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History > 2008 > USA > Education (II)






Illustration: Kate O'Connor

Fear and Learning on Campus


















Op-Ed Contributor

Fear and Learning on Campus


April 16, 2008
The New York Times


Los Angeles

LAST week, as I was editing my student film, my eyes wandered to the monitor of a nearby student. She had a gun in her movie, I noticed. I was impressed by her ambition. She had obviously done a lot of work — paperwork.

Since the shootings at Virginia Tech a year ago, our school has made it as difficult as possible for students to put guns in their films. Joe Wallenstein, who oversees film production by students, explained that using fake weapons could be misperceived by passers-by, and misunderstanding could lead to calamity. Just days ago, the faculty banned all guns in first-semester student films and mandated that higher-level students attend a police firearms training session before using fake guns, and under many circumstances pay a police officer $450 to oversee their productions.

One of my classmates avoided the permitting process by replacing a gun in his script with a banana, turning his Western-themed cowboy film into a slapstick comedy. In his in-class critique session, the professor told him that the banana “does not work.”

Many other universities around the country are also trying to balance freedom and safety. At Harvard, a dormitory that had prided itself on not having a security officer now has one. Dorm residents protested, but the college stood firm, insisting that the freedom of movement they had lost was secondary to their safety.

Stanford, for its part, still has no professional dormitory guards, but it is developing an ID-card-based access system that is meant to eventually include all campus buildings.

Emergency text message systems are becoming increasingly common, and many colleges now require students to submit their cellphone numbers. A friend at Florida State University complained to me that he recently received the same emergency message several times, warning about a “suspicious package” in the parking garage. The message did not specify which garage, so students avoided all of them. The package turned out to be a briefcase left on the car of a high school student whose nickname, A-Bomb, was inscribed on the exterior. Whoops.

I have lately heard classmates apologize in advance for potentially disturbing content in their movies, or crack jokes to avert suspicion that they may be emotionally troubled. Our teachers encourage us to be “edgy” (it sells) but we are also aware that, since Virginia Tech, stepping over that edge into the realm of “disturbing” could land you in the dean’s office.

I admit I was startled when, looking over that young woman’s shoulder, I saw that the gun in her film was being aimed at a student behind a desk begging for her life. Can it be a good idea to present school shootings as entertainment?

The filmmaker explained that the story was about a student who resisted peer pressure to skip class on what turned out to be the day of a school shooting. Her intent was to reveal how good intentions (not skipping class) can end up being a mistake because of forces beyond your control. My worry is that because of forces beyond her control, her movie could end up like “Oldboy,” a violent South Korean film that won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2004, and then helped inspire Seung-Hui Cho to carry out the Virginia Tech massacre.

Freedom and safety are becoming increasingly difficult to balance, it’s plain to see. But when I consider that more than 29,000 students have bravely returned to classes at Virginia Tech this year, I’m heartened.

Alice Mathias is a graduate student

at the University of Southern California film school.

Fear and Learning on Campus, NYT, 16.4.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/16/opinion/16mathias.html






Op-Ed Contributor

Topics in University Security:

Lockdown 101


April 16, 2008
The New York Times



IN February, a man carrying a fake assault weapon burst into an American foreign policy class at Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina. The seven unsuspecting students, along with a stunned professor who later remarked that he was “prepared to die at that moment,” were held hostage for 10 minutes. During that time, the gunman said he would kill at least one of them.

The class survived because the gunman was a volunteer, part of an exercise intended to test the university’s system for responding to a possible campus attack. The university had alerted its students and faculty with e-mail and text messages, but not everyone read them. Fortunately, no one was hurt in the simulation — at least physically.

In the year since the shooting at Virginia Tech last April 16, American colleges have been under pressure, from worried parents as well as from the news media, to beef up campus security. Like Elizabeth City State, many schools have overreacted by instituting safety measures of questionable effectiveness. Safety officials are quick to shut down classes, as happened recently at California State University, Dominguez Hills, when an R.O.T.C. student with a drill rifle was mistaken for an assailant toting an automatic weapon. Instead of making campuses safer, we are fostering an unwarranted and unhealthy level of fear.

