Monday Reading List: Scientist Teachers, the Curse of Student Debt, and "Vouchers"

Jon Marcus of The Hechinger Report looks at a new MIT program, designed to attract scientists to teaching:

This experiment, just getting under way, is called the Woodrow Wilson Academy of Teaching and Learning, named for the foundation that is underwriting it. In the face of a nationwide teacher shortage, especially in science, technology, engineering and math, the academy is not the first program that has sought to attract experts in these areas to teaching, but it offers a significant departure from traditional teacher training programs in several other high-tech ways. In addition to the familiar student teaching routine, for instance, it uses virtual reality avatars to simulate classroom situations and crises.

Despite the vaguely dystopian detail at the end there, this sounds like a promising idea. The important caveat, though, is that the ability to do science is one thing ... and the ability to teach science to other people is a completely different thing. Teachers need to be subject matter experts in the material they impart unto children, but that expertise cannot come at the expense of solid instructional know-how. Finding that balance can be tricky.

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I'm late to the party on this article, but Erica Green of The New York Times looks at how HBCUs might fare under new federal higher education rules:

[Claflin University President Henry] Tisdale and his counterparts at other small, historically black colleges and universities are among an unlikely cohort of supporters for Ms. DeVos’s effort to tighten a wide-ranging regulation that offers federal debt relief to students who were defrauded or deceived by their higher-education institutions. While the rules targeted for-profit colleges with billion-dollar budgets, they apply to all institutions — including small, nonprofit colleges like Claflin that have been educating low-income, minority and first-generation students for more than a century without scandal.

The UNCF (formerly the United Negro College Fund) also is a vocal critic of these rules, creating some unlikely alliances around this corner of higher education policy. The fundamental issue at hand seems to be whether or not institutions should bear responsibility for the debt load of the students who graduate, if said debt load outstrips future ability to pay. It's a complicated question, made even more thorny by the fact that:

A) student debt has become the cornerstone of college financing in this country, and

B) while American states guarantee the right to a free education, no such thing exists for higher education in this country, at either the federal or state level.

On the one hand, the fact that students are graduating with tons of debt, and then not making enough money to justify that debt, sucks. That said, punishing small, historically Black institutions that go out of their way to support the advancement of underserved students seems like a bad way to fix the broader problems.

Finally today, Matt Barnum of Chalkbeat looks at one of the most polarizing words in education policy:

A new poll by the pro-voucher group American Federation for Children is meant to illustrate Americans’ support for school choice. But it also offers some insight into how advocates choose to talk about hot-button education issues. Something striking was buried in the polling memo: Voters said they narrowly opposed school vouchers, 47 to 49 percent, even though similar approaches like “education saving accounts” and “scholarship tax credits” garnered much more support. These findings help explain why advocates of programs that allow families to use public money to pay private school tuition often avoid the word “voucher.”
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In policy and politics, words matter. A lot. Organizations and politicians conduct polling on an ongoing basis to identify the ways in which small differences in phrasing can dramatically affect public perception of important issues. You could call it "public opinion arbitrage."

To that point, don't be surprised if the word "voucher" becomes less common, and you start hearing much more about "tax credit scholarships." But don't be fooled! A voucher under another name is still terrible public policy.

Have a great week!

Friday Reading List: The Higher Ed Gap in Rural America and a Real-Time Reassessment of Consent in Our Culture

Matt Krupnick is in The Hechinger Report, looking at the college attendance rates of non-white students in rural communities:

Overshadowed by attention to the challenges faced by nonwhite high school graduates in cities, low-income black, Hispanic and native American students in rural areas like this are equally unlikely to go on to college. Factor in the higher dropout rate among nonwhite students in rural high schools, and the odds that black and Hispanic students from areas like this will ever earn degrees are just as low as for their urban counterparts ... Rural students overall are more likely than the national average to graduate from high school in four years — 87 percent, compared to 83 percent nationwide. But rural Hispanics, blacks, Native American and other nonwhite students graduate at lower rates than the national average.

A few things struck me about this piece. First, rural schooling gets less attention than its urban and suburban counterparts, which is a product of the social biases of policymakers and journalistic influencers. As a result, most of the news I consume vis-a-vis the rural context contains a heavy deficit narrative. The job of journalism is to articulate challenges, but it's worth keeping in mind that no single story of rural American schooling can possibly be sufficient, and that we shouldn't get caught in assessing deficits alone.

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That said, Krupnick indicates that the challenges of rural schooling are in the process of compounding, due in part to language barriers. Linguistic and cultural diversity can be huge advantages for kids and their schools, but if teachers and administrators are unable to communicate with children and their families, these assets are squandered.

The last thing I hope that people take away from this article is that not everyone in rural America is the euphemistic "white working class" Trump voter. We all have blind spots, and I know that my audience skews heavily towards younger people with advanced degrees who live in, or near, cities. Our perception of rural American experiences is colored by the "bubble" in which we live, and articles like this do much to expand our notion of the actual demographics of rural America.

