Education is Not the Answer

Education is Not the Answer

by Dean Baker

Everyone deserves a great public education,
but better schools alone can’t fight inequality.

This article is from Class Action: An Activist Teacher’s Handbook, a joint project of Jacobin and the Chicago Teachers Union’s CORE. The booklet can be downloaded for free and print copies are still available.

It’s common in policy circles to claim that improving the quality of education in inner cities and impoverished rural areas is the answer to halting the growing gap between rich and poor. This view reflects not only illusions about the potential for substantially improving education for children from low- and moderate-income families without deeper economic and political shifts, but also a serious misunderstanding about the growth of inequality over the last three decades.

There should be no surprise, then, that the education reform movement has failed in its effort to boost educational outcomes for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

At this point, education “reform” is hardly new; it is the establishment consensus, having led the national agenda on education for the last quarter century. The extent to which it has produced gains can be debated, but it has, without a doubt, not turned around struggling schools. The children in these schools still perform consistently worse on standardized tests and have much poorer career prospects than children attending wealthy suburban public schools or private ones.

But even if reform had improved education, it is unlikely to have done much about inequality. People with more education have, on average, done better than those with less education, but the growth in inequality over the last three decades has not been mainly a story of the more educated pulling away from the less educated. Rather, it has been a story in which a relatively small group of people (roughly the top one percent) have been able to garner the bulk of economic gains for reasons that have little direct connection to education.

The classic story of the education and inequality story is usually captured by the college/non-college premium: the ratio of the pay of those with college degrees to those without college degrees. This premium showed a substantial rise in the 1980s for both men and women. According to data from the Economic Policy Institute, the college premium for men rose from 20.2% at the 1979 business cycle peak to 34% at the business cycle peak in 1989. For women, the premium rose from 25% in 1979 to 40%  in 1989.

Interestingly, the sharpest rise, especially for men, was during the high unemployment years at the start of the decade. The rise in the college/non-college pay gap is often attributed to technology and the growing use of computers in the workplace, in particular. But the largest rise in the college premium occurred at a point in time when computers were just being introduced to the workplace.

If the timing of the rise in the pay gap in the 1980s doesn’t fit the technology story very well, the wage trend in the last two decades is even harder to square with this picture. There was a much smaller increase in the college premium in the 1990s than in the 1980s — even though this was the period of the tech boom, when information technology led to a marked acceleration in the rate of productivity growth. After having risen by almost fourteen percent in the 1980s business cycle, the college premium for men rose by just 8% from 1989 to the business cycle peak in 2000. For women, the premium increased by 7.9% points in the 1990s cycle after increasing 15% in the 1980s.

The 2000s don’t fit any better with the technology and inequality story, as even college grads could no longer count on sharing in the gains from growth. For men, the premium rose by 2.8% between 2000 and 2011. This corresponded to a 2.4% gain in wages for male college grads between 2000 and 2012. The college premium for women increased by just 0.8% points over this period, with the wages of female college grads rising by 0.7% between 2000 and 2012. This situation holds true even if we look at just the segments of the labor market where we might expect especially strong demand. The average hourly wage for college graduates working in computer and mathematical occupations increased by just 5.3% from 2000 to 2011 —less than one-third of the rate of productivity growth over this period.

The patterns in the data show that inequality is not a question of the more-educated gaining at the expense of the less-educated due to inevitable technological trends. Rather, it has been a story in which a small group of especially well-situated workers — for example, those in finance, doctors, and top-level corporate executives — have been able to gain at the expense of almost everyone else. This pattern of inequality will be little affected by improving the educational outcomes for the bottom quarter or even bottom half of income distribution.

Of course, this does not argue against efforts to improve education. It is almost always the case that workers with more education do better than workers with less education, both in terms of hourly wages and employment outcomes. Unemployment and non-employment rates are considerably higher for those with less education.

Education does provide a clear avenue for mobility. Certainly it is a positive development if children from low-income families have the opportunity to move into the middle class, even if this might imply that someone from a middle-class background will move in the opposite direction.

And education is tremendously valuable for reasons unrelated to work and income. Literacy, basic numeracy skills, and critical thinking are an essential part of a fulfilling life. Insofar as we have children going through school without developing these skills, it is an enormous failing of society. Any just society would place a top priority on ensuring that all children learn such basic skills before leaving school.

However, it clearly is not the case that plausible increases in education quality and attainment will have a substantial impact on inequality. This will require much deeper structural changes in the economy. As a practical matter, given the dismal track record of the education reformers, substantial improvement in outcomes for children from low- and moderate-income families is likely to require deep structural change in society as well.

Why You Must Remind Students Of Their Purpose

Why You Must Remind Students Of Their Purpose

by Michael Linsin

If not reminded, and reminded often, your students will naturally slip into believing that school is just something they’re supposed to do.

They never consider that school doesn’t need them, individually anyway, but that they need school.

So many students approach their education as if it were the other way around, as if their school is lucky they showed up on time.

This attitude can cause students to take their education for granted, to see it as a grind, as something they’re forced to do rather than what it is:

An opportunity of a lifetime.

Doing anything begrudgingly, anything with the specter of having to do it hanging over your head, can be a dangerous thing. Because it saps vital energy, creativity, and motivation. It makes students feel as if school is being done to them, rather than for them.

