Les anglonautes

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

 Previous Home Up Next


History > 2013 > USA > Education (II)



Inmates Helping Inmates


December 18, 2013
The New York Times


MILWAUKEE — IT’S the singular guest at a prison who receives a standing ovation from inmates. I’ve heard of only two: Johnny Cash and Percy Pitzer, a retired warden who in 2012 started a nonprofit corporation to award college scholarships to children of inmates.

I sit on the board of Mr. Pitzer’s group, called the Creative Corrections Education Foundation. I recently went with him to visit some of the inmates at the Milwaukee County House of Correction. It was morning and many were still on their thin mattresses — sleeping, reading, crocheting, playing cards — as he began a day of speeches.

He started in H6, a 60-bed women’s dorm. “Good morning, ladies. I’m Percy Pitzer, from Beaumont, Texas,” he began. He told them that he had made a living for his family by working for the Bureau of Prisons, and that he and his wife wanted to give back. So he’d kick-started a scholarship fund with $150,000 of his own money. But he wanted it to become an inmate-funded venture, and said it would not work without their help.

“Will you help me with the price of a candy bar a month?” he asked.

His audience probably had a sense of the odds working against their children. Close to seven million children in the United States have a parent involved in some form of correctional intervention — jail, prison, probation or parole. More than two million have parents behind bars. The impact is largely focused on minority communities. Families of inmates are left with very little on which to survive, and so the cycle of poverty and crime goes unbroken. According to the American Correctional Association, up to 50 percent of incarcerated juveniles have an incarcerated parent.

Like anyone, these parents want something better for their kids. The inmates in Milwaukee proved that when they were asked to contribute to the education of other people’s children.

“I will,” one inmate said.

“I will,” said another.

“I will.”

Strolling up and down the aisles of steel bunk beds, Mr. Pitzer handed a form to anyone interested, to fill in her name, booking number, dorm/bed number, the date and the amount she agreed to have taken out of her personally funded commissary account. In all, 13 women in H6 donated $41; one signed up to donate $5 per month.

This is a lot of money for most inmates at the Milwaukee County House of Correction. There, the prisoners — 80 percent of whom are below the poverty level — are not paid for their work mopping halls, cutting grass and performing the many menial tasks that keep the facility operating. At some correctional facilities, inmates earn $10 a day. Either way, this is money that would otherwise go to small luxuries, like snacks and deodorant.

And yet about 300 inmates in Texas, New Mexico, Ohio and Wisconsin have donated. Thanks to that money, in addition to private contributions, by the end of this year Creative Corrections will have awarded 40 $1,000 college scholarships. If just 25 percent of the nation’s 2.4 million inmates donated one dollar a month, the foundation could award $7.2 million annually in scholarships.

(Scholarship recipients must have a parent or legal guardian who is currently incarcerated, on parole or under community supervision. And the funds are transferred directly to the bursar’s office of a college or university, which must be accredited.)

Before he left H6, Mr. Pitzer thanked the women, and they thanked him:

“Thank you for taking the time to come down.”

“Where can my child find information about this?”

“When I get out, can I volunteer for you?”

Then, accompanied by two guards, he walked down the cinder-block hallways to B6, where one male inmate donated 12 cents, another 37. So far, the inmate donations from that facility total $866, with $75.48 pledged monthly. Next year, Mr. Pitzer will step up the pace, petitioning former corrections colleagues to allow him to visit, and persuading colleges and universities to partner with him.

Education will not solve our many social ills, but it is one of the best ways to keep future generations out of the criminal justice system. The scholarship plan is built on this, and the perhaps surprising fact that many inmates want to be part of the solution.

Our system of mass incarceration is a tragedy. But what is even sadder is when we equate imprisonment with being adrift from society’s challenges. Just because people are in prison does not mean they are incapable of doing good and supporting their families and communities. Perhaps the greatest benefit of Mr. Pitzer’s program is that it lets prisoners prove that they want to and can make meaningful contributions to society.


Stan Stojkovic is the dean of the school of social welfare

at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.

    Inmates Helping Inmates, NYT, 18.12.2013,






Why Other Countries Teach Better


December 17, 2013
The New York Times


Millions of laid-off American factory workers were the first to realize that they were competing against job seekers around the globe with comparable skills but far smaller paychecks. But a similar fate also awaits workers who aspire to high-skilled, high-paying jobs in engineering and technical fields unless this country learns to prepare them to compete for the challenging work that the new global economy requires.

The American work force has some of weakest mathematical and problem-solving skills in the developed world. In a recent survey by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a global policy organization, adults in the United States scored far below average and better than only two of 12 other developed comparison countries, Italy and Spain. Worse still, the United States is losing ground in worker training to countries in Europe and Asia whose schools are not just superior to ours but getting steadily better.

The lessons from those high-performing countries can no longer be ignored by the United States if it hopes to remain competitive.

Finland: Teacher Training

Though it dropped several rankings in last year’s tests, Finland has for years been in the highest global ranks in literacy and mathematical skills. The reason dates to the postwar period, when Finns first began to consider creating comprehensive schools that would provide a quality, high-level education for poor and wealthy alike. These schools stand out in several ways, providing daily hot meals; health and dental services; psychological counseling; and an array of services for families and children in need. None of the services are means tested. Moreover, all high school students must take one of the most rigorous required curriculums in the world, including physics, chemistry, biology, philosophy, music and at least two foreign languages.

But the most important effort has been in the training of teachers, where the country leads most of the world, including the United States, thanks to a national decision made in 1979. The country decided to move preparation out of teachers’ colleges and into the universities, where it became more rigorous. By professionalizing the teacher corps and raising its value in society, the Finns have made teaching the country’s most popular occupation for the young. These programs recruit from the top quarter of the graduating high school class, demonstrating that such training has a prestige lacking in the United States. In 2010, for example, 6,600 applicants competed for 660 available primary school preparation slots in the eight Finnish universities that educate teachers.

The teacher training system in this country is abysmal by comparison. A recent report by the National Council on Teacher Quality called teacher preparation programs “an industry of mediocrity,” rating only 10 percent of more than 1,200 of them as high quality. Most have low or no academic standards for entry. Admission requirements for teaching programs at the State University of New York were raised in September, but only a handful of other states have taken similar steps.

Finnish teachers are not drawn to the profession by money; they earn only slightly more than the national average salary. But their salaries go up by about a third in the first 15 years, several percentage points higher than those of their American counterparts. Finland also requires stronger academic credentials for its junior high and high school teachers and rewards them with higher salaries.

Canada: School funding

Canada also has a more rigorous and selective teacher preparation system than the United States, but the most striking difference between the countries is how they pay for their schools.

American school districts rely far too heavily on property taxes, which means districts in wealthy areas bring in more money than those in poor ones. State tax money to make up the gap usually falls far short of the need in districts where poverty and other challenges are greatest.

Americans tend to see such inequalities as the natural order of things. Canadians do not. In recent decades, for example, three of Canada’s largest and best-performing provinces — Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario — have each addressed the inequity issue by moving to province-level funding formulas. As a recent report by the Center for American Progress notes, these formulas allow the provinces to determine how much money each district will receive, based on each district’s size and needs. The systems even out the tax base and help ensure that resources are distributed equitably, not clustered in wealthy districts.

These were not boutique experiments. The Ontario system has more than two million public school students — more than in 45 American states and the District of Columbia. But the contrast to the American system could not be more clear. Ontario, for example, strives to eliminate or at least minimize the funding inequality that would otherwise exist between poor and wealthy districts. In most American states, however, the wealthiest, highest-spending districts spend about twice as much per pupil as the lowest-spending districts, according to a federal advisory commission report. In some states, including California, the ratio is more than three to one.

This has left 40 percent of American public school students in districts of “concentrated student poverty,” the commission’s report said.

Shangai: Fighting Elitism

China’s educational system was largely destroyed during Mao Zedong’s “cultural revolution,” which devalued intellectual pursuits and demonized academics. Since shortly after Mao’s death in 1976, the country has been rebuilding its education system at lightning speed, led by Shanghai, the nation’s largest and most internationalized city. Shanghai, of course, has powerful tools at its disposal, including the might of the authoritarian state and the nation’s centuries-old reverence for scholarship and education. It has had little difficulty advancing a potent succession of reforms that allowed it to achieve universal enrollment rapidly. The real proof is that its students were first in the world in math, science and literacy on last year’s international exams.

One of its strengths is that the city has mainly moved away from an elitist system in which greater resources and elite instructors were given to favored schools, and toward a more egalitarian, neighborhood attendance system in which students of diverse backgrounds and abilities are educated under the same roof. The city has focused on bringing the once-shunned children of migrant workers into the school system. In the words of the O.E.C.D, Shanghai has embraced the notion that migrant children are also “our children” — meaning that city’s future depends in part on them and that they, too, should be included in the educational process. Shanghai has taken several approaches to repairing the disparity between strong schools and weak ones, as measured by infrastructure and educational quality. Some poor schools were closed, reorganized, or merged with higher-level schools. Money was transferred to poor, rural schools to construct new buildings or update old ones. Teachers were transferred from cities to rural areas and vice versa. Stronger urban schools were paired with rural schools with the aim of improving teaching methods. And under a more recent strategy, strong schools took over the administration of weak ones. The Chinese are betting that the ethos, management style and teaching used in the strong schools will be transferable.

America’s stature as an economic power is being threatened by societies above us and below us on the achievement scale. Wealthy nations with high-performing schools are consolidating their advantages and working hard to improve. At the same time, less-wealthy countries like Chile, Brazil, Indonesia and Peru, have made what the O.E.C.D. describes as “impressive gains catching up from very low levels of performance.” In other words, if things remain as they are, countries that lag behind us will one day overtake us.

The United States can either learn from its competitors abroad — and finally summon the will to make necessary policy changes — or fall further and further behind. The good news is that this country has an impressive history of school improvement, as reflected in the early-20th-century compulsory school movement and the postwar expansion, which broadened access to college. Similar levels of focus and effort will be needed to move forward again.

    Why Other Countries Teach Better, NYT, 17.12.2013,






After Setbacks,

Online Courses Are Rethought


December 10, 2013
The New York Times


Two years after a Stanford professor drew 160,000 students from around the globe to a free online course on artificial intelligence, starting what was widely viewed as a revolution in higher education, early results for such large-scale courses are disappointing, forcing a rethinking of how college instruction can best use the Internet.

A study of a million users of massive open online courses, known as MOOCs, released this month by the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education found that, on average, only about half of those who registered for a course ever viewed a lecture, and only about 4 percent completed the courses.

Much of the hope — and hype — surrounding MOOCs has focused on the promise of courses for students in poor countries with little access to higher education. But a separate survey from the University of Pennsylvania released last month found that about 80 percent of those taking the university’s MOOCs had already earned a degree of some kind.

And perhaps the most publicized MOOC experiment, at San Jose State University, has turned into a flop. It was a partnership announced with great fanfare at a January news conference featuring Gov. Jerry Brown of California, a strong backer of online education. San Jose State and Udacity, a Silicon Valley company co-founded by a Stanford artificial-intelligence professor, Sebastian Thrun, would work together to offer three low-cost online introductory courses for college credit.

Mr. Thrun, who had been unhappy with the low completion rates in free MOOCs, hoped to increase them by hiring online mentors to help students stick with the classes. And the university, in the heart of Silicon Valley, hoped to show its leadership in online learning, and to reach more students.

But the pilot classes, of about 100 people each, failed. Despite access to the Udacity mentors, the online students last spring — including many from a charter high school in Oakland — did worse than those who took the classes on campus. In the algebra class, fewer than a quarter of the students — and only 12 percent of the high school students — earned a passing grade.

The program was suspended in July, and it is unclear when, if or how the program will resume. Neither the provost nor the president of San Jose State returned calls, and spokesmen said the university had no comment.

Whatever happens at San Jose, even the loudest critics of MOOCs do not expect them to fade away. More likely, they will morph into many different shapes: Already, San Jose State is getting good results using videos from edX, a nonprofit MOOC venture, to supplement some classroom sessions, and edX is producing videos to use in some high school Advanced Placement classes. And Coursera, the largest MOOC company, is experimenting with using its courses, along with a facilitator, in small discussion classes at some United States consulates.

Some MOOC pioneers are working with a different model, so-called connectivist MOOCs, which are more about the connections and communication among students than about the content delivered by a professor.

“It’s like, ‘The MOOC is dead, long live the MOOC,’ ” said Jonathan Rees, a Colorado State University-Pueblo professor who has expressed fears that the online courses would displace professors and be an excuse for cuts in funding. “At the beginning everybody talked about MOOCs being entirely online, but now we’re seeing lots of things that fall in the middle, and even I see the appeal of that.”

The intense publicity about MOOCs has nudged almost every university toward developing an Internet strategy.

Given that the wave of publicity about MOOCs began with Mr. Thrun’s artificial-intelligence course, it is fitting that he has become emblematic of a reset in the thinking about MOOCs, after a profile in Fast Company magazine that described him as moving away from college classes in favor of vocational training in partnerships with corporations that would pay a fee.

Many educators saw the move as an admission of defeat for the idea that online courses would democratize higher education — and confirmation that, at its core, Udacity, a company funded with venture capital, was more interested in profits than in helping to educate underserved students.

“Sebastian Thrun put himself out there as a little bit of a lightning rod,” said George Siemens, a MOOC pioneer who got funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for research on MOOCs, and last week convened the researchers at the University of Texas at Arlington to discuss their early results. “Whether he intended it or not, that article marks a substantial turning point in the conversation around MOOCs.”

The profile quoted Mr. Thrun as saying the Udacity MOOCs were “a lousy product” and “not a good fit” for disadvantaged students, unleashing a torrent of commentary in the higher-education blogosphere.

