• October 22, 2014 06:58 PM How the United Kingdom Stopped Grade Inflation

    Grade inflation, the long-term increase in the average GPA earned by American college students, has worried education observers for years. While the ultimate drawback is perhaps a little unclear (are people really getting hired for jobs or being admitted to law schools who don’t really know what they’re doing because admissions officers and human resource professionals were hoodwinked by high grades?), inflation is a very real thing. In 1991 the average college GPA was 2.93. In 2006 it was 3.11.

    It’s been a problem in other Western countries as well. And, according to a piece in the Atlantic, England might have found a way to keep grade inflation in check: Just don’t worry so much about grades. As Heidi Tworek puts it:

    Why not simply have fewer grades and accept that the majority of students might receive the same mark? The United Kingdom’s system only has three classes of grades: first, second, and third (although second is split into 2:1 and 2:2). A first denotes work of outstanding quality. In 2012 to 2013, 19 percent of students graduated with a first. An overwhelming 76 percent of students received a second-class degree (51 percent earned a 2:1, 25 percent a 2:2). Only 5 percent were given a third.
    …It’s telling that the most common grade by far is still a second, not a first. When employers all accept that a second-class degree already provides a stamp of quality, it removes the narcissism inherent in minor differences. There are also fewer incentives for professors to assign higher grades if students recognize that the majority of them will receive the same mark. And sticking to four grades hasn’t harmed the UK’s stellar standings in global university league tables.

    This also seems like a more or less reasonable solution. American worries about grade inflation have prompted limiting the number of As a professor can assign (on one end) and just abolishing grades altogether (a rare tactic taken by very progressive colleges).

    But the U.K. system seems appropriate. Most people don’t really care what kinds of grades you get in college at all. Undergrads don’t really have the opportunity to do the sort of amazing work in college that should result in very high grades (at the survey course level there’s little opportunity for amazing demonstration anyway; it’s just answering all of the questions on the tests correctly). All we’re really interested in is if students did the work, learned something, and are reasonably smart.

    By removing minor distinctions from the grading system colleges might return academic grading to what it’s supposed to be: just a reflection of whether or not kids are doing OK. There’s no need for complicated minutia in grading anyway; kids are mostly doing the same quality work, more or less.

  • October 22, 2014 10:49 AM Private Companies Increasingly Drive Innovation at Public Research Universities

    The new Raytheon-UMass Lowell Research Institute is housed inside the Mark and Elisia Saab Emerging Technologies and Innovation Center, home to cutting-edge advances in nanotechnology, plastics engineering, optics and more. (Photo Courtesy of UMass Lowell).

    The amount of research dollars public colleges and universities receive from federal and state governments is dwindling. Private companies are picking up the slack, driving innovation at public research universities. Starting next semester, a major defense contractor will send some of its top researchers to work side-by-side with students and faculty at the University of Massachusetts.

    The University of Massachusetts already has a gleaming new research building on its Lowell campus, but for two years the fourth floor has been empty. Now Raytheon, one of the country’s top defense contractors, has committed at least $3 million to fill it.

    Raytheon’s Chris McCarroll directs the new institute. Here, students and faculty will work alongside Raytheon researchers developing cutting-edge electronic hardware made with 3D printers. Most of these electronics will be for commercial use, for communication systems like weather and aviation radars, and cell phones.

    “We’re actually printing nano-electronics here. And that’s the research that we have to do to move our electronics into the future,” McCarroll said. “It’s going to make it thinner and, ultimately, it’s going to make it much more affordable.”

    Still recovering from the Great Recession, UMass Lowell says it’s the kind of research it couldn’t afford otherwise.

    Representatives of UMass Lowell and Raytheon participate in a ribbon-cutting ceremony. (Meghan Moore/UMass Lowell).

    “Public universities need to be run today in an entrepreneurial way, they need to be run really in the same ways private institutions are,” said congressman turned chancellor Marty Meehan.

    Meehan predicts that the university’s partnership with this private company will give UMass a leg up in winning competitive public research grants.

    “Increasingly, the federal government is looking for innovative collaborations between business and academia and this is an example of that,” Meehan said. “So we actually think we’ll enhance not just the reputation, but we’ll bring in more research dollars than we would without this collaboration and partnership.”

