History > 2009 > USA > Education (I)
The M.B.A.’s Oath: I Promise to Be Good. Honest
Here Are Some Ideas
June 14, 2009
The New York Times
To the Editor:
Re “Five Ways to Fix America’s Schools” (Op-Ed, June 8):
Harold O. Levy proposed five ways to improve higher education, particularly
through cutting high school dropout rates, increasing college attendance and
reducing the need for remedial education. He didn’t include one of the most
powerful ways to accomplish this: raising the quality of our high school teacher
Study after study shows that the most potent school-based intervention in
raising student graduation rates and academic achievement is strong teachers. So
instead of adopting the advertising lessons of for-profit higher education, as
Mr. Levy suggests, it might be more helpful to invest in raising teacher
salaries, which would attract the highest-performing students — currently
applying to Teach for America in legions — to careers in teaching.
It would also be helpful if unions worked with school systems to make it easier
to remove failing teachers. Rather than create online teacher preparation
programs, it would be desirable to make teacher education more rigorous, base it
in public schools and strengthen teachers’ knowledge of their subject matter.
By raising the quality of our teacher force and strengthening teacher
preparation, we would certainly increase high school graduation rates, improve
students’ academic achievement and raise college attendance rates.
Princeton, N.J., June 8, 2009
The writer, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, is
president emeritus of Teachers College, Columbia University.
To the Editor:
Harold O. Levy’s first three proposals call for external force, pressure and
inducement to get students to spend more time in school. He recommends an
extension of compulsory schooling up to age 19 (with longer days and school
years), “high-pressure sales tactics” (that can “overwhelm the consumer’s will”)
to curb truancy, and aggressive advertising to spur college enrollment.
Nowhere does he mention students’ experience of schooling, including the
likelihood that more time in today’s test-driven institutions will further
deaden their enthusiasm for learning.
America’s schools won’t improve by simply demanding or coaxing students to spend
more time in them. We must, instead, heed great educational and cognitive
scholars like John Dewey, Maria Montessori and Jean Piaget and make students’
curiosity and inner urge to learn the centerpiece of educational reform.
New York, June 8, 2009
The writer is a professor of psychology at City College, CUNY.
To the Editor:
I was frustrated by Harold O. Levy’s suggestions as to how to “fix” our public
education system. He misses the core issue completely. It does not involve
branding, longer compulsory education or high-pressure “sales” tactics. Rather,
students have expressed a need to possess a coherent and integrated meaning for
the very education we are transmitting.
With the economy in a state of disequilibrium, with very few career paths
offering any guarantees, and with no coherent explanation of “What’s this all
about?,” adults should instead be challenged to seek out meaning and wisdom by
which to integrate the educational process.
Educators around the world and I have applied what is known as integral
education methods whereby we can create a neutral framework into which we place
every aspect of every subject so that both we and our students understand how
they relate to and fit with other parts of their education.
Only if we come to understand why we are doing what we are doing in the
classroom every day will our students care about what they are doing and care
enough to stay the course to graduation.
Lynne D. Feldman
Upper Saddle River, N.J.
June 8, 2009
The writer is a retired teacher.
To the Editor:
Harold O. Levy suggested five disparate ways to improve the educational system
in America’s schools. Only one of his suggestions, however, even remotely
touched on the most fundamental aspect of this daunting challenge: improving our
youngest students’ reading skills as a means of instilling self-confidence and
an interest in learning.
This is something that can be addressed now, without the major financing and
structural changes needed to truly reform the system.
The involvement of parents, teachers, volunteers and organizations focused on
this specific task can, and should, be emphasized and developed during the years
it will take to achieve Mr. Levy’s other objectives.
New York, June 10, 2009
The writer is chairman of Everybody Wins!, a nonprofit literacy and mentoring
To the Editor:
Many parents of bright students are horrified at the thought of extending the
school day. For bright students, learning doesn’t “end at 3 p.m.” To the
contrary, it only starts when they’re released from classrooms where they’re
forced to sit through rote lessons aimed at bringing struggling classmates up to
An alternative suggestion: Allow advanced learners to leave school an hour
early, providing them the time they’re not getting during the day to develop
their abilities and work on appropriately challenging material. This would also
allow teachers to give more individualized attention to the struggling students
remaining in the classroom. Win-win.
California Learning Strategies Center
Ventura, Calif., June 8, 2009
To the Editor:
Harold O. Levy’s proposal leaves out essential considerations for improving the
educational process. Perhaps a better approach for reducing truancy than the
proposal for using “high-pressure sales tactics” is to examine the quality and
relevancy of instruction in schools that have high rates of truancy.
Mr. Levy mentions President Obama’s calling for parents to get more involved in
their children’s studies. In fact, many parents get involved. Identifying the
socioeconomic conditions that uninvolved parents face should lead us to conceive
of the educational process as extending far beyond formal schooling and taking
into account institutions and cultural dynamics that function as strategic
barriers to more effective schools.
To put the matter more plainly, let us be reminded that poverty is an
educational process. Jobs for all at living wages, please.
Richard La Brecque
Bradenton, Fla., June 8, 2009
The writer is professor emeritus of policy studies in education, University of
To the Editor:
Harold O. Levy’s proposal of longer mandatory schooling guarantees the issuance
of additional diplomas without improving their woeful state. Such requirements
measure “time in seat” without addressing the root problem that educated minds
are not assembly-line products our schools try to manufacture.
Students would be better served by dismantling the one-size-fits-all high
school. Charter schools and vouchers are the best available tools to encourage
multiple methods and curriculums to meet students’ disparate needs. There are
many causes of America’s educational problems, but providing more parents with
options currently limited to the affluent can only help.
Champaign, Ill., June 8, 2009
To the Editor:
Harold O. Levy’s plan was based on the old formula of spending more while doing
more of the same. He doesn’t adequately address some of the fundamental concerns
His suggestion that students stay in school longer does nothing to help the
7,000 students who drop out daily. Hiring more truant officers to put pressure
on those not attending school doesn’t address the reasons for their not coming.
Perhaps the curriculum is not relevant, engaging or challenging.
Public school teachers are forced by federal and state laws to follow a basic
curriculum that emphasizes test scores rather than real learning.
Colleges need to work with school districts in attracting their best students to
their campuses. While Mr. Levy’s article does bring an important issue to the
forefront, his solution to a complex problem is overly simplistic.
Philip S. Cicero
North Bellmore, N.Y., June 9, 2009
The writer, a retired superintendent of schools, is an adjunct professor of
education at Adelphi University.
Better Schools? Here Are
Some Ideas, NYT, 14.6.2009,
Debate Erupts Over Muslim School in Virginia
June 11, 2009
The New York Times
By THEO EMERY
FAIRFAX, Va. — For years, children’s voices rang out from the playground at
the Islamic Saudi Academy in this heavily wooded community about 20 miles west
of Washington. But for the last year the campus has been silent as academy
officials seek county permission to erect a new classroom building and move
hundreds of students from a sister campus on the other end of Fairfax County.
The proposal from the academy, which a school spokeswoman said was the only
school financed by the Saudi government in the United States, has ignited a
noisy debate and exposed anew the school’s uneasy relationship with its
Many residents living near the 34-acre campus along Popes Head Road, a narrow
byway connecting two busy thoroughfares, say they oppose it because they fear it
will bring more cars, school buses and flooding of land that would be paved over
for parking lots.
But others object to the academy’s curriculum, saying it espouses a
fundamentalist interpretation of Islam known as Wahhabism. A leaflet slipped
into mailboxes in early spring called the school “a hate training academy.”
James Lafferty, chairman of a loose coalition of individuals and groups opposed
to the school, said that its teachings sow intolerance, and that it should not
be allowed to exist, let alone expand.
“We feel that it is in reality a madrassa, a training place for young
impressionable Muslim students in some of the most extreme and most fanatical
teachings of Islam,” Mr. Lafferty said. “That concerns us greatly.”
School officials and parents say they are bewildered and frustrated by such
claims. The academy is no different from other religious schools, they say, and
educates model students who go on to top schools, teaches Arabic to American
soldiers, and no longer uses texts that drew criticism after the Sept. 11
Kamal S. Suliman, 46, a state traffic engineer with three daughters at the
academy, called the accusations “fear tactics and stereotyping.”
“Ideological issues do not belong in this matter,” Mr. Suliman said. “I’m hoping
that cooler heads will prevail,” and that a decision about the expansion “will
be made based on facts.”
The Fairfax County Planning Commission is to vote Thursday on the school’s
request for a zoning exemption to allow construction of the classroom building.
Regardless of the outcome, the request is voted on by the county Board of
Hazel Rathbun, who has lived near the Fairfax campus since 1971, said she
worries about traffic safety and flooding on her winding road, and called
criticism of the school’s Muslim focus “hate filled” and irrelevant. “It’s
detracting from what we see as a very real issue for us,” Ms. Rathbun said.
The Saudi government bought the property, formerly the site of a Christian
academy, in 1984. It also rents a county school building in Alexandria.
In the 1990s, the academy bought property in Loudoun County, about 25 miles
northwest of Fairfax. Over the protest of local residents, they planned a campus
for 3,500 students through grade 12, but they scrapped the plan in 2004. They
decided to build instead on the Popes Head Road site, where classes were held
for youngsters from pre-kindergarten through first grade.
In 2007, the academy notified the county of its building plans, and last year,
transferred the young pupils to the rented building in Alexandria. Academy
officials hope to consolidate both campuses into a “state-of-the-art” school in
Fairfax, said Abdulrahman R. Alghofaili, the school’s director general.
Until Sept. 11, 2001, the academy drew minimal attention, but shortly after the
terrorist attacks, Israel turned away two graduates over suspicions they were
suicide bombers. One was charged with lying on his passport application, and
received a four-month prison sentence.
In 2003, the academy’s 1999 valedictorian, Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, was arrested in
Saudi Arabia, where he had gone to study, and two years later was convicted in
Federal District Court in Alexandria of conspiracy to commit terrorism,
including a plot to assassinate President George W. Bush. He was sentenced to 30
years in prison.
Mr. Abu Ali’s family called the accusations “lies,” and his lawyers say he was
tortured when he was held in Saudi Arabia.
Besides, academy officials and parents contend, an entire school should not be
condemned for the actions of one or two students. They point out that no one
laid the blame for the massacre at Virginia Tech on the high school alma mater
of the gunman, Seung-Hui Cho.