Mr. Thrun took issue with the article, and said he had never concluded that MOOCs could not work for any particular group of students.

“I care about education for everyone, not just the elite,” he said in an interview. “We want to bring high-quality education to everyone, and set up everyone for success. My commitment is unchanged.”

While he said he was “super-excited” about working with corporations to improve job skills, Mr. Thrun said he was working with San Jose State to revamp the software so that future students could have more time to work through the courses.

“To all those people who declared our experiment a failure, you have to understand how innovation works,” he wrote on his blog. “Few ideas work on the first try. Iteration is key to innovation. We are seeing significant improvement in learning outcomes and student engagement. ”

Some draw an analogy to mobile phones, which took several generations to progress from clunky and unreliable to indispensable.

Mr. Thrun stressed that results from the second round of the San Jose experiment over the summer were much improved, with the online algebra and statistics students doing better than their on-campus counterparts. Comparisons are murky, though, since the summer classes were open to all, and half the students already had degrees.

Some San Jose professors said they found the MOOC material useful and were disappointed that the pilot was halted.

“We had great results in the summer, so I’m surprised that it’s not going forward,” said Julie Sliva, who taught the college algebra course. “I’m still using the Udacity videos to support another course, because they’re very helpful.”

Mr. Siemens said what was happening was part of a natural process. “We’re moving from the hype to the implementation,” he said. “It’s exciting to see universities saying, ‘Fine, you woke us up,’ and beginning to grapple with how the Internet can change the university, how it doesn’t have to be all about teaching 25 people in a room.

“Now that we have the technology to teach 100,000 students online,” he said, “the next challenge will be scaling creativity, and finding a way that even in a class of 100,000, adaptive learning can give each student a personal experience.”

    After Setbacks, Online Courses Are Rethought, NYT, 10.12.2013,






They Loved Your G.P.A.

Then They Saw Your Tweets.


November 9, 2013
The New York Times


At Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Me., admissions officers are still talking about the high school senior who attended a campus information session last year for prospective students. Throughout the presentation, she apparently posted disparaging comments on Twitter about her fellow attendees, repeatedly using a common expletive.

Perhaps she hadn’t realized that colleges keep track of their social media mentions.

“It was incredibly unusual and foolish of her to do that,” Scott A. Meiklejohn, Bowdoin’s dean of admissions and financial aid, told me last week. The college ultimately denied the student admission, he said, because her academic record wasn’t competitive. But had her credentials been better, those indiscreet posts could have scuttled her chances.

“We would have wondered about the judgment of someone who spends their time on their mobile phone and makes such awful remarks,” Mr. Meiklejohn said.

As certain high school seniors work meticulously this month to finish their early applications to colleges, some may not realize that comments they casually make online could negatively affect their prospects. In fact, new research from Kaplan Test Prep, the service owned by the Washington Post Company, suggests that online scrutiny of college hopefuls is growing.

Of 381 college admissions officers who answered a Kaplan telephone questionnaire this year, 31 percent said they had visited an applicant’s Facebook or other personal social media page to learn more about them — a five-percentage-point increase from last year. More crucially for those trying to get into college, 30 percent of the admissions officers said they had discovered information online that had negatively affected an applicant’s prospects.

“Students’ social media and digital footprint can sometimes play a role in the admissions process,” says Christine Brown, the executive director of K-12 and college prep programs at Kaplan Test Prep. “It’s something that is becoming more ubiquitous and less looked down upon.”

In the business realm, employers now vet the online reputations of job candidates as a matter of course. Given the impulsiveness of typical teenagers, however — not to mention the already fraught nature of college acceptances and rejections — the idea that admissions officers would covertly nose around the social media posts of prospective students seems more chilling.

There is some reason for concern. Ms. Brown says that most colleges don’t have formal policies about admissions officers supplementing students’ files with their own online research. If colleges find seemingly troubling material online, they may not necessarily notify the applicants involved.

“To me, it’s a huge problem,” said Bradley S. Shear, a lawyer specializing in social media law. For one thing, Mr. Shear told me, colleges might erroneously identify the account of a person with the same name as a prospective student — or even mistake an impostor’s account — as belonging to the applicant, potentially leading to unfair treatment. “Often,” he added, “false and misleading content online is taken as fact.”

These kinds of concerns prompted me last week to email 20 colleges and universities — small and large, private and public, East Coast and West Coast — to ask about their practices. Then I called admissions officials at 10 schools who agreed to interviews.

Each official told me that it was not routine practice at his or her institution for admissions officers to use Google searches on applicants or to peruse their social media posts. Most said their school received so many applications to review — with essays, recommendations and, often, supplemental portfolios — that staff members wouldn’t be able to do extra research online. A few also felt that online investigations might lead to unfair or inconsistent treatment.

“As students’ use of social media is growing, there’s a whole variety of ways that college admissions officers can use it,” Beth A. Wiser, the director of admissions at the University of Vermont, told me. “We have chosen to not use it as part of the process in making admissions decisions.”

Other admissions officials said they did not formally prohibit the practice. In fact, they said, admissions officers did look at online material about applicants on an ad hoc basis. Sometimes prospective students themselves ask an admissions office to look at blogs or videos they have posted; on other occasions, an admissions official might look up an obscure award or event mentioned by an applicant, for purposes of elucidation.

“Last year, we watched some animation videos and we followed media stories about an applicant who was involved in a political cause,” says Will Hummel, an admissions officer at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. But those were rare instances, he says, and the supplemental material didn’t significantly affect the students’ admissions prospects.

Admissions officials also said they had occasionally rejected applicants, or revoked their acceptances, because of online materials. Often, these officials said, a college may learn about a potential problem from an outside source, such as a high school counselor or a graduate, prompting it to look into the matter.

Last year, an undergraduate at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., who had befriended a prospective student on Facebook, notified the admissions office because he noticed that the applicant had posted offensive comments about one of his high school teachers.

“We thought, this is not the kind of person we want in our community,” Angel B. Perez, Pitzer’s dean of admission and financial aid, told me. With about 4,200 applications annually for a first-year class of 250 students, the school can afford to be selective. “We didn’t admit the student,” Mr. Perez said.

But colleges vary in their transparency. While Pitzer doesn’t contact students if their social media activities precluded admission to the school, Colgate University does notify students if they are eliminated from the applicant pool for any reason other than being uncompetitive candidates.

“We should be transparent with applicants,” says Gary L. Ross, Colgate’s dean of admission. He once called a student, to whom Colgate had already offered acceptance, to check whether an alcohol-related incident that was reported online was indeed true. (It was, and Colgate rescinded the offer of admission.)

“We will always ask if there is something we didn’t understand,” Mr. Ross said.

In an effort to help high school students avoid self-sabotage online, guidance counselors are tutoring them in scrubbing their digital identities. At Brookline High School in Massachusetts, juniors are taught to delete alcohol-related posts or photographs and to create socially acceptable email addresses. One junior’s original email address was “bleedingjesus,” said Lenny Libenzon, the school’s guidance department chairman. That changed.

“They imagine admissions officers are old professors,” he said. “But we tell them a lot of admissions officers are very young and technology-savvy.”

Likewise, high school students seem to be growing more shrewd, changing their searchable names on Facebook or untagging themselves in pictures to obscure their digital footprints during the college admission process.

“We know that some students maintain two Facebook accounts,” says Wes K. Waggoner, the dean of undergraduate admission at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

For their part, high school seniors say that sanitizing social media accounts doesn’t seem qualitatively different than the efforts they already make to present the most appealing versions of themselves to colleges. While Megan Heck, 17, a senior at East Lansing High School in Michigan, told me that she was not amending any of her posts as she applied early to colleges this month, many of her peers around the country were.

“If you’ve got stuff online you don’t want colleges to see,” Ms. Heck said, “deleting it is kind of like joining two more clubs senior year to list on your application to try to make you seem more like the person they want at their schools.”

    They Loved Your G.P.A. Then They Saw Your Tweets., NYT, 9.10.2013,






Oklahoma! Where the Kids Learn Early


November 9, 2013
The New York Times


TULSA, Okla. — LIBERALS don’t expect Oklahoma to serve as a model of social policy. But, astonishingly, we can see in this reddest of red states a terrific example of what the United States can achieve in early education.

Every 4-year-old in Oklahoma gets free access to a year of high-quality prekindergarten. Even younger children from disadvantaged homes often get access to full-day, year-round nursery school, and some families get home visits to coach parents on reading and talking more to their children.

The aim is to break the cycle of poverty, which is about so much more than a lack of money. Take two girls, ages 3 and 4, I met here in one Tulsa school. Their great-grandmother had her first child at 13. The grandmother had her first at 15. The mom had her first by 13, born with drugs in his system, and she now has four children by three fathers.

But these two girls, thriving in a preschool, may break that cycle. Their stepgreat-grandmother, Patricia Ann Gaines, is raising them and getting coaching from the school on how to read to them frequently, and she is determined to see them reach the middle class.

“I want them to go to college, be trouble-free, have no problem with incarceration,” she said.

Research suggests that high-poverty parents, some of them stressed-out kids themselves, don’t always “attach” to their children or read or speak to them frequently. One well-known study found that a child of professionals hears 30 million more words by the age of 4 than a child on welfare.

So the idea is that even the poorest child in Oklahoma should have access to the kind of nurturing that is routine in middle-class homes. That way, impoverished children don’t begin elementary school far behind the starting line — and then give up.

President Obama called in his State of the Union address this year for a nationwide early education program like this, for mountains of research suggests that early childhood initiatives are the best way to chip away at inequality and reduce the toll of crime, drugs and educational failure. Repeated studies suggest that these programs pay for themselves: build preschools now, or prisons later.

Because Obama proposed this initiative, Republicans in Washington are leery. They don’t want some fuzzy new social program, nor are they inclined to build a legacy for Obama. Yet national polling suggests that a majority of Republicans favor early-education initiatives, so I’d suggest that Obama call for nationwide adoption of “The Oklahoma Project” and that Republicans seize ownership of this issue as well.

It’s promising that here in Oklahoma, early education isn’t seen as a Republican or Democratic initiative. It is simply considered an experiment that works. After all, why should we squander human capacity and perpetuate social problems as happens when we don’t reach these kids in time?

“This isn’t a liberal issue,” said Skip Steele, a Republican who is a Tulsa City Council member and strong supporter of early education. “This is investing in our kids, in our future. It’s a no-brainer.”

Teachers, administrators and outside evaluators agree that students who go through the preschool program end up about half a year ahead of where they would be otherwise.

“We’ve seen a huge change in terms of not only academically the preparation they have walking into kindergarten, but also socially,” said Kirt Hartzler, the superintendent of Union Public Schools in Tulsa. “It’s a huge jump-start for kids.”

Oklahoma began a pilot prekindergarten program in 1980, and, in 1998, it passed a law providing for free access to prekindergarten for all 4-year-olds. Families don’t have to send their children, but three-quarters of them attend.

In addition, Oklahoma provides more limited support for needy children 3 and under. Oklahoma has more preschools known as Educare schools, which focus on poor children beginning in their first year, than any other state.

Oklahoma also supports home visits so that social workers can coach stressed-out single moms (or occasionally dads) on the importance of reading to children and chatting with them constantly. The social workers also drop off books; otherwise, there may not be a single children’s book in the house.

The Oklahoma initiative is partly a reflection of the influence of George B. Kaiser, a Tulsa billionaire who searched for charitable causes with the same rigor as if he were looking at financial investments. He decided on early education as having the highest return, partly because neuroscience shows the impact of early interventions on the developing brain and partly because careful studies have documented enormous gains from early education.

So Kaiser began investing in early interventions in Oklahoma and advocating for them, and, because of his prominence and business credentials, people listened to the evidence he cited. He also argues, as a moral issue, that all children should gain fairer access to the starting line.

“Maybe the reason that rich, smart parents had rich, smart children wasn’t genetics,” Kaiser told me, “but that those rich, smart parents also held their kids, read to them, spent a lot of time with them.”

I tagged along as a social worker from Educare visited Whitney Pingleton, 27, a single mom raising three small children. They read to the youngest and talked about how to integrate literacy into daily life. When you see a stop sign, the social worker suggested, point to the letters, sound them out and show how they spell “stop.”

Some of the most careful analysis of the Oklahoma results comes from a team at Georgetown University led by William T. Gormley Jr. and published in peer-reviewed journals. The researchers find sharp gains in prereading, prewriting and prearithmetic skills, as well as improvements in social skills. Some experts think that gains in the ability to self-regulate and work with others are even more important than the educational gains — and certainly make for less disruptive classes. Gormley estimates that the benefits of Oklahoma’s program will outweigh the costs by at least a ratio of 3 to 1.

So how about it, America?

Can we embrace “The Oklahoma Project” — not because it’s liberal or conservative, but because it’s what is best for our kids and our country?

    Oklahoma! Where the Kids Learn Early, NYT, 9.11.2013,






Obama, at Brooklyn School,

Pushes Education Agenda


October 25, 2013
The New York Times


President Obama on Friday visited the innovative Brooklyn high school he praised in his State of the Union address this year, to deliver a message about the urgency of education reform in the global economy.

Mr. Obama, dressed in shirt sleeves, was showered with cheers by the visibly energized students and a cadre of New York politicians as he took the podium at Pathways in Technology Early College High School. “Hello Brooklyn,” he said, before starting into his argument for creating more schools like the one he was visiting, casting them as essential in preparing the next generation for competition in a shrinking world marketplace.

“This country should be doing everything in our power to give more kids the chance to go to schools just like this one,” the president said, calling the school, known as P-Tech, a ticket into the middle class.

