Top 5 Myths and Lies About Teachers and Their Profession

Top 5 Myths and Lies About Teachers and Their Profession

by Tim Walker

Well-funded misinformation campaigns succeed in part by leaving no rock unturned in the quest to smear whatever person or institution they are targeting. In these cases, is there any meaningful difference between a hoax, myth, rumor or an outright lie? Not really, because they all serve to discredit and undermine, regardless of intent.

For more than ten years, public schools have been assaulted by a barrage of destructive policies that have been fueled by the widespread dissemination of misinformation. It begins with corporate cash flowing into new think tanks and advocacy groups, or films like Waiting for Superman” and “Won’t Back Down.” And it all eventually trickles down to the neighbor a few doors down who asked you, “I support public schools and I love my own child’s teacher, but, gosh darnit, why can’t bad teachers ever be fired and what’s wrong with being held accountable?”

Needless to say, the conversation over public education needs to change course but is still largely bogged down in the morass of distortions and warped opinions

Education psychologist David C. Berliner and education professor Gene V. Glass hope to help clear a path with their new book, 50 Myths and Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools. Berliner and Glass take on and dismantle every half-truth, falsehood and bad idea that has undermined our schools, using logic and credible data to make their case.

“The mythical failure of public education has been created and perpetuated in large part by political and economic interests that stand to gain from the destruction of the traditional system,” the authors write in the book’s intro. “Many citizens conception of K-12 public education in the United States is more myth than reality. It is essential that the truth replace the fiction.”

Here’s a summary of the book’s response to some of the myths pertaining specifically to teachers and their profession.

Myth 1: Teachers Are the Single Most Important Factor in a Child’s Education

Great public schools depend on having first-rate teachers. Teachers work very, very hard. Their days are spent not only providing instructional and emotional support, but also performing countless other tasks to benefit their students.

However, many so-called reformers and lawmakers inflate this importance to such a degree that it permits them to ignore all the other critical factors that influence learning. The result: Let’s pin every failure on teachers.

Accountability is important but, as Berliner and Glass point out, it has become the “cornerstone of the education reform movement, putting teachers in an untenable position.” Do teachers control the economic struggles of their student’s families? Do teachers have the autonomy to make every decision about curriculum and instruction? Does the average teacher have at her disposal a wide range of effective and sustainable professional development opportunities?

They argue that accountability should be based on a metric that is a little more reality-based. “Families, communities, school boards, state and federal government  – society in general – all bear responsibility for student achievement,” the authors write. “Asking teachers to bear more than their share is shameful.”

Myth 2: Teachers Thrive on Competition

Reformers toss around the word “competition” as if it is some indisputably virtuous attribute that can turnaround any and all endeavors, including teaching our kids. Hey, it works well for the Fortune 500, so it stands to reason that a little rough-and-tumble competition will work for schools. Competition breeds better teachers and that will lead to higher student achievement.

And what would teachers be competing over? Merit pay of course, determined by standardized test scores. Putting aside the problems in trying to measure teacher effectiveness with a test score, the widespread potential for cheating, and the drill-and-kill instruction behind value-added measurements, Berliner and Glass argue that boosters of competition are making a number of damaging faulty assumptions. First and foremost is that students will benefit.

“Teachers are pushed to score the highest, which means others must lose. It means that many teachers  are likely to abandon their collaborative efforts of helping students of all classrooms succeed in order to increase the chances of their own classroom’s success. It means that teachers who seek a bonus, or fear getting fired, must plot to get the more affluent students because, as history shows, these are students with winning records.”

“Competition is a repugnant motivator that will alienate teachers from one another and decrease the chances of all students succeeding,” Berliner and Glass continue. “A Darwinian survival of the fittest, applied to education cannot be healthy for an education system inside a democracy.”

Myth 3: Teachers in the U.S. Are Well Paid Compared to Their Counterparts in Other Countries

No one argues that teachers make lots of money, but that hasn’t stopped some from trying to dampen talk of higher pay by claiming that, compared to educators in other industrialized countries, teachers in the U.S. have nothing to complain about.

According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the average U.S. teacher with 15 years experience earns an annual salary somewhere in between $45,000 and $48,500, depending on a variety of factors including whether he teaches at primary or secondary level. While this is higher than the average OECD teacher, once you consider other variables, the salary picture in the U.S. darkens.

“In reality,” write Berliner and Glass, “American teachers are paid less than teachers in many other countries 1) relative to the wages of other workers with similar levels of education 2) based on the amount of time spent teaching each day 3) in terms of the salary differentials between starting and experienced teachers and 4) in relation to salary trends over the past decade.”

Overall, teacher salaries in U.S. secondary schools make up about 55 percent of total education expenditures, notably lower than the 63 percent average of OECD countries. And unlike in the U.S., the salaries of teachers in industrialized countries are very competitive with those of college-educated workers in other professions. Their salaries are on average only 10-18 percent less, compared to a 25-33 percent gap in this country.