Last year, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, an
independent, bipartisan federal agency charged with promoting religious freedom
in United States foreign policy, concluded that texts used at the school
contained “exhortations to violence” and intolerance.
School officials rejected those findings, saying the commission misinterpreted
and mistranslated outdated materials. The school now prints its own materials
and no longer uses official Saudi curriculum, said Rahima Abdullah, the
academy’s education director.
“We have hundreds of students and hundreds of parents who send their students to
this place to get ideal education,” said Mr. Alghofaili, the director general.
“It doesn’t make sense that their parents would send their kids to a place to
learn how to hate or to kill others.”
The Fairfax Planning Commission chairman, Peter Murphy, said questions about
religion, politics and diplomacy were “distractions” that did not belong in
deliberations about whether the academy should be allowed to expand.
“Whatever happens, some people are going to be happy and some people are not
going to be happy” with Thursday’s vote, Mr. Murphy said. “I’m not basing this
on happiness. I’m basing it on land-use issues.”
Debate Erupts Over
Muslim School in Virginia, NYT, 11.6.2009,
College in Need Closes a Door to Needy Students
June 10, 2009
The New York Times
By JONATHAN D. GLATER
PORTLAND, Ore. — The admissions team at Reed College, known for its
free-spirited students, learned in March that the prospective freshman class it
had so carefully composed after weeks of reviewing essays, scores and
recommendations was unworkable.
Money was the problem. Too many of the students needed financial aid, and the
college did not have enough. So the director of financial aid gave the team
another task: drop more than 100 needy students before sending out acceptances,
and substitute those who could pay full freight.
The whole idea of excluding a student simply because of money clashed with the
college’s ideals, Leslie Limper, the aid director, acknowledged. “None of us are
very happy,” she said, adding that Reed did not strike anyone from its list last
year and that never before had it needed to weed out so many worthy students.
“Sometimes I wonder why I’m still doing this.”
That decision was one of several agonizing ones for this small private college,
celebrated for its combination of academic rigor and a laid-back approach to
education that once attracted Steven P. Jobs, the chief executive of Apple, to
study on its leafy campus minutes from downtown.
With their endowments ravaged by the financial markets and more students
clamoring for assistance, private colleges like Reed are making numerous changes
this year in staff, students, tuition and classes that they hope will tide them
over without harming their reputations or their educational goals.
Reed and others have admitted more students to bolster revenue with larger
classes. Many are cutting costs by freezing or reducing salaries, suspending
hiring and postponing building maintenance and construction. And the cost of
attendance is rising; in Reed’s case, by 3.8 percent, to nearly $50,000 a year
for its 1,300 students.
But Reed has put off drastic measures like spending more of its endowment,
closing some departments or selling some real estate near campus. Instead,
college officials are counting on the economy to turn around quickly, as became
apparent when they allowed a New York Times reporter to sit in on budget
discussions this spring.
“Like everybody, we are trying to start by trying to cut the stuff that is least
likely to inflict real pain on the program,” said Colin Diver, Reed’s president.
When he talks about Reed’s short-term response to the recession, Mr. Diver
concedes he is torn, wondering whether a broader reassessment would be in order.
Perhaps it would be a good thing, he said, if the recession could refocus
college administrators on the quality of higher education, rather than on
investments in climbing walls (Reed does not have one) and other “country club”
aspects of college life that have fueled an academic arms race reliant on
tuition increases and fund-raising.
“The catering to consumer tastes — I keep trying to say, we are in the education
business,” Mr. Diver said, describing the pressure to keep up with wealthier
colleges and expressing a frustration rarely voiced publicly by college
presidents. “The whole principle behind higher education is, we know something
that you don’t. Therefore, we shouldn’t cater to them.”
But no college president wants to be first to make major changes in the college
experience; Reed, for example, is not abandoning plans for a new performing arts
center. “If we’re going to change our ways, we’re really going to need to be
pushed,” Mr. Diver said, referring to colleges generally. “It’s not going to
well up from within.”
So for now, the changes are modest and nearly invisible to students. The impact
is mostly in the composition of the student body over the next four years.
Reed has for now cast aside its hopes of accepting students based purely on
merit, without regard to wealth, and still meeting their financial need. Only
the nation’s richest colleges do that. What’s more, when Reed turned to its
waiting list this year, it tapped only students who could pay their way.
This year, the financial aid office put together its own, separate wait list for
students whose circumstances had changed or whose financial requests were
incomplete. Though Reed had pruned its admissions list for financial reasons
before, it always found a way to help the few students with unexpected setbacks.
This year, dozens of requests came in. Only a few got extra.
“We had so many of these people,” Ms. Limper said, “we had to say, oh my
goodness, we can’t offer aid to everyone who needs it.”
Hannah C. Moser, 17, needed financial help; her father is a paramedic, her
mother is ill and her parents are divorcing. Thrilled with the small classes and
quirky students, she applied to Reed last fall and was ecstatic when she learned
she was admitted — through an informal announcement that came in haikus by
But she said she qualified for only $14,000 in aid, far less than any other
college offered. She later discovered that she had not sent in a required form.
She was placed on the aid wait list, to no avail. This fall, she will enroll at
Willamette University in Salem, Ore., not too far from her hometown,
“I’ve actually struggled pretty bad with not being able to go to Reed, just
because it was my reach school and everything about it was perfect and I
impossibly got in,” said Ms. Moser, an aspiring writer. “And then I couldn’t
This year, there was a 23 percent increase in freshmen seeking financial aid,
and twice as many students have appealed their aid packages, said Ms. Limper,
the aid director. “We have established some pretty stringent guidelines,” she
said, first trying to help “the people with changed circumstances.”
Those guidelines have given priority to students already enrolled like Becca
Roberts, a 19-year-old from Los Angeles whose mother lost her job at a film
distribution company last fall.
“It was sort of unforeseen,” Ms. Roberts said, “because the company seemed to be
doing very well.” She feared she would be unable to return in the spring. When
her mother called the college to describe their plight, Reed came up with more
aid, thanks to the president’s discretionary fund. For the second semester, Ms.
Roberts started work as a photographer for the college, watched her spending,
stuck to the dining hall and tried not to venture off campus.
As job losses mount, more students like her may plead for help next year. But
Ms. Limper does not expect to find money again. The budget, she said, is too
When members of Reed’s board met in February and April to hammer out the budget,
their priority was protecting the character of the college. Most of the members
are alumni, with fond memories of earnest dialogue with professors in small
groups, sometimes outside on the grass.
None of the options were appealing. Admitting more students would raise the
student-faculty ratio, a measure of academic quality and, at Reed, a sign of the
importance of interaction with professors. Raising tuition and fees would add to
pressure on already-struggling families. Cutting spending could make it harder
to recruit faculty members and could limit student resources.
Dipping further into the endowment, which provides about 20 percent of Reed’s
budget, could imperil the college’s long-term survival. Last year, the endowment
fell by nearly 25 percent, to $357 million, from $470 million. At a meeting with
the budget committee of Reed’s board, Mr. Diver said he was reluctant to tap
more of the fund: “I’m not proposing that.”
Members of the board did not push back at the time. But afterward, Daniel
Greenberg, a Los Angeles businessman who is the group’s chairman, said he was
not sure that the endowment should be off limits. “If we need to basically
depend on the endowment, let’s increase the take rate,” he said, referring to
the percentage of the endowment spent by the college every year. “We should do
it if it will protect the character of the college.”
Instead, the board has approved increases in tuition and fees that bring the
total cost of a year at Reed to $49,950. The college will have nearly 400 new
first-year and transfer students in the fall, up from 355 last year.
Reed has increased its financial aid budget by 7.8 percent. It aims to use part
of the $200 million it hopes to raise in a capital campaign, announced this
spring, for financial aid in future years.
The college has cut 5 percent of its spending except on personnel. It has
avoided layoffs — unlike some other institutions — though it is not filling
Like many colleges, Reed is betting on a quick recovery of the economy and the
financial markets to fuel endowment growth of 10 percent annually — including
investment returns and gifts — beginning next year.
Asked by a board member what would happen if those assumptions did not pan out,
the college’s treasurer, Edwin O. McFarlane, was blunt: “We’ll have to revisit
the whole ballgame.”
College in Need Closes a
Door to Needy Students, NYT, 10.6.2009,
18 and Under
At Last, Facing Down Bullies (and Their Enablers)
June 9, 2009
The New York Times
By PERRI KLASS, M.D.
Back in the 1990s, I did a physical on a boy in fifth or sixth grade at a
Boston public school. I asked him his favorite subject: definitely science; he
had won a prize in a science fair, and was to go on and compete in a multischool
The problem was, there were some kids at school who were picking on him every
day about winning the science fair; he was getting teased and jostled and even,
occasionally, beaten up. His mother shook her head and wondered aloud whether
life would be easier if he just let the science fair thing drop.
Bullying elicits strong and highly personal reactions; I remember my own sense
of outrage and identification. Here was a highly intelligent child, a lover of
science, possibly a future (fill in your favorite genius), tormented by brutes.
Here’s what I did for my patient: I advised his mother to call the teacher and
complain, and I encouraged him to pursue his love of science.
And here are three things I now know I should have done: I didn’t tell the
mother that bullying can be prevented, and that it’s up to the school. I didn’t
call the principal or suggest that the mother do so. And I didn’t give even a
moment’s thought to the bullies, and what their lifetime prognosis might be.
In recent years, pediatricians and researchers in this country have been giving
bullies and their victims the attention they have long deserved — and have long
received in Europe. We’ve gotten past the “kids will be kids” notion that
bullying is a normal part of childhood or the prelude to a successful life
strategy. Research has described long-term risks — not just to victims, who may
be more likely than their peers to experience depression and suicidal thoughts,
but to the bullies themselves, who are less likely to finish school or hold down
Next month, the American Academy of Pediatrics will publish the new version of
an official policy statement on the pediatrician’s role in preventing youth
violence. For the first time, it will have a section on bullying — including a
recommendation that schools adopt a prevention model developed by Dan Olweus, a
research professor of psychology at the University of Bergen, Norway, who first
began studying the phenomenon of school bullying in Scandinavia in the 1970s.
The programs, he said, “work at the school level and the classroom level and at
the individual level; they combine preventive programs and directly addressing
children who are involved or identified as bullies or victims or both.”