“In previous generations, America’s standing economically was so much higher than everybody else’s that we didn’t have a lot of competition,” he added. “Now, you’ve got billions of people from Beijing to Bangalore to Moscow, all of whom are competing with you directly. And they’re — those countries are working every day, to out-educate and outcompete us.”

Mr. Obama’s wish list included preschool availability for every 4-year-old in the United States, access for every student to a high-speed Internet connection, lower college costs, redesigned high schools that teach the skills needed in a high-tech economy and greater investment in teachers. Some said they heard in his words a boost for the new, more rigorous academic standards that have been adopted around the nation, known as the Common Core, as he praised Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and others as having courage for raising standards for teachers.

“We should stay at it,” he said.

At one point, Mr. Obama zeroed in on Congress, imploring it to “do something” on education. One way to start, he said, was by “passing a budget that reflects our need to invest in our young people.”

He made a few sharper comments as well, referring to the recent government shutdown as a “manufactured crisis,” and suggesting that every member of Congress come to Brooklyn, to see P-Tech and to meet its students.

“If you think education is expensive,” he said at one point, “wait until you see how much ignorance costs.”

The crowd applauded.

Mr. Obama made his way to the school, in the borough where he once lived, after Marine One touched down in the shared outfield of a series of baseball fields in Prospect Park, kicking up a large cloud of dust and debris, and at least one gray T-shirt. Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, was there to greet the president, and the two rode together to the high school, in the Crown Heights neighborhood.

In his State of the Union address, Mr. Obama had said, “We need to give every American student opportunities like this.” It was a reference to the way P-Tech’s students are given both high school and college curriculums in a six-year program that is tailored for a job in the technology industry.

When the first of those students graduate, in 2017, they are expected to have associate degrees in applied science, computer information systems or electromechanical engineering, having followed a course of studies developed in consultation with I.B.M.

In 2012, five P-Tech-styled schools opened in Chicago, in collaboration with companies like Microsoft, Motorola and Verizon. This year, two more schools modeled on P-Tech opened in New York City, with three more expected to open next year.

After his speech, Mr. Obama stopped at a Junior’s restaurant, on Flatbush Avenue, entering with Bill de Blasio, the Democratic nominee for mayor, and shaking hands with employees and patrons. “Do you know your next mayor here?” the president asked, before ordering two cheesecakes, one plain and one strawberry.

All the excitement of a presidential visit aside, the education historian Diane Ravitch said the day’s events perhaps concealed a subtle truth: The federal government has “never had a large role in public education,” and provides a razor-thin portion of its overall revenues.

In fact, Ms. Ravitch pointed out that the federal Education Department “is prohibited by law from interfering with curriculum or instruction.”

On the streets around P-Tech, though, no one seemed to note that fact.

Hours before Mr. Obama arrived, the signs of preparation were in evidence: Streets scrubbed clean, stray cars towed and metal barricades erected.

And Kiambu Gall, 16, was wearing brand-new shoes.

“Man, Obama’s coming,” Mr. Gall said as he stood with a half-a-dozen classmates on the corner of Albany Avenue and Bergen Street outside the school.

“Who else can say that?” he asked, displaying gleaming, blue-and-gray leather boat shoes. “What other students can say, ‘He came to our school.’ ”

It was roughly three hours before Mr. Obama came to make his pitch, from a lectern in the gymnasium. But Mr. Gall and his fellow 11th-graders, among the lucky students picked to meet the president in a math class, were recounting their preparatory drills.

Radcliffe Saddler, 16, was assigned to introduce the president. (He had a haircut for the occasion and got a hug from Mr. Obama, at the podium.) Leslieanne John, 16, who plans to become a lawyer and who was chosen to sing the national anthem, was reciting her mother’s advice: “Set your eyes on one point and don’t mess up the words.”

Spencer Jones, 15, still wondered what to say to Mr. Obama.

“Something like, he should make more schools like ours,” he said.

Hours later, at a fund-raiser in Manhattan, the president was still talking about his afternoon at P-Tech and the optimism he saw among the students. “That’s what Washington should be about every single day,” he said.

    Obama, at Brooklyn School, Pushes Education Agenda, NYT, 25.10.2013,






Penn State to Pay

Nearly $60 Million to 26 Abuse Victims


October 28, 2013
The New York Times


Penn State has agreed to pay $59.7 million to 26 sexual abuse victims of the former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky in exchange for an end to their claims against the university, Penn State announced Monday.

Of the 26 settlements, 23 are fully signed and three are agreed to in principle, with final documentation expected in the next few weeks.

Rodney A. Erickson, the president of the university, called the settlement “another step forward in the healing process for those hurt by Mr. Sandusky, and another step forward for Penn State.”

He added, “We cannot undo what has been done, but we can and must do everything possible to learn from this and ensure it never happens again at Penn State.”

University officials emphasized that the settlement money did not come from tuition, taxpayers or donations, but from various liability insurance policies, which the university believes will cover the settlements and defense of claims brought against Penn State and its officers, employees and trustees. Whatever is not covered is expected to be financed from interest revenue related to loans made by the university to its self-supporting units. The settlements are sealed by confidentiality agreements.

In all, the university has been in talks with 32 individuals who were victims of Sandusky or claimed to be. In a statement, the university said some of the six remaining claims were without merit and others were in possible settlement discussions. The university retained the law firm Feinberg Rozen L.L.P. to act as an independent third-party facilitator of the settlement negotiations between the university and the victims.

“The board of trustees has had as one of its primary objectives to reach settlements in a way that is fair and respects the privacy of the individuals involved,” Keith E. Masser, the board’s chairman, said in a statement.

Clifford Rieders, a lawyer who negotiated one of the settlements, said the average payout matched other recent cases of child abuse, such as those involving the Roman Catholic Church. The amount of payment for each of Sandusky’s victims, however, was decided on individual claims. Eight young men testified against Sandusky at his trial, describing abuse at his hand when they were boys that included psychological manipulation, fondling, oral sex and anal rape.

Rieders said his client received a “substantial” settlement and asked for, and received, a face-to-face-meeting with a top university official whom he would not identify. He said his client had an emotional exchange with the official about “how to make things right,” including noneconomic reparations, which included continued counseling.

“You can never make whole anyone who is raped by another individual,” Rieders said. “My client found the settlement acceptable under the circumstances.”

Jeff Anderson, a lawyer for two victims, said his clients were focused on Penn State’s changes to prevent future abuse.

“They wanted to see new training and protocols before we got to the numbers,” Anderson said. “Over all, it was a very mixed feeling and experience for them. They broke the silence and stood up to the man who overpowered them. At the same time, there’s some deep and open wounds that can’t be closed or healed. They’ve gotten the voice back they didn’t have as kids, but it isn’t a celebration or victory.”

Sandusky, 69, is serving a 30- to 60-year state prison sentence. He was convicted in June 2012 of abusing 10 boys, some of them at Penn State sites. All of the children were from disadvantaged homes. Sandusky, using his access to the university football program, had befriended the children and then repeatedly violated them. He was found guilty of 45 of the 48 counts against him.

The scandal led to the dismissal in 2011 of Penn State’s head football coach, Joe Paterno, who died in January 2012. Three former Penn State administrators await trial on charges that they were part of a criminal cover-up of the Sandusky scandal. The former president Graham B. Spanier, the retired vice president Gary Schultz and the retired athletic director Tim Curley have denied the accusations.

Over the past year, Penn State has moved aggressively to put the scandal behind it with reforms to the university’s management and oversight. The football program initially received heavy penalties from the N.C.A.A. But last month, citing a positive report by George J. Mitchell, the former United States senator who was appointed athletics integrity monitor at Penn State, the organization decided to ease the penalties.

The Penn State football team, for example, will be allowed to issue 20 scholarships to recruits, instead of 15, starting the next academic year, then the standard 25 starting the year after that. As a whole, the team will be able to offer 75 scholarships, instead of 65, starting next year, and that number will increase until it reaches the standard 85 by the 2016-17 academic year. The team is still banned from bowl games for three more seasons.

Victims advocate groups have been less forgiving.

“No amount of money can restore the innocence that was taken from the victims,” said Barbara Dorris, a spokeswoman for Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. “It’s only because of their generosity and courage in speaking up that Sandusky was removed from his powerful position.”

On the day Sandusky was convicted, Erickson pledged that the university was determined to compensate the victims and put into place a system of control that would prevent a similar scandal from happening again.

“We have made great strides, but a great deal of work remains,” Erickson said Monday “Our university is a better institution today as a result of the work and dedication of our trustees, administrators, faculty, staff and students.”

    Penn State to Pay Nearly $60 Million to 26 Abuse Victims, NYT, 28.10.2013,






A Bold Bid for Better Schools


October 28, 2013
The New York Times


If there’s a key to this nation’s sustained competitiveness, it’s education. And if there’s a key to the kind of social mobility that’s integral to our country’s cherished narrative, to its soul, it’s giving kids from all walks of life teachers and classrooms that beckon them toward excellence. But like all aspects of American policy making these days, the push to improve public schools bucks up against factionalism, pettiness, lobbies that won’t be muted and sacred cows that can’t be disturbed. Progress that needs to be sweeping is anything but.

That’s why my eyes turn to Colorado. That’s why yours should, too.

The state is on the precipice of something big. On Election Day next Tuesday, Coloradans will decide whether to ratify an ambitious statewide education overhaul that the Legislature already passed and that Gov. John Hickenlooper signed but that voters must now approve, because Colorado law gives them that right in regard to tax increases, which the overhaul entails. Arne Duncan, the nation’s education secretary, has said that the success of Amendment 66, which is what voters will weigh in on, would make Colorado “the educational model for every other state to follow.”

It’s significant in many regards, especially in its creation of utterly surprising political bedfellows. Amendment 66 has the support of many fervent advocates of charter schools, which the overhaul would fund at nearly the same level as other schools for the first time. In fact one prominent donor to the campaign for Amendment 66 is Ben Walton, whose family’s philanthropy, the Walton Family Foundation, champions school choice and is loathed by teachers’ unions.

And yet the two most powerful of those unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, have endorsed Amendment 66. The N.E.A. and its state arm, the Colorado Education Association, have together donated $4 million toward the amendment’s passage.

Part of what rallied the unions to the overhaul, which many unionized teachers initially resisted, is its infusion of an extra $950 million annually into public education through the 12th grade, a portion of which could go to rehiring teachers who lost jobs during the recession and to hiring new ones for broadly expanded preschool and kindergarten programs. That’s an increase of more than 15 percent over current funding levels, which put Colorado well behind most other states in per-pupil spending, and it would be made possible by a tax increase that replaces the state’s flat rate of 4.63 percent with a rate of 5 percent on household income up to $75,000 and 5.9 percent on income above that.

Because of that increase, all of the Republicans in Colorado’s Legislature, controlled by Democrats, voted against the overhaul, which The Wall Street Journal recently portrayed as an ultraliberal, union-coddling scheme to begin soaking Coloradans with new taxes. Passage of Amendment 66, the Journal wrote, would prove “that millions of Coloradans have taken to smoking that marijuana they legalized last year.”

There’s no such reefer madness. If the overhaul were a socialist sop to teachers’ unions, the campaign for it wouldn’t have received $1 million from Michael Bloomberg and the support of some prominent Colorado businesses.

It does direct more money proportionally to poor schools and at-risk students, but as Hickenlooper said to me, “Everybody has a self-interest in reducing the number of dropouts.” He noted that more and better-educated high school graduates would mean less crime and a stronger work force, attracting investment to Colorado.

He’s by no means a conventionally liberal Democrat. Neither is the overhaul’s chief architect, a young state senator named Mike Johnston who used to be a schoolteacher and principal and previously sponsored a law that ended traditional tenure in Colorado’s public schools. It drew robust Republican support.

His education overhaul is a shrewd grab bag of ideas from different camps that recognizes the political imperative of such eclecticism and the lack of any magic bullet for student improvement. It invests in early childhood education, teacher training, a fund for innovative projects, charters. It ratchets up local control and flexibility, giving principals an unprecedented degree of autonomy over spending. It also enables parents to see, online, how much money goes into instruction versus administration at their children’s schools. There’s transparency. Accountability.

And Amendment 66 hardly puts Colorado in the ranks of high-tax states.

“It’s our idea of a grand bargain,” Johnston told me.

In Washington, that phrase has become a punch line, that notion a mirage. And in Colorado?

Fingers crossed. Because even if his plan turns out to be imperfect, it’s a relatively bold stride in a country too accustomed to baby steps. And those just aren’t good enough when it comes to children, knowledge and the future itself.

    A Bold Bid for Better Schools, NYT, 28.10.2013,






Do We Invest in Preschools or Prisons?


October 26, 2013
The New York Times


CONGRESS is often compared to pre-K, which seems defamatory of small children. But the similarities also offer hope, because an initiative that should be on the top of the national agenda has less to do with the sequester than with the A.B.C.’s and Big Bird.

Growing mountains of research suggest that the best way to address American economic inequality, poverty and crime is — you guessed it! — early education programs, including coaching of parents who want help. It’s not a magic wand, but it’s the best tool we have to break cycles of poverty.

President Obama called in his State of the Union address for such a national initiative, but it hasn’t gained traction. Obama himself hasn’t campaigned enough for it, yet there’s still a reed of hope.

One reason is that this is one of those rare initiatives that polls well across the spectrum, with support from 84 percent of Democrats and 60 percent of Republicans in a recent national survey. And even if the program stalls in Washington, states and localities are moving ahead — from San Antonio to Michigan. Colorado voters will decide next month on a much-watched ballot measure to bolster education spending, including in preschool, and a ballot measure in Memphis would expand preschool as well.

“There’s this magical opportunity” now to get a national early education program in America, Education Secretary Arne Duncan told me. He says he’s optimistic that members of Congress will introduce a bipartisan bill for such a plan this year.