Salaries in the U.S. have stagnated, even declined, making it more difficult to recruit new teachers. Consider Singapore, South Korea, and Finland – all high-achieving nations – who not only pay their teachers salaries comparable to other educated workers, but also award bonuses for staying in the profession or pay teachers to continue their training. The teaching profession enjoys a status in these countries not experienced by educators in the United States.

Myth 4: Subject Matter Knowledge is a Teacher’s Most Powerful Asset

What makes a good teacher? A keen grasp of content knowledge? Of course, but teaching is obviously not just about the transfer of knowledge. And yet in the United States, the effort to downplay or outright dismiss the value of rigorous teacher education is fairly widespread. The Teach for America program (TFA) practically thrives on this perception. TFA recruits teachers from top schools who, while they may have impressive knowledge of a specific content area, often lack proper training in learning theory, child development, or pedagogical skills. (TFA’s inflated reputation is addressed in detail in 50 Myths and Lies)

As Berliner and Glass point out, “Telling, talking, lecturing, showing Powerpoints, putting students online or showing films is not what makes a teacher good. Teachers need to know how to start a lesson, motivate, act on information from formative assessments, manage classrooms, design tests and evaluate performance. There are literally hundreds of skills necessary for effective teaching. And these are quite separate from content knowledge.”

The authors also question how far subject area knowledge alone can take teachers who have to teach students 21st Century skills such as critical thinking, collaboration, decision-making and creativity.

“The best teachers will have to know their content. But if that is their only asset, they will fail as teachers and fail the country.”

Myth 5: “Tenure” is About Protecting Bad Teachers

One of the most enduring and frustrating myths about teachers is that once you become a teacher, you have a job for life (thanks to those pesky unions) regardless of performance. You hear it everywhere: Teachers have tenure and that means they cannot be fired. The purpose of tenure – a term that is frequently misused – is to provide due process protection that allow teachers to voice their opinions, advocate for their students, and challenge inequities and bad practices without fear of unjust retaliation by principals, superintendents or school boards. But for politicians who have targeted educators and their unions, it is much easier to rally public opinion around the fabrication that it’s about protecting underperforming teachers.

“Teachers know their students better than anyone else in the school, and they can be put in a vulnerable position at certain times,” write Berliner and Glass. “What about the special education teacher who challenges conventional ways of schooling and opts for a more inclusive method over his superiors failed methods? … What about the teacher who refuses a principal’s request to change a student’s grade from a C to an A? Or what about the one that demands to teach evolution despite community pressure not to do so?

“Without due process, they might feel that the risk involved in speaking up is too high and choose to teach as required, ignoring what they see as the best interests of their students or their community.”


Private Interests Coming to a Public School Near You

Private Interests Coming to a Public School Near You

by Alia Wong

Government agencies are falling short in their efforts to reform education,
so corporations are stepping in. But will they do more harm than good?

Mass teacher evaluation systems, across-the-board learning benchmarks, and new standardized tests hardly lifted America’s public education system out of mediocrity this past year. In fact, in many cases, well-intentioned reform efforts became so entrenched in controversy, or were so poorly implemented, that they undermined rather than boosted student success. Big data helped paint a better picture of the types of kids in the country’s classrooms—but it painted that picture in broad strokes, often overgeneralizing students’ weaknesses and disregarding their strengths.

It’s hard to say what lasting lessons can come from the complexities that plague school reform. But as Nick Romeo recently wrote, “no single solution will be entirely effective.” Romeo was making an argument for what he described as “Slow School.” Mimicking the Slow Food movement, his Slow School strategy would take a holistic approach to solving the “matrix of connected problems” undercutting public education: “rampant standardized testing, excessive homework loads, the reflexive pursuit of prestige by students and parents, and declining performance on international tests,” to name a few.

Of course, policymakers tend to favor band-aid solutions and instant gratification; Slow School is a nice idea, but it doesn’t hit hard, and it sure doesn’t hit fast. Now, amid growing perception that the government is dragging its feet on its race to the top, one player is making its way further into the world of education reform: the private sector. And if the backlash against one-size-fits-all education in 2014 was any indication, corporations will increasingly do what they can to to undo blanket reforms and hyper-standardization, perhaps dramatically reshaping how and where kids learn. But at what cost?

Schools themselves often actively push for private-sector intervention, summoning the help of for-profit companies to boost student achievement. Google, for example, has developed a range of education programs, and various classroom consulting firms have cropped up promising to help teachers fulfill Common Core.

The Obama administration, meanwhile, has called on the private sector to help it equip America’s students with the science, technology, engineering, and math—or STEM—skills that have been widely touted as the key to the country’s future workforce needs. “President Obama believes that our hardest challenges require an ‘all hands on deck’ approach, bringing together government, industry, non-profits, philanthropy and others working together,” the White House website says. Partners in that effort include leaders from Xerox, Intel, and Time Warner Cable. (Whether the U.S. actually faces a shortage of people who could fill future STEM jobs is another matter altogether.)

Initiatives to expand preschool will rely largely on the private sector, too. These programs will build off of existing private preschools, providing them with public funding so that they can then subsidize tuition for the kids whose families couldn’t otherwise afford expensive early education services. Many states have long had preschool systems that take this approach.

