, whether a child is going to school is a good indicator for whether she’ll ever graduate high school.

K-12 attendance can even predict college graduation rates: Johns Hopkins cites a study in Rhode Island found students who were chronically absent in high school, but still managed to graduate and enroll in college, were more likely to drop out during their freshman year than students with regular attendance records.

It’s not just a correlation between going to school and academic achievement

Student working with mentor
Assigning students mentors helped them boost their attendance rates in New York. 

The easy assumption is that students who are more likely to miss class have a host of other problems — such as parents who don’t or can’t get them to class. But studies in New York and Chicago have found that just improving attendance can increase test scores and make students more likely to graduate.

The question is how to do it. One reason students miss school in the first years of elementary school is that they’re sick. Students in the US missed 14 million days of school in 2008 due to asthma, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And low-income students are more likely to miss school due to asthma than wealthier ones. That suggests that better controlling children’s asthma could help them in school.

Attendance Works, a national organization focused on encouraging school attendance, encourages schools to better track student absences and to talk to students about why they’re missing so much school. Some students don’t come to school because they don’t feel safe there; others don’t have transportation or a stable home life. In New York, getting more students to school required cooperation from several city agencies, including the police, the city’s health department, and the city’s Department of Homeless Services.

But New York’s effort worked. Nobody knew if students who missed a lot of school would actually see academic improvements when they started going more regularly. In 2009, the city hired mentors to work with students who had been chronically absent. Students who had been absent frequently but started coming to school more regularly were just as likely to be enrolled in school as students who had never been absent much in the first place. And their test scores climbed slightly too.

This is hopeful news. Even if students were missing lots of school, they weren’t lost forever — schools just have to figure out how to get them back in the doors.

What Minecraft is teaching your kids about money

What Minecraft is teaching your kids about money

By Chris Taylor

If your kids are chattering non-stop about things like emeralds, pickaxes and creepers, you may have a unique opportunity to turn a video game addiction into a life lesson about money.

Minecraft, a video game phenomenon with over 100 million users, is such a hot property that Microsoft Corp recently forked out $2.5 billion for its maker, Mojang AB.

Players build their own worlds via game systems, smartphones, tablets and computers using virtual Lego-like pieces. And as opposed to the shoot-’em-up video games that kids usually gravitate toward, this game teaches them about money.

It is “about barter, about value, about how to protect your stuff,” says Hank Mulvihill, a financial adviser in Richardson, Texas.

“Kids are learning about money on a lot of different levels in Minecraft,” says Joel Levin, co-founder of Manhattan-based TeacherGaming, a firm that works with educators to use video games as teaching tools.

“There are basic currencies, like emeralds that you dig up and can trade with villagers,” Levin explains. “There are exchange rates, because certain items are worth more than others. Then players have to think about whether to spend money right away, or save it and get something more rewarding later on. These are analogous to the financial decisions people are making in the real world all the time.”

And that is just if you are playing the game on your own. If you are online with multiple players, the financial issues become much more complex.

“At that point, players are setting up actual economies,” Levin says. “On a particular server, they may decide that diamonds are the currency of choice. Or some kids start playing the role of a bank, offering loans and charging interest.”

Levin is aware of instances where teachers introduce a rare item into the game that kids can’t obtain on their own, and then watch them react to the scarcity. “It’s supply and demand in action,” he says.


Of course, most parents only experience Minecraft by peering over their kids’ shoulders and trying to figure out what the hell is going on.

So in case you were wondering, here are a few of Minecraft’s key financial lessons:

When starting out in the world of Minecraft, “nobody tells you anything, no instructions,” says 19-year-old Harvey Mulvihill, son of Hank, who plays along with his two brothers. “You are a stranger in a strange land, and you have to figure out how to gain resources.”

Indeed, Minecraft is a so-called “sandbox” game, in which players roam a virtual world with very few limitations. In that way, it is a riff on the traditional American archetype of the Horatio Alger story – starting from nothing and somehow making a huge success of yourself.

Players have to gain skills and then leverage those skills to develop a better world for themselves.


As in life, very bad things happen all the time in Minecraft – death, robbery, physical attacks and disasters of all stripes. As a result, players have to protect themselves against a number of terrible futures.

For example: travel light. “It is never a good idea to carry your valuables on your person,” advises 17-year-old Patrick Mulvihill. “Once you die your things are dropped on the spot of death. Valuables should be kept in chests in safe, well-lit places.”

But it is not just death players have to insure themselves against. That is because some people in this virtual world – known as “griefers,” according to Patrick – go online solely to steal and break other people’s things.


Life is all about who you know, and Minecraft is no different. Connecting with the right people can make your virtual life a whole lot easier.

“If I was starting from scratch and didn’t know any coding, I could be digging for emeralds forever,” says Dan Short, associate professor of environmental science at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh, who has written an academic paper on Minecraft.

“But if you are on a server with other kids, the server owner can basically give you as many emeralds as you need. They’re like little monarchs.”

The moral of the story? Your network counts, and you should develop it as much as possible.


Once you become talented at something, you could find yourself in serious demand. Fifteen-year-old Sean Mulvihill plays with his buddies Jackson, Oscar and Wyatt. “Jackson is known for being the best builder, and others pay him to build them a house,” Sean says.

Meanwhile, Sean is seen as “by far, the best farmer,” he notes modestly. As a result, other players come to him with business propositions, like supplying him with seed, equipment and gold in order to tend their farms and divvy up the profits.

This principle of monetizing your Minecraft skills applies in the real world, too, notes Short. Some have become so talented at the game and charismatic with their audiences – with handles like TheBajanCanadian, Sky Does Minecraft and Lewis & Simon – that they run their own insanely popular channels on Google Inc’s YouTube.

“They get followers on YouTube, they host games and then kids sometimes pay a premium for the chance to play with them and be in their videos,” Short says. “They must be making serious bank. That might be the biggest financial lesson of all.”


Are We Raising a Generation of Helpless Kids?

Are We Raising a Generation of Helpless Kids?

by Mickey Goodman

Warning signs

When a college freshman received a C- on her first test, she literally had a meltdown in class. Sobbing, she texted her mother who called back, demanding to talk to the professor immediately (he, of course, declined). Another mother accompanied her child on a job interview, then wondered why he didn’t get the job.

A major employer reported that during a job interview, a potential employee told him that she would have his job within 18 months. It didn’t even cross her mind that he had worked 20 years to achieve his goal.

Sound crazy?


Tim Elmore with Young Gen Y Students (photo courtesy Tim Elmore)

Sadly, the stories are all true, says Tim Elmore, founder and president of a non-profit, Growing Leaders, and author of the “Habitudes®” series of books, teacher guides, DVD kits and survey courses. “Gen Y (and iY) kids born between 1984 and 2002 have grown up in an age of instant gratification. iPhones, iPads, instant messaging and immediate access to data is at their fingertips,” he says. “Their grades in school are often negotiated by parents rather than earned and they are praised for accomplishing little. They have hundreds of Facebook and Twitter ‘friends,’ but often few real connections.”

To turn the tide, Growing Leaders is working with 5,000 public schools, universities, civic organizations, sports teams and corporations across the country and internationally to help turn young people — particularly those 16 to 24 — into leaders. “We want to give them the tools they lack before they’ve gone through three marriages and several failed business ventures,” he says.


Older Gen Y Kids Demonstrate to Tim Elmore How to Dress the Part (Photo courtesy Tim Elmore)

But why have parents shifted from teaching self-reliance to becoming hovering helicopter parents who want to protect their children at all costs?

“I think it began in the fall of 1982, when seven people died after taking extra-strength Tylenol laced with poison after it left the factory,” he says. Halloween was just around the corner, and parents began checking every item in the loot bags. Homemade brownies and cookies (usually the most coveted items) hit the garbage; unwrapped candy followed close behind.