“When you think how you make change for the next 30 years, this is arguably at the top of my list,” Duncan said. “It can literally transform the life chances of children, and strengthen families in important ways.”

Whether it happens through Congressional action or is locally led, this may be the best chance America has had to broaden early programs since 1971, when Congress approved such a program but President Nixon vetoed it.

The massive evidence base for early education grew a bit more with a major new study from Stanford University noting that achievement gaps begin as early as 18 months. Then at 2 years old, there’s a six-month achievement gap. By age 5, it can be a two-year gap. Poor kids start so far behind when school begins that they never catch up — especially because they regress each summer.

One problem is straightforward. Poorer kids are more likely to have a single teenage mom who is stressed out, who was herself raised in an authoritarian style that she mimics, and who, as a result, doesn’t chatter much with the child.

Yet help these parents, and they do much better. Some of the most astonishing research in poverty-fighting methods comes from the success of programs to coach at-risk parents — and these, too, are part of Obama’s early education program. “Early education” doesn’t just mean prekindergarten for 4-year-olds, but embraces a plan covering ages 0 to 5.

The earliest interventions, and maybe the most important, are home visitation programs like Nurse-Family Partnership. It begins working with at-risk moms during pregnancy, with a nurse making regular visits to offer basic support and guidance: don’t drink or smoke while pregnant; don’t take heroin or cocaine. After birth, the coach offers help with managing stress, breast-feeding and diapers, while encouraging chatting to the child and reading aloud.

These interventions are cheap and end at age 2. Yet, in randomized controlled trials, the gold standard of evaluation, there was a 59 percent reduction in child arrests at age 15 among those who had gone through the program.

Something similar happens with good pre-K programs. Critics have noted that with programs like Head Start, there are early educational gains that then fade by second or third grade. That’s true, and that’s disappointing.

Yet, in recent years, long-term follow-ups have shown that while the educational advantages of Head Start might fade, there are “life skill” gains that don’t. A rigorous study by David Deming of Harvard, for example, found that Head Start graduates were less likely to repeat grades or be diagnosed with a learning disability, and more likely to graduate from high school and attend college.

Look, we’ll have to confront the pathologies of poverty at some point. We can deal with them cheaply at the front end, in infancy. Or we can wait and jail a troubled adolescent at the tail end. To some extent, we face a choice between investing in preschools or in prisons.

We just might have a rare chance in the next couple of months to take steps toward such a landmark early education program in America. But children can’t vote, and they have no highly paid lobbyists — so it’ll happen only if we the public speak up.

    Do We Invest in Preschools or Prisons?, NYT, 26.10.2013,






The United States, Falling Behind


October 22, 2013
The New York Times


Researchers have been warning for more than a decade that the United States was losing ground to its economic competitors abroad and would eventually fall behind them unless it provided more of its citizens with the high-level math, science and literacy skills necessary for the new economy.

Naysayers dismissed this as alarmist. But recent data showing American students and adults lagging behind their peers abroad in terms of important skills suggest that the long-predicted peril has arrived.

A particularly alarming report on working-age adults was published earlier this month by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a coalition of mainly developed nations. The research focused on people ages 16 to 65 in 24 countries. It dealt with three crucial areas: literacy — the ability to understand and respond to written material; numeracy — the ability to use numerical and mathematical concepts; and problem solving — the ability to interpret and analyze information using computers.

Americans were comparatively weak-to-poor in all three areas. In literacy, for example, about 12 percent of American adults scored at the highest levels, a smaller proportion than in Finland and Japan (about 22 percent). In addition, one in six Americans scored near the bottom in literacy, compared with 1 in 20 adults who scored at that level in Japan.

American numeracy skills were termed “very poor.” The United States outperformed only two comparison countries: Italy and Spain. Nearly one in three Americans scored near the bottom in numeracy. That Americans were slightly below average in problem solving using computers was especially discouraging.

Some countries are making progress from generation to generation. But in the United States, as in Britain, the literacy and numeracy skills of young people coming into the labor market are no better than those who are about to retire. Americans who are 55 to 65 perform about average in literacy skills, but young Americans rank the lowest among their peers in the countries surveyed. The problem is not so much that the United States has gotten worse, but that it stood still on indicators like high school graduation rates while its foreign competitors rushed forward. Beginning in the 1970s, other developed nations recognized that the new economy would produce few jobs for workers with mediocre skills.

Those countries, most notably Finland, broadened access to education, improved teacher training and took other steps as well. Other countries take these international comparisons very seriously; some use the O.E.C.D. data to set policy goals and to gauge the pace of educational progress. The United States, by contrast, has yet to take on a sense of urgency about this issue. If that does not happen soon, the country will pay a long-term price.

    The United States, Falling Behind, NYT, 22.10.2013,






Major Owens, 77,

Education Advocate in Congress,



October 22, 2013
The New York Times


Major R. Owens, a former librarian who went to Congress from Brooklyn and remained there for 24 years, fighting for more federal aid for education and other liberal causes, died on Monday in Manhattan. He was 77.

His death, at NYU Langone Medical Center, was caused by renal and heart failure, his son Chris said. Mr. Owens lived in Brooklyn.

Mr. Owens, as a state senator and a former chief administrator of New York City’s antipoverty program, was a prominent figure in Brooklyn when he won the House seat vacated by the retiring Shirley Chisholm in 1982. Fourteen years earlier, she became the first black woman elected to Congress.

Mr. Owens represented an overwhelmingly Democratic swath of the borough that included Crown Heights and parts of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brownsville, Flatbush and Park Slope. The district encompassed stretches of severe blight and poverty, along with areas of middle-class stability and pockets of affluence.

He viewed education as “the kingpin issue,” as he put it in an article he wrote for the publication Black Issues in Higher Education. “We have to believe that all power and progress really begins with education,” he wrote.

As a member of the House committee that dealt with education, Mr. Owens spent much time sponsoring and shaping measures to put more federal money into reducing high school dropout rates, hiring more teachers and improving library services. Many of his provisions became parts of wider education bills.

In 1985, he wrote parts of a successful bill that authorized a $100 million fund to strengthen historically black colleges. In a hearing on the legislation, he said the fund was needed because “most of the historically black colleges are struggling.” He recalled his own days at one of those institutions, Morehouse College in Atlanta, from which he graduated in 1956.

“Most of the youngsters there were poor, from very poor backgrounds,” he said, and Morehouse “played a vital role of nurturing.”

Mr. Owens, who was considered one of the most liberal members of the House, opposed an agreement between President Bill Clinton and Congressional Republicans to give states more flexibility in how they spent billions in federal school aid.

“We cannot leave it up to the states,” he said. “They have not done a good job.”

On other fronts, Mr. Owens was a floor manager of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, aimed at curbing discrimination against handicapped people. He defended organized labor and supported proposals to prohibit the deportation of illegal immigrants who fell into various categories.

Mr. Owens, whose first wife, the former Ethel Werfel, was white and Jewish, frequently urged blacks and Jews to bridge their differences.

He condemned the Nation of Islam as a “hate-mongering fringe group” after anti-Semitic remarks by its leader, Louis Farrakhan. Even before tensions between blacks and Hasidic Jews in Crown Heights erupted into riots in summer 1991, he denounced the “Rambo types on both sides” who, he said, only poured oil on the strife.

Mr. Owens was a low-key politician, but he had a colorful streak; he wrote and even performed rap lyrics, for example. He titled one number, about male sexuality, “The Viagra Monologues,” a takeoff on the name of Eve Ensler’s play “The Vagina Monologues.”

Other lyrics, which he performed in open-mike sessions at cafes and entered into the Congressional Record, dealt with goings-on in Washington. One rap number commented on a 1990 budget accord between Congress and the White House. Here is how it began:

At the big white D.C. mansion

There’s a meeting of the mob

And the question on the table

Is which beggars will they rob.

Major Robert Odell Owens was born in Collierville, Tenn., on June 28, 1936, to Ezekiel and Edna Owens. His father worked in a furniture factory.

In 1956, the year he graduated from Morehouse, Mr. Owens married Ms. Werfel. The marriage ended in divorce. He later married the former Maria Cuprill.

After earning a master’s degree in library science in 1957 from Atlanta University (which later became Clark Atlanta), Mr. Owens moved to New York City and worked as a librarian in Brooklyn from 1958 to the mid-1960s.

He was executive director of the Brownsville Community Council, an antipoverty group, until Mayor John V. Lindsay appointed him to oversee the city’s antipoverty program in 1968 as commissioner of the Community Development Agency, a post he held until 1973.

Mr. Owens was a state senator from Brooklyn from 1975 until 1982, when he won the Democratic primary for Ms. Chisholm’s House seat. In a district so heavily Democratic, the primary victory was tantamount to election.

His opponent in the primary, Vander L. Beatty, also a state senator from Brooklyn, was later convicted of forgery and conspiracy in seeking to get the result overturned.

In his 11 campaigns for re-election Mr. Owens faced significant opposition only twice, in 2000 and 2004, when his primary opponents contended, to no avail, that he was no longer attentive to the needs of his constituents, especially the many of Caribbean origin.

He retired from Congress in 2006. His son Chris lost in a four-way primary race to succeed him.

Afterward Mr. Owens taught public administration at Medgar Evers College, a Brooklyn branch of the City University of New York. His book “The Peacock Elite: A Case Study of the Congressional Black Caucus” was published in 2011.

Besides his son Chris, from his first marriage, Mr. Owens is survived by his wife; two other sons from his first marriage, Millard and Geoffrey, an actor who appeared on television as the son-in-law Elvin on “The Cosby Show”; three brothers, Ezekiel Jr., Mack and Bobby; a sister, Edna Owens; a stepson, Carlos Cuprill; a stepdaughter, Cecilia Cuprill-Nunez; four grandchildren and four step-grandchildren.

    Major Owens, 77, Education Advocate in Congress, Dies, NYT, 22.10.2013,






The Middle Class Gets Wise


October 19, 2013
2:30 pm
The New York Times


Perhaps we underestimate ourselves. Five years after the Lehman collapse triggered the deepest recession in eight decades, the middle class may be solving the vexing problems of income inequality and stalled wages on its own.

Faced with unemployment and dim job prospects, Americans made one significant change that should alter their fortunes and those of the middle class for decades: they went back to school. During the recession, there has been a sharp surge in the number of Americans who are getting a college degree.

For much of the last several decades young Americans, particularly young men, had shied away from college. As a share of the population, there were actually more male college degree holders among those ages 25 to 29 in 1976 than there were in 2006. Between 2000 and 2006, the share of all Americans ages 25 to 29 with a four-year college degree dipped by 0.7 percentage points, with men leading the decline, falling from 27.9 percent to 25.3 percent.

Americans have now reversed that decline by going to school in unprecedented numbers. In 2011, there were 3.2 million more people enrolled in higher education than there were in 2006. This 18 percent increase in enrollment was the largest such jump since the end of the Vietnam War.

In the last six years, American higher education institutions conferred nearly 3.5 million more degrees (from associates to Ph.D.’s) than they did over the six years before that. By last year, 29.8 percent of men and 37.2 percent of women ages 25 to 29 possessed four-year college degrees. This blows past previous highs.

Educational gains during the recession were not reserved for the young. By 2010, there were nearly 8 million students over the age of 25 enrolled in higher education institutions, 1.2 million more than in 2007. Degrees conferred at all levels of education for all races, ages and genders are up from six years ago.

The knock on the American work force is that when it comes to brainpower, it has fallen behind our international competitors. In a recent survey of 23 countries by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, American adults were mediocre in both math and reading. In “The Undereducated American,” Anthony P. Carnevale and Stephen J. Rose assert that the United States has been underproducing college graduates since the 1980s, creating a labor force unable to match the needs of employers.

But is college still worth it today? It’s not just that college graduates are riding out the meager recovery living in their parents’ basements; the fear is that they will permanently underperform in the labor market. This seems unlikely. The recession has followed familiar labor patterns, with unemployment rates among college graduates roughly half those of high school graduates, just as in every recession since the mid-1970s.

In time, these young college graduates will find work and they will earn pay that is significantly higher than what they would have earned had they not gone to college.

How can we be so certain? Because the more education you have, the more you earn. In 2012, two-year-degree holders earned close to $7,000 more per year than their high-school-diploma-only counterparts. Someone with a four-year degree earned roughly $15,000 more than that same someone with an associate degree. A professional degree reaped nearly $35,000 more than a four-year college degree, according to the Department of Labor.

What this means is that the income mobility problem that drives policy makers nuts disappears for those who get a degree. Over the past few decades, those born into the middle three income quintiles were more than twice as likely to reach the top income quintile if they possessed a college degree compared with those who did not. The steepest mobility gains came from those in the second poorest quintile. Nearly two-thirds of these working-class Americans jumped to the richest quintile (37 percent) or the next richest quintile (27 percent) on the basis of earning a college degree.

But we still face serious obstacles if we want to turn this recession-led college resurgence into one of the dominant economic trends of the 21st century. First, almost 60 percent of adults over the age of 25 still do not have any degree beyond a high school diploma. For men in particular, this is a problem. When inflation is accounted for, the peak earnings year for men with a high school diploma was 1973. We’re living in a fantasy if we think that 40-year trend is about to change.

Likewise, college graduation rates are still far too low. Even now, 46 percent of students enrolled in a four-year college will not have a degree after six years.

And then there are the record levels of student debt. For people under 35, student loans are the second largest source of debt behind mortgages. College tuition has increased faster than inflation every single year since 1981.