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In other news, Lena Felton of The Atlantic looks to higher education to find the roots of the #MeToo movement:

... for [higher ed officials] and students, the perceived uptick [in claims of sexual misconduct] only reaffirms what they already knew about sexual assault; higher-education institutions have for years been aware that such harassment occurs at high rates on their campuses. In a 2015 Association of American Universities survey on sexual assault and misconduct, just over 23 percent of undergraduate female respondents reported having experienced sexual assault or misconduct while in college. It’s difficult to say how accurately the AAU’s findings reflect reality—the survey relied on voluntary responses from 150,000 students across 27 universities—but they do offer a previously nonexistent window into a very real problem.  

Felton points out that the discussion about sexual assault in colleges has been necessary, albeit circuitous, messy, and not-at-all straightforward. She argues that these conversations on campuses, and in the broader culture, "have exposed the need for some sort of collective change—some sort of redefinition of standards, some sort of reshaping of policies, some sort of reassessment of culture."

That "reassessment" has been happening in real time across this country, in a very public way. This week, the internet lit up after Katie Way of babe published the account of one woman ("Grace"), who had a negative experience with comedian Aziz Ansari.

As a man, I have resisted the urge to share my half-assed ideas on this topic, and instead have spent the week reading the perspectives of women. No two takes are alike, and I encourage the men who read this blog to read the original piece, then read a cross-section of the reactions. The conversation, while messy, helps to illuminate the gray areas that are most in need of examination. I particularly liked Danielle Butler's summation at Very Smart Brothas:

Grace’s account—one that toggles between acquiescing to certain sexual acts and withdrawing from others—is a pervasive experience ... The takeaway from Grace’s anecdote isn’t that we should consider every regrettable or uncomfortable sexual interaction as assault ... This isn’t about bad sex. It’s about examining how dysfunctional our sexual socialization is for us to read that instance and chalk it up to merely being a “normal” and clumsy sexual experience. There should be nothing “normal” about leaving a date in tears because you feel violated, and we shouldn’t be so content and flippant with characterizing it as such.

There's so much to consider here, and I hope that the men I know will take the time to understand the range of perspectives on this issue. After internalizing the discussion, I encourage men to reflect upon their past and present behaviors, then make adjustments. We all have work to do.

Have a great weekend!

Wednesday Reading List: A Wishlist for the New NYC Chancellor and a Politician with a Backbone

The Editorial Board of The New York Times just published a wishlist, indicating their hopes for whom Mayor Bill de Blasio might pick to lead our city's school system. There are some compelling names on the Times's list, but in the meantime, the editors apply some pressure to the mayor:

... the proven school managers whose accomplishments make them appealing candidates will be hesitant to accept the post in the absence of a clear, compelling mayoral vision and backing for forceful action on behalf of students. The mayor has described his mission over the next four years as promoting equity and excellence, but those goals remain largely out of reach, even as test scores have inched up and graduation rates have risen. In fact, the city needs to move more urgently on three fronts: ending profound racial segregation; closing failing schools while opening better ones; and finding more effective ways to train good teachers, retain the best teachers and move the worst ones out of the system.

If the school system managed to do even one of those three things, it would be an heroic accomplishment. From my vantage point, however, one of the Mayor's biggest challenges is that he doesn't seem willing to risk serious political capital in pursuit of any of those goals. Moreover, there's no evidence that he's willing to cede enough power to a schools chancellor such that s/he would be capable of taking the heat on the mayor's behalf.

Equally daunting in this enterprise is the dysfunctional relationship between the mayor and Governor Andrew Cuomo, a quagmire that throws sand in the gears of just about every meaningful civic issue - from schools to transit to criminal justice reform. When it comes to schools, the state's financial and accountability regime could work to the mayor's benefit, in that he could shift responsibility to the state for forcing his hand on things he might not have the leverage to do otherwise. If he were willing to play ball, and share both blame and credit for some of the system's changes, there might be a glimmer of hope.

That said, both de Blasio and Cuomo seem more committed to their mutual animus than actual problem solving, which more or less sucks for the families of New York City.

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Speaking of politically controversial education topics, Chalkbeat's Sarah Darville did a round-up of responses to Elizabeth Green's recent piece about Success Academy:

Elizabeth’s piece outlined her conclusions after more than a decade of reporting about charter school networks, and more specifically the Success Academy network in New York City. She wrote that charter school networks offer both great advantages — in their ability to provide rare coherence in what is taught across classrooms, and — and significant danger. Charter networks, she wrote, have changed public education by “extracting it from democracy as we know it.” Some of our readers saw their own thinking reflected in her conclusions. Others had a very different take.

I'm glad to see folks grappling with a range of perspectives on this topic. Success Academy serves a ton of kids in New York City, and their schools are not going to disappear anytime soon. The network and its lightning rod leader, Eva Moskowitz, will be fixtures in local and national education policy for the predictable future. People who argue the extreme points - either that Success is god's gift to American education at one end of the spectrum, or that Moskowitz was sent to destroy public schools on the other - are wasting time. Kudos to Green and Darville for sparking a reality-based discussion.

