When the economy improves and job prospects multiply, college students turn
their attention elsewhere, to professions that promise more money, more
independence, more respect.
That was one takeaway from a widely discussed story in The Times on Sunday by
Motoko Rich, who charted teacher shortages so severe in certain areas of the
country that teachers are being rushed into classrooms with dubious
qualifications and before they’ve earned their teaching credentials.
It’s a sad, alarming state of affairs, and it proves that for all our lip
service about improving the education of America’s children, we’ve failed to
make teaching the draw that it should be, the honor that it must be. Nationally,
enrollment in teacher preparation programs dropped by 30 percent between 2010
and 2014, as Rich reported.
To make matters worse, more than 40 percent of the people who do go into
teaching exit the profession within five years.
How do we make teaching more rewarding, so that it beckons to not only enough
college graduates but to a robust share of the very best of them?
Better pay is a must. There’s no getting around that. Many teachers in many
areas can’t hope to buy a house and support a family on their incomes, and
college students contemplating careers know that. If those students are taking
on debt, teaching isn’t likely to provide a timely way to pay it off. The
average salary nationally for public school teachers, including those with
decades in the classroom, is under $57,000; starting salaries in some states
barely crest $30,000.
There’s also the issue of autonomy.
“The No. 1 thing is giving teachers a voice, a real voice,” Randi Weingarten,
the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said to me this week.
Education leaders disagree over how much of a voice and in what. Weingarten
emphasizes teacher involvement in policy, and a survey of some 30,000 teachers
and other school workers done by the A.F.T. and the Badass Teachers Association
in late April showed that one large source of stress was being left out of such
Others focus on primarily letting teachers chart the day-by-day path to the
goals laid out for them, so that they’re not just obedient vessels for a
one-size-fits-all script. Hold them accountable, but give them discretion.
The political battles over education, along with the shifting vogues about
what’s best, have left many teachers feeling like pawns and punching bags. And
while that’s no reason not to implement promising new approaches or to shrink
from experimentation, it puts an onus on policy makers and administrators to
bring generous measures of training, support and patience to the task.
Teachers crave better opportunities for career growth. Evan Stone, one of the
chief executives of Educators 4 Excellence, which represents about 17,000
teachers nationwide, called for “career ladders for teachers to move into
specialist roles, master-teacher roles.”
“They’re worried that they’re going to be doing the same thing on Day 1 as
they’ll be doing 30 years in,” he told me.
He also questioned licensing laws that prevent the easy movement of an exemplary
teacher from one state to another. Minnesota recently relaxed such requirements;
if other states followed suit, it might build a desirable new flexibility into
Teaching also needs to be endowed with greater prestige. One intriguing line of
thought about how to do this is to make the requirements for becoming a teacher
more difficult, so that a teaching credential has luster. In the book “The
Smartest Kids in the World,” Amanda Ripley noted that Finland’s teachers are
revered in part because they’re the survivors of selective screening and
Kate Walsh, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, told me
that in this country, “It’s pretty firmly rooted in college students that
education is a fairly easy major.” Too often, it’s also “a major of last
resort,” she said.
Dan Brown, a co-director of Educators Rising, which encourages teenagers to
contemplate careers in the classroom, said that teaching might be ready for its
own Flexner Report, an early 1900s document that revolutionized medical schools
and raised the bar for American medicine, contributing to the aura that
surrounds physicians today.
He also asked why, in the intensifying political discussions about making
college more affordable, there’s not more talk of methods “to recognize and
incentivize future public servants,” foremost among them teachers.
There should be. The health of our democracy and the perpetuation of our
prosperity depend on teaching no less than they do on Wall Street’s machinations
or Silicon Valley’s innovations. So let’s make the classroom a destination as
sensible, exciting and fulfilling as any other.
A version of this op-ed appears in print on August 12, 2015,
on page A19 of the New York edition with the headline:
Can We Interest You in
EACH summer, when school ends, education mostly stops short, too.
But it hasn’t always been that way. For the striving youths of 19th-century
America, learning was often a self-driven, year-round process. Devouring books
by candlelight and debating issues by bonfire, the young men and women of the
so-called “go-ahead generation” worked to educate themselves into a better life.
Is this old-fashioned culture of self-improvement making a comeback? The
mainstream school system — with its barrage of tests, Common Core and “excellent
sheep” — encourages learning as a passive, standardized process. But here and
there, with the help of YouTube and thousands of podcasts, a growing group of
students and adults are beginning to supplement their education.
School isn’t going away. But more and more people are realizing what their
19th-century predecessors knew: that the best learning is often self-taught.
