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History > 2009 > USA > Education (II)




Ronald J. Cala II


A New Initiative on Education


















New Meaning

for Night Class at 2-Year Colleges


October 28, 2009
The New York Times


BOSTON — Winston Chin hustles on Tuesdays from his eight-hour shift as a lab technician to his writing class at Bunker Hill Community College, a requirement for the associate’s degree he is seeking in hopes of a better job.

He is a typical part-time student, with one exception. His class runs from 11:45 p.m. to 2:30 a.m., the consequence of an unprecedented enrollment spike that has Bunker Hill scrambling to accommodate hundreds of newcomers. In the dead of night, he and his classmates dissect Walt Whitman poems and learn the finer points of essay writing, fueled by unlimited coffee, cookies and an instructor who does push-ups beforehand to stay lively.

Similar booms have forced many of the nation’s 1,200 community colleges to add makeshift parking lots, rent extra space and keep thousands of students on waiting lists this fall. While Bunker Hill offers two midnight classes — the other is Psychology 101 — and Clackamas Community College in Oregon holds welding classes until 2 a.m., others have added classes as early as 6 a.m. to make room for the jobless and others whom the recession has nudged back to school.

The deluge also includes an unusually large number of recent high school graduates, diverted from more expensive four-year colleges by the economic downturn.

“I liken myself to the old woman who lives in a shoe,” said Mary L. Fifield, the president of Bunker Hill, where enrollment is up 16 percent over last fall. “The seams are tearing, and people are just popping out all over.”

Virtually every state is dealing with enrollment booms at community colleges, the American Association of Community Colleges says, with some in California reporting increases of 35 percent. The demand comes amid deep cuts to higher-education budgets, but also at a hopeful time for community colleges: President Obama recently announced a $12 billion plan to increase the number of community college graduates by five million by 2020.

“It shines a spotlight on a sector of higher education that by and large has been viewed as the lowest rung on the ladder,” Dr. Fifield said. “Now we have the president of the United States talking about community colleges as an engine that will drive and sustain economic success in this country.”

Most of the students in Mr. Chin’s writing class, who range in age from 18 to 59, are employed but hoping a degree will lead to more stable, higher-paying jobs. Some start work as early as 4 a.m. or finish as late as 11 p.m., making the class time more appealing. They include a taxi dispatcher who dreams of going to medical school, a Dunkin’ Donuts cashier who wants to be a homicide detective and a landscaper who wants to be a state trooper.

The group cracked jokes and gently mocked one another for mispronouncing the word “blithe” or not reading aloud passionately enough. When the instructor asked around 2 a.m., “Who’s ready to answer the question?” one student wearily answered, “Who’s confused?”

Mr. Chin, who took the midnight class because other writing classes were full, wants to become a surgical nurse. At 57, he has three small children and has not been a student since graduating from high school.

“I probably would have taken something early in the morning if I’d had my pick of classes,” he said. “But this is working out. I never really need more than about four hours of sleep anyway.”

Mr. Chin and his classmates get plenty of parking — a rarity at community colleges these days. Holyoke Community College, in Holyoke, Mass., where enrollment is up 13 percent over last fall, turned its tennis courts into parking lots; it also sent postcards to all 7,500 students urging them to take public transportation to class.

At Northern Virginia Community College, more than 20 classes start before 7 a.m. this fall; many other colleges have classes running as late as 11 p.m.

But with state allocations down sharply this year because of the economy, many community colleges have not been able to keep up with the demand. At Miami Dade College, whose 170,000 students make it the nation’s largest community college, about 30,000 could not get every class they wanted this fall; about 5,000 others were shut out completely.

At De Anza College in Cupertino, Calif., about 8,000 students found themselves on wait lists last month, as did 7,500 students at Central Oregon Community College. And in New York City, where the six community colleges that are part of the City University of New York experienced a record 9 percent enrollment increase this fall, most closed enrollment early for the first time.

Because of budget cuts, Miami Dade College could not add a single new class this fall despite an influx of more than 33,000 new students. Instead, it has eliminated 1,200 class sections over the last two years, said Eduardo J. Padrón, the college president.

“It’s an almost desperate situation,” Dr. Padrón said. “My heart breaks for these students, because I know many are the ones who really need us the most.”

Colleen Roach, Bunker Hill’s spokeswoman, said higher student fees and an influx of federal stimulus money helped the college offer dozens more classes this fall. It is planning to add a third midnight course, Sociology 101, next spring, along with five business and science courses that will run to 11:45 p.m.

Dr. Fifield said putting dynamic instructors in charge of the late-night classes was crucial.

“Not everyone is going to be able to keep people awake until 2:45 in the morning,” she said.

Wick Sloane, who teaches the midnight writing class at Bunker Hill, tried to transport Mr. Chin and the other students from the windowless, concrete-walled classroom one recent night with an essay by Edward Abbey, the nature writer, about encountering a mountain lion in the New Mexican desert. When one student answered a question with a giant yawn around 2:15, Mr. Sloane asked, “Can everyone make it about 15 more minutes?”

For homework, he assigned an essay analyzing Calpurnia’s rhetoric in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” leading one student to ask whether Shakespeare used an alias. The room started buzzing with opinions.

“Do you want to stay and debate who Shakespeare was?” Mr. Sloane asked.

They did not, but not for lack of enthusiasm. “He’s got me engaged,” Mr. Chin said, “which is not easy at this time of night.”


Lisa W. Foderaro contributed reporting from New York.

    New Meaning for Night Class at 2-Year Colleges, NYT, 28.10.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/28/education/28community.html






The INFLUENCE GAME: Bill Gates' Sway on Ed Policy


October 26, 2009
Filed at 4:23 a.m. ET
The New York Times


WASHINGTON (AP) -- Not content with shaping education directly through schools, the biggest player in the school reform movement has an eye on moving education policy.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has spent around $200 million a year on grants to elementary and secondary education.

Now the foundation is taking unprecedented steps to spend millions to influence the way the federal government distributes $5 billion in grants to overhaul public schools.

The federal dollars are unprecedented, too.

President Barack Obama persuaded Congress to give him the money as part of the economic stimulus so he could try new ideas to fix an education system that most agree is failing. The foundation is offering $250,000 apiece to help states apply, so long as they agree with the foundation's approach.

Obama and the Gates Foundation share some goals that not everyone embraces: paying teachers based on student test scores, among other measures of achievement; charter schools that operate independently of local school boards; and a set of common academic standards adopted by every state.

Some argue that a private foundation like Gates shouldn't partner with the government.

''When you team up with the government, you compromise your ability to be critical of the government, and sometimes you compromise your ability to do controversial and maybe unpopular things with your money,'' said Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank. The institute is among the many that have received money from the Gates Foundation.

Another concern is that as a private foundation, Gates doesn't have to disclose the details of its spending like the government does.

The big teachers' unions dispute some of the goals shared by Obama and the foundation. They say student achievement is much more than a score on a standardized test and that it's a mistake to rely so heavily on charter schools.

''Despite growing evidence to the contrary, it appears the administration has decided that charter schools are the only answer to what ails America's public schools,'' the National Education Association, the largest teachers' union, said in comments about the grant competition submitted to the Education Department.

The NEA added: ''We should not continue the unhealthy focus on standardized tests as the primary evidence of student success.''

The American Federation of Teachers submitted similar comments. Together the unions have 4.6 million members.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan welcomes the foundation's involvement.

''The more all of us are in the game of reform, the more all of us are pushing for dramatic improvement, the better,'' Duncan said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Duncan's inner circle includes two former Gates employees. His chief of staff is Margot Rogers, who was special assistant to Gates' education director. James Shelton, assistant deputy secretary, was a program director for Gates' education division.

Rogers said she joined the administration because she was inspired by its goals for helping kids graduate from high school and finish college.

The administration has waived ethics rules to allow Rogers and Shelton to deal more freely with the foundation, but Rogers said she talks infrequently with her former colleagues.

Bill Gates said his foundation is not the government's partner in the new grant program, which the government has called the ''Race to the Top.''

''It's no secret the U.S. education system is failing,'' Gates said. ''We're doing all kinds of experiments that are different. The Race To The Top is going to do many different ones. There's no group-think.''

Gates stepped away last year from his daily role at Microsoft, the software company he co-founded, to focus on the work of his foundation.

Vicki Phillips, the Gates Foundation's director of education, said it originally offered help to states and school districts that it was working with and that are in agreement with many of the foundation's goals. She said the foundation shares Obama's priorities and sees itself as part of a larger reform effort.

The foundation's rising profile comes as the recession has gutted state and local budgets, which spend more money on education -- roughly 35 percent -- than anything else. Many states and districts can't keep all their teachers on the payroll, let alone spend money on a high-stakes application for federal money that includes some 44 pages of rules.

In Minnesota, more than a dozen education department staffers are working with consultants from the McKinsey & Co. global consulting firm to prepare the state's application, using about $250,000 in Gates Foundation money, spokesman Bill Walsh said.

When the foundation offered to help states apply for the grant money, it initially offered the $250,000 to only 15 states.

Officials in other states complained when they learned of the plan. The governors and chief school officers groups pressed the foundation to expand its offer, and it has now agreed to help any state that meets eight criteria, including a commitment to the common standards effort and the ability to link student data to teachers.

The foundation also is helping some districts that are eligible for a share of the money if they are working in partnership with nonprofits such as the Gates Foundation.

Not all the states are willing to discuss the help from Gates or their applications for the federal grants. In more than half a dozen states, education officials did not return phone calls seeking interviews about the applications.

Those who receive money from the Gates Foundation often are reluctant to talk about their work for fear of upsetting their benefactor.


Blankinship reported from Seattle. AP Education Writer Justin Pope contributed to this report from Charlotte, N.C.


On the Net:

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation: http://tinyurl.com/cmoqox

Race to the Top: http://tinyurl.com/nz6a5t

    The INFLUENCE GAME: Bill Gates' Sway on Ed Policy, NYT, 26.10.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2009/10/26/us/politics/AP-US-Bill-Gates-Education-Influence.html







How to Improve Failing Schools


October 17, 2009
The New York Times


To the Editor:

Re “Democrats and Schools,” by Nicholas D. Kristof (column, Oct. 15):

Once again when the topic of education reform is discussed, teachers and unions are the scapegoats when, in fact, everyone can share blame.

Yes, there are incompetent teachers, and they have no business being in a classroom. But in my 10 years of teaching, most of the people I’ve worked with are dedicated professionals who truly want their students to succeed.

As a high school teacher, I believe that the best way to improve failing schools would be smaller classes. Also, more parents need to make their child’s education a priority. We need a “zero tolerance” policy for disruptive students. Finally, there must be a realistic way to measure improvement, which has not happened under No Child Left Behind. Andrew Davidson

Pomona, Calif., Oct. 15, 2009

To the Editor:

Too much blame for the problems with our education system is placed on teachers’ unions. If the point is to attract the most talented and motivated teachers, there is a simple solution: Pay them!

If teaching were seen as a road to financial security, competition for positions would intensify, and schools would have greater choice and bargaining power over applicants.

Further reducing the job security of teachers — many of whom have graduate degrees and are already shamefully underpaid — will do nothing but make teaching seem even less appealing.

Law firms, hedge funds, hospitals and every other institution that hires professionals understand that compensation affects the caliber of their employees. Why should education be any different?

Nathaniel Falda

West Orange, N.J., Oct. 15, 2009

To the Editor:

Among the 80,000 teachers in the New York City school system to whom Nicholas D. Kristof refers, what percentage is incompetent? Is it a percentage much higher than that of any other employment? And if these incompetents were rooted out quickly and replaced by eminently qualified people, would the quality of our school system increase dramatically?

At the heart of a quality public education system is a partnership among all the elements of its functioning — the home environment, in which children enter the school system with a positive predisposition toward learning; the classroom, equipped with forward-looking learning tools; teachers who have been certified to teach in the fields of their expertise; and a school system that is designed to foster education.

Alan Katz

East Meadow, N.Y., Oct. 15, 2009

The writer taught high school in New York City for 31 years.

To the Editor:

Nicholas D. Kristof seems adamant about removing inept and abusive teachers, so why does he also favor reducing certification requirements? If our goal is to provide all students access to high-quality education, we should not be making it easier for underprepared, uncertified teachers to enter the profession, only to see them leave after a few years.

We should instead invest resources in strengthening teacher preparation programs, staff professional development and teacher retention.

In fact, the National Education Association report that Mr. Kristof cites makes just this point: that the key to improving schools is not increased recruitment, but stronger teacher leadership, opportunities to collaborate and better working conditions.

If we really were committed to our schools, we would be less interested in purging ineffective teachers and more concerned with improving the teachers we already have. Daniel Dawer

Brighton, Mass., Oct. 15, 2009

The writer is a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

To the Editor:

Nicholas D. Kristof reads America’s problems backward in declaring, “We can’t fight poverty without reforming education.” The fact is, we can’t reform education without fighting poverty. Disabled schools are just one product of governments at all levels that fail to provide impoverished families and communities with the resources to raise and educate children successfully.

How about turning schools in poor neighborhoods into year-round community centers, with health and dental services, nutritious meals, up-to-date libraries and computer labs, after-hours tutoring and recreation for children, and job training, counseling, recreation and educational classes for adults?