So what can we do? Anya Kamenetz, the author of “Generation Debt,” has put together some excellent ideas for Third Way, the centrist policy organization where we both work. Let’s start by reducing the number of college administrators per 100 students, which jumped by 40 percent between 1993 and 2007. We should demand a cease-fire to the perk wars in which colleges build ever-more-luxurious living, dining and recreational facilities. Blended learning, which uses online teaching tools together with professors and teaching assistants, could also help students master coursework at less cost.

There are 37 million Americans with some college experience, but no degree. So pegging government tuition aid to college graduation rates would entice schools to find ways of keeping students in class. And eliminating some of the offerings of rarely chosen majors could bring some market efficiencies now lacking in education.

The most commonly discussed solutions to the problem of income inequality seem unlikely to get to the heart of the problem. Yes, we could raise additional taxes on the wealthy, but we just did that. Bumping up the minimum wage would help, but how high would lawmakers allow it to go? We should look instead at what Americans are already doing to solve this problem and help them do it far more successfully and at less cost.


Jonathan Cowan is president of Third Way,

a centrist policy organization,

where Jim Kessler is the senior vice president for policy.

    The Middle Class Gets Wise, NYT, 19.10.2013,






Thinking Sensibly About Charter Schools


October 15, 2013
The New York Times


Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been a full-throated supporter of charter schools, of which there are about 180 in New York City. The debate over how the next mayor should handle charters has been part of the campaign from the very beginning.

Earlier this month, charter school advocates rallied in Manhattan to protest the more skeptical views of the Democratic mayoral nominee, Bill de Blasio. He says that charter schools can be improved, which is true. He has also argued, much to the delight of the teachers’ union, that the Bloomberg administration has shortchanged traditional public schools and “favored” charters, which receive public funds and free space in public school buildings even though they operate independently of the school system.

And he says, again rightly, that some charter schools serve too few English-language learners and others who might need special education courses or are difficult to teach. But here he is at risk of oversimplifying: The problem of assigning students with special needs to stronger schools afflicts the entire system. It is a mistake to single out charter schools, many of which are high-performing, for shortcomings that are common across the board.

By contrast, the Republican nominee, Joseph Lhota, seems to see charter schools as the answer, or at least an important one, to New York’s educational needs. “The only problem with New York City charter schools,” he says, “is that there are not enough of them.” He has called for doubling the number of charter schools, which currently educate about 70,000 of the city’s 1.1. million students. About 50,000 children, he says, want seats but can’t get them. He has accused Mr. de Blasio of plotting to “annihilate” charter schools, thus shortchanging the poor and minority children who make up an overwhelming majority of charter students.

In all the bombast it is worth making two points. First, there’s little question that New York has one of the nation’s most successful charter school systems. A study published earlier this year shows that the typical New York City charter student learned more reading and math in a year than his or her public school peers.

The second point is that the next mayor can improve the system, in part by shutting down poorly performing schools, awarding new charters only to groups with proven track records, and smoothing relations between charters and traditional schools by making sure “co-locations” take place only in buildings big enough to house both.

The teachers’ union is never going to fall in love with charter schools because a vast majority of them are not unionized, and they have real financial advantages because their work force is younger and more transient and their payrolls, pensions and medical costs are lower. Many charters plow these savings back into education — hiring social workers, lengthening the school day, or staffing classrooms with more than one teacher as a way of helping disadvantaged children. Whoever is mayor should encourage this practice. Mr. de Blasio says he would charge rents based on each school’s ability to pay and insists that this would not hurt programs or cause layoffs. But it could penalize high-performing schools that have demonstrably helped poor children.

Mr. de Blasio is on firmer ground when he says that charter schools, which choose their students by lottery, need to do a better job of recruiting and retaining special education students, English-language learners and others who tend to be underrepresented in the charter school population. If charter schools hope to expand — some already enroll 15 percent or more of the students in their districts — they will need to behave more like traditional schools in their admissions policies. That means making room for “over-the-counter” students, among them transients and the poor, who show up at the schoolhouse door in the middle of the year.

Traditional public schools must do a better job of this, too. A new study from the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University found that tens of thousands of new immigrants, special needs students and poor students are disproportionately assigned to struggling New York high schools that have little chance of helping them. The city has already begun to open school seats for these children — but clearly more needs to be done.

    Thinking Sensibly About Charter Schools, NYHT, 15.10.2013,






College’s Identity Crisis


October 12, 2013
The New York Times


IS a college degree’s worth best measured by the income its recipient makes 5 or 10 years down the road? Is college primarily a catapult to wealth? These were questions implicitly raised by President Obama’s recent proposal that the federal government look at graduates’ earnings when rating schools in an effort to steer students toward the best ones.

Is time in the military, in a store or at home with children comparable to time in a classroom, and should it count in some way toward a degree? There are university administrators who think so and who are trying to increase “completion rates” — the percentage of students who make it all the way to degrees — by giving credit for experiences far away from campus, so that students have a less lengthy, costly route to a diploma.

Some states and educators see the spread of massive open online courses (MOOCs) as a terrific way to enroll more young people in college at a more affordable price, but there’s little if any evidence so far that this approach is optimal, especially for the students stretching the furthest to incorporate higher education into their lives.

And already, the higher learning that too many young Americans partake of leaves a lot to be desired. Time magazine rightly began its recent cover story on the college experience in the United States by reporting the results of a chilling survey last year of recent graduates. It showed that 62 percent of them didn’t know, for example, that Congressional terms are two years in the House of Representatives and six years in the Senate. You can’t tell me that the quality of the men and women we send to Washington isn’t affected by such profound and widespread ignorance about what they do there and how the system works (or, rather, doesn’t).

Although our lurch from one crisis to the next — the Syria debate, the government shutdown — often obscures all other matters, one of the most important issues in American life right now is higher education’s identity crisis, its soul-searching about what it should accomplish, whom it should serve and how it must or mustn’t be tweaked. Our global competitiveness is likely to depend on how we answer these questions.

And if you think we’re suitably competitive as is, then consider another survey, published last week by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. It measured the skills of Americans from the ages of 16 to 65 and found that they by and large lacked the mathematical and technological know-how, along with the literacy, of their counterparts in Japan and Northern European countries. Among the 23 nations that the organization assessed, we weren’t anywhere near the lead. We were closer to the bottom of the pack, with our young adults in particular performing unremarkably. This troubling state of affairs is an echo of the educational gap that we’ve long lamented. It’s an extrapolation, really. Learn too little and you wind up knowing too little.

“Higher education policy needs to focus not just on access and affordability but also quality and success,” Michael Dannenberg, the director of higher education policy for the Education Trust, said last week when I asked him what the moral of the skills survey was. He added that while completion rate was one aspect of success, “it’s not the whole story.”

In a different week, the survey might have garnered more attention, but Washington’s dysfunction sucks the oxygen out of every other discussion. You can’t tackle education or immigration when you’re passing emergency measures so that slain servicemen’s survivors aren’t denied the government aid they’ve been promised and deserve.

The escalation of tuition, the crippling rise of student debt and a persistently high jobless rate over recent years have rightly prompted educators, politicians and other policy makers to float and implement methods to make college less financially onerous, in part by collapsing the time it takes for students to get their degrees. After all, statistics suggest that college diplomas are the best amulets against unemployment and the surest paths to a good income.

And the Obama administration, to its credit, has made clear in its recent proposals that the measurable effectiveness of schools shouldn’t be overlooked in the process. That was a big part of the new higher-education policy it laid out in August, which Dannenberg described as positive “baby steps” in the right direction.

But the inclusion of graduates’ earnings as one yardstick of effectiveness belongs to a broader trend of seeing college in pecuniary terms that could easily go too far. Setting students up for immediate careers and giving them the intellectual tools that will serve them best over a lifetime aren’t necessarily one and the same, and in several states and at many universities, the vigorous push to plump up enrollment and herd students into particular programs threatens to make college too much of a vocational school.

“The notion is, let’s transform higher education into job training,” Bruce Ackerman, a professor of law and political science at Yale, told me disapprovingly. That sort of sentiment, he said, was detectable in President Obama’s recent remark that it might be wise to shorten law school from three years to two.

Ackerman said that when you also factor in the proliferation of online courses for disadvantaged students, you begin to see what could easily become an overly tiered, wildly inconsistent college landscape of “a few superstars and then a lot of glorified teaching systems” that aren’t all that constructive.

We’re in a tricky, troubling spot. At a time when our nation’s ability to tackle complicated policy problems is seriously in doubt, we must pull off a delicate balancing act. We must make college practical but not excessively so, lower its price without lowering its standards and increase the number of diplomas attained without diminishing not only their currency in the job market but also the fitness of the country’s work force in a cutthroat world.

“Our economic advantage has been having high skill levels at the top, being big, being more flexible than the other economies, and being able to attract other countries’ most skilled labor,” Anthony P. Carnevale, the director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, told The Times’s Richard Pérez-Peña in an article about the new skills survey last week. “But that advantage is slipping.”

    College’s Identity Crisis, NYT, 12.10.2013,






At Alabama,

a Renewed Stand for Integration


September 18, 2013
The New York Times


TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — For this rendition of Stand in the Schoolhouse Door, there were no National Guard troops or presidential edicts.

But on Wednesday, several hundred University of Alabama students and faculty members invoked Gov. George Wallace’s 1963 attempt to block the enrollment of black students here as they demanded an end to segregation in the university’s fraternities and sororities. Together, the mostly white group marched within sight of the President’s Mansion, one of the only structures on the campus dating to before the Civil War.

Tracey Gholston, a black woman who is pursuing a doctorate in American literature at Alabama, said Mr. Wallace’s legacy continued to permeate the university, which has nearly 35,000 students, about 12 percent of them black, and 45 percent from out of state.

“It shows a thread. It’s not just something that was resolved 50 years ago,” said Ms. Gholston, who has a master’s degree from the university. “You can’t say, ‘We’re integrated. We’re fine.’ We’re not fine.”

The demonstration came one week after the campus newspaper, The Crimson White, published the account of a member of the university’s Alpha Gamma Delta chapter.

The student, Melanie Gotz, said the sorority had bowed to alumnae influence and considered race when it evaluated potential new members earlier this year. Other sorority members shared similar stories.

Racial biases in Alabama’s Greek system, which has a membership of nearly one-quarter of the university’s undergraduate enrollment, have been an open secret for decades.

It is not an issue unique to Alabama, and it is complicated by an era in which blacks and whites on many campuses often gravitate to fraternities and sororities that are segregated in practice, although many national Greek organizations say they have banned discrimination.

Still, many feel systemic discrimination has been tolerated at Alabama, and Ms. Gotz’s public revelations led to widespread demands for reform.

University officials repeatedly had said the responsibility for membership standards rested with the sororities and fraternities, which are private groups. But on Sunday night, the university’s president, Judy L. Bonner, summoned advisers of traditionally white sororities and told them she was ordering an extended admissions process.

And in a videotaped statement released on Tuesday, she acknowledged that the university’s “Greek system remains segregated,” which students and professors described as a historic admission.

But the demonstration, which Dr. Bonner greeted when it arrived at the Rose Administration Building, focused on a sweeping demand for the president and her lieutenants: don’t stop restructuring the campus.

“We are holding the administration accountable and hoping that they hold us accountable, as well, to improve it in a sustained way and not just in a Band-Aid approach,” said Khortlan Patterson, a sophomore. “This was a great success today, but it’s just one step in the process.”

Ms. Patterson, who has considered joining one of the campus’s predominantly black sororities, has plenty of allies. Protesters at the 7:15 a.m. rally included dozens of blue-shirted members of the Mallet Assembly, a residential program founded in 1961 with a history of urging social change at Alabama. (The only black president of Alabama’s student government, elected in 1976, was a member of the organization.)

Since Dr. Bonner’s order, those sororities have opened hurried efforts to bring black women into their ranks by extending bids to an unknown number of minority students. It remains unclear whether any of those women will accept the offers.

The university’s fraternity system, founded in 1847, also remains largely segregated, and people here said they would like to see Alabama broaden its diversity initiative to include those organizations, one of which drew attention in 2009 for staging a parade with its members dressed in Confederate uniforms.

Most Greek organizations have barred their members from speaking to reporters, but Sam Creden, a demonstrator who is also a member of Delta Sigma Phi, said there was some unease about the ferment.

“A lot of my fraternity brothers are actually worried that this will be supporting sort of forced integration,” said Mr. Creden, a junior from Chicago.

Those who marched, he said, are hoping for a deeper, systemic change.

“We don’t want this to be the facade of integration,” Mr. Creden said. “We want people to truly accept people of all backgrounds and races.”

Caroline Bechtel, a member of Phi Mu, said Greeks were largely relieved by the events of recent days.

“The conversations have been happening, but there’s been no real action,” said Ms. Bechtel, a junior.

“Finally, it feels like something might change, and I think that is refreshing. We don’t have to be scared anymore to want a better community.”

    At Alabama, a Renewed Stand for Integration, NYT, 18.9.2013,






Not Very Giving


September 4, 2013
The New York Times


STANFORD, Calif. — AS school gets rolling across the country, many parents will be asked to make a large financial contribution to their children’s school. In Hillsborough, Calif., for example, parents receive a letter from the Hillsborough Schools Foundation in which the amount requested is $2,300 per child.

There have always been parent-teacher associations that raise modest or even not-so-modest amounts of money. But increasingly local school foundations are being created expressly for the purpose of raising private funds.

Hillsborough is one of the wealthiest towns in the United States. Median family income is over $250,000, and residents enjoy one of the best school districts in the state. It’s not hard for Hillsborough families to donate to their own children’s school. And they do: bids at the foundation’s annual online auction last year went into the thousands for a paid internship at Franklin Templeton Investments and for a trip to the taping of the final episode of “The Bachelor.” Or you could make an offer on a vacation in a luxury home with a dedicated butler on a private island in Belize.