That led to an obsession with their children’s safety in every aspect of their lives. Instead of letting them go outside to play, parents filled their kid’s spare time with organized activities, did their homework for them, resolved their conflicts at school with both friends and teachers, and handed out trophies for just showing up.

“These well-intentioned messages of ‘you’re special’ have come back to haunt us,” Elmore says. “We are consumed with protecting them instead of preparing them for the future. We haven’t let them fall, fail and fear. The problem is that if they don’t take risks early on like climbing the monkey bars and possibly falling off, they are fearful of every new endeavor at age 29.”

Psychologists and psychiatrists are seeing more and more young people having a quarter-life crisis and more cases of clinical depression. The reason? Young people tell them it’s because they haven’t yet made their first million or found the perfect mate.

Teachers, coaches and executives complain that Gen Y kids have short attention spans and rely on external, instead of internal motivation. The goal of Growing Leaders is to reverse the trend and help young people become more creative and self-motivated so they can rely on themselves and don’t need external motivation.

Family psychologist John Rosemond agrees. In a February 2 article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, he points out that new research finds that rewards often backfire, producing the opposite effect of that intended. When an aggressive child is rewarded for not being aggressive for a short period of time, he is likely to repeat the bad behavior to keep the rewards coming.

Where did we go wrong?

• We’ve told our kids to dream big – and now any small act seems insignificant. In the great scheme of things, kids can’t instantly change the world. They have to take small, first steps – which seem like no progress at all to them. Nothing short of instant fame is good enough. “It’s time we tell them that doing great things starts with accomplishing small goals,” he says.

• We’ve told our kids that they are special – for no reason, even though they didn’t display excellent character or skill, and now they demand special treatment. The problem is that kids assumed they didn’t have to do anything special in order to be special.

• We gave our kids every comfort – and now they can’t delay gratification. And we heard the message loud and clear. We, too, pace in front of the microwave, become angry when things don’t go our way at work, rage at traffic. “Now it’s time to relay the importance of waiting for the things we want, deferring to the wishes of others and surrendering personal desires in the pursuit of something bigger than ‘me,'” Elmore says.

• We made our kid’s happiness a central goal – and now it’s difficult for them to generate happiness — the by-product of living a meaningful life. “It’s time we tell them that our goal is to enable them to discover their gifts, passions and purposes in life so they can help others. Happiness comes as a result.”

The uncomfortable solutions:

“We need to let our kids fail at 12 – which is far better than at 42,” he says. “We need to tell them the truth (with grace) that the notion of ‘you can do anything you want’ is not necessarily true.”

Kids need to align their dreams with their gifts. Every girl with a lovely voice won’t sing at the Met; every Little League baseball star won’t play for the major leagues.

• Allow them to get into trouble and accept the consequences. It’s okay to make a “C-.” Next time, they’ll try harder to make an “A”.

• Balance autonomy with responsibility. If your son borrows the car, he also has to re-fill the tank.

• Collaborate with the teacher, but don’t do the work for your child. If he fails a test, let him take the consequences.

“We need to become velvet bricks,” Elmore says, “soft on the outside and hard on the inside and allow children to fail while they are young in order to succeed when they are adults.”

Why poor kids don’t stay in college

Why poor kids don’t stay in college

By Jeff Guo

More people than ever are attending college.
But for millions of poor Americans, getting
into college isn’t the hard part.

BALTIMORE — It is a Tuesday in October and Terrell Kellam is running late. He usually wakes up at 5:30 a.m. to catch the first of two buses that will take him from southwest Baltimore to Morgan State University, just north of the city. With a good connection, making it to his college classes might take an hour and a half.

But his bus pass has been acting up recently. He spends the morning looking for spare change. He’s going to miss his first class. And, because he forgot to pack food from home, he doesn’t have anything to eat for the rest of the day. He goes hungry pretty often.

Today, more people than ever are going to college, yet the nation’s overall college graduation rate has remained low. Only 59 percent of students who began as freshmen at a four-year college in the fall of 2006 received their diplomas within six years. Meanwhile, the high school completion rate reached a historic high: In 2012, four out of five students graduated high school within four years.

College students who come from low-income backgrounds, such as Kellam, 19, see the least chance of college success. They are less likely to begin college, less likely to finish.

Even after controlling for ability, the gap in college graduation rates persists. Low-income students who scored between 1200 and 1600 on their SATs were half as likely to finish college than their counterparts in the top 25 percent of the income distribution, according to one analysis of data from 2000. Economic distress can dim a student’s chances by forcing her to take on part-time jobs or reduce her credit load to help out at home.

In short, the afflictions of poverty don’t just disappear after a student gets into college.

Kellam’s section of freshman English begins at 8 a.m. every weekday. Recently, the class read “A Nation of Slaves,” an essay in which environmental activist Derrick Jensen denounces the numbing rituals of modern education.

“It’s basically about the school system and how they train people to think a certain way,” Kellam says.

The essay is a provocative pick for the students at this historically black school, where the vast majority of students had to struggle for the opportunity just to attend college. In 2013, 89 percent of undergraduates at Morgan State received federal Pell grants, meaning they are in the highest category of need. For many, the socioeconomic barriers become insurmountable. Only a fraction claim their diploma: The six-year graduation rate is 31 percent. Nationally, the black graduation rate is 40 percent; the white graduation rate is 62.5 percent.

100 students start college. Who graduates?

Today, Kellam does not get to campus until 11, missing his chance to discuss the essay with his instructor. He gets the author’s point, he says, but why should we assume that students are sheep? “The slavehood of any student can be lifted if they choose to,” he says.

Choice and self-determination: These are dearly held notions for Kellam, whose life at times can seem like a series of contingency plans.

There was a moment in his childhood, he recalls, when his parents lived together and the bills were being paid on time. But bad luck and a bad economy shook it all apart. One Thanksgiving, he says, his mother suffered eight strokes. A couple of months later his dad, a roofer, was badly injured in an accident.

His family spent some time in a shelter, and at the homes of various friends and cousins. Kellam currently lives with a woman he calls Aunt Dorothy, a fiercely protective family friend who has sheltered him since he was in grade school, around the time Kellam’s mother had to spend a stint in assisted living.

A theater major, Kellam once dreamed of starting his freshman year someplace out of state. Someplace cozy and creative. A program in South Carolina had accepted him, but his financial aid fell through at the last minute. His high school guidance counselor made some calls at the end of the summer, and he enrolled at Morgan State, a four-year public college with about 6,500 undergraduate and 1,300 graduate students. More than 90 percent of students receive some form of financial aid, about $6,500 on average.

Living with his aunt and commuting to school is one of Kellam’s cheapest options for college. Tuition and fees at Morgan State run about $7,400 a year. But he’s still not sure that his patchwork of grants and loans can cover it all.

Right now, he does not have enough money for all of his textbooks, let alone a computer. He doesn’t have cellphone either, which means that during his long bus rides home at midnight, nobody can contact him to make sure he’s safe.

In September, he requested to be put on a deferred-payment plan while he figures out how to come up with the tuition money.

“Truthfully, after this semester, I’m not even sure I’ll be attending this school,” he says.


In January, the White House released a report on increasing college success for low-income students. It recommended efforts to help low-income students prepare academically for college, and called more guidance so they could find the right school that would offer them enough aid and attention.

The report recognized, too, that college readiness is only half the story. “Low-income students face barriers to college success at every stage of the education pipeline, from elementary school through post-secondary education, sometimes in spite of their academic achievements,” it said.

In a study of people born in the early 1980s, University of Michigan researchers found vast disparities in college enrollment and graduation rates between students of different income levels. Of the richest 25 percent of students, 80 percent enrolled in college by age 19, and of those, 68 percent graduated by age 25.