Back then, it was a matter of necessity. There were plenty of schoolhouses in
19th-century America, but few young people could attend them regularly. They had
to work. Most pieced together a semester of classes here, three months there.
In 1870, students averaged under 80 days in school each year. Even though
America had incredibly high literacy rates, and admirable schools for those with
free time, most young Americans supplemented formal schooling with their own
This was especially true of many working-class kids, who could never find enough
time. Michael Campbell, an 18-year-old Irish immigrant who spent his days
laboring in a New Haven factory, making $6 a week, wrote in a diary about his
experiences. After work, he attended lectures, joined libraries and read
obsessively, studying bookkeeping, phrenology, child raising and “scientifics.”
It was all part of his mission — which he wrote about in the third person — “to
work hard six (6) days a week and study and read all he can.”
Michael was a recognizable type: the self-improving young American, convinced
that he could study his way into the middle class. This up-by-your-bootstraps
mentality can seem naïve today, but to an 18-year-old with no clear path to
adulthood, it sounded like his best hope.
Kids like these read voraciously, with each book offering a glimpse of the
thrilling world outside their isolated lives. They devoured histories, the Bible
and Shakespeare, but also as many trashy novels as they could find. Many
struggled to decide whether to study the fall of the Roman Empire or amuse
themselves with what one called “obscene, libidinous, loathsome, and lascivious”
These books shimmer in their diaries. Edgar Allan Poe’s stories mesmerized one
awkward boy in Maine. John Roy Lynch, a young ex-slave in Reconstruction
Mississippi, pored over the proceedings of Congress, unaware that one day he
would become a representative himself.
A Boston girl loved the stories in The New York Ledger, a weekly “story
newspaper,” though her disapproving mother burned her copies. Before her mother
found them, however, the crafty 14-year-old always “Devoured my Ledger.”
Self-education went beyond solitary reading. For many, literary societies —
called “the literary” — marked the highlight of intellectual and social life, as
young men and women gathered at night to debate, mingle and flirt. One young
woman surveyed her entertainment options in rural Kansas and concluded: “We just
have the jolliest, best times at the Literary.”
The literary taught countless young people the skills of public speaking,
playing upon the view of America as “a nation of speechifiers.” Orating became a
sign of citizenship: During the Reconstruction young black men eagerly launched
a “speechmaking mania” across the South.
And despite the bookish title, literary societies appealed to rowdy young
people. One young debater in Iowa winced, recalling the “pretty rough company”
at the literary, who could make things “decidedly uncomfortable for me.”
Argument drove these clubs. Young people would kick around a controversial issue
of the day. One common prompt (in the North) was, “Who has more cause for
complaint, Negroes or Indians?” Others debated women’s rights, alcohol or the
value of travel.
Often, the issue was immaterial. What mattered was the sensation of gathering
with a dozen like-minded 16-year-olds, as someone hollered, and lamplight
flickered, and everyone present felt that they were, somehow, preparing to go
ahead in life.
After 1900, public schools proliferated and child labor dwindled, pushing up
graduation rates and making schools truly systematic. This more structured style
reduced individual drive, but offered an accessible, mass system that
impressively bridged class divisions.
Most of all, it provided a clear route from ages 5 to 18. Well over a century
later, we have no sense of how truly pathless life felt before our educational
system — and how that uncertainty often inspired young people to set off on
So how do we reintroduce some of that lost verve today? The short, not
particularly helpful answer is that we don’t: Independent learning must be
arrived at independently. The best we can do is offer young people the tools,
the time and the knowledge that education can take place outside of the system.
There are, of course, hundreds of schools and thousands of teachers working
toward this goal. Past generations of 16-year-olds would approve.
Technology certainly helps. Just as the Internet has opened doors for a
generation of young learners, cheap printing presses allowed 19th-century young
people to start their own newspapers, packed with essays, jokes and articles
assessing the state of “the ’dom” (a common 19th-century slang term for their
world of “amateurdom”).
More than any specific device, what shapes young people’s involvement — for the
boyish newsmen of the 1870s or the armies of young bloggers in 2015 — is the
sense that one’s opinion carries as much weight as a teacher’s or an author’s.
Perhaps the literary offers the best lesson for modern self-educators. For all
its shortcomings, 19th-century self-education taught young Americans to openly
engage with the conflicts of life, to debate and argue, not to rely on adults to
shape their futures. Every step of the modern school system discourages this
Hopefully, we can learn to combine the 19th century’s opinionated go-aheadism
with the 20th century’s structure, to offer young people an independent but
stable path in the 21st century. Maybe it starts during this long, lazy summer
Jon Grinspan is a curator and fellow at the National Museum of American History
and the author of a forthcoming book on young people’s contributions to
19th-century American democracy.