Finally today, at least one politician in this country seems to have a backbone. New Jersey Senator Cory Booker went off yesterday:

Here's Pema Levy of Mother Jones:

In a long and emotional speech, Booker explained why he finds the president’s comments offensive and dangerous. He described them as at odds with the idea that people are judged “by the content of their character” rather than the color of their skin or their country of origin. Booker linked Trump’s words to the rise of white nationalist violence in the United States, noting that anti-immigrant animus has driven domestic attacks on people of color ... Booker reminded Nielsen that she was under oath when she repeatedly said she did not recall the “shithole” comment.

First of all, thank you Senator Booker, for not tiptoeing around this issue, and for repping the fine, misunderstood state where I was born. If my Facebook feed is any indication, this speech resonated with a whole bunch of people yesterday ...

Have a great day!

Monday Reading List: I Have Zero Tolerance for Advocates of Zero Tolerance Disicipline

Wayne D'Orio is in The Atlantic, examining the challenges that schools face when they migrate away from "zero tolerance" discipline policies:

During the 1990s, amid rising fears of youth violence, many districts adopted zero-tolerance policies mandating suspensions for certain offenses, including relatively minor infractions such as shoving other students or cursing. Suspension rates nearly doubled between 1973 and 2006. Racial disparities in school discipline, meanwhile, are stark: Black students are roughly four times as likely to be suspended as white students ... The pendulum started to swing back in 2014 when the Obama administration issued a 7,500-word letter warning schools against racial discrimination in discipline ... the federal push spurred more schools to revamp their disciplinary procedures. So, too, did the growing body of evidence documenting the harm associated with pulling students out of school ...

D'Orio's examination is measured. He elucidates the practices of a single school that has embraced the eschewal of zero-tolerance, but he does not sugarcoat the complexity of radical shifts in disciplinary code. Nor does he ignore the fact that schools sometimes skirt new rules by "sending kids home for the day" without using the word "suspension."

Mike Petrilli of Education Next is less sanguine and thinks that the efforts to curb racial disparities in suspensions are misguided:

... in response to findings that African American students were three times as likely to be suspended as white students, the Obama Administration sent a lengthy “Dear Colleague” letter to school districts nationwide ... It’s this use of disparate impact analysis—and the threat of federal investigations based on discipline disparities alone—that gives many of us on the right such pause, and is why we believe the current administration should rescind or revise the 2014 letter ... [disparate impact] is not a good fit for the complicated issue of school discipline. Here, a great deal of the racial disparities actually stem from differences in actual student behavior, which in turn is related to differences in socioeconomic circumstances.
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This is wrong in so many ways.


I'm going to spend the rest of the reading list explaining why.


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First, let's address the elephant in the room: if we are ever going to have a just society, we cannot attribute misbehavior to a student's racial background. That's exactly what Petrilli does, however, a sentiment captured in the last sentence in the excerpt above. He issues some caveats throughout the piece, but the overall argument is that policymakers and educators should design disciplinary policies around the idea that black children are more likely to misbehave.

Let's pause here for a second. The author. Is suggesting. That we ASSUME. That black children will misbehave more.

I'm pissed off - but not surprised - to see someone make this statement so blatantly. We all suspect that a wide range of policymakers, educators, and labor officials share these noxious beliefs, but it's rare to see them floated as if they represent innocuous scientific precepts, and not the underpinnings of racial discrimination.

We're talking about the lives of children here, and absolutely nobody who influences those lives should be insisting that we "assume" that they are less valuable.

Which leads me to my second point: the use of science to justify racist policymaking is an old phenomenon in this country, particularly among political conservatives. From William F. Buckley to his contemporaries, one can conjure a consistent pattern of deploying prejudiced tropes, served with a soupçon of pseudoscience as justification.

"It doesn't matter what you believe," they'll say, "I'm only interested in the objective truth."

A casual perusal of Petrilli's article suggests its place in this particular pattern. There are scatter plots! A regression line! Such things are supposed to indicate academic rigor, sincerity, and seriousness.

Spoiler alert: they don't.

Let's deal with the most obvious methodological problem: after saying that we cannot believe teacher-reported misbehavior data because there's no way to assess its validity, Petrilli uses self-reported student data to make his point. That's like saying, "We cannot solve the problem of who stole the cookies from the cookie jar by asking mom; in my study we solve that problem by asking the kids."

The regression is more complicated to unpack. Their basic argument is that the gap in suspension data for black children tracks the gap in poverty between black children and white children. First of all, the correlation isn't terribly strong (R^2=0.34). Weak correlation is the norm for most independent variables in education policy, but in this particular case, where the author is using the correlation to justify racial discrimination, the bar should be much higher. I'm also skeptical that the variables they've chosen are appropriate to the question at hand.

