Les anglonautes

About | Search | Vocapedia | Learning | Podcasts | Videos | History | Arts | Science | Translate

 Previous Home Up Next


History > 2012 > USA > Education (I)




Johnny Selman


Shame Is Not the Solution


22 February 2012
















Making Schools Work


May 19, 2012
The New York Times


AMID the ceaseless and cacophonous debates about how to close the achievement gap, we’ve turned away from one tool that has been shown to work: school desegregation. That strategy, ushered in by the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, has been unceremoniously ushered out, an artifact in the museum of failed social experiments. The Supreme Court’s ruling that racially segregated schools were “inherently unequal” shook up the nation like no other decision of the 20th century. Civil rights advocates, who for years had been patiently laying the constitutional groundwork, cheered to the rafters, while segregationists mourned “Black Monday” and vowed “massive resistance.” But as the anniversary was observed this past week on May 17, it was hard not to notice that desegregation is effectively dead. In fact, we have been giving up on desegregation for a long time. In 1974, the Supreme Court rejected a metropolitan integration plan, leaving the increasingly black cities to fend for themselves.

A generation later, public schools that had been ordered to integrate in the 1960s and 1970s became segregated once again, this time with the blessing of a new generation of justices. And five years ago, a splintered court delivered the coup de grâce when it decreed that a school district couldn’t voluntarily opt for the most modest kind of integration — giving parents a choice of which school their children would attend and treating race as a tiebreaker in deciding which children would go to the most popular schools. In the perverse logic of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., this amounted to “discriminating among individual students based on race.” That’s bad history, which, as Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote in an impassioned dissent, “threaten[s] the promise of Brown.”

To the current reformers, integration is at best an irrelevance and at worst an excuse to shift attention away from shoddy teaching. But a spate of research says otherwise. The experience of an integrated education made all the difference in the lives of black children — and in the lives of their children as well. These economists’ studies consistently conclude that African-American students who attended integrated schools fared better academically than those left behind in segregated schools. They were more likely to graduate from high school and attend and graduate from college; and, the longer they spent attending integrated schools, the better they did. What’s more, the fear that white children would suffer, voiced by opponents of integration, proved groundless. Between 1970 and 1990, the black-white gap in educational attainment shrank — not because white youngsters did worse but because black youngsters did better.

Not only were they more successful in school, they were more successful in life as well. A 2011 study by the Berkeley public policy professor Rucker C. Johnson concludes that black youths who spent five years in desegregated schools have earned 25 percent more than those who never had that opportunity. Now in their 30s and 40s, they’re also healthier — the equivalent of being seven years younger.

Why? For these youngsters, the advent of integration transformed the experience of going to school. By itself, racial mixing didn’t do the trick, but it did mean that the fate of black and white students became intertwined. School systems that had spent a pittance on all-black schools were now obliged to invest considerably more on African-American students’ education after the schools became integrated. Their classes were smaller and better equipped. They included children from better-off families, a factor that the landmark 1966 Equality of Educational Opportunity study had shown to make a significant difference in academic success. What’s more, their teachers and parents held them to higher expectations. That’s what shifted the arc of their lives.

Professor Johnson takes this story one big step further by showing that the impact of integration reaches to the next generation. These youngsters — the grandchildren of Brown — are faring better in school than those whose parents attended racially isolated schools.

Despite the Horatio Alger myth that anyone can make it in America, moving up the socioeconomic ladder is hard going: children from low-income families have only a 1 percent chance of reaching the top 5 percent of the income distribution, versus children of the rich, who have about a 22 percent chance.

But many of the poor black children who attended desegregated schools in the 1970s escaped from poverty, and their offspring have maintained that advantage. Of course desegregation was not a cure-all. While the achievement gap and the income gap narrowed during the peak era of desegregation, white children continued to do noticeably better. That’s to be expected, for schools can’t hope to overcome the burdens of poverty or the lack of early education, which puts poor children far behind their middle-class peers before they enter kindergarten. And desegregation was too often implemented in ham-handed fashion, undermining its effectiveness. Adherence to principle trumped good education, as students were sent on school buses simply to achieve the numerical goal of racial balance. Understandably, that aroused opposition, and not only among those who thought desegregation was a bad idea. Despite its flaws, integration is as successful an educational strategy as we’ve hit upon. As the U.C.L.A. political scientist Gary Orfield points out, “On some measures the racial achievement gaps reached their low point around the same time as the peak of black-white desegregation in the late 1980s.”

And in the 1990s, when the courts stopped overseeing desegregation plans, black students in those communities seem to have done worse. The failure of the No Child Left Behind regimen to narrow the achievement gap offers the sobering lesson that closing underperforming public schools, setting high expectations for students, getting tough with teachers and opening a raft of charter schools isn’t the answer. If we’re serious about improving educational opportunities, we need to revisit the abandoned policy of school integration.

In theory it’s possible to achieve a fair amount of integration by crossing city and suburban boundaries or opening magnet schools attractive to both minority and white students. But the hostile majority on the Supreme Court and the absence of a vocal pro-integration constituency make integration’s revival a near impossibility.


David L. Kirp is a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley,

and the author of “Kids First: Five Big Ideas for Transforming Children’s Lives

and America’s Future.”

    Making Schools Work, NYT, 19.5.2012,






‘Why Don’t We Have Any White Kids?’


May 11, 2012
The New York Times


IN seventh-grade English class, sun leaked in through the windows. Horns bleated outside. The assignment was for the arrayed students to identify a turning point in their lives. Was it positive or negative? They hunched over and wrote fervidly.

Floriande Augustin, a first-year teacher at the school, invited students to share their choices. Hands waved for attention. One girl said it was when she got a cat, though she was unsure why. Another selected a car crash. A third brought up the time when her cousin got shot and “it was positive because he felt his life was crazy and he went to college so he couldn’t get shot anymore.”

The lesson detoured into Martin Luther King Jr. and his turning points. Ms. Augustin listed things like how his father took him shopping for shoes and they were made to wait in the back. How a bus driver told him to relinquish his seat to a white passenger and stand in the rear. How he wasn’t allowed to play with his white friends once he started school, because he went to a black school and his white friends went to a white school.

The students scribbled notes. Unmentioned was a ticklish incongruity that hung glaringly obvious in the air. This classroom at Explore Charter School in Flatbush, Brooklyn, was full of black students in a school almost entirely full of black students. As Ms. Augustin, who is also black, later reflected, “There was something about, ‘Huh, here we are talking about that and look at us — we’re all the same.’ ”

In the broad resegregation of the nation’s schools that has transpired over recent decades, New York’s public-school system looms as one of the most segregated. While the city’s public-school population looks diverse — 40.3 percent Hispanic, 32 percent black, 14.9 percent white and 13.7 percent Asian — many of its schools are nothing of the sort.

About 650 of the nearly 1,700 schools in the system have populations that are 70 percent a single race, a New York Times analysis of schools data for the 2009-10 school year found; more than half the city’s schools are at least 90 percent black and Hispanic. Explore Charter is one of them: of the school’s 502 students from kindergarten through eighth grade this school year, 92.7 percent are black, 5.7 percent are Hispanic, and a scattering are of mixed race. None are white or Asian. There is a good deal of cultural diversity, with students, for instance, of Haitian, Guyanese and Nigerian heritage. But not of class. Nearly 80 percent of the students qualify for subsidized lunch, a mark of poverty. The school’s makeup is in line with charter schools nationally, which are over all less integrated than traditional public schools.

At Explore, as at many schools in New York City, children trundle from segregated neighborhoods to segregated schools, living a hermetic reality.

The school’s enrollment is even more racially lopsided than its catchment area. Students are chosen by lottery, with preference given to District 17, its community school district, which encompasses neighborhoods like Flatbush, East Flatbush, Crown Heights and Farragut. Census data for District 17 put the kindergarten-through-eighth-grade population at 75 percent black, 13 percent Hispanic, 12 percent white and 1 percent Asian. But the white students go elsewhere — many to yeshivas or other private schools.

Tim Thomas, a fund-raiser who is white and lives in Flatbush, writes a blog called The Q at Parkside, about the neighborhood. He has spoken to white parents trying to comprehend why the local schools aren’t more integrated, even as white people move in. “They say things like they don’t want to be guinea pigs,” he said. “The other day, one said, ‘I don’t want to be the only drop of cream in the coffee.’ ”

Decades of academic studies point to the corroding effects of segregation on students, especially minorities, both in diminished academic performance and in the failure to equip them for the interracial world that awaits them.

“The preponderance of evidence shows that attending schools that are diverse has positive effects on children throughout the grades, and it grows over time,” said Roslyn Mickelson, a professor of sociology and public policy at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, who has reviewed hundreds of studies of integrated schooling. “To put it another way, the problems of segregation are accentuated over time,” she said.

Even if a segregated school provides a solid education, studies suggest, students are at a disadvantage. “What is a good education?” Dr. Mickelson said. “That you scored well on a test?”

One way race presents itself at Explore is in the makeup of the teaching staff. It is 61 percent white and 35 percent black, a sensitive subject among many students and parents who would prefer more black teachers. Most of the administration and central staff members — including the school’s founder, the current principal, the upper-school’s academic head and the lower-school’s academic head, as well as the high school counselor and social worker — are white.

As Ms. Augustin said: “When I came here and started to talk about myself, the students were shocked that I was here. I started to wonder, did they really have role models?”


AFTER school one Tuesday, 10 students assembled in a classroom to talk about the school and race. The school paid for snacks: Doritos and Oreo cookies, Coke and 7Up.

What did they think of the absence of racial diversity?

“It doesn’t really prepare us for the real world,” said Tori Williams, an eighth grader. “You see one race, and you’re going to be accustomed to one race.”

Jahmir Duran-Abreu, another eight grader, said: “It seems it’s black kids and white teachers. Like onetime we were talking and I said I like listening to Eminem and my teacher said this was ghetto. She was white. I was pretty upset. I was wondering why she would say something like that. She apologized, but it sticks with me.”

Jahmir, one of Explore’s few Hispanic students, is its first student to get into Stuyvesant High School, one of the city’s premier schools. He was also admitted to Dalton, an elite private school, where he intends to go. He wants someday to become an actor.

Shakeare Cobham, in sixth grade, offered a different view: “It’s more comfortable to be with people of your own race than to be with a lot of different races.”

Tori came back: “I disagree. It doesn’t prepare us.”

Yata Pierre, in eighth grade, said, “It doesn’t really matter as long as your teachers are good teachers.”

Trevon Roberts-Walker, a sixth grader, responded, “When we are in high school and college, it’s not going to be all one race.”

Jahmir: “Yeah, in my high school there will be predominantly white kids, and I think this school will be so much better if it were more diverse.”

Kenny Wright, in eighth grade, piped in, “You could have more discussion instead of all the same thoughts.”

Ashira Mayers, in seventh grade, said: “We’d like to hear from other races. How do they feel? What’s happening with them?”

Later on, Ashira elaborated: “We will sometimes talk about why don’t we have any white kids? We wonder what their schools are like. We see them on TV, with the soccer fields and the biology labs and all that cool stuff. Sometimes I feel I have to work harder because I don’t have all that they have. A lot of us think that way.”


EXPLORE’S founder, Morty Ballen, 42, grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs, where his father ran several delis. A product of Teach for America, he taught English in a high school in Baton Rouge, La., that went from being all white to half-black. The white teachers would tell racist jokes in the faculty lounge, he said. He taught at an all-black school in South Africa started by a white woman, then at a largely black-and-Hispanic middle school on the Lower East Side. The experiences soaked in.

