First-Generation College-Goers: Unprepared and Behind

First-Generation College-Goers: Unprepared and Behind

by Liz Riggs

Kids who are the first in their families to brave the world of higher education come on campus with little academic know-how and are much more likely than their peers to drop out before graduation.

When Nijay Williams entered college last fall as a first-generation student and Jamaican immigrant, he was—despite being admitted to the school—academically unprepared for the rigors of higher education. Like many first-generation students, he enrolled in a medium-sized state university many of his high school peers were also attending, received a Pell grant, and took out some small federal loans to cover other costs. Given the high price of room and board and the proximity of the school to his family, he opted to live at home and worked between 30 and 40 hours a week while taking a full class schedule.

What Nijay didn’t realize about his school—Tennessee State University—was its frighteningly low graduation rate: a mere 29 percent for its first-generation students. At the end of his first year, Nijay lost his Pell Grant of over $5,000 after narrowly missing the 2.0 GPA cut-off, making it impossible for him to continue paying for school.

“I wanted two degrees; that’s what I saw myself doing,” he said. “My mom stopped school in the ninth grade; my dad stopped in the fourth grade … It makes it harder for me, [and] most of the people I graduated with are not in college, but that’s what I see myself doing; I want to go to college. I just want to have a degree.”

“It bothers me every day that I’m not in school—every day,” he said. He is currently working multiple jobs and trying to enroll in a community college nearby.

Nijay represents a large and growing group of Americans: first-generation college students who enter school unprepared or behind. To make matters worse, these schools are ill-equipped to graduate these students—young adults who face specific challenges and obstacles. They typically carry financial burdens that outweigh those of their peers, are more likely to work while attending school, and often require significant academic remediation.

Just 11 percent of low-income students who are the first in their family to attend college will have a college degree within six years of enrolling in school. This stems from many issues. Students from low-income backgrounds often attend high schools without rigorous college-prep tracks, meaning their access to good information on higher education may be inadequate. Many of them are also significantly behind academically, which stymies them from applying or being accepted to certain schools. And to make matters worse, thousands of colleges across the country lack resources or programs earmarked for low-income or first generation students. That means that, while many schools enroll these students, few are equipped to actually graduate them.

Matt Rubinoff directs I’m First, a nonprofit launched last October to reach out to this specific population of students. He hopes to distribute this information and help prospective college-goers find the best post-secondary fit. And while Rubinoff believes there are a good number of four-year schools that truly care about these students and set aside significant resources and programs for them, he says that number isn’t high enough.

“It’s not only the selective and elite institutions that provide those opportunities for a small subset of this population,” he said, adding that a majority of first-generation undergraduates tend toward options such as online programs, two-year colleges, and commuter state schools. “Unfortunately, there tends to be a lack of information and support to help students think bigger and broader.”

Despite this conundrum, many students are still drawn to these institutions—and two-year schools in particular. Anecdotally, as a former high school teacher, I saw students choose familiar, cheaper options year after year. In lieu of skipping out on higher education altogether, they opted for community colleges or state schools with low bars for admittance.

“They underestimate themselves when selecting a university,” said Dave Jarrat, a marketing executive for Inside Track, a for-profit organization that specializes in coaching low-income students and supporting colleges in order to help students thrive. “The reality of it is that a lot of low-income kids could be going to elite universities on a full ride and don’t even realize it.”

“[Many students] are coming from a situation where no one around them has the experience of successfully completing higher ed, so they’re coming in questioning themselves and [their] college worthiness,” Jarrat continued. That helps explain why, as I’m First’s Rubinoff indicated, the schools to which these students end up resorting can end up being some of the poorest matches for them. The University of Tennessee in Knoxville offers one example of this dilemma. A flagship university in the South, the school graduates just 16 percent of its first-generation students, despite its overall graduation rate of 71 percent. Located only a few hours apart, The University of Tennessee and Tennessee State are worth comparing. Tennessee State’s overall graduation rate is a meager 39 percent, but at least it has a smaller gap between the outcomes for first-generation students and those of their peers.

Still, the University of Tennessee deserves credit for being transparent. Many large institutions keep this kind of data secret—or at least make it incredibly difficult to find. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for instance, admits only that the graduation rate for its first-generation pupils is “much lower” than its the percentage of all students who graduate within four years (81 percent).

It’s actually quite difficult to find reliable statistics on the issue for many schools. Higher education institutions are, under federal law, required to report graduation rates,  but these reports typically only include Pell recipient numbers—not necessarily rates specific to first-graduation students. Other initiatives fail to break down the data, too. Imagine how intimidating it can be for prospective students unfamiliar with the complexities of higher education to navigate this kind of information and then identify which schools are the best fit.

It was this dearth of information that prompted the launch of I’m First in 2013, originally as an arm of its umbrella organization, the Center For Student Opportunity. “If we can help to direct students to more of these types of campuses and help [students] to understand them to be realistic and accessible places, have them apply to these schools at greater frequency and ultimately get in and enroll, we’re going to … raise the batting average,” Rubinoff said, citing a variety of colleges ranging from large state institutions to smaller private schools.