So they walk into your classroom like they’re heading for the salt mines—reluctant, sleepy-eyed, resigned to their fate.

When students lose track of its wonderful benefits, they begin seeing school as a negative, as something to endure, and if all possible, avoid.

So they goof off when they get a chance. They shutter their mind to learning. They attend to their daydreams, distractions, and the enticing call of misbehavior.

Your words, then, carry little significance, urgency, or interest to them. The colors of the classroom turn muted. They melt into their seats. The idea of personal responsibility is no more than a vague concept.

Worst of all, they develop a growing sense of entitlement.

Of course, if you’re a regular reader of this website, then you know that when students like you and trust you and enjoy being a member of your classroom, everything becomes easier—from motivation to listening to rapport-building to managing behavior.

But along with this powerful force is the importance of ensuring that your students never lose track of why they come to school.

It is the ‘why’ of school, after all, that cracks ajar the gates of learning. It is the ‘why’ that provides the initial spark of motivation that unlocks hearts and minds, giving you the opening you need to grab your students by the lapels and pull them in.

It is the ‘why’ that enables students to feel the first ounce of responsibility upon their shoulders. It is the ‘why’ that points out the truth to the expression, “If it is to be, it is up to me.” It is the ‘why’ that makes them realize that they need school.

So how do you do it? How do you get the message across?

You tell them. You tell them every day why they’re there, why what they’re doing is important, and why what you have to offer them is a most precious gift.

Good morning room three! Welcome to another beautiful day of learning. It’s my job to give you the best education you can get anywhere, and I plan on doing just that today. But it’s your job to think, read, listen, participate, and give the very best of yourself and your proud family name, so you can take advantage of the many opportunities that good education provides . . .”

Coming from someone your students like and admire, and delivered with passion, this simple message—which will vary in depth depending on grade level—can be powerful and deeply impressionable.

It puts their day-to-day, to-and-from school existence into perspective, infusing it with purpose and direction and underscoring the worthiness of learning’s pursuit.

It causes students to see beyond their current place in the world, no matter how challenging or difficult, and into a high-def technicolor vision of their future.

It alters their view, wakes them of their unrealistic fantasies, and places upon their heart a true path to their hopes and aspirations.

It sets ablaze the desire to not just accept the gift of their education . . .

But to reach out and take it.

Award-winning teacher says teachers are ‘the decisive element’ in schools

Award-winning teacher says teachers
are ‘the decisive element’ in schools

By Joe Nathan

Sean McComb, recently named 2014 National Teacher of the Year, has given one of the best speeches I’ve ever read about what teachers can and often do accomplish.

As he told thousands of other educators gathered at the National Education Association conference: “When those children come through the school doors, teachers are the decisive element. You know it’s true, you know that we wield that power every day – to push passions, to help healing, to hand out hope, to empower inspiration.”

According to information supplied by the National Education Association, McComb is an English teacher at Patapsco High School and Center for the Arts in Maryland. But as he points out, teachers who make a difference are doing “something more than teaching cell replication, European history or trig identities.”

“They were helping us believe in ourselves. They were creating an optimism for our future while giving us skills to trust that we could make it come to be. They were giving us hope,” he said. “I’m proud to be a teacher, a hope developer.”

Teachers who are “the decisive element” help young people discover that they can do far more than they think when they initially entered class.

“Like many of you I’ve spent my career changing what students can ‘conceive of’ for themselves,” he explained. “Read that entire book? Inconceivable. Write how many pages? Inconceivable. Enjoy learning? For some … inconceivable. … But then it happens. The book gets read (and enjoyed), the paper gets written (and revised), the discussion becomes delightful, the collaboration contagious, learning becomes loved.”

That’s what my finest teachers did. Yes, they helped me improve my writing, or helped me learn fascinating things about American history, or deepened my enjoyment of music. But equally important, they helped me believe I could accomplish more than I thought possible.

McComb recognizes the enormous importance of optimism. He continued: “Hope is such a good thing, in fact, that research from Gallup has found that students who are hopeful, who believe they have a bright future, that someone believes in them and that they have the skills to get there — this element of hope — is worth about a letter grade of higher achievement than students who are not hopeful. That it can even combine with other factors of well-being to predict college success better than SAT, ACT or GPA. Hope matters.”

McComb wisely urges more opportunities for teacher leadership.

“Let’s talk about teams of teachers analyzing school needs, researching and proposing solutions and leading the faculty and staff through the change process. Let’s have collaborative leadership in our schools,” he suggested.

In a future column, I’ll describe the growing interest in “teacher led” schools. Those can be an important option for educators, families and students.

McComb also talked money in his speech.

“The biggest question facing our nation today, the one that can lead to the answers for all the other questions, is whether we have the guts to invest in our children,” he said. “Do we have the will to give them the care, education and opportunity necessary so that each can contribute their unique gifts to our society — no matter where they start? Will we invest in schools where they can all become problem-solvers and innovators; become excellent communicators and collaborators in order to work together to mature our collective capacity to grapple with these issues?”

We’re posting the entire three-page speech on our website, It’s one of the most eloquent explanations I’ve ever read about what great teachers do.

The following is a speech made by the 2014 National Teacher of the Year, Sean McComb. This speech was delivered at the National Education Association (NEA) conference in Denver, July 2014.