    Listen to a full interview with Marty Meehan about the partnership and what it means for UMass-Lowell:

    UMass Lowell has a long history of partnering with industry. The university was founded just as the Industrial Revolution was booming here along the banks of the Merrimack River, in part to educate young students about the textile industry.

    Today, the new institute in Lowell is opening at a time when partnerships between technology firms and traditional public universities are once again transforming higher ed. Through another program with Raytheon, the University of Maryland is developing a degree in cyber engineering. And Georgia Tech is offering an online computer science degree sponsored by AT&T.

    Across the country, companies are investing in higher ed to develop their own workforce.

    “Major industries in virtually every arena are scrambling to raise their skill level,” said Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education.

    Corbett Broad says this is all happening as colleges are coming under fire for not giving students enough practical experience to get jobs. But, she says, there’s always been a link between colleges and companies.

    “The character of that link is now changing in ways and at a pace that we haven’t seen before,” said Corbett Broad.

    Raytheon vice president Paul Ferraro is counting on the company’s investment in UMass Lowell to train his future workforce.

    “This is certainly a big step to close any skills gap that may exist and help us close our technology gaps, which is critical to meeting the needs of our customers,” said Ferraro.

    Raytheon won’t say how many UMass Lowell graduates it plans to hire, but it seems what the Industrial Revolution did for improving physical power is what the Digital Revolution is now doing to improve intellectual power.

    [This story comes to us from On Campus, a public radio reporting initiative focused on higher education produced in Boston at WGBH.]

  • October 21, 2014 10:16 AM Louisiana, Do Your Homework: Student Absenteeism, Not Ebola, is the Real Epidemic

    As a preventative measure to protect against the spread of Ebola, the Louisiana State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education made new emergency changes to the state’s governing handbook.

    However, there is no emergency — just an Ebola scare, which the board simply contributed to by making changes to sound policy. There is currently no epidemic of the Ebola virus in the U.S., where three cases have been reported, with one fatality.

    The best preventative measure schools can take to avert an outbreak of a communicable disease is to effectively teach about viruses.

    RELATED: Nine years after Katrina, we’re still asking the wrong questions about education

    Nevertheless, the board adopted changes to the Bulletin as emergency rules, which do not require public comment and go into effect immediately. Specifically, it affirmed that a local superintendent or chief charter school officer can “dismiss any or all schools due to emergency situations, including any actual or imminent threat to public health or safety which may result in loss of life, disease, or injury; an actual or imminent threat of natural disaster, force majeure, or catastrophe which may result in loss of life, injury or damage to property; and, when an emergency situation has been declared by the governor, the state health officer, or the governing authority of the school.”

    I’ve never seen a school leader buck an edict from a governor, state health official or disaster manager.

    Avowing superintendent powers to dismiss school in reaction to the Ebola scare is a solution in search of a problem.

    RELATED: New Orleans schools should stop hiring so many teachers who don’t understand the students’ culture or backgrounds

    The former policy under Health and Safety rules was built to thwart the spread of disease and prevent autocratic decisions based in fear. School disease management should require cooperation between school and health officials to prevent what is happening across the U.S. - hysteria. Giving autonomy to district leaders can create chaos.

    Having experienced lackluster disaster management during Hurricane Katrina, I can appreciate the need for speed and direction, but those two elements should stem from better coordination. The board could have used the fearful context to remind school leaders of their partners in the event of an actual emergency.

    However, the board did offer a solution that found a problem - chronic absenteeism.

    One of the emergency changes to the bulletin states, “A student who has been quarantined by order of state or local health officers following prolonged exposure to or direct contact with a person diagnosed with a contagious, deadly disease, and is temporarily unable to attend school, shall be provided any missed assignments, homework, or other instructional services in core academic subjects in the home, hospital environment, or temporary shelter to which he has been assigned.”

    RELATED: Schools are doling out suspensions “like Tic Tacs,” here are some ways to keep kids in the classroom

    Sorry kids, being sick doesn’t mean you can’t do your homework.

    The board is correct to ensure that schools and districts provide assignments that would have been given to a student who should otherwise be in school. There’s too much technology not to ensure that every student who is temporarily out of school receives the education he or she needs.

    Students are more likely to succeed academically if they are in school. So if you’re not in school, you still need an education. Chronic absenteeism - missing 10 percent of school or more - is truly and epidemic in low-income communities. In their report on chronic absenteeism, researchers Balfanz and Byrnes state, “Like bacteria in a hospital, chronic absenteeism can wreak havoc long before it is discovered.”