Chelsea Jones, who now directs student programming at I’m First, was a first-generation college student at Howard. Like other students new to the intimidating higher-education world, she often struggled on her path to college. “There wasn’t really a college bound culture [at my high school,” she said. “I wanted to go to college but I didn’t really know the process.” Jones became involved with a college-access program through Princeton University in high school. Now, she attributes much of her understanding of college to that: “[But] once I got to campus, it was a completely different ball game that no one really prepared me for.”

She was fortunate, though. Howard, a well-regarded historically black college, had an array of resources for its first-generation students, including matching kids with counselors, connecting first-generation students to one another, and TRIO, a national program that supported 200 students on Howard’s campus. Still, Jones represents a small percentage of first-generation students who are able to gain entry into more elite universities, which are often known for robust financial aid packages and remarkably high graduation rates for first-generation students. (Harvard, for example, boasts a six-year graduation rate for underrepresented minority groups of 98 percent.)

Christian Vazquez, a first-generation Yale graduate, is another exception, his success story setting him far apart from students such as Nijay. “There’s a lot of support at Yale, to an extent, after a while, there’s too much support,” he said, half-joking about the myriad resources available at the school. Students are placed in small cohorts with counselors (trained seniors on campus); they have access to cultural and ethnic affinity groups, tutoring centers and also have a summer orientation specifically for first-generation students (the latter being one of the most common programs for students).

“Our support structure was more like: ‘You are going to get through Yale; you are going to do well,'” he said, hinting at mentors, staff, and professors who all provided significant support for students who lacked confidence about “belonging” at such a high-caliber institution.

LaTrya Gordon, a sophomore at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, attributes much of her success not only to the Bridges To Belmont program for first-generation students, but also to a mentor who has been able to impart wisdom and belief in her. This has been paramount to her success.

“[My mentor] really, really cares, she’s not doing this because it’s her job; she’s doing it because she really cares about me,” LaTrya Gordon said. She works with a Kipp Through College mentor, a college access and persistence initiative through the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) charter school network. “And that’s what I love the most … it’s not like they get you to college and then they leave you.”

Despite her scholarship, Gordon says she “felt cheated” when she got to Belmont, realizing how far behind she was academically. She also struggled with the typical social and cultural adjustments faced by many college newcomers. Being black in a predominantly white school didn’t help, either.

“You see that, you can’t ignore it,” she said, emphasizing that she is still “very grateful” for her scholarship.

Still, by sticking in school and committing to graduation, these students are in many ways in the minority. Many students, like Nijay, unfortunately miss out on scant resources meant to help boost their success, ultimately making the path to college—and college itself—even more daunting.

“I wish there had been a college class that was required in high school, so you could know what to expect in college and what you’re going to be going through,” Williams said. He wanted more support, and “somebody that actually cared, somebody to see me through.”

Personality Matters More Than Intelligence at School

Personality Matters More Than Intelligence at School

By Melissa Dahl

According to a new review of the link between personality and academic achievement, personality is a better way to predict success at school than intelligence as it’s usually measured, by traditional standardized tests. Arthur Poropat, of Griffith University in Australia, compared measurements of what psychologists call the “big five” personality traits — openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism — to academic scores, and found that the students who were rated higher in openness and conscientiousness tended to receive better grades.

“In practical terms, the amount of effort students are prepared to put in, and where that effort is focused, is at least as important as whether the students are smart,” Poropat said in the release accompanying the paper, which was published in Learning and Individual Differences. “And a student with the most helpful personality will score a full grade higher than an average student in this regard.”

More on the findings, from the release:

In Dr. Poropat’s research, a student’s assessment of their own personality is as useful for predicting university success as intelligence rankings. However, when people who know the student well provide the personality rating, it is nearly four times more accurate for predicting grades.

It makes intuitive sense that both conscientiousness and openness would result in higher grades; it doesn’t really matter how smart you are if you can’t manage to turn your homework in on time, for one. And another word for openness is curiosity, another obviously necessary factor in learning. Still, it’s an interesting way to think about academic achievement for anyone who grew up believing they did well in school simply because they were “smart.”

Over-testing our kids is not the answer — it’s the problem

Over-testing our kids is not the answer — it’s the problem

by Anya Kamenetz

In the era of No Child Left Behind and Common Core,
we’ve forgotten about the learning and development that matter

“I’m writing a book about school testing.”

 “Thank goodness. It’s about time.”

That’s the conversation I’ve been having again and again recently. As an education writer for the past twelve years and as a parent talking to other parents, I’ve seen how high-stakes standardized tests are stunting children’s spirits, adding stress to family life, demoralizing teachers, undermining schools, paralyzing the education debate, and gutting our country’s future competitiveness.

The way much of school is organized around these tests makes little sense for young humans developmentally. Nor does it square with what the world needs.

My husband edited together a two-minute time-lapse video of our daughter learning, over several months, to walk: standing up on wobbly legs, waving her hands with a “Woop!” crashing back down on her rear end, toddling a few steps into our outstretched arms, and, finally, crossing a room. It’s pretty irresistible, if I do say so myself.