“Teachers: The Decisive Element”

Good afternoon.  Thank you.  So proud to be here. So thankful for your work across this country.  As a career-long member of my Teacher’s Association your work gives me the peace of mind of knowing that you always have my back, that someone is defending my rights as a teacher, which so many have fought for, for so long.  Thank you for that.

A couple of weeks ago I was flying home to Baltimore, and I sat with a couple of children who were returning home from visiting their grandparents.  Naturally, I asked about school.  I asked them about their favorite part of the past year.  The 6th grader told me about her trip to Mt. Vernon, how she had learned all about George Washington, how he was such a great leader, and how she had tried to convince to guard to open the tomb, but he was “being stubborn.”  The 3rd grader told me about how each student in class adopted a caterpillar. That she kept hers in a cup on her desk, and she fed it, and eventually they all turned into beautiful butterflies.

And I asked them about their favorite teachers, and the elder told me about Mr. Hyde who had come to all of her theatre performances and encouraged her, and the younger about Ms. Esser, from when she was in first grade, who was so much fun and gave them dance breaks when their brains hurt from all their learning.  And throughout the flight I saw just how important these teachers had been for these two little girls.  The 6th grader spent much of the flight in her notebook, creating lists of characters and scene locations.  The 3rd grader, in perhaps the most adorable thing I’ve ever seen, decided to take a dance break in the aisle for a few minutes, mid-flight.

And their thoughts on school, the light in their eyes when they talked about their teachers…it reminded me of a truth that I see proven before my very eyes every day at Patapsco High School: when those children come through the school doors, teachers are the decisive element.  You know it’s true, you know that we wield that power every day–to push passions, to help healing, to hand out hope, to empower inspiration.

And it’s not just true for our younger students.  Our secondary teachers combine a passion for learning content with a talent for teenagers.  I think of some graduates from our school…

Like Kiran, whose fondness for science flourished under her AP Bio teacher and propelled her on a path to medical school.

Like Sarah, whose fascination with history became an insatiable curiosity when she was in high school, a curiosity she now imparts to her own students.

Like Travis, whose dedication to solve problems was encouraged by his math teacher, and he is now putting that to work for the National Security Administration.  (You hear that Travis!  Good job!)

And it was true for me too.  Mr. Schurtz showed me how great stories provided a window into the human condition.  How we could experience other lives, question motives, play out scenarios through literature.  And he did that for me when what I wanted most was a life other than the one I had.  And he convinced me, when I didn’t otherwise have much of a reason at all to believe it, that I truly had something to give to others.  That I had a voice to offer, and that it mattered that I share it.

These teachers were up to something more than teaching cell replication, European history, or trig identities.  They were helping us believe in ourselves.  They were creating an optimism for our future while giving us skills to trust that we could make it come to be.  They were giving us hope.

I’m proud to be a teacher, a hope developer.  Ever since I was a teenager I’ve had that beautiful line from Shawshank Redemption on my heart: hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.

Hope is such a good thing, in fact, that research from Gallup has found that students who are hopeful, who believe they have a bright future, that someone believes in them, and that they have the skills to get there—this element of hope—is worth about a letter grade of higher achievement than students who are not hopeful.  That it can even combine with other factors of well-being to predict college success better than SAT, ACT or GPA.  Hope, matters.

Across this country children look to their teachers to hold out hope.  To give students a belief in themselves.  To give them the skills to have agency to make it reality.  It is that exact effort that called me, like so many other teachers, into this field, to be that decisive element in the classroom.


In order to thrive in that work, we need to establish another arena, in addition to the classroom, in which teachers should be the decisive element—school culture.  I think one of the most pressing questions for any educator in this country is: “What are you doing to create a supportive, collaborative culture among teachers in your building?”  (And maybe, what are you doing to prevent it that should change).  When I get a new group of students I tell them that: “We’re a team now.  I’m on your team.  I’m YOUR teammate.  I am “team Thomas” and “team Qiana” and I’m going to do everything in my power to support you and help you to improve.  And, we’re all going to do that for each other, here.”

Isn’t this what we should hear from our administrators and colleagues as well–a culture of support, improvement and collaboration?  We know how learning can blossom, skills improve, and achievement grow in the rich soil of a supportive, collaborative culture.

Like you, I’ve worked hard throughout my career in an effort to make my classroom student-centered–to allow students to collaborate, to observe each other’s work as models and learn from each other’s perspectives.  Let’s all work to make this the norm in our professional learning as well. Let’s all work to create systems that encourage collaboration, opening classroom doors to colleagues, and allotting the time and support to learn from one another.  Because the expert to help us grow our practice doesn’t need to be the consultant from across the country—it might just be the colleague one classroom over.

And let’s have teachers take a decisive role in school leadership.  That doesn’t mean a teacher gets to do the annoying paperwork instead of an administrator, or a teacher gets to handle discipline issues during their planning period.  Let’s talk about teams of teachers analyzing school needs, researching and proposing solutions and leading the faculty and staff through the change process.  Let’s have collaborative leadership in our schools.

With teachers leading a supportive culture focused on improvement, with time to collaborate and opportunities to be catalysts for change, our schools can go from good to great.  Teachers can better move the hearts and minds of children, and, I’m sure, the almighty data point will follow.


But there’s still a larger arena, beyond our classrooms and our school cultures, where our profession can be the decisive element.