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A version of this op-ed appears in print on July 12, 2015,
on page SR4 of the
New York edition with the headline:
D.I.Y. Education Before YouTube.
The New York Times
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
Street is shining a useful spotlight on one of America’s central challenges, the
inequality that leaves the richest 1 percent of Americans with a greater net
worth than the entire bottom 90 percent.
Most of the proposed remedies involve changes in taxes and regulations, and they
would help. But the single step that would do the most to reduce inequality has
nothing to do with finance at all. It’s an expansion of early childhood
Huh? That will seem naïve and bizarre to many who chafe at inequities and who
think the first step is to throw a few bankers into prison. But although part of
the problem is billionaires being taxed at lower rates than those with more
modest incomes, a bigger source of structural inequity is that many young people
never get the skills to compete. They’re just left behind.
“This is where inequality starts,” said Kathleen McCartney, the dean of the
Harvard Graduate School of Education, as she showed me a chart demonstrating
that even before kindergarten there are significant performance gaps between
rich and poor students. Those gaps then widen further in school.
“The reason early education is important is that you build a foundation for
school success,” she added. “And success breeds success.”
One common thread, whether I’m reporting on poverty in New York City or in
Sierra Leone, is that a good education tends to be the most reliable escalator
out of poverty. Another common thread: whether in America or Africa,
disadvantaged kids often don’t get a chance to board that escalator.
Maybe it seems absurd to propose expansion of early childhood education at a
time when budgets are being slashed. Yet James Heckman, a Nobel Prize-winning
economist at the University of Chicago, has shown that investments in early
childhood education pay for themselves. Indeed, he argues that they pay a return
of 7 percent or more — better than many investments on Wall Street.
“Schooling after the second grade plays only a minor role in creating or
reducing gaps,” Heckman argues in an important article this year in American
Educator. “It is imperative to change the way we look at education. We should
invest in the foundation of school readiness from birth to age 5.”
One of the most studied initiatives in this area was the Perry Preschool
program, which worked with disadvantaged black children in Michigan in the
1960s. Compared with a control group, children who went through the Perry
program were 22 percent more likely to finish high school and were arrested less
than half as often for felonies. They were half as likely to receive public
assistance and three times as likely to own their own homes.
We don’t want to get too excited with these statistics, or those of the equally
studied Abecedarian Project in North Carolina. The program was tiny, and many
antipoverty initiatives work wonderfully when they’re experiments but founder
when scaled up. Still, new research suggests that early childhood education can
work even in the real world at scale.
Take Head Start, which serves more than 900,000 low-income children a year.
There are flaws in Head Start, and researchers have found that while it improved
test results, those gains were fleeting. As a result, Head Start seemed to
confer no lasting benefits, and it has been widely criticized as a failure.
Not so fast.
One of the Harvard scholars I interviewed, David Deming, compared the outcomes
of children who were in Head Start with their siblings who did not participate.
Professor Deming found that critics were right that the Head Start advantage in
test scores faded quickly. But, in other areas, perhaps more important ones, he
found that Head Start had a significant long-term impact: the former Head Start
participants are significantly less likely than siblings to repeat grades, to be
diagnosed with a learning disability, or to suffer the kind of poor health
associated with poverty. Head Start alumni were more likely than their siblings
to graduate from high school and attend college.
Professor Deming found that in these life outcomes, Head Start had about 80
percent of the impact of the Perry program — a stunning achievement.
Something similar seems to be true of the large-scale prekindergarten program in
Boston. Hirokazu Yoshikawa and Christina Weiland, both of Harvard, found that it
erased the Latino-white testing gap in kindergarten and sharply reduced the
President Obama often talked in his campaign about early childhood education,
and he probably agrees with everything I’ve said. But the issue has slipped away
and off the agenda.
That’s sad because the question isn’t whether we can afford early childhood
education, but whether we can afford not to provide it. We can pay for prisons
or we can pay, less, for early childhood education to help build a fairer and
more equitable nation.
The New York Times
By CHARLES M. BLOW
back-to-school season across the country, I wanted to celebrate a group that is
often maligned: teachers. Like so many others, it was a teacher who changed the
direction of my life, and to whom I’m forever indebted.
A Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll released this week found that 76 percent of
Americans believed that high-achieving high school students should later be
recruited to become teachers, and 67 percent of respondents said that they would
like to have a child of their own take up teaching in the public schools as a
But how do we expect to entice the best and brightest to become teachers when we
keep tearing the profession down? We take the people who so desperately want to
make a difference that they enter a field where they know that they’ll be
overworked and underpaid, and we scapegoat them as the cause of a societywide
A March report by the McGraw-Hill Research Foundation and the Organization for
Economic Cooperation and Development found that one of the differences between
the United States and countries with high-performing school systems was: “The
teaching profession in the U.S. does not have the same high status as it once
did, nor does it compare with the status teachers enjoy in the world’s
The report highlights two examples of this diminished status:
• “According to a 2005 National Education Association report, nearly 50 percent
of new teachers leave the profession within their first five years teaching;
they cite poor working conditions and low pay as the chief reason.”
• “High school teachers in the U.S. work longer hours (approximately 50 hours,
according to the N.E.A.), and yet the U.S. devotes a far lower proportion than
the average O.E.C.D. country does to teacher salaries.”
Take Wisconsin, for instance, where a new law stripped teachers of collective
bargaining rights and forced them to pay more for benefits. According to
documents obtained by The Associated Press, “about twice as many public
schoolteachers decided to hang it up in the first half of this year as in each
of the past two full years.”
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t seek to reform our education system. We should,
and we must. Nor am I saying that all teachers are great teachers. They aren’t.
But let’s be honest: No profession is full of peak performers. At least this one
is infused with nobility.
And we as parents, and as a society at large, must also acknowledge our
shortcomings and the enormous hurdles that teachers must often clear to reach a
child. Teachers may be the biggest in-school factor, but there are many
out-of-school factors that weigh heavily on performance, like growing child
poverty, hunger, homelessness, home and neighborhood instability, adult
role-modeling and parental pressure and expectations.
The first teacher to clear those hurdles in my life was Mrs. Thomas.
From the first through third grades, I went to school in a neighboring town
because it was the school where my mother got her first teaching job. I was not
a great student. I was slipping in and out of depression from a tumultuous
family life that included the recent divorce of my parents. I began to grow
invisible. My teachers didn’t seem to see me nor I them. (To this day, I can’t
remember any of their names.)
My work began to suffer so much that I was temporarily placed in the “slow”
class. No one even talked to me about it. They just sent a note. I didn’t
believe that I was slow, but I began to live down to their expectations.
When I entered the fourth grade, my mother got a teaching job in our hometown
and I came back to my hometown school. I was placed in Mrs. Thomas’s class.
There I was, a little nothing of a boy, lost and slumped, flickering in and out
She was a pint-sized firecracker of a woman, with short curly hair, big round
glasses set wider than her face, and a thin slit of a mouth that she kept
well-lined with red lipstick.
On the first day of class, she gave us a math quiz. Maybe it was the nervousness
of being the “new kid,” but I quickly jotted down the answers and turned in the
test — first.
“Whoa! That was quick. Blow, we’re going to call you Speedy Gonzales.” She said
it with a broad approving smile, and the kind of eyes that warmed you on the
She put her arm around me and pulled me close while she graded my paper with the
other hand. I got a couple wrong, but most of them right.
I couldn’t remember a teacher ever smiling with approval, or putting their hand
around me, or praising my performance in any way.
It was the first time that I felt a teacher cared about me, saw me or believed
in me. It lit a fire in me. I never got a bad grade again. I figured that Mrs.
Thomas would always be able to see me if I always shined. I always wanted to
make her as proud of me as she seemed to be that day. And, she always was.
In high school, the district sent a man to test our I.Q.’s. Turns out that not
only was I not slow, but mine and another boy’s I.Q. were high enough that they
created a gifted-and-talented class just for the two of us with our own teacher
who came to our school once a week. I went on to graduate as the valedictorian
of my class.
And all of that was because of Mrs. Thomas, the firecracker of a teacher who
first saw me and smiled with the smile that warmed me on the inside.
So to all of the Mrs. Thomases out there, all the teachers struggling to reach
lost children like I was once, I just want to say thank you. You deserve our
admiration, not our contempt.
WASHINGTON — Emily Strzelecki, a first-year science teacher here,
was about as eager for a classroom visit by one of the city’s roving teacher
evaluators as she would be to get a tooth drilled. “It really stressed me out
because, oh my gosh, I could lose my job,” Ms. Strzelecki said.
Her fears were not unfounded: 165 Washington teachers were fired last year based
on a pioneering evaluation system that places significant emphasis on classroom
observations; next month, 200 to 600 of the city’s 4,200 educators are expected
to get similar bad news, in the nation’s highest rate of dismissal for poor
The evaluation system, known as Impact, is disliked by many unionized teachers
but has become a model for many educators. Spurred by President Obama and his $5
billion Race to the Top grant competition, some 20 states, including New York,
and thousands of school districts are overhauling the way they grade teachers,
and many have sent people to study Impact.