That said, the biggest problem with this analysis is that - even if the correlation were impenetrably strong - it doesn't tell us anything. This chart is about disparate suspensions, not disparate behavior. The regression measures the prevalence of an output (suspensions) to make a judgment about the presence of an input (misbehavior). And, remember, the author himself said, "It’s virtually impossible for researchers to know because they can’t 'see' student misbehavior, only records of disciplinary actions ..."

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School discipline is a rare phenomenon within education policy, in that the deployment of new practices can have immediate personal consequences for children and their families. A child who is suspended is less likely to graduate and more likely to struggle to participate in both civic life and the economy. Zero-tolerance polices have dubious impact on school safety, but huge consequences for the children who live with their imperiousness.

The fact that the deployment of zero-tolerance has led to such disproportionate punishment of black children means that it is impossible to decouple its implementation from broader patterns of institutional racism. Just as it is impossible to identify a link between zero-tolerance policing and crime statistics, we should be skeptical of anyone who uses of zero-tolerance discipline policies to gin up fears about school safety. The conservative National Review recently printed a mea culpa about having defended the racist "stop and frisk" practices deployed by police departments in the last generation. That policy - which relied on the "assumption" that individuals of certain racial backgrounds were more likely to commit crimes - was built on a racist precept and led to racist outcomes. In the near future, I hope to see conservatives in the education policy sector issuing a similar mea culpa about zero-tolerance discipline policies. In the meantime, we should be vigilant that the repugnant underpinnings of these ideas stay as far as possible from our classrooms and children.

Friday Reading List: Schools, Sports, Segregation, and More

Victoria L. Jackson is in the Los Angeles Times, dissecting the problematic relationship between race and college sports:

It may be difficult to view revenue-generating players as exploited. They are celebrated with grandiose pageants on ESPN and CBS ... But for those who don’t go on to make millions as pros after graduation — and the vast majority of Division I football players don’t — the NCAA narrative simply doesn’t apply. This divide correlates with race. Nonrevenue athletes are mostly white, while revenue-sport athletes are disproportionately black ... According to a study by Dr. Shaun R. Harper, black men represent 2.8% of undergraduate students at UNC, but 62% of the school’s basketball and football players. These athletes graduate at a rate of 45%, compared with 72% for all athletes, 74% for black males, and 90% for all students.

It's hard to defend this arrangement, but the unpleasant fact is that many colleges depend mightily on the revenue generated by sports for sustenance. The typical defense of the practice starts with some paean to the dignity and American-ness of the scholar athlete, but that argument's flimsiness is made obvious by the statistics above.

To take this discussion to a slightly more radical place: why do we insist on coupling higher education and sports in this country? While plenty of other countries encourage young people to engage in physical activity as a part of a robust program of personal development, the United States is unique in treating the sports programs of academic institutions - not just colleges, but by extension, high schools - as a feeder program for big dollar professional leagues. It's ludicrous, to be honest, and is just another example of how we disrespect the actual project of education in this country.

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Derrell Bradford is in The 74, pushing back on the idea that charter schools are to blame for segregation:

... the attack on charters and their perceived role in segregation reveals a deep and troubling double standard. It’s powered by a desire to destroy black academic excellence — along with those who seek it out and those who seek to provide it — in the name of some other set of democratic fundamentals that, at this point, don’t exist even on paper, let alone in reality. This line of attack illuminates the preferential treatment non-black minorities and, of course, white Americans receive in the realm of public education as a framework for schooling.

Bradford is right to point out that charter critics are fighting a straw man, a reality that often gets lost in the debate. The data show that the students who attend predominantly non-white charters are coming from just as segregated - if not EVEN MORE segregated - traditional public schools. It's not as if some hidden realm exists where there are integrated traditional public schools.

Moreover, as I've come to learn from listening to my friends and colleagues who are not white, as much as we would like to believe otherwise, integration and excellence are two separate goals. Some people will argue that we can't have one without the other. I find that argument compelling, but we cannot artificially limit the potential of our most vulnerable children while elite policymakers bicker over how to fix our schools for another generation.

Elsewhere in education reporting, Jeneen Interlandi of The New York Times Magazine takes a deep look at pre-school teaching:

... the benefits of a preschool education tend to manifest unevenly. Developmental gains made by the start of kindergarten can be enough to close racial achievement gaps, but those gains often evaporate by third or fourth grade, a phenomenon that education researchers call the fade-out effect ... Amid that uncertainty, though, at least two things seem clear: Children in low-income and minority neighborhoods stand to gain (or lose) the most from whatever preschool system we ultimately establish. And the one-on-one exchanges between students and teachers — what developmental psychologists call “process quality” — may well be the key to success or failure.

There's a lot to like about this article, especially its careful treatment of the history of how educators and social scientists have understood the cognitive capacity of young children.

That said, this notion of the "fade-out effect" is euphemistic. The uncomfortable truth is that we put black, brown, and poor children into inferior schools with inadequate teaching. The "fade-out" is not the result of some ephemeral process linked to their identity; it is a systematic under-resourcing and neglect of the schools that many of our children attend. Even the best early childhood program in the world will never have an effect on that broader problem.