An article in Newsweek’s “College Guide” last fall advised families on how to tell whether a university is safe, and earlier this year Readers’ Digest graded 135 colleges nationwide on their safety precautions — notification systems, campus lockdown plans, armed security and the like. A bill in Congress, too, pushes the security agenda by proposing that universities be required to issue campus alerts within 30 minutes of a reported emergency.

The vast majority of institutions in the Readers’ Digest survey have in place security measures that not long ago would have been considered unnecessary, if not absurd. All but six of the schools surveyed have installed mass notification systems; more than half have lockdown plans; and more than 40 percent have authorized their campus police officers to carry firearms.

Although a popular response, campus-wide notification systems, ranging from low-tech sirens to text-message alerts on cellphones, are not necessarily a reliable way to protect students. An emergency siren could signal anything from a fire to gunfire. Text alerts would fail to reach a packed lecture hall if the instructor requires students to turn off their cellphones.

Anxious parents have been particularly keen on lockdowns, plans to seal off buildings manually or electronically to prevent a gunman from moving from place to place. The lockdown may do little to prevent casualties, however: Almost all college shootings have taken place in one location — in just one building, if not just one classroom. And a lockdown introduces dangers of its own. The same locks that bar a gunman from entering classrooms and dorms can also prevent potential victims from escaping into a locked building if they are being chased by a gunman.

Perhaps the most important change inspired by Virginia Tech is a renewed emphasis on mental health services. And given that there are many times more suicides on campus than homicides, this could benefit countless students, the vast majority of whom pose no danger to others. Over the past year, one-third of campus counseling centers have added staff members, including psychiatrists, and 15 percent of campus counseling centers have received larger budgets.

But this approach, too, may fail to identify and stop a violent student. Thousands of college students are depressed or even suicidal, but there is no consistent profile of a person who turns from disappointment and frustration to violent rage.

Colleges are not helpless in preventing and responding to campus shootings. Certain measures clearly make sense. Every university should have a well-trained and sufficiently large security force. Faculty and staff members should be trained to handle volatile students and situations. And it pays to conduct emergency preparedness drills, but not ones that involve students nor ones that are staged when classes are in session.

By overreacting to Virginia Tech, not only are college administrators instituting security measures that may well prove ineffective, but they are also undermining the carefree atmosphere of campus life. They chance making students feel like walking targets.

I especially worry that the anniversary of the Virginia Tech shootings will mean endless replaying of video images of that campus under siege. With last year’s shooting there, and the Valentine’s Day massacre at Northern Illinois University, the violence on campuses feels like a conflagration. There is no need to stoke the flames.

James Alan Fox, a professor of criminal justice and law, policy and society at Northeastern University, is a co-author of “The Will to Kill” and “Extreme Killing.”

Topics in University Security: Lockdown 101, NYT, 16.4.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/16/opinion/16fox.html

















David Suter
















Shouldn’t Schools Be About the Kids?


April 14, 2008
The New York Times


To the Editor:

Re “Albany Fails Again” (editorial, April 9):

The use of a midyear test as a rubric for teacher performance would be unfair.

Sadly, new teachers are not always given the best and brightest classes, and even the best teacher may not be able to overcome years of ineffective education in a matter of months.

The solution, at least at the primary level, is to test for progress. Let’s give students two tests: the first, on the first day or two of school, to establish a benchmark. The second, near the end of the year, to determine progress. Coupled with this would be performance pay and personnel evaluation.

All teachers — tenured or not — who failed to meet improvement goals would be required to spend the summer in a retraining program, and then re-evaluated the following year. No improvement, no job.

It’s not just the new educators who fall down on the job, and we need to remember that the schools are operated for the children, not the employees.

John A. McLaughlin

Wappingers Falls, N.Y., April 9, 2008

To the Editor:

As a New York City schoolteacher of more than three decades, I look back on my career with much pleasure.