Its admirers say the system, a centerpiece of the tempestuous three-year tenure
of Washington’s former schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, has brought clear
teaching standards to a district that lacked them and is setting a new standard
by establishing dismissal as a consequence of ineffective teaching.
But some educators say it is better at sorting and firing teachers than at
helping struggling ones; they note that the system does not consider
socioeconomic factors in most cases and that last year 35 percent of the
teachers in the city’s wealthiest area, Ward 3, were rated highly effective,
compared with 5 percent in Ward 8, the poorest.
“Teachers have to be parents, priests, lawyers, clothes washers, babysitters and
a bunch of other things” if they work with low-income children, said Nathan
Saunders, president of the Washington Teachers Union. “Impact takes none of
those roles into account, so it can penalize you just for teaching in a
Jason Kamras, the architect of the system, said “it’s too early to answer”
whether Impact makes it easier for teachers in well-off neighborhoods to do
well, but pointed out that Washington’s compensation system offers bigger
bonuses ($25,000 versus $12,500) and salary enhancements in high-poverty
“We take very seriously the distribution of high-quality teachers across the
system,” he said.
The evaluation system leans heavily on student test scores to judge about 500
math and reading teachers in grades four to eight. Ratings for the rest of the
city’s 3,600 teachers are determined mostly by five classroom observations
annually, three by their principal and two by so-called master educators, most
recruited from outside Washington.
For classroom observations, nine criteria — “explain content clearly,” “maximize
instructional time” and “check for student understanding,” for example — are
used to rate the lesson as highly effective, effective, minimally effective or
These five observations combine to form 75 percent of these teachers’ overall
ratings; the rest is based on achievement data and the teachers’ commitment to
their school communities. Ineffective teachers face dismissal. Minimally
effective ones get a year to improve.
Impact costs the city $7 million a year, including pay for 41 master educators,
who earn about $90,000 a year and conduct about 170 observations each. The
program also asks more of principals. Carolyne Albert-Garvey, the principal of
Maury Elementary School on Capitol Hill, has 22 teachers — she must conduct 66
observations, about one every three school days.
“I’ve really gotten to know my staff, and I’m giving teachers more specific
feedback,” Ms. Albert-Garvey said. “It’s empowered me to have the difficult
conversations, and that gives everyone the opportunity to improve.”
Several teachers, however, said they considered their ratings unfair.
A veteran teacher who said he did not want to criticize the school system
openly, said that a month after he inherited a chaotic world history class from
a long-term substitute, the visiting evaluator cut him no slack for taking on
the assignment and penalized him because a student was texting during the
Another teacher who expects to lose her job next month because of low ratings
said at a public hearing that evaluators picked apart her seventh-grade
geography lessons, making criticisms she considered trivial. During the most
recent observation, her evaluator subtracted points because she had failed to
notice a girl eating during class, the teacher said.
“I’m 25 years in the system, and before, I always got outstanding ratings,” she
said. “How can you go overnight from outstanding to minimally effective?”
A report issued by the Aspen Institute in March said one of Impact’s
accomplishments was to align teacher performance with student performance,
noting that previously 95 percent of Washington’s teachers were highly rated but
fewer than half of its students were demonstrating proficiency on tests. Still,
the report quoted teachers who complained of cold-eyed evaluators more
interested in identifying losers than in developing winners.
“After my first conversation with my master educator, I felt it was going to be
worthwhile — she offered me some good resources,” the report quoted one teacher.
“My second master educator was kind of a robot, not generous in offering
assistance, a much tougher grader.”
This month, Mary Gloster, who taught science in three states before she was
recruited to Impact in 2009, was at Ballou High, one of the city’s
lowest-performing schools, to share the results of some classroom visits.
She met with Mahmood Dorosti, a physics teacher who won a $5,000 award this
spring. “Don’t even think about it — you’re highly effective,” she told him.
Next was Ms. Strzelecki, 23, who came to Ballou through Teach for America. The
two sat at adjoining desks, with Ms. Strzelecki looking a bit like a doe in the
But Ms. Gloster, who had watched her teach a ninth-grade biology lesson the week
before, offered compliments, along with suggestions about how Ms. Strzelecki
might provide differentiated teaching for advanced and struggling students.
“You did a really good job, kiddo,” the evaluator ruled, grading her as
effective, the equivalent of a B (the same rating she got on previous
“What I liked about Mary was that I felt she was on my side,” Ms. Strzelecki
said later. “Some teachers feel the master educators are out to get them.”