These types of initiatives are logical attempts to fill the holes left by bureaucracy and a lack of resources. Private institutions can be more efficient than government agencies and can focus their attention on specific outcomes. They’re often specialized and staffed with experts who are well-versed in proven strategies. They use existing facilities, materials, and knowledge; they don’t have to build that stuff from scratch.

Other initiatives are just getting started, which means it’ll be a while before we can gauge whether they’re helping or hurting students: new specialized private schools aimed at better supporting kids left behind by public education, for example, or private-school models applied on public-school campuses. Some public schools, for instance, are starting to segregate boys and girls into different classrooms as a tactic for raising achievement, a tactic that was abandoned in the U.S. in the 19th century but remains relatively common in private and parochial institutions.

But the privatization trend certainly has a dark side. Self-serving companies may increasingly sponsor college programs in exchange for skilled workers. In North Carolina, for instance, a community college 10 minutes from a Caterpillar factor has hosted class in which students learn how to build trucks—largely on the public’s dime. The idea is that this course will feed students into the company’s workforce. For-profit colleges will continue to attract low-income students and fail to provide them with degrees, only forcing them into debt. Politically connected corporations could take over more and more charter schools, funneling taxpayer dollars into their own coffers. Take the chain of four nonprofit charters operated by Baker Mitchell, a North Carolina businessman whose free-market ideals has drawn comparisons to the Koch brothers. A recent Propublica investigation found that millions of public money flows through his charter schools to for-profit companies he controls:

The schools buy or lease nearly everything from companies owned by Mitchell. Their desks. Their computers. The training they provide to teachers. Most of the land and buildings. Unlike with traditional school districts, at Mitchell’s charter schools there’s no competitive bidding. No evidence of haggling over rent or contracts.

The schools have all hired the same for-profit management company to run their day-to-day operations. The company, Roger Bacon Academy, is owned by Mitchell. It functions as the schools’ administrative arm, taking the lead in hiring and firing school staff. It handles most of the bookkeeping. The treasurer of the nonprofit that controls the four schools is also the chief financial officer of Mitchell’s management company. The two organizations even share a bank account.

Privatization also risks politicizing schools, making them battlegrounds for partisan tug-of-wars. As Politico has reported, we’ve already seen that happening over Common Core, with big business launching a national ad blitz earlier this year targeted at Tea Party-leaning Republicans skeptical of the standards:

Though the business community has been notably reluctant to spend money this spring fighting tea party candidates in primaries, it has had no qualms about going toe-to-toe with the far right on the Common Core.

So it was that Billy Canary, president of the Business Council of Alabama, got four dozen influential executives on a conference call with the state senate leadership the other day to talk up the standards. He has also nudged hundreds of less prominent business leaders to reach out to their representatives in a campaign he calls “No lawmaker goes uncontacted.” If he senses a politician wavering on Common Core, he texts his pinstriped army. They spring at once into action.

Canary’s talking points might not win over parents who think of their children as precious individuals rather than workforce widgets, but they’re carefully calibrated to appeal to lawmakers concerned about economic development.

“The business community is by far the biggest consumer of the product created by our education system,” Canary tells them — and that system needs to produce better product if businesses are to compete in the global economy. “That’s why,” he said, “we’re all fighting in this direction.”

The Common Core standards for their part were bankrolled by a philanthropic organization—the Gates Foundation—and have been attacked by critics as another example of the private sector’s infiltration of public education. That controversy will continue to trickle down into classrooms next year.

This trend could help elevate the country’s students and make them active, skilled players and contributing members in an increasingly competitive world. But ultimately, it risks muddying the role of public schools as pillars of democracy and funnelling taxpayer dollars away from the students they’re supposed to benefit.

Resolved to Teach More Through Writing

Resolved to Teach More Through Writing

by Coleman Baker

I wrote this post some six months ago. I am not sure why I never posted it here. I probably thought I would revise, expand, improve, etc. Now, as we near the end of 2014, and many of us begin thinking about resolutions, I’ve found this post on my computer.

Below are my reflections on turning 40. They are equally applicable now, as the curtain of 2014 begins to close.

This past Saturday was by 40th birthday. As my family spent the morning finalizing the details of their spectacular plans, I spent the morning watching the memorial service for Maya Angelou. Now, you might think watching a memorial service on one’s birthday is a bit morbid. But, for me, this was a perfect way to start off this milestone day.

This birthday, more than any other, has caused me to be very reflective. I’ve been on this planet for 40 years. I hope to have 40+ more years. It was a good day to reflect on where I came from, where I’ve been, what I’ve accomplished, and where I hope to go in the days and years ahead.

Watching Maya Angelou’s service on this morning framed for me a life well lived. Listening as each speaker reflected on Maya’s life, I found myself challenged. Challenged to be a better teacher, a better writer, a better administrator, a better husband, father, son.

There were two quotes that struck me as I watch the service. Two sayings that struck me and have stuck with me.