Parenting my daughter in the first years of her life has been a master class on human development. She is so driven to explore her environment and to express herself, to communicate with, please, and sometimes resist the people around her. She doesn’t just walk—she walks toward something. She doesn’t just speak—she speaks to someone. Mental, physical, emotional, and social milestones are all intertwined.

In the first year or four, children are hardly ever bored, unless they’re hemmed in by “Nos.” They stay in the proverbial state of flow, right on the edge of their abilities. Provided they get the emotional refueling they need to feel secure, they are always reaching for the next milestone, stumbling, teetering, and getting up again.

All the experts are constantly reminding parents that infants develop on their own timetables. The overall trajectory of growth and progress is more important than any particular snapshot in time. Furthermore, early learning is as much about creative expression and social engagement as it is about parroting any memorized patterns, like letters or numbers. Good preschools are little Paris salons—full of art, music, movement, rivalries, friendships, love, and, above all, imagination. They are also highly concerned with the practical matters of life, such as the use of forks, buttons, faucets. Folding laundry and washing dishes can be just as absorbing for toddlers as reading books and singing songs.

Yet just a few years later, when kids enter school, we start to limit our consideration of learning and development to a single hand-eye-brain circuit, forgetting the rest of the body, mind, and soul. It’s math and reading skills, history and science facts that kids are tested and graded on. Emotional, social, moral, spiritual, creative, and physical development all become marginal, extracurricular, or remedial pursuits. And we suddenly expect children to start developing skills on a predetermined timetable, one that is now basically legislated on a federal level. This is what is called rigor and high expectations. But it’s woefully out of date.

Still, as a parent, I have to admit that if you give my daughter a test—any test—I want her to score off the charts. Tests seductively promise to reveal the essential, hidden nature of identity and destiny. Everyone wants to see good numbers.

This is a book about reconciling that dilemma. If you can’t manage what you don’t measure, as the business maxim goes, how do we measure the right things so we can manage the right things? How do we preserve space for individual exploration while also asking our children to hit a high score? Is there any way to channel the collective thirst for metrics and data into efforts that actually make our schools and our communities healthier and our children more successful?

The modern era of high-stakes standardized testing kicked into gear at the turn of the twenty-first century, with federal No Child Left Behind legislation mandating annual math and reading tests for public school children beginning in third grade. It has not been a golden age. Standardized testing has risen from troubling beginnings to become a $2 billion industry controlled by a handful of companies and backed by some of the world’s wealthiest men and women.

The near-universally despised bubble tests are now being used to decide the fates of not only individual students but also their teachers, schools, districts, and entire state education systems—even though these tests have little validity when applied this way.

Attaching high stakes to the outcomes of individual tests is an error that economists call “Goodhart’s law” and psychologists call “Campbell’s Law.” This has been stated most simply as: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”

If you give people a single number to hit, they will work toward that number to the detriment of all other dimensions of success. The more you turn up the pressure to hit that number, the worse the distortion and corruption gets.

A recent example of Goodhart’s law is the 2008 case of thousands of pounds of Chinese infant formula and milk powder adulterated with toxic melamine. Why would you add something like this to food in the first place? Melamine is a nitrogen-based industrial compound. Dairy products are tested for their protein content to ensure good nutritional quality. But most tests of the level of protein in food actually just check for the element nitrogen, as protein is the only wholesome source of nitrogen in food. So adding melamine powder to a food raises its apparent nutritional value. The food inspectors asked for a simple number—How much nitrogen is in this?—in place of a more complicated value—Is this a healthy food? And they got what they asked for.

In a 1976 paper, multidisciplinary social scientist Donald Campbell cited educational testing as a case of Goodhart’s law. “Achievement tests may well be valuable indicators of general school achievement under conditions of normal teaching aimed at general competence,” he wrote. “But when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways.”

That undesirable distortion is exactly what is happening today.

The stakes for the state tests currently given annually in public schools are enormous. They determine eligibility for grade promotion and graduation. This shuts out large numbers of minorities, the poor, English language learners, and the learning disabled. They double as performance metrics for teachers, who are being denied tenure and even fired based on their students’ scores. Schools that fail to meet test score targets are sanctioned, lose their leadership, or close; districts and states must give the tests and follow the rules or else lose billions of dollars in federal education aid.

These are only the most obvious, direct effects of testing. The indirect effects of judging our schools with these numbers ripple outward through society.

The Two-Income Trap was a best-selling book cowritten by Elizabeth Warren, now a senator from Massachusetts, with her daughter, Amelia Warren Tyagi. It was published four years before the mortgage crisis.

As Jill Lepore summarized in the New Yorker: “With two wage earners and low down payments, middle-class families took on bigger mortgages and contributed to an increase in the cost of housing, especially when families with children paid a premium for property in school districts with high test scores”—test scores that were newly available in the early 2000s thanks to No Child Left Behind and published in many districts.

The feedback loop is closed when rising real estate values result in higher property taxes, meaning even more money flows to the schools that post the best scores.

In the book Warren advocates a universal public voucher system to neutralize the unequal effects of local property taxes on school funding, a position she’s since revised.

Of course there were many factors that contributed to the so-called Great Recession, but a lot of them, like this one, seem to trace back to an overreliance on numbers at the expense of good sense and heedless of the broader social implications.