According to the foundation, charitable gifts have financed class-size reductions, librarians, art and music teachers, and Smart technology in every classroom. These funds supplement the annual public spending of $13,500 per pupil. In the process, they increase property values in Hillsborough. In 2012 private contributions to the foundation amounted to $3.45 million, or $2,300 per pupil.

Hillsborough is not an anomaly. The foundation supporting the Palo Alto school district asks for $800 per child; in Menlo Park, it’s $1,500; and at the Ross Elementary School in Marin County, it’s a staggering $3,400.

Less than 20 miles away from Hillsborough is East Palo Alto, which has a school foundation, but where median household income in 2011 was $48,700. The amount of money collected from parents is small. Modesto, in California’s Central Valley, is in an area with some of the highest poverty rates in the nation. Like most poor cities and rural areas, it has no school foundation. In Oakland and San Francisco district foundations raise less than $100 a year per child.

There’s nothing surprising about this stark contrast. Wealthy parents in wealthy towns can raise a lot of money.

Wanting to support your own children’s education is understandable, but it also has unintended, pernicious effects. The school foundations are legally registered as public charities. When donors give to their own child’s school or district, they are making a charitable contribution that the federal government treats in the same way as a donation to a food bank or disaster relief.

But charity like this is not relief for the poor. It is, in fact, the opposite. Private giving to public schools widens the gap between rich and poor. It exacerbates inequalities in financing. It is philanthropy in the service of conferring advantage on the already well-off.

By lowering the taxes of the donor and diminishing the tax revenues that would otherwise have been collected and partly distributed to rich and poor schools alike, federal and state governments are in effect subsidizing the charitable activity of parents who donate to their child’s school. In this respect, the policies that govern private giving to public schools seem perverse. Tax policy makes federal and state governments complicit in the deepening of existing inequalities that they are ostensibly responsible for diminishing in the first place.

Should wealthy parents in well-to-do school districts stop giving to their own children’s schools? That’s not likely to happen, nor is it my recommendation. True, it would be more altruistic to donate to the schools of poorer children, but it is human instinct for parents to support the education of their children.

There is still a lot we can do to improve this upside-down system of charity. First, wealthy school foundations like Hillsborough’s should honor the equality-promoting standards released by the National Commission on Civic Investment in Public Education (on which I served). At a minimum, this would require private giving to be aggregated across schools and shared equally with the entire school district. More ambitiously, it would channel private giving to support poor districts.

Second, because the root cause of inadequate school financing is ultimately political, not philanthropic, donors and school foundations should support political reforms. A movement is afoot in California to amend the property-tax slashing Proposition 13 to require fair market value taxation of commercial real estate, which would raise tax revenues. In effect, by asking parents to donate, the Hillsborough Schools Foundation encourages them to work around the obstacle of Prop 13 rather than confronting the problems it creates directly. It would be better if the foundation organized parents in support of amending Prop 13.

Finally, Congress should differentiate or eliminate charitable status for local education foundations. If a foundation raises money for a district with a high percentage of children eligible for free lunch, it could offer a double deduction; for a district below the average in per-pupil spending, the standard deduction; for a district with few poor children and higher than average per-pupil spending, no deduction. If private giving to public schools exacerbates inequalities, then at the very least we should stop subsidizing such behavior with tax dollars.

The problem is not with America’s parents but with its policies. At a time of rising inequality, school foundations must shrink — not widen — the gap between rich and poor.


Rob Reich is an associate professor of political science

at Stanford and co-director of the Center on Philanthropy

and Civil Society.

    Not Very Giving, NYT, 4.9.2013,






Obama’s Plan

Aims to Lower Cost of College


August 22, 2013
The New York Times


President Obama announced a set of ambitious proposals on Thursday aimed at making colleges more accountable and affordable by rating them and ultimately linking those ratings to financial aid.

A draft of the proposal, obtained by The New York Times and likely to cause some consternation among colleges, shows a plan to rate colleges before the 2015 school year based on measures like tuition, graduation rates, debt and earnings of graduates, and the percentage of lower-income students who attend. The ratings would compare colleges against their peer institutions. If the plan can win Congressional approval, the idea is to base federal financial aid to students attending the colleges partly on those rankings.

“All the things we’re measuring are important for students choosing a college,” a senior administration official said. “It’s important to us that colleges offer good value for their tuition dollars, and that higher education offer families a degree of security so students aren’t left with debt they can’t pay back.”

Mr. Obama hopes that starting in 2018, the ratings would be tied to financial aid, so that students at highly rated colleges might get larger federal grants and more affordable loans. But that would require new legislation.

“I think there is bipartisan support for some of these ideas, as we’ve seen in states where the governors have been working on them,” said the administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to disclose information not yet made public.

Ohio, Tennessee and Indiana have made moves toward linking aid to educational outcomes. But in the divisive Congressional atmosphere, it is not clear how much backing there would be for such proposals.

In February, the administration introduced an online college scorecard, making public some of the information to be included in the ratings, to help families evaluate different colleges. Graduates’ earnings, however, will be a new data point, and one that experts say is especially tricky to make meaningful.

“There are all kinds of issues, like deciding how far down the road you are looking, and which institutions are comparable,” said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, a group representing colleges and universities. “Ultimately, the concern is that the Department of Education will develop a formula and impose it without adequate consultation, and that’s what drives campus administrators nuts.”

Almost all of the federal government’s $150 billion in annual student aid is distributed based on the number of students a college enrolls, regardless of how many graduate or how much debt they incur. Under the new proposal, students could still attend whatever college they chose, public or private, but taxpayer support would shift to higher-ranked schools.

With rising tuition and declining state financing, students and families are assuming a growing share of college costs. Tuition revenues now make up about half of public university revenues, up from a quarter 25 years ago. And with colleges facing larger pensions, health care and technology costs, the pressure to keep raising tuition is intense.

The average borrower now graduates with more than $26,000 of debt. Loan default rates are rising, and only about half of those who start college graduate within six years.

Mr. Obama has focused on these concerns for some time, exhorting colleges and universities, and state legislators, to make higher education more affordable.

In his 2012 State of the Union address, he said he was putting colleges on notice that if tuition did not stop rising faster than inflation, financing from taxpayers would drop. And in this year’s State of the Union speech, he urged Congress to consider affordability and value in awarding federal aid, and followed up with a policy plan recommending that those measures be incorporated into the accreditation system.

Mr. Obama’s proposal urges colleges to experiment with approaches that reduce costs. The plan mentions so-called competency-based degrees, in which college credits are based not on the hours students spend in classrooms, but on how much they can show they know.

Another approach mentioned in the plan is online education through what have become known as “massive open online courses,” or MOOCs, which are mostly free. Mr. Obama also urged consideration of three-year degree programs and dual enrollment programs in which high school students can begin to earn college credits.

“This isn’t something that’s going to be fully driven by the federal government, but the president can tell colleges that there’s people out there doing good things, you should look at them, try them and try to do better — and here’s where we can help,” the official said.

There is some money available for such efforts, including $500 million for community colleges, and the administration is seeking more. So far, though, it has failed to persuade Congress to pay for Race to the Top competition for higher education, under which grants would go to those colleges with promising approaches.

With or without more financing, the president plans to offer regulatory waivers to colleges that serve as experimental sites promoting high-quality, low-cost innovations in higher education, especially those that make it possible for students to get financial aid based on how much they learn, rather than how much time they spend in class. He also wants to let colleges offer Pell Grants, federal aid based on need, to high school students taking college courses.

In a letter to supporters this week, Mr. Obama said that tinkering around the edges would not be enough, and that the changes he was proposing in his two-state, three-campus tour beginning Thursday, “won’t be popular with everyone — including some who’ve made higher education their business — but it’s past time that more of our colleges work better for the students they exist to serve.”

Mr. Obama is championing his ideas on a two-day bus tour, at town hall-style meetings on college campuses across upstate New York and Pennsylvania.

In the proposal, the president plans to change aid practices to make sure those receiving financial aid are moving toward a degree by, among other things, stretching out the disbursement of Pell Grant money over the semester, rather than giving it out in a lump sum at the start. While “satisfactory academic progress” is required by the current law, it is left to each institution to define such progress, and students who fail out of one college can simply transfer to another and receive more aid.

“That doesn’t make sense,” said Sandra Baum, an economist who is a senior fellow at the George Washington University Graduate School of Education and Human Development. “Students need a structure that will help them make progress.”

Mr. Obama would also like to expand his existing pay-as-you-earn program for student borrowers so that borrowers could cap their payments at 10 percent of their discretionary monthly income. That expansion would require Congressional approval.

But even without it, the administration next year will direct the Education Department to call all debtors behind in their payments to make sure they understand repayment options.

    Obama’s Plan Aims to Lower Cost of College, NYT, 22.8.2013,





A $147 Million Signal of Faith

in Atlanta’s Public Schools


August 6, 2013
The New York Times


ATLANTA — The most expensive public high school ever built in Georgia opens Wednesday in an old I.B.M. office building.

With 11 stories, a 900-car parking deck and views fit for a corporate executive, the school, North Atlanta High, looks very much like the fancy office buildings and glittery shopping strips that populate its Buckhead community.

The school cost about $147 million. That is small change compared with the Robert F. Kennedy high school complex in Los Angeles, built in 2010 for $578 million — a figure critics liked to point out was more expensive than Beijing’s Olympic stadium.

But in the Deep South, where the median cost of a new high school is $38.5 million, it might as well be the Taj Mahal.

As a result, some in this antigovernment, tax-sensitive part of the country are grumbling, especially since the project was $50 million over its original budget.

“The raw numbers themselves in terms of the cost of construction should give pause to any taxpayer,” said Edward Lindsey, a lawyer and a Republican member of the Georgia House of Representatives.

But for the Atlanta Public Schools, which are just beginning to recover from a cheating scandal that in March brought indictments against 35 educators, including a former superintendent, the shining new school is being pitched as an important step toward redemption.

About 48,400 students will attend public school in Atlanta this year, about 400 fewer than last year.

“We have a special obligation here,” said Howard E. Taylor, the new principal. “The district is digging out of a historic crisis.”

He and other educators say that the new school building is an opportunity to show that a large, urban public high school can be a viable alternative to the rising tide of charter schools, voucher systems and private education.

Some of the 1,400 students who will attend the school this year come from the wealthiest families in the region, but others, Mr. Taylor said, are homeless. Nearly half are black. About 27 percent are white and 20 percent are Hispanic. They speak more than 40 languages.

“If there was ever a model for an urban high school, this is it,” he said.

The goal is to move the school from its graduation rate of about 61 percent — a rate so low it helped lead to the ouster of top administrators last fall — to 90 percent.

The amenities should help. There are a performing arts complex, a broadcast and video center, a cafeteria that looks like a food court, and a rifle range for the shooting team and military programs. The gymnasium can seat 1,800 people.

In the classroom, the school offers an extensive list of advanced placement, international studies and business courses.

“Hopefully, the academics will be as good as the building,” said Regine Zuber, touring the school with her daughter, Amanda Stevens, 14, this week.

Transforming a 1977 office building that once held about 5,000 workers into a functional and safe high school designed to eventually hold 2,400 was challenging.

Atlanta planners toured two high schools in New York City and studied other large schools, but nothing quite matched the challenges of a concrete edifice on a wooded 56-acre plot of land.

Security was paramount. Fences had to be added around the spring-fed lake that borders part of the school. A system had to be devised to control the 17 building’s entrances. Impact-proof safety glass was installed in the floor-to-ceiling windows, and 423 security cameras were tucked into stairwells and hallways, said Jere J. Smith III, the district’s director of capital improvements.

He deflected criticism of the school’s price. The land, bought in 2011, cost $55.3 million and was a relative bargain driven by recession-era corporate downsizing. Construction was hampered by asbestos and problems with the quality of soil and the abundance of granite on the site. Labor costs were higher than expected.

The cost seems fine to some parents, who say that Buckhead residents live in one of the wealthiest ZIP codes in the South and many pay plenty in taxes.

“This is a nice gift to the Buckhead area from the state of Georgia for all the money we send them,” said Jennifer Salberg-Kopelman, whose daughter will be entering the 11th grade.

At an open house Tuesday, students were excited. The main criticism seemed to be something that vexes most people who live or work in high-rise buildings.

“My only advice is to invest in better elevators,” said Mariana Ryes, a sophomore. “There is no way I am going to get to my classes on time in these.”


Alan Blinder contributed research.

    A $147 Million Signal of Faith in Atlanta’s Public Schools, NYT, 6.8.2013,






An Unusual Feat in Congress:

Student Loan Bill Breezes On


July 31, 2013
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — Something pretty rare happened in Congress on Wednesday: it approved and sent to President Obama a major piece of public policy by an overwhelming bipartisan margin.

The feat was even more notable because the legislation, which created a new set of rates for federal student loans, is entwined with many of the issues that often divide Republicans and Democrats: the economy, the financial markets and the government’s role in lending. It passed by a vote of 392 to 31 in the House.

Representative Luke Messer, Republican of Indiana, praised the student loan deal as a triumph of both policy and politics.

“It’s a great victory for taxpayers, because taxpayers won’t be forced to subsidize student loan rates that are arbitrarily set by politicians,” Mr. Messer said. “This, I hope, opens the door to potential compromises on some of the other big issues that we have before us that we have to deal with in the next several months. This proves Washington can work.”

Despite such optimism, lawmakers had little choice but to find a path to a deal. Student loan rates doubled on July 1 because Congress could not come up with a plan to replace student lending laws that had expired.