That is a common perception, said Mark Simon, an education analyst for the
Economic Policy Institute, which receives teachers’ union financing. Ms. Rhee
developed the system, he noted, during tough contract negotiations and did not
consult with the teachers’ union in its design.
“That was a missed opportunity,” Mr. Simon said, “and it’s created a lot of
Re “The Limits of School Reform” (column, April 26):
Hats off to Joe Nocera for saying what has been obvious to teachers and
principals for years. By the time a child starts public school, at age 5 or 6,
he or she has been in an environment since birth that has largely shaped the
outcome of his or her school experience.
There’s no question that can be modified for the good by dedicated teachers
working in well-run schools. But there is serious doubt that school reform alone
will accomplish that.
Children bring all the baggage of their home experiences with them when they
come to school. Couple that with the dismal condition of many of the nation’s
public schools, crumbling neighborhoods and parents who have little to no
contact with the schools, and you have a recipe for failing schools.
Requiring school uniforms, adding hours to the schoolday, providing more
rigorous courses — all may be helpful, but no combination of efforts confined
solely to the schools will provide the magic answer.
Many of America’s schools are failing because for many Americans our society is
failing. Pushing for more charter schools and standardized tests or excoriating
teachers’ unions are only diversions if we fail to broaden our efforts beyond
the schoolhouse door.
Durham, N.C., April 26, 2011
To the Editor:
Joe Nocera’s point that good teaching alone cannot overcome the obstacles posed
by poverty is a common counterpoint to the education reform movement. I, like
Joel I. Klein, former New York City schools chancellor, reject this premise
because it takes the entire problem of failing schools out of one’s control.
Of course poverty is a factor. So is how many parents the students live with. So
is school funding. So is out-of-control school bureaucracy.
But, so what? The entire point of the teacher focus is that it’s the only thing
the school systems really have control over. In the absence of an immediate plan
to fix poverty, family structure and school funding, the only place where we can
influence the fate of these students is in the classroom. That’s where the focus
Memphis, April 26, 2011
The writer is a high school teacher.
To the Editor:
Thank you, Joe Nocera. I teach 11th-grade English and this term I have 60
low-performing students. I vowed to myself that not one would fail my class. I
have worked harder than ever before to make relevant lesson plans, teach basic
grammar and talk one on one with failing students.
And yet, what am I to do with the one who spent two weeks in a mental hospital,
the two who have run away, the one with no ride to school, the three who have
been suspended for drugs and the countless others who attend class only one or
two days a week?
Short of adopting these teenagers myself (something that movies about inspiring
teachers seem to suggest is a viable option), my impact on their lives seems
Bloomington, Ind., April 26, 2011
To the Editor:
Joe Nocera is right: To deal with the impact of poverty on students’ success in
school, we must both improve schools that serve low-income children and provide
the additional resources, services and supports children need to succeed. If we
concentrate on only one of these efforts, we will continue to fail these
Most American children thrive academically because they enjoy the benefits of
preschool, quality K-12 schooling, complementary learning opportunities out of
school, health care and family support. For children from poverty, many of these
vital educational resources are unavailable or inadequate. The result is
dramatic gaps in academic achievement.
Research clearly shows that for disadvantaged children to obtain a meaningful
educational opportunity, they need both important school-based resources like
quality teaching, and critical out-of-school resources like quality early
learning experiences, physical and mental health care, after-school and summer
programs, and family engagement — what we call “comprehensive educational
In spite of all the new money promoting a more simplistic approach, this
“both/and” approach continues to gain strength among researchers, practitioners,
advocates and the courts.
JESSICA R. WOLFF
New York, April 27, 2011
The writer is director of the Comprehensive Educational Opportunity Project of
the Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers College, Columbia University.
MIAMI — On
the first day of her senior year at North Miami Beach Senior High School, Naomi
Baptiste expected to be greeted by a teacher when she walked into her
“All there were were computers in the class,” said Naomi, who walked into a room
of confused students. “We found out that over the summer they signed us up for
Naomi is one of over 7,000 students in Miami-Dade County Public Schools enrolled
in a program in which core subjects are taken using computers in a classroom
with no teacher. A “facilitator” is in the room to make sure students progress.
That person also deals with any technical problems.
These virtual classrooms, called e-learning labs, were put in place last August
as a result of Florida’s Class Size Reduction Amendment, passed in 2002. The
amendment limits the number of students allowed in classrooms, but not in
While most schools held an orientation about the program, some students and
parents said they were not informed of the new class structure. Others said they
were not given the option to choose whether they wanted this type of
instruction, and they voiced concern over the program’s effectiveness.