In any case, the high-stakes madness is going to get worse before it gets better.

In 2015 the phase-in of the Common Core State Standards in forty-two states brings with it new, more difficult, and longer mandatory tests to nearly every classroom in the nation, up to five times a year. Scores are projected to drop sharply—the “Common Core Cliff”— and even more kids, teachers, and schools will be labeled failures as a result.


The test obsession is making public schools, where nine out of ten American children are enrolled, into unhappy places. Benchmark, practice, field, and diagnostic exams are raising the total number of standardized tests up to thirty-three per year in some districts. Physical education, art, foreign languages, and other vital subjects are going on the block in favor of more drilling on core tested subjects. In one Florida high school a student reported that her brand-new computer lab was in use 124 days out of the 180-day school year for testing and test prep.

Like so many other Gen X and Gen Y parents, I’m committed to sending my daughter to a public school, both because private school would be a financial stretch for our family and because I have a strong personal belief in public schools as the building block of democracy. But I can’t ignore what I’ve been hearing.

Parents are sending kids to public schools with high test scores and great reputations, only to come up against an unyielding rigidity that I trace directly back to The Tests. In poorer districts, teaching to the test is even more likely to replace the other activities that students desperately need.

The charter schools that are supposed to provide educational choice are captive to data-driven decision making that results in even more test score obsession to please lawmakers and private donors with good-looking figures.

I’ve heard from parents whose kindergartner was shy at first, so she got placed in the slow reading group. Or everything was fine until third grade, the first testing year, and then their son started getting stomachaches every night. Or their twins, who were reading grade levels ahead of the rest of the class, wanted to bring in their own books, and the teacher said no. Or their daughter is a great reader who overthinks the answers on multiple-choice questions. Or their son loves math but is frustrated by the long word problems with written explanations used to satisfy the Common Core State Standards.

Whatever subject the kid hates the most, “targeted interventions” on that subject grow to take over all of school. Instead of customizing learning to each student, standardization dictates one best way. In the end it seems pretty much everyone gets left out.


Here’s what’s so insidious about this test creep. It’s something I didn’t realize before I had my daughter: it’s not just the child who takes the tests. I can tell you all day that I want my kid to be a natural learner, immersed in her passions, following her bliss, unfolding like a flower just at her own pace, but don’t I know the exact day, week, and month when she said her first word? Don’t my husband and I keep a Google doc tally of all of her milestones? Don’t we use the G word—genius—unironically, several times a day, to label a child who’s barely potty trained?

Rationally, I know how crazy this obsession with metrics and data is, how counterproductive. I could talk to you all day about developmental variations and multiple intelligences and student-driven learning. But I think it’s a natural human instinct, brought to excess by the anxious times we live in, that just wants my daughter to be the winner, even when I know winning is beside the point, even when I know it would be good for her to lose sometimes. I know I’m not the only parent out there with these tiger tendencies. And I know this tension has got to be resolved somehow if we are to move forward.

As the mother of a preschooler, my highest priority is to protect her innate resilience, curiosity, and joy. One huge threat to that is sixteen years of high-stakes, high-pressure, highly regimented schooling and testing. I wrote this book to give you and me the tools to build a shield.

The Test is a tour of our test-obsessed culture. Part 1 is “The Problem.” We’ll look at the troubling history of standardized testing and the mystery of human intelligence: What is it, exactly, and does it really exist? Then we’ll continue into the Cold War birth of today’s testing mania and the toll it is taking across our education system.

The second half of the book is “The Solutions.” I visit the schools, labs, and other sites where educators and innovators are moving beyond the limitations and distortions of today’s high-stakes standardized tests. What if evaluation and feedback could be an integral, joyful part of the learning process? What if the data schools collect actually served our communities? This book has a positive vision for accountability that really works.

In the last chapter I’ll give you an actionable set of strategies borrowed from fields like games, neuroscience, social psychology, and ancient philosophy to help children do as well as they can on tests and, more important, to use the experience of test taking to do better in life.

I use a simple acronym, TEST, to remember these win-win strategies.

Manage the Test: Realize what the tests are for and how they work, and come up with a strategy to take them well.

Manage Emotions and Energy: Emotional intelligence and the mind-body connection can be cultivated for optimal performance in school and in life.

Manage Self-Motivation: Successful children set their own goalposts instead of abiding by external marks. Motivation and effort matter most. For these the child has to take the lead.

Manage your Tone: Instead of focusing on preparing your child, focus on your own attitude and the messages you’re sending as a parent.


While we subject our offspring to endless measurement, what is really being tested? It’s our values as parents—the kind of kids we want to raise and the kind of society we want to have. The testing obsession is damaging our education system. It is damaging our children. But our society is locked into a testing arms race. The parents who have the most time, energy, and resources are afraid to stop playing the testing game for fear their children will be left behind. The schools that serve the children with the fewest resources are even more determined to push them toward standardized test performances that can somehow make up for everything else they lack.

Some parents will read this book and decide not to subject their kids to any more tests. Some will find ways to make the testing experience better. Some, I hope, will be inspired to work toward a collective solution. Whatever you choose, as parents we can—we must—transform our families’ relationships to these tests.