“I’m very cognizant of my whiteness, and that I have power,” he said. “I need to incorporate this reality in my leadership.”

He is also gay and knows about feeling different in school. “The only people who were like me were two kids who went to drugs,” he said. “One died in high school, and the other died recently.”

Mr. Ballen founded Explore in 2002, resolute that a public school could deliver a good education to disadvantaged students. He now leads a Brooklyn charter network. (His fourth school is scheduled to open in September.) The school began in Downtown Brooklyn. In 2004, it relocated to a former bakery factory in Flatbush, where most classrooms were windowless. In August, the Education Department moved it to 655 Parkside Avenue, squeezing it into the fourth floor and portions of the third in a building occupied by Middle School 2 and Public School K141, a special-education school.

The shared building is relatively new and in good shape, but the library is half the size of a classroom, the space so tight that a few thousand books must be kept in storage. The cafeteria, auditorium, gym and playground are shared. Instead of a computer lab, the school has a rolling computer cart of laptops, used mostly for math classes. There is no playground equipment for the younger grades. There are a limited number of musical instruments, so the school has no band, or much in the way of after-school athletics. There are no accelerated classes for high-performing students.

Explore students wear uniforms and have a longer school day and year than the students in the other schools in the building, schools with which they have a difficult relationship. A great deal of teaching is done to the state tests, the all-important metric by which schools are largely judged. In the hallway this spring, before the tests, a calendar counted down the days remaining until the next round.

Explore’s academic performance has been inconsistent. Last year, the school got its charter renewed for another five years, and this year, for the first time, three students, including Jahmir, got into specialized high schools. Yet, on Explore’s progress report for the 2010-11 school year, the Education Department gave it a C (after a B the previous year). In student progress, it rated a D.

“We weren’t doing right by our students,” Mr. Ballen said.

In response, a new literacy curriculum was introduced and greater emphasis was put on applauding academic achievement. School walls are emblazoned with motivational signs: “Getting the knowledge to go to college”; “When we graduate ...we are going to be doctors.” Teachers are encouraged to refer to students as “scholars.”

Convinced that student unruliness was impeding learning, the school installed a rigid discipline system. Infractions — for transgressions like calling out without permission, frowning after being given a demerit, being off task — lead to detention for upper-school students. On some days, 50 students land in detention, a quarter of the upper school.

Positive behavior does bring rewards, like making the Respect Corps, which allows a student to wear an honorary T-shirt. Winning an attendance contest can lead to treats for the class or the freedom to wear jeans.

Still, some students have taken to referring to Explore as “the prison school.”


OUT of uniform and barefoot, Amiyah Young was getting her books in order for homework. She was at home, two blocks from school, in an apartment she shares with her grandparents, mother and 2-year-old brother. She is in sixth grade, willowy, with watchful eyes, a dexterous thinker, one of the school’s top students. She hopes to go to a university like Princeton and become a veterinarian, because she has noticed lots of people own animals.

She blithely showed her snug room, a converted dining nook containing her bed, her books, her stuffed animals, her cluster of snow globes. She said that some of her friends slept with their mothers or siblings, or on the couch.

Her mother, Shonette Kingston, 36, calm with an outreaching smile, works as an operating-room technician and attends nursing school. She separated from Amiyah’s father when the girl was born. He is unemployed, and lives elsewhere in Brooklyn, but remains involved in her life.

“It’s a bit weird,” Amiyah said of the school’s racial composition. “All my friends are predominantly black, and all the teachers are predominantly white. I think white kids go to different schools. I don’t know. I haven’t seen many white people in a big space before.”

Would it be better if it were integrated?

“I think they would stop calling me white girl if there were white kids,” she said. “Because my skin is a little lighter and I can’t dance, they call me that. Some of them can’t dance, either.”

What else?

“I could talk the way I talk.”

Other students speak street slang that she repudiates: “They will say to me, ‘You are so white.’ I tell them, I have two black parents. Do I look white?”

She had been having trouble making friends. This year, her mother noticed a speech change. “She’s slacking off more to fit in,” Ms. Kingston said. “She’s saying: ‘I been there.’ ‘I done that.’ ”

Amiyah confirmed this: “I speak a bit more freelance with my friends. Not full sentences. I don’t use big words. They hate it when I do that.”

She said she had become more popular.

Other students also relate the use of parlance linked to skin color. Shakeare Cobham, one of Amiyah’s friends, said: “If you’re darker, they’ll call them burnt. Light-skinned ones get called white.”

Zierra Page, who is in eighth grade, said: “The lighter-skinned girls think they’re prettier. They’ll say: ‘She’s mad dark. Look at me, I’m much prettier.’ ”

Amiyah’s parents are bothered by the abundance of white teachers. Her mother said: “What do they know of our lives? They may be good teachers, but what do they know? You’re coming from Milwaukee. You went to Harvard. Her dad complains about this all the time — what can they bring to these African-American kids? I’m trying to keep an open mind. I’m happy with the education.”

Amiyah said, “The white teachers can’t relate as much to us no matter how hard they try — and they really try.”

To extract her from the synthetic isolation of her environment, Amiyah’s parents have enrolled her in programs with more racial diversity like an acting class in Manhattan.

She is curious about better-off white children. “I’d like to see how they would react in the classroom when we have dance parties,” she said. “I’d like to see how they would react to a birthday party. And to being around so many of us. I’d like to see what they would think of some of the girls in our school who have big hair and those big earrings.”

Anything else?

She mulled that a moment, and said, “I wonder if it’s fun.”


EXPLORE’S administration neither encourages nor discourages discussion of race. Rarely is it openly examined.

A diversity task force was patched together over a year ago to look into things like how to bridge the divide among staff and students and their parents, and what the makeup of the staff should be. The group is preparing some recommendations.

Race, and its attendant baggage, of course, is a tricky subject. Teachers are of different minds about what to do with it.

Marc Engel, a former investment banker turned librarian and media coordinator at Explore, is 53 and white. He frets about power differentials and how to transcend race, how to steer the students’ inner compass. “I worry so much about their role models,” he said. “The rap stars. The fashion models. The basketball players.”

He has his way of trying to fit in. “I call every kid brother and sister,” he said. “I say, hey, brother; hey, sister. One kid once asked me, ‘Are you my uncle?’ ”


OTHER staff members also wonder about the isolation of the students. Adunni Clarke, 34, who is black and is the lead intervention teacher who helps students and teachers who need extra support, said: “I don’t know that our kids get their placement in the world. I don’t know that they realize that they’re competing against all these other cultures.”

Talking about race “could be a Pandora’s box to some extent,” said Corey Gray, 27, who is white and in his first year at Explore as an eighth-grade language-arts teacher. “Is there a proper effective way to bring it in? There probably is. Do I know the way? No, I don’t.”

Many of the teachers are young, from different backgrounds, and there is steady turnover — from 25 percent to 35 percent in each of the past three years, a persistent issue at charter and high-poverty schools.

Tracy Rebe, the principal, is leaving this year. Her replacement, the fourth in the school’s short history, will be the first black principal, though not by design.

Early in the year, Mauricia Gardiner, 30, who teaches fifth-grade math and is of mixed race, was listening as students read a story about a black teenager who tried to rob a woman. Instead of reporting him, the woman took him home and tried to set him straight. The woman’s race wasn’t mentioned.

Ms. Gardiner asked the class what race they imagined the woman to be. They said black, that no white woman would do that. Why? she asked.

“They would be scared of us,” a student said.

“It’s frustrating,” Ms. Gardiner said. “We don’t have a forum to address this. You can get all the education in the world. But you have to function in the world.”

Darren Nielsen, 25, white, from Salt Lake City, is in his second year teaching, assigned to third grade. Last year, when he taught fourth grade, a student got miffed at him and said, “Oh, this white guy.” He later spoke to the student about singling out someone in a negative way because of his or her race. He overheard students call one another “light-skinned crackers” and “dark-skinned crackers.”

“We had discussions about that being inappropriate,” Mr. Nielsen said. “I even said:I’m the lightest-skinned one of all. What does that make me?”

The discussion was quick. “I probably should have done more,” he said. “It was hard on me as a first-year teacher and not knowing what to do.”

He added: “I realize most of these kids are going to go to segregated schools until college. I wonder, am I preparing these kids for what goes on in college?”

Karen Hicks, 41, a former businesswoman who is now in her first year teaching fifth-grade math and science and is black, used to have a son in the school. “I would have put him in an integrated school if I had that option,” she said.

Ms. Hicks recalled her first conference as a parent, with a white teacher, now gone: “The teacher said, ‘Oh, you’re so involved.’ It felt patronizing. That should have been the expectation.”


IF anyone can relate to the students, it is James McDonald. Mr. McDonald, 41, black, the beloved gym teacher, has been with Explore since it opened. He grew up on the Lower East Side, where his father ran a liquor store and left home when Mr. McDonald was 9. He went to predominantly black and Latino schools, and says he didn’t learn what he needed to learn.

In high school, he showed a college application essay to a scholarship committee member, who told him, “If you want to go to college, you better learn how to spell it.” He had written “colledge.” He realized the holes in his education. “It deflated me,” he said.

He thinks Explore students are getting a much better education than he did. Still, he is concerned.

“Outside the school the kids are being reminded of what their race is,” he said. “When they come to school, it’s as if they are asked to ignore who they are.”

“I don’t see that a lot of them have aspirations to do great things,” he added. “Some of them say, yeah, I want to be a doctor. But some, you ask them and they don’t have an answer. I’d like to know how many actually believe they can do whatever they can.”


THE sixth-grade social studies students swept into Alexis Rubin’s classroom. She slapped them five, bid them good afternoon. To settle them down, Ms. Rubin said, “Students are earning demerits in one ... two ...”

She handed out a test on Colonial Williamsburg. She said, “Every scholar in this room will get a sheet of loose-leaf paper for your short response.”

Of Explore’s teachers, Ms. Rubin, 31, is perhaps the keenest about openly addressing race. She is in her third year at the school, is white and grew up on the Upper West Side.

Outside school, she is the co-chairperson of Border Crossers, an 11-year-old organization troubled by New York’s segregated system that instructs elementary-school teachers how to talk about race in the classrooms.

As Jaime-Jin Lewis, the organization’s executive director, puts it: “You don’t want kids learning about sex on the playground. You don’t want them to learn about race and class and power on the playground.”

Ms. Rubin does Border Crossers exercises with her students like MeMaps, in which both students and teachers list characteristics about themselves, then create a “diversity flower,” with petals listing each participant’s unique traits.

During Ms. Rubin’s first year at Explore, a parent called her up, screaming that she ignored her son and called only on the white students. Ms. Rubin pointed out that there actually weren’t any white students to call on.

She said schools needed to “unpack” the issue of race and dismantle stereotypes.

“The beginning is naming it,” she said.


A GAUZY night in early spring, and the PTA meeting in the auditorium drew about three dozen parents. Details were given about picture day, about students needing to show up for preparation for the state tests, about neighborhood ne’er-do-wells who tried to rob some students, MetroCards and hats their targets.

Lakisha Adams, 35, who has three children in the school, spoke brightly of a Harlem mentoring program: “It teaches about how to shake someone’s hand, how to walk without your pants dragging down. This is all black. We put our kids in a lot of programs with kids that don’t look like us. Our kids don’t relate to Great Neck.”

Parents say they like Explore over all and the education it offers. To many, that is enough.

Sheryl Davis, 57, the PTA president, grew up in Brooklyn, and when she was in sixth grade, was bused out of her mostly black East New York school to a “lily-white school.”