I received tenure after 30 observations by my chairman and still more by my principal. My supervisors worked closely with me to hone my techniques. It was an honest, constructive and, above all, human process.

Tenure helped provide me with the confidence to continue developing as a pedagogue. It gave me the poise to form deep and effective relationships with my students, to win over their minds and hearts to great literature, to engage their intellects with rigorous readings.

Above all, it enabled me to reach out to kids who were sometimes deemed unteachable, without the fear that if my efforts didn’t conform to the specifics of a test, I would lose my job.

My students still keep in touch with me, although I retired four years ago. Linking tenure to test scores would undermine the deep personal enterprise that is teaching. Perry Weiner

Brooklyn, April 10, 2008

To the Editor:

I disagree with all those who argue that a teacher’s tenure should be dependent on student scores. But I suppose that blaming anyone but the teacher these days is politically incorrect.

Too many people these days want to run our schools like businesses. They want to blame hard-working educators with graduate degrees for the numerous factors that contribute to student failure. But many of those factors aren’t under any teacher’s control (for example, poor attendance).

Teachers have become fall guys. Test scores have become the new quarterly earnings. Naomi Heilig

New York, April 9, 2008

The writer is a retired New York City schoolteacher.

To the Editor:

I often disagree with the teachers’ union, and I agree that teachers must meet quality standards in order to be granted tenure.

But as a parent of students in New York City schools, I see one inevitable, real-life result of allowing standardized test scores to be taken into account in tenure decisions: test prep would start on Day 1 of the school year, and continue until test day.

Even more educational content would be sacrificed in favor of teaching students how to take tests. What would be lost would be the teaching of actual material.

My fourth grader spent every bit of his December homework time doing practice tests in preparation for January’s English Language Assessment test.

The testing stakes are already too high. Linking tenure to test results would be a disaster for our students.

Kate Adams Goss

Bellerose, N.Y., April 9, 2008

    Shouldn’t Schools Be About the Kids?, NYT, 14.4.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/14/opinion/l14teach.html







Albany Fails Again


April 9, 2008
The New York Times


Prepare to hand out more demerits in New York’s capital. One of the reasons that the budget is late this year has nothing to do with the state’s $124 billion spending plan. The back-room debate in recent days has focused on a piece of language, which was mysteriously inserted into the education section of the budget, that bars school administrators from considering student test scores when determining whether a teacher deserves to get tenure.

It is an absurd ban that does a disservice to the state’s millions of public school students. The State Legislature should remove this language from the budget.

To judge whether a teacher elevates the class or sets students spiraling backward, administrators should look at the biggest possible picture. That includes the teacher’s education and experience, of course. But what about the students’ work, including their performance on standardized tests? Shouldn’t that also be considered before giving a teacher a virtually permanent job in New York State? The ban is so nonsensical that lawmakers clearly decided that the only way to get it passed was to keep it hidden deep in the budget documents.

Nobody in Albany would say who is behind this language. The driving force, however, is the powerful teachers’ union that gives lots of money and time to state campaigns. Union leaders argue that it is impossible to judge a teacher fairly by students’ performance on tests, especially since many are given in the middle of the year.

The chancellor of New York City’s schools, Joel Klein, has argued that test performance can be analyzed in a way that makes it a useful tool for comparing teachers’ performance. Also, he has said that this should be a matter for each local district to decide. For his schools, he has sensibly promised that the scores will be only one of several metrics used. The best teachers teach children how to collect information carefully and how to evaluate it critically. Before they hand out tenure, New York’s school administrators should be able to do the same.

    Albany Fails Again, NYT, 9.4.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/09/opinion/09wed3.html






Fewer Options Open

to Pay for Costs of College


April 12, 2008
The New York Times


Parents will have to navigate unfamiliar and difficult terrain when it comes time to pay for college this year, with student loan companies in turmoil and banks tightening their standards and raising rates on other types of borrowing.