How do we keep our own parental anxieties in check to build corresponding resilience and calm in our children?

How do we let our children be who they are while also motivating them to be the best they can be?

How do we build a world where every child is challenged to achieve her own personal best?

The answer is not multiple choice.

Exposing the Charter School Lie

Exposing the charter school lie: Michelle Rhee,
Louis C.K. and the year phony education reform
revealed its true colors

by Jeff Bryant

Charter schools promised new education innovations.
Instead, they produced scam after new scam

Since it’s the time of the year when newspapers, websites and television talk shows scan their archives to pick the person, place or thing that sums up the year in entertainment, business, sports or every other venue, why not do that for education too?

In 2014 education news, lots of personalities came and went.

Michelle Rhee gave way to Campbell Brown as a torchbearer for “reform.” The comedian Louis C. K. had a turn at becoming an education wonk with his commentary on the Common Core standards. Numerous “Chiefs for Change” toppled from the ranks of chiefdom. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett went down in defeat due in part to his gutting of public schools, as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker remained resilient while spreading the cancerous voucher program from Milwaukee to the rest of the state.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio rose to turn back the failed education reforms of ex-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, only to have his populist agenda blocked by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo who insisted on imposing policies favored by Wall Street. Progressives formed Democrats for Public Education to counter the neoliberal, big money clout of Democrats for Education Reform. And Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush emerged as rival voices in the ongoing debate about the Common Core among potential Republican presidential candidates.

But hogging the camera throughout the year was another notable character: charter school scandals.

In 2014, charter schools, which had always been marketed for a legendary ability to deliver promising new innovations for education, became known primarily for their ability to concoct innovative new scams.

From Local Stories to National Scandal

Troubling news stories about the financial workings of charter schools had been leaking slowly into the media stream for some years.

A story that appeared at Forbes in late 2013 foretold a lot of what would emerge in 2014. That post “Charter School Gravy Train Runs Express to Fat City” brought to light for the first time in a mainstream source the financial rewards that were being mined from charter schools. As author Addison Wiggin explained, a mixture of tax incentives, government programs and Wall Street investors eager to make money were coming together to deliver a charter school bonanza – especially if the charter operation could “escape scrutiny” behind the veil of being privately held or if the charter operation could mix its business in “with other ventures that have nothing to do with education.”

As 2014 began, more stories about charter schools scandals continued to drip out from local press outlets – a chain of charter schools teaching creationism, a charter school closing abruptly for mysterious reasons, a charter high school operating as a for-profit “basketball factory,” recruiting players from around the world while delivering a sub-par education.

Here and there, stories emerged: a charter school trying to open up inside the walls of a gated community while a closed one continued to get more than $2 million in taxpayer funds. Stories about charter operators being found guilty of embezzling thousands of taxpayer dollars turned into other stories about operators stealing even more thousands of dollars, which turned into even more stories about operators stealing over a million dollars.

While some charter schools schemed to steer huge percentages of their money away from instruction toward management salaries and property leases (to firms connected to the charter owners, of course), others worked the system to make sure fewer students with special needs were in their classrooms.

Then the steady drip-drip from local news sources turned into a fire hose in May when a blockbuster report released by Integrity in Education and the Center for Popular Democracy revealed, “Fraudulent charter operators in 15 states are responsible for losing, misusing, or wasting over $100 million in taxpayer money.”

The report, “Charter School Vulnerabilities to Waste, Fraud And Abuse,” combed through news stories, criminal records and other documents to find hundreds of cases of charter school operators embezzling funds, using tax dollars to illegally support other, non-educational businesses, taking public dollars for services they didn’t provide, inflating their enrollment numbers to boost revenues, and putting children in potential danger by forgoing safety regulations or withholding services.

The report made charter school scandals a nationwide story and received in-depth coverage at Salon, “Bill Moyers and Company,” the Washington Post and the Nation.

A Summer of Scams

Charter schools scandals continued to break throughout the summer.

In Ohio, report after report continued to reveal how popular charter school chains like White Hat Management had sky-high dropout rates while they poured public money into advertising campaigns and executive pay.

In Pennsylvania, a report found exorbitant costs associated with charter school operations and lavish CEO salaries and bonuses for charter school operators despite vastly underperforming the state’s traditional public schools. Another report revealed how Pennsylvania charters had gamed the system for special education funding, resulting in annual profits of $200 million to the schools.

In Michigan, a series by the Detroit Free Press found charter schools with “wasteful spending and double-dipping. Board members, school founders and employees steering lucrative deals to themselves or insiders. Schools allowed to operate for years despite poor academic records.”

In Florida, an investigation by the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel found, “Unchecked charter-school operators are exploiting South Florida’s public school system, collecting taxpayer dollars for schools that quickly shut down.”

Another Florida local news outlet investigating charter school operations found millions of taxpayer dollars misdirected from classrooms and students to management companies. The report pointed to charter school chain Charter Schools USA that uses tax-exempt bonds to build schools that it then rents to UCSA-affiliated schools. Then the CUSA schools are saddled with rent payments back to CUSA and its management company at rates considerably higher than those charged to other non-CUSA schools in the area.