Dr. Robert Sege, chief of ambulatory pediatrics at Boston Medical Center and a
lead author of the new policy statement, says the Olweus approach focuses
attention on the largest group of children, the bystanders. “Olweus’s genius,”
he said, “is that he manages to turn the school situation around so the other
kids realize that the bully is someone who has a problem managing his or her
behavior, and the victim is someone they can protect.”
The other lead author, Dr. Joseph Wright, senior vice president at Children’s
National Medical Center in Washington and the chairman of the pediatrics
academy’s committee on violence prevention, notes that a quarter of all children
report that they have been involved in bullying, either as bullies or as
victims. Protecting children from intentional injury is a central task of
pediatricians, he said, and “bullying prevention is a subset of that activity.”
By definition, bullying involves repetition; a child is repeatedly the target of
taunts or physical attacks — or, in the case of so-called indirect bullying
(more common among girls), rumors and social exclusion. For a successful
anti-bullying program, the school needs to survey the children and find out the
details — where it happens, when it happens.
Structural changes can address those vulnerable places — the out-of-sight corner
of the playground, the entrance hallway at dismissal time.
Then, Dr. Sege said, “activating the bystanders” means changing the culture of
the school; through class discussions, parent meetings and consistent responses
to every incident, the school must put out the message that bullying will not be
So what should I ask at a checkup? How’s school, who are your friends, what do
you usually do at recess? It’s important to open the door, especially with
children in the most likely age groups, so that victims and bystanders won’t be
afraid to speak up. Parents of these children need to be encouraged to demand
that schools take action, and pediatricians probably need to be ready to talk to
the principal. And we need to follow up with the children to make sure the
situation gets better, and to check in on their emotional health and get them
help if they need it.
How about helping the bullies, who are, after all, also pediatric patients? Some
experts worry that schools simply suspend or expel the offenders without paying
attention to helping them and their families learn to function in a different
“Zero-tolerance policies that school districts have are basically pushing the
debt forward,” Dr. Sege said. “We need to be more sophisticated.”
The way we understand bullying has changed, and it’s probably going to change
even more. (I haven’t even talked about cyberbullying, for example.) But anyone
working with children needs to start from the idea that bullying has long-term
consequences and that it is preventable.
I would still feel that same anger on my science-fair-winning patient’s behalf,
but I would now see his problem as a pediatric issue — and I hope I would be
able to offer a little more help, and a little more follow-up, appropriately
based in scientific research.
At Last, Facing Down
Bullies (and Their Enablers), 9.6.2009,
Five Ways to Fix America’s
June 8, 2009
The New York Times
By HAROLD O. LEVY
AMERICAN education was once the best in the world. But today, our private and
public universities are losing their competitive edge to foreign institutions,
they are losing the advertising wars to for-profit colleges and they are losing
control over their own admissions because of an ill-conceived ranking system.
With the recession causing big state budget cuts, the situation in higher
education has turned critical. Here are a few radical ideas to improve matters:
Raise the age of compulsory education. Twenty-six states require children to
attend school until age 16, the rest until 17 or 18, but we should ensure that
all children stay in school until age 19. Simply completing high school no
longer provides students with an education sufficient for them to compete in the
21st-century economy. So every child should receive a year of post-secondary
The benefits of an extra year of schooling are beyond question: high school
graduates can earn more than dropouts, have better health, more stable lives and
a longer life expectancy. College graduates do even better. Just as we are
moving toward a longer school day (where is it written that learning should end
at 3 p.m.?) and a longer school year (does anyone really believe pupils need a
three-month summer vacation?), so we should move to a longer school career.
President Obama recently embraced the possibility of extending public education
for a year after high school: “I ask every American to commit to at least one
year or more of higher education or career training.” He suggested that this
compulsory post-secondary education could be in a “community college or a
four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship.” (I helped start an
accredited online school of education, and firmly believe that the coursework
could also be delivered to students online.)
If the federal government ultimately pays for the extra year, it would be a
turning point at least as important as the passage of the 1862 Morrill Act that
gave rise to the state universities or the 1944 G.I. Bill that made college
affordable to our returning service personnel after World War II. Every college
trustee should be insisting that we make the president’s dream a reality.
And for those who graduate from high school early: they would receive, each year
until they turn 19, a scholarship equal to their state’s per pupil spending. In
New York, that could be nearly $15,000 per year. This proposal — which already
has been tried in a few states — has the neat side effect of encouraging quick
learners to graduate early and free up seats in our overcrowded high schools.
Use high-pressure sales tactics to curb truancy. Casual truancy is epidemic; in
many cities, including New York, roughly 30 percent of public school students
are absent a total of a month each year. Not surprisingly, truants become
But truant officers can borrow a page from salesmen, who have developed
high-pressure tactics so effective they can overwhelm the consumer’s will.
Making repeated home visits and early morning phone calls, securing written
commitments and eliciting oral commitments in front of witnesses might be
egregious tactics when used by, say, a credit card company. But these could be
valuable ways to compel parents to ensure that their children go to school every
Advertise creatively and aggressively to encourage college enrollment. The
University of Phoenix, a private, for-profit institution, spent $278 million on
advertising, most of it online, in 2007. It was one of the principal sponsors of
Super Bowl XLII, which was held at University of Phoenix Stadium (not bad for an
institution that doesn’t even have a football team). The University of Phoenix’s
enrollment has clearly benefited from its advertising budget: with more than
350,000 students, its enrollment is surpassed by only a few state universities.
The University of Phoenix and other for profits have also established a crucial
niche recruiting and serving older students. Traditional colleges need to do far
better, using advertising to attract paying older students and to recruit the
more than 70 percent of the population who lack a post-secondary degree. They
have a built-in advantage, since attending a for-profit college instead of a
more prestigious, less expensive public college makes no more sense than buying
bottled water when the tap water tastes just as good.
Unseal college accreditation reports so that the Department of Education can
take over the business of ranking colleges and universities. Accreditation
reports — rigorous evaluations, prepared by representatives of peer institutions
— include everything students need to know when making decisions about schools,
yet the specifics of most reports remain secret.
Instead, students and their parents rely on U.S. News & World Report rankings
that are skewed by colleges, which contort their marketing efforts to maximize
the number of applicants whom they already know they will never accept, just to
improve their selectivity rankings. Meanwhile, private counselors charge
thousands of dollars claiming to know the “secret” of admissions. Aspiring
entrants submit far too many applications in the hope of beating the odds.
Everyone loses. Opening the accreditation reports to the public would provide a
The biggest improvement we can make in higher education is to produce more
qualified applicants. Half of the freshmen at community colleges and a third of
freshmen at four-year colleges matriculate with academic skills in at least one
subject too weak to allow them to do college work. Unsurprisingly, the average
college graduation rates even at four-year institutions are less than 60
The story at the graduate level is entirely predictable: in 2007, more than a
third of all research doctorates were awarded to foreigners, and the proportion
is far higher in the hard sciences. The problem goes well beyond the fact that
both our public schools and undergraduate institutions need to do a better job
preparing their students: too many parents are failing to insure that their
children are educated.
President Obama has again led the way: “As fathers and parents, we’ve got to
spend more time with them, and help them with their homework, and replace the
video game or the remote control with a book once in a while.” Better teachers,
smaller classes and more modern schools are all part of the solution. But
improving parenting skills and providing struggling parents with assistance are
part of the solution too.
At a time when it seems we have ever fewer globally competitive industries,
American higher education is a brand worth preserving.
Harold O. Levy, the New York City schools chancellor from 2000 to 2002, has
been a trustee of several colleges.
Five Ways to Fix
America’s Schools, NYT, 8.6.2009,
The M.B.A.’s Oath: I Promise to Be Good. Honest.
June 5, 2009
The New York Times
To the Editor:
Re “A Promise to Be
Ethical in an Era of Temptation” (Business Day, May 30):
As the holder of an M.B.A., I was thrilled to read that students and schools are
taking a greater interest in ethical business management.
I quote cases from my ethics course on a monthly if not weekly basis, and found
it one of the most interesting and beneficial parts of the program. It’s
wonderful to know that the next generation is not only becoming politically
active but socially active as well.
Saco, Me., May 31, 2009
To the Editor:
I compliment those Harvard Business School grads taking an oath to be honest and
truthful because, regrettably, a minority of our former alumni have recently
squandered their privileged and honest education to inflict incalculable damage
on the country and the world, especially in Washington and on Wall Street.
Fortunately, I believe that the vast majority of us have done honorable and
productive things with our advantages, and it’s encouraging to see at least some
new grads pledging to uphold that tradition. John G. Eresian
Hollis, N.H., May 31, 2009
The writer is a Harvard M.B.A., class of 1956.
To the Editor:
It is a testament to how far M.B.A. students have strayed from reality that they
feel the need to sign a public vow that boils down to, “I promise not to act
like a total jerk.”
Funny, I thought that should be the default! What other type of graduate program
must give its students a specific directive not to lie, cheat, steal or
otherwise act unethically? Erin Kim
Boston, May 31, 2009
The writer will be an M.B.A. student this fall.
The M.B.A.’s Oath: I
Promise to Be Good. Honest, NYT, 4.6.2009,
Next Test: Value of $125,000-a-Year Teachers
June 5, 2009
The New York Times
By ELISSA GOOTMAN
So what kind of teachers could a school get if it paid them $125,000 a year?
An accomplished violist who infuses her music lessons with the neuroscience of
why one needs to practice, and creatively worded instructions like, “Pass the
melody gently, as if it were a bowl of Jell-O!”
A self-described “explorer” from Arizona who spent three decades honing her
craft at public, private, urban and rural schools.
Two with Ivy League degrees. And Joe Carbone, a phys ed teacher, who has the
most unusual résumé of the bunch, having worked as Kobe Bryant’s personal
“Developed Kobe from 185 lbs. to 225 lbs. of pure muscle over eight years,” it
They are members of an eight-teacher dream team, lured to an innovative charter
school that will open in Washington Heights in September with salaries that
would make most teachers drop their chalk and swoon; $125,000 is nearly twice as
much as the average New York City public school teacher earns, and about two and
a half times as much as the national average for teacher salaries. They also
will be eligible for bonuses, based on schoolwide performance, of up to $25,000
in the second year.