We are facing some massive challenges as a nation:

How do we give everyone a fair shot to make it in America?  How will we sustain this planet?  How do we balance a safety net and self-reliance?  How can we clean some of the toxic elements from our culture?  The list goes on…

These are some big, complex, challenging questions.  But I’ll tell you where we can find the answer to all of these questions.  They’re right in front of our faces in our classrooms every morning.  The answer is our students.  The answer is in how we will prepare them to be our next leaders, in what conditions their education to meet this challenge will take place, and in who we prepare and develop as the teachers entrusted to do this work.

A few weeks ago, I read an article in the New York Times about some of the student who we will need to be part of that answer.  Two professors of economics claimed that our nation’s identity as the “land of opportunity” is a myth……..

Now, maybe I’m a romantic.  Maybe I’m just filled with the hope that comes from working with students, or maybe it’s because of my personal experience.  But I know there is still land in this country that holds the hope of opportunity.  I’ve seen it with my own eyes.  I’ve spent my career working in that land.  It’s even marked out with signs.  They’re yellow, and they say “school zone” in big black letters.

Our schools are the land of opportunity in this country.  They must be.  Our children depend on them and they deserve for them to be….

This article didn’t stop there…it went on to claim that “for many children at the bottom […] opportunity is not just out of reach.  It is inconceivable.”

Inconceivable.  It sounds like more than ever, children at the bottom need incredible schools and incredible teachers.  Like many of you I’ve spent my career changing what students can “conceive of” for themselves.  Read that entire book?  Inconceivable.  Write how many pages?  Inconceivable.  Enjoy learning? For some…inconceivable…

But then it happens.  The book gets read (and enjoyed), the paper gets written (and revised), the discussion becomes delightful, the collaboration contagious, learning becomes loved.

I’ll tell you what I can conceive of…

I can conceive that here, too, here in the heart of this massive challenge, at the very core of who we are as a country—as the land of opportunity–education and teachers, can be the decisive element.

Now we can’t do it alone—we need this nation to truly invest in its children.  We need to build up the profession, not break it down. We need our culture to value education more than it ever has before…

So, the biggest question facing our nation today, the one that can lead to the answers for all the other questions, is whether we have the guts to invest in our children.  Do we have the will to give them the care, education, and opportunity necessary, so that each can contribute their unique gifts to our society—no matter where they start?  Will we invest in schools where they can all become problem-solvers and innovators; become excellent communicators and collaborators in order to work, together, to mature our collective capacity to grapple with these issues?

While others deliberate and debate, we teachers have chosen to act.  We have chosen to dedicate our lives to nurturing our next visionary leaders, caring neighbors, brilliant researchers, and conscious consumers.

We are proud to be a part of that solution, a part of that investment.  We are proud to be a profession that takes up this call.  We are proud to call on the conscience of our country to give kids the education, and opportunity that has always been America’s promise.

Thank you all for your work.  Thank you for being the decisive element.  Thank you for being teachers.

I’m a Teaching Veteran — Not a Dinosaur

I’m a Teaching Veteran — Not a Dinosaur

by Nancy Barile

A flipped learning guru from the west coast recently visited my school for an afternoon professional development session. He started his presentation by remarking about how impressed he was during his walk around our school building because “the faculty is young and vibrant. It’s such a breath of fresh air.” Excuse me? I may be 55 years old, but I still consider myself pretty damn vibrant.

That wasn’t the first time someone implied that veteran teachers are not as valuable as young teachers. A reporter from the Boston Globe wrote an op-ed piece about my high school in which he attributed part of our success to the fact that “Traditional pecking orders were scuttled. Skills trumped seniority.” Now, perhaps I’m being oversensitive, but I’m an English teacher — and that quote implies that because I have seniority, I don’t have skills. Instead of being happy about an article that celebrated my school’s success, my fellow veteran teachers and I were incensed.

A recent Facebook posting by a friend in California also raised my ire. He was applauding his state’s decision to do away with teacher tenure, writing: “Now we can advance younger, tech-savvy, good teachers.” But technological ability isn’t exclusively a domain of the young . In fact, my veteran colleagues and I have become quite proficient using technology. It’s a necessary skill for helping our students learn 21st-century skills. Technological expertise is just one tool in an expansive toolkit of strategies and pedagogical approaches that veteran teachers use to reach students.

What I want to know is: when did my age and length of teaching experience become the defining factor in my ability to teach? Just because I taught your mom doesn’t mean that I can’t connect with my 16-year-old students and engage them in exciting and effective ways. What happened to tapping into the expertise and experience of veteran teachers?
Instead of denigrating veteran teachers, let’s keep the focus on mentoring — both traditional and reverse — to create a collegial and mutually respectful environment where teachers collaborate in order to advance student learning.

It’s true that younger teachers often possess a different skill set than veteran teachers. It’s also true that most younger teachers are adept at using numerous software programs for instruction, assessment, and data collection. But technological proficiency is a transferable skill. You don’t have to be a “digital native” to negotiate the terrain.

I’m a National Board Certified Teacher, and I’ve been mentoring new teachers for over 13 years. I enjoy welcoming new teachers to the profession, helping them build content strength, and assisting them with everything from classroom management to communicating with parents. But I also appreciate the relationship building that takes place with reverse mentoring; I have always been open and excited about learning from new teachers.