Still more news stories came out about charter schools related to the largest bricks-and-mortar charter-school chain in the United States run by the secretive Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, who lives in exile from Turkey in rural Pennsylvania. The Chicago Sun-Times reported that Chicago-area Concept Schools, part of the Gulen charter chain, were subjects of an ongoing federal investigation. The enquiry is about nearly $1 million that has been paid to contractors all with ties to the Gülen network.

Articles from the Washington Post found District of Columbia charter school operators evading rules to pocket millions in taxpayer dollars and charter schools pumping public money into for-profit management companies.

A report in the Arizona Republic found board members and administrators from more than a dozen charter schools “profiting from their affiliations by doing business with schools they oversee.”

The rash of summer charter scandal stories resonated in news outlets across the country.

Then to cap off the summer of charter scandals, the Progressive reported an upsurge in FBI raids on charter schools all over the country. “From Pittsburgh to Baton Rouge, from Hartford to Cincinnati to Albuquerque, FBI agents have been busting into schools, carting off documents, and making arrests leading to high-profile indictments.”

Reporter Ruth Conniff found charter schools allegations range from “taking money that was meant for the classroom,” to spending taxpayer dollars on “luxuries such as fine-dining and retreats at exclusive resorts and spas,” to engaging in “bribes and kickbacks.”

Back to Schools for Scandal

As back-to-school season rolled out, charter schools scandals broke harder and heavier.

The Center for Popular Democracy, Integrity in Education and ACTION United published a continuation of their charter schools study with a new report that disclosed charter school officials in Pennsylvania had defrauded at least $30 million intended for schoolchildren since 1997.

Startling examples of charter school financial malfeasance revealed by the authors included an administrator who diverted $2.6 million in school funds to a church property he also operated. Another charter school chief was caught spending millions in school funds to bail out other nonprofits associated with the school. A pair of charter school operators stole more than $900,000 from the school by using fraudulent invoices, and a cyberschool entrepreneur diverted $8 million of school funds for houses, a Florida condominium and an airplane.

Then, in November, the Center for Popular Democracy, with the Alliance for Quality Education, submitted yet another continuation of its analysis of charter school financial fraud, this time finding as much as $54 million in suspected charter school fraud in New York state.

Specific examples from the report included a New York City charter that issued credit cards to its executives allowing them to charge more than $75,000 in less than two years, a Long Island charter that paid vendors over half a million dollars without competitive bids, an Albany charter that lost between $207,000 to $2.3 million by purchasing a site for its elementary school rather than leasing it, a Rochester charter that awarded contracts to board members, relatives and other related parties rather than get competitive bids, and a Buffalo charter with a leasing arrangement that paid more than $5 million to a building company at a 20 percent interest rate.

A write-up of the report in the New York Daily News noted CPD “investigators uncovered probable financial mismanagement in 95 percent of the [charter] schools they examined.”

More recently, a widely circulated report from progressive news outlet ProPublica revealed how charter schools increasingly use arrangements known as “sweeps” contracts to send nearly all of a school’s public dollars – anywhere from 95 to 100 percent — into for-profit charter-management companies.

Reporter Marian Wang wrote, “The contracts are an example of how the charter schools sometimes cede control of public dollars to private companies that have no legal obligation to act in the best interests of the schools or taxpayers … it can be hard for regulators and even schools themselves to follow the money when nearly all of it goes into the accounts of a private company.”

The New Face of Charter Schools

In their defense, charter school advocates object to the negative portrayals of their operations by claiming the reports cherry-pick bad actors from the broad population of charters. But this year’s avalanche of malfeasance should dispel any argument about cherry-picking.

For sure there are examples of charter schools that are doing an excellent job of educating students. But rapid growth in the industry continues to come from charter operators who are not willing to run their operations like these successful charters because it doesn’t suit their “business model.”

Further, would a public school advocate defend public schools by countering, “But look at this good one over here”? They would be mocked and derided by charter school proponents.

Advocates for charter schools also defend the explosion in charter schools scandals by pointing to scandals in a public school and contending, “Look, they do it too.” Indeed, there are instances of financial and other types of scandals in public schools. That’s why they are heavily regulated. Yet charter school backers continue to fight regulations, contribute big money to political candidates who promise a hands-off approach to their schools, and use powerful lobbying firms to coerce legislators to continue unregulated charter governance.

Charter school defenders also argue that these widespread scandals will be remedied by the “market” – that the inevitable “bad” charters will get closed while only the “good” ones remain. It’s true that charter school closures are becoming more commonplace, but charter operators often resist closures – even calling on parents to rally to their cause and appeal to local authorities. Charter schools that close abruptly leave schoolchildren and families in the lurch and severely interrupt the students’ learning. Operators of closed charters often flee the scene to practice their malfeasance elsewhere, taking with them the supplies and materials they obtained at taxpayer expense. Meanwhile, enormous sums of precious public money are wasted – with no apparent education benefit – all for the sake of this “market churn.”

As a result of the flood of charter schools scandals, public attitudes about these schools are bound to change.