The school, called the Equity Project, is premised on the theory that excellent
teachers — and not revolutionary technology, talented principals or small class
size — are the critical ingredient for success. Experts hope it could offer a
window into some of the most pressing and elusive questions in education: Is a
collection of superb teachers enough to make a great school? Are six-figure
salaries the way to get them? And just what makes a teacher great?
The school’s founder, Zeke M. Vanderhoek, 32, a Yale graduate who founded a test
prep company, has been grappling with just these issues. Over the past 15 months
he conducted a nationwide search that was almost the American Idol of education
— minus the popular vote, but complete with hometown visits (Mr. Vanderhoek
crisscrossed the country to observe the top 35 applicants in their natural
habitats) and misty-eyed fans (like the principal who got so emotional
recommending Casey Ash that, Mr. Vanderhoek recalled, she was “basically crying
on the phone with me, saying what a treasure he was.”)
Mr. Ash, 33, who teaches at an elementary school on the outskirts of Raleigh,
N.C., will take the social studies slot.
The Equity Project will open with 120 fifth graders chosen this spring in a
lottery that gave preference to children from the neighborhood and to low
academic performers; most students are from low-income Hispanic families. It
will grow to 480 children in Grades 5 to 8, with 28 teachers.
The school received 600 applications. Mr. Vanderhoek interviewed 100 in person.
Along the way, Mr. Vanderhoek, who taught at a middle school in Washington
Heights before founding Manhattan GMAT, learned a few lessons.
One was that a golden résumé and a well-run classroom are two different things.
“There are people who it’s like, wow, they look great on paper, but the kids
don’t respect them,” Mr. Vanderhoek said.
The eight winning candidates, he said, have some common traits, like a high
“engagement factor,” as measured by the portion of a given time frame during
which students seem so focused that they almost forget they are in class. They
were expert at redirecting potential troublemakers, a crucial skill for middle
school teachers. And they possessed a contagious enthusiasm — which Rhena Jasey,
30, Harvard Class of 2001, who has been teaching at a school in Maplewood, N.J.,
conveyed by introducing a math lesson with, “Oh, this is the fun part because I
looooooove math!” Says Mr. Vanderhoek: “You couldn’t help but get excited.”
Teachers said the rigorous selection process was more gratifying than grueling.
“It’s so refreshing that somebody comes to a teacher and says, ‘Show me what you
know,’ ” said Oscar Quintero, who goes by Pepe and will teach special education.
“This is the first time in 30 years of teaching that anybody has been really
interested in what I do.”
The school will use only public money for everything but its building. It is
close to signing a lease for private space on 181st Street, to be covered by a
combination of public school financing, a charter school grant and what Mr.
Vanderhoek described as a “small amount” of private donations (he ultimately
hopes to raise enough private money to build a permanent space).
To make ends meet, teachers will hold responsibilities usually shouldered by
other staff members, like assistant principals (there will be none). There will
be no deans, substitute teachers (except for extended leaves) or teacher
coaches. Teachers will work longer hours and more days, and have 30 pupils,
about 6 more than the typical New York City fifth-grade class.
The principal, Mr. Vanderhoek, will earn just $90,000. Teachers will not have
the same retirement benefits as members of the city’s teachers’ union. And they
can be fired at will.
That did not scare Mr. Quintero, who is in his 60s and is moving from Florida;
Heather Wardwell, 37, who is leaving East Greenwich High School, in Rhode
Island, after a decade, to teach Latin; or Judith LeFevre, 54, the Arizona
teacher who earned about $40,000 as recently as two years ago.
Ms. LeFevre, who will teach science, wrote via e-mail that the school was “an
experiment of sorts, in which I’m one of the subjects.” She added, “This could
be unsettling were it not for the excitement of working with a team of master
teachers, all of whom are motivated to help every student succeed, with no
excuses and no blame.”
Her other teammates: Damion Frye, 32, who teaches English at Montclair High
School in New Jersey, has a master’s degree from Brown University and is
pursuing his doctorate at Columbia’s Teachers College, and Gina M. Galassi, 40,
who teaches music at Kingston High School in Ulster County, N.Y.
Mr. Carbone, 44, spent four years as head strength and conditioning coach for
the Los Angeles Lakers. He left for a quieter life in Spring Valley, N.Y., last
year, after overhearing one of his three sons say, “I want to play basketball,
but my dad hasn’t taught me yet.”
Whatever the magic formula for a great school or teacher may be, Mr. Vanderhoek
has come to believe that there is an essential ingredient to the search for such
teachers: Time spent in that teacher’s classroom, watching students learn. Then
again, his team has yet to hit the court.
“I have tremendous confidence that the staff is going to be excellent,” he said.
“But we will see.”
Next Test: Value of
$125,000-a-Year Teachers, NYT, 5.6.2009,
Promise to Be Ethical in an Era of Immorality
May 30, 2009
The New York Times
By LESLIE WAYNE
When a new crop of future business leaders graduates from the Harvard
Business School next week, many of them will be taking a new oath that says, in
effect, greed is not good.
Nearly 20 percent of the graduating class have signed “The M.B.A. Oath,” a
voluntary student-led pledge that the goal of a business manager is to “serve
the greater good.” It promises that Harvard M.B.A.’s will act responsibly,
ethically and refrain from advancing their “own narrow ambitions” at the expense
What happened to making money?
That, of course, is still at the heart of the Harvard curriculum. But at Harvard
and other top business schools, there has been an explosion of interest in
ethics courses and in student activities — clubs, lectures, conferences — about
personal and corporate responsibility and on how to view business as more than a
money-making enterprise, but part of a large social community.
“We want to stand up and recite something out loud with our class,” said Teal
Carlock, who is graduating from Harvard and has accepted a job at Genentech.
“Fingers are now pointed at M.B.A.’s and we, as a class, have a real opportunity
to come together and set a standard as business leaders.”
At Columbia Business School, all students must pledge to an honor code: “As a
lifelong member of the Columbia Business School community, I adhere to the
principles of truth, integrity, and respect. I will not lie, cheat, steal, or
tolerate those who do.” The code has been in place for about three years and
came about after discussions between students and faculty.
In the post-Enron and post-Madoff era, the issue of ethics and corporate social
responsibility has taken on greater urgency among students about to graduate.
While this might easily be dismissed as a passing fancy — or simply a defensive
reaction to the current business environment — business school professors say
that is not the case. Rather, they say, they are seeing a generational shift
away from viewing an M.B.A. as simply an on-ramp to the road to riches.
Those graduating today, they say, are far more concerned about how corporations
affect the community, the lives of its workers and the environment. And business
schools are responding with more courses, new centers specializing in business
ethics and, in the case of Harvard, student-lead efforts to bring about a
professional code of conduct for M.B.A.’s, not unlike oaths that are taken by
lawyers and doctors.
“I don’t see this as something that will fade away,” said Diana C. Robertson, a
professor of business ethics at the Wharton School of the University of
Pennsylvania. “It’s coming from the students. I don’t know that we’ve seen such
a surge in this activism since the 1960s. This activism is different, but, like
that time, it is student-driven.”
A decade ago, Wharton had one or two professors who taught a required ethics
class. Today there are seven teaching an array of ethics classes that Ms.
Robertson said were among the most popular at the school. Since 1997, it has had
the Zicklin Center for Business Ethics Research. In addition, over the last five
years, students have formed clubs around the issues of ethics that sponsor
conferences, work on microfinance projects in Philadelphia or engage in social
“It’s been a dramatic change,” Ms. Robertson added. “This generation was raised
learning about the environment and raised with the idea of a social conscience.
That does not apply to every student. But this year’s financial crisis and the
downturn have brought about a greater emphasis on social ethics and
At Harvard, about 160 from a graduating class of about 800 have signed “The
M.B.A. Oath,” which its student advocates contend is the first step in trying to
develop a professional code not unlike the Hippocratic Oath for physicians or
the pledge taken by lawyers to uphold the law and Constitution.
Part of this has emerged by the beating that Wall Street and financiers have
taken in the current economic crisis, which can set the stage for reform,
Harvard students say.
“There is the feeling that we want our lives to mean something more and to run
organizations for the greater good,” said Max Anderson, one of the pledge’s
organizers who is about to leave Harvard and take a job at Bridgewater
Associates, a money management firm.
“No one wants to have their future criticized as a place filled with unethical
behaviors,” he added. “We want to learn from those mistakes, do things
differently and accept our duty to lead responsibly. Realistically, we have
tremendous potential to affect society for better or worse. Let’s humbly step
up. We are looking out for our own interest, but also for the interest of our
employees and the broader public.”
Bruce Kogut, director of the Sanford C. Bernstein & Company Center for
Leadership and Ethics at Columbia, said that this emphasis did not mean that
students were necessarily going to shun jobs that paid well. Rather, they will
think about how they earn their income, not just how much.
At Columbia, an ethics course is required, but students have also formed a
popular “Leadership and Ethics Board,” that sponsors lectures with topics like
“The Marie Antoinettes of Corporate America.”
“The courses make people aware that the financial crisis is not a technical
blip,” Mr. Kogut said. “We’re seeing a generational change that understands that
poverty is not just about Africa and India. They see inequities and the role of
business to address them.”
Dalia Rahman, who is about to leave Harvard for a job with Goldman Sachs in
London, said she signed the pledge because “it takes what we learned in class
and makes it more concrete. When you have to make a public vow, it’s a way to
commit to uphold principles.”
A Promise to Be Ethical
in an Era of Immorality, NYT, 30.5.2009,
Recession Imperils Loan Forgiveness Programs
May 27, 2009
The New York Times
By JONATHAN D. GLATER
When a Kentucky agency cut back its program to forgive student loans for
schoolteachers, Travis B. Gay knew he and his wife, Stephanie — both
special-education teachers — were in trouble.
“We’d gotten married in June and bought a house, pretty much planned our whole
life,” said Mr. Gay, 26. Together, they had about $100,000 in student loans that
they expected the program to help them repay over five years.
Then, he said, “we get a letter in the mail saying that our forgiveness this
year was next to nothing.”
Now they are weighing whether to sell their three-bedroom house in Lawrenceburg,
Ky., some 20 miles west of Lexington. Otherwise, Mr. Gay said, “it’s going to be
very difficult for us to do our student loan payments, house payments and just
From Kentucky to Iowa to California, loan forgiveness programs are on the
chopping block. Typically founded by their states to help students pay for
college, the state agencies and nonprofit organizations that make student loans
and sponsor these programs are getting less money from the federal government
and are having difficulty raising money elsewhere as a result of the financial
The organizations say the repayment programs have been hurt by a broader effort
by Congress to tackle the high cost of the federal student loan program by
reducing subsidies to lenders.