Remaking schools into community centers would be far less difficult than fighting the unions and firing incompetent teachers, as Mr. Kristof suggests, and far more effective than allowing more charter schools and establishing a system of teacher merit pay, as Education Secretary Arne Duncan intends to do. Joanne Yatvin

Portland, Ore., Oct. 15, 2009

The writer, a public school teacher and administrator for more than 40 years, is the author of three books about education.

To the Editor:

It has always been easy and fashionable to blame the teachers for most of our schools’ problems, but too often the blaming is done to hide the real problem. Our schools lack money: classes are too large, facilities are out of date, and teachers and classrooms lack the latest resources.

Elites in New York and in most other major cities do not send their children to the public schools. They send them to private schools where classes are smaller, facilities modern and resources available and up to date.

At the city’s private schools, tuition is often over $30,000, while per-pupil expenditure in the public schools is about half that amount. If we are willing to spend only half as much to educate the poor as we are to educate the rich, we should hardly be shocked if the result is half as good. The old adage “you get what you pay for” could not be more to the point.

Tom Rounds

San Mateo, Calif., Oct. 15, 2009

    How to Improve Failing Schools, NYT, 17.10.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/17/opinion/l17kristof.html






Op-Ed Columnist

Democrats and Schools


October 15, 2009
The New York Times


The Democratic Party has battled for universal health care this year, and over the decades it has admirably led the fight against poverty — except in the one way that would have the greatest impact.

Good schools constitute a far more potent weapon against poverty than welfare, food stamps or housing subsidies. Yet, cowed by teachers’ unions, Democrats have too often resisted reform and stood by as generations of disadvantaged children have been cemented into an underclass by third-rate schools.

President Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, are trying to change that — and one test for the Democrats will be whether they embrace administration reforms that teachers’ unions are already sniping at.

It’s difficult to improve failing schools when you can’t create alternatives such as charter schools and can’t remove inept or abusive teachers. In New York City, for example, unions ordinarily prevent teachers from being dismissed for incompetence — so the schools must pay failed teachers their full salaries to sit year after year doing nothing in centers called “rubber rooms.”

A devastating article in The New Yorker by Steven Brill examined how New York City tried to dismiss a fifth-grade teacher for failing to correct student work, follow the curriculum, manage the class or even fill out report cards. The teacher claimed that she was being punished for union activity, but an independent observer approved by the union confirmed the allegations and declared the teacher incompetent. The school system’s lawyer put it best: “These children were abused in stealth.”

The effort to remove the teacher is expected to cost about $400,000, and the outcome is uncertain. In New York City, with its 80,000 teachers, arbiters have removed only two for incompetence alone in the last couple of years. We tolerate failed teachers — and failed arbiters — as long as it’s not our own kids who suffer.

In another case cited by Mr. Brill, the union hailed its defense of a high-school teacher — who had passed out in front of her class, allegedly smelling of alcohol, with even the principal unable to rouse her. The union fought to secure her return to teaching, Mr. Brill wrote, until she passed out again, and her “water bottle” turned out to contain alcohol.

In California, we see the same pathology — as long as the students in question are impoverished and marginalized, with uncomplaining parents, they are allowed to endure the kind of teachers and schools that we would never tolerate for our own kids.

A Los Angeles Times article this year recounted how a teacher rebuked an eighth grader who had been hospitalized for slashing his wrists in a suicide attempt. “Carve deeper next time,” the teacher allegedly advised. He was even said to have added: “You can’t even kill yourself.” A review board blocked the termination of that teacher.

The Los Angeles Times investigation found that it is so expensive to remove teachers that the authorities typically try to do so only in cases of extreme misconduct — not for something as “minor” as incompetence.

Of course, there are many other obstacles to learning: lack of safety, alcohol and narcotics and troubled homes and uninterested parents. But there’s mounting evidence that even in such failing schools, the individual teacher makes a vast difference.

Research has underscored that what matters most in education — more than class size or spending or anything — is access to good teachers. A study found that if black students had four straight years of teachers from the top 25 percent of most effective teachers, the black-white testing gap would vanish in four years.

There are no silver bullets, but researchers are gaining a better sense of what works in education for disadvantaged children: intensive preschool, charter schools with long hours, fewer certification requirements that limit entry to the teaching profession, higher compensation to attract and retain good teachers, objective measurement to see who is effective, more flexibility in removing those who are ineffective.

Unions are wary in part because school administrators can be arbitrary and unfair. Yet there are some signs that the unions are rethinking their positions in very welcome ways. The National Education Association has announced an initiative to improve teaching in high-poverty high schools, and the American Federation of Teachers is experimenting with teacher evaluation that includes student performance data.

Neither initiative reflects sufficient urgency. But let’s hope this is a new beginning. I’m hoping the unions will come round and cooperate with evidence-based reforms, using their political clout to push to raise teachers’ salaries rather than to protect ineffective teachers.

This is the central front in the war on poverty, the civil rights issue of our time. Half a century after Brown v. Board of Education, isn’t it time to end our “separate but equal” school systems?

I invite you to visit my blog, On the Ground. Please also join me on Facebook, watch my YouTube videos and follow me on Twitter.

    Democrats and Schools, NYT, 15.10.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/15/opinion/15kristof.html Op-Ed Contributor






Little Restored Schoolhouse


October 13, 2009
The New York Times


Richmond, Va.

“MORE than a half-century after Brown v. Board of Education, the dream of a world-class education is still being deferred all across the country,” President Obama declared in a recent speech to the N.A.A.C.P. “There are overcrowded classrooms, and crumbling schools, and corridors of shame in America.” So we have come together — one Republican, one Democrat — to develop a common-sense solution to fix the problem of crumbling schools in a manner that doesn’t require the federal government to tax, borrow or spend one dime. Our School Modernization and Revitalization Tax Credit — Smart Credit — is also guaranteed to create hundreds of thousands of private-sector jobs, critical at a moment when unemployment has reached a 26-year high and threatens to climb even higher.

Go to the Department of Education Web site and search “How Old Are America’s Public Schools?” Click on the very first link and the “shame” President Obama spoke of becomes evident: The average age of America’s schools is 42 years. Twenty-eight percent of our schools were built more than 50 years ago. “After 40 years, a school building begins rapid deterioration,” announces the department study. Worse still is that this analysis was done a decade ago, and too little has been done since.

Several studies show a statistical connection between outmoded schools and educational underachievement and the schools most in need of modernization are disproportionately in inner-city neighborhoods and rural areas. But to fix these schools, Congress need only make a simple, one-sentence change to a little-known clause in the federal tax code.

In 1986, President Ronald Reagan and Congress created a 20 percent federal historic rehabilitation tax credit. Generally speaking, rehabilitation projects involving structures at least 50 years old can qualify for this credit, which is equal to roughly 20 percent of the modernization cost. It is widely acclaimed for having created jobs, restored buildings and spurred economic activity.

This credit is applicable when an aging local school building is renovated for a different use by private investors. But it is not should the same investors want to invest the same money to turn the same building into an up-to-date local school. The I.R.S. “prior use” rule disallows such credits in the latter situation.

But if this “prior use” rule were amended to allow for school rehabilitation, then decaying school buildings could be sold to private investors, modernized and then leased back to school authorities. This approach has already been proven to work and save taxpayers considerable money. When Gov. Tim Kaine of Virginia was the mayor of Richmond, he used this basic sale-leaseback arrangement to update a local school, Maggie L. Walker High, built during the Depression, and transform it into a regional magnet school that reopened in 2001 and now serves the top students in Central Virginia. (This shift from local to regional school satisfied the “prior use” rule.)

Mr. Kaine saved local taxpayers millions in this $20 million renovation because Virginia has a 25 percent state historic rehabilitation tax credit, on top of the 20 percent federal tax credit. Other states have their own special incentives, and more are now considering them. In Virginia, when the various financial factors are taken into account, the tax credit approach greatly lowers the costs to local taxpayers — by as much as 33 percent — when compared with the conventional approach of financing construction through school bonds.

Critics may scream that our approach “sells our schools” to the private sector. But what national interest is served by denying local officials access to private capital to provide schoolchildren the opportunities they deserve? Besides, our market system works best when there is a level playing field for both the private and public sectors, and this plan wouldn’t preclude local governments from still using the traditional “borrow to build” strategy if they choose.

With the Smart Credit, previously unaffordable projects now become affordable. Moreover, we eliminate the costly political and bureaucratic favoritism now pitting one locality against another in a fight for the limited school construction money in the stimulus plan.

Potentially, there may be $100 billion in tax-credit-eligible school modernization projects nationwide. Now is the perfect moment, with prices for construction materials down, to unleash the private sector to create tens of thousands of jobs while making schools better for millions of students.

We have talked to business investors. If Congress will amend the law, we already have the money pledged to modernize more schools, at one time, than has ever been done in any locality in Virginia’s history. The same is possible for your community.

America faces many challenges, but fixing this “prior use” rule is easy. With all due respect to the president, the biggest “corridors of shame” will be the halls of Congress if our federal lawmakers fail to act.


George Allen, a Republican, is a former senator and governor of Virginia. Paul Goldman is a former chairman of the Virginia Democratic Party.

    Little Restored Schoolhouse, NYT, 13.10.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/13/opinion/13allen.html







How to Flunk Test-Giving


October 13, 2009
The New York Times


Millions of Americans are trapped at the margins of the economy because they lack the basic skills that come with a high-school education. This year, more than 600,000 of these people will try to improve their prospects by studying for the rigorous, seven-hour examination known as the General Educational Development test, or G.E.D., which should end in a credential that employers and colleges recognize as the equivalent of a diploma.

The most fortunate live in states — such as Delaware, Kansas and Iowa — that have well-managed programs in which 90 percent or more of the test-takers pass.

The least fortunate live in New York State, which has the lowest pass rate in the nation, just behind Mississippi. Worse off still are the G.E.D.-seekers of New York City, which has a shameful pass rate — lower than that of the educationally challenged District of Columbia. This bodes ill for the city, where at least one in five adult workers lacks a diploma, and the low-skill jobs that once allowed them to support their families are dwindling.

The scope of this problem is laid out in an alarming new study by the Community Service Society, a 160-year-old advocacy group that focuses on policies affecting the city’s poor. Unless the state and city strengthen and better finance the G.E.D. programs, the authors say, a growing number of undereducated New Yorkers will be shut out of the labor force and will become a permanent burden to their fellow taxpayers.

The typical G.E.D.-seekers in New York City are black or Hispanic, aged 19 to 60, and have hit the advancement wall in the workplace because of the lack of a diploma. They learn right away that G.E.D. classes are difficult to find, thanks to poor programming by the city and state, which pay for them. The chaos in New York is regularly felt at the GED Testing Service in Washington. According to officials there, New York State accounts for about 10 percent of the testing activity nationally but about three-quarters of telephone calls from people who don’t know how to access the G.E.D. system locally.

There is an excellent program run by the City University of New York’s preparatory high school. But in general, the report notes, the G.E.D. here “has become a second-class education system serving low-income people of color who were failed by our K-12 school system.”

The courses are often of questionable quality. The teachers are generally poorly paid and most often marginally qualified. And according to the report, the state and city spend about $1,000 per student, less than a tenth of what’s spent per student in the public school system.

According to the GED Testing Service in Washington, New Yorkers have so much trouble accessing the system and getting testing appointments that they often take the test in Georgia, which welcomes out-of-state test-takers for a modest fee.

New York drives up its failure rate on this costly test and wastes precious resources by allowing people to take it without first taking preparation courses. States with the highest success rates often require a diagnostic pretest, followed by instruction as needed and then an official practice test. That’s the case in Iowa, where 99 percent of the test-takers passed the exam in 2008.

Iowa also has made the G.E.D. an integral part of its educational system. Those who do not pass the diagnostic test are funneled into literacy courses offered by community colleges at little or no cost.

To emulate this model, New York will need to invest a great deal more than it spends at the moment. But the costs of doing nothing clearly outweigh those of remaking a chaotic and ineffectual system.

    How to Flunk Test-Giving, NYT, 13.10.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/13/opinion/13tue1.html






Op-Ed Columnist

The Uneducated American


October 9, 2009
The New York Times


If you had to explain America’s economic success with one word, that word would be “education.” In the 19th century, America led the way in universal basic education. Then, as other nations followed suit, the “high school revolution” of the early 20th century took us to a whole new level. And in the years after World War II, America established a commanding position in higher education.

But that was then. The rise of American education was, overwhelmingly, the rise of public education — and for the past 30 years our political scene has been dominated by the view that any and all government spending is a waste of taxpayer dollars. Education, as one of the largest components of public spending, has inevitably suffered.

Until now, the results of educational neglect have been gradual — a slow-motion erosion of America’s relative position. But things are about to get much worse, as the economic crisis — its effects exacerbated by the penny-wise, pound-foolish behavior that passes for “fiscal responsibility” in Washington — deals a severe blow to education across the board.

About that erosion: there has been a flurry of reporting recently about threats to the dominance of America’s elite universities. What hasn’t been reported to the same extent, at least as far as I’ve seen, is our relative decline in more mundane measures. America, which used to take the lead in educating its young, has been gradually falling behind other advanced countries.

Most people, I suspect, still have in their minds an image of America as the great land of college education, unique in the extent to which higher learning is offered to the population at large. That image used to correspond to reality. But these days young Americans are considerably less likely than young people in many other countries to graduate from college. In fact, we have a college graduation rate that’s slightly below the average across all advanced economies.