Surveys show the public generally doesn’t get what charter schools are and don’t understand whether they are private or public or whether they can charge fees or teach religion. Charter operators themselves have muddled their image by arguing successfully in numerous confrontations with legal authorities that “they are exempt from rules that govern traditional public schools, ranging from labor laws to constitutional protections for students.”

But a recent poll in Michigan, a state where rampant charter fraud has been well publicized, found that 73 percent of responders say they want a moratorium on the creation of new charter schools. In many communities, announcements about new charter operations opening up have been greeted with outspoken public protests as we’ve seen in in Nashville; York, Pennsylvania; and Camden, New Jersey.

Forecasts about what 2015 will bring to the education landscape frequently foresee more charter schools as charter-friendly lawmakers continue to act witlessly to proliferate these schools. But make no mistake, the charter school scandals of 2014 forever altered the narrative about what these institutions really bring to the populace.

South Korea’s Celebrity Teachers Make Millions and Flirt With Fame

South Korea’s Celebrity Teachers Make Millions and Flirt With Fame

By Jolene Latimer

Teaching might sound like a modest career to some, but in South Korea teachers who play their cards right take home millions.

Some South Korean teachers have brand endorsements, others stylists, and some recruit the country’s leading pop stars to help them with lessons. One teacher says he pockets $8 million a year. How do they do it?

These aren’t your regular teachers. In fact, these teachers aren’t even employed by schools. They’re celebrity teachers, each with their own brand.

Screen Shot 2015-01-02 at 1.40.11 PM
Photo: The Washington Post/Shin Woong-jae

Because South Korea’s educational climate is so competitive, students often double their study efforts after they get out of school in the afternoons. Most students pay to attend private after-school “cram schools” called hagwons, which focus on getting students ready for South Korea’s college entrance exams. A hagwon can cost upwards of $600 for a 20-week session, although online hagwons are more reasonably priced at about $49.

In this popular private sector, teaching turns lucrative. Hagwons have developed into a $20 billion industry.

Math teacher Cha Kil-yong is one of these teaching sensations. He has 300,000 students registered in his online class, SevenEdu, at a time. He gives students tips for solving problems more efficiently, on top of showing them a few tricks for excelling on exams.

South Korean pop group "Brown Eyed Girls" join Cha Kil-yong to record a video "Dream Higher" for students preparing for the SAT. (Photo: SevenEdu)
South Korean pop group “Brown Eyed Girls” join Cha Kil-yong to record a video, “Fly Higher,” for students preparing for the SAT. (Photo: SevenEdu)

When asked about his work by The Washington PostCha explained: “You’re not only teaching a subject, you also have to be a multitalented entertainer.”

He has certainly taken that mantra to heart. He recently released a YouTube video about the SATs with an A-list Korean actress to bring attention and fun to his classroom and material.

Because of the money flowing in for these private teachers, they sink a lot of time into developing methods to compete against each other and win the minds of students. This is, ostensibly, a value passed down to students who benefit from cutting-edge, risk-taking teachers.

Certainly, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development regularly ranks South Korean students among the highest in the world in math, reading and science. However, despite this high performance, South Korean students lead the world in a different category: students who aren’t interested in or satisfied with school. Not only that, but South Korea has the highest suicide rate in the industrialized world. No research has conclusively linked the pressure-filled education system to this data, but the government is starting to take notice.

An interview about "The Dream Project" by SevenEdu. (Photo: SevenEdu)
An interview about “The Dream Project” by SevenEdu. (Photo: SevenEdu)

Hagwons are now required by law to close at 10:00pm. And the President is aiming to promote a “creative economy,” which would eventually mean putting less weight on standardized testing when considering individuals for jobs and school, and more on extracurricular activities, portfolios, and leadership skills — something many Western nations already do.

Though change may be on the horizon for South Korea, for now the nation’s hagwon teachers are enjoying their moment. They’re celebrities in their own right, with fan clubs and bank accounts to prove it. So if you’re a teacher and you want to strike it big, moving to South Korea might not be such a bad idea.

Sense and Sensibility: Why Librarians Remain Essential to Our Schools

Sense and Sensibility: Why Librarians
Remain Essential to Our Schools

by Yohuru Williams

In the broad constellation of professionals who make up public schools, it is important to pause and acknowledge the forgotten education professionals who aide and support teachers. These include the librarians, nurses, social workers, learning specialists, and guidance counselors. They contribute to the growth and development of our young people but often find themselves left out of broader discussions about the preservation of public education. They provide a range of critical support and intervention frequently invisible to us. Most certainly, their value has escaped the notice of so-called education reformers and politicians. All too often, these champions of a “new order” have taken aim at the forgotten teachers in their ever-expanding quest to cut public school funding.

To be clear, budget and personnel cuts have hurt the profession across the board. However, professionals in these areas bear greater risk, given widespread misperceptions about the essential services they provide that remain vital to public schools. As a youngster, for instance, I benefitted from the expertise of a speech pathologist in helping me overcome a minor speech impediment. Having the problem addressed early in my education boosted my self-esteem and ended years of torment at the hands of insensitive friends and classmates. I would not have understood this as a significant moment of formation in my academic and personal growth if not for countless recent news stories about proposed cuts to these position in school districts across the country.