Curbing the programs will make it harder to lure college graduates into
high-value but often low-paying fields like teaching and nursing.
While few schools may be hiring now in this economic climate, there may be
shortages later, educators say.
“You’re going to diminish the quality of the candidates who are thinking, ‘Do I
take my skills in math and science into industry or do I take them into the
classroom?’ ” said Tracey L. Bailey, who had loans forgiven in Florida and now
is director of education policy for the Association of American Educators.
The Kentucky Higher Education Student Loan Corporation is at the extreme in
cutting payments to people in midstream who have already finished their
educations and are repaying loans, but organizations in many other states have
curtailed their new offers to prospective teachers, nurses and others.
The New Hampshire Higher Education Loan Corporation has suspended its program
for teachers, and the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Authority has
done so for nurses and people called to active duty in the military.
Iowa Student Loan has reduced the maximum amounts offered to people in two of
its three program categories, one for teachers and one for certain types of
nurses, in an effort to ensure the programs will last. ALL Student Loan, which
is based in Los Angeles, ended a program for nurses last year.
The changes leave students without a critical escape hatch from their federal
college and graduate school loans, and they throw up a roadblock for those who
dream of teaching but fear an oppressive combination of low wages and high debt.
“I remember sitting in the financial aid office and them saying, ‘Pay for every
penny of it, pay for your books through loans, because they’re going to be
forgiven,’ ” Mr. Gay said. And he dutifully did, using federal loans to cover
some of the costs of his undergraduate degree in communications and all the
costs of his master’s program in special education, which he finished in 2006.
If he had known the forgiveness program was vulnerable, Mr. Gay said, he would
have chosen a different career, perhaps public relations. “Which I am actually
contemplating doing right now,” he added.
Teachers in Kentucky are hoping to get financing restored for the program. But
it is not clear where the money could come from.
“We’d obviously love to see something like that happen,” said Ted Franzeim, vice
president for customer relations of the organization. He added that the group
had never told participants that financing for forgiveness was guaranteed — a
point that schoolteachers dispute.
About 7,500 teachers, nurses and public interest lawyers have benefited from the
state’s loan forgiveness program since 2003, at a cost of $77 million, Mr.
The federal government and some states continue to support their programs to
lure promising young graduates to less lucrative jobs. The federal Education
Department still offers up to $17,500 in loan forgiveness to math, science or
education teachers who have worked for at least five years at an elementary or
secondary school in a low-income area.
New Mexico, New Jersey and New York pay for their programs directly instead of
relying on nonprofit organizations, and they have not been cut by lawmakers. In
Oregon the Legislature is debating whether to suspend funding of a program for
Another problem for some of the nonprofit groups that rely on selling their
loans in a secondary market is that financing has dried up.
The Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority, for example, has stopped offering
to reduce interest rates for borrowers working in public service fields like
teaching and firefighting, said Will Shaffner, director of business development
and governmental relations. The only investor willing to buy its loans now is
the federal Education Department, which purchases loans with standard terms
There is no clear accounting of how many people were swayed by loan forgiveness
to pursue teaching, or how many might be deterred by the absence of such
programs. But the anecdotal evidence suggests the programs matter.
Mark Henderson said he weighed a job as an auditor at Humana, where he worked as
temporary help in 2005, against the chance to teach math, a subject he loved.
Kentucky’s loan forgiveness program persuaded him to try teaching.
“I thought, at least if I have somebody repay it, I can last five years and get
rid of this debt,” said Mr. Henderson, 26, a math teacher in Louisville. He
enrolled at Spalding University and graduated in 2006 with a master’s in
teaching; he is not yet in repayment on his loans because he is taking classes
to improve his earning potential.
He has ended up teaching at the very high school he attended, Mr. Henderson
said, and teaches geometry in the same classroom where he learned it.
“As it turned out, I really liked it,” he said, “and I’ll stick around for a
Recession Imperils Loan
Forgiveness Programs, NYT, 27.5.2009,
The Harlem Miracle
May 8, 2009
The New Yorrk Times
By DAVID BROOKS
The fight against poverty produces great programs but disappointing results.
You go visit an inner-city school, job-training program or community youth
center and you meet incredible people doing wonderful things. Then you look at
the results from the serious evaluations and you find that these inspiring
places are only producing incremental gains.
That’s why I was startled when I received an e-mail message from Roland Fryer, a
meticulous Harvard economist. It included this sentence: “The attached study has
changed my life as a scientist.”
Fryer and his colleague Will Dobbie have just finished a rigorous assessment of
the charter schools operated by the Harlem Children’s Zone. They compared
students in these schools to students in New York City as a whole and to
comparable students who entered the lottery to get into the Harlem Children’s
Zone schools, but weren’t selected.
They found that the Harlem Children’s Zone schools produced “enormous” gains.
The typical student entered the charter middle school, Promise Academy, in sixth
grade and scored in the 39th percentile among New York City students in math. By
the eighth grade, the typical student in the school was in the 74th percentile.
The typical student entered the school scoring in the 39th percentile in English
Language Arts (verbal ability). By eighth grade, the typical student was in the
Forgive some academic jargon, but the most common education reform ideas —
reducing class size, raising teacher pay, enrolling kids in Head Start — produce
gains of about 0.1 or 0.2 or 0.3 standard deviations. If you study policy, those
are the sorts of improvements you live with every day. Promise Academy produced
gains of 1.3 and 1.4 standard deviations. That’s off the charts. In math,
Promise Academy eliminated the achievement gap between its black students and
the city average for white students.
Let me repeat that. It eliminated the black-white achievement gap. “The results
changed my life as a researcher because I am no longer interested in marginal
changes,” Fryer wrote in a subsequent e-mail. What Geoffrey Canada, Harlem
Children’s Zone’s founder and president, has done is “the equivalent of curing
cancer for these kids. It’s amazing. It should be celebrated. But it almost
doesn’t matter if we stop there. We don’t have a way to replicate his cure, and
we need one since so many of our kids are dying — literally and figuratively.”
These results are powerful evidence in a long-running debate. Some experts,
mostly surrounding the education establishment, argue that schools alone can’t
produce big changes. The problems are in society, and you have to work on
broader issues like economic inequality. Reformers, on the other hand, have
argued that school-based approaches can produce big results. The Harlem
Children’s Zone results suggest the reformers are right. The Promise Academy
does provide health and psychological services, but it helps kids who aren’t
even involved in the other programs the organization offers.
To my mind, the results also vindicate an emerging model for low-income
students. Over the past decade, dozens of charter and independent schools, like
Promise Academy, have become no excuses schools. The basic theory is that
middle-class kids enter adolescence with certain working models in their heads:
what I can achieve; how to control impulses; how to work hard. Many kids from
poorer, disorganized homes don’t have these internalized models. The schools
create a disciplined, orderly and demanding counterculture to inculcate
To understand the culture in these schools, I’d recommend “Whatever It Takes,” a
gripping account of Harlem Children’s Zone by my Times colleague Paul Tough, and
“Sweating the Small Stuff,” a superb survey of these sorts of schools by David
Basically, the no excuses schools pay meticulous attention to behavior and
attitudes. They teach students how to look at the person who is talking, how to
shake hands. These schools are academically rigorous and college-focused.
Promise Academy students who are performing below grade level spent twice as
much time in school as other students in New York City. Students who are
performing at grade level spend 50 percent more time in school.
They also smash the normal bureaucratic strictures that bind leaders in regular
schools. Promise Academy went through a tumultuous period as Canada searched for
the right teachers. Nearly half of the teachers did not return for the 2005-2006
school year. A third didn’t return for the 2006-2007 year. Assessments are
rigorous. Standardized tests are woven into the fabric of school life.
The approach works. Ever since welfare reform, we have had success with
intrusive government programs that combine paternalistic leadership, sufficient
funding and a ferocious commitment to traditional, middle-class values. We may
have found a remedy for the achievement gap. Which city is going to take up the
challenge? Omaha? Chicago? Yours?
The Harlem Miracle, NYT,
The Goal: Improve America’s Schools
March 17, 2009
The New York Times
To the Editor:
Re “Ending the ‘Race to the Bottom’
” (editorial, March 12):
Although I share President Obama’s desire to improve America’s schools, I think
he is moving forward on bad advice. He’d do better to ask teachers and parents
how to make their schools more effective.
I would tell him that if the federal government wants to reward school success,
it should split those rewards among all those who have contributed: parents; the
whole school faculty, including the principal; and the students themselves. The
government might also reward the community that gave its schools financial and
I’d also tell him that if innovation is desirable, all schools should be allowed
to innovate, not just charter schools. Why not free public schools from the
straitjackets of state textbooks, externally written curriculums and
Finally, I’d tell him to lose the words “achievement” and “rigor,” which have no
connection to the inquisitiveness, determination, creative thinking and
perseverance students need for genuine lifelong learning.
Portland, Ore., March 12, 2009
The writer is a former teacher, principal and superintendent.
To the Editor:
President Obama’s financing of initiatives for performance pay for teachers will
accelerate the race to the bottom. Studies show that performance pay in other
areas has damaging effects.
Doctors receiving performance pay stopped treating the riskiest and sickest
patients. Performance pay in sports has been accompanied by athletes’ use of
banned drugs. And performance pay in the finance industry has transformed us
into the Enron nation.
In education, research on performance pay shows no substantive gains in student
achievement, and all Mr. Obama’s policy will do is reinforce the ill-conceived
notion that low-level standardized tests are a valid measure of student
achievement. Instead, pay teachers a salary that signals teaching as a
New York, March 12, 2009
The writer is co-director of the National Center for Restructuring Education,
Schools and Teaching.
To the Editor:
President Obama wants more charter schools. This is devastating for small school
districts, for whom charters are an unfunded mandate. The public schools in
Albany, with 9,000 students, have been hit hard by nine charter schools.
The Albany public schools have paid more than $100 million to charters, a
gigantic loss for a small district. The result is a lack of resources for the
majority of Albany’s kids who still attend the public schools. We don’t need
more charters in Albany; we need a moratorium.
Mark S. Mishler
Albany, March 12, 2009
The writer is co-president of the Albany City P.T.A.