For teachers like me who have no desire to enter administration and who want to stay in the classroom, reverse mentoring is absolutely essential. My current Director was once a student in my sophomore English class. Many of my former mentees are now experts in flipped learning and using iPads in the classroom. I frequently turn to them for assistance and new ideas — which is essential for continuing to improve and refine my practice.
Schools need to recognize the importance of reverse mentoring. Administrators should support cross-functional teams, such as professional learning groups, in which both veteran and novice practitioners share their knowledge and expertise.


Veteran teachers are not dinosaurs. We have mastered technology. We can still engage our students as well as any young teacher. The bottom line is that we need to encourage both traditional and reverse mentoring between veteran and young teachers because both can learn a great deal from one another. So rather than creating a schism that pits veteran teachers against new teachers, let’s work together to create flexible, collaborative school cultures that allow for the sharing of ideas, knowledge, and expertise. I’ve got at least ten more years in the classroom–so let’s grow and work together for the benefit of all students and teachers.

UK Bans Teaching Creationism in State-Funded Schools

UK Bans Teaching Creationism in State-Funded Schools

by Janet Fang

Lo! Creationism cannot be taught as scientific fact in any state-funded school in the UK. That goes for all free schools as well as any existing and future academies.

“It is already the case that all state schools, including academies, are prohibited from teaching creationism as scientific fact. That has not changed,” says a Department of Education spokesperson. So what’s new exactly?

Academies are state-maintained but independently-run schools with some outside sponsorship. The Academies Act 2010 made it possible for all schools — such as church schools — to become an academy. This month, the government added new clauses to the funding agreements between the Secretary of State and any church school converting to an academy.

In what’s being hailed as a secular triumph, these clauses not only require that students at academies be taught evolution, but they also prevent teaching creationism as scientific fact.

The clauses define creationism as “any doctrine or theory which holds that natural biological processes cannot account for the history, diversity, and complexity of life on earth and therefore rejects the scientific theory of evolution.”

And furthermore, it goes on to say creationism is rejected by most mainstream churches, religious traditions, and the scientific community — that it doesn’t agree with the scientific consensus or the very large body of established scientific evidence.

Here are the exact words from the “Church of England and Catholic single academy model supplemental agreement,” which you can download as a Word document.

… the requirement on every academy and free school to provide a broad and balanced curriculum, in any case prevents the teaching of creationism as evidence based theory in any academy or free school.

And just to clarify, free schools are funded by the government, but they’re set up by parents and independent groups; they’re like charter schools in the U.S.

But all of that isn’t to say creationism can’t be taught in schools. The clauses don’t prevent the discussion of beliefs about the origins of our planet and living things, just as long as it’s not presented as a valid alternative to established scientific theory.

All the documents to help church schools convert to academies can be found here.

AT&T and Udacity partner to create the ‘nanodegree,’ a new type of college degree

AT&T and Udacity partner to create the
‘nanodegree,’ a new type of college degree

by Gregory Ferenstein

Online education provider Udacity has partnered with AT&T to create a new type of college degree, the “nanodegree.” The vocationally focused nanodegree is designed to be a lifelong learning portfolio that would be widely recognized by the tech industry and far cheaper to obtain.

Since last year, Udacity, other online education providers, and Internet billionaires have promised to overhaul the clunky path to a diploma.

“We need to take what now exists as a dumb, static document and turn it into a richer, updateable, more connected record of a person’s skills, expertise, and experience,” wrote Linkedin co-founder Reid Hoffman.

Last year, on stage with California Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom, Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun announced a new consortium of businesses, the Open Education Alliance, that would agree to recognize an industry-focused skills credential. The nanodegree is the first product of that promise, together with many of the original partners, from AT&T to Autodesk.

“It’s a failure of the community college system, the California state system, and the University of California system that that announcement was made,” said Newsom, who believes California education should do more to address the widening skills gap.

Details about nanodegrees are still forthcoming, but Udacity stated, “It should take a working student about six to12 months to complete without having to take time off.” Continuing, the blog explains, “Our early nanodegrees will prepare you for a job as a front-end web developer, back-end web developer, iOS mobile developer, Android mobile developer, or data analyst. The first nanodegree will start this fall.”

Other online education providers, such as Coursera, are designing their own certifications, which take about the same amount of time, depending on the course of study.

So, how’s the quality of the degree compared to a traditional diploma? To test this out, I’ve been taking the data science track at both Coursera and Udacity and comparing it to the master’s in mathematical behavioral sciences I got from UC Irvine.

On many levels, data science at Udacity and Coursera are superior. It’s completely up-to-date with the latest software, it’s problem-based, much (much) cheaper, and more flexible.

Don’t get me wrong: my master’s was fantastic for helping me think theoretically about data science and how to carefully determine cause and effect.

But it left me lacking the raw coding skills necessary to download a dataset and get through an actual project. For many data science jobs, the ability to run basic regressions and determine patterns in big datasets is more than sufficient.

You can learn more about the program on Udacity’s blog.

This French tech school has no teachers, no books, no tuition — and it could change everything

This French tech school has no teachers, no
books, no tuition — and it could change everything

by Dylan Tweney

PARIS — École 42 might be one of the most
ambitious experiments in engineering education.

It has no teachers. No books. No MOOCs. No
dorms, gyms, labs, or student centers. No tuition.