But of students in the bottom quarter of the income distribution, only 29 percent enrolled in college by age 19. Of those, only 32 percent graduated by age 25 with a bachelor’s degree.

At Morgan State, the battle against attrition starts with financial aid. The college can commit to meeting students only at 80 percent of expected need, so it already is at a handicap. “We know we can’t help every student reach 100 percent,” says Linda Trusty, the school’s associate director for financial aid. “Our goal is to help our students reach 80 percent.”

That is to say, even after every grant, loan and scholarship available, most students at Morgan still come up 20 percent short. Some, if their parents have decent credit, take out additional private loans. Others, such as Kellam, try to save money by commuting and not buying a meal plan.

Each semester, about 1,200 to 2,000 of the 7,500 students do not pay on time, says Tiffany Mfume, who oversees the college’s student retention efforts. The financial aid office works with students to set up a payment plan or find other sources of funding. Of those, a couple of hundred each semester still fall short. These students embark on what is called a “stop-out” period, pausing their studies until they can raise enough money to return.

A couple of years ago, Mfume dug into the data and was astonished to find that many of the stopped-out students were painfully close to meeting their financial obligations. Just this semester, according to associate provost Kara Turner, 293 students have not been financially cleared to stay in class. About 10 percent of those students owe less than $1,000.

“We see students leaving our university for what I would say, or what you might say, is as little as $500,” Mfume says. She adds, “But if I have zero, whether you’re telling me I owe $500 or $5,000, it’s the same.”

In 2011, Morgan State started a $5 million fundraising campaign to close the gap for these students. The college’s president, David Wilson, pledged $100,000 of his own money toward the effort.

While she was looking at the data, Mfume noticed a number of students in good academic standing who dropped out just short of graduating. They didn’t transfer to a different school; they just stopped coming. The pattern for many, she says, is that life gets in the way. Students take on jobs to pay for school or to support their families, and sometimes they drop out to work full-time.

Four years ago, Mfume started reaching out to these students who only needed a year’s worth of credits or less to graduate. The president gave her $50,000 to offer these candidates small stipends to encourage them to come back. The Reclamation Initiative has reached out to 133 former students, and 56 have agreed to return. The state of Maryland has since started to offer similar grants for other colleges to bring back near-completers.

“It really shows again,” Mfume says, “how close students can get to the finish line and still not make it unless we’re looking out for them and inviting them back and pushing them.”

Kellam has had several parental figures send him in the right direction. One reason for his success is that he welcomes people into his life.

There is Aunt Dorothy Johnson, of course, who took him in and raised him. “As long as I have breath in my body, I’m going to push him further and help him achieve his goals,” she says. “I love him so much.”

There is Patrice Hutton, who met Kellam when he was a seventh-grader and he signed up for a creative writing program her nonprofit was starting at his school. Hutton encouraged Kellam to apply to the summer writers’ workshops at the University of Iowa and Kenyon College. When he got in, she helped him find scholarship money to pay for those overnight programs.

These days, she is helping with the cost of his bus passes and textbooks. Because of Kellam, Hutton says that her nonprofit, which recently was renamed Writers at Your Schools, is developing a scholarship fund to assist more students with the various costs of college.

Then there is his high school guidance counselor Susanne GrayRice, who jolted him through his college applications when he was feeling paralyzed in his senior year. GrayRice calls him her “special child.”

“His aunt trusted me to be able to shake him when he needed to be shook,” she says. “Like, let me shut the door, take my counselor hat of, and talk to you like someone who loves you.”

Kellam’s second stop on Tuesday is GrayRice’s office, about two miles from the Morgan State campus. He walks the distance briskly. In high school he played varsity soccer and ran cross country. Sometimes he sees his father in this neighborhood.

When he arrives at his old high school, he drops by to see GrayRice for a brief reunion, and to tell her about his financial aid problems.

“I need to know how much money you have left,” she says.

“The money they gave me is like 11-something, and then the rest of my bill is probably like 5-something,” Kellam says.

That doesn’t add up, GrayRice says. “I need to understand what money is left.” She tells him to send over his financial aid information — all of it.

“I’m going to fight you,” she says. “You can’t sit out. You can’t afford to not go to school.”

He promises to e-mail her by Friday.

It takes Kellam a little more than half an hour to walk back to his afternoon class. Orientation is a semester-long introduction to college that meets twice a week for 50 minutes. Kellam’s section is headed by Prof. Eric Conway, the chairman of the Fine and Performing Arts Department.

Today, the topic is credits. Conway is asking the students if they know how many they need to graduate. This course, which is mandatory for freshmen, has been taught for decades at Morgan State. It helps put everyone on equal footing, especially those whose parents never went to college.

Kellam thinks his best shot at staying in college is to show that he is a good student and an asset to the community. In the past couple of months, he has taken every opportunity to help Morgan’s theater department, choreographing shows and making costumes.

After orientation, Kellam heads to one of the dance practice rooms for rehearsal. He and junior Shaqunia Brown have been put in charge of the performing arts department’s convocation this year. They have organized a program honoring Maya Angelou.

A couple of days ago, Hutton helped Kellam get a donated laptop, which he is now using to make a mashup of students reciting Angelou’s poetry over Kanye West’s song “Heartless.” He has choreographed a dance to go with it.

Slouched backward in his seat, he tweaks the levels as he waits for his performers to warm up.

“This is why I don’t go to parties anymore,” groans one girl as she hugs her knees. “Because I’m forced to twerk.”

“Where the f— is Cecily?” says Brown, in her best diva shriek, and that becomes the catchphrase of the afternoon.

In just a few weeks, Brown has come to see Kellam as a little brother. Both have endured family hardship growing up. She believes that their struggles taught them each the strength needed to succeed in theater.

“When you don’t have any support system, you learn to become your own motivation,” she says.  Her voice starts to crack as she watches Kellam demonstrate a turn. She blinks away some dampness. “And he’s definitely motivated.”

Brown stands up.

“Where the f— is Cecily?” she repeats.

Kellam, who is now counting off beats for the choreography, cracks a small smile. Brown is the bad cop. He is the good cop. These dancers and theater geeks are his friends. This is how he fits in. At college.



This school paid teachers $125,000 a year — and test scores went up

This school paid teachers $125,000 a year — and test scores went up

by Libby Nelson

A Manhattan charter school pays teachers $125,000 per year.

It’s common to hear that teachers should be paid better — more like doctors and lawyers. In 2009, the Equity Project, a charter school in New York decided to try it: they would pay all their teachers $125,000 per year with the possibility of an additional bonus.

The typical teacher in New York with five years’ experience makes between $64,000 and $76,000. The charter school, known as TEP, would pay much more. But in exchange, teachers, who are not unionized, would accept additional responsibilities, and the school would keep a close eye on their work.

Four years later, students at TEP score better on state tests than similar students elsewhere. The differences were particularly pronounced in math, according to a new study from Mathematica Policy Research. (The study was funded by the Gates Foundation.) After four years at the school, students had learned as much math as they would have in 5.6 years elsewhere:

TEP results chart

(Mathematica Policy Research)

The gains erased 78 percent of the achievement gap between Hispanic students and whites in the eighth grade.

The results are important in part because TEP also appears to have sidestepped some common concerns about charter schools. They didn’t expel or suspend students out of school in the first four years. There is no evidence that the school encouraged problem students to leave or transfer on their own. And the students who attended were roughly as likely to be low-income, and to have had similar levels of academic achievement before they arrived. They could still differ in other ways — they could have more involved parents, who get them into the charter school lottery, for example — but TEP doesn’t present some of the obvious factors that help explain other charter schools’ success.