Failing to act on a compromise before the end of this week would have left legislators heading home for a monthlong recess to face constituents already disillusioned over dysfunction and inaction in the Capitol. None wanted to face criticism that they were so inept that they could not protect middle-class families from paying double what they used to pay to borrow money for college.

Yet the vote, as encouraging as it was on the surface, raised the question of why Congress cannot find consensus on big issues more often. An overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws, which passed the Senate in June, is stymied as House Republicans struggle to come up with a plan that unites the disparate views in their caucus. Though some believe that revamping the immigration system is crucial to the future of their party, others denounce any pathway to citizenship for the 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the country as amnesty.

Efforts to overhaul the tax code seem similarly stuck as Democrats demand more revenue, an idea that Republicans portray as unacceptable. And the parties have found even less common ground on the budget, as many conservatives insist that any new spending resolution not include financing for Mr. Obama’s health care law.

“They don’t trust each other,” said Steve LaTourette, a former Republican congressman from Ohio and a close ally of Speaker John A. Boehner who decided to retire last year in large part because of his frustration with the dynamics on Capitol Hill. “Boehner doesn’t trust the president. The president doesn’t trust Boehner. And until they do trust each other, you’re not going to see anything big getting done.”

Passage of the student loan bill came the same day that House Republican leaders were forced to abruptly pull from the floor a $44.1 billion spending bill on transportation and housing because of a lack of votes. The bill had steep cuts that Republican moderates opposed. Community development block grants would have been cut in the coming fiscal year to $1.6 billion from $3.3 billion, a level lower than when the program began under President Gerald R. Ford.

Representative Hal Rogers, the Kentucky Republican who leads the Appropriations Committee, issued an unusual broadside after the bill was pulled, saying it was now clear that the House could not pass spending bills that complied with overall financing levels set in its own austere budget plan. That suggested tough times ahead for passing required spending bills, and some pointed out that even the student loan deal almost fell victim to the same fate that has doomed other big-ticket items in Congress.

“A few months ago, at least, it seemed like everybody expected a bill that connected student loan rates to Treasury rates would move ahead without any kind of trouble,” said Neal P. McCluskey, an education analyst at the Cato Institute. “And it was surprising when there was.”

The House passed a student loan plan in May. But Senate Democrats balked, saying that the borrowing rates it set were too high and would leave students and their families with too little protection from inflation and fluctuations in the financial markets. Then a coalition of liberal Democrats resisted any plan that linked rates to the financial markets, keeping a deal at bay for weeks.

Under the old federal student loan program, borrowers were offered a fixed rate. Under the new rate structure, which still drew opposition from nearly one-third of Senate Democrats when it passed last week, loans to undergraduates and graduate students, along with parents in the PLUS program, would be subject to a fixed rate plus the yield on the 10-year Treasury note.

Rates for loans taken out after July 1 of this year would be 3.9 percent for undergraduates, 5.4 percent for graduate students and 6.4 percent for those receiving PLUS loans. The rates are fixed over the life of the loan but would change for new borrowers each year.

In a compromise that pleased many Democrats who had initially been wary of using a rate that was subject to inflation and fluctuated with the markets, Congress set a cap on all loans: 8.25 percent for undergraduates, 9.5 for graduate students and 10.5 for PLUS recipients.

Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, the chairwoman of the House Republican Conference, said that while she was “disappointed it took as long as it did for us to get to this place on student loans,” she hoped that the legislation was a harbinger.

“I hope this is setting the stage for more bipartisanship and success on other issues,” she said.

    An Unusual Feat in Congress: Student Loan Bill Breezes On, NYT, 31.7.2013,






College Enrollment Falls

as Economy Recovers


July 25, 2013
The New York Times


The long enrollment boom that swelled American colleges — and helped drive up their prices — is over, with grim implications for many schools.

College enrollment fell 2 percent in 2012-13, the first significant decline since the 1990s, but nearly all of that drop hit for-profit and community colleges; now, signs point to 2013-14 being the year when traditional four-year, nonprofit colleges begin a contraction that will last for several years. The college-age population is dropping after more than a decade of sharp growth, and many adults who opted out of a forbidding job market and went back to school during the recession have been drawn back to work by the economic recovery.

Hardest hit are likely to be colleges that do not rank among the wealthiest or most prestigious, and are heavily dependent on tuition revenue, raising questions about their financial health — even their survival.

“There are many institutions that are on the margin, economically, and are very concerned about keeping their doors open if they can’t hit their enrollment numbers,” said David A. Hawkins, the director of public policy and research at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, which has more than 1,000 member colleges.

The most competitive colleges remain unaffected, but gaining admission to middle-tier institutions will most likely get easier.

Colleges fear that their high prices and the concern over rising student debt are turning people away, and on Wednesday, President Obama again challenged them to rein in tuition increases. Colleges have resorted to deeper discounts and accelerated degree programs. In all, the four-year residential college experience as a presumed rite of passage for middle-class students is coming under scrutiny.

The most striking signs of change came from Loyola University New Orleans and St. Mary’s College of Maryland. After the usual May 1 deadline for applicants to choose a college, Loyola and St. Mary’s each found that their admission offers had been accepted by about one-third fewer students than expected. Both institutions were forced to make millions of dollars in budget cuts and a late push for more enrollment.

Loyola made a flurry of calls to students who had been accepted but had decided to go elsewhere, and had even paid deposits to other colleges. Professors and administrators who usually are not involved in the process made calls, along with the admissions officers, “and we did invite them to see if there was more we could do with aid,” said Roberta Kaskel, the interim vice president for enrollment management.

Many colleges traditionally round out their classes with a small number of students admitted after May 1, often taken from their waiting lists, and miscalculations as big or as damaging as those by St. Mary’s and Loyola are rare. But consultants hired by families to help with the admissions process say that this spring and summer, they have seen more colleges actively hunting for students, reaching out to those who had turned them down, or even to students who had never applied.

“After May 1, I got e-mails from three or four colleges saying, ‘We’ve still got spots, and we’re looking for people to fill them,’ and I don’t remember getting any in the past,” said Lisa Bleich, an admissions consultant in Westfield, N.J.

“I had a client who had committed to one school, and then changed her mind and said she wanted to go to the University of Pittsburgh, where she had also been accepted,” she said. “They weren’t actively looking for more, but they agreed to take her, when a few years ago, they would have said, ‘No, we don’t have any space.’ ”

This summer, Randolph College in Virginia sent letters to students who had not applied but had strong academic credentials, saying that they had “been selected for admission” in the fall, and offering them financial aid. Randolph’s case is unusual, in that it is expanding, but it shows the lengths colleges will go to, to meet their enrollment targets.

“This is the first time we’ve tried this particular approach,” said Mike Quinn, the vice president for enrollment management. “Sometimes offering these qualified students a more generous grant will prompt them to start a conversation with us.”

Don McMillan, an admissions consultant in Boston, said his office fielded calls this week from families in Saudi Arabia and Italy, hoping to find their children places for a school year that, in some cases, is just a month away.

“We called about 15 colleges, and we found that about half still had openings for this fall and were willing to consider them, which really surprised me,” he said. “These are not Tufts, M.I.T., Harvard, schools like that, that will never have trouble filling up.”

College attendance grew slowly for more than two decades, until it began a steep climb from 15.2 million in 1999 to 20.4 million in 2011, according to census figures.

Several factors drove that boom: a population bulge increased the number of college-age Americans by about 20 percent; high school graduation rates climbed after years of stagnation; the percentage of recent high school graduates going to college continued an increase that started in the 1980s; and colleges drew a growing number of students from abroad.

The recession that began in 2007 steered still more people into college, especially adults who were past traditional college age and who enrolled in community colleges.

But the number of Americans turning 18 hit its recent peak in 2009, and will continue to decline through 2016. High school graduation rates appear to have leveled off, and job prospects have improved, making school a less attractive option.

Managing a college’s enrollment has become more complicated in recent years as the number of applications submitted by the average student has soared. The advent of online applications, and the Common Application now used by about 500 colleges, has made it much easier to add to a student’s list without much thought. And colleges have encouraged the increase, barraging promising students with appeals, knowing that more applications means a lower percentage of students accepted, which moves a college up in the popular ranking systems.

“It’s become really hard for colleges to tell which applicants are actually serious about them, and will accept their offers,” said Janet Rosier, an admissions consultant in Woodbridge, Conn.

That is what happened to St. Mary’s, a state college, and Loyola, a Jesuit school where administrators say some visitors might have been dissuaded by extensive construction on campus.

While Loyola made a renewed appeal to people it had already accepted, St. Mary’s simply reopened admissions, and put out word through counselors and community groups. Both colleges have been able to draw more students since May, but their fall classes will still be far short of what they had hoped.

    College Enrollment Falls as Economy Recovers, NYT, 25.7.2013,






Schools Seeking to Arm Employees

Hit Hurdle on Insurance


July 7, 2013
The New York Times


As more schools consider arming their employees, some districts are encountering a daunting economic hurdle: insurance carriers threatening to raise their premiums or revoke coverage entirely.

During legislative sessions this year, seven states enacted laws permitting teachers or administrators to carry guns in schools. Three of the measures — in Kansas, South Dakota and Tennessee — took effect last week.

But already, EMC Insurance Companies, the liability insurance provider for about 90 percent of Kansas school districts, has sent a letter to its agents saying that schools permitting employees to carry concealed handguns would be declined coverage.

“We are making this underwriting decision simply to protect the financial security of our company,” the letter said.

In northeast Indiana, Douglas A. Harp, the sheriff of Noble County, offered to deputize teachers to carry handguns in their classrooms less than a week after 26 children and educators were killed in a school shooting in Newtown, Conn. A community member donated $27,000 in firearms to the effort. School officials from three districts seemed ready to sign off. But the plan fell apart after an insurer refused to provide workers’ compensation to schools with gun-carrying staff members.

The Oregon School Boards Association, which manages liability coverage for all but a handful of the state’s school districts, recently announced a new pricing structure that would make districts pay an extra $2,500 annual premium for every staff member carrying a weapon on the job.

Scott Whitman, an administrator at the Jackson County school district in southern Oregon, where a committee is looking at arming school staff members next year, said costs would be a factor in the decision. With 10 buildings, the expense of arming and training more than one staff member at each school would easily exceed $50,000 a year.

“Pretty much every last bit of our money is budgeted,” he said, adding, “To me, that could be quite an impediment to putting this forward.”

Increasing the number of firearms in classrooms across the country has been the cornerstone of the National Rifle Association’s response to the Newtown massacre and the legislative fights over proposed gun laws that followed it. In April, the gun-rights group released a report that called for armed police officers, security guards or staff members in every American school.

More than 30 state legislatures introduced bills that permit staff members to carry guns in public or private schools this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Supporters say training teachers to carry guns would better protect students and, if anything, should put insurance companies more at ease. But worries remain about who could be sued if a gun-related accident occurred on school property, giving way to business realities for some insurance providers, which include both commercial carriers and nonprofit cooperatives.

“Some are saying this is so high risk we’re not going to touch it,” said Kenneth S. Trump, the president of National School Safety and Security Services, which discourages districts from implementing concealed carry policies. “Others may say this is so high risk that you’re going to pay through the nose.”

Few districts in the nation currently allow teachers to carry firearms in K-12 schools; those that do are often in rural areas where it could take a while for first responders to arrive. It is still too soon to tell whether that number will rise as more states consider laws, as many administrators have started discussing the matter with parents and school lawyers only in the past six months.

Jenny Emery, head of the Association of Governmental Risk Pools, said none of her members plan to withhold coverage like EMC. But many are strongly recommending other security alternatives, she said, noting that cooperatives provide some form of risk financing to about 80 percent of public entities across the country.

“I haven’t seen evidence yet that suggests people are determining that arming teachers is a recommended way to manage risk,” she said. “Far from it.”

Still, insurers in some states said they were unsure how to approach the subject when the time comes.

Days after the new law took effect in Tennessee last week, the state’s largest K-12 insurance provider, Tennessee Risk Management Trust, had not reached a conclusion about whether the price of its coverage would increase if employees carried guns.

Firearm training rules for teachers in South Dakota, which passed its law in March, have not yet been approved, in part delaying serious talks between districts and their underwriters. “Because it’s not something the schools are considering, the issue really hasn’t become full blown yet,” said Wade Pogany, the executive director of the Associated School Boards of South Dakota. “I think it will eventually.”

After the Kansas law passed in April, more than a dozen school administrators across the state were mulling a move to arm their staffs, according to David Shriver, who oversees insurance programs at the Kansas Association of School Boards. He stopped getting calls about it as soon as EMC made its policy clear, he said.

“If there’s no insurance available,” he added, “it’s difficult to do anything.”

In an e-mail statement, Mick Lovell, vice president for business development at EMC, said the company, which is based in Des Moines, was upholding its long-held guidelines that school security should be provided only by qualified law enforcement officers

For three Kansas community colleges, which were insured by EMC but decided to allow concealed carry on their campuses under the new law, the search for another insurance provider was easier than expected.

Dan Barwick, the president of Independence Community College, said his college and two others recently signed a joint insurance plan with another company at a rate that he expected would save the group about $2 million over the next decade. Advocates for arming teachers point to the colleges as evidence that some insurance providers are willing to stomach the risk, should K-12 schools in Kansas decide to shop around

“What will happen is the market will take care of this,” said Forrest Knox, a Kansas state senator who helped pass the concealed carry legislation. “Other companies are going to do the dollars and cents.”

That theory is certainly true in states like Texas, where strong tort protections have made it easier for about 30 districts to arm their employees this year. Dubravka Romano, who oversees a cooperative that insures about half of the state’s 1,035 districts, said schools there were not charged extra for having guns on campus.

One such district, Harrold Independent, has switched insurance providers twice since it started arming employees in 2007, saving around $5,000 a year with each move.