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Finally this week, Stacey Childress, writing at Forbes, poses some big questions about education innovation, including this:

An increased focus on social-emotional learning opened an innovation window over the last few years. Has it closed already? A broad coalition of educators and policymakers now agree it’s too narrow to rely on test scores as the sole indicator of student success. A strong academic foundation is important, but students need additional mindsets, habits, and skills to be successful in the long run. The new federal education law (ESSA) allows for an expanded set of indicators for school performance, including social-emotional learning (SEL).

I might add a question to her list: how do we do a better job of ensuring that the benefits of technological advancement accrue to children and families in a manner that is equitable? Too often, privileged children are the beneficiaries of technological advances, while children living with fewer resources do not have access to innovation ... or worse, the "innovations" visited upon children living in poverty are of the Orwellian sort, like the scam-masquerading-as-solution, online credit recovery programs.

On the tech enthusiasm spectrum I'm nowhere near the luddite side of the scale, but it's dangerous to assume that technological progress will be an unmitigated boon to all children.

Have a great weekend!

Wednesday Reading List: What's the Solution When Your Solutions Don't Work?

Katy Reckdahl of The Hechinger Report takes a look at Louisiana's new approach to using standardized test results:

The proportion of overage students — those who have been retained for at least one grade — hovers around 40 percent for New Orleans high school students, according to an analysis of 2014 data by researchers at Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, which is based at Tulane University ... after realizing that academic stragglers who were retained frequently didn’t receive the support they needed, the state is changing course ... In the mid-2000s, Louisiana implemented high-stakes tests known as Louisiana Educational Assessment Program, or LEAP, which required fourth and eighth graders to show that they were grade-level proficient. Students who fell short were assigned mandatory summer-school classes, after which they took the test again. If that second attempt wasn’t successful, students couldn’t move on to fifth or ninth grade.

Reckdahl looks at a lot of data and talks to a bunch of students, so you should read the whole article. While the lopsided retention numbers make the high-stakes testing policy seem counterproductive in hindsight, the issues that drove retention aren't likely to go away just because the practice has been curbed. Students can still coast through schools without meeting grade level standards. Large-scale retention was not a great solution to that problem, but the challenge persists despite the eradication of an unpopular policy.

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To extend this argument a bit, I suspect that we are on the verge of a similar, unsatisfying national reckoning on the broader question of standardized testing. Accountability enthusiasts pitched high-stakes standardized tests as something close to a panacea for our nation's educational inferiority. Fast forward to the present, and not only have our vast inequities persisted over the two decades of the accountability era, but the idea of testing has become toxically unpopular in the process.

Testing's biggest haters will take a victory lap on behalf of "the restoration of the great American public school system" if and when the use of high-stakes testing ebbs ... but the rollback will have solved none of the challenges that accountability hoped to mitigate.

I truly hope that some smart people are working on a better solution to correcting testing's imperfections than just jettisoning two decades of technical progress.

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Speaking of the eradication of half-baked policy solutions, Phillip Atiba Goff is in The New York Times with some wise words about what we should do now that "stop-and-frisk" policing has been debunked:

Police reformers have long argued that ending stop-and-frisk would help communities, not harm them. But in objecting to the policy, we did not point to the negative long-term psychological or social effects this practice had on a generation of young black and Latino men — because we don’t really know what they are. It is urgent that social scientists, police departments and advocates measure the social costs, because burdensome and disparate policing happens all around the country. We should start by listening to targets of these policies. 

You can go ahead and just apply that last sentence to literally every important social policy in America.

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Goff's broader point is worth considering, which is that the criminal justice system ought to be attending to long-term outcomes beyond the narrow concept of "crime." If public safety - and not punishment - is the ultimate goal of crime reduction, then we ought to be considering broader measures of social well-being than homicide rates when we evaluate the efficacy of our approach to policing.

Elsewhere in criminal justice reform, Monique Judge of The Root calls out an important moment for the issue at the federal level:

Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) were appointed to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. This is only the second time in the 201-year history of the committee that anyone black has served on it, and the first time there have been two black people on the committee at once ... Booker’s appointment comes just one year after he testified against the appointment of then-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who was awaiting confirmation for the position of U.S. attorney general. It is apropos that the Judiciary Committee is directly responsible for overseeing the U.S. Department of Justice.

Representation matters. The fact that our country's approach to policing and imprisonment disproportionately affects Black Americans is hard to separate from the fact that the levers of power in our country are disproportionately controlled by people who are not black. Does having Senators Booker and Harris on the Judiciary Committee solve these problems? No. But it's hard to see a pathway to solution without their leadership.

Have a great day!

Monday Reading List: Turning the Heat Up, Gaming Graduation, and Teacher Bonuses

While the cold weather was unrelenting throughout much of the country over the weekend, officials in Baltimore played the blame game for fixing the heat in city schools. Here's Talia Richman in The Baltimore Sun:

Politicians urged immediate repairs to burst pipes and broken boilers, and questioned how the millions of dollars poured into city schools by the state are spent. Mayor Catherine Pugh called Thursday on city schools CEO Sonja Santelises and the school board to “to assess and account for how appropriated maintenance funds are being spent” ... City schools’ CEO Sonja Santelises said in a statement that she shares the mayor’s sense of urgency and the district’s facilities staff have been “working tirelessly” to make repairs in schools across the city ... “The challenges we are facing with these sustained frigid temperatures are not maintenance issues, but infrastructure,” Santelises said.