And yet it plans to turn out highly qualified, motivated software engineers, each of whom has gone through an intensive two- to three-year program designed to teach them everything they need to know to become outstanding programmers.

The school, housed in a former government building used to educate teachers (ironically enough), was started by Xavier Niel. The founder and majority owner of French ISP Free, Niel is a billionaire many times over. He’s not well known in the U.S., but here he is revered as one of the country’s great entrepreneurial successes in tech.

He is also irrepressibly upbeat, smiling and laughing almost nonstop for the hour that he led a tour through École 42 earlier this week. (Who wouldn’t be, with that much wealth? Yet I have met much more dour billionaires before.)

Niel started École 42 with a 70 million euro donation. He has no plans for it to make money, ever.

“I know one business, and that’s how to make software,” Niel said. “I made a lot of money and I want to give something back to my country,” he explained.

To make the school self-sustaining, he figures that future alumni will give back to their school, just as alumni of other schools do. If a few of them become very rich, as Niel has, perhaps they, too, will give millions to keep it going.

The basic idea of École 42 is to throw all the students — 800 to 1,000 per year — into a single building in the heart of Paris, give them Macs with big Cinema displays, and throw increasingly difficult programming challenges at them. The students are given little direction about how to solve the problems, so they have to turn to each other — and to the Internet — to figure out the solutions.

The challenges are surprisingly difficult. One student I talked with was coding a ray tracer and building an emulation of the 3-D dungeon in Castle Wolfenstein within his first few months at the school. Six months earlier, he had barely touched a computer and knew nothing of programming. He hadn’t even finished high school.

In fact, 40 percent of École 42′s students haven’t finished high school. Others have graduated from Stanford or MIT or other prestigious institutions. But École 42 doesn’t care about their background — all it cares about is whether they can complete the projects and move on. The only requirement is that they be between the ages of 18 and 30.

“We don’t ask anything about what they’ve done before,” Niel said.

Yet École 42 is harder to get into than Harvard: Last year, 70,000 people attempted the online qualification test. 20,000 completed the test, and of those, 4,000 were invited to spend four weeks in Paris doing an intensive project that had them working upwards of 100 hours a week on various coding challenges. In the end, 890 students were selected for the school’s inaugural class, which began in November, 2013. (The average age is 22, and 11 percent of the first class is female.)

890 students out of 70,000 applicants means an acceptance rate a little north of 1 percent, or if you only count those who completed the test, 4.5 percent. By contrast, Harvard accepts about 6 percent of its applicants. And, even with financial aid, it charges a whole lot more than zero for its classes.

The upshot: If it works, the school’s course of education will produce coders who are incredibly self-motivated, well-rounded in all aspects of software engineering, and willing to work hard. (The four-week tryout alone, with its 100-hour weeks, blows away the French government’s official 35-hour-work week.)

Nicolas Sadirac, a French entrepreneur and educator, is the school’s director. Before École 42 he ran Epitech, a well-regarded, private, for-profit school that trained software engineers.

All of École 42′s projects are meant to be collaborative, so the students work in teams of two to five people. At first glance, the École’s classrooms look a little bit like a factory floor or a coding sweatshop, with row after row of Aeron-style chairs facing row after row of big monitors. But a closer look reveals that the layout is designed to facilitate small-group collaboration, with the monitors staggered so that students can easily talk to one another, on the diagonals between the monitors or side by side with the people next to them. Students can come and go as they please; the school is open 24 hours a day and has a well-appointed cafeteria in the basement (with a wine cellar that can hold 5,000 bottles, just in case the school needs to host any parties).

Students share all of their code on Github (naturally). They communicate with one another, and receive challenges and tests, via the school’s intranet. Everything else they figure out on their own, whether it means learning trigonometry, figuring out the syntax for C code, or picking up techniques to index a database.

Tests are essentially pass-fail: Your team either completes the project or it doesn’t. One administrator compared it to making a car: In other schools, getting a test 90 percent right means an A; but if you make a car with just three out of four wheels, it is a failure. At École 42, you don’t get points for making it part way there — you have to make a car with all four wheels.

The no-teachers approach makes sense, as nearly anything you need to know about programming can now be found, for free, on the Internet. Motivated people can easily teach themselves any language they need to know in a few months of intensive work. But motivation is what’s hard to come by, and to sustain — ask anyone who has tried out Codecademy but not stuck with it. That has prompted the creation of “learn to code” bootcamps and schools around the world. École 42 takes a similar inspiration but allows the students to generate their own enthusiasm via collaborative (and somewhat competitive) teamwork.

Sadirac and Niel say that some prestigious universities have already expressed interest in the school’s approach. The two are considering syndicating the model to create similar schools in other countries.

But even if they never expand beyond Paris, École 42 could become a significant force in software education. France already has a reputation for creating great engineers (in software as well as in many other fields).

If École 42 adds another thousand highly-motivated, entrepreneurial software engineers to the mix every year, it could very quickly accelerate this country’s competitiveness in tech.

And the model will force schools like Harvard to make an extra effort to justify their high tuitions. If you can get training like this for free, and you want to be a software engineer, why go to Harvard?

L.A. school reform effort draws diverse group of wealthy donors

L.A. school reform effort draws diverse group of wealthy donors

By Howard Blume

Republicans, liberals, Hollywood notables and global corporate
executives are among those who gave to the Coalition for School Reform.