First, Wake Forest President Nathan Hatch recounted that Angelou had said, “I am not a write who teaches but a teacher who writes.” As a doctoral student, I learned to write for scholars and graduate students. While I still value scholarly writing, and will continue to do some, I am more and more convinced that teaching should be the focus of my writing. This does not mean that I will not engage in scholarly writing. Rather, it means I find myself compelled to write more, and to write more for a general audience.

Second, Angelou has often been quoted saying “When you learn, teach. When you get, give.” One after another, the speakers described how Angelou was always teaching. In letters, phone calls, and causal conversations, she offered insights that helped shape/educate those with whom she interacted. Perhaps I am the only one who often feels like I don’t have much to contribute to a conversation. As an introvert, I find it very easy to listen, learn, observe, contemplate, and formulate a response.

As a teacher, though, am I not compelled to speak, to teach, with every opportunity? I am sure that I have not been attentive to every ‘teachable moment.’ In the same way, I am sure that I have missed times when I needed to learn from others. I need to focus on being more fully present with every conversation, looking for those moments when I can be the teacher, as well as those moments when I need to be the student.

Writing more, being more fully present, watching for opportunities to learn, and to teach. This first blog post at this new site is a first step. This seems like enough for one birthday. But there is so much more. As a spouse, a father, a son, I realize that I have come a long way, but yet have so much more to do. I give thanks for these 40 years, the good and the bad, and for those who have joined me along the way.


May 2015 be the year that I, and perhaps you, teach and learn more because I write more. Join me in this journey!

What happens when your college crush won’t commit?

What happens when your college crush won’t commit?

By Haskell Flender

You fell for a college; they deferred your application. What next?

“I knew you and I were a perfect match,” the young man begins, “ever since I laid eyes on you at my sister’s graduation. And spending time together this past year, learning everything there is to know about you, has only made me more convinced that you’re the one for me.

“And I believe you know everything there is to know about me,” he continues. “That I’m a hard worker, a deep thinker, extremely accomplished in and committed to my field but, at the same time, open to new ideas and adventures.

“I’ve told you that I volunteer at an afterschool literacy program and develop water-filtration systems for Third World countries. You know how much I value teamwork: I abandoned my high jump prospects in the 2016 Olympics in order to run the anchor leg on my school’s relay team.

“I’ve shared that MP3 of me playing oboe — at the White House. I’ve discussed my favorite books with you, including a few I’ve written, and I confided in you the story of how breaking my leg at summer camp set me on a path toward becoming a doctor.

“I’ve laid myself bare; I believe we have a future, that together we can accomplish great things.

So, how about it?” the young man says. “Are we a match?”

He gets silence in return. Lots and lots of silence. Six weeks of silence. Finally, the reply:

“Can I get back to you in a few months? I want to see if there’s someone out there I like better.”

This is my story. Not all the details — those stand in for every student’s over-amped college application resume. But a few months ago, I proposed to a college. Two weeks ago, the college deferred my application.

We’re not breaking up, exactly; we’re just giving each other some space. I can’t say it doesn’t hurt. It wasn’t a mutual decision since I was 100% prepared to commit. But the university needed more time to decide if we were right for each other.

I’m trying to respect that. I’m resisting the temptation to bombard the admissions office with arguments as to why this school would be lucky to have me. I’m trying not to parse too closely the logic behind its saying that while I didn’t rise to the top among 5,000 other early action candidates, perhaps I will when the applicant pool expands to 35,000. It may just be the school’s way of letting me down easy, instead of rejecting me outright. It’s hard to know.

But here’s what happens when the university you’re smitten with puts you on ice: You start looking around. After all, you’re a pretty great guy, an excellent student with diverse accomplishments; you’re not going to be unattached forever. There are other fish in the sea.

You consider a school you don’t know very well, the one with killer U.S. News and World Report ranking and a campus that just won’t quit. You ask around. Everyone has great things to say. And it offers an interdisciplinary major in the two subjects most interesting to you. Let’s just say you’re intrigued.

And another one will allow you to take any class Pass/Fail so you can dabble in unfamiliar subjects without having to be concerned about your GPA. It never occurred to you before how liberating this might be. What new passions might you discover ?

There’s one that’s already hinted at a yes. It knows you want to be a writer/director, has seen one of your movies and wants you to know that it’s shoring up its media studies department. It feels good to be wooed. Another flirts with you by showing off its student-teacher ratio. It’s impressive. Maybe a more intimate college experience is what you want after all.

The risk a college takes in deferring a candidate for admission is that its ambivalence may make the student’s heart wander. The college can weigh its options, but so too can the student.

My first-choice college is going to take the next three months to reconsider me. I’m going to do the same. I am imagining how it might feel to walk across the quad of a different school, in a different state, with different initials on my sweatshirt.

And if it turns out that, after a three-month reprieve, my first choice chooses me back, I will approach my decision to accept or decline admission better informed about what alternatives are available, with a clearer sense of what I want and where I see myself.

Regardless, come next fall, I’ll be hitched, either to a long-time love or a new flame. Even though our relationship is unlikely to last more than four years, I fully expect that once we both decide we are meant for each other, there will be champagne and dancing.

Is This the End of The Magic School Bus Era?