    RELATED: In New Orleans, a case study in how school, health care decentralization affect neediest children

    I have a proposal. Let’s test schools’ abilities to operationalize the new requirements by distributing lessons on viruses to students who have been suspended or expelled. We can test those students on the effectiveness of those lessons. Based on student grades, the state can see their readiness to actually implement their policy.

    An aside - expulsion and suspension in Louisiana is a clear and present danger.

    The Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights compiles a School Discipline Information Report, which outlines New Orleans schools’ suspension and expulsion data. These data are often alarming. One school had a 63 percent suspension rate in the 2012-13 academic year. Another great resource is the Family and Youth Servicing Center, which has helped reduced truancy in the East Baton Rouge Parish school district by 30 percent since 2009. FYSC makes clear that truancy (unexcused absence) positively correlates with crime - a real threat.

    Officials don’t have to scare people into readiness. We can actually teach our way toward prevention and true protection. The only outbreak that the United States needs to worry about is an Ebola scare. The way to combat fear is education.

    [Cross-posted at Hechinger Report]

  • October 20, 2014 09:11 AM Twenty Five Percent of Low-Income Urban High Schools Beat the Odds

    It won’t surprise anyone to learn that wealthier high schools send more students to college than low-income high schools. But a October 2014 report from the research arm of the National Student Clearinghouse, which tracks college students, reveals that a quarter of low-income urban high schools are doing better than a quarter of their high-income counterparts.

    On average, low-income urban high schools with high concentrations of minority students sent about half, or 51 percent, of their 2013 graduates to college in the fall immediately following graduation. That could be either a two-year or a four-year college or university. By contrast, 70 percent of the students from high-income urban high schools with few minority students were enrolled in college in the fall. (Only high-income mostly white suburban high schools send more kids to college with 73 percent of the students enrolled in college in the fall).

    But these averages mask big differences among public city high schools. This same data show that best 25 percent of the low-income, minority schools — about 130 high schools in the data sample —  sent at least 60 percent of their 2013 graduates to college in the fall of 2013. The number was much higher at some. By contrast, the worst 25 percent of the high-income schools — about 60 of them — sent fewer than 60 percent of their graduates to college in the fall. (Low-income means that more than 50 percent of the students qualify for free and reduced price lunch. High minority means that more than 40 percent of the students are black and/or Latino).

    “In every category of high school, there are clearly schools that are beating the odds,” said Doug Shapiro, director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which published the report, “High School Benchmarks 2014.”

    This chart shows that 38 percent or fewer of the 2013 high school graduates from the bottom quarter of low-income high schools with high concentrations of minorities went to college in the fall of 2013. But among the top quarter of these low-income high schools, 60 percent or more of the students went to college in the fall. 

    It’s no surprise that some successful low-income schools would be doing much better than the average low-income school. And I wouldn’t be surprised to hear about a handful of low-income schools, perhaps small magnet schools that cream off the top students, that are doing as well as higher income schools. But what is surprising is that so many low-income schools — 25 percent of them — are doing better than so many of the higher-income schools. You wouldn’t expect such a big overlap, especially when the means for each group are 20 percentage points apart.

    This data speaks to both sides of the debate on education reform. Those who says that income determines educational outcomes argue that you can’t reasonably ask schools to overcome a student’s family background. And they can point to the data here which show that students who attend higher income city high schools, on average, are 37 percent more likely to go straight to college than a student from a low income high school. Indeed, the fact that 75 percent of the high-income schools have more students going to college than 75 percent of the low-income schools is great evidence for those who say that income matters.

    But the beating the odds data is music to the ears of the so-called school reformers who argue that better schools and teachers can get better student results. The fact that a quarter of the low-income schools are outperforming the high-income schools is exactly the kind of data that supports their cause. Interestingly, none of these are charter high schools. The National Student Clearinghouse excluded charters from the analysis because it was concerned that its charter school participants were too few to be nationally representative.