How TEP hired and trained teachers

The $125,000 number was eye-catching, but it was just the start of the school’s approach to teaching. Teachers were also eligible for a bonus of between 7 to 12 percent of their salary. The teachers, who are not unionized, went through a rigorous selection process that included a daylong “audition” based on their teaching skills. The typical teacher already had six years of classroom experience before they were hired.

Teachers at TEP also get more time to collaborate and played a bigger role in school decision-making than teachers in other jobs. Teachers were paired up to observe each others’ lessons and provide feedback, collaboration that experts agree is important but happens too infrequently. During a six-week summer training, teachers also helped set school policy.

The workload at TEP, where teachers also take on administrative duties and had an average of 31 students per class, is fairly heavy even with the extra pay. But the school also had more teacher turnover than usual. Nearly half of first-year teachers didn’t return for their second year, either because they resigned or because they were not rehired. Teacher turnover has been found to have a slight effect on student achievement.

Overall, though, the results are promising. The researchers caution that this is just one study of a small school. It’s not meant to prove that TEP’s methods can work in every school nationally. But it appears to suggest that, at least, the approach worked at one school.

That Horrible Essay That Got a UNC Jock an A-? Here’s the Real Story.

That Horrible Essay That Got a UNC Jock an A-? Here’s the Real Story.

By Jordan Weissmann

The University of North Carolina has battled a scandal over fake classes
designed to improve the GPAs of its students and not all of them just athletes.

Last week, the Internet worked itself into a fit after ESPN aired a segment on the lingering scandal at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill over fake classes the school created for athletes to boost their GPAs. As with most viral stories, this one included a killer image: a camera shot of a 146-word, grammar-challenged final “essay” on Rosa Parks that, it seemed, had earned one lucky jock an A-.


For those who would prefer not to squint, here’s the text.

On the evening of December Rosa Parks decided that she was going to sit in the  white people section on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama. During this time blacks had to give up there seats to whites when more whites got on the bus. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. Her and the bus driver began to talk and the conversation went like this. “Let me have those front seats” said the driver. She didn’t get up and told the driver that she was tired of giving her seat to white people. “I’m going to have you arrested,” said the driver. “You may do that,” Rosa Parks responded. Two white policemen came in and Rosa Parks asked them “why do you all push us around?” The police officer replied and said “I don’t know, but the law is the law and you’re under arrest.

The picture seemed to distill the entire UNC scandal to a single block of text. It also seemed to stand for the idea that many big-time college athletes are utterly unprepared for college work and are never really given the education they are promised in return for their skills on the field. I posted my own quick take—as did a whole slew of other news sites.

The story behind the essay, however, was more complicated than we thought. According to ESPN’s source, what the network’s cameras captured was not a paper from one of UNC’s fake classes. Nor was it necessarily a finished piece of work. It was most likely a draft of one piece of a take-home final for a legitimate introductory course. The student did not earn the A- for the paper specifically, but for the entire, completed class.

So instead of evidence of specific academic corruption, the image merely seems to be visual proof that UNC admitted athletes with grade-school-level writing skills and awarded them high marks.

In its feature, ESPN interviewed Mary Willingham, the UNC learning-specialist-turned-whistleblower who exposed the fake courses issue to the public. “I became aware of this paper class system, that students were taking classes that didn’t really exist,” Willingham told the cameras. “They were called independent studies at that time and they just had to write a paper.” Students, she noted, were not required to actually attend any classes.

Later in the feature, former UNC football player Deunta Williams explained that he believed the coaches were in on the scam. At that point, ESPN cut back to Willingham holding the now notorious paragraph. Here’s a transcript (the section starts at around 3 minutes).

Williams: I think the coaches knew enough to understand what was going on. I think they knew about the system itself. And if a guy was in trouble, the immediate response was why not put him in a paper class where he can receive help. Get an A or a B out of this class for writing a good paper.

[Camera cuts to Willingham holding out the one-paragraph paper]

Willingham: This is not even close to college work, yet this athlete was awarded an A-.

Though Willingham never explicitly says so, ESPN’s editing seemed to create the impression that the paper in question was actually from one of the fake courses. But after the essay began making the rounds on Twitter, Willingham clarified that was not the case.

After updating my story (and receiving more than one piece of angry email from UNC fans about my initial post), I contacted Willingham to get more details about the essay’s origins. Willingham told me that ESPN had asked her to show them some of the hundreds of writing samples she keeps on file from the athletes she worked with at UNC; she retrieved a pile of them. The Rosa Parks essay, which happened to be on top, was just one typical example of what students regularly showed her. She said she never told ESPN that it was from one of the fake courses.

Online commenters have noted that AFAM 41—the class name listed at the top of the essay—was a legitimate intro course in the African American studies department and would have required more than a single-paragraph essay to complete. Willingham said that was correct. She also told me that the paragraph was “probably part of a larger [take-home] test,” but that since she did not have a course syllabus, she could not say for sure.

Willingham also confirmed the paper was a draft, though she could not say what sort of edits the student might have made. When it came to graded assignments, she said, she personally could only offer general guidance to students and would not have gone and rewritten the essay herself. Willingham said that although she did not know what grade the student-athlete received on his final, she did know his class grade, because as a learning specialist, she was involved in clearing him for NCAA compliance.

“It’s an original document from an athlete for an essay—for a final. That’s all I know,” she told me, later adding, “That is the grade level the person was writing at. That’s the point.”

And that is a fairly powerful point. Perhaps this student had excellent class participation, or did well on a multiple-choice exam—we don’t know. But if Willingham is showing a legitimate sample of an athlete’s work, it suggests a student was awarded an A- in a college course despite only being able to write with grade-school aptitude. That is a scandal.

Since the details of this story have become more clear, I’ve been debating whether this was another example of a viral nugget being “too good to check.” And to some degree it was. On the one hand, ESPN, possibly through an accident of editing, seemed to imply that this essay was from one of the fake courses its segment focused on. On the other, the segment never explicitly stated that was the case. Web writers, myself included, did ultimately jump to conclusions based on that impression, rather than on hard, verified details. In the end, though, I don’t think the details change much of what this image stands for: a student-athlete who could not possibly have been receiving the education he came for.

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

By Noah Davis

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what
makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.

More than half a century ago, Vern Williams walked into a middle school math classroom—and he’s never really left. After graduating from the University of Maryland in 1972, he began teaching in Virginia’s Fairfax County Public School System, working at Longfellow Middle School’s gifted and talented program as well as the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth Summer Program. President George W. Bush appointed him to the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, and he won two national awards from the Mathematics Association of America. Williams talked to Pacific Standard about doing difficult math for fun, the troubling difference between the brightest students in 1980 and today, and the benefits of putting the smartest kids in one room.

What was your schooling like growing up?

I went to Coolidge High School in Washington, D.C., back in the far Dark Ages. It’s embarrassing to tell you how long ago, but I’ve been teaching for over 40 years, so you can do the math. I went to Paul Junior High, and that’s important because that’s when I decided I was going to be a math teacher. In ninth grade, I just flat-out decided that this was the place I wanted to be. I wanted to be like the people who were teaching me. The best way to do that was to become a teacher and teach in junior high.

I went to the University of Maryland for four years, got a bachelor’s degree in math education. Back then, math education wasn’t a bad word because you had to do real math. That’s all I wanted. The university was eight miles from my house. I commuted. I knew they had an excellent engineering program, so I extrapolated from that that the math would be fine. I graduated, became a math teacher in Fairfax County, and I’ve been here for 40 years. It’s a very simple story.

Were you in honors classes?