They hail from New York, the Silicon Valley, Arkansas, Los Angeles and elsewhere.
They are a rich and diverse lot, including Republicans, liberals, Hollywood notables and international corporate executives.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, L.A. philanthropist Eli Broad, Netflix founder Reed Hastings, pomegranate juice titan Lynda Resnick, anti-Obama mega-donor A. Jerrold Perenchio and the widow of Steve Jobs.

Together, they smashed records for spending by outside groups in last month’s L.A. Board of Education elections. These major donors poured about $4 million into the Coalition for School Reform, a political action committee spearheaded by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

On the surface, they have little in common. But this group united in Los Angeles behind education issues that have become national in scope, including the growth of publicly funded charter schools and the use of student test scores in teacher performance evaluations. Most want to reduce job protections for teachers and support the education agenda of the Obama administration. Some even want to limit collective bargaining rights for teachers.

They believed that a successful stand in the L.A. Unified School District, the nation’s second-largest school system and a hotbed of unionism, would have a sweeping effect.

The coalition received mixed results: It won one race, lost another and ended up in a runoff in the third.

Critics have questioned the motives of the outside donors, noting their ties to corporate interests. The criticism is fair, but skepticism about their motives is misplaced, said Rick Hess, an education analyst with the American Enterprise Institute, who has not wholly endorsed the donors’ agenda.

For the most part, “political donors, whether we agree with them or not, are presumed to believe in the candidates or measures they’re funding,” Hess said. “I’ve yet to see a single convincing piece of evidence that some of the donors to education efforts are deceitful about their ‘real’ agenda.”

Still, their stand here was about more than individual candidates.

A consistent theme was supporting the growth of charter schools without excessive regulation. Charters are independently managed and publicly financed. Most are non-union. Some see them as a strategy to weaken teacher unions and a way around ossified school district bureaucracies.

The California Charter Schools Assn. advocacy arm gave $312,000 to the coalition and spent an additional $30,000 on its own independent campaign aligned with the coalition. It spent $50,000 more on an “information” campaign that targeted an L.A. board member in the months prior to the election.

The advocacy group, under federal law, doesn’t have to disclose contributions, but has acknowledged that its largest donors include Bloomberg, who also gave the largest single donation to the coalition — $1 million; Hastings, who gave $100,000 to the coalition; and Carrie Walton Penner, part of the founding family of Wal-Mart, which has vigorously opposed organized labor in its operations. (The Arkansas-based Walton Family Foundation also is the largest funder of the California charter association.)

The coalition also received indirect support from the Walton foundation. It’s a major funder of StudentsFirst, headed by former District of Columbia schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. She recruited donors by describing her goal as opposing the political muscle of teacher unions. Her advocacy division gave $250,000 to Villaraigosa’s coalition.

Another motivation for donors was to show support — through a successful school board campaign — for revamped teacher evaluations pushed by L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy. This approach, which uses student standardized test scores as a key measure, is sweeping the country as states adopt such systems in line with incentives from the Obama administration.

Donors were persuaded that Deasy’s job — and policies viewed as leaving a national mark — could be on the line if the election didn’t go the way of Villaraigosa’s endorsed candidates.

Deasy has “done a fine job in trying circumstances,” said Broad, a national figure in education. The wrong outcome, said Broad, who gave $250,000 to the coalition, could have resulted in Deasy’s dismissal or resignation, which could “set the school district back years.”

Deasy’s job appears safe for now, even though the coalition has succeeded in just one race. Incumbent Monica Garcia, a strong Deasy ally, won outright; Kate Anderson lost to incumbent Steve Zimmer — who had the support of employee unions; and Antonio Sanchez will be in a May 21 runoff.

A mostly new, relatively untapped source of coalition money has been Hollywood, a connection that Deasy has nurtured through creation of the Los Angeles Fund for Public Education. The fund, which operates outside L.A. Unified control, is headed by Megan Chernin, spouse of producer Peter Chernin.

The Greening of the American Teacher

The Greening of the American Teacher

by Mercer Hall

Scarcity of experienced educators is not a
chance development, and it is ruining US schools

One year of teaching experience is the new normal in America’s classrooms. Nationwide, schools are embracing tenderfoot teachers instead of skilled, veteran educators — what the industry calls master teachers, an informal moniker that denotes expertise in content creation, differentiated instruction and student outcomes in the face of education reform.

According to multiple peer-reviewed studies, the professional longevity of a master teacher — someone who has eight or more consecutive years in the classroom — leads to increased student engagement and academic success. These hallmarks of an exceptional education have become less than visible in the United States’ school system, which has not been deemed exceptional or even satisfactory for quite some time, according to international rankings by the Programme for International Student Assessment. Mediocrity in American education will persist as long as we have a disproportionate number of green teachers. What’s worse is that this mediocrity is easily avoidable and fully intentional.

Several reasons exist for this neophytism, but first among them is the decline of tenure. Washington, D.C., North Carolina, Idaho, South Dakota and Louisiana recently eliminated it. Students Matter, an educational advocacy group funded by tech titan David W. Welch, has sued the state of California and overturned teacher tenure, and his group plans to bring similar suits in other states. Even in states where tenure remains intact, it is no longer a guarantee. Under New York City’s latest teacher evaluation system, almost half of teachers eligible for tenure in 2013 were denied.