“I do remember the hate from the white students,” she said. The next year, she was back in her former school.

“As I got older, I didn’t really see that I gained from that experience,” she said.

“I don’t know that segregation is this horrible thing,” Ms. Adams said. “The problem with segregation is the assumption that black is bad and white is good. Black can be great. That’s what I instill my kids with.”

Would she prefer an integrated school? “I can’t say that I would.”

Families often disagree among themselves. Calandra Maijeh, 38, and her husband, Ife Maijeh, 43, were at the school one evening with their four children, all Explore students.

“Color for me is not an issue,” Ms. Maijeh said. “As long as the learning is up to par.”

Mr. Maijeh said: “My thoughts are very different from my wife. I agree that everybody deserves an education. But I want white and black to be together as one.”

Jean McCauley, 47, is a single mother with two sons by different fathers, both gone from her life. When her older son, now 26, began school, his father had a friend in TriBeCa, and they used his address to get him into Public School 234, a well-regarded, largely white school. “I feel so grateful for my son being in that environment,” she said. “Expectations were so high. That school had everything. It was a world apart.”

He graduated from college and works at a real estate agency.

For her younger son, Brandon Worrell, she didn’t have that option. He is in sixth grade at Explore. She considers it a good school, but fears he doesn’t learn racial tolerance. “At Explore he can’t compare to anything,” she said. “He won’t know how to communicate with other races. He won’t know there is a difference. I think color will always be the first thing he sees.”

She added, “I speak to Brandon about race. But he doesn’t get it. It’s abstract.”


A WEEK wound up. Education was occurring. In kindergarten, they were reading “Sheep Take a Hike,” while in first grade, students wrote about a small moment that happened to them. A girl wrote: “This morning my mom pulled out my tooth. Ow. Ow. Ow.”

In sixth-grade math, they were reviewing order of operations, and in fifth-grade science they were learning about chyme. In third grade, they were writing a response to: How does Jimmy feel about raising goats? Use at least two details in your answer.

A student was told: “You have the right to be mad. You don’t have the right to kick things.”

Mr. Engel, teaching library, went around the room with the first graders and had them fill in the blank of “America is...”

The answers shot back: “America is ... my mommy.”


“Whipped cream.”

“Burger King”

“Our life.”

    ‘Why Don’t We Have Any White Kids?’, NYT, 11.5.2012,






Teaching Me About Teaching


May 4, 2012
The New York Times


Next week is National Teacher Appreciation Week, and, as far as I’m concerned, they don’t get nearly enough.

On Tuesday, the United States Department of Education is hoping that people will take to Facebook and Twitter to thank a teacher who has made a difference in their lives. I want to contribute to that effort. And I plan to thank a teacher who never taught me in a classroom but taught me what it meant to be an educator: my mother.

She worked in her local school system for 34 years before retiring. Then she volunteered at a school in her district until, at age 67, she won a seat on her local school board. Education is in her blood.

Through her I saw up close that teaching is one of those jobs you do with the whole of you — trying to break through to a young mind can break your heart. My mother cared about her students like they were her own children. I guess that’s why so many of them dispensed with “Mrs. Blow” and just called her Mama.

She wasn’t just teaching school lessons but life lessons. For her, it was about more than facts and figures. It was about the love of learning and the love of self. It was the great entangle, education in the grandest frame, what sticks with you when all else falls away. As Albert Einstein once said: “Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.”

She showed me what a great teacher looked like: proud, exhausted, underpaid and overjoyed. For great teachers, the job is less a career than a calling. You don’t become a teacher to make a world of money. You become a teacher to make a world of difference. But hard work deserves a fair wage.

That’s why I have a hard time tolerating people who disproportionately blame teachers for our poor educational outcomes. I understand that not every teacher is a great one. But neither is every plumber, or every banker or every soldier. Why then should teachers be demonized so much?

I won’t pretend to have all the policy prescriptions to address our country’s educational crisis, but beating up teachers isn’t the solution. We must be honest brokers in our efforts to fix a broken system.

Do we need teacher accountability? Yes.

Must unions be flexible? Yes.

Must new approaches be tried? Yes.

But is it just as important to address the poverty, stress and hopelessness that some children bring into the classroom, before the bell rings and the chalk screeches across a blackboard? Yes.

Do we need to take a closer look at pay and incentives for teachers? Yes.

Do we need to lift them up a bit more than we tear them down? A thousand times, yes!

A big part of the problem is that teachers have been so maligned in the national debate that it’s hard to attract our best and brightest to see it as a viable and rewarding career choice, even if they have a high aptitude and natural gift for it.

A 2010 McKinsey & Company report entitled “Closing the Talent Gap: Attracting and Retaining Top-Third Graduates to Careers in Teaching” found that top-performing nations like Singapore, Finland and South Korea recruit all of their teachers from the top third of graduates and then even screen from that group for “other important qualities.” By contrast, in the United States, “23 percent of new teachers come from the top third, and just 14 percent in high poverty schools, which find it especially difficult to attract and retain talented teachers. It is a remarkably large difference in approach, and in results.”

According to the report, starting teacher salaries in 2010 averaged $39,000 a year. Let’s assume that federal, state and local taxes eat up a third. That would leave a take-home pay as low as $26,000. However, according to the Project on Student Debt by the Institute for College Access and Success, a college senior graduating that year carried an average of $25,250 in student loans. The math just doesn’t work out.

Furthermore, jobs in education were slashed substantially from August 2008 to August 2011. According to an October White House report: “Nearly 300,000 educator jobs have been lost since 2008, 54 percent of all job losses in local government.”

If we want better educational outcomes, we need to attract better teachers — and work to retain them. A good place to start is with respect and paychecks. And a little social media appreciation once a year wouldn’t hurt either.

So, on Tuesday, I plan to send this message on Twitter: To the teacher who taught me what it means to be a teacher: My mama. Everybody’s mama.

What will you tweet?

    Teaching Me About Teaching, NYT, 4.5.2012,






The Imperiled Promise of College


April 28, 2012
The New York Times


FOR a long time and for a lot of us, “college” was more or less a synonym for success. We had only to go. We had only to graduate. And if we did, according to parents and high-school guidance counselors and everything we heard and everything we read, we could pretty much count on a career, just about depend on a decent income and more or less expect security. A diploma wasn’t a piece of paper. It was an amulet.

And it was broadly accessible, or at least it was spoken of that way. With the right mix of intelligence, moxie and various kinds of aid, a motivated person could supposedly get there. College was seen as a glittering centerpiece of the American dream, a reliable engine of social mobility.

I’m not sure things were ever that simple, but they’re definitely more complicated now. And that was an unacknowledged backdrop for the pitched debate last week about federal student loan rates and whether they would be kept at 3.4 percent or allowed to return to 6.8 percent. That was one reason, among many, that it stirred up so much anxiety and got so much attention.

Because of levitating costs, college these days is a luxury item. What’s more, it’s a luxury item with newly uncertain returns.

Yes, many of the sorts of service-industry jobs now available to people without higher education are less financially rewarding than manufacturing jobs of yore, and so college has in that sense become more imperative. And, yes, college graduates have an unemployment rate half that of people with only high school degrees.

But that figure factors in Americans who got their diplomas and first entered the job market decades ago, and it could reflect not just what was studied in college but the already established economic advantages, contacts and temperaments of the kind of people who pursue and stick with higher education.

It doesn’t capture the grim reality for recent college graduates, whose leg up on their less educated counterparts isn’t such a sturdy, comely leg at the moment. According to an Associated Press analysis of data from 2011, 53.6 percent of college graduates under the age of 25 were unemployed or, if they were lucky, merely underemployed, which means they were in jobs for which their degrees weren’t necessary. Philosophy majors mull questions no more existential than the proper billowiness of the foamed milk atop a customer’s cappuccino. Anthropology majors contemplate the tribal behavior of the youngsters who shop at the Zara where they peddle skinny jeans.

I single out philosophy and anthropology because those are two fields — along with zoology, art history and humanities — whose majors are least likely to find jobs reflective of their education level, according to government projections quoted by the Associated Press. But how many college students are fully aware of that? How many reroute themselves into, say, teaching, accounting, nursing or computer science, where degree-relevant jobs are easier to find? Not nearly enough, judging from the angry, dispossessed troops of Occupy Wall Street.

The thing is, today’s graduates aren’t just entering an especially brutal economy. They’re entering it in many cases with the wrong portfolios. To wit: as a country we routinely grant special visas to highly educated workers from countries like China and India. They possess scientific and technical skills that American companies need but that not enough American students are acquiring.

“That’s why there are all these kinds of initiatives to make math and science fun,” Stephen J. Rose, a senior economist at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, reminded me last week. He was referring to elementary and high school attempts to prime more American students for college majors in those areas and for sectors of the job market where positions are more plentiful and lucrative. The center issued a report last year that noted that “not all bachelor’s degrees are the same” and that “while going to college is undoubtedly a wise decision, what you take while you’re there matters a lot, too.”

A wider world of competition now confronts college graduates. A front-page article in The Wall Street Journal last week cited data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to note: “Thirty years ago, the U.S. led the world in the percentage of 25- to 34-year-olds with the equivalent of at least a two-year degree; only Canada and Israel were close. As of 2009, the U.S. lagged behind 14 other developed countries.”

That situation isn’t helped by the cost of higher education, which has escalated wildly over the last three decades and has left too many students with crippling Everests of debt. In light of the daunting financial calculus of college today, Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, recently introduced a bill that would prod the federal government to disseminate statistics about the graduation rates, incomes, debt levels and such for people who pursue different courses of study at different schools.

“The focus has always been on access,” Wyden told me. “Just get to college. Find a way in the door.” But today, he said, students facing “an incredibly tough job market” need to know “how their particular program will stack up and what kind of debt they’re going to rack up.” I’d go even further than he does and call for government and university incentives to steer students into the fields of studies that will serve them and society best. We use taxes to influence behavior. Why not student aid?

That you can’t gain a competitive edge with just any diploma from just any college is reflected in the ferociousness of the race to get into elite universities. It’s madness out there. Tiger mothers and $125-an-hour tutors proliferate, and parents scrimp and struggle to pay up to $40,000 a year in tuition to private secondary schools that then put them on the spot for supplemental donations, lest the soccer field turn brown and the Latin club languish. The two Americas are evident in education as perhaps nowhere else.

Trying to keep higher learning as affordable as possible is a crucial effort to collapse that divide. No good can come from letting college — as a goal, as an option — slip away. But as a guarantor of a certain quality of life, it already has. And we need to look at a whole lot more than loan rates to fix the problem.

    The Imperiled Promise of College, NYT, 28.4.2012,






Testing the Teachers


April 19, 2012
The New York Times


There’s an atmosphere of grand fragility hanging over America’s colleges. The grandeur comes from the surging application rates, the international renown, the fancy new dining and athletic facilities. The fragility comes from the fact that colleges are charging more money, but it’s not clear how much actual benefit they are providing.

Colleges are supposed to produce learning. But, in their landmark study, “Academically Adrift,” Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa found that, on average, students experienced a pathetic seven percentile point gain in skills during their first two years in college and a marginal gain in the two years after that. The exact numbers are disputed, but the study suggests that nearly half the students showed no significant gain in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills during their first two years in college.

This research followed the Wabash Study, which found that student motivation actually declines over the first year in college. Meanwhile, according to surveys of employers, only a quarter of college graduates have the writing and thinking skills necessary to do their jobs.