David Thweatt, the superintendent, would not disclose how many armed employees patrol school hallways, but he said fears of increased liability were overblown. There have been no gun-related accidents or injuries at Harrold schools since the policy started, he said.

“The only time we’ve had to use a firearm,” he said, “was to shoot at a wild pig.”

    Schools Seeking to Arm Employees Hit Hurdle on Insurance, NYT, 7.7.2013,






Opinionator - A Gathering of Opinion From Around the Web

Student Debt

and the Crushing of the American Dream


May 12, 2013
9:09 pm
The New York Times


A CERTAIN drama has become familiar in the United States (and some other advanced industrialized countries): Bankers encourage people to borrow beyond their means, preying especially on those who are financially unsophisticated. They use their political influence to get favorable treatment of one form or another. Debts mount. Journalists record the human toll. Then comes bewilderment: How could we let this happen again? Officials promise to fix things. Something is done about the most egregious abuses. People move on, reassured that the crisis has abated, but suspecting that it will recur soon.

The crisis that is about to break out involves student debt and how we finance higher education. Like the housing crisis that preceded it, this crisis is intimately connected to America’s soaring inequality, and how, as Americans on the bottom rungs of the ladder strive to climb up, they are inevitably pulled down — some to a point even lower than where they began.

This new crisis is emerging even before the last one has been resolved, and the two are becoming intertwined. In the decades after World War II, homeownership and higher education became signs of success in America.

Before the housing bubble burst in 2007, banks persuaded low- and moderate-income homeowners that they could turn their houses and apartments into piggy banks. They seduced them into taking out home-equity loans — and in the end, millions lost their homes. In other cases, the banks, mortgage brokers and real-estate agents pushed aspiring homeowners to borrow beyond their means. The wizards of finance, who prided themselves on risk management, sold toxic mortgages that were designed to explode. They bundled the dubious loans into complex financial instruments and sold them to unsuspecting investors.

Everyone recognizes that education is the only way up, but as a college degree becomes increasingly essential to making one’s way in a 21st-century economy, education for those not to the manner born is increasingly unaffordable. Student debt for graduating seniors now exceeds $26,000, about a 40 percent increase in just seven years. But an “average” like this masks huge variations.

According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, almost 13 percent of student-loan borrowers of all ages owe more than $50,000, and nearly 4 percent owe more than $100,000. These debts are beyond students’ ability to repay, (especially in our nearly jobless recovery); this is demonstrated by the fact that delinquency and default rates are soaring. Some 17 percent of student-loan borrowers were 90 days or more behind in payments at the end of 2012. When only those in repayment were counted — in other words, not including borrowers who were in loan deferment or forbearance — more than 30 percent were 90 days or more behind. For federal loans taken out in the 2009 fiscal year, three-year default rates exceeded 13 percent.

America is distinctive among advanced industrialized countries in the burden it places on students and their parents for financing higher education. America is also exceptional among comparable countries for the high cost of a college degree, including at public universities. Average tuition, and room and board, at four-year colleges is just short of $22,000 a year, up from under $9,000 (adjusted for inflation) in 1980-81.

Compare this more-than-doubling in tuition with the stagnation in median family income, which is now about $50,000, compared to $46,000 in 1980 (adjusted for inflation).

Like much else, the problem of student debt worsened during the Great Recession: tuition costs at public universities increased by 27 percent in the past five years — partly because of cutbacks — while median income shrank. In California, inflation-adjusted tuition more than doubled in public two-year community colleges (which for poorer Americans are often the key to upward mobility), and by more than 70 percent in four-year public schools, from 2007-8 to 2012-13.

With costs soaring, incomes stagnating and little help from government, it was not surprising that total student debt, around $1 trillion, surpassed total credit-card debt last year. Responsible Americans have learned how to curb their credit-card debt — many have forsaken them for debit cards, or educated themselves about usurious interest rates, fees and penalties charged by card issuers — but the challenge of controlling student debt is even more unsettling.

Curbing student debt is tantamount to curbing social and economic opportunity. College graduates earn $12,000 more per year than those without college degrees; the gap has almost tripled just since 1980. Our economy is increasingly reliant on knowledge-related industries. No matter what happens with currency wars and trade balances, the United States is not going to return to making textiles. Unemployment rates among college graduates are much lower than among those with only a high school diploma.

America — home of the land-grant university, the G.I. Bill and world-class public universities from California to Michigan to Texas — has fallen from the top in terms of university education. With strangling student debt, we are likely to fall further. What economists call “human capital” — investing in people — is a key to long-term growth. To be competitive in the 21st century is to have a highly educated labor force, one with college and advanced degrees. Instead, we are foreclosing on our future as a nation.

Student debt also is a drag on the slow recovery that began in 2009. By dampening consumption, it hinders economic growth. It is also holding back recovery in real estate, the sector where the Great Recession started.

It’s true that housing prices seem to be on the upswing, but home construction is far from the levels reached in the years before the bubble burst of 2007.

Those with huge debts are likely to be cautious before undertaking the additional burdens of a family. But even when they do, they will find it more difficult to get a mortgage. And if they do, it will be smaller, and the real estate recovery will consequently be weaker. (One study of recent Rutgers University graduates showed that 40 percent had delayed making a major home purchase, and for a quarter, the high level of debt had an effect on household formation or getting further education. Another recent study showed that homeownership among 30-year-olds with a history of student debt fell by more than 10 percentage points during the Great Recession and in its aftermath.)

It’s a vicious cycle: lack of demand for housing contributes to a lack of jobs, which contributes to weak household formation, which contributes to a lack of demand for housing.

As bad as things are, they may get worse. With budgetary pressures mounting — along with demands for cutbacks in “discretionary domestic programs” (read: K-12 education subsidies, Pell Grants for poor kids to attend college, research money) — students and families are left to fend for themselves. College costs will continue to rise far faster than incomes. As has been repeatedly observed, all of the economic gains since the Great Recession have gone to the top 1 percent.

Consider another dubious distinction: student debt is almost impossible to discharge in bankruptcy proceedings.

We’re a long way from the debtors’ prisons Dickens described. We don’t send debtors to penal colonies or put them in bonded labor. Although personal bankruptcy laws have been tightened, the principle that bankrupt individuals should be allowed a fresh start, and a chance to discharge excessive debt, is an established principle. This helps debt markets work better, and also provides incentives for creditors to assess the creditworthiness of borrowers.

Yet education loans are almost impossible to write off in bankruptcy court — even when for-profit schools didn’t deliver what they promised and didn’t provide an education that would let the borrower get a job that paid enough to pay back the loan.

We should cut off federal support for these for-profit schools when they fail to graduate students, who don’t get jobs and then default on their loans.

To its credit, the Obama administration tried to make it tougher for these predatory schools to lure students with false promises. Under the new rules, schools had to meet one of three tests, or lose their eligibility for federal student aid: at least 35 percent of graduates had to be repaying their loans; the typical graduate’s estimated annual loan payments could not exceed 12 percent of earnings; or the payments could not exceed 30 percent of discretionary income. But in 2012, a federal judge struck down the rules as arbitrary; the rules remain in legal limbo.

The combination of predatory for-profit schools and predatory lenders is a leech on America’s poor. These schools have even gone after young veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are heart-rending stories of parents who co-signed student loans — only to see their child killed in an accident or die of cancer or another disease — and, like students, can’t easily discharge these debts.

Interest rates on federal Stafford loans were set to double in July, to 6.8 percent. Good news came on Friday: it appears that there is a temporary reprieve, as Republicans have come around. But the stay would be temporary and would not address a more fundamental issue: if the Federal Reserve is willing to lend to the banks that caused the crisis at just 0.75 percent, shouldn’t it be willing to lend to students, who will be crucial to our long-term recovery, at an appropriately low rate? The government shouldn’t be profiting from our poorest while subsidizing our richest. A proposal by Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, for lower student-loan interest rates is a step in the right direction.

Along with tougher regulation of for-profit schools and the banks they connive with, and more humane bankruptcy laws, we must give more support to middle-class families struggling to send their children to college, to ensure that they have a standard of living at least equal to that of their parents.

But a real long-term solution requires rethinking how we finance higher education. Australia has designed a system of publicly provided income-contingent loans that all students must take out. Repayments vary according to individual income after graduation. This aligns the incentives of the providers of education and the receivers. Both have an incentive to see that students do well. It means that if an unfortunate event happens, like an illness or an accident, the loan obligation is automatically reduced. It means that the burden of the debt is always commensurate with an individual’s ability to repay. The repayments are collected through the tax system, minimizing the administrative costs.

Some wonder how the American ideal of equality of opportunity has eroded so much. The way we finance higher education provides part of the answer. Student debt has become an integral part of the story of American inequality. Robust higher education, with healthy public support, was once the linchpin in a system that promised opportunity for dedicated students of any means. We now have a pay-to-play, winner-take-all game where the wealthiest are assured a spot, and the rest are compelled to take a gamble on huge debts, with no guarantee of a payoff.

Even if compassion isn’t a factor — even if we focus just on recovery now and growth and innovation tomorrow — we must do something about student debt. Those concerned about the damage America’s growing divide is doing to our ideals and our moral character should put student debt at the top of any reform agenda.

    Student Debt and the Crushing of the American Dream, NYT, 12.5.2013,






Student Debt Slows Growth

as Young Spend Less


May 10, 2013
The New York Times


The anemic economy has left millions of younger working Americans struggling to get ahead. The added millstone of student-loan debt, which recently exceeded $1 trillion in total, is making it even harder for many of them, delaying purchases of things like homes, cars and other big-ticket items and acting as a drag on growth, economists said.

Consider Shane Gill, a 33-year-old high-school teacher in New York City. He does not have a car. He does not own a home. He is not married. And he is no anomaly: Like hundreds of thousands of others in his generation, he has put off such major purchases or decisions in part because of his debts.

Mr. Gill owes about $45,000 in federal student loans, plus another $40,000 to his parents. That investment in his future has led to a secure job with decent pay and good benefits. But it has left him with tremendous financial constraints, as he faces chipping away at the debt for years on end.

“There’s this anxiety: what if I decided I wanted to get married or have children?” Mr. Gill said. “I don’t know how I would. And that adds to the sense of precariousness. There’s a persistent, buzzing kind of toothache around it.”

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York, in a new study, found that 30-year-olds with student loans are now less likely to have debts like home mortgages than 30-year-olds without student loans — even though most of those with student loans are better educated and can expect to earn more money over their lifetimes. The same pattern holds true for 25-year-olds and car loans.

“It is a new thing, a big social experiment that we’ve accidentally decided to engage in,” said Kevin Carey, the director of the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation, a research group based in Washington. “Let’s send a whole class of people out into their professional lives with a negative net worth. Not starting at zero, but starting at a minus that is often measured in the tens of thousands of dollars. Those minus signs have psychological impact, I suspect. They might have a dollars-and-cents impact in what you can afford, too.”

The weak economy and tight credit standards remain the main culprits preventing young people just establishing themselves from making major purchases. But millions now face putting a substantial share of their take-home pay toward past debts rather than present needs. Student-loan debt leaves them with less money for things like clothes and restaurant meals. And it is even more likely to suppress purchases of more expensive items that need to be bought with credit. That helps explain why adults between the ages of 21 and 34 now buy only about a quarter of all new vehicles, down from nearly 40 percent in the mid-1980s. The poor job market is compounding the problem: The educational debt burden of many so-called millennials has dramatically increased even as they are being forced to get by on significantly less income than the previous generation — a decline of about 15 percent in real terms since 2000, with much of that drop coming from the recession.

According to calculations by the Pew Research Center, the measure of debt to income for households under the age of 35 has ballooned to about 1.5-to-1 in 2010 from about 1-to-1 in 2001. The composition of that debt has shifted, too: more is tied to student debts, and less to homes. “Having a lot of student loan debt makes it harder to qualify for a mortgage and harder to save for a down payment,” said Jed Kolko, the chief economist at Trulia.

Student-loan debt is not only constraining young adults, but also, at least in the near term, holding back the recovery itself, some economists say. The shadows might remain even as the economy picks up, by making young workers more cautious when it comes to decisions about their careers and their finances. Millennials might end up buying less-expensive homes or more often choosing to rent than previous generations.

“The debt is shifting how much young people can spend, and it can also be a powerful psychological thing as well,” said Selma Hepp, an economist at the California Association of Realtors.

On the other side of the equation, many college graduates now in their 20’s and early 30’s should eventually be able to make up for lost ground. Students who take on debt to pay for higher education commit themselves to paying off huge sums, but they usually lift their lifetime earnings by substantial amounts. And they are in a better position to insulate themselves against economic bad times, given the profound rewards the job market provides to the college-educated.

Indeed, the economy is far more punishing to workers without a college degree. The college-educated earn, on average, 80 percent more than those who only completed high school, a premium that has widened over the last 30 years. Unemployment rates for the less educated are higher, too.

For most young workers, gaining a college degree remains well worth it in the long run, even if it delays some purchases in the near term. “For an individual going to college and ending up with a lot of debt — you’re still better off,” said Chris G. Christopher of the forecasting firm IHS Global Insight. There might, however, be a slice of young workers who paid huge sums for degrees that prove less valuable on the job market, saddled by a debt burden that could end up holding them back for decades.

Mr. Gill said his education remained a vital investment, even if the debt overhang has for now put white-picket fences or a condo with a gleaming view out of reach. “Sometimes I think: ‘What if I were to buy an apartment?’ ” he said. “It is like asking: ‘What am I going to do when I first land on the moon? What’s the first thought that I will have when I see Earth from outer space?’ ”

    Student Debt Slows Growth as Young Spend Less, NYT, 10.5.2013,




home Up