    The National Student Clearinghouse isn’t revealing which high schools are outperforming or underperforming. But it hopes to publish the names of  the high performing high schools in the future so that their practices can be studied and replicated. “Possibly next year,” said Afet Dundar,  associate director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

    While the National Student Clearinghouse is now tracking a giant data set of 3.5 million high school graduates from 2010 to 2013, a big shortcoming is that the data isn’t a nationally representative sample. It includes only student data from high schools who voluntarily participate in StudentTracker, a service that the National Student Clearinghouse markets to high schools so that they can see where their graduates end up. More than 3,000 high schools in all 50 states participate, covering 25 percent all high school graduates in the country. The participation rate is even higher in urban districts where 65 percent of the largest 100 districts participate, covering 40 percent of all urban high school graduates.The National Student Clearinghouse didn’t reveal which districts are or are not participating and so it is unclear how the missing high schools might be skewing the data.

    Another shortcoming is that the data don’t give you a sense of how the students are faring in college. It does not reveal if the students are taking remedial classes, essentially repeating what they should have learned in high school. And we don’t have data yet on whether these students are eventually graduating from college.

    This is the second year of the National Student Clearinghouse’s high school report and there aren’t enough years yet to show trends as to whether more kids are going to college than in the past. But it’s a welcome additional data point, beyond standardized test scores, to see which high schools are doing a good job.

    [Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

  • October 19, 2014 08:08 PM Private Loans: Still the Most Dangerous Form of Student Loan Debt

    At a time of low interest rates, our guard may be down when it comes to the dangers of taking out private student loans. After all, families with excellent credit may be able to obtain loans with interest rates lower than those available in the federal loan program.

    Perhaps that helps explain why more than 40 percent of college admissions directors who responded to a recent Inside Higher Ed survey said that it was “a good idea for students to take out private loans to pay for college.” More than half of the admissions directors at private baccalaureate colleges who were surveyed agreed with that statement.

    But hopefully those admissions directors will read a report that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau released this week that reminds us that private student loans remain the most dangerous form of loan debt that students can borrow to pay for college.

    Here’s why:

    • Unlike federal loans, private loans generally have uncapped interest rates that vary month to month based on market conditions. As a result, borrowers may start out with low rates, only to find years later, that their payments have skyrocketed. In addition, while federal loans offer the same terms to all borrowers in a given year, private lenders tend to charge higher rates to those with the greatest financial need.
    • Private loans lack basic consumer protections that are available in the federal loan program. Borrowers with federal loans who become unemployed or suffer economic hardship, for instance, have a legal right to have their loans deferred for several years. Private loan borrowers who run into trouble don’t have that option. And unlike federal loans, private loans generally are not discharged if a borrower dies, is permanently disabled, or attends a school that unexpectedly shuts down before that student completes his or her studies.
    • Private loans also lack the flexible repayment options that the federal loan program offers. Private loan borrowers, for instance, can’t make payments that are based on their income.
    • Unlike the federal student loan program, borrowers can be put immediately into default if they miss a single payment on their private loans. In the federal loan program, a borrower has to be delinquent on their loans for at least 270 days before they are considered to be in default.
    • As the CFPB found in an earlier report, private loan borrowers who are making their payments on time may automatically be put into default if the co-signer on their loan dies or files for bankruptcy.
    • Despite the CFPB’s prodding, private loan providers generally refuse to modify the loans of borrowers who are in financial distress. Those who run into trouble typically are given only one option: a short-term forbearance. And to add insult to injury, struggling borrowers often must pay the lender a fee of approximately $50 to obtain the forbearance, which may last as little as three months.

    So even though we are in a period of low interest rates, students should remain cautious before taking out a private loan. These loans lack so many consumer protections that they should be used as only an absolute last resort by borrowers who fully understand the consequences of taking on this type of debt.

    [Cross-posted at Ed Central]

  • October 17, 2014 10:53 PM Here’s One Way to Cut Student Debt

    Just stop offering the loans.

    President Barack Obama has a plan to rate colleges based on things like tuition, graduation rates, debt and earnings of graduates, and the percentage of poor students in the colleges. Eventually he intends that the federal government will distribute federal money at least partially based on this information.

    One of the concerns some in higher education have raised about this is that there are different ways colleges can react to a system that gives them higher ratings for higher graduation and lower debt.

    One college has an interesting tactic to helping graduates avoid debt: Just don’t give them the loans. And scare them to death when talking about loans. As this piece at NPR puts it:

    To get a student loan at Broward College, one of Florida’s largest community colleges, you first have to sit through a two-hour financial lesson with Kent Dunston. Broward College, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., launched this class six years ago, just one effort aimed at preventing students from taking on so much debt that default on their loans. And, starting this year, the school began trying something else: barring students from borrowing more than they need.