In their book, “We’re Losing Our Minds,” Richard P. Keeling and Richard H. Hersh argue that many colleges and universities see themselves passively as “a kind of bank with intellectual assets that are available to the students.” It is up to students — 19 and 20 year olds — to provide the motivation, to identify which assets are most important and to figure out how to use them.

Colleges today are certainly less demanding. In 1961, students spent an average of 24 hours a week studying. Today’s students spend a little more than half that time — a trend not explained by changing demographics.

This is an unstable situation. At some point, parents are going to decide that $160,000 is too high a price if all you get is an empty credential and a fancy car-window sticker.

One part of the solution is found in three little words: value-added assessments. Colleges have to test more to find out how they’re doing.

It’s not enough to just measure inputs, the way the U.S. News-style rankings mostly do. Colleges and universities have to be able to provide prospective parents with data that will give them some sense of how much their students learn.

There has to be some way to reward schools that actually do provide learning and punish schools that don’t. There has to be a better way to get data so schools themselves can figure out how they’re doing in comparison with their peers.

In 2006, the Spellings commission, led by then-Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, recommended a serious accountability regime. Specifically, the commission recommended using a standardized test called the Collegiate Learning Assessment to provide accountability data. Colleges and grad schools use standardized achievement tests to measure students on the way in; why shouldn’t they use them to measure students on the way out?

Many people in higher ed are understandably anxious about importing the No Child Left Behind accountability model onto college campuses. But the good news is that colleges and universities are not reacting to the idea of testing and accountability with blanket hostility, the way some of the members of the K-12 establishment did.

If you go to the Web page of the Association of American Colleges and Universities and click on “assessment,” you will find a dazzling array of experiments that institutions are running to figure out how to measure learning.

Some schools like Bowling Green and Portland State are doing portfolio assessments — which measure the quality of student papers and improvement over time. Some, like Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, use capstone assessment, creating a culminating project in which the students display their skills in a way that can be compared and measured.

The challenge is not getting educators to embrace the idea of assessment. It’s mobilizing them to actually enact it in a way that’s real and transparent to outsiders.

The second challenge is deciding whether testing should be tied to federal dollars or more voluntary. Should we impose a coercive testing regime that would reward and punish schools based on results? Or should we let schools adopt their own preferred systems?

Given how little we know about how to test college students, the voluntary approach is probably best for now. Foundations, academic conferences or even magazines could come up with assessment methods. Each assessment could represent a different vision of what college is for. Groups of similar schools could congregate around the assessment model that suits their vision. Then they could broadcast the results to prospective parents, saying, “We may not be prestigious or as expensive as X, but here students actually learn.”

This is the beginning of college reform. If you’ve got a student at or applying to college, ask the administrators these questions: “How much do students here learn? How do you know?”

    Testing the Teachers, NYT, 19.4.2012,






To Enroll More Minority Students,

Colleges Work Around the Courts


April 1, 2012
The New York Times


With its decision to take up racial preferences in admissions at public colleges, the Supreme Court has touched off a national guessing game about how far it might move against affirmative action and how profoundly colleges might change as a result.

But no matter how the court acts, recent history shows that when courts or new laws restrict affirmative action, colleges try to find other ways to increase minority admissions.

The aggressiveness of those efforts, and the results, vary widely by state, but generally they increase minority enrollment — though not as much as overt affirmative action once did. And they have tended to help Hispanic applicants far more than blacks, at least partly because of the demographics of the states where they have been tried.

Texas and a few others, for instance, compare students with their high school classmates, rather than with all applicants, resulting in more enrollment from poor communities. Washington is among the states that give added credit in the admissions process to students who come from poor families or excel at troubled schools.

Other colleges have spent more time recruiting in underrepresented communities. And the University of California system tries to weigh a student’s life beyond grades and test scores — which, critics say, sometimes amounts to giving racial preferences without acknowledging them.

Even if the Supreme Court limits the options, college and universities will “be seeking diversity by any legal means possible,” said Ada Meloy, general counsel of the American Council on Education.

But a decision overturning affirmative action could produce a national pattern of more liberal states going further to mimic the current system than more conservative states. Defenders of affirmative action are most likely to see any new system as unfair to black and Hispanic students, while critics will still see it as unfair to whites and Asian-Americans.

The current nationwide standard is based on two decisions involving the University of Michigan in 2003, when the Supreme Court ruled that public universities could not give an applicant an automatic advantage based on race or ethnicity. But in a decision written by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the court also ruled, 5 to 4, that colleges could consider race and ethnicity as part of a case-by-case assessment of individuals.

Since 2003, the court has shifted rightward, with Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., a critic of preferences, replacing Justice O’Connor.

In February, the court agreed to hear Fisher v. University of Texas, a challenge to the university’s admissions policy, fueling speculation that it could revisit the standards it set nine years ago. The Texas system admits the top students at every high school in the state, but also admits additional students with a system that takes race into account.

The court has many options, including leaving things as they stand, finding that universities are interpreting the Michigan case too loosely, altering it, or overturning it completely. And it remains unclear how any ruling would affect private colleges, which rely heavily on federal financing.

Perhaps the best glimpse of a future without the current version of affirmative action comes from the handful of states that have already outlawed the use of race in public college admissions.

After California voters approved such a law, black and Hispanic freshman enrollment at the University of California system dropped by about one-quarter in 1998, the first year the ban was in effect. At the system’s most competitive campuses, in Berkeley and Los Angeles, enrollment for those groups fell by almost half.

In the years since, the system has tried several approaches to increase diversity without directly taking race into account, and the numbers eventually rose.

Black students accounted for just over 4 percent of University of California freshmen in the mid-1990s. That fell to 3 percent after the law took effect, and remained there for several years, before climbing close to 4 percent in recent years.

Hispanic enrollment stood at 14 to 15 percent of the total before the ban, and fell to 12 percent in 1998, but quickly began to climb, driven by California’s fast-rising Latino population. By 2010, that group accounted for more than 22 percent of the system’s freshmen.

“If we had affirmative action as one of our tools, we’d do somewhat better for Hispanics, and we’d probably do significantly better for African-Americans,” said Mark G. Yudof, president of the University of California system.

A central part of California’s effort has been to compare applicants with other students in their communities, rather than with students statewide, much as Texas does. At each high school, the top 9 percent of students are guaranteed admission to the University of California — though not necessarily to the campuses of their choice — as long as they meet some other criteria.

Officials acknowledge that the aim is race-conscious but that the mechanism is race-neutral.

Florida uses a percentage-based system as well. There, as in California and Texas, the benefits go mostly to Hispanic students because of the large number of high schools that are predominantly Hispanic. Black students are spread among high schools with large numbers of other students.

In California, arguably the most liberal state to have banned affirmative action in admissions, the university system has gone further to increase minority enrollment. The system has expanded, adding a new campus and increasing enrollment at existing schools.

The Berkeley campus, and later U.C.L.A., also adopted an admissions approach called holistic review, reducing the emphasis on grades and test scores while taking a broader look at students’ experiences and the challenges they have overcome.

“I do think you’re going to see a move toward a more holistic admissions system” in other states, Mr. Yudof said, especially if the Supreme Court rolls back consideration of race. His system is pushing all of its campuses in that direction.

Some of the public universities in Washington State, where voters banned affirmative action in 1998, use a holistic approach, as does the University of Michigan.

Richard H. Sander, a U.C.L.A. law school professor who studies the issue, says that the holistic approach is also loose enough to allow race to be an unacknowledged part of the equation, potentially violating state law. University officials insist that their systems are race-blind.

In Washington, Hispanic and black enrollment at state universities did not change much after the law went into effect, but at the state’s flagship, the University of Washington, it fell for a few years, before returning to its former level. At the University of Michigan, minority enrollment fell sharply after the law took effect in 2007, and has not rebounded. Black students made up more than 10 percent of the freshman class a decade ago, and 7 to 8 percent in the years just before the law, but that has dropped to a little over 5 percent in recent years.

As for the Fisher case, Professor Sander pointed to the crucial role of Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, widely seen as the swing vote. He predicted that rather than overturn the standards it set in 2003, the court would amend them or alter the way they are carried out, restricting the use of race without eliminating it. “This hinges on Kennedy,” Professor Sander said, “and Kennedy usually likes to do half a loaf.”

    To Enroll More Minority Students, Colleges Work Around the Courts, NYT, 1.4.2012,






Black Students Face More Discipline, Data Suggests


March 6, 2012
The New York Times


Black students, especially boys, face much harsher discipline in public schools than other students, according to new data from the Department of Education.

Although black students made up only 18 percent of those enrolled in the schools sampled, they accounted for 35 percent of those suspended once, 46 percent of those suspended more than once and 39 percent of all expulsions, according to the Civil Rights Data Collection’s 2009-10 statistics from 72,000 schools in 7,000 districts, serving about 85 percent of the nation’s students. The data covered students from kindergarten age through high school.

One in five black boys and more than one in 10 black girls received an out-of-school suspension. Over all, black students were three and a half times as likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers.

And in districts that reported expulsions under zero-tolerance policies, Hispanic and black students represent 45 percent of the student body, but 56 percent of those expelled under such policies.

“Education is the civil rights of our generation,” said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, in a telephone briefing with reporters on Monday. “The undeniable truth is that the everyday education experience for too many students of color violates the principle of equity at the heart of the American promise.”

The department began gathering data on civil rights and education in 1968, but the project was suspended by the Bush administration in 2006. It has been reinstated and expanded to examine a broader range of information, including, for the first time, referrals to law enforcement, an area of increasing concern to civil rights advocates who see the emergence of a school-to-prison pipeline for a growing number of students of color.

According to the schools’ reports, over 70 percent of the students involved in school-related arrests or referred to law enforcement were Hispanic or black.

Black and Hispanic students — particularly those with disabilities — are also disproportionately subject to seclusion or restraints. Students with disabilities make up 12 percent of the student body, but 70 percent of those subject to physical restraints. Black students with disabilities constituted 21 percent of the total, but 44 percent of those with disabilities subject to mechanical restraints, like being strapped down. And while Hispanics made up 21 percent of the students without disabilities, they accounted for 42 percent of those without disabilities who were placed in seclusion.

“Those are extremely dramatic numbers, and show the importance of reinstating the civil rights data collection and expanding the categories of information collected,” said Deborah J. Vagins, senior legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington legislative office. “The harsh punishments, especially expulsion under zero tolerance and referrals to law enforcement, show that students of color and students with disabilities are increasingly being pushed out of schools, oftentimes into the criminal justice system.”

While the disciplinary data was probably the most startling, the data showed a wide range of other racial and ethnic disparities. For while 55 percent of the high schools with low black and Hispanic enrollment offered calculus, only 29 percent of the high-minority high schools did so — and even in schools offering calculus, Hispanics made up 20 percent of the student body but only 10 percent of those enrolled in calculus.

And while black and Hispanic students made up 44 percent of the students in the survey, they were only 26 percent of the students in gifted and talented programs.

The data also showed that schools with a lot of black and Hispanic students were likely to have relatively inexperienced, and low-paid, teachers. On average, teachers in high-minority schools were paid $2,251 less per year than their colleagues elsewhere. In New York high schools, though, the discrepancy was more than $8,000, and in Philadelphia, more than $14,000.

Many of the nation’s largest districts had very different disciplinary rates for students of different races. In Los Angeles, for example, black students made up 9 percent of those enrolled, but 26 percent of those suspended; in Chicago, they made up 45 percent of the students, but 76 percent of the suspensions.