To the Editor:
After reading your editorial “Ending the ‘Race to the Bottom,’ ” and hearing
President Obama’s proposals for fixing America’s public schools, I have a
suggestion, a question and a challenge for our decision makers.
My suggestion is that our leaders, both economic and political, consider sending
their children to public schools.
My question is why we accept a two-tiered educational system: rich kids over
there (private), poor kids over here (public). If memory serves, we have already
decided that separate but equal does not work.
My challenge for President Obama, and all those in the halls of power, is to
invest time and energy in those public schools down the street. If you cannot
send your children, send yourselves. Do not dictate from above, but lead from
Portland, Me., March 13, 2009
The writer is an eighth-grade social studies teacher.
To the Editor:
Re “ ‘No Picnic for Me Either,’ ” by David Brooks (column, March 13):
Mr. Brooks is exactly right: great teachers build strong relationships with
students on whom they impose high standards.
Mr. Brooks is also correct in saying that we need to know who these teachers
are, and which schools develop high achievement in their students and which do
not. Yes, we need data. We need to know, not to guess or hope.
However, Mr. Brooks’s faith in the standardized tests by which we gather data
strikes me as naïve. I taught English for years and have been an educator since
1957 and have yet to discover a better method of assessing my students’ progress
in learning how to write than reading their compositions closely, with a red
pencil, usually at least twice. If I could have substituted a standardized test
for that process, I could have gone to bed a lot earlier each night.
Could it be that our faith in standardized testing is based on the fact that it
costs much less than assessing real work?
One reading of Mr. Brooks’s column tells me more about his excellence as a
writer than a thousand standardized tests.
Oakland, Calif., March 13, 2009
The Goal: Improve
America’s Schools, NYT, 17.3.2009,
Ending the ‘Race to
March 12, 2009
The New York Times
There was an impressive breadth of knowledge and a welcome dose of candor in
President Obama’s first big speech on education, in which he served up an
informed analysis of the educational system from top to bottom. What really
mattered was that Mr. Obama did not wring his hands or speak in abstract about
states that have failed to raise their educational standards. Instead, he made
it clear that he was not afraid to embarrass the laggards — by naming them — and
that he would use a $100 billion education stimulus fund to create the changes
the country so desperately needs.
Mr. Obama signaled that he would take the case for reform directly to the
voters, instead of limiting the discussion to mandarins, lobbyists and
specialists huddled in Washington. Unlike his predecessor, who promised to leave
no child behind but did not deliver, this president is clearly ready to use his
political clout on education.
Mr. Obama spoke in terms that everyone could understand when he noted that only
a third of 13- and 14-year-olds read as well as they should and that this
country’s curriculum for eighth graders is two full years behind other
top-performing nations. Part of the problem, he said, is that this nation’s
schools have recently been engaged in “a race to the bottom” — most states have
adopted abysmally low standards and weak tests so that students who are
performing poorly in objective terms can look like high achievers come test
The nation has a patchwork of standards that vary widely from state to state and
a system under which he said “fourth-grade readers in Mississippi are scoring
nearly 70 points lower than students in Wyoming — and they’re getting the same
grade.” In addition, Mr. Obama said, several states have standards so low that
students could end up on par with the bottom 40 percent of students around the
This is a recipe for economic disaster. Mr. Obama and Arne Duncan, the education
secretary, have rightly made clear that states that draw money from the stimulus
fund will have to create sorely needed data collection systems that show how
students are performing over time. They will also need to raise standards and
replace weak, fill-in-the-bubble tests with sophisticated examinations that
better measure problem-solving and critical thinking.
Mr. Obama understands that standards and tests alone won’t solve this problem.
He also called for incentive pay for teachers who work in shortage areas like
math and science and merit pay for teachers who are shown to produce the largest
achievement gains over time. At the same time, the president called for removing
underperforming teachers from the classroom.
In an effort to broaden innovation, the president called for lifting state and
city caps on charter schools. This could be a good thing, but only if the new
charter schools are run by groups with a proven record of excellence. Once
charter schools have opened, it becomes politically difficult to close them,
even in cases where they are bad or worse than their traditional counterparts.
The stimulus package can jump-start the reforms that Mr. Obama laid out in his
speech. But Congress will need to broaden and sustain those reforms in the
upcoming reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act. Only Congress can
fully replace the race to the bottom with a race to the top.
Ending the ‘Race to the
Bottom’, NYT, 12.3.2009,
Obama Outlines Plan for Education Overhaul
March 11, 2009
The New York Times
By DAVID STOUT
WASHINGTON — President Obama called for sweeping changes in
American education on Tuesday, urging states to lift limits on charter schools
and improve the quality of early childhood education while also signaling that
he intends to make good on his campaign promise of linking teacher pay to
Having secured tens of billions of dollars in additional financing for education
in the economic stimulus package and made clear his intent to seek more in his
budget, Mr. Obama used a speech here to flesh out how he would use federal money
and programs to influence policy at the state and local level.
His proposals reflected his party’s belief that education at all levels was
underfinanced in the Bush years and that reform should encompass more than
demands that schools show improved test scores. But they also showed a
willingness to challenge teachers’ unions and public school systems, and to
continue to demand more accountability.
The president said it was time to erase limits on the number of charter schools,
which his administration calls “laboratories of innovation,” while closing those
that are not working. He said 26 states and the District of Columbia now had
caps. Teachers’ unions have opposed charter schools in some places, saying they
take away financing for public schools, while supporting them in others.
Putting limits on charter schools, even in places where they are performing
well, “isn’t good for our children, our economy or our country,” Mr. Obama said.
In his recent budget message, he said that he hoped to double financing for
charter schools eventually, another campaign promise, and that the Department of
Education would help create “new, high-quality charter schools” while supporting
the closing of those guilty of “chronic underperformance.”
He called on states to impose tougher curriculum standards, and in an echo of
language often used by President George W. Bush, he chided states that he said
were “low-balling expectations for our kids.”
Saying he would “cultivate a new culture of accountability in America’s
schools,” Mr. Obama said states and school districts should weed out bad
But he also pledged to pursue programs that would provide more incentives and
support for teachers and indicated he would back a program in up to 150 school
districts that would reward teachers “with more money for improved student
The teacher-pay provision and his support for more charter schools could
complicate Mr. Obama’s ability to win support for his plan in Congress and in
state legislatures, where teacher unions hold considerable sway with Democrats.
Mr. Obama acknowledged the partisan divisions about how to proceed, even as he
appealed to all sides to compromise.
“For decades, Washington has been trapped in the same stale debates that have
paralyzed progress and perpetuated our educational decline,” Mr. Obama said, in
a speech here to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “Too many supporters of my
party have resisted the idea of rewarding excellence in teaching with extra pay,
even though we know it can make a difference in the classroom. Too many in the
Republican Party have opposed new investments in early childhood education,
despite compelling evidence of its importance.”
Union leaders reacted cautiously to the speech. Dennis Van Roekel, president of
the National Education Association, said his union’s 3.2 million members
“welcome the vision” laid out by the president.
Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.4-million-member American Federation of
Teachers, said her union embraced “the goals and aspirations” outlined by Mr.
Obama. “As with any public policy,” Ms. Weingarten said, “the devil is in the
details, and it is important that teachers’ voices are heard as we implement the
While unions generally dislike linking pay to specific measures of performance
like rising test scores, there have been some successful experiments around the
country with plans that take account of performance, especially in districts
where unions are deeply involved.
The address on Tuesday was the first step in laying out the president’s agenda
to improve schools, officials said, with more specifics to be outlined to
Mr. Obama noted that the recently enacted stimulus package called for spending
some $5 billion on the Early Head Start and Head Start programs — an investment
that he said would be rewarded by lower welfare rolls, fewer health care costs
and less crime, as well as better classroom performance. He said he would ask
Congress to finance a program that would provide grants to states that improve
their early childhood programs.
His speech elated advocates of charter schools. “With 365,000 students on
charter waiting lists, there is no excuse for state laws that stifle the growth
of these schools,” Nelson Smith, the president and chief executive of the
National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said in a statement.
Jeff Zeleny contributed reporting.
Obama Outlines Plan
for Education Overhaul, NYT, 11.3.2009,
Keys to a Better Education for Our Kids
February 19, 2009
The New York Times
To the Editor:
Re “Our Greatest National Shame,” by
Nicholas D. Kristof (column, Feb. 15):
The lack of universal access to quality public education and the lack of
universal access to quality health care are not in competition for our greatest
shame. Together, they are like a hand in a glove; without either one, the
promise of America — freedom, liberty and equal opportunity — is unachievable
for too many citizens.
Human rights for all people everywhere include both education and health care.
They should not be in competition. Debating which is the greater shame is like
asking which we need more, oxygen or water, when obviously both are essential to
Houston, Feb. 15, 2009
The writer is a medical doctor.
To the Editor:
Nicholas D. Kristof rightly identifies better teaching as a solution to our
otherwise intractable school failures. But his strategies — scrapping
certification, better testing and improved compensation — cannot hope to produce
master teachers without a more thoughtful teacher induction system.
Principals, our front-line instructional leaders, need time to nurture — or fire
— beginning teachers. By increasing the period before tenure by even just a year
or two, new recruits could serve crucial full-year internships before taking
over their own classrooms (the current sink-or-swim method abuses teaches and
students alike), followed by sufficient time for principals’ coaching and
assessment of budding teachers’ instructional proficiency and agility.
David C. Bloomfield
Brooklyn, Feb. 16, 2009
The writer is head of the master’s program in educational leadership at Brooklyn
To the Editor:
Nicholas D. Kristof recommends “scrapping” teacher certification, but the
evidence he cites of its ineffectiveness does not suggest that teachers can do
without careful preparation.
Mr. Kristof cites the Perry Preschool program as an example of programs that
“have done remarkably well in overcoming the pathologies of poverty.” The
teachers who made the Perry program so successful had bachelor’s or master’s
degrees, and most were in fact master teachers.
They had the tools and were well grounded in the basic skills that are necessary
for good results: a knowledge of child development, an understanding of the ways
in which young children learn and an ability to foster the child-initiated
activities that give the young learners the sense that their ideas and the
awareness they bring to learning is a part of the curriculum.
Teachers who can accomplish all this just don’t happen. If a certification
program is faulty — and too many of them are — they should be fixed.
Our greatest need? To do a better job of teaching our teachers.