Even without the effects of the current crisis, there would be every reason to expect us to fall further in these rankings, if only because we make it so hard for those with limited financial means to stay in school. In America, with its weak social safety net and limited student aid, students are far more likely than their counterparts in, say, France to hold part-time jobs while still attending classes. Not surprisingly, given the financial pressures, young Americans are also less likely to stay in school and more likely to become full-time workers instead.

But the crisis has placed huge additional stress on our creaking educational system.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the United States economy lost 273,000 jobs last month. Of those lost jobs, 29,000 were in state and local education, bringing the total losses in that category over the past five months to 143,000. That may not sound like much, but education is one of those areas that should, and normally does, keep growing even during a recession. Markets may be troubled, but that’s no reason to stop teaching our children. Yet that’s exactly what we’re doing.

There’s no mystery about what’s going on: education is mainly the responsibility of state and local governments, which are in dire fiscal straits. Adequate federal aid could have made a big difference. But while some aid has been provided, it has made up only a fraction of the shortfall. In part, that’s because back in February centrist senators insisted on stripping much of that aid from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a k a the stimulus bill.

As a result, education is on the chopping block. And laid-off teachers are only part of the story. Even more important is the way that we’re shutting off opportunities.

For example, the Chronicle of Higher Education recently reported on the plight of California’s community college students. For generations, talented students from less affluent families have used those colleges as a stepping stone to the state’s public universities. But in the face of the state’s budget crisis those universities have been forced to slam the door on this year’s potential transfer students. One result, almost surely, will be lifetime damage to many students’ prospects — and a large, gratuitous waste of human potential.

So what should be done?

First of all, Congress needs to undo the sins of February, and approve another big round of aid to state governments. We don’t have to call it a stimulus, but it would be a very effective way to create or save thousands of jobs. And it would, at the same time, be an investment in our future.

Beyond that, we need to wake up and realize that one of the keys to our nation’s historic success is now a wasting asset. Education made America great; neglect of education can reverse the process.

    The Uneducated American, NYT, 9.10.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/09/opinion/09krugman.html






College Officials Brace for Hit From Economy


September 26, 2009
The New York Times


BALTIMORE — The talk this week at an annual gathering of college admissions officers and high school counselors included the usual topics, like how to deal with “difficult” parents and the names of hot student prospects. But the conversations — in panel discussions, in hallways and over crab cakes — always seemed to circle around to one subject: the economy.

High school counselors said that some parents who in other years worried mostly about whether their children could get into a particular college were now concerned about whether they could afford the price tag.

Admissions officers said they feared further price increases and cuts in university budgets, perhaps even in classes. They wondered whether this would create significant dips in yield, the number of accepted applicants who then choose to attend. For those at private colleges, one anxious worry prevailed: Will students even apply?

“We’re fearful,” said Paul M. Driscoll, the dean of admissions of the University of Redlands in California, a private college that already had a 3 percent drop in applicants for the new freshman class, and an increase in families seeking financial aid.

Both college officials and high school counselors here said the full brunt of the economic crisis was not felt in the most recent admissions cycle — because families had long ago set college plans in motion, and had largely held to that course. In many instances, colleges reported this past spring that they received roughly as many applications in 2009 as they had in 2008, and that there were no significant dips in yield.

But as the 5,000 officers and counselors moved among various panel discussions here — including a packed session on changes in the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or Fafsa, the government’s main financial aid form — the conferees expressed concern that this latest admissions cycle could be much grimmer, for colleges and some families alike.

Ann Bowe McDermott, director of admissions at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, said the economy and its many ripple effects were the main subject of a meeting on Wednesday attended by admissions officers from more than two dozen Jesuit colleges.

“Affordability is something everyone is concerned about,” said Ms. McDermott, whose institution’s tuition, board and other fees already exceed more than $50,000 annually for full-paying students.

And yet, Ms. McDermott noted that recently in Westchester County, N.Y., 200 high school students and their parents turned out for a Holy Cross information session at a Catholic prep school, far more interest than the college could recall having previously received in the area.

“We’ve had this conversation in past years,” she said, in reference to concerns about a dip in applications and enrollment, “and then it didn’t happen. I guess I’m an eternal optimist.”

Among the high school advisers at the conference, which ends Saturday and is formally known as the National Association for College Admission Counseling, was Frank Tatto of Fairfield Ludlowe High School in Fairfield, Conn.

Mr. Tatto said that a financial-aid information night at the school in December had drawn 350 people, more than triple the number in past years, and that he was particularly struck by the number of students (some of them juniors, who were included for the first time). “I think it’s an added dynamic that the kids are having to contend with that they might not have had to in the past,” he said.

He added that, instead of asking where they might be admitted or what constituted a good fit, “Now, it’s: ‘Will I be able to afford it and what’s my debt going to be?’ ”

John Dunphy, a school counselor at Horace Greeley High School in Chappaqua, N.Y., said he had seen perhaps 20 percent more students this year applying to the State University of New York system, which he called a significant spike. Applications for out-of-state public universities, like Michigan and Delaware, are also on the rise, Mr. Dunphy said.

“Chappaqua is an affluent community, and quite a few of our kids look at selective private schools,” he said, “but the affordability of public schools is definitely being considered more than ever.”

Not that state colleges are necessarily a refuge. As the conferees huddled here Thursday, thousands of students and faculty members were marching in protest 3,000 miles away, at the University of California, Berkeley. Their quarrel was with steep tuition increases and sharp cuts in offerings throughout the state system.

On Friday afternoon, in what is always a high point of the conference, representatives from nearly 550 colleges took their places behind long tables draped with their institution’s banners. In front of them, several thousand counselors moved past like slow-moving barges, some docking occasionally to chat.

Representing the University of California, Davis, was Gregory W. Sneed, associate director of undergraduate admissions, who said he felt the protesters’ pain. From now until June, he will have 18 unpaid furlough days.

“As admissions officers,” Mr. Sneed said, “it does make our jobs tougher.”

    College Officials Brace for Hit From Economy, NYT, 26.9.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/26/education/26admit.html






Schools Aided by Stimulus Money Still Facing Cuts


September 8, 2009
The New York Times


FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Children are returning to classrooms across the nation during one of the most tumultuous periods in American education, in which many thousands of teachers and other school workers — no one yet knows how many — were laid off in dozens of states because of plummeting state and local revenue. Many were hired back, thanks in part to $100 billion in federal stimulus money.

How much the federal money has succeeded in stabilizing schools depends on the state. In those where budget deficits have been manageable, stimulus money largely replaced plunging taxpayer revenues for schools. But in Arizona, California, Georgia and a dozen other states with overwhelming deficits, the federal money has failed to prevent the most extensive school layoffs in several decades, experts said.

When Lori Smallwood welcomed her third-grade students back to school here, it was a new beginning after a searing summer in which she lost her job, agonized over bills, got rehired and, along with all school employees here, saw her salary cut.

“I’m just glad to be teaching,” Ms. Smallwood said. “After the misery of losing your job, a pay cut is a piece of cake.”

In the hard-hit states, the shuffling of teachers out of their previous classrooms and into new ones, often in new districts or at unfamiliar grade levels — or onto unemployment — continues to disrupt instruction at thousands of schools. Experts said that seniority and dysfunctional teacher evaluation systems were forcing many districts to trim strong teachers rather than the least effective.

And in some places, teacher layoffs have pushed up class sizes. In Arizona, which is suffering one of the nation’s worst fiscal crises, some classrooms were jammed with nearly 50 students when schools reopened last month, and the norm for Los Angeles high schools this fall is 42.5 students per teacher.

“I’ve been in public education north of three decades, and these are the most sweeping cutbacks I’ve seen,” said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools. “But it would have been worse without the stimulus.”

Los Angeles Unified, the nation’s second-largest district, sent layoff notices to 8,850 teachers, counselors and administrators last spring. Bolstered by stimulus money, it recently rehired some 6,700 of them, leaving about 2,150 demoted to substitute teaching or out of work. Hundreds of districts across California laid off a total of more than 20,000 teachers, according to the California Teachers Association.

In Michigan, the Detroit schools’ emergency financial manager closed 29 schools and laid off 1,700 employees, including 1,000 teachers. Arizona school districts laid off 7,000 teachers in the spring, but stimulus money helped them rehire several thousand. Tucson Unified, for instance, laid off 560 teachers, but rehired 400.

Florida’s second-largest system, Broward County Schools, laid off 400 teachers, but aided by stimulus money, rehired more than 100. In Washington State, many districts let employees go; Seattle laid off about 50 teachers.

Lauren Stokes, who taught high school English last year in North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg district, was laid off with about 650 of her colleagues. She sought other jobs, but stimulus money sent to the state helped her district hire her and many others back. One disappointment: her classroom this year is a portable trailer.

“But I’m rehired, thank goodness,” said Ms. Stokes, who is 23. “I’m looking forward to trying new things out on this year’s batch of students.”

Catherine Vidal, a language teacher laid off in May from a high school in Moorpark, Calif., is still out of work. Fifty-nine years old, Ms. Vidal has given up her apartment and is living, for now, on a friend’s boat. Teaching has become too iffy, and she will change professions, she said.

Not only school staff members are feeling the pain, of course.

“I struggled this year getting my three boys everything they needed,” said Mary Lou Johnson, an unemployed office worker who went back-to-school shopping last month at a Wal-Mart in Chamblee, Ga. “Buying their backpacks, sneakers, all the stuff for their classes — it nearly cleaned me out.”

In Ohio, students in the South-Western City district south of Columbus returned to schools with no sports, cheerleading or band, all cut after residents voted down a property tax increase. Stimulus money allowed the district to expand services for disabled students, but it could not save extracurricular programs, said Hugh Garside, the district’s treasurer.

Driving the layoffs was a precipitous decline in tax revenues that left states with a cumulative budget shortfall of $165 billion for this fiscal year, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a research institute. About half of the 160 school superintendents from 37 states surveyed by the American Association of School Administrators said that despite receiving stimulus money, they were forced to cut teachers in core subjects. Eight out of 10 said they had cut librarians, nurses, cooks and bus drivers.

Districts unable to avoid layoffs should seek to do minimum damage by retaining outstanding teachers and culling ineffective ones, said Timothy Daly, president of the New Teacher Project, a nonprofit group. But most districts are simply dismissing teachers hired most recently, because union contracts or state laws protect tenured teachers in most states and because few districts have systems to accurately evaluate teacher performance, he said.

“Districts tend to make their problems worse by laying off good teachers and keeping bad ones,” Mr. Daly said.

The Hall County district northeast of Atlanta, which has 35 schools, dismissed 100 of its 2,000 teachers, said William Schofield, the superintendent. John Stape, who taught high school Spanish, and his wife, Janie, who taught third grade, were among them.

Ms. Stape, 50, is still out of work. Mr. Stape, who is 65 and has a Ph.D., found a job teaching this school year, for less pay, in a rural high school southeast of Atlanta. He said that no administrator had ever observed his teaching before the day he was laid off.

“They didn’t know whether I was a good teacher or not,” Mr. Stape said. Mr. Schofield said the district used student achievement data and professional judgment to identify mediocre teachers for dismissal, but he acknowledged that Hall County had to cut so many teachers that strong ones were let go, too.

“We downsized about 50 pretty good folks,” Mr. Schofield said. The district also trimmed salaries of all district employees by 2.4 percent. Mr. Schofield said he cut his own by 3.4 percent, bringing it to $183,000 this year, and relinquished $23,000 in bonuses.

The Hall County schools received more than $18 million in stimulus money, and without it, “those 100 layoffs could easily have gone to 150,” he said.

Among the Hall County educators helped by the stimulus was Ms. Smallwood, who is 25. After she lost her job teaching kindergarten, she went to her mother’s home to cry, then regained her composure and circulated her résumé. A principal eventually hired her to teach third grade.

“I feel like I’m starting over again,” she said.

    Schools Aided by Stimulus Money Still Facing Cuts, NYT, 8.9.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/08/education/08school.html






Surge in Homeless Children Strains School Districts


September 6, 2009
The New York Times


ASHEVILLE, N.C. — In the small trailer her family rented over the summer, 9-year-old Charity Crowell picked out the green and purple outfit she would wear on the first day of school. She vowed to try harder and bring her grades back up from the C’s she got last spring — a dismal semester when her parents lost their jobs and car and the family was evicted and migrated through friends’ houses and a motel.

Charity is one child in a national surge of homeless schoolchildren that is driven by relentless unemployment and foreclosures. The rise, to more than one million students without stable housing by last spring, has tested budget-battered school districts as they try to carry out their responsibilities — and the federal mandate — to salvage education for children whose lives are filled with insecurity and turmoil.

The instability can be ruinous to schooling, educators say, adding multiple moves and lost class time to the inherent distress of homelessness. And so in accord with federal law, the Buncombe County district, where Charity attends, provides special bus service to shelters, motels, doubled-up houses, trailer parks and RV campgrounds to help children stay in their familiar schools as the families move about.

Still, Charity said of her last semester, “I couldn’t go to sleep, I was worried about all the stuff,” and she often nodded off in class.

Charity and her brother, Elijah Carrington, 6, were among 239 children from homeless families in her district as of last June, an increase of 80 percent over the year before, with indications this semester that as many or more will be enrolled in the months ahead.

While current national data are not available, the number of schoolchildren in homeless families appears to have risen by 75 percent to 100 percent in many districts over the last two years, according to Barbara Duffield, policy director of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, an advocacy group.