In recent decades, as more districts and states have adopted zero-tolerance policies, imposing mandatory suspension for a wide range of behavioral misdeeds, more and more students have been sent away from school for at least a few days, an approach that is often questioned as paving the way for students to fall behind and drop out.

A previous study of the federal data from the years before 2006, published in 2010 by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit civil rights organization, found that suspension rates in the nation’s public schools, kindergarten through high school, had nearly doubled from the early 1970s through 2006 — from 3.7 percent of public school students in 1973 to 6.9 percent in 2006 — in part because of the rise of zero-tolerance school discipline policies.

But because the Department of Education has not yet posted most of the data from the most recent collection, it is not yet possible to extend those findings. On Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Duncan will announce the results at Howard Univerity, and from then on the data will become publicly available, at ocrdata.ed.gov.

    Black Students Face More Discipline, Data Suggests, NYT, 6.3.2012,






Confessions of a ‘Bad’ Teacher


March 3, 2012
The New York Times


I AM a special education teacher. My students have learning disabilities ranging from autism and attention-deficit disorder to cerebral palsy and emotional disturbances. I love these kids, but they can be a handful. Almost without exception, they struggle on standardized tests, frustrate their teachers and find it hard to connect with their peers. What’s more, these are high school students, so their disabilities are compounded by raging hormones and social pressure.

As you might imagine, my job can be extremely difficult. Beyond the challenges posed by my students, budget cuts and changes to special-education policy have increased my workload drastically even over just the past 18 months. While my class sizes have grown, support staff members have been laid off. Students with increasingly severe disabilities are being pushed into more mainstream classrooms like mine, where they receive less individual attention and struggle to adapt to a curriculum driven by state-designed high-stakes tests.

On top of all that, I’m a bad teacher. That’s not my opinion; it’s how I’m labeled by the city’s Education Department. Last June, my principal at the time rated my teaching “unsatisfactory,” checking off a few boxes on an evaluation sheet that placed my career in limbo. That same year, my school received an “A” rating. I was a bad teacher at a good school. It was pretty humiliating.

Like most teachers, I’m good some days, bad others. The same goes for my students. Last May, my assistant principal at the time observed me teaching in our school’s “self-contained” classroom. A self-contained room is a separate classroom for students with extremely severe learning disabilities. In that room, I taught a writing class for students ages 14 to 17, whose reading levels ranged from third through seventh grades.

When the assistant principal walked in, one of these students, a freshman girl classified with an emotional disturbance, began cursing. When the assistant principal ignored her, she started cursing at me. Then she began lobbing pencils across the room. Was this because I was a bad teacher? I don’t know.

I know that after she began throwing things, I sent her to the dean’s office. I know that a few days later, I received notice that my lesson had been rated unsatisfactory because, among other things, I had sent this student to the dean instead of following our school’s “guided discipline” procedure.

I was confused. Earlier last year, this same assistant principal observed me and instructed me to prioritize improving my “assertive voice” in the classroom. But about a month later, my principal observed me and told me to focus entirely on lesson planning, since she had no concerns about my classroom management. A few weeks earlier, she had written on my behalf for a citywide award for “classroom excellence.” Was I really a bad teacher?

In my three years with the city schools, I’ve seen a teacher with 10 years of experience become convinced, after just a few observations, that he was a terrible teacher. A few months later, he quit teaching altogether. I collaborated with another teacher who sought psychiatric care for insomnia after a particularly intense round of observations. I myself transferred to a new school after being rated “unsatisfactory.”

Behind all of this is the reality that teachers care a great deal about our work. At the school where I work today, my “bad” teaching has mostly been very successful. Even so, I leave work most days replaying lessons in my mind, wishing I’d done something differently. This isn’t because my lessons are bad, but because I want to get better at my job.

In fact, I don’t just want to get better; like most teachers I know, I’m a bit of a perfectionist. I have to be. Dozens and dozens of teenagers scrutinize my language, clothing and posture all day long, all week long. If I’m off my game, the students tell me. They comment on my taste in neckties, my facial hair, the quality of my lessons. All of us teachers are evaluated all day long, already. It’s one of the most exhausting aspects of our job.

Teaching was a high-pressure job long before No Child Left Behind and the current debates about teacher evaluation. These debates seem to rest on the assumption that, left to our own devices, we teachers would be happy to coast through the school year, let our skills atrophy and collect our pensions.

The truth is, teachers don’t need elected officials to motivate us. If our students are not learning, they let us know. They put their heads down or they pass notes. They raise their hands and ask for clarification. Sometimes, they just stare at us like zombies. Few things are more excruciating for a teacher than leading a class that’s not learning. Good administrators use the evaluation processes to support teachers and help them avoid those painful classroom moments — not to weed out the teachers who don’t produce good test scores or adhere to their pedagogical beliefs.

Worst of all, the more intense the pressure gets, the worse we teach. When I had administrators breathing down my neck, the students became a secondary concern. I simply did whatever my assistant principal asked me to do, even when I thought his ideas were crazy. In all honesty, my teaching probably became close to incoherent. One week, my assistant principal wanted me to focus on arranging the students’ desks to fit with class activities, so I moved the desks around every day, just to show that I was a good soldier. I was scared of losing my job, and my students suffered for it.

That said, given all the support in the world, even the best teacher can’t force his students to learn. Students aren’t simply passive vessels, waiting to absorb information from their teachers and regurgitate it through high-stakes assessments. They make choices about what they will and won’t learn. I know I did. When I was a teenager, I often stayed up way too late, talking with friends, listening to music or playing video games. Did this affect my performance on tests? Undoubtedly. Were my teachers responsible for these choices? No.

My best teachers, the ones I still think about today, exposed me to new and exciting ideas. They created classroom environments that welcomed discussion and intellectual risk-taking. Sometimes, these teachers’ lessons didn’t sink in until years after I’d left their classrooms. I’m thinking about Ms. Leonard, the English teacher who repeatedly instructed me to “write what you know,” a lesson I’ve only recently begun to understand. She wasn’t just teaching me about writing, by the way, but about being attentive to the details of my daily existence.

It wasn’t Ms. Leonard’s fault that 15-year-old me couldn’t process this lesson completely. She was planting seeds that wouldn’t bear fruit in the short term. That’s an important part of what we teachers do, and it’s the sort of thing that doesn’t show up on high-stakes tests.

How, then, should we measure students and teachers? In ninth grade, my students learn about the scientific method. They learn that in order to collect good data, scientists control for specific variables and test their impact on otherwise identical environments. If you give some students green fields, glossy textbooks and lots of attention, you can’t measure them against another group of students who lack all of these things. It’s bad science.

Until we provide equal educational resources to all students and teachers, no matter where they come from, we can’t say — with any scientific accuracy — how well or poorly they’re performing. Perhaps if we start the conversation there, things will start making a bit more sense.


William Johnson is a teacher at a public high school in Brooklyn

who writes on education for the Web site Gotham Schools.

    Confessions of a ‘Bad’ Teacher, NYT, 3.3.2012,






Shame Is Not the Solution


February 22, 2012
The New York Times



LAST week, the New York State Court of Appeals ruled that teachers’ individual performance assessments could be made public. I have no opinion on the ruling as a matter of law, but as a harbinger of education policy in the United States, it is a big mistake.

I am a strong proponent of measuring teachers’ effectiveness, and my foundation works with many schools to help make sure that such evaluations improve the overall quality of teaching. But publicly ranking teachers by name will not help them get better at their jobs or improve student learning. On the contrary, it will make it a lot harder to implement teacher evaluation systems that work.

In most public schools today, teachers are simply rated “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory,” and evaluations consist of having the principal observe a class for a few minutes a couple of times each year. Because we are just beginning to understand what makes a teacher effective, the vast majority of teachers are rated “satisfactory.” Few get specific feedback or training to help them improve.

Many districts and states are trying to move toward better personnel systems for evaluation and improvement. Unfortunately, some education advocates in New York, Los Angeles and other cities are claiming that a good personnel system can be based on ranking teachers according to their “value-added rating” — a measurement of their impact on students’ test scores — and publicizing the names and rankings online and in the media. But shaming poorly performing teachers doesn’t fix the problem because it doesn’t give them specific feedback.

Value-added ratings are one important piece of a complete personnel system. But student test scores alone aren’t a sensitive enough measure to gauge effective teaching, nor are they diagnostic enough to identify areas of improvement. Teaching is multifaceted, complex work. A reliable evaluation system must incorporate other measures of effectiveness, like students’ feedback about their teachers and classroom observations by highly trained peer evaluators and principals.

Putting sophisticated personnel systems in place is going to take a serious commitment. Those who believe we can do it on the cheap — by doing things like making individual teachers’ performance reports public — are underestimating the level of resources needed to spur real improvement.

At Microsoft, we created a rigorous personnel system, but we would never have thought about using employee evaluations to embarrass people, much less publish them in a newspaper. A good personnel system encourages employees and managers to work together to set clear, achievable goals. Annual reviews are a diagnostic tool to help employees reflect on their performance, get honest feedback and create a plan for improvement. Many other businesses and public sector employers embrace this approach, and that’s where the focus should be in education: school leaders and teachers working together to get better.

Fortunately, there are a few places where teachers and school leaders are collaborating on the hard work of building robust personnel systems. My wife, Melinda, and I recently visited one of those communities, in Tampa, Fla. Teachers in Hillsborough County Public Schools receive in-depth feedback from their principal and from a peer evaluator, both of whom have been trained to analyze classroom teaching.

We were blown away by how much energy people were putting into the new system — and by the results they were already seeing in the classroom. Teachers told us that they appreciated getting feedback from a peer who understood the challenges of their job and from their principal, who had a vision of success for the entire school. Principals said the new system was encouraging them to spend more time in classrooms, which was making the culture in Tampa’s schools more collaborative. For their part, the students we spoke to said they’d seen a difference, too, and liked the fact that peer observers asked for their input as part of the evaluation process.

Developing a systematic way to help teachers get better is the most powerful idea in education today. The surest way to weaken it is to twist it into a capricious exercise in public shaming. Let’s focus on creating a personnel system that truly helps teachers improve.


Bill Gates is co-chairman of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

    Shame Is Not the Solution, NYT, 22.2.2012,






Justices Take Up Race as a Factor in College Entry


February 21, 2012
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — In a 2003 decision that the majority said it expected would last for 25 years, the Supreme Court allowed public colleges and universities to take account of race in admission decisions. On Tuesday, the court signaled that it might end such affirmative action much sooner than that.

By agreeing to hear a major case involving race-conscious admissions at the University of Texas, the court thrust affirmative action back into the public and political discourse after years in which it had mostly faded from view. Both supporters and opponents of affirmative action said they saw the announcement — and the change in the court’s makeup since 2003 — as a signal that the court’s five more conservative members might be prepared to do away with racial preferences in higher education.

The consequences of such a decision would be striking. It would, all sides agree, reduce the number of African-American and Latino students at nearly every selective college and graduate school, with more Asian-American and white students gaining entrance instead.

A decision barring the use of race in admission decisions would undo an accommodation reached in the Supreme Court’s 5-to-4 decision in 2003 in Grutter v. Bollinger: that public colleges and universities could not use a point system to increase minority enrollment but could take race into account in vaguer ways to ensure academic diversity.

Supporters of affirmative action reacted with alarm to the court’s decision to hear the case. “I think it’s ominous,” said Lee Bollinger, the president of Columbia University, who as president of the University of Michigan was a defendant in the Grutter case. “It threatens to undo several decades of effort within higher education to build a more integrated and just and educationally enriched environment.”