Fort Lee, N.J., Feb. 17, 2009
The writer, a retired early childhood educator, has been a classroom teacher, a
school principal and a college professor.
To the Editor:
When will America realize that judging students and teachers by test scores
Having studied this issue for years, I know that what matters most for success
in life is not on the tests. Much of what parents and employers want most for
kids is not on the tests, yet it is what is shoved aside to focus on test
Even in traditional school subjects, much important higher-level content is
ignored because it cannot be tested with standardized tests. Not surprisingly,
the people and countries with lower test scores often do better on all sorts of
Those in Washington and in our state capitals do not know which teachers or
schools are effective for what really matters. This is true especially with poor
children, whose test scores often result from teaching methods that seriously
erode their learning and motivation.
Karl F. Wheatley
Cleveland, Feb. 17, 2009
The writer is an associate professor of early childhood education at Cleveland
To the Editor:
The larger the number of loving and intelligent adults who are put in a child’s
path, the better that child’s chances. But loving and intelligent adults,
particularly ones who both care passionately about a subject and have a gift for
discussing it with novices, do not grow on trees. That is why the pay scale for
teaching is such a problem.
This country is full of people — I went to college with a number of them — who
would be wonderful social studies teachers, but instead are unhappy lawyers; who
would be superb math teachers, but instead are bored accountants; who would be
terrific English teachers, but instead hate their advertising jobs.
Why did they go into those other professions? Because of money.
American K-12 education now basically pays enough to attract the bottom third of
college graduates. Because teaching can be so satisfying, you still do get some
bargains — I pass some in the halls of my high school every day — but you can’t
run an enormous national enterprise on the basis of bargains.
If you genuinely want to improve education, I have three words for you: pay for
David S. Frankel
South Dennis, Mass., Feb. 15, 2009
The writer teaches high school English.
To the Editor:
I agree that education must be our priority, and that we must support our
teachers in every possible way. But as a parent whose children attend schools in
an inner-city school district that straddles the line between the haves and
have-nots, I’d add that parental involvement matters a great deal.
Our school district benefits greatly because there are just enough middle-class
families here who devote a lot of time to their own children’s education and the
education of their children’s schoolmates. To their credit, even though the
school board is dominated by the relatively affluent families on the north side
of the district, the south-side schools have the most modern facilities.
America needs to take a long, hard look at itself and ask where the middle-class
support for and involvement with all our schools has gone. Too many of us have
shortchanged our brothers and sisters by attending only to our own children’s
education and neglecting the education of others.
James F. McManus
Phoenix, Feb. 16, 2009
Keys to a Better
Education for Our Kids, NYT, 19.2.2009,
Our Greatest National
February 15, 2009
The New York Times
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
So maybe I was wrong. I used to consider health care our greatest national
shame, considering that we spend twice as much on medical care as many European
nations, yet American children are twice as likely to die before the age of 5 as
Czech children — and American women are 11 times as likely to die in childbirth
as Irish women.
Yet I’m coming to think that our No. 1 priority actually must be education. That
makes the new fiscal stimulus package a landmark, for it takes a few wobbly
steps toward reform and allocates more than $100 billion toward education.
That’s a hefty sum — by comparison, the Education Department’s entire
discretionary budget for the year was $59 billion — and it will save America’s
schools from the catastrophe that they were facing. A University of Washington
study had calculated that the recession would lead to cuts of 574,000 school
jobs without a stimulus.
“We dodged a bullet the size of a freight train,” notes Amy Wilkins of the
Education Trust, an advocacy group in Washington.
So for those who oppose education spending in the stimulus, a question: Do you
really believe that slashing half a million teaching jobs would be fine for the
economy, for our children and for our future?
Education Secretary Arne Duncan describes the stimulus as a “staggering
opportunity,” the kind that comes once in a lifetime. He argues: “We have to
educate our way to a better economy, that’s the only way long term to get
That’s exactly right, and it’s partly why I shifted my views of the relative
importance of education and health. One of last year’s smartest books was “The
Race Between Education and Technology,” by Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz,
both Harvard professors. They offer a wealth of evidence to argue that America
became the world’s leading nation largely because of its emphasis on mass
education at a time when other countries educated only elites (often, only male
They show that America’s educational edge created prosperity and equality alike
— but that this edge was eclipsed in about the 1970s, and since then one country
after another has surpassed us in education.
Perhaps we should have fought the “war on poverty” with schools — or, as we’ll
see in a moment, with teachers.
Some education programs have done remarkably well in overcoming the pathologies
of poverty. Children who went through the Perry Preschool program in Michigan,
for example, were 25 percent less likely to drop out of high school years later
than their peers in a control group, and committed half as many violent
felonies. They were one-third less likely to become teenage parents or addicts,
and half as likely to get abortions.
Likewise, the KIPP program, the subject of a fine book by Jay Mathews, has
attracted rave reviews for schools that turn low-income students’ lives around.
There are legitimate questions about whether such programs are scalable and
would succeed if introduced more broadly. But we do know that the existing
national school system is broken, and that we’re not trying hard enough to fix
“We have a good sense from the data where there are big opportunities,” notes
Douglas Staiger, an economist at Dartmouth College who studies education.
The hardest nut to crack is high schools — we don’t have a strong sense yet how
to rescue them. But there’s a real excitement at what we are learning about K-8
First, good teachers matter more than anything; they are astonishingly
important. It turns out that having a great teacher is far more important than
being in a small class, or going to a good school with a mediocre teacher. A Los
Angeles study suggested that four consecutive years of having a teacher from the
top 25 percent of the pool would erase the black-white testing gap.
Second, our methods to screen potential teachers, or determine which ones are
good, don’t work. The latest Department of Education study, published this
month, showed again that there is no correlation between teacher certification
and teacher effectiveness. Particularly in lower grades, it also doesn’t seem to
matter if a teacher has a graduate degree or went to a better college or had
The implication is that throwing money at a broken system won’t fix it, but that
resources are necessary as part of a package that involves scrapping
certification, measuring better through testing which teachers are effective,
and then paying them significantly more — with special bonuses to those who
teach in “bad” schools.
One of the greatest injustices is that America’s best teachers overwhelmingly
teach America’s most privileged students. In contrast, the most disadvantaged
students invariably get the least effective teachers, year after year — until
they drop out.
This stimulus package offers a new hope that we may begin to reform our greatest
national shame, education.
I invite you to comment on this column on my blog, On the Ground
. Please also join me on Facebook
http://www.facebook.com/kristof , watch my YouTube videos
http://www.youtube.com/nicholaskristof and follow me on Twitter
Our Greatest National
Shame, NYT, 15.2.2009,
Stimulus Plan Would Provide Flood of Aid to Education
January 28, 2009
The New York Times
By SAM DILLON
WASHINGTON — The economic stimulus plan that Congress has scheduled for a
vote on Wednesday would shower the nation’s school districts, child care centers
and university campuses with $150 billion in new federal spending, a vast
two-year investment that would more than double the Department of Education’s
The proposed emergency expenditures on nearly every realm of education,
including school renovation, special education, Head Start and grants to needy
college students, would amount to the largest increase in federal aid since
Washington began to spend significantly on education after World War II.
Critics and supporters alike said that by its sheer scope, the measure could
profoundly change the federal government’s role in education, which has
traditionally been the responsibility of state and local government.
Responding in part to a plea from Democratic governors earlier this month,
Congress allocated $79 billion to help states facing large fiscal shortfalls
maintain government services, and especially to avoid cuts to education
programs, from pre-kindergarten through higher education.
Obama administration officials, teachers unions and associations representing
school boards, colleges and other institutions in American education said the
aid would bring crucial financial relief to the nation’s 15,000 school districts
and to thousands of campuses otherwise threatened with severe cutbacks.
“This is going to avert literally hundreds of thousands of teacher layoffs,”
Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Tuesday.
Representative George Miller, Democrat of California and chairman of the House
education committee, said, “We cannot let education collapse; we have to provide
this level of support to schools.”
But Republicans strongly criticized some of the proposals as wasteful spending
and an ill-considered expansion of the federal government’s role, traditionally
centered on aid to needy students, into new realms like local school
And they were joined by some education experts from across the political
spectrum in wondering how school districts could spend so many new billions so
fast, whether such an outpouring of dollars would lead to higher student
achievement, and what might happen in two years when the stimulus money ends.
Analysts were also turning up surprises in the fine print.
One provision, which was sought by the student lending industry and went
unmentioned in early Congressional summaries of the stimulus package, would
temporarily increase subsidies to banks in the guaranteed student loan program
by tying them to a new index, partly because recent federal intervention in the
credit markets has invalidated the previous index. A spokesman for Sallie Mae,
one of the largest student lenders, said the change was needed to keep student
loan markets fluid. Critics said it represented a potential new windfall for
“This just continues the well-established tradition of welfare for the student
loan industry,” said Barmak Nassirian, an expert in student lending.
The formulas by which the stimulus money for public schools would be allocated
to states and local districts are complex, but take into consideration numbers
of school-age children in poor families. The level received per student would
vary considerably by state, according to an analysis by the New America
Foundation, a research group that monitors education spending. New York would be
among the biggest beneficiaries, at $760 per student, while New Jersey and
Connecticut would fall near the bottom, with $427 and $409 per student,
respectively. The District of Columbia would get the most per student, $1,289,
according to the foundation’s analysis.
The foundation contends, however, that the formula does not effectively allocate
the most money to states with the greatest need.
In recent years the federal government has contributed 9 percent of the nation’s
total spending on public schools, with states and local districts financing the
rest. Washington has contributed 19 percent of spending on higher education. The
stimulus package would raise those federal proportions significantly.
The Department of Education’s discretionary budget for the 2008 fiscal year was
about $60 billion. The stimulus bill would raise that to about $135 billion this
year, and to about $146 billion in 2010. Other federal agencies would administer
about $20 billion in additional education-related spending.
“This really marks a new era in federal education spending,” said Edward Kealy,
executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a coalition of 90
The bill would increase 2009 fiscal year spending on Title I, a program of
specialized classroom efforts to help educate poor children, to $20 billion from
about $14.5 billion, and raise spending on education for disabled children to
$17 billion from $11 billion.
Those increases respond to longtime demands by teachers unions, school boards
and others that Washington fully finance the mandates laid out for states and
districts in the Bush-era No Child Left Behind law, and in the main federal law
regulating special education.