Lawmakers and the administration are trying to head off any crisis by making sure that “lenders of last resort” stand ready to take the place of companies that have left the federal loan program. And a growing number of colleges have applied to participate in the federal direct loan program, in which students borrow from the government.

But families often use a combination of resources to pay for college, drawing on savings, federal loans, bank loans and home loans to plug the gap between college costs and financial aid.

Even if the government wards off problems in the credit markets and federal student loans are easily accessible, other sources of financing will become less accessible as consumers find themselves stretched thin and lenders get more choosy.

Turbulence in lending has complicated the efforts of people like Dawn R. Beaton of Mill Valley, Calif., to pay for her daughters’ education. A single mother earning less than $50,000 a year, she already has run into difficulty taking out a federal parent loan for her oldest daughter, Nicole, to attend a nearby community college. Her original lender pulled out of the market, and she is still waiting, months later, to hear from a replacement lender on that $5,000 request. She anticipates having to borrow about $10,000 to send her middle daughter to a private college in Ohio later this year.

“When I go to bed at night, I worry about it,” said Ms. Beaton, who is a financial manager for a vineyard.

“If you don’t have the money, there you are, in a serious, ulcer state. You feel inadequate.”

According to a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, 70 percent of parents surveyed were “very concerned” about how they would pay for college; only 6 percent were not concerned.

To ensure continued availability of federal loans, the secretary of the federal Education Department met on Friday with representatives of the state agencies and nonprofit companies that guarantee federal loans on behalf of the government. The goal was to work out how the guarantors would serve as lenders, if necessary. This emergency safety net has never been pressed into widespread use.

Though there is no major problem now, the lending industry is warning of a credit squeeze without action. “I would say there is widespread belief,” said Margaret Spellings, the education secretary, “that we will have a real problem, that the lender of last resort or some other solution will have to be used this year.”

Last year, students and their parents borrowed nearly $60 billion in federally guaranteed loans, a figure that has grown more than 6 percent annually over the last five years after taking into account inflation. In recent years, the growth rate has declined but may pick up as the economy slows and as other borrowing options fade.

“I want to make sure we are going to do our part, and that students will be able to go to college this fall,” Ms. Spelling said.

Lawmakers in Washington have proposed increasing the amounts that students can borrow through federal programs and authorizing the Education Department to purchase federal loans, thereby providing banks with cash to make more loans. The House Education Committee approved legislation this week that would allow dependent students to borrow a total of $31,000 through federal programs to pay for their undergraduate education, up from $23,000 now.

Still, it is difficult to gauge whether a financing problem will emerge later this year for students and, if so, how serious it might be. The disruption in the federal lending program so far has mostly been from borrowers shifting to another lender. Ms. Beaton, for example, expects her $5,000 loan request to eventually be granted. “By the time I get the money, school will probably be over,” she said.

Financial aid administrators say few students had been shut out. “I haven’t heard anything about any sort of unusual trends so far, not to say that it isn’t going to intensify,” said Daniel C. Walls, associate vice provost for enrollment management at Emory University in Atlanta. “I suspect there’s going to be more negotiating around financial aid this year than any other year that we’ve experienced.”

Admitted students are just now receiving financial aid awards from colleges, and the test will come when tuition payments for the fall term are due, aid administrators say.

“By mid- to late June, certainly July, will be the months that we really begin to understand the relative financial situations of families,” said Jean McDonald-Rash, director of financial aid at Rutgers in New Jersey.

Students attending several expensive and wealthy colleges will enjoy expanded financial aid, as those institutions move to replace need-based loans with grants. Harvard and Yale recently announced expansions of aid to families making as much as $150,000, displaying a degree of generosity that few institutions can match.

Some student advocates say lenders are exaggerating the obstacles they face in search of a bailout from Washington.

“Student lenders are trying to hype the current credit crunch to scare Congress into providing them additional subsidies and to discredit last years’ hard won higher education reform,” said Luke Swarthout of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group in Washington, referring to cuts lawmakers made last year to the subsidy payments to lenders of federal loans.