    And, perhaps more importantly, it also made specific changes in its actual loans:

    The school stopped accepting unsubsidized loans — those are the more expensive federal loans that require students to begin making interest payments right away.
    Broward, along with 28 other community, four-year and online colleges around the country, is trying the subsidized-loan-only approach as part of an experiment with the federal government to cut down on student debt. Subsidized loans can wait until after a student graduates for payment.

    Now, a better strategy would just be to make the college affordable to working class students, virtually the entire population of Broward College. (It now costs about $2,400 a year to attend.) Many exclusive colleges have decided just not to offer loans at all to working class students. They don’t provide loans for anyone with an annual household income under 70,000 a year, or so, and basically offer a full scholarship.

    But for colleges with less money the solution might be simpler. And that’s because the mere fact that a college offers a loan makes it sort of look to students like that loan is a good idea, even if it’s really a terrible one.

    And if you don’t offer the loans, they’ll find another way to attend school. It’s not a wonderful solution, and it’s not necessarily financially easy to attend the school, but at least this helps move kids in the right direction.

  • October 17, 2014 09:34 AM Comments on the CollegeNET-PayScale Social Mobility Index

    The last two years have seen a great deal of attention being placed on the social mobility function that many people expect colleges to perform. Are colleges giving students from lower-income families the tools and skills they need in order to do well (and good) in society? The Washington Monthly college rankings (which I calculate) were the first entrant in this field nearly a decade ago, and we also put out lists of the Best Bang for the Buck and Affordable Elite colleges in this year’s issue. The New York Times put out a social mobility ranking in September, which essentially was a more elite version of our Affordable Elite list, which looked at only about 100 colleges with a 75% four-year graduation rate.

    The newest entity in the cottage industry of social mobility rankings comes from PayScale and CollegeNET, an information technology and scholarship provider. Their Social Mobility Index (SMI) includes five components for 539 four-year colleges, with the following weights:

    Tuition (lower is better): 126 points

    Economic background (percent of students with family incomes below $48,000): 125 points

    Graduation rate (apparently six years): 66 points

    Early career salary (from PayScale data): 65 points

    Endowment (lower is better): 30 points

    The top five colleges in the rankings are Montana Tech, Rowan , Florida A&M, Cal Poly-Ponoma, and Cal State-Northridge, while the bottom five are Oberlin, Colby, Berklee College of music, Washington University, and the Culinary Institute of America.

    Many people will critique the use of PayScale’s data in rankings, and I would partially agree—although it’s the best data that is available nationwide at this point until the ban on unit record data is eliminated. My two main critiques of these rankings are the following:

    Tuition isn’t the best measure of college affordability. Judging by the numbers used in the rankings, it’s clear that the SMI uses posted tuition and fees for affordability. This doesn’t necessarily reflect what the typical lower-income student would actually pay for two reasons, as it excludes room, board, and other necessary expenses while also excluding any grant aid. The net price of attendance (the total cost of attendance less all grant aid) is a far better measure of what students from lower-income families may pay, even though the SMI measure does capture sticker shock.

    The weights are justified, but still arbitrary. The SMI methodology includes the following howler of a sentence:

    “Unlike the popular periodicals, we did not arbitrarily assign a percentage weight to the five variables in the SMI formula and add those values together to obtain a score.”

    Not to put my philosopher hat on too tightly, but any weights given in college rankings are arbitrarily assigned. A good set of rankings is fairly insensitive to changes in the weighting methodology, while the SMI does not answer that question.

    I’m pleased to welcome another college rankings website to this increasingly fascinating mix of providers—and I remain curious the extent to which these rankings (along with many others) will be used as either an accountability or a consumer information tool.

    [Cross-posted at Kelchen on Education]

  • October 17, 2014 09:26 AM Tracing School Funding Inequities All the Way Down to the School

    Almost every education policy debate serves as a partial proxy for something else. Debates about expanding pre-K access are often really about disagreements regarding the scope of the federal government and/or money. Debates about school choice are often about protecting the real estate-based privileges of neighborhood school boundaries or efforts to blur church-state boundaries. Debates about the Common Core State Standards are often secretly about the Muslim Brotherhood, the United Nations, and space aliens with plans for world domination.