When I was in junior high and high school, it wasn’t so much honors. It was called “college-bound.” That was a big deal. I was on that track. But it wasn’t nearly as high-powered as some of the stuff we have today. I did just fine on the SATs. I didn’t get 800s, but I scored pretty high. But we didn’t have any of the contests that kids do today. We just did the [American Mathematics Competition]. I don’t remember how well I did.

What did you find so appealing about teaching?

I didn’t even really like school until junior high. I try to teach the way that my teachers taught because when I walked into junior high after being in elementary school, everything was different. We had these things called lockers. We had six or seven different teachers. The building was bigger. We met kids from other elementary schools.

That was already impressive, and then we walked into the classroom and the content was different. It was new. It was something that we hadn’t done in sixth grade or fifth grade. The attitude of the teachers was much more serious. Elementary school was mostly playtime. In junior high it was more of a business atmosphere: “We’re getting you ready for high school, which is going to get you ready for college.” I loved that. For some reason, it just struck me. I became a much better student almost instantly, and the more I became a better student, the more interesting the material became. It snowballed. I started going to libraries, looking at math that was above the course that I was doing, and making all kinds of cool connections. Something just told me that I wanted to do it forever. I just wanted to teach junior high.

When I was in high school, I did all the typical things that high school kids did, but I already knew what I was going to do. High school was just a place for me to hang out so that I could go to college to hang out so that I could come back to junior high. Here I am, still in junior high.

It’s one of the nice middle school experiences. Generally, middle school is a bad experience. When I tell my neighbors that I teach middle school, they want to buy me a cake and a rocking chair to make me comfortable. But I really just loved that experience. It was awesome. Everything clicked.

How have the students changed over the last
40 years in how they relate to the material?

At my own school, and I think in general, you always had that core of kids who just love learning. Period. They just live for it. They are some of the quirkiest kids in the universe. They may not have the best study habits or be able to tie their shoes, but they just want to walk backward in the hall while reading a book. We still have those, but we used to have more of those.

Now, we’re getting kids—especially into the higher-level courses—who have more of an agenda. They want to get into Thomas Jefferson, which will get them into M.I.T., which will get them somewhere else. They feel like they can’t have a B+ in algebra in seventh grade because that will show up on the transcript. They become grade mongers, trying to con points. The parents are the same way. I’m getting too much of that as opposed to “I’m just here for the ride. An A would be nice but that’s not my number-one concern.” Twenty or 25-ish years ago, I had so much more of that than I have now. I miss it.

The other thing is that the kids aren’t grouped as rigorously as they were 20, 25 years ago. They used to group the gifted kids in Fairfax County by IQ. I believe the cutoff was 140. When you get 25 of those people in a room, good things tend to happen as far as learning is concerned. You can have other issues with those kids that will drive teachers out of a classroom, but the learning thing and the excitement is amazing. Get 25 140-plus IQ kids in a room and you’re ready to roll. Now they are much, much more spread out. At one time, a student like Charles—who is definitely an outlier—would have had more than just four or five peers close enough in ability to choose from to create a peer group. He doesn’t have that luxury anymore.

What do you do for intellectual pursuits beyond the teaching?

I do a lot of non-fiction stuff. I was never one of these people who got into plays, concerts, and a lot of literature. I’ll read a lot about politics, current events, and a ton of math problems. I learned math in middle school, high school, and college, and took some math classes after college, but I never got a master’s. It was largely because of attitude. An education degree now is not exactly something to brag about. I could have three or four doctorates if I pursued the Ed.D. But because if I get an advanced degree I would want it to mean something, it would have to be in pure math. That means real dedicated time, work, and effort. I got so tied up in the teaching that I never had a chance to pursue that.

After I started teaching bright kids and had to find ways to keep them going, I started getting into branches of math that I never cared about, such as number theory, set theory, and especially advanced contest-type problems. I do a ton of that now just for intellectual pursuit. I would have never done them right after college. I just wanted to teach math, and I knew enough to show kids how to do math. Now I want to know math that, whether I’m teaching it or not, is cool to know it.

I have been doing martial arts forever, and some of that is intellectual but not on the level of the math.

Do you see the focus on grades and testing swinging back in the other direction? Is there any hope for getting back to the love of learning?

I was going to say that the emphasis on standardized testing affected the average kids more than bright kids, but because we have minimum standards on our state testing, as long as bright kids are prepared to do the minimum standard, some teachers won’t push them further. They are stuck doing benchmark number 28 just to make sure they score “pass/advance” on some state test. That’s where it’s hurting the bright kids.

I think the pendulum will swing back. I know it is. It’s already starting to in Virginia because they are going to let school systems come up with their own types of assessments. The only problem I have with that is that with minimum competence testing, at least the kids have to know something. I don’t care if you’re going to only test them on adding 1/2 to 1/3. If they are going to be tested, they have to be able to do that problem. Before the state testing and the “over-emphasis on testing,” there was no accountability. That’s when the fuzzy math really had its heyday. If I put Johnny in a group and let them do a cute little project but they will never learn how to factor a polynomial, I can do that until the cows come home. But if there is some state test somewhere that says this kid has to sit in a room and do a test by himself, not with a group of four, it’s the responsibility of you as a teacher to make sure that kid can do that.

I have mixed feelings. I don’t want the tests to totally go away. But I want the emphasis to get lowered. That way the bright kids can go nuts and do all the things they need to do and the average kids can at least get a taste of something other than what’s going to be on the test. But if the tests ever turn into “We’re going to do some opaque assessment where someone does a play describing what the square root of two would look like if it was colored red,” then we have a problem.

Putting students in charge to close the achievement gap

Putting students in charge to close the achievement gap
Jenny Wellington at the whiteboard. (Photo: Emily Richmond)
By Emily Richmond

In an 11th-grade English class at Pittsfield Middle High School in rural New Hampshire, Jenny Wellington’s students were gathered in a circle debating Henry David Thoreau’s positions on personal responsibility.

“Do you think Thoreau really was about ‘every man for himself’?” asked one 16-year-old boy.

“He lived alone in the woods and didn’t want to pay taxes,” another student shots back. “So, yeah.”

Sitting off to the side, Wellington took rapid notes. When she noticed the conversation being dominated by a couple of voices, she politely suggested someone else chime in. Otherwise, she stayed out of the way and let the discussion take shape.

Welcome to student-centered learning at Pittsfield, a grade 7–12 campus in its third year of an innovative approach to education.

“There used to be a lot more of teachers talking at you — it didn’t matter if you were ready to move on. When the teacher was done with the topic that was it,” said Noah Manteau, a senior this year at Pittsfield. “This is so much better.”

Educators, researchers, and policymakers at the state and national level are keeping close tabs on Pittsfield, which has become an incubator for a critical experiment in school reform. The goal: a stronger connection between academic learning and the kind of real-world experience that advocates say can translate into postsecondary success.

Pittsfield, a former mill town, has about 4,500 predominately white residents, and the Middle High School serves about 260 residents. Fifty-six percent of them qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Student-centered learning is fully in place in the high school, and elements of it are being phased in at the middle-school level. The long-term plan is to eventually add it to the nearby elementary school.

Pittsfield’s superintendent, John Freeman, is among the first to acknowledge that adopting student-centered learning was a bold move. Student performance on statewide assessments has long been uneven, and teachers and administrators know there is still significant work to be done. But test scores are just one indicator, and based on multiple other measures, including higher graduation and college-going rates, Freeman feels confident that student-centered learning is moving Pittsfield in the right direction.

At Pittsfield, student-led discussions, small-group work, and individual projects dominate. The traditional grading system has been replaced with a matrix of “competencies,” detailing the skills and knowledge students are expected to master in each class. Students are graded on a scale of 1 to 4 — with 2.5 considered “proficient” — and those numbers are converted into letter grades for their transcripts. Teachers meet at regular intervals to review how closely their instruction is aligning with the competencies; they use an online database to continually track individual student growth. Additional online classes allow students to further challenge themselves and earn college credit. Family engagement is considered a key part of each student’s progress. And the Extended Learning Opportunities (ELO) program allows students to earn credit for workplace experiences that reinforce their academic studies, such as interning at a dentist’s office or the local radio station.