There were 679,000 homeless students reported in 2006-7, a total that surpassed one million by last spring, Ms. Duffield said.

With schools just returning to session, initial reports point to further rises. In San Antonio, for example, the district has enrolled 1,000 homeless students in the first two weeks of school, twice as many as at the same point last year.

“It’s hard enough going to school and growing up, but these kids also have to worry where they’ll be staying that night and whether they’ll eat,” said Bill Murdock, chief executive of Eblen-Kimmel Charities, a private group in Asheville that helps needy families with anything from food baskets and money for utility bills to toiletries and a prom dress.

“We see 8-year-olds telling Mom not to worry, don’t cry,” Mr. Murdock said.

Since 2001, federal law has required every district to appoint a liaison to the homeless, charged with identifying and aiding families who meet a broad definition of homelessness — doubling up in the homes of relatives or friends or sleeping in motels or RV campgrounds as well as living in cars, shelters or on the streets. A small minority of districts, including Buncombe County, have used federal grants or local money to make the position full time.

The law lays out rights for homeless children, including immediate school placement without proof of residence and a right to stay in the same school as the family is displaced. Providing transportation to the original school is an expensive logistical challenge in a huge district like Buncombe County, covering 700 square miles.

While the law’s goals are widely praised, school superintendents lament that Congress has provided little money, adding to the fiscal woes of districts. “The protections are important, but Congress has passed the cost to state and local taxpayers,” said Bruce Hunter, associate director of the American Association of School Administrators.

Fairfax County, Va., where the number of homeless students climbed from 1,100 in June 2007 to 1,800 last spring, has three social workers dedicated to the homeless and is using a temporary stimulus grant to assign a full-time transportation coordinator to commandeer buses, issue gas cards and sometimes call taxis to get the children to their original schools.

Like Fairfax County, the Asheville area looks prosperous, drawing tourists and retirees, but manicured lawns, million-dollar homes and golf courses mask the struggles of many adults working at low-paying jobs in sales and food service.

Emily Walters, the liaison to the homeless for the Buncombe County schools, is busy as school begins, providing backpacks and other supplies and signing children up for free breakfasts and lunches. But her job continues through the school year as other families lose their footing and those who had concealed their status, because of the stigma or because they were not aware of the benefits, join the list.

Sometimes it includes driving families in crisis to look at prospective shelters — a temporary solution at best, Ms. Walters said. When the county receives a two-year stimulus grant next month, she said, she hopes there will be more money to help people avoid eviction or pay security deposits for new rentals.

The evening before school began, Ms. Walters drove 45 minutes to an RV campground to deliver a scientific calculator and other essential school supplies to Cody Curry, 14, who lives with his mother, Dawn, and his brother, Zack, 11, in a camper. Mrs. Curry had to downsize from a trailer, she said, when her work as a sales clerk was cut to two days a week.

The first day of school, Ms. Walters drove to a men’s rescue shelter in the city to take Nate Fountain, 18, to high school. Nate said his parents kicked him out of the house last spring, during his senior year, because he was not doing his school work and was drinking and using drugs. With Ms. Walters’s help, he said, he expects to finish high school this semester and study culinary arts at a community college.

“I spend a lot of time just making sure the kids stay in school,” Ms. Walters said.

The busing service was especially valued by Leslie Laws, who was laid off from her job in customer service last year and lost her rental apartment.

Ms. Laws and her 12-year-old son are staying in a women’s shelter in Asheville, far from his former school. He is deeply involved with activities like chorus. Now he must catch the bus at 6:05 a.m. and ride one and a half hours each way.

Educators and advocates for the homeless across the country said that in the current recession, the law had made a difference, minimizing destructive gaps in schooling and linking schools with social welfare agencies.

Charity Crowell, despite her vow to bring up her grades, may be in store for another rough semester. Her stepfather works long hours delivering food on commission, but business is poor. Her mother, Katrina, wants to look for a job, but that is difficult without a car.

Food stamps help, but by the second half of each month the family is mostly eating “Beanee Weenees and noodles,” Ms. Crowell said. As school resumed in late August, the family was facing eviction from the $475-a-month trailer and uncertain about what to do next.

    Surge in Homeless Children Strains School Districts, NYT, 6.9.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/06/education/06homeless.html






The Future of Reading

A New Assignment: Pick Books You Like


August 30, 2009
The New York Times


JONESBORO, Ga. — For years Lorrie McNeill loved teaching “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the Harper Lee classic that many Americans regard as a literary rite of passage.

But last fall, for the first time in 15 years, Ms. McNeill, 42, did not assign “Mockingbird” — or any novel. Instead she turned over all the decisions about which books to read to the students in her seventh- and eighth-grade English classes at Jonesboro Middle School in this south Atlanta suburb.

Among their choices: James Patterson‘s adrenaline-fueled “Maximum Ride” books, plenty of young-adult chick-lit novels and even the “Captain Underpants” series of comic-book-style novels.

But then there were students like Jennae Arnold, a soft-spoken eighth grader who picked challenging titles like “A Lesson Before Dying” by Ernest J. Gaines and “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison, of which she wrote, partly in text-message speak: “I would have N3V3R thought of or about something like that on my own.”

The approach Ms. McNeill uses, in which students choose their own books, discuss them individually with their teacher and one another, and keep detailed journals about their reading, is part of a movement to revolutionize the way literature is taught in America’s schools. While there is no clear consensus among English teachers, variations on the approach, known as reading workshop, are catching on.

In New York City many public and private elementary schools and some middle schools already employ versions of reading workshop. Starting this fall, the school district in Chappaqua, N.Y., is setting aside 40 minutes every other day for all sixth, seventh and eighth graders to read books of their own choosing.

In September students in Seattle’s public middle schools will also begin choosing most of their own books. And in Chicago the public school district has had a pilot program in place since 2006 in 31 of its 483 elementary schools to give students in grades 6, 7 and 8 more control over what they read. Chicago officials will consider whether to expand the program once they review its results.

None of those places, however, are going as far as Ms. McNeill.

In the method familiar to generations of students, an entire class reads a novel — often a classic — together to draw out the themes and study literary craft. That tradition, proponents say, builds a shared literary culture among students, exposes all readers to works of quality and complexity and is the best way to prepare students for standardized tests.

But fans of the reading workshop say that assigning books leaves many children bored or unable to understand the texts. Letting students choose their own books, they say, can help to build a lifelong love of reading.

“I feel like almost every kid in my classroom is engaged in a novel that they’re actually interacting with,” Ms. McNeill said, several months into her experiment. “Whereas when I do ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,” I know that I have some kids that just don’t get into it.”

Critics of the approach say that reading as a group generally leads to more meaningful insights, and they question whether teachers can really keep up with a roomful of children reading different books. Even more important, they say, is the loss of a common body of knowledge based on the literary classics — often difficult books that children are unlikely to choose for themselves.

“What child is going to pick up ‘Moby-Dick’?” said Diane Ravitch, a professor of education at New York University who was assistant education secretary under President George H. W. Bush. “Kids will pick things that are trendy and popular. But that’s what you should do in your free time.”

Indeed, some school districts are moving in the opposite direction. Boston is developing a core curriculum that will designate specific books for sixth grade and is considering assigned texts for each grade through the 12th.

Joan Dabrowski, director of literacy for Boston’s public schools, said teachers would still be urged to give students some choices. Many schools in fact take that combination approach, dictating some titles while letting students select others.

Even some previously staunch advocates of a rigid core curriculum have moderated their views. “I actually used to be a real hard-line, great-books, high-culture kind of person who would want to stick to Dickens,” said Mark Bauerlein, professor of English at Emory University and the author of “The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future.” But now, in the age of Game Boys and Facebook, “I think if they read a lot of Conan novels or Hardy Boys or Harry Potter or whatever, that’s good,” he said. “We just need to preserve book habits among the kids as much as we possibly can.”


In Search of a Better Way

As a teenager growing up just a few miles from Jonesboro, Ms. McNeill loved the novels of Judy Blume and Danielle Steel. But in school she was forced to read the classics. She remembers vividly disliking “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Still, she went on to teach it to her own students.

In 1999 she moved to Jonesboro Middle School, where more than 80 percent of the students are eligible for free lunches. Teachers there stuck to a curriculum prescribed by the county. Working with students designated as gifted, Ms. McNeill began teaching familiar novels like “Lord of the Flies” and “Mockingbird.” But she said, “I just never felt that they were as excited about reading as I wanted them to be.”

Ms. McNeill, an amateur poet whose favorite authors include Barbara Kingsolver and Nick Hornby, wondered if forcing some students through a book had dampened their interest in reading altogether. She tried “literature circles,” in which a smaller group chose a book to read together, and had some success. Then, in early 2008, she attended a professional seminar in Atlanta led by Nancie Atwell, the author of “In the Middle” and “The Reading Zone,” popular guidebooks for teachers that promote giving students widespread choice. “In the Middle” has sold nearly half a million copies since it was first published in 1987.


An Eye-Opening Experience

Over the last two decades, Ms. Atwell, along with Lucy M. Calkins, founding director of the Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University’s Teachers College, has emerged as a guru of the reading workshop approach. Ms. Atwell brings 45 teachers a year to her base of operations, the Center for Teaching and Learning, a small private school she founded in Edgecomb, Me., an hour north of Portland. Last September Ms. McNeill spent a week there with four other English teachers, each of whom had paid $800, observing Ms. Atwell’s work.

That first cool fall morning, 17 seventh- and eighth-grade students assembled for their reading and writing class in a large room overlooking a grove of birch and maple trees. Shelves of books ringed the room. The students flopped in forest green beanbag chairs set in a circle on the carpeted floor. At the front Ms. Atwell sat in a rocking chair, a small stack of volumes beside her.

Ms. McNeill watched closely, taking notes. After a session in which the students edited poems they had been writing, Ms. Atwell ceded the rocking chair to students, who gave short talks recommending books to their classmates.

One eighth grader presented “Getting the Girl” by Markus Zusak, the author of “The Book Thief,” a best-selling young-adult novel about the Holocaust that had been one of the boy’s favorites. He highlighted the book’s unusual line breaks and one-word sentences, concluding, “It’s a fun, good read.”

When Ms. Atwell resumed her seat in the rocking chair, she pitched several titles she had read over the weekend. She held up “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle,” the novel by David Wroblewski that had been anointed by Oprah Winfrey.

“It is just incredible,” she said, leaning forward. “It is about signing, dog-breeding, muteness, adolescence, the beauty of the American Midwest.” Before she could even lay it back on the floor, Maura Anderson, an eighth grader, asked if she could take it to start reading that afternoon.

In a 30-minute reading period that followed, each student hunkered low in a beanbag chair. Ms. Atwell moved quietly among them, coming in close for whispered conferences and noting page numbers to make sure each student had read at least 20 pages the night before.

One girl had “Nineteen Minutes” by Jodi Picoult, while a boy a few seats away read Khaled Hosseini‘s novel “The Kite Runner.” Another boy was absorbed in “If I Die in a Combat Zone,” by Tim O’Brien.

Throughout the week the teachers observed Ms. Atwell open each class with a mini-lesson about a poem as well as one in which she talked about research on how the brain learns to read fluidly.

Despite the student freedom, Ms. Atwell constantly fed suggestions to the children. She was strict about not letting them read what she considered junk: no “Gossip Girl” or novels based on video games. But she acknowledged that certain children needed to be nudged into books by allowing them to read popular titles like the “Twilight” series by Stephenie Meyer.

At the end of the first day the teachers discussed the demands of standardized testing and how some had faced resistance from administrators. Ms. McNeill said her students had so little freedom that they even had to be escorted to the bathrooms.

Suddenly she was overcome with emotion as she contrasted that environment with the student-led atmosphere in Ms. Atwell’s class. “It makes me sad that my students can’t have this every day,” she said, wiping away tears. “These children are so fortunate.”

Ms. Atwell reminded the teachers that she had once taught in a public school and faced strict requirements. “There is nothing that we are doing here that can’t be done in any public school,” she said. “The question is, how do you tweak these hidebound traditions of the institutions?”


Choice as a Motivator

Literacy specialists say that giving children a say in what they read can help motivate them. “If your goal is simply to get them to read more, choice is the way to go,” said Elizabeth Birr Moje, a literacy professor at the University of Michigan. Ms. Moje added that choices should be limited and that teachers should guide students toward high-quality literature.

Though research on the academic effects of choice has been limited, some studies have shown that giving students modest options can enhance educational results. In 11 studies conducted with third, fourth and fifth graders over the past 10 years, John T. Guthrie, now a retired professor of literacy at the University of Maryland, found that giving children limited choices from a classroom collection of books on a topic helped improve performance on standardized reading comprehension tests.

“The main thing is feeling in charge,” he said. Most experts say that teachers do not have to choose between one approach or the other and that they can incorporate the best of both methods: reading some novels as a group while also giving students opportunities to select their own books.

But literacy specialists also say that instilling a habit is as important as creating a shared canon. “If what we’re trying to get to is, everybody has read ‘Ethan Frome’ and Henry James and Shakespeare, then the challenge for the teacher is how do you make that stuff accessible and interesting enough that kids will stick with it,” said Catherine E. Snow, a professor at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. “But if the goal is, how do you make kids lifelong readers, then it seems to me that there’s a lot to be said for the choice approach. As adults, as good readers, we don’t all read the same thing, and we revel in our idiosyncrasies as adult readers, so kids should have some of the same freedom.”