Opponents saw an opportunity to strike a decisive blow on an issue that had partly faded from view. “Any form of discrimination, whether it’s for or against, is wrong,” said Hans von Spakovsky, a legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, who added that his daughter was applying to college. “The idea that she might be discriminated against and not be admitted because of her race is incredible to me.”

Arguments in the new case are likely to be heard just before the presidential election in November, and they may force the candidates to weigh in on a long dormant and combustible issue that has divided the electorate. There was little immediate reaction from the campaign trail and in official Washington on Tuesday, which may be attributable to the political risks the issue presents to both Democrats and Republicans.

Some polls show that a narrow majority of Americans support some forms of affirmative action, though much depends on how the question is framed, and many people have at least some reservations.

The new case, Fisher v. University of Texas, No. 11-345, was brought by Abigail Fisher, a white student who says the University of Texas denied her admission because of her race. The case has idiosyncrasies that may limit its reach, but it also has the potential to eliminate diversity as a rationale sufficient to justify any use of race in admission decisions — the rationale the court endorsed in the Grutter decision. Diversity, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote, encourages lively classroom discussions, fosters cross-racial harmony and cultivates leaders seen as legitimate. But critics say there is only a weak link between racial and academic diversity.

The Grutter decision allowed but did not require states to take account of race in admissions. Several states, including California and Michigan, forbid the practice, and public universities in those states have seen a drop in minority admissions. In other states and at private institutions, officials generally look to race and ethnicity as one factor among many, leading to the admission of significantly more black and Hispanic students than basing the decisions strictly on test scores and grades would.

A Supreme Court decision forbidding the use of race in admission at public universities would almost certainly mean that it would be barred at most private ones as well under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which forbids racial discrimination in programs that receive federal money. In her majority opinion in Grutter, Justice O’Connor said the day would come when “the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary” in admission decisions to foster educational diversity. She said she expected that day to arrive in 25 years, or in 2028. Tuesday’s decision to revisit the issue suggests the deadline may arrive just a decade after Grutter.

The court’s membership has changed since 2003, most notably with the appointment of Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., who replaced Justice O’Connor in 2006. Justice Alito has voted with the court’s more conservative justices in decisions hostile to government use of racial classification.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. has been particularly skeptical of government programs that take account of race. “Racial balancing is not transformed from ‘patently unconstitutional’ to a compelling state interest simply by relabeling it ‘racial diversity,’ ” he wrote in a 2007 decision limiting the use of race to achieve integration in public school districts.

Justices Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas agreed. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, the court’s swing justice, also voted to invalidate the programs. But he was less categorical, sharply limiting the role race could play in children’s school assignments but stopping short of forbidding school districts from ever taking account of race. Still, Justice Kennedy has never voted to uphold an affirmative action program.

In Texas, students in the top 10 percent of high schools are automatically admitted to the public university system, a policy that does not consider race but increases racial diversity in part because so many high schools are racially homogenous. Ms. Fisher just missed that cutoff at her high school in Sugar Land, Tex., and then entered a separate pool of applicants who can be admitted through a complicated system in which race plays an unquantified but significant role. She sued in 2008.

Ms. Fisher is soon to graduate from Louisiana State University. Lawyers for the University of Texas said that meant she had not suffered an injury that a court decision could address, meaning she does not have standing to sue.

Ms. Fisher’s argument is that Texas cannot have it both ways. Having implemented a race-neutral program to increase minority admissions, she says, Texas may not supplement it with a race-conscious one. Texas officials said the additional effort was needed to make sure that individual classrooms contained a “critical mass” of minority students.

The lower federal courts ruled for the state. Chief Judge Edith Jones of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, dissenting from the full appeals court’s decision not to rehear Ms. Fisher’s case, was skeptical of state officials’ rationale. “Will classroom diversity ‘suffer’ in areas like applied math, kinesiology, chemistry, Farsi or hundreds of other subjects if, by chance, few or no students of a certain race are enrolled?” she asked.

Justice Elena Kagan disqualified herself from hearing the case, presumably because she had worked on it as solicitor general.

    Justices Take Up Race as a Factor in College Entry, NYT, 21.2.2012,






States Try to Fix Quirks in Teacher Evaluations


February 19, 2012
The New York Times


Steve Ball, executive principal at the East Literature Magnet School in Nashville, arrived at an English class unannounced one day this month and spent 60 minutes taking copious notes as he watched the teacher introduce and explain the concept of irony. “It was a good lesson,” Mr. Ball said.

But under Tennessee’s new teacher-evaluation system, which is similar to systems being adopted around the country, Mr. Ball said he had to give the teacher a one — the lowest rating on a five-point scale — in one of 12 categories: breaking students into groups. Even though Mr. Ball had seen the same teacher, a successful veteran he declined to identify, group students effectively on other occasions, he felt that he had no choice but to follow the strict guidelines of the state’s complicated rubric.

“It’s not an accurate reflection of her as a teacher,” Mr. Ball said.

Spurred by the requirements of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top competition, Tennessee is one of more than a dozen states overhauling their evaluation systems to increase the number of classroom observations and to put more emphasis on standardized test scores. But even as New York State finally came to an agreement last week with its teachers’ unions on how to design its new system, places like Tennessee that are already carrying out similar plans are struggling with philosophical and logistical problems.

Principals in rural Chester County, Tenn., are staying late and working weekends to complete reviews with more than 100 reference points. In Nashville, teachers are redesigning lessons to meet the myriad criteria — regardless of whether they think that is the best way to teach. And at Bearden High School in Knoxville, Tenn., physical education teachers are scrambling to incorporate math and writing into activities, since 50 percent of their evaluations will be based on standardized tests, not basketball victories.

In Delaware, under pressure from the teachers’ union, the state secretary of education announced last month that teachers would not be assessed on metrics based on how much growth students showed in their classrooms, as planned, because not enough of such data existed. In Maryland, districts were granted an additional year to develop and install evaluation models without the results being counted toward tenure, pay and promotions. And in New York, Thursday’s agreement came after a stalemate lasting months in which more than 1,300 principals signed a petition protesting the new evaluations.

States “are racing ahead based on promises made to Washington or local political imperatives that prioritize an unwavering commitment to unproven approaches,” said Grover J. Whitehurst, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “There’s a lot we don’t know about how to evaluate teachers reliably and how to use that information to improve instruction and learning.”

Backers of the new approaches say that change takes time. “You have to start the process somewhere,” said Daniel Weisberg, executive vice president and general counsel at The New Teacher Project, a nonprofit agency founded in 1997. “If you don’t solve the problem of teacher quality, you will continue to have an achievement gap.”

Emily Barton, assistant commissioner for curriculum and instruction at the Tennessee Department of Education, acknowledged that the new system had kinks, but said that she heard “a consistent theme that the process is leading to rich conversations about instruction and that teacher performance is improving.” In early 2010, the legislature required that half of a teacher’s evaluation be based on annual observations and half on student achievement data. The following year, the state board of education added specifics: each year, principals or evaluators would observe new teachers six times, and tenured ones four times.

Each observation focuses on one or two of four areas: instruction, professionalism, classroom environment and planning. Afterward, the observer scores the teacher according to the state’s detailed and computerized system. Instruction, for example, has 12 subcategories, including “motivating students” and “presenting instructional content.” Motivating students, in turn, has subcategories like “regularly reinforces and rewards effort.” In all, there are 116 subcategories.

“It’s one thing to be observing — I love that, it’s my primary role,” said Troy Kilzer, the 44-year-old principal of Chester County High School. “But you know when a good lesson is being taught without looking at a rubric.” Mr. Kilzer said the new system had led to more precise discussions with teachers about their skills and better lesson planning. But he can hardly keep up with the work.

For principals, it is not just the observations, but also the pre-conference (where teachers explain and show the lesson), the post-conference (where observers explain what teachers might have done better) and four to six hours inputting data. “We are spending a lot of time evaluating people we know are very good teachers,” Mr. Kilzer said.

For many principals, the observations mean less time for the kind of spot visits to classrooms that they relish — and for everything else. “Parents were used to immediate feedback, or they’d stop back for a meeting,” said Connie Gwinn, principal of H. G. Hill Middle School in Nashville who is supportive of the new system over all. “We don’t have the opportunity to do that any more.”

In November, state officials allowed some observations to be combined. Now, evaluators must measure the same number of data points, but they can do it in fewer visits.

Gera Summerford, president of the Tennessee Education Association, compared the new evaluations to taking your car to the mechanic and making him use all of his tools to fix it, regardless of the problem, and expecting him to do it in an hour.

“It has been counterproductive to the intent — a noble intent — of an evaluation system,” said Stephen Henry, president of the Metropolitan Nashville Education Association.

Some teachers, though, praised the system.

“I’m definitely a lot more attuned to making my plans,” said Morgan Shinlever, a physical education and health and wellness teacher at Bearden High.

Since Mr. Shinlever knows his fate now depends on math and reading scores, he is making his classes more academic. After watching the documentary “Food, Inc.” recently, his sophomores wrote essays. Similarly, in Chester County, a gym teacher recently spread playing cards around and had students run to find three that added to 14.

Tennessee officials say the system will be tweaked but not changed significantly. The legislature is considering bills to exempt this year’s evaluations from tenure decisions, and to lower the bar for tenure from scores of four or five to three. And the state recently announced teachers would not find out their ratings until the middle of next year — at which point, they will be deep into next year’s observations and testing.

“It’s like building an airplane while it flies across the sky,” said Mr. Ball, the magnet school principal in Nashville. “We’re building it on the fly.”

    States Try to Fix Quirks in Teacher Evaluations, NYT, 19.2.2012,






A Sound Deal on Teacher Evaluations


February 16, 2012
The New York Times


Thanks to an agreement brokered by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, New York has moved a step closer to carrying out the statewide teacher evaluation system it promised two years ago in return for $700 million from the federal Race to the Top education program. Ending the impasse between the teachers’ unions and education officials will help improve instruction across the state.

A deal, announced on Thursday, resolves several points of dispute that led to litigation between the state and the state teachers’ union and held up negotiations between New York City and its union. But the local districts and the unions must still bargain over some of the details before the evaluation system can be carried out.

Virtually everyone agrees that the traditional evaluation system was terrible. Teachers across the state were regularly given high ratings even when their work was poor. The new system, created in 2010, requires teachers to be rated as highly effective, effective, developing or ineffective. Those rated as ineffective for two consecutive years can be dismissed through an expedited process. The state law requires that 60 percent of a teacher’s score be based on subjective measures like classroom observation and 40 percent on student test scores or other measures of student performance. Half of the student-achievement portion was to be based on state tests and half on locally developed measures.

The state union, New York State United Teachers, successfully challenged in court a state regulation that would have allowed districts to use the state test scores for the local measures, too.

The agreement specifies that the state test can be used as the local portion — but only if the data are used in a different way and that process is arrived at through collective bargaining. The deal also resolves a sticking point in negotiations between New York City and its union, the United Federation of Teachers. The union has been given the right to challenge up to 13 percent of ineffective ratings in cases where harassment and unfairness are suspected. The city will be able to remove an ineffective teacher in a matter of days; the old process sometimes took as long as a year.

To push districts to finalize their evaluation systems, Governor Cuomo has wisely included a provision in the agreement that would deny districts that do not comply a planned 4 percent increase in state education financing. That penalty, combined with the threat of losing federal money, should get the two sides to end the blockage.