“We’ve been arguing that the federal government hasn’t been living up to its
commitments, but these increases go a substantial way toward meeting them,” said
Joel Packer, a lobbyist for the National Education Association, the nation’s
largest teachers union.
Frederick Hess, an education policy analyst at the American Enterprise
Institute, criticized the bill as failing to include mechanisms to encourage
districts to bring school budgets in line with property tax revenues, which have
plunged with the bursting of the real estate bubble.
“It’s like an alcoholic at the end of the night when the bars close, and the
solution is to open the bar for another hour,” Mr. Hess said.
The bill would, for the first time, involve the federal government in a
significant fashion in the building and renovation of schools, which has been
the responsibility of states and districts. It includes $20 billion for school
renovation and modernization, with $14 billion for elementary and secondary
schools and $6 billion for higher education. It also includes tax provisions
under which the federal government would pay the interest on construction bonds
issued by school districts.
Mr. Duncan said the bill’s school renovation provisions would create a “huge
number of construction jobs,” because so many school buildings need repairs.
But Representative Howard P. McKeon, Republican of California and the ranking
minority member of the House education committee, said, “By putting the federal
government in the business of building schools, Democrats may be irrevocably
changing the federal government’s role in education in this country.”
In higher education, the bill would increase spending on Pell Grants, the most
important federal student aid program, to $27 billion from about $19 billion
“It’s a very good idea to increase Pell Grants in the stimulus,” said Terry
Hartle, a senior vice president for public affairs at the American Council on
Education, which represents colleges and universities.
But Mr. Hartle said that even he was having difficulty tracking all the new
“A lot of things will go through, and only later will we know exactly what
happened,” he said.
Stimulus Plan Would
Provide Flood of Aid to Education, NYT, 28.1.2009,
For Catholic Schools, Crisis and Catharsis
January 18, 2009
The New York Times
By PAUL VITELLO and WINNIE HU
It is a familiar drill in nearly all of the nation’s Roman Catholic school
systems: a new alarm every few years over falling enrollment; church leaders
huddling over what to do; parents rallying to save their schools. And then the
When the Diocese of Brooklyn last week proposed closing 14 more elementary
schools, it was not the deepest but only the latest of a thousand cuts suffered,
one tearful closing announcement at a time, as enrollment in the nation’s
Catholic schools has steadily dropped by more than half from its peak of five
million 40 years ago.
But recently, after years of what frustrated parents describe as inertia in the
church hierarchy, a sense of urgency seems to be gripping many Catholics who
suddenly see in the shrinking enrollment a once unimaginable prospect: a country
without Catholic schools.
From the ranks of national church leaders to the faithful in the pews, there are
dozens of local efforts to forge a new future for parochial education by
rescuing the remaining schools or, if need be, reinventing them. The efforts are
all being driven, in one way or another, by a question in a University of Notre
Dame task force report in 2006: “Will it be said of our generation that we
presided over the demise” of Catholic schools?
The Archdiocese of Chicago and dioceses in Memphis and Wichita, Kan., have begun
or expanded radical experiments in recruiting new students and financing their
educations. Administrators in a dozen dioceses, including Brooklyn’s, are
rethinking the century-old norms of parish-run schools, where overworked priests
have until recently been the single-handed bosses. These dioceses are now
recruiting parents and alumni to play a bigger decision-making role.
A series of major studies in the past few years, including one by the White
House Domestic Policy Council, have described the dwindling presence of
parochial schools as a crisis not just for Catholics but for society.
The losses have already been deeply felt in impoverished urban neighborhoods,
where parochial schools have attracted poor and minority students — including
non-Catholics — seeking havens of safety and order from troubled public schools.
Roughly 20 percent of parochial school students are not Catholic, according to
The Archdiocese of Washington was so desperate to save seven struggling
parochial schools last year that it opted for a solution that shook Catholic
educators to the core. It took down the crucifixes, hauled away the statues of
the Virgin Mary, and — in its own word — “converted” the schools in the nation’s
capital into city charter schools.
The Washington choice seemed to limn in its most extreme form the predicament
facing Catholic education: How to maintain a Catholic school tradition of
no-frills educational rigor, religious teaching and character-building — a
system that has helped shape generations of America’s striving classes since the
turn of the last century — when Catholics are no longer signing up their
“It was taken for granted for a long time that Catholic schools would always be
there,” said Dr. Karen M. Ristau, president of the National Catholic Educational
Association, a lobbying group. “People are beginning to realize that this is a
The Rev. Timothy R. Scully, who led the Notre Dame task force study widely
credited with igniting the current self-examination, was more blunt.
“There is a window open, and we may have a chance to reverse the trend of
decline,” he said. “But I’m not sure how long it will remain open.”
Why this matters deeply to committed Catholics has been articulated repeatedly
by parents, students and alumni of the nation’s roughly 2,000 parochial schools
shuttered since 1990, a majority in just the last eight years.
Parents in Brooklyn last week, echoing those before them, said it was about
bonds of faith, place and time.
“My grandmother and grandfather, my aunts and uncles, both my parents, my wife
and I and now our kids have gone to Holy Name,” said Martin J. Cottingham, 38, a
member of the class of 1984 of Holy Name of Jesus elementary school in Brooklyn,
which would merge with a neighboring school under the Brooklyn Diocese’s
reorganization plan. “The world can change, but if you got your school, your
church, your sports all within a couple of blocks, you’re safe.”
At its peak in 1965, the church’s network of parochial schools numbered more
than 12,000 in the United States. The bulk of those were built starting at the
turn of the century, when Catholic bishops commanded every parish to build one,
largely from concern that waves of Catholic immigrants then arriving from
Ireland and Italy would be lost in a public school system that was openly
hostile to their beliefs.
The goal set by the bishops in 1884 — “every Catholic child in a Catholic
school” — was never quite met. But by 1965, roughly half of all Catholic
children in America attended Catholic elementary schools, according to the
National Catholic Educational Association.
The number today is about 15 percent. Among Latinos, the fastest-growing church
group — soon to comprise a majority of Catholics in the United States — it is
only 3 percent.
The church has blamed a stew of confluent trends, including the shortage of nuns
and priests who once ran the schools at no extra cost and have been replaced by
lay staff with pension benefits; the post-Vatican II relaxation of religious
obligations, which once included sending one’s children to the parish school;
and the demographic shifts by which relatively well-paid working-class
parishioners of a generation ago were replaced in the pews by Latinos and other
immigrants who are part of the working poor.
Disappointed parents, as well as education professionals, cite rising tuition as
another factor. But they also say the church hierarchy has been slow to react to
societal change and unwilling to admit to problems, and is not especially well
trained to run businesses — schools — in environments like New York, where
charter schools and a generally improving public school system offer parents,
Catholic or otherwise, options they have not always had.
“There is not a single seminary in the United States offering courses in
finance, marketing, business management or long-term planning,” said Richard J.
Burke, president of Catholic School Management, a consultancy firm in
Connecticut that has provided those services to hundreds of parochial schools —
most still open, he said — over the past 35 years. “Parish schools today simply
cannot be operated by individual pastors.”
Recently, many Catholic leaders have come to agree.
In Brooklyn, the centerpiece of the five-year plan unveiled last week by Bishop
Nicholas A. DiMarzio is a two-tiered school management structure, with parish
priests left in charge of religious matters. A board of laypeople, selected by
priests and diocesan officials, would handle just about everything else:
marketing, recruitment, managing the finances, even hiring principals.
While reserving the parish priest’s right to veto his board’s decisions, the
plan clearly sets a premium on collaboration and on what Bishop DiMarzio called
a “communion” of schools and dedicated people. That communion would cut across
parish lines, as well as the line of authority that once separated clergy and
“This is a paradigm shift, a whole new way of thinking about our schools,” said
Auxiliary Bishop Frank J. Caggiano of the Brooklyn Diocese, who spearheaded the
six-month assessment behind the new plan.
In the Archdiocese of New York, which lost 5,000 parochial school pupils last
year alone, plans are under way to adopt a similar approach, tapping into the
administrative and business talents of parents, alumni and wealthy donors.
“Supporting Catholic schools is the obligation of the entire Catholic
community,” said Timothy J. McNiff, the archdiocesan schools superintendent,
adding that no decision had been made about further school closings. The diocese
has closed 15 since the 2006-7 school year.
In Wichita and Memphis, where two of the earliest experiments in reinventing
traditional parochial schools were started, Catholic educators see cause for
optimism. The Wichita Diocese has mounted a campaign since 1985, asking its
120,000 Catholics to tithe as much as 8 percent of household income to its
ministries, which include 39 schools.
The money was not earmarked solely for the schools, but it has allowed all of
them to eliminate tuition starting in 2002, with enrollment approaching a
40-year high of 11,000.
In Memphis, with a small Catholic population, the diocese turned to private
donors and philanthropic foundations to help support its 30 schools,
particularly eight urban schools where only 10 percent of the pupils are
Catholic. The diocese has since reopened those eight schools, which had closed
because of budget problems, and added 1,500 students systemwide.
In the last few years, research papers published at Catholic universities like
Notre Dame and Fordham and Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles have explored
alternatives like dedicating church resources to educating only the poor, only
the affluent or only children with disabilities.
What most proposals have in common is broadening the base of financial support.
Some call for including all Catholics in the diocese; others focus on wealthy
philanthropists; some use marketing campaigns aimed at filling empty seats with
children, Catholic or not.
“The strength of parochial schools has always been the parish community,” Bishop
Caggiano said. “But with the mobility of individuals today, that strength can
also be a weakness, keeping people from looking beyond to the larger community.”
But it is that small community of family and friends that Catholics cite as the
heart of the parochial school experience: looking around in church on Sunday and
seeing one’s classmates, or knowing the names of the solemn young altar servers
at the funeral Mass of one’s parent. It is the parochial in the parochial
Debbie DaGiau, mother of a seventh grader at Blessed Sacrament School in Queens,
which is marked for closing this year, said that for the sake of that
experience, some parents work two jobs to pay the $3,600 tuition.
“I send Matthew to this particular Catholic school because the school and church
and parish are together,” she said. Since the announcement of the school’s
proposed closing, Ms. DaGiau said, parents have mobilized to fight, raising
funds and marshaling alumni.
“We’ll do whatever it takes,” she said.
For Catholic Schools,
Crisis and Catharsis, NYT, 18.1.2009,