Ms. McNeill returned to Jonesboro determined to apply what she had observed. She knew she was luckier than some of the other teachers in the Edgecomb program, who were saddled with large classes and short periods. She had no more than 20 students in any class, for 100 minutes every day.

Trying to emulate the relaxed atmosphere of Ms. Atwell’s classroom, Ms. McNeill pushed the desks out of their rows and against the white cinderblock walls. She placed a circle of carpet swatches on the tile floor and put a small wooden rocking chair at the front.

Her principal, Freda Givens, was supportive, persuaded by Ms. McNeill’s enthusiasm. But Ms. McNeill warned her: “I am not sure how it’s going to pan out on the standardized tests.”

Ms. McNeill started to build her classroom library. All told, she spent about $1,000 of her own money buying books, many of which were titles she had seen in Ms. Atwell’s classroom, including “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle”; “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy; and several novels by the young-adult favorites Walter Dean Myers and Sarah Dessen.

Modeling herself after Ms. Atwell, she began conducting sales pitches for books in her warm drawl and invited her students to do so, too. Every day Ms. McNeill allotted 30 minutes for the students to read on their own. Chatty, but firm if she detected that someone was not reading, she scooted from student to student on a lime-green stool, noting page numbers on a clipboard chart. She asked questions about the books and suggested new ones.

Many students began the year choosing books she regarded as too simple, and she prodded them to a higher level. After Khristian Howard, an earnest seventh grader, read “Chaka! Through the Fire,” a memoir by the R&B star Chaka Khan, Ms. McNeill suggested that she try Maya Angelou’s autobiography, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”

Khristian, who found the book tough at first, ended up writing an enthusiastic six-page entry in her journal. Ms. McNeill went on to suggest “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath and “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith, a book, Khristian wrote, that she “really didn’t want to come to an end.“

To help teach concepts like allegory or foreshadowing, Ms. McNeill began virtually every session by dissecting a poem that the class then discussed. One morning this spring Jabari Denson, an eighth grader, read aloud “Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes. The class spent 15 minutes teasing out the metaphorical meaning of a line about “places with no carpet on the floor.”

She required that the students record their impressions of each book, citing specific passages and analyzing themes. Jennae often wrote four or five pages in her tightly packed print. A year earlier she had been bored by reading and had little to say about books.

But now new worlds were opening. In January she read “It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” a novel by Ned Vizzini about a depressed teenager who ends up in a psychiatric ward. “After reading this book, I have decided that I want to be a psychologist,” Jennae wrote in the spiral-bound notebook where she kept her journal. The book, she continued, had changed how she viewed mental illness.

“I think people that are labeled ‘crazy’ aren’t crazy at all; they just see the world differently than others,” she wrote. “They don’t really know how to express it correctly so nobody else knows how to accept it so they lock them away in a psych ward.”

Ms. McNeill did hit some snags. In January two of her students failed a state writing assessment. Over dinner one night with her husband, Dan McNeill, she confessed her fear that Ms. Givens, the principal, might not let her continue with her radical approach. But Ms. Givens did not interfere.

Ms. McNeill knew that students who were now being asked to write much more frequently about their reading might be tempted to copy the work of others. In March one of her most reluctant seventh graders plagiarized a journal entry about “Tomorrow, When the War Began,” a novel by John Marsden about children coping with an invasion of Australia. The boy did not even bother to remove the words “The Horn Book, starred review,” from the printout he pasted into his notebook.

She admonished the boy and asked him to redo his entry. She was discouraged to see that he wrote only one paragraph that amounted to not much more than a plot summary, concluding, “I highly recommend this book to young teens who like this kind of stuff.”

To Ms. McNeill’s chagrin, several students, most of them boys, stubbornly refused to read more challenging fare. One afternoon this spring she pulled her stool next to Masai, an eighth grader who wore a sparkling stud in one ear, as he stared at a laptop screen on which he was supposed to be composing a book review. Beside him sat the second volume in the “Maximum Ride” series, which chronicles the adventures of genetically mutated children who are part human, part bird. He was struggling to find anything to write.

“I keep trying to get you to read things other than James Patterson,” Ms. Atwell said, tapping the book’s cover. “But if you are going to write a book review of substance, you are going to have to find substance in the book.”

In staff meetings with fellow English teachers, Ms. McNeill showed them her students’ journals and explained her new teaching methods. A few were curious, but none were ready to give up their textbooks or class novels.

Some colleagues suggested that Ms. McNeill was only able to teach this way because of who was in her class. “Ms. McNeill has the freedom to do that because she teaches gifted students,” said Linda White, an eighth-grade teacher.

But in May Ms. McNeill felt vindicated when she received the results of her students’ performance on standardized state reading tests.

Of her 18 eighth graders, 15 exceeded requirements, scoring in the highest bracket. When the same students had been in her seventh-grade class, only 4 had reached that level. Of her 13 current seventh graders, 8 scored at the top.

In the final week of school Helen Arnold, Jennae’s mother, sent Ms. McNeill an e-mail message thanking her. “She never really just read herself for enjoyment until she took your class,” Ms. Arnold wrote.

Ms. McNeill knew she had not succeeded in persuading all of her students to read deeply or widely. But she was optimistic that she would capture a few more in the coming school year.

A week after her students left for the summer, Ms. McNeill boxed up the class sets of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” along with “Diary of Anne Frank” and “The Giver” by Lois Lowry, keeping just three copies of each for her collection. She carted the rest to the English department storeroom.

    A New Assignment: Pick Books You Like, NYT, 30.8.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/30/books/30reading.html







A New Initiative on Education


August 24, 2009
The New York Times


To the Editor:

Re “Dangling $4.3 Billion, Obama Pushes States to Shift on Education” (front page, Aug. 17):

When President Obama was elected, many parents and educators had hoped to see a lessening of the reliance on standardized testing to assess student progress and address the issue of equity.

For many years, there has been a terrible distortion of education’s promise, as everything besides reading, writing and math has increasingly been cut. The arts, imaginative endeavors, recess, inquiry, curriculum that integrates various domains: these are not luxuries but are integral to student identification with learning.

In addition, the use of test data for purposes of evaluating and compensating teachers will work against the education of the most vulnerable children. It is a mistake to conceptualize education as a “Race to the Top” (as federal grants to schools are titled) — for children or schools. The Obama administration should reject the basic tenet of No Child Left Behind: children are not numbers.

Julie Diamond

New York, Aug. 17, 2009

The writer taught in the New York City public school system for more than two decades and is the author of “Welcome to the Aquarium: A Year in the Lives of Children.”

To the Editor:

President Obama’s new education initiative is a misguided effort to restore America’s education prowess. Linking teacher evaluations to faulty standardized tests ignores the socioeconomic impact on a nation that is both rich and poor.

Can a teacher confronting the poverty of some children in Bedford-Stuyvesant be made to compete with a teacher instructing affluent children in Scarsdale? One must consider all societal effects on the education of our children.

Maurice R. Berube

Norfolk, Va., Aug. 17, 2009

The writer is scholar emeritus at Old Dominion University and the co-author of “The End of School Reform.”

To the Editor:

As a former business executive and current New York City public high school educator, as well as director of a charter school, I applaud the effort to use standardized-test measures to evaluate teachers and schools. But it is critical that the incentive not reward solely yearly results; the financial services industry debacle has taught us a hard lesson about short-term orientation and how it distorts behavior.

Rather, I propose that teachers be evaluated on three criteria: student data, principal evaluation and peer review, which would encourage an enduring teamwork culture within and across departments that is the hallmark of great schools. Mitch Kurz

Bronx, Aug. 18, 2009

The writer is college adviser/academic dean of the Bronx Center for Science and Math and director of the Promise Academy Charter Schools, Harlem Children’s Zone.

To the Editor:

President Obama has the right idea when he says he wants to get rid of ineffective teachers and reward the good ones. But his Race to the Top proposal, which includes using standardized test results to judge teacher performance, will do nothing to meet that goal.

I left my job as a public school teacher shortly after the No Child Left Behind law was passed. My job went from teaching children to teaching test preparation in very little time. Many of our nation’s teachers have left their profession because the focus on testing leaves little room for passion, creativity or intellect.

The No Child Left Behind law identifies successful schools as those that show improved test scores on a test with little redeeming value. Now, the Race to the Top proposal seems to identify “good” teachers as those who successfully teach to the test.

I voted for President Obama. I trust that he does not want to sap our teachers of their creativity and inventiveness. I also trust that he does not want our next generation to be a group of men and women who have learned to await the next multiple-choice problem.

Darcy Hicks

Westport, Conn., Aug. 17, 2009

To the Editor:

It is becoming universally accepted that the best (only) way to fix our schools is by using student scores on standardized tests to rate both students and their teachers. Tragically, President Obama’s focus on accountability through testing is doomed to fail.

Standardized tests are, by their nature, predictable. Most administrators and teachers, fearing failure and loss of position and/or bonuses, de-emphasize or delete those parts of the curriculum least likely to be tested. The students sense this and neglect serious studying because they know that they will be prepped for the big exams.

Perversely, all of this (plus the constant pressure of grades) leads to a decrease in students’ abilities to understand, retain, apply, revere and enjoy what they are asked to learn.

High test scores do not guarantee student learning. The evaluation of a student’s progress and a teacher’s abilities requires an act of human judgment (much like evaluating a work of art). Our obsession with testing reveals our misunderstanding of the true nature of education. Martin Rudolph

Lee, Mass., Aug. 17, 2009

The writer was a math teacher at Oceanside High School, 1962-2006.

To the Editor:

The administration’s superseding of “states’ rights” by essentially forcing states to follow its demands once again shows a certain insensitivity to time-tested educational principles. Just as mathematics is the most easily quantifiable subject in the curriculum and thereby lends itself to easy testing, to place inordinate importance on test results forces all teachers to concentrate on teaching to the test — especially when their very livelihood is dependent on these results!

To “teach to the test” in mathematics by having students memorize facts and mnemonic devices takes away from the true value of learning mathematics and its ever-increasing importance in our technological society. To deny students the opportunity to be enriched with mathematical concepts prevents them from learning to appreciate the power and beauty of mathematics. In the long range, this could cause irreparable harm to our society!

Alfred S. Posamentier

New York, Aug. 17, 2009

The writer is a professor of mathematics education and dean of the School of Education at the City College of New York, CUNY.

    A New Initiative on Education, NYT, 24.8.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/24/opinion/l24educ.html






Dangling Money, Obama Pushes Education Shift


August 17, 2009
The New York Times


Holding out billions of dollars as a potential windfall, the Obama administration is persuading state after state to rewrite education laws to open the door to more charter schools and expand the use of student test scores for judging teachers.

That aggressive use of economic stimulus money by Education Secretary Arne Duncan is provoking heated debates over the uses of standardized testing and the proper federal role in education, issues that flared frequently during President George W. Bush’s enforcement of his signature education law, called No Child Left Behind.

A recent case is California, where legislative leaders are vowing to do anything necessary, including rewriting a law that prohibits the use of student scores in teacher evaluations, to ensure that the state is eligible for a chunk of the $4.3 billion the federal Education Department will soon award to a dozen or so states. The law had strong backing from the state teachers union.

Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Tennessee and several other states have moved to bring their laws or policies into line with President Obama’s school improvement agenda.

The administration’s stance has caught by surprise educators and officials who had hoped that Mr. Obama’s calls during the campaign for an overhaul of the No Child law would mean a reduced federal role and less reliance on standardized testing. The law requires schools to bring all students to proficiency in reading and math by 2014 and penalizes those that do not meet annual goals.

The proposed rules make testing an even more powerful factor in schools by extending the use of scores to teacher evaluations. The proposed rules for the $4.3 billion in grants, which the administration calls the Race to the Top, require states to show they are fostering innovation, improving achievement, raising standards, recruiting effective teachers, turning around failed schools and building data systems.

Just to be eligible to apply, a state must have no “barriers to linking data on student achievement or student growth to teachers and principals for the purpose of teacher and principal evaluation,” the rules say.

While many educators and advocates support the administration, there has also been an outpouring of complaints, including in comments on the rules filed with the Education Department. (The department will issue final rules after the comment period ends Aug. 28.)

“The proposed regulations are overly burdensome,” Robert P. Grimesey, superintendent of the Orange County Public Schools in Virginia, said in written comments. “They give the impression that stimulus funds provide the federal government with unbridled capacity to impose bureaucratic demands.”

Much of the grumbling is from educators who say they supported Mr. Obama’s candidacy.

“I am a public school teacher who vehemently wanted to vote for a president who would save us from No Child Left Behind,” Diane Aoki of Kealakekua, Hawaii, wrote to the department. But linking test scores to teacher evaluations, Ms. Aoki said, means “the potential is there for the test frenzy to get worse than it is under No Child Left Behind.”

An Education Department spokesman, Peter Cunningham, said, “There’s a healthy debate around this grand application, which is what we were hoping for.”

“We’re mindful of all the criticisms about federal overreaching, about too much testing, of all the complaints about No Child Left Behind,” Mr. Cunningham said. “These complaints come up all the time in conversations about all our programs, not just this one, with education officials across the country. The context that No Child has generated is the context that we have to live with.”

The New Teacher Project, a nonprofit group, published a report this month handicapping states’ chances. Florida and Louisiana, it said, were “highly competitive,” New Jersey and others were “competitive,” and Connecticut was “somewhat competitive.” California, New York and Wisconsin, the report said, were not eligible because of state laws limiting the use of achievement data in teacher evaluation.