Is This the End of The Magic School Bus Era?

by Alexandra Ossola

Children’s science media is shifting away from books,
but it can still be effective as long as it hinges on narrative.

I recently came across a copy of a relic from my childhood: The Magic School Bus Inside the Human Body. In it, Ms. Frizzle, the “strangest teacher in the school,” shrinks down her class (and their bus) so they can travel through the human body. They see the digestive system hard at work, blood cells up close, and muscles in action, with quips from characters in the comic book format. On Amazon, where the book has 4.5 stars, mom Melissa Skordoulis wrote, “My daughter is 3 1/2 years old. I got this book and wasn’t sure if it would be to [sic] complicated for her. She loves it!…She even drew a picture of her Daddy’s red blood cells!” When I was a kid that’s how I felt, too. I even feel the same way now, reading it again.

Behind the colorful illustrations and goofy jokes, books like The Magic School Bus are packed with real science, and kids who read them come away with a better understanding. But “old-school” science media like The Magic School Bus is being phased out of today’s classrooms; the way young students are engaged in science these days doesn’t look at all like it used to. iPads are pervasive in classrooms, and field trips are replaced with webcams.

The new technology has many parents panicking about the quality of their kids’ learning. But they might find comfort in knowing that, despite the shift toward digital devices and computerized instruction, the heart of science communication still hinges on narrative.  That could mean that today’s children receive science information just as effectively as—perhaps even more effectively than— their parents did when they were children. It’s just that they’re probably not receiving as much of that information through reading.

Though disputed, some research suggests that distracted, plugged-in kids today absorb the world differently, that activities requiring undivided attention—like reading—happen less often. A report released earlier this year compared how frequently American kids of different ages spent time reading over the course of several years. In 2006, children ages four through six spent an average of 42 minutes per day reading or being read to; by 2013, average daily reading for a similar cohort—children ages five through eight—had dropped to only 32 minutes per day. Seven out of every 10 13-year-olds in 1984 read once per week or more; in 2012, that number had dropped to roughly five out of every 10 kids that age

Communicating complex scientific information clearly and concisely may sound less important now that Google and Wikipedia are just a few clicks away. But those values are still integral to effective children’s science media; when done right, such media is carefully crafted and executed. Like many other forms of science communication, an ideal children’s science book logically walks students through fundamental information and leads them to the main point. To achieve that, the creator has to make difficult editorial decisions about how much information to include and how in-depth descriptions should be. “When you’re writing about a science subject you have to take a step back and ask yourself, ‘In order for students to comprehend this story or science topic, what background knowledge do I have to make sure they have?’” said Patty Janes, who oversees the math and science publications at Scholastic, which also publishes books for students and lesson plans for teachers. Subjects that require a lot of contextual information, like chemistry, are harder to craft into a good story.

Whether or not reading is a popular pastime among today’s children, other forms of media are increasingly driven by narrative, such as video games, movies, and websites. Narrative is what resonates with students and their parents, said David Dockterman, who teaches at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “Our fundamental draw to find out what happens is part of what makes narrative compelling,” he said. It makes the difference between, say, a student who learns about the digestive system courtesy of Ms. Frizzle’s imaginary class field trip through the mouth and esophagus to the human stomach and one who has to do so by analyzing a textbook diagram or reading a straightforward description. Narrative isn’t a particularly efficient way to transfer information, but at least it helps kids retain it well—and allows them to have some fun while they’re learning.

It would seem, then, that narrative helps draw more people to science, and this is noteworthy particularly as it pertains to groups underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Girls in particular are captivated by stories, including those that involve science. But their tendency toward strong verbal skills means they often pursue careers outside STEM, such as those in communications or the humanities. By integrating STEM and narrative literature, educators hope that more girls will stick in those fields.

Dockterman developed a program called Math 180 (also put out by Scholastic) that’s designed to re-engage teenagers who are lagging several grades behind in math. Science and technology, according to Dockterman, are key to achieving that mission. For example, one video lesson about fractions takes place in the cooking class at Frankford High School in Philadelphia, where students must figure out how much of each ingredient to add in a modified recipe or what size to cut certain vegetables. “Science seems more engaging because it’s applied—it’s real—and math is often not perceived that way,” Dockterman said.

Books and movies can’t always replace hands-on science experiments. But as kids get older, new forms of media can help students better understand abstract scientific concepts. “A lot of chemistry and physics is invisible, so things like apps give kids mental models to better visualize it,” Dockterman said.

Like good teachers and parents, quality science media exposes students to new information without overwhelming them. And the best way for parents and teachers to help kids absorb this new information, according to Dockterman, is by “giving [them] the right mindset.” When equipped with that mindset, kids don’t get discouraged when they try something new that seems hard; they don’t call it quits when learning new material and instead rise to the challenge.

Scholastic’s Janes advises parents and teachers to remember students’ inherent curiosity about the world and to use both digital and traditional forms of media to help them explore it. “I think no matter what direction educational publishing takes, the heart of it will always be the same,” she said. “That’s the solid nonfiction component, getting that good story no matter the medium.”