Charter schools, which serve 4.2 percent of all public school students, rarely offer tenure. Nor do the nation’s 10 percent of independent or parochial schools, because tenure limits the control that administrators maintain over operating budgets and hiring decisions. Educators in these untenured schools have a demonstrably higher rate of attrition than in district schools, and lack of job security (PDF) is among the top reasons cited when a teacher leaves. Tenure implies a respect for longevity. Without it, it’s too easy for districts to jettison teachers when their salaries approach living wages or when they espouse academic philosophies at odds with administrative fiats.

The current skewing of the teacher force toward a homogenized team of amateurs undermines the undisputed benefits of skill and maturity.”

As public charter schools grow at a rapid pace — in just over a decade, enrolled students have increased from 300,000 to 2.1 million — they contribute to a cultural shift that views teaching as a temporary commitment. Teach for America (TFA), which places one-third of its recruits in charter schools, has in many ways made it trendy to view teaching as a brief, altruistic gesture rather than a lifelong profession. Motoko Rich, reporting for The New York Times last year, wrote that “charter networks are developing what amounts to a youth cult in which teaching for two to five years is seen as acceptable and, at times, even desirable.” Rich found that KIPP and Success Academy, two of the largest charter networks, retain teachers for an average of only four years.

Intentional greening is also an attractive option for public school districts because fledgling teachers require smaller operating budgets. TFA recruits, therefore, sometimes replace veteran teachers whose jobs have been cut in budget shortages. In a report updated in April, the Consortium for Policy Research in Education (PDF) found that the typical classroom experience for teachers shrank from 15 years in 1987 to just one year in 2008; the attrition rate for first-year professionals rose by 34 percent since the late 1980s.

This teaching model is both unsustainable and unscalable, because, as education expert Mike Rose expertly argued last year in The Washington Post, great teaching relies on a commitment to community. Amid a rolling cohort of novice instructors, experienced practitioners who might sustain the best pedagogy and mentor trainees are scarce. Similarly, fewer teachers stay long enough to establish roots in the neighborhood.

What can be done to rescue the dwindling ranks of experienced educators? A 2010 study by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. reports that in order to attract and retain high-performing teachers, incentives for longevity are essential. After conducting a global comparison of high-achieving schools, McKinsey found that schools in Finland and Singapore do not adhere to the facile perception that a teacher’s effectiveness plateaus after three years; those countries believe teachers attain true expertise after 15 to 20 years of experience.

In the United States, these kinds of incentives can take myriad forms, from tenure to fostering collegiality in the workplace to expanding teacher autonomy in the classroom.

Educators must have reasons to be excited about developing their teaching careers. An ideal faculty would feature a diversity of experience levels, from energetic newcomers to established virtuosos. The current skewing of the teacher force toward a homogenized team of amateurs, however, undermines the undisputed benefits of skill and maturity. All our favorite childhood master teachers would undoubtedly agree.


Poll: Teachers Don’t Get No Respect

Poll: Teachers Don’t Get No Respect

by Julia Ryan

People think respect has declined among teachers,
administrators, students, and parents since they were in school.

“Anyone? Anyone?” a high-school teacher asks at the front of a classroom in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. His dazed students, popping bubble gum and falling asleep, gaze toward the front of the room, unaware a question has been posed. After a moment’s pause, the teacher answers his own question and drones on with his lecture while his students fight to stay awake.

This scene, set in 1986, doesn’t show much esteem for the teaching profession. (The movie doesn’t have much regard for administrators, either. Ferris continually outsmarts the cartoonishly spiteful Principal Rooney.) And yet, a recent poll found that adults believe that people respect teachers and administrators even less now than then did in the past. While 79 percent of Americans said students respected teachers when they were in school, only 31 percent believe students respect teachers today, according to a Harris Poll of 2,250 American adults.

When they were in school, 91 percent of respondents said that parents and teachers respected each other, but when asked about today, only 49 percent said parents respect teachers and 64 percent said teachers respect parents.

Respondents continued to report a decline in trust between teachers and students: When they were in school, 86 percent said teachers respected students, but only 61 percent say that is true today. Eighty-eight percent said the administration respected teachers when they were in school, while 58 percent say that continues to be true in today’s schools.

Parents of school-aged children, who might be in the best position to judge the environment of today’s schools, tended to mirror the opinions of the group as a whole, except when asked about parents and students respecting teachers. While 49 percent of the total group said parents respect teachers in today’s schools, 58 percent of parents said that was true. Parents gave their children a similar bump: 40 percent believed that students respect teachers, but only 31 percent of the total group agreed.

There could be a couple of explanations for these results. Asking adults to compare themselves to today’s youth is always a dangerous game. That respondents considered themselves more respectful than today’s students is perhaps not surprising. Furthermore, asking adults to remember the environment of their childhood schools is not a foolproof method of evaluating respect. Parents, teachers, and administrators might have convinced students they held mutual respect for each other; adults are more likely to see through a charade. But these results could also hint at a real decline in respect that is making teaching and learning even more difficult. Today, controversy, suspicion, and accusations plague education, from the kindergarten classroom to federal level policies. Teachers are fighting against the Common Core State Standards, students are staging walk out protests in New Orleans, and parents are yanking their kids out of standardized testing. Maybe declining respect among teachers, administrators, students, and parents has played a role in bringing so many debates to the forefront of American schools.