All of this means students are shouldering more responsibility for their own learning. And they are expected to develop the kind of critical thinking skills —not just rote knowledge — required for “real world” success. As a result, advocates of student-centered learning say it provides superior preparation for both college and career.

As senior Ryan Marquis put it, “I had to switch from ‘Here’s your study guide and here’s your answer sheet’ to ‘How do you want to learn the content, and how can we support you?’”


Student-centered learning in Pittsfield — located in the Suncook Valley about 40 minutes north of Manchester — began to take shape in 2008, when the district asked for community input on ways to improve local schools and found overwhelming support for more personalized approaches. The following year, Pittsfield’s high school was rated one of the state’s lowest-performing, based on students’ standardized test scores. The one benefit of that dismal ranking was that it later qualified Pittsfield for a $1 million federal School Improvement Grant (SIG).

This set in motion intensive public-private partnerships, and the creation of a community working group to help come up with a new instructional approach. After extensive research, planning, and conversations with parents, the district opted for the student-centered learning model, and the plan was implemented in January 2012.

“People in our community wanted schools to be places where students’ passions and interests were recognized, and their deficits and weaknesses addressed,” said Freeman. “We’re thinking not just about what happens within these walls, but preparing them for success at least seven years beyond high school graduation.”

Around the same time, the district was considering how to implement New Hampshire’s mandate that high schools use a competency-based model, rather than traditional seat-time hours, to award course credit. New Hampshire had also adopted the Common Core State Standards, which set grade-level expectations for what students know and can do, but do not dictate classroom instruction.

Rather than becoming competing forces, this unique combination of circumstances provided Pittsfield with enviable synergies, education experts say. “One of the downfalls of personalized learning has often been a regression to the lowest standard,” said Sonja Santelises, vice president of K-12 policy and practice for the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Education Trust. The confluence of the Common Core, high school competencies, and student-centered learning in Pittsfield, said Santelises, offered “a rare opportunity” to set high expectations for learning that are supported by a rigorous and innovative instructional framework. At the same time, she added, the community’s buy-in has been critical, particularly during the earliest planning stages. Accountability must also be a top priority, Santelises said: Teachers should be continually checking students’ progress against the standards and adjusting instruction accordingly.

“These are not just nice things to have — they’re absolutely essential to have if you’re going to bring about meaningful change,” Santelises said.


What is student-centered learning? In its broadest sense, it describes an approach where teachers function more as coaches than lecturers. While it’s gaining momentum nationally, the definition is still evolving. The term is sometimes used — incorrectly, say the model’s advocates — to describe any kind of free-form learning that is not “teacher centered.” The New England-based Nellie Mae Education Foundation defines the model as personalized instruction that allows students to advance at their own rate, with opportunities for “anywhere, anytime” learning outside the confines of the traditional school day and building. Students must also have input in determining how they will learn, choosing among opportunities such as online classes and independent study. Project-based learning, in which students build connections between the academic course content and their own interests and career goals, is another popular route.

According to Rebecca Wolfe, director of the nonprofit Jobs For the Future’s Students at the Center project, student-centered learning shares the Common Core’s underlying goal: helping students develop their critical thinking skills while better preparing them for the real-world challenges of college and career. “They are absolutely complementary — and should be part of the same whole — when done right,” Wolfe said.

Student-centered learning is not without its critics. Some question the philosophical premise, while others worry about the potentially daunting logistical requirements. There are also concerns that student-centered learning can result in a chaotic classroom environment, and that some students won’t progress quickly enough to cover the required curriculum. Learners who already trail their peers could be the most vulnerable.

“The idea of ‘student-centered everything’ is one of those orthodoxies where it’s easy to fall off the end of the cliff,” said Robert Pondiscio, senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, D.C. “It works a lot better in the content areas than in skills-based instruction like reading comprehension, for example.”

As for letting students demonstrate proficiency by non-traditional means, Pondiscio said “as long as the projects are rigorous and challenging, I see no problem with allowing students to produce work product that interests and engages them — provided it’s aligned to the content expectations.”

Recent research from the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education found the student-centered model is working in unexpected places, including urban high schools with high percentages of minority and low-income students. Consider a June 2014 study looking at student-centered learning in four northern California public high schools, all smaller, open-enrollment campuses. The Stanford researchers concluded that regular assessments were helping teachers better monitor student progress and adjust instruction accordingly. Students were also finding ways to connect their learning to their own interests and the wider community outside of school.

“Students in the study schools exhibited greater gains in achievement than their peers, had higher graduation rates, were better prepared for college, and showed greater persistence in college,” said Stanford University Professor and SCOPE Faculty Director Linda Darling-Hammond in a statement about the new research. “Student-centered learning proves to be especially beneficial to economically disadvantaged students and students whose parents have not attended college.

At Pittsfield, the shift to student-led discussions was a fairly steep learning curve for everyone, including teacher Jenny Wellington. To build her lesson on Thoreau, Wellington first turned to the school’s “competencies,” which are drawn from the state’s Common Core standards. For the 11th grade, that means students should be able to interpret the literature they read, and craft arguments using the text as evidence. Wellington uses a mix of student-led discussions, small group work, writing assignments and the occasional traditional test to measure the progress of the class.

“I’m giving them a point of focus but I’m not telling them what to think,” Wellington said. “My role is to make sure they are following through with a thought or an idea and not just jumping around. Once they hit on something they have to go deeper – and find support for their position from the text.”

The students keep track of how often each of them contributes to the conversation, setting goals both for themselves and for the class overall. For the most part, Wellington remains on the sidelines, although she occasionally stops the conversation for an in-class writing assignment to give quieter students an extra moment to collect their thoughts and consider what they want to say.

“When I have really strong student dominating the discussions, I’ll tell them privately to hang back a little,” Wellington said. “They all get feedback from me every time, after every discussion. That’s hard data for them, and they love it.”

There have been unexpected developments: When Wellington used a traditional multiple choice test to measure students’ grasp of the content at the end of a subject unit, many of them scored poorly on some of the basic facts of Thoreau’s biography. But their written responses to the essay portion of the test, asking them to explain and interpret transcendentalism, were a different kind of surprise. “They blew me out of the water,” Wellington said. “Their understanding was clearly deeper than just those facts.”

In an age when Google’s search engine is as close as a cell phone, “I would question whether a student knowing the year Thoreau died is really essential,” said Robert Rothman, a senior fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington, D.C.-based organization focused on high school transformation. “If students didn’t know that he lived in the 19th century, that might be problem. If you’re going to talk about transcendentalism you need to know facts about it, and about the people who espoused it, to provide evidence for your conclusions.”

There are other education theorists who take this argument even further, insisting that there’s little need for much of the rote learning that takes place in public schools. However, “there’s a danger of going from one extreme to another,” Rothman said. “Just testing students on basic facts doesn’t help students develop those deeper understanding and learning. And just having them show they can communicate and write longer essays without some basis in knowledge isn’t going to help them, either.”


Like many of the nation’s public schools, both large and small, Pittsfield must contend with a high-need student population and a post-recession struggle for adequate funding. Until recently, those challenges were exacerbated by a culture of low expectations for students, say Pittsfield teachers. In 2013, Pittsfield’s 11th graders had a proficiency rate of 61 percent for reading on the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) exam; the statewide average for reading was 77 percent. In math, Pittsfield’s proficiency rate of 36 percent was the same as the state average, but that’s almost double the 19 percent that the school reported for the 2008-09 school year. Until 2011, Pittsfield had been on upward trend for several years, but during the past two school years, scores have fallen.