    A Sound Deal on Teacher Evaluations, NYT, 16.2.2012,






Abuse Cases Put Los Angeles Schools Under Fire


February 16, 2012
The New York Times


LOS ANGELES — The arrest of a public school teacher here early this month came with plenty of vivid details, thanks to hundreds of photographs that the police say show the teacher covering the eyes and mouths of children with tape and allowing cockroaches to crawl over faces.

Those accusations alone were enough to prompt outrage. But more came: Another teacher at the same school was arrested on charges of sexually abusing children. Then came news reports that two aides at the school had been fired after being accused of abuse, and that one had been sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Within days, other allegations surfaced at schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District: A high school music teacher was removed after being accused of showering with students; a third-grade teacher was being investigated for more than a dozen accusations of sexual abuse; an elementary school janitor was arrested and accused of lewd acts against a child. And on Wednesday, a high school softball coach and special education teacher was arrested on charges of sending inappropriate messages to children over the Internet.

There is no evidence to suggest that these abuse accusations are connected. But they have put an intense spotlight on the way the district monitors its employees and responds to reports of abuse.

The accusations have raised fundamental questions for administrators: How does the sprawling district interact with local law enforcement agencies? Once school officials know about accusations of misconduct, when and how should parents be told? And how does the district track teachers who have been accused of wrongdoing but not convicted?

Most of the attention has centered on Miramonte Elementary, a working-class school in South Los Angeles where, the police say, dozens of students were abused over several years. Many of the students are children of Latino immigrants, and some worry that parents were reluctant to report the allegations to the police because of their legal status.

Mark Berndt, the teacher accused of photographing students as he abused them, was removed from the classroom last spring, but parents were not told of the accusations or the investigation. He has been charged with 23 counts of lewd acts upon a child.

After the arrests of Mr. Berndt and the second teacher, many parents at the school said that they were worried for the safety of their children and that administrators had failed to fulfill their basic responsibility.

John Deasy, who became the district’s superintendent a year ago, responded by transferring the entire staff, shutting the school for two days and putting a new teacher and a social worker in each classroom. The rapid removal of a school’s entire staff is unprecedented nationally, several education experts said. The old staff will remain at an unopened school until investigations by the sheriff and school district are completed.

“We really need to be erring on the side of caution on behalf of our students,” Mr. Deasy said in an interview. “When something like this emerges, our only choice is to act, and the last thing I wanted was any more surprises.”

Mr. Deasy said he was confident he had made the right decision. “When I told the parents about the decision, I stood in front of a room with thousands of people applauding,” he said.

The school district, the nation’s second largest, covers the city of Los Angeles and all or parts of several neighboring communities and unincorporated parts of Los Angeles County, and as a result, it must work with several law enforcement agencies. Mr. Deasy said the district was trying to sort out each agency’s policies.

In Mr. Berndt’s case, school district officials said, the sheriff’s department told them not to speak to any staff members or parents about the matter until the inquiry was completed. On Wednesday, the state agency that accredits teachers sent Mr. Deasy a letter saying he should have informed it when Mr. Berndt was removed from the district last spring, rather than waiting for his arrest, to ensure that he could not be hired in another district.

Perhaps the primary issue, Mr. Deasy said, is what happens after a teacher is accused of wrongdoing. He said that in many cases the district did not appear to keep any central records of accusations of abuse, even if they were substantiated, as long as no formal charges were pressed.

“You can have something that is not criminal but is clearly inappropriate, and the question is: Why would we want that person teaching our children?” he said.

School officials said Mr. Berndt was investigated 18 years ago on suspicion of trying to molest a girl, but prosecutors said there had not been enough evidence to charge him. It is unclear whether details about that inquiry were kept in the district’s central files.

Under state law, any school employee who suspects child abuse is required to report it to law enforcement officials. Warren Fletcher, the president of the city’s teachers’ union, said that every teacher knows the law and that there is no evidence that other teachers were aware of Mr. Berndt’s actions. When the staff was transferred, Mr. Fletcher said, the district was unfairly penalizing innocent teachers.

“To remove every teacher because of the actions of two is really using a hatchet where a scalpel might be better,” he said. “These teachers are traumatized, and to suggest that they knew something bad was going on suggests that they are criminals, which is really irresponsible.”

Some question whether Miramonte’s size contributed to the problem. With nearly 1,200 students, it is the district’s second-largest elementary school. Mr. Fletcher said the principal was the only manager at the school and suggested there was “evidence of failure of supervision.”

The district does not keep track of the number of teachers accused of sexual abuse, but 853 have been pulled from the classroom over the past year for a variety of reasons, a sharp increase largely because Mr. Deasy has encouraged the removal of teachers deemed incompetent. From 2008 until June 2011, 699 teachers were removed from the classroom because of accusations of wrongdoing.

Mónica García, the president of the board of education, said that although the spate of accusations had encouraged more students and parents to come forward, the district needed to do more to tell parents how to handle suspicions of abuse. “We need to encourage everyone to act faster, and that includes district officials,” Ms. García said. “We really have to push for some better process than wait until we tell you,” she added.

Sylvia Reyes, 46, has several grandchildren at Miramonte, including a few who were in the class of the second teacher arrested on abuse charges. Initially, like several parents, she said she was afraid to send them back to school. But after the staff was removed, she felt reassured.

(So far only five parents have officially transferred their students out of the school, and attendance is 92 percent, down just slightly from the average.)

“Now I feel comfortable they’re protected and things will be all right,” Ms. Reyes said. On Tuesday night, she learned that a teacher from her son’s high school — who had visited her home several times to give him extra assistance — had been accused of lewd acts.

    Abuse Cases Put Los Angeles Schools Under Fire, NYT, 16.2.2012,






Education Gap Grows Between Rich and Poor, Studies Say


February 9, 2012
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — Education was historically considered a great equalizer in American society, capable of lifting less advantaged children and improving their chances for success as adults. But a body of recently published scholarship suggests that the achievement gap between rich and poor children is widening, a development that threatens to dilute education’s leveling effects.

It is a well-known fact that children from affluent families tend to do better in school. Yet the income divide has received far less attention from policy makers and government officials than gaps in student accomplishment by race.

Now, in analyses of long-term data published in recent months, researchers are finding that while the achievement gap between white and black students has narrowed significantly over the past few decades, the gap between rich and poor students has grown substantially during the same period.

“We have moved from a society in the 1950s and 1960s, in which race was more consequential than family income, to one today in which family income appears more determinative of educational success than race,” said Sean F. Reardon, a Stanford University sociologist. Professor Reardon is the author of a study that found that the gap in standardized test scores between affluent and low-income students had grown by about 40 percent since the 1960s, and is now double the testing gap between blacks and whites.

In another study, by researchers from the University of Michigan, the imbalance between rich and poor children in college completion — the single most important predictor of success in the work force — has grown by about 50 percent since the late 1980s.

The changes are tectonic, a result of social and economic processes unfolding over many decades. The data from most of these studies end in 2007 and 2008, before the recession’s full impact was felt. Researchers said that based on experiences during past recessions, the recent downturn was likely to have aggravated the trend.

“With income declines more severe in the lower brackets, there’s a good chance the recession may have widened the gap,” Professor Reardon said. In the study he led, researchers analyzed 12 sets of standardized test scores starting in 1960 and ending in 2007. He compared children from families in the 90th percentile of income — the equivalent of around $160,000 in 2008, when the study was conducted — and children from the 10th percentile, $17,500 in 2008. By the end of that period, the achievement gap by income had grown by 40 percent, he said, while the gap between white and black students, regardless of income, had shrunk substantially.

Both studies were first published last fall in a book of research, “Whither Opportunity?” compiled by the Russell Sage Foundation, a research center for social sciences, and the Spencer Foundation, which focuses on education. Their conclusions, while familiar to a small core of social sciences scholars, are now catching the attention of a broader audience, in part because income inequality has been a central theme this election season.

The connection between income inequality among parents and the social mobility of their children has been a focus of President Obama as well as some of the Republican presidential candidates.

One reason for the growing gap in achievement, researchers say, could be that wealthy parents invest more time and money than ever before in their children (in weekend sports, ballet, music lessons, math tutors, and in overall involvement in their children’s schools), while lower-income families, which are now more likely than ever to be headed by a single parent, are increasingly stretched for time and resources. This has been particularly true as more parents try to position their children for college, which has become ever more essential for success in today’s economy.

A study by Sabino Kornrich, a researcher at the Center for Advanced Studies at the Juan March Institute in Madrid, and Frank F. Furstenberg, scheduled to appear in the journal Demography this year, found that in 1972, Americans at the upper end of the income spectrum were spending five times as much per child as low-income families. By 2007 that gap had grown to nine to one; spending by upper-income families more than doubled, while spending by low-income families grew by 20 percent.

“The pattern of privileged families today is intensive cultivation,” said Dr. Furstenberg, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania.

The gap is also growing in college. The University of Michigan study, by Susan M. Dynarski and Martha J. Bailey, looked at two generations of students, those born from 1961 to 1964 and those born from 1979 to 1982. By 1989, about one-third of the high-income students in the first generation had finished college; by 2007, more than half of the second generation had done so. By contrast, only 9 percent of the low-income students in the second generation had completed college by 2007, up only slightly from a 5 percent college completion rate by the first generation in 1989.

James J. Heckman, an economist at the University of Chicago, argues that parenting matters as much as, if not more than, income in forming a child’s cognitive ability and personality, particularly in the years before children start school.

“Early life conditions and how children are stimulated play a very important role,” he said. “The danger is we will revert back to the mindset of the war on poverty, when poverty was just a matter of income, and giving families more would improve the prospects of their children. If people conclude that, it’s a mistake.”

Meredith Phillips, an associate professor of public policy and sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles, used survey data to show that affluent children spend 1,300 more hours than low-income children before age 6 in places other than their homes, their day care centers, or schools (anywhere from museums to shopping malls). By the time high-income children start school, they have spent about 400 hours more than poor children in literacy activities, she found.

Charles Murray, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute whose book, “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010,” was published Jan. 31, described income inequality as “more of a symptom than a cause.”

The growing gap between the better educated and the less educated, he argued, has formed a kind of cultural divide that has its roots in natural social forces, like the tendency of educated people to marry other educated people, as well as in the social policies of the 1960s, like welfare and other government programs, which he contended provided incentives for staying single.

“When the economy recovers, you’ll still see all these problems persisting for reasons that have nothing to do with money and everything to do with culture,” he said.

There are no easy answers, in part because the problem is so complex, said Douglas J. Besharov, a fellow at the Atlantic Council. Blaming the problem on the richest of the rich ignores an equally important driver, he said: two-earner household wealth, which has lifted the upper middle class ever further from less educated Americans, who tend to be single parents.

The problem is a puzzle, he said. “No one has the slightest idea what will work. The cupboard is bare.”

    Education Gap Grows Between Rich and Poor, Studies Say, NYT, 9.2.2011,






School Linked to Abuse Claims Will Replace Entire Faculty


February 6, 2012
The New York Times


LOS ANGELES — The entire faculty at Miramonte Elementary School, where two teachers were arrested last week on accusations of child sexual abuse, will be replaced by new teachers this week, the Los Angeles Unified School District superintendent announced Monday night.

Speaking to hundreds of parents at a meeting called to address the crisis at Miramonte, Superintendent John Deasy announced the school would be closed Tuesday and Wednesday, and when students returned on Thursday, an entirely new corps of teachers and staff members would have been hired to greet them. All current teachers, administrators and staff members will be moved to a school still under construction for the rest of the school year, where they will be interviewed by school officials and, if necessary, the police.

In addition, a psychiatric social worker will be assigned to every class once the school reopens. Every student in the school district who attended Miramonte will also be interviewed.