Lawmakers and officials in California and Wisconsin are debating whether to make legislative changes.

In New York, officials are pushing back against suggestions that the state is ineligible. Merryl H. Tisch, chancellor of the Board of Regents, said Friday that because the law banned the use of student data in evaluating teachers only for tenure decisions, New York should be eligible.

Also, Dr. Tisch said, the state law is scheduled to expire in June 2010, and “there is no appetite to renew that law.”

Not everyone is upset with the administration’s tactics.

“We like the way the administration is using Race to the Top to send a message about its priorities,” said Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform. “We like that it’s gotten states to take a close look at their laws and practices.”

Diane Ravitch, an education historian at New York University, disagreed. “The Department of Education should respect the requirements of federalism and look to states to offer their best ideas rather than mandating policies that the current administration likes,” Dr. Ravitch said in comments filed with the department.

An early sign that the promise of education financing could induce state changes came after several blunt statements by Mr. Duncan this spring that states limiting the growth of charter schools would have trouble getting an award.

Lawmakers in Illinois, Louisiana, Tennessee and several other states responded by lifting caps on the numbers of charter schools or by expanding the pool of students eligible to attend them. Charter schools are publicly financed, but they are managed by groups separate from school districts and are largely free from traditional school work rules.

In Indiana, lawmakers beat back an effort to impose a moratorium on new charters and, after Mr. Duncan warned that states prohibiting the use of test data in teacher evaluations would be ineligible for awards, revoked such a prohibition.

Union lobbying was crucial in passing such laws. The two national unions have not formally commented on the proposed rules. They have opposed using test scores in evaluations, saying misuse of ambiguous data could lead to unfair dismissals.

California got attention in June when Mr. Duncan noted in a speech that it was among states that had created “a firewall between students and teacher data.”

“In California, they have 300,000 teachers,” he said. The top 10 percent are the “best in the world,” he said, the bottom 10 percent, “should probably find another profession, yet no one in California can tell you which teacher is in which category.”

“Something is wrong with that picture,” he said.

In response, the state’s superintendent of public instruction, board of education president and education secretary jointly wrote to Mr. Duncan saying his concerns were “based on a misunderstanding.”

California’s law, they argued, bars state officials from using test results to evaluate teachers but does not block local districts from doing so. Only a few do.

State Senator Gloria Romero, a Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, said in an interview that because “disagreement continues” between the state and Obama officials, she was drafting legislation to clarify the law. Ms. Romero has scheduled a hearing on the issue for Aug. 26.

“We’ll do everything in our power,” she said, “to make sure that California is in compliance with the expectations of the Obama administration.”

Jennifer Medina contributed reporting.

    Dangling Money, Obama Pushes Education Shift, NYT, 17.8.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/17/education/17educ.html






As Charter Schools Unionize, Many Debate Effect


July 27, 2009
The New York Times


CHICAGO — Dissatisfied with long hours, churning turnover and, in some cases, lower pay than instructors at other public schools, an increasing number of teachers at charter schools are unionizing.

Labor organizing that began two years ago at seven charter schools in Florida has proliferated over the last year to at least a dozen more charters from Massachusetts and New York to California and Oregon.

Charter schools, which are publicly financed but managed by groups separate from school districts, have been a mainstay of the education reform movement and widely embraced by parents. Because most of the nation’s 4,600 charter schools operate without unions, they have been freer to innovate, their advocates say, allowing them to lengthen the class day, dismiss underperforming teachers at will, and experiment with merit pay and other changes that are often banned by work rules governing traditional public schools.

“Charter schools have been too successful for the unions to ignore,” said Elizabeth D. Purvis, executive director of the Chicago International Charter School, where teachers voted last month to unionize 3 of its 12 campuses.

President Obama has been especially assertive in championing charter schools. On Friday, he and the education secretary, Arne Duncan, announced a competition for $4.35 billion in federal financing for states that ease restrictions on charter schools and adopt some charter-like standards for other schools — like linking teacher pay to student achievement.

But the unionization effort raises questions about whether unions will strengthen the charter movement by stabilizing its young, often transient teaching force, or weaken it by preventing administrators from firing ineffective teachers and imposing changes they say help raise achievement, like an extended school year.

“A charter school is a more fragile host than a school district,” said Paul T. Hill, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington. “Labor unrest in a charter school can wipe it out fast. It won’t go well for unions if the schools they organize decline in quality or go bust.”

Unions are not entirely new to charter schools. Teachers at hundreds of charter schools in Wisconsin, California and elsewhere have long been union members, not because they signed up, but because of local laws, like those that extend union status to all schools in a state or district.

Steve Barr, the founder of one large charter network, Green Dot, said his group operates its 17 charter schools in Los Angeles and one in the Bronx with union staff because it makes sense in the heavily unionized environment of public education.

In recent months, teachers have won union recognition at schools including the Boston Conservatory Lab School, a school in Brooklyn that is part of the Knowledge Is Power Program, an Afro-centric school in Philadelphia, four campuses in the Accelerated School network in Los Angeles, and a Montessori school in Oregon. Moves toward unionizing have revealed greater teacher unrest than was previously known.

“I was frustrated with all the turnover among staff, with the lack of teacher input, with working longer and harder than teachers at other schools and earning less,” said Jennifer Gilley, a social studies teacher at the Ralph Ellison Campus of the Chicago International Charter School, who said she made $38,000 as a base salary as a starting teacher, compared with about $43,500 paid by the Chicago Public Schools.

The potential for further unionization of charter schools is a matter of debate.

“They’ll have a success here and there,” said Todd Ziebarth, a vice president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. “But unionized charters will continue to be a small part of the movement.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, called the gains of the past year “a precursor.”

“You’re going to see far more union representation in charter schools,” Ms. Weingarten said. “We had a group of schools that were basically unorganized, groups of teachers wanting a voice, a union willing to start organizing them, and now money in our organizing budget to back that up. And all of that has come together in the last 6 to 12 months.”

She quoted Albert Shanker, her union’s founder, as saying charter schools should be “incubators of good instructional practice.”

“I’m adding to the argument,” Ms. Weingarten said. “Let them be incubators of good labor practice.”

The largest teachers union, the National Education Association, has no national charter organizing campaign. But some of its state affiliates have helped charters unionize.

Some recently unionized charters say they are feeling their way forward.

The Knowledge Is Power Program, known as KIPP, which operates 82 mostly high-performing charter schools nationwide, is facing first-time negotiations with teachers at its KIPP Amp Academy in Brooklyn, where teachers this spring won affiliation with the United Federation of Teachers.

KIPP is also facing demands for higher pay at its high-performing Ujima Village Academy in Baltimore, which has been unionized under Maryland law since its founding.

“Our schools had largely been left alone,” said Steve Mancini, a KIPP spokesman. “Now we’re getting all this union attention.” One goal KIPP will seek in negotiations in New York and Baltimore, Mr. Mancini said, is to preserve the principals’ right to mold their teams.

Whether KIPP can maintain that posture in its negotiations remains to be seen. Another question is whether the strains of unionization will affect the culture of collegiality that has helped charter schools prosper.

Here in Chicago, where students at several Chicago International campuses have scores among the city’s highest for nonselective schools, teachers began organizing last fall after an administrator increased workloads to six classes a day from five, said Emily Mueller, a Spanish teacher at Northtown Academy.

“We were really proud of the scores, and still are,” Ms. Mueller said. “But the workload, teaching 160 kids a day, it wasn’t sustainable. You can’t put out the kind of energy we were putting out for our kids year after year.”

Some teachers disagreed. Theresa Furr, a second-grade teacher at the Wrightwood campus, said she opposed unionization.

“Every meeting I went to,” Ms. Furr said, “it was always ‘What can we get?’ and never ‘How is this going to make our students’ education better?’ ”

For Joyce Pae, an English teacher at Ralph Ellison, the decision was agonizing. Her concerns over what she saw as chaotic turnover and inconsistency in allocating merit pay led her to join the drive. But after school leaders began paying more attention to teachers’ views, she said, she voted against unionization in June.

Union teachers won the vote, 73-49.

“If nothing else,” Ms. Pae said, “this experience has really helped teachers feel empowered.”

    As Charter Schools Unionize, Many Debate Effect, NYT, 27.7.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/27/education/27charter.html?hp






Meet the New Elite, Not Like the Old


July 26, 2009
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — They are the children of 1969 — the year that America’s most prestigious universities began aggressively recruiting blacks and Latinos to their nearly all-white campuses.

No longer would Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Columbia be the domain of the privileged. Instead, in response to the national soul-searching prompted by the civil rights movement, America’s premier colleges would try to become more representative of the population as a whole.

Forty years later, America is being led, to a striking extent, by a new elite, a cohort of the best and the brightest whose advancement was formed, at least in part, by affirmative action policies. From Barack and Michelle Obama (Columbia, Princeton, Harvard) to Eric Holder (Columbia) to Sonia Sotomayor (Princeton, Yale) to Valerie Jarrett (Michigan, Stanford), the country is now seeing, in full flower, the fruition of this wooing of minorities to institutions that for much of the nation’s history have groomed America’s leaders.

And yet the consequences of that change remain unresolved, as became clear on Friday, when Mr. Obama grappled a second time with the arrest of the Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. in his own home.

The incident, the president said, offered the potential to soothe longstanding distrust between minorities and police officers. But it also laid bare another reality, that the children of 1969, even those who now occupy niches at the top of society, regard their status as complicated, ambiguous and vulnerable.

“Whether I were black or white, I think that me commenting on this and hopefully contributing to constructive — as opposed to negative — understandings about the issue, is part of my portfolio,” Mr. Obama said.

It was a reminder that Mr. Obama, in addition to being the most powerful American, is also the fulfillment of the ideals embraced by Ivy League minority recruiters in 1969. Mr. Gates entered Yale that year, as one of 96 black freshmen. Today that number seems small. But there had been only six black students just three years before.

Mr. Gates belonged to the first affirmative action wave at top universities — a wave that continued into the 1970s and the 1980s. I was one of its beneficiaries. A black 17-year-old from Monrovia, Liberia, I was one of some 200 black freshmen at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1983.

My first roommate was a white student from Seagrove, N.C., whose SAT scores and grade-point average were higher than mine. Privately, I consoled myself that I had qualifications that she didn’t: I could name the capital of every country in Africa; countries she had never heard of. I knew where the Zambezi River emptied into the Indian Ocean. None of that had been on the SAT.

But every now and then I feared I was faking it, that my white classmates had something I didn’t. There were things they seemed to know instinctively, that I had to look up. I remember getting laughed at during a game of Pictionary when I couldn’t come up with the word for a giant bird landing on a lawn with a baby in its mouth.

My feelings of inadequacy were not unusual, said David L. Evans, the Saturn/Apollo electrical engineer hired by Harvard in 1969 to help lead its affirmative action program. When Mr. Evans visited public high schools in Arkansas in search of promising black students, he was met with skepticism. “Even people who didn’t have any mean-spiritedness would say to the students, ‘You going to be up there with the Kennedys?’ ” he recalled. “ ‘How do you think you can make it there?’ ”

There was anxiety, too, among the originators of race-based affirmative action programs. “The idealistic version of why these universities embraced racial affirmative action is that they said, ‘Hey, we’re in the business of training elites, it would be better for America if there were a diverse elite,’ ” said Nicholas Lemann, dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and author of “The Big Test,” a history of the SAT and the rise of America’s meritocracy. To its architects, the minority recruitment was the next phase for universities that for years had paved the way for whites, particularly the offspring of upper-class alumni, Mr. Lemann said.

“The cynical version of why they did this is they said, ‘We can’t control this country, it’s becoming too diverse, we need to socialize the brighter minorities and make them more like us.’ ”

In many ways, being molded into people “more like us” gave the children of 1969 an advantage denied most of their white counterparts. They learned to navigate within a second world. They also absorbed some of its ideas and values. And they paved the way for the next generation.

“We had to go through this phase of larger integration for Barack Obama to be possible,” Mr. Gates said in an interview a few days after his arrest. “It would have been impossible for Barack Obama to go from a historic black school to become president, at this time. The whole point is that a broad swath of America had to be able to identify with him.”

It also enabled Mr. Obama to run “the most race-blind campaign” of any black presidential candidate, said Gwen Ifill, the PBS news reporter whose book “The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama” examines the rise of African-Americans in politics.

Perhaps. But the children of 1969 dwell in a complex world. They retain an ethnic identity that includes its own complement of cultural, historical and psychological issues and considerations. This emerged at Judge Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings. And it emerged again last week, when Mr. Obama joked in the White House East Room that if he ran afoul of the police, “I’d get shot.” In saying this, he seemed to draw on the fears of black men across the United States, including those within the new power elite.

What Mr. Obama seemed to be demonstrating was what Mr. Lemann of Columbia calls a “double consciousness” that allows the children of 1969 to flow more easily between the world which their skin color bequeathed them and the world which their college degree opened up for them.

It’s the same double consciousness I acquired at U.N.C., though I didn’t think about it that way as a student. Sure, my white friends were learning a little more about black (and African) culture from me. But I was absorbing much more from them, since they surrounded me in such great number. At the time it seemed I had the advantage; I would leave college having gotten much more from my interactions with my white friends than they could possibly have gotten from me. And the principal thing I learned was how to make them feel at ease around me.