The point about infrastructure is both technical and political. The education system is responsible for running the schools, but the facilities themselves are maintained with a hodgepodge of federal, state, and local resources. Baltimore's schools are set to reopen today, but the blame game for the failing heating systems persists.

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As I mentioned last week, the unclear, diffuse lines of accountability in schooling exacerbate both the difficulty of educating kids, and the complexity of problem solving. It's not so much that the education system is failing; it's that we don't have anything like a coherent education system in this country.

In other news, Moriah Balingit and Ba Tran of The Washington Post continue to investigate the graduation rate fiasco at Ballou High School in Washington, DC:

In June, a day after graduates from Ballou High received their diplomas, a group of teachers met with D.C. Public Schools officials to share an alarming allegation: Students who missed dozens of classes had been able to earn passing grades and graduate ... Emails and a labor grievance filed in August that were shared with The Washington Post show that [Monica] Brokenborough, who was the teachers union representative at Ballou, tried time and again to reach district officials about her concerns ... The accusations regarding Ballou arise as schools across the nation face scrutiny over efforts to lift graduation rates, with allegations of inflated grades, doctored records and flimsy makeup classes, known as credit-recovery courses, for failing students.

This story isn't going away any time soon, and my hunch is that similar gamesmanship of graduation data is happening all over the country. Unlike standardized testing, which - love it or hate  it - is administered with some level of rigorous oversight, there is very little coherence to the measurement of graduation rates.

You heard it here first: don't be surprised when someone in your hometown is caught fudging the data!

Finally today, Matt Barnum of Chalkbeat breaks down some new research on teacher incentive pay:

A new study, released by the federal government, suggests that merit-based bonuses are the way to go, as they help raise student test scores without making a significant dent in teacher morale. It offers the latest evidence that programs of this sort can help schools and students, despite the common perception that they are ineffective. The research focuses on a federal program known as the Teacher Incentive Fund, and compares schools that gave all teachers an automatic 1 percent bonus to those schools that gave bonuses based on classroom observations and student test scores ... The schools that gave performance bonuses boosted student test scores throughout the four years of the study, between 2011 and 2015.
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Barnum notes that the experimental "effect size" of the program was low, but there are almost no educational interventions that deliver larger effect sizes. In addition, it seems that merit-based bonuses are a much more cost effective way to boost performance than class size reduction.

To that point, class size is one of those issues wherein the politics and conventional wisdom consistently line up against what research and data tell us. While "everyone knows" that small classes are better for kids, guess what? It's just not true. Because class size reduction efforts only shrink a class by one or two students, these adjustments do absolutely nothing to improve the quality of teaching in a classroom. Meanwhile, these efforts cost an extravagant amount of money, because reducing class size means adding lots of overhead costs and new teachers.

Here is a rough example, based on round numbers and national averages: consider a school with 500 students. If the class size in that school went from 23 to 20 overnight, you would suddenly need 25 teachers instead of 22, for an added expense of at least $170,000 per year for JUST ONE SCHOOL.

In In a district with ten schools, that's almost $2MM annually in new costs.

In New York City, where teacher salaries are higher, and the system is enormous, you're talking about hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

Now, I love the idea of spending billions of more dollars on schools. There are lots of great things we could do with that money! Large scale class size reduction, however, is among the least responsible things we could do with that money.

Have a great week!

Thursday Reading List: Failing Infrastructure, Bilingualism, and Nativism

Reader: "I bet you can't find a way to incorporate the unbelievably cold weather into your daily education and justice reading list."

Me: "Challenge accepted."

With school resuming in the midst of a brutal cold snap, the announcement by Baltimore school officials [was reassuring] ... But at schools across the city, students and teachers were surprised to find flooded classrooms and indoor temperatures that were barely above freezing. Flooding from a burst pipe had rendered one classroom at Frederick Douglass unusable ... City Schools only closed four schools today, but social media indicates the cold conditions could be found across the city.

That's Fern Shen writing in Baltimore Brew, about the horrid conditions of classrooms in the Charm City. Maintaining the basic infrastructure of a school system is the sort of thing that routinely screws over vulnerable kids, and this is a particularly salient example. Whereas the day-to-day management of schools tends to sit within the purview of school district officials, the maintenance of facilities and infrastructure often is a shared responsibility among school systems, city governments, regional authorities, and state financing vehicles. More often than not, diffuse accountability breeds finger pointing, not problem solving, which seems to be the case here.