The district has also been challenged by system-wide instability. Pittsfield has a higher-than-average number of residential rental properties, which means it has more student turnover than many of the state’s other small towns, said Superintendent Freeman, who took the helm in 2008 after nine years as one of the district’s principals. Teacher turnover has also been high: Since 2011, about 60 percent of the teachers and administrators at the middle-high school have been replaced, in part because some staff members rejected the shift to student-centered learning. Freeman said the school has also taken a more aggressive approach to evaluating the performance and potential of non-tenured teachers.

Test scores aside, Pittsfield has improved in key areas since it launched its student-led curriculum. According to the National Student Clearinghouse, Pittsfield’s dropout rate in 2013 was 2.3 percent, down from 3.6 percent in 2010. During the same three-year period, the graduation rate climbed to 80 percent from 75 percent. And the college-going rate jumped to 60 percent from 47 percent.

Laureen Avery of UCLA’s Center X also points out that the school is no longer in the bottom 5 percent of the state’s high schools. Avery is the lead evaluator of the school’s Investing in Innovation (i3) grant, a $5 million federal investment it shares with a network of 12 other New England campuses; the Nellie Mae Education Foundation and the Rural School and Community Trust have each contributed an additional $500,000 to the group of schools, and Nellie Mae, located in Quincy, Mass., has awarded a separate $2 million grant to Pittsfield specifically to put student-centered learning into place.

“I’ve never seen any school—big or little—pay such close attention to student data,” Avery said. “They have a really well-developed way of tracking progress. Yes, Pittsfield is a unique, small school. But they’re succeeding with processes that could be transferrable to another campus.”

Paul Leather, New Hampshire’s deputy education commissioner, emphasizes that a student-led program like Pittsfield’s could not have worked without strong leaders, supported teachers, and an engaged community. “You can have the best ideas in the world,” Leather said. “But ultimately, it all comes down to implementation.”

To that end, Freeman has worked hard to carve out time for professional development. He has also eliminated the principal position and instead installed two deans at the helm: one for curriculum and instruction and one for building management. That clear delineation of duties means the first dean can focus on supporting classroom teachers while the second deals with the day-to-day tasks involved in running the school.

For Jenny Wellington, who has spent 12 years teaching — six in New York City public schools, two years at the University of New Hampshire, and four at Pittsfield — it’s still a daily challenge to manage everything student-centered learning requires. The academic, social and emotional needs of her Pittsfield students are not dissimilar to those of her former pupils in the Bronx, Wellington said.

But she says the changes at Pittsfield have made it easier for her to respond to those challenges. She regularly visits her colleagues’ classrooms, gleaning ideas about how to get students to steer their own learning and looking for opportunities for joint projects. This fall, for example, biology students will be expected to write a persuasive essay about the use of human stem cells in research — an essay that will also be evaluated by their English teacher.

“I’ve learned to step back more and let the students lead,” Wellington said. “To let go of the idea that I have to be center stage all the time has been incredibly freeing. I feel like I’m a better teacher.”


Mom, Dad: I’m dropping out of college to become a pro gamer

Mom, Dad: I’m dropping out of college to become a pro gamer

by Chelsea Stark

Millions in prize money and ESPN-sized audiences at stake

Robert Lee sat down with his parents over dinner at a favorite Chinese restaurant to break the news: He decided to drop out of college after one year at California State University in Fullerton to pursue a career as a professional video game player.

Lee had started to make more than a little money broadcasting his gameplay on Twitch while commuting to school three days a week. He wanted to make that a full-time job.

“The way I saw it, school was always going to be there, but this opportunity to make money playing video games was not always going to be there,” he says.

Almost three years later, Lee is a pro League of Legends player, earning a salary that pays enough to cover rent, clothes, food and a couple luxuries, he says, though he declined to provide a figure. That’s in addition to the millions of dollars in prize money that his team, compLexity, is competing for at tournaments around the world.

 Lee, known by his handle ‘RobertXLee’ when he plays, is not alone. Players have been able to turn professional gaming into careers — ones that allow them to live comfortably while playing the games they love. These pros’ paths are beginning to mimic those of athletes, starting with amateur tournaments before getting recruited by a professional league or team. The stakes are high, too; the top 10 highest earning players pulled in $8.18 million in tournament winnings.Not coincidentally, tournaments have begun drawing millions of viewers. Last year’s League of Legends final was watched by 32 million, while the live event held at the 18,000-seat Staples Center in Los Angeles sold out in less than two hours after tickets went on sale. And last month, more than 200,000 people watched the Dota 2 finals at another game tournament in Seattle, where a winning five-member team walked away with $5 million in prize money.

Esports, as professional, competitive video gaming is sometimes called, is no longer a niche activity. Those big audiences — and bigger payouts — are attracting game makers, along with sponsors like Coca-Cola and American Express, and partnerships typically associated with mainstream athletics.

Game publishers Riot and Valve have made millions riding the wave of the newest competitive genre, called MOBAs. Their respective games, League of Legends and Dota 2, have millions of players in almost every country around the planet. While these companies run their own internal competitive leagues, there are also third parties that both manage tournaments and broadcast them, such as Major League Gaming in the U.S. and ESL in Europe. Each has a business model that feels like a merger between ESPN and a sports league like the NBA, though they typically manage tournaments for almost a dozen games instead of just one.

Even ESPN, which has already dabbled in broadcasting less-athletic activities like the World Series of Poker, showed the Dota 2 finals on its online channel. ESPN is in talks with several video game leagues to gain more television rights.

Lee wakes up at 12 p.m. every day in a sprawling house in southern California. The compLexity team house sits in a gated community outside of Los Angeles. Its real estate ad might boast about its vaulted ceilings or granite counters, but those features seem to be ignored by the house’s occupants.

Once he’s up and fully awake, Lee joins the rest of his compLexity teammates, four other young men between 21 and 26, downstairs in a room filled with desks and powerful PCs. There’s very little other furniture, save a TV, couch and a conspicuous child-sized mattress leaning against the wall. That’s when the real work begins.

Lee says the team spends eight hours practicing as a unit, playing matches online. Practice time can also include watching replays of other matches or spending time crafting other, better plays. They’ll knock it off at around 10 p.m., and Lee is given the freedom to do whatever he wants. That usually means playing more League of Legends. He spends far more than the traditional eight hours a day on his job, but he’s not burned out yet.

“I dream about League a lot more often than I should,” he says. “My girlfriend tells me I sleep-talk about the game.”

The demographic makeup of professional gamers is largely similar to the gaming scene: It’s male-dominated and heavily southeast Asian, European and U.S-centric. Players also tend to be very young. Some pros start as early as 14, when their reflexes are the sharpest.

“Their reflexes are just better. You can hit your shots and really make plays happen when you are younger,” says Rod Breslau, a journalist who has covered esports for more than a decade, most recently for CBS Interactive’s gaming sites. “So the smart owners and managers pick up guys as they are coming through the ametuer ranks.”

He points to League of Legends player Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok as an example. At 16, Sang-hyeok was picked up by a professional Korean team and went on to win the World Championships with his four teammates. (One year of going pro has already netted him more than $260,000, according to

“In normal sports, you go through little league and high school and college and if you are amazing you get to the NFL,” says Marcus Graham, better known as djWheat, who has been an esports commentator since the early 2000s. “If you are amazing at League of Legends at 15, why would you join the high school team when you could be playing on the big stage with pro team?”

This doesn’t mean older players aren’t able to compete, but Breslau says their skills and reflexes do degrade, just like those of real athletes. Esports is too young to know exactly when that age might be, he says.