Kevin Bruns, executive director of America’s Student Loan Providers, dismissed such criticism as baseless. “Lenders’ only goal is to get the administration to use its existing authority to provide liquidity to the capital markets that fund federal student loans,” he said. “Lenders don’t need to overstate anything — the facts speak for themselves.”

There are clear signs of potential problems in the fall. It remains difficult for lenders to sell securities backed by student loans, in turn making it harder to raise capital. One guarantor of private loans, a nonprofit company called the Education Resources Institute, filed for bankruptcy protection this week.

“Everything that’s happened in the capital markets with this credit crunch has caused the fixed-income investor base to shrink, so there are fewer potential buyers of securities backed by the loans,” said Andrea L. Murad, senior director at Fitch Ratings in New York.

The House legislation seeks to address this situation by allowing the Education Department to buy student loans itself. At least 25 loan companies — including big lenders like the College Loan Corporation; the Student Loan Xpress unit of CIT; and NorthStar Education Finance — have stopped making federal loans, according to the Education Department. Some estimates put the number at nearly twice that.

Colleges generally say that more than 2,000 companies make student loans, and there are plenty of lenders to step into the breach.

No doubt to sidestep any related problems, more than 100 colleges and universities have applied to participate in the direct loan program since the end of February, according to the department. Ms. Spellings, the department secretary, has said the direct loan program could double the amount of new loans it makes to students, if necessary.

Some commercial education companies have already taken steps to ensure that their students can find lenders, in some instances by preparing to make loans themselves.

Problems are more likely for those seeking private loans, which do not have any government backing. The terms of private loans, like other consumer loans, vary depending on the credit histories of individual applicants and in some cases can top 20 percent.

In the last several months, rates on those loans have risen by nearly one percentage point, according to research by Mark Kantrowitz, who publishes the financial aid Web site FinAid.org. Lenders have also tightened their standards, making it costlier for those with weak credit histories to obtain loans.

Private loans have grown sharply in popularity over the last 10 years, as families have looked for ways to pay the difference between tuition, on the one hand, and their savings and federal loan options, on the other. Last year, according to the College Board, students took out more than $17 billion in private loans, up from just $1.6 billion a decade earlier.

“If the financial aid system had kept pace with inflation, there wouldn’t be any need for private loans,” said Paul Wrubel, co-founder of TuitionCoach.com and a consultant for families trying to figure out how to pay for college.

Families also have closed the gap between college costs and federal loans by borrowing against their homes — and that is another option vanishing as house prices fall and lenders clamp down. Millions of homeowners now owe more than their houses are worth, leaving no equity to borrow against.

There is no data on how many parents may have used home equity loans to pay for higher education, researchers and aid administrators said, but there is no doubt many did, to take advantage of tax breaks and lower rates.

Tapping into home equity was always part of the college finance plan for Connie and Dave Orient of Canonsburg, Pa. She is a paralegal at a law firm in Pittsburgh and he is in the family construction business. Their older son, Christopher, is a sophomore at California University of Pennsylvania, a public institution relatively inexpensive for in-state residents. The younger son, Luke, a high school junior, wants to go to Virginia Tech, which she said would cost three times as much.

“I believe that I am in an area that is not depressed or anything,” Ms. Orient said. She added that she hoped still to be able to borrow against the house she and her husband built 25 years ago, but was unsure how much equity she really has in it and how much a lender would be willing to extend. “Nothing’s selling anywhere right now.”

Alan Finder contributed reporting.

    Fewer Options Open to Pay for Costs of College, NYT, 12.4.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/12/business/12loan.html?hp






In Test,

Few Students Are Proficient Writers


April 3, 2008
The New York Times


About one-third of America’s eighth-grade students, and about one in four high school seniors, are proficient writers, according to results of a nationwide test released on Thursday.

The test, administered last year, showed that there were modest increases in the writing skills of low-performing students since the last time a similar exam was given, in 2002. But the skills of high-performing eighth and 12th graders remained flat or declined.