Except, of course, on those occasions when one can’t. Life outside the university doesn’t duplicate the conditions of university life.

“I can’t wear my Harvard gown everywhere I go,” Professor Gates said. “We — all of us in the crossover generation — have multiple identities, and being black trumps all of those other identities.”

On Friday Mr. Obama said he hoped Mr. Gates’s incident might become a “teachable moment.” It is a daunting task for the children of 1969: finding out whether the double consciousness they honed in the Ivy League can actually get this country to listen — and react — to race in a different way.


Helene Cooper, a White House correspondent for The Times, is the author of “The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood.”

    Meet the New Elite, Not Like the Old, NYT, 26.7.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/26/weekinreview/26cooper.html







Aiming for College, Seeking an Edge


July 22, 2009
The New York Times


To the Editor:

Re “Before College, Costly Advice Just on Getting In” (front page, July 19):

Reading this article made me extremely angry. I cannot believe that people have no shame in charging so much for college counseling. It’s too bad that we live in a society whose culture dictates such crazed behavior to get kids into certain schools.

The only necessary ingredients to get into a good school are passion, dedication and good old hard work. There is nothing magical about these counselors other than the spell they cast on bank accounts.

Students should find something, or several things, that they love and care about and work hard to become the best they can be. Kids have gotten into top colleges writing about buying milk, Barbies and, for me, my perseverance with piano. Study hard, maintain a healthy lifestyle and stay positive. That’s it.

S. Susan Zhu
Paris, July 19, 2009

The writer is a student at Harvard.

To the Editor:

Your article highlights unscrupulous practices of college counselors, an issue worthy of attention. But it overlooks many of the benefits a college counselor can provide.

I grew up in Greenwich, Conn., attended public school and worked with a college counselor from eighth grade on. She helped me select schools that fit my interests, personality and academic goals. She set deadlines and helped me understand the process.

More than that, she encouraged me to take the risk and apply to Yale while my public school guidance counselor advised against it. Had it not been for her encouragement I would have missed out on an amazing experience.

Parents should know that college counselors are not miracle workers, but they can provide valuable insight into matching a child and a college, along with easing a stressful and complicated process.

Emily Weissler
Riverside, Conn., July 19, 2009

The writer is a 2009 graduate of Yale.

To the Editor:

As president of the Independent Educational Consultants Association, I hope readers will recognize that all consultants shouldn’t be lumped together. Our members must pass a rigorous application procedure and annually sign an agreement to abide by our Principles of Good Practice.

We, too, regret that there are consultants who do not abide by our association’s standards. We encourage our members to charge reasonable fees; more than 90 percent of our members do some sort of pro bono work and/or work on a sliding fee scale.

Our members are professional consultants who demonstrate competence and are screened carefully. When students and families seek outside help, it is important that they work with an expert who is competent, ethical and well trained, and who charges reasonable fees.

Diane Geller
Los Angeles, July 20, 2009

To the Editor:

Your article demonstrates what is wrong with the college admissions process. If admissions officers would stop trying to play God and simply put all applicants who meet scholastic standards into a lottery, they would end up with just as good a class as by current methods — and they would save students and colleges much grief and money.

Saul Ricklin
Bristol, R.I., July 20, 2009

To the Editor:

As a high school guidance counselor and the parent of a high school senior, I spend a lot of time contemplating and dealing with the college application process. And while a private college counselor may be a nice addition to one’s admissions arsenal, most students need not venture any further than their school’s guidance office for help with this process.

The major criteria used in college admissions are academic rigor; extracurricular activities and leadership roles; SAT and ACT scores; teacher and counselor recommendations; and the application essay. The average high school guidance counselor is qualified to advise students on all of the above.

As with other aspects of education and life in general, some students will have access to more services than others. Ultimately, however, each student will be judged on how well he or she meets the admissions criteria of each college. And this is controlled by the student, not by the counselor.

Al Trafford
Short Hills, N.J., July 20, 2009

To the Editor:

Your article is right to point out the inconsistent background claims of some independent admissions advisers, but college-bound students and their families should focus more on the lack of training for school-based counselors.

Fewer than 50 of the hundreds of graduate programs offer a course designed to teach school counselors how to assist students with choosing, applying to and paying for college.

Since the vast majority of college advising occurs in schools, the first step in improving its quality is to mandate training in college advising for school-based counselors in all graduate programs.

Patrick J. O’Connor
Birmingham, Mich., July 19, 2009

The writer is director of college counseling at the Roeper School and past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

To the Editor:

By focusing on the few boutique college counselors who charge exorbitant fees and feed off the fears of status-seeking, upper-crust clients, your article missed the opportunity to highlight the good that the majority of educational consultants provide.

The average payment to an educational consultant is around $3,000, not $40,000. We work with clients who want the best fit possible between student and college and are willing to pay for help.

Some have special needs or learning disabilities. I helped a student with Asperger’s find a school where she will not be overwhelmed, and also helped a depressed student transfer from a large, impersonal university to a small liberal arts college.

These young people are not interested in learning how to overdress for an interview. They are seeking assistance in finding colleges where they will thrive.

Eliot Applestein
North Bethesda, Md., July 19, 2009

The writer is president of Best Four Years, a college counseling service.

    Aiming for College, Seeking an Edge, NYT, 22.7.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/22/opinion/l22college.html






Before College, Costly Advice Just on Getting In


July 19, 2009
The New York Times


The free fashion show at a Greenwich, Conn., boutique in June was billed as a crash course in dressing for a college admissions interview.

Yet the proposed “looks” — a young man in seersucker shorts, a young woman in a blue blazer over a low-cut blouse and short madras skirt — appeared better suited for a nearby yacht club. After Jennifer Delahunty, dean of admissions at Kenyon College, was shown photos of those outfits, she rendered her review.

“I burst out laughing,” she said.

Shannon Duff, the independent college counselor who organized the event, says she ordinarily charges families “in the range of” $15,000 for guidance about the application process, including matters far more weighty than just what to wear.

Ms. Duff is a practitioner in a rapidly growing, largely unregulated field seeking to serve families bewildered by the admissions gantlet at selective colleges.

No test or licensing is required to offer such services, and there is no way to evaluate the counselors’ often extravagant claims of success or experience. And Ms. Duff’s asking price, though higher than many, is eclipsed by those of competitors who may charge upwards of $40,000 — more than a year’s tuition at many colleges.

In the last three years, the number of independent admissions advisers (as opposed to school-based counselors) is estimated to have grown to nearly 5,000, from about 2,000, according to the Independent Educational Consultants Association, a membership group trying to promote basic standards of competency and ethics. While initially clustered on the East and West Coasts, counselors are making inroads across the country.

The consultants association has made a particular target of counselors who boast of helping nearly all their clients gain admission to their top-choice colleges.

“When you say things like, ‘We know the secrets of getting in,’ it kind of implies that it’s not the student’s ability,” said Mark H. Sklarow, executive director of the association, in Fairfax, Va. “It suggests that there’s some kind of underground code.”

A reputable, experienced counselor might, for a few hundred dollars, help a student compile a list of prospective colleges, or brainstorm topics for an essay. But others demand tens of thousands of dollars to oversee the entire application process — tutoring jittery applicants on what classes to take in high school or musical instruments to play, the better, their families are told, to impress the admissions dean.

Never mind that admissions officers say that no outsider can truly predict how a particular applicant might fare. “I guess there are snake oil salesman in every field,” said Amy Gutmann, the president of the University of Pennsylvania, “and they are preying on vulnerable and anxious people.”

While the going national rate for such work is about $185 an hour, a counselor in Vermont and another in New York City are among those who charge some families more than $40,000. Their packages might begin when a child is in eighth grade.

“It’s annoying when people complain about the money,” the Vermont-based counselor, Michele Hernandez, said. “I’m at the top of my field. Do people economize when they have a brain tumor and are looking for a neurosurgeon? If you want to go with someone cheaper, or chance it, don’t hire me.”

Dr. Hernandez, a former Dartmouth admissions officer, says she counsels as many as 25 students in each high school grade each year. She also offers four-day “boot camps” every August in a Boston hotel, charging 40 incoming high school seniors as much as $14,000 each.

Lee Stetson, who retired in 2007 after three decades as dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, now has a counseling practice near Philadelphia, where he charges as much as $15,000 for his junior-senior package. Unlike many competitors, Mr. Stetson says he cautions his small group of clients, maybe seven students a year, that he will not handicap their chances of admission to a particular college, nor button-hole former colleagues on their behalf. “I’m hoping they see me more as someone who understands the process,” he said, “than someone who can influence the chances of acceptance.”

While Mr. Stetson was one of the most influential admissions officers in the country, the extent of other counselors’ experience may be more difficult for parents to divine.

On her business Web site, Collegiate Compass, Ms. Duff says she brings “firsthand perspective to today’s admissions landscape,” borne of her earlier work “as a reader” in the Yale undergraduate admissions office. While outside readers help evaluate some candidates’ files, they typically have no decision-making authority.

It is not uncommon for other counselors to exaggerate their backgrounds. Ivy Success, in Garden City, N.Y., which charges some clients nearly $30,000, says on its Web site that its counselors have “years of experience as admissions officers to help you gain an edge in this competitive and uncertain process.”

Victoria Hsiao, a partner in Ivy Success, said in an interview that she had worked as an admissions officer at Cornell for several years in “the late 1990s.” But Jason Locke, the director of undergraduate admissions at the university, said there was no record, or memory, of Ms. Hsiao doing such work. (Mr. Locke did confirm that she graduated from Cornell in 1996.)

Asked about the discrepancy, Ms. Hsiao said she had mainly assisted the admissions office as an alumna who conducted interviews. She also said a partner, Robert Shaw, had been an admissions officer at the University of Pennsylvania. Asked about this in an e-mail message, Mr. Shaw said he had been only “an assistant,” from 1987 to 1988.

“Don’t remember all the details,” he said, adding, “We really don’t want to be a part of your article as we’re not a service for the masses.”

Admissions officers say that for many students, the advice of their high school counselors should suffice. Those applicants who might benefit from supplemental counseling — like those at urban high schools with overworked counselors — are often among the least able to afford such services.

Regardless, colleges say parents should be wary of any counselor’s claim of being able to lobby for a candidate’s admission. While noting that there are “genuinely rational and knowledgeable folks out there doing this work,” Bruce Poch, the dean of admissions at Pomona College, adds, “Some of the independents leave me looking for the nearest emergency shower.”

Though none of the counselors said business was off in the struggling economy, some are making adjustments. Having initially presented the fashion show outfits as serious, Ms. Duff later said she had intended to “create a lighthearted environment,” the better to promote two new advisory DVDs she is offering, “at a price that is accessible.” (One for $45; two for $80.)

Katherine Cohen, the founder of IvyWise in New York City, has a team that charges from a few hundred dollars to more than $40,000. But she also has been emphasizing a spinoff called ApplyWise that for $299 helps students assemble their application in ways reminiscent of Turbo Tax.

Dr. Cohen, a former reader at Yale, is a member of the independent consultants association — despite a claim on the IvyWise Web site that runs afoul of an association admonition. “Congratulations,” it blares, “100 percent of IvyWise students were admitted to one of their top three choices in 2009!”

Fewer than one of every five admissions consultants can claim to be an association member. Bill Dingledine, a longtime educational consultant in Greenville, S.C., is among those advocating even more stringent certification offered by the American Institute of Certified Educational Planners. It requires counselors to pass a three-hour written examination.

The concept has yet to catch on, at least in part because many counselors’ practices are already booming. Asked how many counselors had sought, and won, that certification last year, Mr. Dingledine had a ready answer: about 20.

    Before College, Costly Advice Just on Getting In, NYT, 19.7.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/19/education/19counselor.html






Parent-Paid Aides Ordered Out of City Schools


July 20, 2009
The New York Times


For years, top Manhattan public schools have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from parents to independently hire assistants to help teachers with reading, writing, tying shoelaces or supervising recess. But after a complaint by the city’s powerful teachers union, the Bloomberg administration has ordered an end to the makeshift practice.

Principals have been told that any such aides hired for the coming school year must be employees of the Department of Education, their positions included in official school budgets.

But such employees can command nearly double the pay of the independently hired assistants, and several schools on the Upper East Side either have told current employees they will probably not have jobs in the fall or have put off hiring new employees. That has incensed many parents, who see the aides less as a perk than as a necessity to cope with growing class sizes in well-regarded schools like the Lower Lab School for gifted children, where the average class size is now 28, and Public School 290, where broom closets are used as offices and the cafeteria doubles as a gym.

“The reason the teaching assistants are here is because they’ve been stuffing so many kids in these classes,” said Patrick J. Sullivan, co-president of the Parent-Teacher Association at the Lower Lab School (P.S. 77), where parents spend $250,000 a year on the teaching assistants. “Nobody wants to break any rules, but 28 is just too many kids for one teacher.”

Rebecca Daniels, a mother of two and past president of the Community Education Council for District 2, which stretches from the Upper East Side to TriBeCa, said the move exemplified how city education officials could be oblivious to classroom needs. “I mean,” she said, “how much do parents have to put up with?”

Supplemental fund-raising from parent groups has long raised questions of fairness. While the ability to provide extras — teaching assistants, books, computers and art supplies, enrichment programs — has helped keep middle-class families in urban public schools, it also can make it more difficult for schools in poor neighborhoods to compete.