How the “Billionaire Boys Club” Shaped Education in 2014

How the “Billionaire Boys Club” Shaped Education in 2014

by Matthew Lynch, Ed.D.

In today’s educational landscape there are a lot of players vying for influence over the future of America’s P-20 educational system. Of these players, none have been as influential as the “Billionaire Boys Club.” To be in this club, you have to have a net worth of $1 billion dollars, and be a staunch advocate for P-20 education reform, whether through a foundation, or some other form of activism. I was impressed by the philanthropic acts of this group in 2014 and wanted to take a few minutes to highlight some of their biggest accomplishments this year.

Mark Zuckerberg donated $120 million to San Francisco Public Schools.

This is not the first time that Facebook founder Mark Zukerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan have donated money to public education. In 2010, the couple donated $100 million to schools in Newark, N.J. As part of that deal, then-mayor Cory Booker had to front an additional $100 million in matching funds, sought out through other private donations. The impact of Zuckerberg’s gift will certainly set a precedent for future donations and the principle surrounding them.

Howard Schultz promises a free college education to Starbucks employees.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz announced the company’s plan to provide a free online college education to thousands of its workers, and employees who take advantage of the free education have no obligation to stay with the company. The arrangement with Arizona State University provides the opportunity to any of the 135,000 people employed in the United States who work a minimum of 20 hours weekly and have the ability to gain admission to the school. A barista with two years of college credit will receive full tuition paid and those with less credits will still have part of their college paid for — although for many it will end up free with financial aid.

While many employers offer tuition reimbursement to its employees, it’s usually with strings attached. Typically new employees are exempt or the employees are required to stay with the company for a specified number of years. Starbucks is giving this opportunity to all of its employees from the day they start with the company. They can study anything they would like and leave Starbucks at any time — and of course many will leave knowing they can obtain higher-paying jobs.

Starbucks has offered its employees things that many food and drinks chains do not, such as health insurance for even those who work part-time and giving employees stock options. These perks may contribute to the company’s great success. While the number of employees who will take advantage of the program are unknown, the company states that employee surveys show that many of its employees have stated that they want to earn a degree.

What Starbucks is doing for their employees will change their lives and our country. Bravo to Howard Schultz for giving thousands of people the opportunity to graduate college debt-free and making the world a better place.

Bill Gates gave a $40M grant to Pittsburgh Public Schools.

It’s no secret that Bill Gates’ efforts to improve public education are focused on teacher evaluations. Gates’ gave a $40 million grant to Pittsburgh Public Schools for a project that centers on evaluation systems and performance ranges for teachers. Four percent of the teachers received an unsatisfactory rating in the past year’s evaluation. These teachers will now be on a support plan aimed to promote growth and improvement. Upon receiving a second unsatisfactory grade, the teachers may be fired, although the goal is to not allow teachers to receive a second unsatisfactory rating.

I am pleased to see that an agreement on the evaluation system in Pittsburgh has been made and agreed upon. Bill Gates’ efforts are proving worth it based on other places he has made donations — and hopefully this grant will take the same course.

I know that I didn’t discuss a few members of the club, but it wasn’t a slight. There are only so many hours in a day. So tell me, who did I miss?

Ignoring One of the Big Problems With Charter Schools

Ignoring One of the Big Problems With Charter Schools

By Marian Wang

A top official in the New York State Comptroller’s Office has urged regulators to require more transparency on charter-school finances. The response has been, well, non-existent.

Add another voice to those warning about the lack of financial oversight for charter schools. One of New York state’s top fiscal monitors told ProPublica that audits by his office have found “practices that are questionable at best, illegal at worst” at some charter schools.

Pete Grannis, New York State’s first deputy comptroller, contacted ProPublica after reading our story about how some charter schools have turned over nearly all their public funds and significant control to private, often for-profit firms that handle their day-to-day operations. The arrangements can limit the ability of auditors and charter-school regulators to follow how public money is spent—especially when the firms refuse to divulge financial details when asked.

Such set-ups are a real problem, Grannis said. And the way he sees it, there’s a very simple solution. As a condition for agreeing to approve a new charter school or renew an existing one, charter regulators could require schools and their management companies to agree to provide any and all financial records related to the school.

“Clearly, the need for fiscal oversight of charter schools has intensified,” he wrote in a letter to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. “Put schools on notice that relevant financial records cannot be shielded from oversight bodies of state and local governmental entities.”

It’s a plea that Grannis has made before. Last year, he sent a similar letter to the state’s major charter-school regulators—New York City’s Department of Education, the New York State Education Department, and the State University of New York.

He never heard back from any of them. “No response whatsoever,” Grannis said. Not even, he added, a “‘Thank you for your letter, we’ll look into it.’ That would have been the normal bureaucratic response.”

We contacted all three of these agencies and the mayor’s office for comment. None of them got back to us.

The charter-school debate in New York, as elsewhere, is politically fraught. De Blasio’s cautious stance on charters has put him at odds with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, whose financial backers include some big-dollar charter-school supporters. The state comptroller’s office has faced repeated lawsuits from charter groups and operators challenging its authority to audit charter schools.