The online courses are provided by Florida Virtual School, which has been an
option in the state’s public schools. The virtual school has provided online
classes for home-schooled and traditional students who want to take extra
courses. Students log on to a Web site to gain access to lessons, which consist
mostly of text with some graphics, and they can call, e-mail or text online
instructors for help.
The 54 participating schools in the Miami-Dade County system’s e-learning lab
program integrate the online classes differently. A representative from the
district said in an e-mail that the system “provided lab facilitators, training
for those facilitators and coordination” between the district schools and the
Theresa Sutter, a member of the Parent Teacher Student Association at Miami
Beach Senior High School, said she thought her daughter, Kelly, was done with
virtual classes after she finished Spanish the previous year at home.
When Kelly said that she had been placed in a virtual lab, Ms. Sutter recalled
her “jaws dropped.” Neither of them had been told that Kelly would be in one.
“It’s totally different from what classroom teaching is like, so it’s a
completely different animal,” Ms. Sutter said.
Under the state’s class-reduction amendment, high school classrooms cannot
surpass a 25-student limit in core subjects, like English or math. Fourth-
through eighth-grade classrooms can have no more than 22 students, and
prekindergarten through third grade can have no more than 18.
Alix Braun, 15, a sophomore at Miami Beach High, takes Advanced Placement
macroeconomics in an e-learning lab with 35 to 40 other students. There are 445
students enrolled in the online courses at her school, and while Alix chose to
be placed in the lab, she said most of her lab mates did not.
“None of them want to be there,” Alix said, “and for virtual education you have
to be really self-motivated. This was not something they chose to do, and it’s a
really bad situation to be put in because it is not your choice.”
School administrators said that they had to find a way to meet class-size
limits. Jodi Robins, the assistant principal of curriculum at Miami Beach High,
said that even if students struggled in certain subjects, the virtual labs were
necessary because “there’s no way to beat the class-size mandate without it.”
In response to parental confusion about virtual classes, the Miami Beach High
parent-teacher association created a committee on virtual labs. The panel works
with the school toward “getting issues on the table and working proactively,”
said Patricia Kaine, the association’s president.
Some teachers are skeptical of how well the program can help students learn.
“The way our state is dealing with class size is nearly criminal,” said Chris
Kirchner, an English teacher at Coral Reef Senior High School in Miami. “They’re
standardizing in the worst possible way, which is evident in virtual classes.”
While Ms. Kirchner questions the instructional effectiveness of online courses,
she said there was a place for them at some level.
“I think there should be learning on the computer,” Ms. Kirchner said. “That
part is from 2:30 p.m. on. The first part of the day should be for learning with
But Michael G. Moore, a professor of education at Pennsylvania State University,
said programs that combine virtual education and face-to-face instruction could
be effective. This is called the “blended learning concept.”
“There is no doubt that blended learning can be as effective and often more
effective than a classroom,” said Mr. Moore, who is also editor of The American
Journal of Distance Education. He said, however, that research and his
experiences had shown that proper design and teacher instruction within the
classroom were necessary. A facilitator who only monitors student progress and
technical issues within virtual labs would not be categorized as part of a
blended-learning model, he said. Other variables include “the maturity and
sophistication of the student,” he said.
Despite some complaints about the virtual teaching method, administrators said
e-learning labs were here to stay. And nationally, blending learning has already
caught on in some areas.
In Chicago Public Schools, high schools have “credit recovery” programs that let
students take online classes they previously failed so they can graduate. Omaha
Public Schools also have similar programs that require physical attendance at
Julie Durrand, manager of the e-learning lab program, said the virtual school
planned to work more closely with district schools to ensure success. She said
virtual school officials wanted orientations to be mandatory in schools with
labs. Ms. Durrand also predicted that labs would expand to middle schools and
would include more grade levels in schools that currently limited the labs to
juniors and seniors.
There are six middle and K-8 schools using virtual labs in Miami, including
Cutler Ridge Middle School and Frank C. Martin K-8 Center.
“I truly believe this will be an option for many districts across the state,”
Ms. Durrand said. “I think we just hit the tip of the iceberg.”
AMERICAN education was once the best in the world. But today, our private and
public universities are losing their competitive edge to foreign institutions,
they are losing the advertising wars to for-profit colleges and they are losing
control over their own admissions because of an ill-conceived ranking system.