“Those older guys use their experience and knowledge and tactics, they use more mind games than raw skill. It’s no longer ‘I’m just gonna roll over this person no matter what happens.’ It’s a lot more thought process.”

Breslau and Graham both started their careers as Quake players in the late ‘90s, proving there are roles and opportunities for those who want to continue their involvement.

“Ex-pro players are now casters or hosts, and it’s followed traditional sports. They are now on analyst desks or their commentating the game,” he says. “And you can’t ignore that streaming is a career in itself.”

Forging that career involves being something a little more than a good player. Breslau says the best players he’s ever seen are ones that are great athletes, but the real champs are those with showmanship.

“LeBron James and Michael Jordan always pushed basketball as much as winning,” he says. “For esports, it’s more than just winning championships. It’s utilizing that to promote the game, to push the sport further, to push boundaries.”

And as esports teeters on the edge of mainstream consciousness, athletes that can bridge that gap are all the more important.

Perspectives on where competitive gaming took off vary depending on what country you call home, and also on what games you follow. In the U.S. and Europe, first-person shooters Quake and later Counter-Strike began to take hold starting in the late 1990s. There were growing circuits of players, but the outside world was largely unaware that gamers were organized and competing.

“We struggled with exposure,” Graham says. “A lot of the times competitions were completely cut off from the community. If you played Quake or Counter-Strike, you were probably following the competition, but if you didn’t you had no ideas this was going on.”

Graham competed in Quake tournaments, and they became the best in North America for a short while.

“I joke that I probably have a negative earnings because we spent more to travel than we would win, but we did it because we loved the game and the competition and the people that we met.”

But being a professional then hardly paid the bills, Graham says. “The harsh realization set in that I can’t play this game eight hours a day and pay my rent, so I needed to get a job.”

Meanwhile, a different breed of gaming took hold in South Korea. There, players became obsessed with real-time strategy games like StarCraft. In Korea, professional gaming was more quickly accepted, with pro teams forming and gaining sponsorships from major companies. StarCraft matches were broadcast on two separate TV channels starting in the early 2000s.

“The Korean teams have been sponsored by major telecom companies for 13 years, since the beginning of pro-league,” Breslau says. “Korea’s infrastructure started so much earlier, which is why it is now so much stronger, where that type of stuff is only now coming to fruition in the West.”

Strong interest from southeast Asia didn’t translate to the West, making it difficult to follow players and tournaments in those days, Graham says.

“You know how we had to watch StarCraft competitions back in the day? We had to wait a week, then hopefully someone ripped them off Korean television, and put them up on some site,” he lamented. “You had to go up and find it.”

Eventually, technology caught up with the fans’ passion by allowing the community to directly support pro players.

Graham moved full-time into providing commentary during matches in the 2000s, similar to announcers during sports broadcasts. He spent years using services like RealAudio or Winamp’s ShoutCast during live rounds. Then starting in 2008, software that let people more easily stream video became widely available. That’s when Graham says he knew things were about to change.

“For someone who struggled for so many years to try to get esports in front of more people through writing, blogging or broadcasting via audio, suddenly we had the best way to get the most eyeballs,” Graham says. “It wasn’t people who wanted to judge us, it was people who were like, ‘Wow! People playing games for money,’ or ‘this player is so good and I could learn from them.’ It was one of the largest injections of exposure or accessibility that esports has ever had.”

Though there were a few options available, one network that focused solely on gamers was Twitch, which started as an offshoot of the now-shuttered livestreaming site Justin.TV. Twitch hired Graham in 2011 to build relationships with esports teams and he now serves as the company’s director of community and education.

Breslau says the relationship between Twitch, which has grown into a platform with 55 million monthly viewers, and competitive gaming is symbiotic.

“Competitive gaming made Twitch a billion dollar company,” he says. “The competitive nature of esports, just like real sports, makes them so captivating. That’s why esports as a medium has pushed streaming to where it is.”

Twitch also provides an advantage for individual players that cable never could: the ability to monetize by interacting with fans in their time off. Most pros, Breslau says, run streams nearly every day.

Twitch, which Amazon is buying for about $970 million, runs pre-roll commercials and spots during a broadcast, sharing some of that advertising money with the players. For viewers who want to skip the commercials, Twitch sells $5 monthly subscriptions to channels, with half that amount going to the player. Those payouts start to add up quickly, especially for some gamers with more than 100,000 subscribers and millions of fans watching their streams. Fans can also simply donate cash to streamers.

Robert Lee’s full-time gaming career started from streaming, which he says came easily to him. Being successful at streaming means being entertaining consistently, and engaging your viewers.

“Other gamers may not say much when they stream, but I like talking to people and showing people my skills,” Lee says. “Even when I’m playing by myself, I’m yelling about it at the top of my lungs.”

Those interactions, and serving your fans, quickly become a huge part of pro players’ days. Professional Call of Duty player Matthew “Nadeshot” Haag has almost 650,000 Twitter followers and more than 1 million YouTube subscribers. Haag, who has been playing professionally since the age of 14 and is captain of OpTic Gaming’s Call of Duty team, says serving fans is a full-time job.

“A typical day for me is two hours of video editing and production for my YouTube channels, and then six to eight hours of streaming/practice with my team,” Haag says. “We don’t have many days off, so it really is a 24/7 job, all year long.”

In addition to directly sponsoring pro players’ Twitch streams, fans are also contributing to prize purses at tournaments.

Valve, the publisher of Dota 2, one of the biggest titles in competitive gaming decided to fund its annual championship prize pool by offering exclusive in-game items. These electronic goods raised $10.5 million for the tournament in July.

That level of direct fan involvement also helped draw big-name sponsors, including Coca-Cola.

“People’s eyebrows still might go up in shock,” says Matt Wolf, the global head of gaming at Coca-Cola, which sponsors portions of the League of Legends pro play with Riot Games. “They don’t realize it’s a three part experience. Sure there are people playing games, but there are people watching games live, and that’s electric. And then there are people watching it home via stream.”

Coca-Cola recognizes esports are growing and wants to be on the ground floor, says Wolf, who has a background in games working for EA, Sega and then his own company, Double Twenty Productions.

“This game and player-verse, and the volume it reaches, is so powerful. Any company should take it seriously,” he says. “I think it could be an Olympic sport in 2020.”

With growth like that, more and more pro gamers will know the joy — and the terror — of playing in front of massive crowds of fans. It means putting winning and losing teams in the spotlight.

“Going from an entertainer to a professional player was very stressful for sure, “ Lee says. “As a streamer, it doesn’t matter if I am defeated horribly and do everything wrong, as long as I’m talking to my viewers and having a good time. Now if I play poorly, I really kick myself in the gut and think about what I could be doing better.”

The pre-match jitters never really get easier, Lee says, but he has found a lot of coping mechanisms.

“Before the game I feel my body tensing up. It feels like it takes a lot of muscle to even click my mouse.” he says. “To relax, I’ll make a fool of myself, say incoherent stuff, even sing to my team, just to get pumped up and get the adrenaline rolling.”

The tournaments are over for a bit, though. Lee’s team was just knocked out of the running competing in this year’s League of Legends championship in October, with only a small chance of making it back in. That defeat hasn’t dampened his enthusiasm, even when he talks about sacrifices required of the demanding schedule.

“It’s been two and a half years since I left school. I should have graduated by now. I don’t regret it because I didn’t enjoy school. Gaming I absolutely love. I feel like I’m getting paid for what I love to do,” Lee says.

The fact that so many like Lee can support themselves doing something they love is a sign of the industry’s growth, Breslau says.

“It’s more than just playing to make money and sustain themselves for life, it’s the love of the game and the community,” Breslau adds. “They love to play their game. They love to compete in their game. They love to be the best in their game.”