To Grannis, though, his efforts aren’t about politics. His office is “agnostic on charters,” as he put it. His office also audits the finances of traditional public-school districts, he pointed out.

“We’re the fiscal monitors. We watch over the use or misuse of public funds,” Grannis said. “This isn’t meant to be anti-charter. Our job is not to be pro or anti.”

Grannis has not yet gotten a response from the mayor’s office about the letter he sent.

As to the charter-school regulators who got his letter the year before? He’s still puzzled why they wouldn’t be more interested in a possible fix, or why the charter regulators never bothered to respond.

“I honestly don’t know,” Grannis said. He said he’s going to send another round of letters to them.

White Americans who don’t finish high school have better job prospects than black Americans who go to college

White Americans who don’t finish high school have better
job prospects than black Americans who go to college

by Sonali Kohli

The Great Recession might be over (in the US, at least) but it has left behind widened racial inequality in unemployment and wealth.

The unemployment rate for white Americans over 25 who had not finished high school was 9.7% in 2013. The unemployment rate for black Americans who went to college but didn’t graduate, meanwhile, was 10.5%. That’s an increase from 2007, before the recession:

This same trend can be seen among recent college graduates. Unemployment for black graduates between the ages of 22 and 27 was at 12.4% in 2013, compared to 5.6% for all college grads in that age range, according to a May report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research (pdf). The number was even lower for white college graduates in the age range—4.9%, the study’s co-author told the New York Times.

That’s a gap of 7.5 percentage points. Compare that to 2007, before the recession, when the gap still existed but was much smaller—1.4 percentage points. Black Americans with college degrees then had a 4.6% unemployment rate, while white Americans with undergraduate degrees were at 3.2%, the Times notes.

The recession doesn’t just affect people coming out of college. The median net worth of white households was 10 times that of black households’ median wealth in 2007, and 13 times the median wealth of black households in 2013, according to a recent Pew report.

Why are white Americans recovering from the recession so much better than black Americans?

The CEPR study points out that the recession made it difficult for all young people to get jobs, and racial prejudices have always skewed the labor market against black applicants in the US—employers are less likely to call back applicants with names that sound African American.

Additionally, black US graduates who do work are more likely to be overqualified than other Americans. Of the recent black college graduates (age 22-27) working in 2013, 55.9% did not require a four-year degree for their jobs, up from 45% in 2007. For all recent college grads, that number has hovered around 44% for the last decade, and was at 45% in 2013, according to the report.

And even black Americans who are wealthy recovered at a lower level than white Americans, at least in part because the two groups invest their money differently. Stocks, which white Americans invest in more so than black Americans, have done well since the recession ended, while black Americans tend to pursue more conservative investments like certificates of deposit, life insurance and savings bonds.

American college students say they would rather study with real books, not laptops

American college students say they would
rather study with real books, not laptops
by Sonali Kohli

Ebooks, tablets and computer-based learning might be pervading elementary and middle schools throughout the US, but college students are still old-school. A Student Monitor survey of about 1,200 students in 100 American colleges in October found that for almost every type of schoolwork, students prefer to use a book rather than a computer.

If you combine all digital preferences (including desktop, smartphone and other digital, not included in the chart), they outnumber print, which could be bad news for text-book publishers, who are trying to find a way to stay relevant. But in everything other than scheduling assignments or research (with so many academic papers online, students don’t seem to feel the need for a library), students would still rather use the paper version, by a large margin, than any other single option.

It’s the smart choice. Some research has shown students are able to focus better using print materials to study, rather than digital media. But that might also be derived from the fact that the current crop of college students doesn’t have much previous experience in learning on screens and tablets, says Jordan Schugar, an assistant professor of English at West Chester University, who has researched the topic. Schugar found, using small samples, that college students who read on Nooks in one study and younger students on iPads in another both saw decreased performance on a test of that material, compared to their performance when reading on print.

As tablets improve and become more like books, simulating the page movement and with better note-taking and annotating ability, Schugar says they could become a more viable option for college students.

Catholic colleges tell poor students: Go somewhere else

Catholic colleges tell poor students: Go somewhere else

By Paul Moses

Catholic institutions among the most expensive to the least wealthy

At Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., officials sometimes bring in low-income applicants and their families for counseling — not to encourage them to come there, but to suggest they consider going somewhere cheaper.

The university needs to spend its financial aid to attract “higher-end students,” said W. Michael Hendricks, vice president for enrollment management — the kind of high-achieving, wealthy students universities typically try to entice because they improve prestige and bolster the bottom line.

Besides, said Hendricks, the school’s Catholic identity makes it hesitant to burden low-income families with debt. “It totally flies in the face of our mission.”

Despite such sentiment, Catholic University charges the highest net price in America for low-income students — that is, the price once discounts and financial aid are taken into account — according to a study by the New America Foundation, based on information reported to the U.S. Department of Education by the institutions themselves.

In fact, at a time of escalating worry over access to higher education for the children of the least affluent Americans, the study found that five of the 10 most expensive private universities for low-income students, and 10 of the top 28, are Catholic.