And education officials and union leaders say that the informal system of hiring teaching assistants that has sprouted up over the past decade raised security concerns because it was not necessarily subject to the city’s screening process. “It’s hurting our union members, and to some extent it could be hurting kids because we don’t know how qualified they are,” said Ron Davis, a spokesman for the United Federation of Teachers, which filed a grievance in October about the hiring.

Ann Forte, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said the city had prohibited parents from directly paying the salaries of school staff members since the 1990s. She added that parent groups could still raise money to add to the staff, as long as they give the funds to their schools, and the assistants hired are employed by the Department of Education.

In a March memorandum, Joel I. Klein, the schools chancellor, instructed principals to immediately report P.T.A.-paid employees to the Department of Education for background checks and fingerprinting.

In response, 18 schools reported a total of 195 employees, including classroom aides, art instructors, lunch monitors and people who help with after-school programs, according to the Education Department. Of those employees, at least 49 had not previously been fingerprinted (some school administrators conducted the checks on their own).

Some of these schools are among the most sought-after in the city, admitting students through a competitive selection process, or serving neighborhoods where families choose to live so their children can attend the local schools.

P.S. 77 reported the largest number of hires, 43; P.S. 290 on the Upper East Side had 28; and a citywide gifted program known as the Anderson School, on the Upper West Side, had 21. Other schools included P.S. 6 on the Upper East Side, P.S. 166 and P.S. 87 on the Upper West Side, and P.S. 8 in Brooklyn Heights.

The current teaching assistants generally earn $12 to $15 an hour, compared with as much as $23 an hour, plus benefits, for the unionized paraprofessionals. Even if schools were willing to pay the higher salaries, they could not keep their assistants because of a citywide hiring freeze.

Average class sizes in the early grades across the city have stayed fairly stable around 21 since 2003, but some Manhattan schools have seen theirs swell. Most of the nearly $150 million in state aid used to reduce class sizes last year went to schools serving low-income students.

Parents at P.S. 290 say they began paying for teaching assistants more than five years ago to provide an extra layer of supervision as enrollment skyrocketed. The assistants there do not help with instruction, but instead hand out papers, take children to the nurse and help supervise recess, where students often have to play on the street. The suggested donation to a teaching assistant fund is $700 a year per child, and half of the school’s families contribute something, for a total of about $200,000 a year.

“This is not like the movers and shakers of Wall Street; this is a middle-class school,” said Emily Heckman, whose 7-year-old son will be entering second grade. “We’re doing this because we’re stuck — we have kids coming out of the windows.”

Parents at several schools said they did not know whether there would be any teaching assistants this fall, citing the additional cost as well as confusion over how to proceed without violating the city’s regulations. “We’re living in this land of limbo trying to find out what happens next,” said Sandi Atkinson, co-president of the P.T.A. at P.S. 116 in Murray Hill, which spends about $100,000 annually for up to nine teaching assistants shared by the kindergarten and first-grade classes.

At P.S. 6, each kindergarten and first-grade class was assigned a full-time assistant, who earned $12 an hour; second- and third-grade classes shared them. The 17 assistants cost nearly $300,000 a year.

The system was so successful, according to parents, that it evolved into a training ground for future teachers: At least half of last year’s assistants had graduate degrees in education and New York State teaching licenses. In recent years, 10 former assistants have been hired as teachers at P.S. 6.

School administrators said that hiring union members not only would cost more, but would also probably bring in people with less experience; the typical paraprofessional does not have a four-year college degree. The school is considering using some of the money raised for teaching assistants to hire a part-time teacher to run enrichment and academic intervention programs.

Sally Holt, whose son, Lucas, 4, is starting at P.S. 6 in the fall, said the caliber of the teaching assistants was one reason she moved from the Upper West Side in 2005.

“I’m afraid of him being lost with a crowd of kids,” she said. “The more adults in the room, the better the chances that his strengths will be recognized and nurtured, and his weaknesses will be addressed.”

    Parent-Paid Aides Ordered Out of City Schools, NYT, 20.7.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/20/education/20schools.html






Op-Ed Columnist

No Size Fits All


July 17, 2009
The New York Times


If you visit a four-year college, you can predict what sort of student you are going to bump into. If you visit a community college, you have no idea. You might see an immigrant kid hoping eventually to get a Ph.D., or another kid who messed up in high school and is looking for a second chance. You might meet a 35-year-old former meth addict trying to get some job training or a 50-year-old taking classes for fun.

These students may not realize it, but they’re tackling some of the country’s biggest problems. Over the past 35 years, college completion rates have been flat. Income growth has stagnated. America has squandered its human capital advantage. Students at these places are on self-directed missions to reverse that, one person at a time.

Community college enrollment has been increasing at more than three times the rate of four-year colleges. This year, in the middle of the recession, many schools are seeing enrollment surges of 10 percent to 15 percent. And the investment seems to pay off. According to one study, students who earn a certificate experience a 15 percent increase in earnings. Students earning an associate degree registered an 11 percent gain.

And yet funding lags. Most people in government, think tanks and the news media didn’t go to community college, and they don’t send their children to them. It’s a blind spot in their consciousness. As a result, four-year colleges receive three times as much federal money per student as community colleges. According to a Brookings Institution report, federal spending for community colleges fell six percent between 2002 and 2005, while spending on four-year colleges increased.

Which is why what President Obama announced this week is so important. He announced a $12 billion plan to produce 5 million more community college grads by 2020.

If the plan were just $12 billion for buildings and student aid, it wouldn’t be worth getting excited about. The money devoted to new construction amounts to about $2 million per campus. With new facilities costing in the tens of millions, that’s not a big deal.

Nor is increased student aid fundamentally important. I’ve had this discussion with my liberal friends a thousand times, and I have come to accept that they will never wrap their minds around the truth: lack of student aid is not the major reason students drop out of college. They drop out because they are academically unprepared or emotionally disengaged or because they lack self-discipline or because bad things are happening at home.

Affordability is way down the list. You can increase student aid a ton and you still won’t have a huge effect on college completion.

What’s important about the Obama initiative is that it doesn’t throw money at the problem. It ties money to reform and has the potential — the potential — to spur a wave of innovation.

People who work at community colleges deserve all the love we can give them, since they get so little prestige day to day. But the fact is many community colleges do a poor job of getting students through. About half drop out before getting a degree.

Most schools have poor accountability systems and inadequately track student outcomes. They have little information about what works. They have trouble engaging students on campus. Many remedial classes (60 percent of students need them) are a joke, often because expectations are too low.

The Obama initiative is designed to go right at these deeper problems. It sets up a significant innovation fund, which, if administered properly, could set in motion a spiral of change. It has specific provisions for remedial education, outcome tracking and online education. It links public sector training with specific private sector employers.

Real reform takes advantage of community colleges’ most elemental feature. These colleges educate students with wildly divergent interests, goals and abilities. They host students with radically different learning styles, many of whom have floundered in traditional classrooms.

Therefore, successful reform has to blow up the standard model. You can’t measure progress by how many hours a student spends with her butt in a classroom chair. You have to incorporate online tutoring, as the military does. You have to experiment with programs like Digital Bridge Academy that are tailored to individual learning styles. You have to track student outcomes, as the Lumina Foundation is doing. You have to build in accountability measures for teachers and administrators.

Maybe this proposal, too, will be captured by the interest groups. But its key architects, Rahm Emanuel in the White House and Representative George Miller, have created a program that is intelligently designed and boldly presented.

It’s a reminder that the Obama administration can produce hope and change — when the White House is the engine of policy creation and not the caboose.

    No Size Fits All, NYT, 17.7.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/17/opinion/17brooks.html






Facing Deficits, Some States Cut Summer School


July 2, 2009
The New York Times


COCOA, Fla. — A year ago, the Brevard County Schools ran a robust summer program here, with dozens of schools bustling with teachers and some 14,000 children practicing multiplication, reading Harry Potter and studying Spanish verbs, all at no cost to parents.

But this year Florida’s budget crisis has gutted summer school. Brevard classrooms are shuttered, and students like 11-year-old Uvenka Jean-Baptiste, whose mother works in a nursing home, are spending their summer days at home, surfing television channels or loitering at a mall.

Nearly every school system in Florida has eviscerated or eliminated summer school this year, and officials are reporting sweeping cuts in states from North Carolina and Delaware to California and Washington. The cuts have come as states across the country are struggling to approve budgets, and California’s governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, declared a fiscal state of emergency on Wednesday.

“We’re seeing a disturbing trend of districts making huge cuts to summer school; they’re just devastating these programs,” said Ron Fairchild, executive director of the National Center for Summer Learning at Johns Hopkins University. “It’s having a disproportionate impact on low-income families.”

The federal stimulus law is channeling $100 billion to public education, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan has repeatedly urged states and districts to spend part of the money to keep schools open this summer.

But thousands of districts have ignored Mr. Duncan’s urgings. In Florida and California, for example, government revenues have fallen so precipitously that, even after receiving federal stimulus dollars, local officials have been forced to make deep cuts to school budgets. Officials in many other states, considering summer school a frill, despite research showing it can narrow the achievement gap between poor and affluent children, have spent their stimulus money elsewhere.

An Education Department spokeswoman, Sandra Abrevaya, said the agency did not yet know how many of the nation’s 15,000 school districts had cut summer school this year.

Large districts still offering robust summer programs include Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis and Seattle, according to the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents large districts.

New York City has made some cuts to its summer program, which last year served 120,000 children, said William Havemann, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Education. This year, classes will be offered in 369 schools, down from 562 in 2008, Mr. Havemann said, and the city expects fewer children to enroll, too, although all children who need extra work for promotion to their next grade are eligible.

Some systems have spent federal stimulus money to invigorate summer school. These include Montgomery County, Md., and Cincinnati, where officials have used $1.5 million of the city’s stimulus dollars to offer full-day summer school at its 13 lowest-performing elementary schools, nearly doubling enrollment to 1,700 students.

Mornings are devoted to math and reading, and afternoons to camp-like activities including environmental science and gardening, ballroom dancing and yoga, said Janet Walsh, a Cincinnati schools spokeswoman. Twelve other Cincinnati schools are offering half-day summer programs, Ms. Walsh said.

But thousands of districts have made cuts. In Los Angeles, where school officials are still working to remove hundreds of millions of dollars from a $5.5 billion annual budget, they cut $34 million last month by canceling summer school for all elementary and middle school children except the disabled. That left 150,000 students without summer classes, and parents scrambling for child care.

Hundreds of other California districts, including San Diego, Long Beach and Sacramento, have also trimmed or eliminated summer school. An online survey in late April by the California State PTA found that about 40 percent of responding school districts had reduced summer programs and about 20 percent had eliminated them entirely.

The North Carolina School Boards Association did a similar survey of the state’s 115 districts. Three-quarters of those that responded said they would eliminate summer school or reduce its scope, said Leanne Winner, a director at the association. “Things have gotten worse since we did the survey,” Ms. Winner said.

Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association, said, “Nearly all districts in Florida have cut summer school down, and about half have eliminated it altogether.”

In Rutherford County, Tenn., school authorities cited not only money troubles but also swine flu in explaining why they cut elementary summer school after the district lost some state financing.

All the cuts nationwide have put into jeopardy an institution that has turned summertimes past into nostalgic memories for millions of Americans.

“I remember as a child growing up, summer school was enriching and fun,” said Tamara Sortman of Sacramento, where cuts have left her three children with no summer school option. “I took guitar one summer, creative writing another. I remember an arts class where we did tie-dying. I had a single working mom, and summer school kept me out of trouble.”

Kenneth Gold, an education professor at the College of Staten Island who wrote a history of summer learning, said that in the 19th century, many American schools offered their regular classes in summer and winter, with recesses scheduled for spring and fall to allow planting and harvesting. By 1910, however, that cycle had been largely displaced by the September-to-June, 180-day calendar common today, in which summer school is an optional addendum.

Since the 1970s, however, the value of rigorous summer school has gained increasing recognition because of research by a Johns Hopkins professor, Karl Alexander, and other sociologists showing that the academic achievement gap widens during summer vacations.

Low-income students who hold summer jobs or are idle, the research has demonstrated, forget more math and reading skills over the summer than their affluent classmates, who often receive intellectual stimulation in the summer from canoe trips, language camps or ballet lessons.

Richard DiPatri, schools superintendent here in Brevard County, leaned on those findings in recent years as he made free summer school classes available to all students, both for remedial work and for languages and other electives.

“We built it up, but last year here in Florida, our funding just went over the cliff,” Mr. DiPatri said.

Adrimel Marlasca, 12, who just finished sixth grade, said that in previous years, she had enjoyed summer classes at Discovery Elementary in Palm Bay, Fla.. But this summer, she is marooned at home.

The other day, Adrimel was up at midmorning, ate some cereal, then watched a show on the Disney channel. She played with her pet cockatiel and her dog, Princess, ate lunch and watched some more television. Later, she went shopping with her mother, picked up her room and read a mystery book for 45 minutes.

After dinner, her mother used flashcards to drill her in multiplication for a few minutes.

“I like the math because it’s challenging, but sometimes it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t answer this,’ and you get nerve-racked,” Adrimel said.

“We’re working with her at home, but its not the same,” said her father, Jose Marlasca. “She ends up watching TV. The best scenario would be to have her at school.”

    Facing Deficits, Some States Cut Summer School, NYT, 2.7.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/02/education/02school.html