With the recession causing big state budget cuts, the situation in higher
education has turned critical. Here are a few radical ideas to improve matters:
Raise the age of compulsory education. Twenty-six states require children to
attend school until age 16, the rest until 17 or 18, but we should ensure that
all children stay in school until age 19. Simply completing high school no
longer provides students with an education sufficient for them to compete in the
21st-century economy. So every child should receive a year of post-secondary
The benefits of an extra year of schooling are beyond question: high school
graduates can earn more than dropouts, have better health, more stable lives and
a longer life expectancy. College graduates do even better. Just as we are
moving toward a longer school day (where is it written that learning should end
at 3 p.m.?) and a longer school year (does anyone really believe pupils need a
three-month summer vacation?), so we should move to a longer school career.
President Obama recently embraced the possibility of extending public education
for a year after high school: “I ask every American to commit to at least one
year or more of higher education or career training.” He suggested that this
compulsory post-secondary education could be in a “community college or a
four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship.” (I helped start an
accredited online school of education, and firmly believe that the coursework
could also be delivered to students online.)
If the federal government ultimately pays for the extra year, it would be a
turning point at least as important as the passage of the 1862 Morrill Act that
gave rise to the state universities or the 1944 G.I. Bill that made college
affordable to our returning service personnel after World War II. Every college
trustee should be insisting that we make the president’s dream a reality.
And for those who graduate from high school early: they would receive, each year
until they turn 19, a scholarship equal to their state’s per pupil spending. In
New York, that could be nearly $15,000 per year. This proposal — which already
has been tried in a few states — has the neat side effect of encouraging quick
learners to graduate early and free up seats in our overcrowded high schools.
Use high-pressure sales tactics to curb truancy. Casual truancy is epidemic; in
many cities, including New York, roughly 30 percent of public school students
are absent a total of a month each year. Not surprisingly, truants become
But truant officers can borrow a page from salesmen, who have developed
high-pressure tactics so effective they can overwhelm the consumer’s will.
Making repeated home visits and early morning phone calls, securing written
commitments and eliciting oral commitments in front of witnesses might be
egregious tactics when used by, say, a credit card company. But these could be
valuable ways to compel parents to ensure that their children go to school every
Advertise creatively and aggressively to encourage college enrollment. The
University of Phoenix, a private, for-profit institution, spent $278 million on
advertising, most of it online, in 2007. It was one of the principal sponsors of
Super Bowl XLII, which was held at University of Phoenix Stadium (not bad for an
institution that doesn’t even have a football team). The University of Phoenix’s
enrollment has clearly benefited from its advertising budget: with more than
350,000 students, its enrollment is surpassed by only a few state universities.
The University of Phoenix and other for profits have also established a crucial
niche recruiting and serving older students. Traditional colleges need to do far
better, using advertising to attract paying older students and to recruit the
more than 70 percent of the population who lack a post-secondary degree. They
have a built-in advantage, since attending a for-profit college instead of a
more prestigious, less expensive public college makes no more sense than buying
bottled water when the tap water tastes just as good.
Unseal college accreditation reports so that the Department of Education can
take over the business of ranking colleges and universities. Accreditation
reports — rigorous evaluations, prepared by representatives of peer institutions
— include everything students need to know when making decisions about schools,
yet the specifics of most reports remain secret.
Instead, students and their parents rely on U.S. News & World Report rankings
that are skewed by colleges, which contort their marketing efforts to maximize
the number of applicants whom they already know they will never accept, just to
improve their selectivity rankings. Meanwhile, private counselors charge
thousands of dollars claiming to know the “secret” of admissions. Aspiring
entrants submit far too many applications in the hope of beating the odds.
Everyone loses. Opening the accreditation reports to the public would provide a
The biggest improvement we can make in higher education is to produce more
qualified applicants. Half of the freshmen at community colleges and a third of
freshmen at four-year colleges matriculate with academic skills in at least one
subject too weak to allow them to do college work. Unsurprisingly, the average
college graduation rates even at four-year institutions are less than 60
The story at the graduate level is entirely predictable: in 2007, more than a
third of all research doctorates were awarded to foreigners, and the proportion
is far higher in the hard sciences. The problem goes well beyond the fact that
both our public schools and undergraduate institutions need to do a better job
preparing their students: too many parents are failing to insure that their
children are educated.
President Obama has again led the way: “As fathers and parents, we’ve got to
spend more time with them, and help them with their homework, and replace the
video game or the remote control with a book once in a while.” Better teachers,
smaller classes and more modern schools are all part of the solution. But
improving parenting skills and providing struggling parents with assistance are
part of the solution too.
At a time when it seems we have ever fewer globally competitive industries,
American higher education is a brand worth preserving.
Harold O. Levy,
the New York City schools chancellor from 2000 to 2002,