Speaking of which, Jonathan Mahler addresses similar themes in The New York Times Magazine, writing about the New York City subway:

Most countries treat subway systems as national assets. They understand that their cities are their great wealth creators and equality enablers and that cities don’t work without subways. The public-private corporation that runs Hong Kong’s subway expects 99.9 percent of its trains to run on time, and they do. (If you are traveling to the airport, you can also check your luggage at a central downtown train station and not see it again until you’ve landed at your destination. Imagine!) China has been feverishly building new metro systems in cities across the country, a recognition that subways are the only way to keep pace with the nation’s rapid urbanization and the needs of its citizens. And it’s not just new cities that are seeing major investments in their subways. Two decades ago, the decline of London’s Underground became a national crisis; now it’s moving toward running driverless trains ... New York City’s subway, meanwhile, is falling apart.

I juxtapose these articles for many reasons: the idea that public goods must be publicly supported, the notion that democratized public systems are critical to international competitiveness, and to call out the predictable effects of financial neglect on infrastructure, to name a few.

Perhaps most salient, however, is the idea that there will always be privileged people who don't rely as heavily on public services. If you can afford to hail an Uber every time you need to get somewhere in NYC, you don't need the subway. Families that can afford private school may ignore the failing HVAC systems in public schools. More often than not, the people with the most privilege wield the most power over political decision-making, and hence the downward spiral of public services.

Public systems are never perfect, but evidence and experience demonstrate that the erosion of public investment takes the greatest toll on our most vulnerable citizens. Given the toxic environment in Washington, I hope that state, local, and civic leaders find a way to address some of these challenges in a way that reverses the tide.

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In other news, Conor Williams of The Atlantic examined trends in who enrolls at bilingual schools:

While the old bilingual-education programs served English-learning children separately, in some other wing of their schools, dual-immersion programs bring English-learning students into schools’ mainstream classrooms and convert their home languages into assets for the entire school community ... All of this is making dual-immersion programs easier to sell to a linguistically diverse range of families. In particular, interest from middle-class, English-dominant, cosmopolitan families is helping to drive these programs’ expansion ... But—and here’s the rub—if a two-way dual-immersion program helps generate middle-class interest in multilingualism, that dynamic could also undermine the program’s design and effectiveness. What happens when rising demand from privileged families starts pushing English learners out of these programs?

I love this piece, because it wrestles with the paradox of creating greater diversity and integration in public schools. I hear similar arguments from leaders of high-performing charter schools, who purposefully cater to low-income students who come from segregated traditional public schools, then get accused of perpetuating segregation themselves. Those schools have to wrestle with a tradeoff wherein cultivating integration leads to serving fewer children with significant academic needs. If there were myriad other great schools in the cities with high concentrations of poverty, this would be a moot point ... but ... yeah.

The conventional wisdom is that schools have to adjust their curricula to integrate, but dual-immersion language programs have identified a sweet spot, wherein the actual academic programming of their schools can simultaneously appeal to families from a variety of backgrounds. There is much to learn here, even with the inherent challenges.

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Finally today, Stephanie Saul of The New York Times looks at the reduction in foreign students enrolling in domestic universities:

The downturn follows a decade of explosive growth in foreign student enrollment, which now tops 1 million at United States colleges and educational training programs, and supplies $39 billion in revenue ... And since President Trump was elected, college administrators say, his rhetoric and more restrictive views on immigration have made the United States even less attractive to international students. The Trump administration is more closely scrutinizing visa applications, indefinitely banning travel from some countries and making it harder for foreign students to remain in the United States after graduation.

The international appeal of our colleges and universities has been an engine of both cultural and economic prosperity. The current president's reliance on appealing to white nationalism is not just a rhetorical ploy; it's taking a measurable toll on our most critical American institutions. 

Have a great day ...

Tuesday Reading List: End of Year Lists, Aspirations, and Generational Warfare

Happy New Year! After a long break, your reading list is back.

Today's list is a combination of "Year in Review" articles, and a few of my favorite pieces from the end of the year.

Isabel Fattal of The Atlantic pulls out some charts that describe the state of education in America circa 2018, with a heavy emphasis on higher ed:

The accessibility of elite colleges to low-income students has long been a topic of concern in higher-education debates. Recent research by Stanford’s Raj Chetty, based on data on students born between 1980 and 1991, conveyed the urgency of the problem: among the cohorts of students at elite colleges that his team studied, just 3.8 percent of students came from the bottom 20 percent of families, while 14.5 percent were raised as 1-percenters.  

You'll have to click through to see the actual charts, which deal with everything from sexual violence on college campuses to public perceptions of segregation in K-12 schools.

In the meantime, Matt Barnum of Chalkbeat tries to sum up what we learned about schools in 2017:

Education research comes out faster than most of us can keep up with — and staying up to date gets even harder when advocates on every side claim that the newest study supports their views. We’re here to help. Here are some of the most important lessons we’re taking away from 2017, thanks to the researchers who do their best to separate fact from fiction. (The typical caveats apply: these are all subject to change based on new evidence, and each study has limitations.)

Barnum covers teacher certification, school turnaround, union protections, and other topics.