    The Fordham Institute’s new Metro D.C. School Spending Explorer is a useful reminder that school funding arguments are no different. Whatever the surface appearance of these debates, they’re almost always implicitly about deeper theories of justice. And those get at core elements of our social contract (both articulated and unarticulated). What do we, as a community, owe to families and students as far as educational resources are concerned? Consider these two options:

    1. If we believe that all students should be treated equally in a public education system, presumably we should we commit equal resources to each student, regardless of their background.
    2. If we believe that some students may, through no fault of their own, face crippling educational challenges because of their families’ limited resources, presumably we should compensate by investing additional public funds to establish a baseline of equitable educational opportunity.

    It seems to me that that second view has remains the dominant one in American politics—at least at the level of rhetoric. Most politicians and education officials accept that schools should invest extra resources in supporting students from low-income families. The problem, however, is that their funding formulas don’t always live up to that promise.

    Fordham’s data explorer helps increase transparency around school funding.

    In part, this is because these numbers permit almost infinite slicing. Consider, for instance, these competing analyses showing that New York City charter schools get both much more and actually much less money than district schools. There are a number of different ways to frame school funding, and it’s usually possible to find a way to reformulate the data to get results to confirm whatever argument we might be interested in making.

    As Fordham notes in a blog post accompanying the new data,

    There are lots of wonky ways to compute the fairness of education spending, but we’re going to use a measure that makes sense to us. Namely: How much extra does a district spend on each low-income student a school serves? Compared to what districts spend on behalf of non-poor students? Ten percent? Twenty percent? Fifty percent?…[N]ote: These numbers are for operational costs only; they don’t include facilities funding, which is where DC’s charters are at a huge funding disadvantage compared to DCPS.

    Still, Fordham’s data explorer helps increase transparency around school funding. It doesn’t slice data at the district or state level—it drills all the way down to school level funding. This illuminates things that have otherwise been hard to see. For instance, Fordham found that Maryland’s Prince George’s County spends only about 2 percent more on students in high-poverty schools than it spends on students in low-poverty schools. By comparison, Arlington, Virginia spends 80 percent more on students in its high-poverty schools than it spends on students in low-poverty schools.

    Of course, these numbers need context: Arlington has only two high-poverty schools (where 75 percent or more of enrolled students enrolled in free or reduced lunch programs), while Prince George’s County has fifty such schools. The average income in Prince George’s County, according to Fordham’s analysis, is over $30,000 less than the average income in Arlington. The median home value in Arlington is over 2.5 times the median home value in Prince George’s County. That is, Prince George’s has limited public resources of its own and a much more extensive challenge when it comes to funding low-income schools better.

    Fordham acknowledges this in that same blog post:

    Arlington—with its sky-high tax base and gentrifying population—definitely goes the distance for its high-poverty schools. On the other hand, poverty-stricken Prince George’s County appears to be doing practically nothing to spend what little money it has on its toughest schools. (It makes us wonder how it meets federal “supplement, not supplant” requirements.)

    They conclude that the state of Maryland ought to do more for Prince George’s County. And that could work, sure. But the school funding variance in Fordham’s analysis points me in a different direction. This isn’t just a matter of interstate difference, of Maryland inadequately filling in the gaps for Prince George’s County. After all, there are also considerable differences in how various Virginia districts (Arlington, Alexandria, and Fairfax) support their low-income students.

    Which is mostly to note that it might take more than states to establish a just baseline of funding for students who are enrolled in high-poverty schools in the D.C. metro area (and the rest of the country). Nearly every state has funding formula problems, and those seem to be extraordinarily tough to reform. Which, for what it’s worth, sounds a bit like the sort of educational equity problem that we often look to the federal government to address.

    Note: For more data on American school funding, see New America’s Federal Education Budget Project.

    [Cross-posted at Ed Central]

  • October 16, 2014 01:00 PM The Public School Execution Strategy

    What’s the future of American public elementary and secondary schools going to look like? For most of America’s history the story has been one of increasing access to free public school. It’s now offered to everyone, and everyone has to go. Concern about equity, particularly in the last century, now means that the country at least aspires to providing reasonably high quality instruction to children, regardless of their class, race, or geographic location.

    But maybe this is going to end. According to a fascinating piece at Politico by Bob Herbert, there is a plot to eliminate all this.