Girls far outperformed boys in the test, with 41 percent of eighth-grade girls scoring at or above the proficient level, compared with 20 percent of eighth-grade boys.

New Jersey and Connecticut were the two top-performing states, with more than half their students scoring at or above the proficient level (56 percent in New Jersey, 53 percent in Connecticut). Those two and seventeen other states ranked above New York, where 31 percent of students wrote at the proficient level.

Authorities in the federal government’s school testing program said they were encouraged by the results, especially since they seemed to counter other recent indicators suggesting a decline in Americans’ writing abilities.

“I am happy to report, paraphrasing Mark Twain, that the death of writing has been greatly exaggerated,” said Amanda P. Avallone, an eighth-grade English teacher who is a vice chairwoman of the board that oversees the federal testing program, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the nation’s report card.

Still, some experts questioned whether the test, which asks students to write brief essays in a short time, gave an accurate measurement of their writing ability.

The results were released at a news conference Thursday at the Library of Congress in Washington.

James H. Billington, the librarian of Congress, drew laughs when he expressed concern about what he called “the slow destruction of the basic unit of human thought, the sentence,” because young Americans are doing most of their writing in disjointed prose composed in Internet chat rooms or in cellphone text messages.

“The sentence is the biggest casualty,” Mr. Billington said. “To what extent is students’ writing getting clearer? Is that still being taught?”

Ms. Avallone sought to allay his concerns.

“I know that the sentence has not been put to rest as a unit of communication,” she said.

Ms. Avallone said the differences between girls’ and boys’ scores may result in part from lower literacy expectations for boys in public schools.

“These days I seldom, if ever, hear the message that math and science do not matter for girls, yet I do still encounter the myth that many boys won’t really need to write very much or very well once they leave school,” Ms. Avallone said.

The national writing test was given to 140,000 eighth graders and 28,000 12th grade students, selected to form a representative sample of all students nationwide in those grades. Each student wrote two 25-minute essays, designed to measure student skills at writing to inform, persuade and tell stories.

Overall, 33 percent of eighth graders scored at or above the proficiency level, which the test designers defined as competency in carrying out challenging academic tasks, while 88 percent scored at or above the basic level, defined as partial mastery of the skills needed for proficient work.

While 33 percent of eighth graders writing with proficiency may not sound like a lot, it is the best performance by eighth graders on any subject matter tested in the national assessment program in the last three years. Smaller percentages of eighth-grade students have performed at the proficiency level in reading, math, science, civics or history tests. Only 17 percent of eighth graders managed a proficient score on the nationwide history exam in 2006, for example.

“These results pleased and encouraged me,” said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools, which represents the nation’s 60 largest urban districts. “A lot of cities have introduced explicit writing programs. You go into urban schools and you see hallways lined with samples of student writing. Writing programs have gotten better.”

There were large differences in scores from state to state. Mississippi ranked last, with only 15 percent of students writing at the proficiency level.

The encouraging overall results contrasted with some other recent indicators of Americans’ writing prowess. A survey of 120 corporations conducted by the College Board in 2003, for instance, concluded that one-third of employees at the nation’s blue-chip companies wrote poorly, and that businesses were spending billions of dollars on remedial training, some of it for new hires straight out of college.

“Overall, American students’ writing skills are deteriorating,” said Will Fitzhugh, the founder of Concord Review, a journal published in Massachusetts that features history research papers written by high school students. He expressed skepticism that the national assessment accurately measured students’ overall writing skills because, he said, it only tests their ability to write very brief essays jotted out in half an hour.

“The only way to assess the kind of writing that students will have to do in college is to have them write a term paper, and then have somebody sit down and grade it — and nobody wants to do that, because it’s too costly,” he said.

Mr. Fitzhugh cited findings of a 2006 survey of college professors, in which a large majority said they thought most high school graduates came to college with limited writing skills.

In Test, Few Students Are Proficient Writers, NYT, 3.4.2008,



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