Mr. Deasy said he felt a personal responsibility to do two things: help children who were victims, and restore parents’ trust in the school district.

“We have to investigate this,” Mr. Deasy said. “And we don’t want to constantly disrupt education while we do that.”

The crisis at Miramonte began last week, when Mark Berndt, who had taught at the school for three decades, was arrested Tuesday and charged with 23 counts of committing lewd acts upon a child.

As the police investigated the case, allegations against another teacher at the school, Martin Springer, came to light, and he was arrested on Friday, accused of groping two 7-year-olds. On Monday, a janitor at another elementary school in the district was arrested on accusations of molesting a student.

The drastic move is the school district’s latest attempt to deal with a crisis of confidence among parents who had begun to protest what they said was the failure of school officials to act against the abuse and explain its extent.

On Monday morning, about 60 parents from the primarily Latino, working-class South Los Angeles neighborhood staged a protest outside the school, and many kept their children home, driving attendance, which was more than 97 percent last week, down to 72 percent. In addition, the parents of three students filed a claim for monetary damages against the school district on Monday, claiming their children had been abused. Their lawyer said more claims would be brought this week.

Like many parents at the protest, Josye Corona worried that her son might have been among those abused.

“We are trying to give the principal a message that we want answers, because they’ve been giving us the runaround, and we’re tired of it,” Ms. Corona said. “One time, my son disappeared on campus for two hours, and they didn’t know where he was. They never gave me an answer. So what do I think now?”

Mr. Deasy said parents — some of whom had been demanding that the entire faculty be fired — had reacted with relief and applause to the news of the staffing overhaul. The news media, however, were barred from that meeting, and allowed to meet with Mr. Deasy only afterward. Several hundred parents who were locked out when the meeting reached capacity angrily chanted “We want justice.”

    School Linked to Abuse Claims Will Replace Entire Faculty, NYT, 6.2.2012,






Reining In College Tuition


February 3, 2012
The New York Times

Higher education institutions are predictably cool to President Obama’s proposal to shift federal aid away from colleges that fail to control rising tuition. Even though the details of his plan, which would require Congressional approval, will not be fleshed out until later this month, the idea behind it is sound.

The federal government must do more to rein in tuition costs at the public colleges that educate more than 70 percent of the nation’s students. By one estimate, the cost of four-year public college tuition has tripled since the 1980s, outpacing both inflation and family income. The increase in the tuition burden is largely caused by declining state support for higher education in the past three decades. In both good times and bad, state governments have pushed more of the costs onto students, forcing many to take out big loans or be priced out of once affordable public colleges at a time when a college education is critical in the new economy.

While financial aid is available to some low-income students, many are driven away by tuition sticker shock. At the same time, many colleges have failed to find more cost-effective ways to deliver education and get the average student to graduation in four years. President Obama was on the mark when he said that this needs to change.

A smart analysis by State Higher Education Executive Officers, a nonprofit group, shows clearly what has happened in public higher education since 1985. In Michigan, for example, the net tuition paid per student (after financial aid) rose from about $3,900 in 1985 to nearly $9,000 in 2010, in inflation adjusted dollars. A similar jump occurred in Pennsylvania, where net tuition per student has gone from about $4,500 in 1985 to more than $8,800 in 2010. In response, students have turned to loans. In the last decade, federal college loan debt has more than doubled from $41 million to $103 million, according to the College Board.

President Obama’s proposed reform plan would require colleges that receive federal aid to create “a scoreboard” that gives actual costs, graduation rates and potential earnings for graduates. His idea for establishing a $1 billion fund to provide grants to states that improve graduation rates and reduce costs is a good one. He also calls for expanding campus-based aid — mainly loans and work-study programs — to more than $10 billion from the current $2.7 billion. And, for the first time, the government would punish colleges that failed to control tuition or that did not provide good value by shifting money to other schools that do a better job.

Determining what amounts to good value will be difficult, and persuading Congress to move forward on any of these ideas will be hard. But Mr. Obama is right that the federal government should begin leveraging its sizable investment in higher education for reform. He has set the stage for a long overdue discussion about what ails higher education and what might be done about it.

    Reining In College Tuition, NYT, 3.2.2012,






Bracing for $40,000 at City Private Schools


January 27, 2012
The New York Times


THERE are certain mathematical realities associated with New York City private schools: There are more students than seats at the top-tier schools, at least three sets of twins will be vying head to head for spots in any class, and already-expensive tuition can only go up.

Way up.

Over the past 10 years, the median price of first grade in the city has gone up by 48 percent, adjusted for inflation, compared with a 35 percent increase at private schools nationally — and just 24 percent at an Ivy League college — according to tuition data provided by 41 New York City K-12 private schools to the National Association of Independent Schools.

Indeed, this year’s tuition at Columbia Grammar and Preparatory ($38,340 for 12th grade) and Horace Mann ($37,275 for the upper school) is higher than Harvard’s ($36,305). Those 41 schools (out of 61 New York City private schools in the national association) provided enough data to enable a 10-year analysis. (Over all, inflation caused prices in general to rise 27 percent over the past decade.)

The median 12th-grade tuition for the current school year was $36,970, up from $21,100 in 2001-2, according to the national association’s survey. Nationally, that figure rose to $24,240 from $14,583 a decade ago.

With schools already setting tuition rates for the 2012-13 school year — Brearley’s is $38,200 — parents at Horace Mann, Columbia Grammar and Trinity are braced to find out whether they will join families at Riverdale Country School in the $40,000-a-year club. (Riverdale actually charges $40,450 for 12th grade.) In fact, it appears to be a question not of “if,” but “when.”

“Within one to two years, every independent school will cost more than $40,000,” said one board member at a top school who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the school had not yet set tuition.

And that is before requests for the annual fund, tickets to the yearly auction gala and capital campaigns to build a(nother) gym.

Parents are reluctant to complain, at least with their names attached, for fear of hurting students’ standing (or siblings’ admissions chances). But privately, many questioned paying more for the same. “The school’s always had an amazing teacher-to-student ratio, learning specialists and art programs with great music and theater,” said one mother whose children attend the Dalton School ($36,970 a year). “It was great a decade ago and great now.”

“They are outrageous,” said Dana Haddad, a private admissions consultant, referring to tuitions. “People don’t want to put a price tag on their children’s future, so they are willing to pay more than many of them can afford.”

Administrators at several of New York’s top schools attributed the tuition inflation to rising teacher salaries, ever-expanding programs and renovations to aging buildings. They noted that tuition still covered only about 80 percent of the cost of educating each child (that is what all the fund-raising is about). As at most companies, a majority of the costs — and the fastest-growing increases — come from salaries and benefits, especially as notoriously low-paying private schools try to compete with public school compensation.

“Some New York schools have had a 5, 10 or as high as 30 percent increase in the cost of their medical plans,” said Mark Lauria, the executive director of the New York State Association of Independent Schools.

And paying teachers is only a piece of the puzzle. Léman Manhattan Preparatory School has a gym whose floor is cleaned twice a day. The Trinity School has three theaters, six art studios, two tennis courts, a pool and a diving pool. Poly Prep Country Day School raised $2 million to open a learning center this year that has six full-time employees offering one-on-one help with subjects as varied as note-taking and test-taking.

“Parents are just expecting more and more of independent schools,” said David B. Harman, the headmaster at Poly Prep. “Trying to meet that demand, that expectation, is expensive.”

But some parents and school consultants note that many of the schools have long had lush facilities and expansive academic and extracurricular offerings. What keeps the prices rising, they say, is the seemingly endless stream of people more than willing to pay them.

The median number of applications to New York schools has increased 32 percent over the past decade, according to the association, and in some schools the acceptance rate is staggeringly low. At Trinity, only 2.4 percent of children from families with no previous connection to the school were admitted to kindergarten last year. Far from being deterred by the sticker prices, more families seem to be hiring consultants — at an additional cost — in hopes of getting a leg up.

One consulting firm, Manhattan Private School Advisors, said it worked with 1,431 families this school year, up from 605 three years ago. The company’s fee has gone up, too: It was $21,500 this year and $18,500 three years ago.

“In the rest of the country, the admission funnel is shrinking, and you have to moderate tuition increases,” said Patrick F. Bassett, head of the National Association of Independent Schools. “But if the pool is six, seven, or eight deep for applications for preschool — that’s way higher than for maybe 20 colleges in the whole country — there is no perceived need not to increase it.”

For their money, students often get exotic offerings. At Poly Prep, with 983 students on two campuses in Brooklyn, there are five sections of Level I Mandarin. Dalton offers Zen Dance; Saint Ann’s has Roman Travel Writing; and at Columbia Grammar, there is a theater class on “The Nature of Revenge.” Classes are small, teachers often have Ph.D.’s, and most graduates are aimed at equally top-tier colleges.

But even a school with no track record can charge a boatload of money. Avenues, the for-profit start-up school set to open in Chelsea in September, will charge $39,750 starting in nursery school, which might make it the most expensive preschool in the city. (The school will offer bilingual classes and a longer school day than most early-childhood programs.)

And at some schools, there are fees on top of tuition: At Spence ($37,500) parents pay extra for Parents Association dues ($35), plus a registration fee ($75) and class dues ($25 or $50 depending on grade), while at Friends Seminary, there are additional fees like $800 for “building and technology enhancement.”

In a twist, despite the lingering recession, the percentage of students receiving financial aid has not increased alongside tuition. Of the national association’s 61 member schools in New York City, 21 submitted financial aid data going back a decade.

At those schools this school year, 18.5 percent of students received financial aid, the same figure as a decade ago (it had inched up to 20 percent in 2010-11). Nationally, 20.6 percent of students at a sample of 313 schools now receive financial aid, compared with 12.9 percent in 2001-2.

The median financial aid grant, though, has increased — it was $25,543 this year in New York City, according to the data from the 21 schools, up an inflation-adjusted 41 percent from $14,261 in 2001-2. Nationally, the median was $11,953, up 27.9 percent from $7,359 a decade ago, when adjusted for inflation.

For many parents, the sticker prices have ceased to shock. Instead, there are gripes about the grueling entry process and many of the ancillary costs that now seem nonnegotiable — private tutors, spring training in Florida for sports, unpaid internships at top research institutes to bolster college résumés. Amanda Uhry, who founded Manhattan Private School Advisors in 2001, said that in her entire career, no one had ever asked about the cost of the schools to which their children planned to apply.

Mary Watson, a mother at Saint Ann’s — where she once taught and sat on the board — said that given the competitiveness for admission, many parents don’t shop by price. “They’re looking at where will students get into college, what awards have been won, what extracurriculars are available,” she said. (Saint Ann’s, with $25,000 tuition in nursery school, is considered a relative bargain.)

Unlike public schools, which have faced severe cutbacks in the face of dwindling state and local revenues, private schools seem only to add courses. Take foreign languages. Schools used to offer French and Spanish. Then came German and Russian. Japanese was introduced when that country looked poised to dominate the global economy. A few years ago, Mandarin was a must-have, and now many schools offer Arabic.

“Offering Mandarin is a way to prepare students for the 21st-century world we live in,” said John Allman, Trinity’s headmaster.

Also unlike New York public schools, which are required to be in session 180 days a year, private schools set their own schedules. At Horace Mann, where the parents of kindergartners are paying $37,695 with additional fees, the children attended 155 days last year. For those doing the math, that’s $243 a day.


Christopher Reeve contributed reporting.

    Bracing for $40,000 at City Private Schools, NYT, 29.1.2012,




home Up