Some Catholic colleges “seem to have departed from what you would assume the principles of their faith would have compelled them to do,” said Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, a nonprofit organization that advocates for low-income students.

“It’s disturbing that institutions give money in these very difficult times to students who don’t need it,” Haycock said, and “don’t focus their resources on those who absolutely need it the most.”

Colleges that charge the most to poor families, the New America Foundation researchers said, use their financial aid to attract students who come from well-funded suburban high schools and whose comparatively higher entrance examination scores and high-school grades improve the colleges’ standings in rankings.

Officials at some Catholic colleges and universities say that, as a matter of survival, they feel compelled to spread small amounts of financial aid to a large number of students, rather than give more of it to the poor. By making many small grants, they say, they can attract the number of tuition-paying students needed to keep the colleges in business.

It’s a sensitive issue for the nation’s 200-plus Catholic colleges, given that church teaching, grounded in biblical passages, calls for a “preferential option for the poor,” which the U.S. Catholic Conference of Catholic Bishops has interpreted to mean that “poor people have the first claim on limited resources.”

Some Catholic institutions do succeed at keeping down costs for students with family earnings low enough to qualify for federal Pell grants — generally, $30,000 a year or less. But others are charging those students a net price that is equal to two-thirds or more of their families’ entire annual incomes.

At Catholic University, for example, the poorest students pay an average annual net price of $30,770. Philadelphia-based Saint Joseph’s University charges its poorest students $30,503; Saint Louis University, $23,882; the University of Dayton, $21,520; and Loyola University Maryland, $20,672.

These schools also enroll low percentages of poor students. Only between 13 and 15 percent of the students they enroll come from families with incomes low enough to qualify for Pell grants.

Five other Catholic colleges and universities, however, are among the 10 private colleges at the other end of the spectrum, providing a lower-cost education to comparatively high proportions of Pell students.

Saint Thomas University in Miami, for example, has an average net price of $8,072 for its lowest-income students, who make up more than half of its enrollment. Others with high proportions of low-income students and low net prices are Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College and Calumet College of Saint Joseph in Indiana, Holy Names University in Oakland, and Saint Francis College in Brooklyn.

“Some Catholic colleges are able to place a high priority on meeting the needs of very low-income families. Others have limited resources, making it more difficult to address those financial needs,” said Michael Galligan-Stierle, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.

“While embracing their faith tradition, our institutions still must contend with the realities of education costs that are true of any college or university in the United States,” Galligan-Stierle said.

In fact, some of the Catholic colleges that charge the most have robust wealth in the form of their endowments. Saint Louis University has a $956 million endowment; the University of Dayton, $442 million; Catholic University, $264 million; Saint Joseph’s, $193 million; and Loyola of Maryland, $177 million, the National Association of College and University Business Officers reports. Among the other Catholic universities with high net prices for low-income students, Villanova University has an endowment of $419 million and Notre Dame, $6.9 billion.

Gerald Beyer, a theology professor at Villanova, thinks high-cost Catholic colleges should try harder.

While many American non-Catholic private universities have adopted a “preferential option for the rich,” Beyer argues that too many Catholic colleges echo those institutions’ denial of access to the poor. “By the very nature of their mission, Catholic universities must fight against this trend,” Beyer said.

He points to an overlooked passage from Pope John Paul II’s 1990 document Ex Corde Ecclesiae, which says that Catholic universities should seek “to make university education accessible to all those who are able to benefit from it, especially the poor or members of minority groups who customarily have been deprived of it.”

Beyer said that any Catholic university with a low proportion of poor students or high net costs for those students “needs to re-examine its financial aid and admissions policies in light of the option for the poor.”

Jesuit Catholic colleges and universities in particular stress principles of social justice, but three of the order’s universities rank high on the list of colleges that accept few Pell students and leave them with high net costs: Saint Joseph’s University, Saint Louis University, and Loyola University Maryland.

Saint Joseph’s spokesman Joseph Lunardi said the school takes the issue seriously. At an October meeting, he said, trustees discussed its comparatively low proportion of Pell students, asking whether the university is “losing ground in their mission.”

Lunardi added that the proportion of Pell students would be higher if 1,000 part-time students were included, since 40 to 50 percent of them are low-income, and that the net-price figures collected by the federal government and used in the report include only students who receive federal financial aid, not all students.

Saint Louis University and Loyola-Maryland declined to comment.

The University of Dayton, which is affiliated with the Marianist order, said that, since the 2011-12 academic year covered by the New America study, it has instituted a four-year guarantee that students’ net price won’t increase and has taken other steps that are beginning to result in the admission of more Pell students and less student debt.

Of all the nation’s colleges, Catholic University is most closely identified with the institutional church. Its bylaws require that 18 of its 48 trustees be bishops. An annual collection in parishes across the country raises about $5 million for the university, which goes for scholarships issued through participating parishes.

Hendricks, the enrollment manager, said the school is “always struggling” with the moral implications of admission practices. “At Catholic schools in particular, we like to stay need-blind,” he said, referring to a waning practice under which universities accept applicants regardless of their ability to pay. “That’s our mission. It’s getting more and more expensive to do that.”