    America’s superrich want to end public education. The best example of this destruction goal, of course, comes from the relatively laudable efforts of Bill Gates. He’s long been frustrated by public schools and has worked hard to transform them. He tried making them smaller and then worked on trying to improve teacher quality. None of this has been terribly effective:

    This hit-or-miss attitude—let’s try this, let’s try that—has been a hallmark of school reform efforts in recent years. The experiments trotted out by the big-money crowd have been all over the map. But if there is one broad approach (in addition to the importance of testing) that the corporate-style reformers and privatization advocates have united around, it’s the efficacy of charter schools. Charter schools were supposed to prove beyond a doubt that poverty didn’t matter, that all you had to do was free up schools from the rigidities of the traditional public system and the kids would flourish, no matter how poor they were or how chaotic their home environments.

    Charter schools are public schools. But they’re public schools free of many of the restrictions of traditional ones, and are operated, under various principles, by independent charters with cities. And some of these are run by for-profit corporations. And many of them that aren’t, particularly those that operate virtually or with an extensive technology focus, are still very good business for corporations that can sell their wares to these schools:

    Few would accuse Gates of acting out of greed. For other school reformers, however, a huge financial return has been the primary motivation. While schools and individual districts were being starved of resources, the system itself was viewed as a cash cow by so-called education entrepreneurs determined to make a killing. Even in the most trying economic times, hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars, earmarked for the education of children from kindergarten through the twelfth grade, are appropriated each year. For corporate types, especially for private equity and venture capital firms, that kind of money can prove irresistible. And the steadily increasing influence of free-market ideology in recent years made public education fair game.

    They’ve discovered something long familiar to the world’s government contractors: it’s possible to make an awful lot of money when the government contracts with you to do something, even if what you produce isn’t really that good.

    We should be wary of words like “plot,” of course. There is a segment of the population, particularly heavily concentrated among conservative pundits, who really do want to destroy public schools and give every family a voucher to spend as they wish, employ all teachers on an at-will basis (like Walmart associates), and close and open schools according to market demand, but this is a small group and not likely to ever achieve its ends.

    What matters more, perhaps, is the proliferation of the idea of the glory of “disruptive” education and those who want to change education as we know it to include more free market, less regulations, and fewer labor protections for teachers. And this really does matter because it’s become so established that it’s influencing policy, even policy promoted by Democrats.

    But so far this has eliminated many neighborhood schools and destroyed the idea of teacher job protections as sacred. We’ve had more than a decade of charter school and other innovation experiments, however, and it hasn’t done much to improve student achievement.

    But (with the notable exception of Diane Ravitch) assessing the success of market-based reforms in education is not the sort of thing in which education reformers are much interested.

    These trends are likely to continue, and perhaps even get more extreme. We’ve been warned.

  • October 15, 2014 03:30 PM Harvard Professors Object to New Sexual Assault Policy

    Professors at Harvard Law School are urging the university to revoke new procedures addressing on-campus sexual misconduct, saying the rule goes too far.

    In July, Harvard announced a new university-wide policy to prevent sexual violence, lowering the burden of proof necessary to find someone guilty. It also created a central office to investigate sexual assaults.

    Since then, the federal government has been pushing all universities receiving public funds to embrace similar policies, and this month California became the first state in the nation to adopt an affirmative consent standard for sexual assault on college campuses.

    Now a group of distinguished Harvard law professors say the school’s new policy denies due process to those accused of assault or harassment.

    “Many of us are deeply concerned with the nature of the policy,” said Harvard professor Elizabeth Bartholet.

    Bartholet says the new rule is stacked against accused students and it could undermine their careers.

    “There’s a very serious problem in having one office that’s responsible for investigating, prosecuting and then adjudicating,” said Bartholet.

    From the professors’ statement:

    “We strongly endorse the importance of protecting our students from sexual misconduct and providing an educational environment free from the sexual and other harassment that can diminish educational opportunity. But we believe that this particular sexual harassment policy adopted by Harvard will do more harm than good.”

    In a statement, university administrators said they’re confident the new policy will create a neutral and fair mechanism for investigating sexual assaults on all of Harvard’s campuses.

    The policy and procedures address a problem that affects core institutional values and objectives - access to educational opportunities, fairness, objectivity, and non-discrimination. The University appreciates that not every member of the community will agree with every aspect of the new approach.

    [This story comes to us from On Campus, a public radio reporting initiative focused on higher education produced in Boston at WGBH.]

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