Another equally hard hit position is that of the school librarian. Fifty years ago, it was inconceivable to imagine schools without appropriate library resources and the personnel to staff them. The disparity in library facilities, for instance, helped civil rights attorneys demonstrate the inherent inequality in segregated schools. With the advent of the internet and digital resources in particular, the flawed assumption surfaced that these positions are no longer necessary. Librarians remain important conduits for student support in ways that many might be surprised to learn. Contrary to popular perception, librarians do more than curate collections of dusty books; they teach critical research skills and often serve as the first destination for young people on the road to quality research.

Librarians know best that research in the digital landscape is often more difficult to manage and navigate unless students receive the proper guidance and training. As a former high school history teacher, I was keenly aware of our library staff as a critical part of the instructional team. This remains equally true as a college professor. Although not always regarded as “teaching” in the conventional sense, the ways in which librarians assist students may in fact be one of the most authentic forms of instruction. Working with students on projects generated by their unique interests, librarians help students to unlock and decode the vast amount of information now at their fingertips.

A well-documented pool of research indicating the impact of librarians on student achievement exists. A 2011 Pennsylvania School Library Study, for example, found that school library programs most meaningfully affected students at risk. The same study determined that poor, minority students with learning challenges were at least twice as likely to earn “Advanced” writing scores when they had access to full-time librarians as those without access to full-time librarians.

In spite of this research, school libraries and librarians remain at risk. Last February, the Los Angeles Times determined that “About half of the 600 elementary and middle school libraries” in the city were “without librarians or aides denying tens of thousands of students regular access to nearly $100 million worth of books, according to district data.” Unfortunately, we can only expect those numbers to grow in 2015 without a concerted effort to restore library budgets and correct misconceptions about the important role played by library professionals.

In the final analysis as the work done by speech pathologists and librarians illustrate, public school instruction extends beyond what happens in the classroom to other areas where highly specialized and dedicated professionals assist student achievement on a variety of levels. They also reinforce the notion of education as a humanistic rather than a commercial enterprise that requires a respect for the individuals who serve. As the late Jesuit educator Timothy Healy, former President of Georgetown University and the New York Public Library once observed, “The most important asset of any library goes home at night — the library staff.”

Unless lawmakers can be made to understand the critical role these and other educational professionals play in contributing to schools in which we can all be confident and proud, then many of these positions will remain in jeopardy to the detriment of the students and communities they serve.

10 things students want all educators to know

10 things students want all educators to know
by Justin Tarte

1). Students want you to actually spend the time to get to know them…Get to know your students by name as soon as possible. Learn something unique about them and find out what makes them tick. Students know when teachers don’t know anything about them, so make getting to know your students a top priority.

2). Students want to have a voice in the learning process and want to share ‘their’ way of doing things…Students want learning to be done ‘with’ them… not ‘to’ them. Schools are idea factories with a seemingly limitless amount of new and fresh ideas, so it’s time we start tapping into that potential. Also, students bring unique perspectives and ways of thinking about life, so let them move up from passenger and let them drive the bus from time to time.


3). Students want to be treated with respect and dignity…

Students don’t magically become motivated when they are embarrassed. They also don’t appreciate it when you call them out to make a point and use them as an example. If you wouldn’t like somebody doing it to you, then don’t do it to your students.

4). Students want to be ‘appropriately’ challenged with meaningful and relevant learning experiences…

Students learn pretty quickly the differences between meaningful and productive work and mindless busy work. Students want you to push and challenge them with learning that provides them the skills to succeed. Additionally, students want and need the necessary supports as they struggle and navigate these more challenging learning experiences.

5). Students want educators to know that they too have bad and off days…

We all have bad days, and students are no different. Also, some students have quite a lot occurring in their lives outside of the education world. With that, education is at times understandably just not a top priority for them. Empathy and understanding go a long way in the classroom.

6). Students want their interests and passions to be infused into the learning that occurs in the classroom…

All students have interests and passions that go beyond the traditional school setting. It’s these interests that students want you to integrate and combine with the learning that occurs in your classroom. When students are able to explore and further develop their interests while simultaneously meeting classroom learning objectives, great things are possible.

7). Students want educators to be truthful and honest…

When students feel you are being truthful and being honest, they can start to trust you. When students trust and respect you there are few things they won’t do for you. This two-way street takes time to develop, but will yield significant dividends in the long-run.

8). Students want to be partners with you when it comes to the learning process…

Students don’t want a ‘teachers’ vs. ‘students’ mentality in school. Students are looking to you for partnership and camaraderie in regard to learning and growth. It’s this shift in traditional mindsets that really strengthens trust and collaboration between teachers and students.

9). Students want to know the work they are doing and the time they are committing to school will actually make a difference in the world…

Students spend a significant amount of time in school as they grow up, so it’s only fair and appropriate that the time they spend and the work they do actually goes toward making the world a better place. The disconnect between doing something that makes a difference in the world and simply just doing something, makes all the difference.

10). At the end of the day, all students want to know their existence matters and that they are important…

Don’t we all…?

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!