After two decades of near constant changes in education policy at a national level, perhaps the most striking thing about our current milieu is the complete lack of consensus over whether to do anything significant to improve schools beyond local tinkering. In the last couple of years, education reformers, who pushed for dramatic changes in state and federal policy, met an equal and opposite reaction from forces who want to preserve the status quo (or pursue change on other terms), and the result is stalemate.

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Perhaps the most depressing thing about the stalemate is the fact that some of the combatants think they're still in the midst of total war, while continuing to deploy destructive rhetoric and tactics that do nothing to advance the cause of improving schools for vulnerable children.

To the extent that there is any real momentum for radical policy change, pundits have coalesced around the idea of reinvigorating desegregation efforts in schools. Abel McDaniels of the Center for American Progress chimed-in at the end of December:

Contrary to popular opinion, schools are not most segregated in the South but rather in large metropolitan areas in the Northeast and in the West—in places with hundreds of school districts that align with municipal boundaries and that reinforce segregated housing patterns. To successfully enroll large numbers of students in racially and socioeconomically integrated schools, policymakers must look beyond current school boundaries and work to consolidate school districts. Because of the legacy and persistence of housing segregation, in many densely populated areas, it is simply impossible to integrate schools within current district boundaries ... While district consolidation can make integration possible, there must also be community support and political will among leadership.

McDaniels's final point is the one that is missing in almost every conversation I hear about school integration. There are plenty of technical challenges inherent in creating more racial balance in public schools, but the technical problems are dwarfed by the political ones. In 2018, I hope that education writers will resolve to focus more on the places where elite enthusiasm for integration is coupled with a significant political strategy to achieve its intended ends, otherwise we are engaging in magical thinking.

In particular, there are two kinds of stories I am super interested in reading. First, are there local community organizations or politicians who are tackling school integration while having the support of a significant political base? Second, is there any appetite to create state and or federal policies that create a financial incentive for local governments to pursue more integration? This was the theory behind "Race to the Top," where federal money was dangled in front of states and districts as motivation to pursue public policy that would be impossible to implement under normal circumstances.

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Changing the subject, both Sean Illing of Vox and and Michael Hobbes of HuffPost wrote end-of-year pieces on one of my favorite topics: how Baby Boomers ruined America, then blamed Millenials for everything that's wrong with the country.

In Illing's piece, he interviews Bruce Gibney, who wrote an entire book on this topic - A Generation of Sociopaths: How Baby Boomers Betrayed Americawhile Hobbes's piece has some of the most exciting animation and graphic design I have ever seen in mainstream online journalism.

I bring significant bias to this topic, as I am either an "Old Millenial" or a "Xennial," depending on whose definition of the zeitgeist you buy. Either way, I am amazed by the fact that Baby Boomers inherited the mantle of American political leadership at a time of unparalleled strength and financial prosperity, and now continue to cling to power while they pour gasoline on our dumpster fire of a political system.

Have a great year!

Monday Reading List: Secretive Policymaking & Growing Up in the Trump Era

Monica Disare, writing in Chalkbeat, looks at how New York makes education policy decisions:

Monday’s vote is an extreme example of the way New York’s education decision-makers often craft potentially controversial policies behind the scenes, then reveal them to the public shortly before they’re approved — leaving little time for debate. In this case, as I would later learn, officials intentionally withheld the policy document until the last minute so they could manage how the public made sense of it ... The day’s other proposals had been published online the previous Friday —  giving the public at least three days notice before they were discussed, as required by state law. Now, we would have to dig through the 11-page document as the Regents were discussing it. Before I’d figured out what it all meant, they voted unanimously to approve it.

Later in the article, Disare interviews an expert who confirms that the Regents, in failing to disclose the policy in a timely manner, broke the law. Here's the thing about education law, though: it's mostly optional.

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States, districts, schools, and officials violate education laws all the time. The policy change in the article above is one example of how - lacking a significant enforcement infrastructure - education officials can avoid accountability. Advocacy and activism can change this, but unless the federal government decides to step on New York State's toes, nothing will change.

In other New York news, Conor Williams of The 74 talked to his former students about the Trump era:

...  I reached out to the mother of one of my former students, and within weeks, I was chatting with him and four of his teammates from Achievement First Brooklyn High School’s highly successful speech and debate team. None could vote in 2016. But as champion debaters, with a crowded shelf of trophies to prove it, they keep a close eye on the fraught national arguments over American ideals — and competing visions for the country’s future. They will likely live with the consequences of the country’s decision in November for much longer than most 2016 voters (two-thirds of whom were at least 40 years old on Election Day). They are all children of immigrants, but that may be their only common identity ... There’s no sugarcoating it: the students’ view of the president — and the country — is bleak.

Williams has done a brilliant job of unpacking the ranging concerns of young people - particularly those from immigrant families - living through this particularly turbulent period of American life and politics. It's nice to see these young people as the subjects - rather than the objects - of examination.

Isabel Fattal of The Atlantic curated a photo essay of children's backpacks from around the world:

Until the 1980s, backpacks were used mostly for hiking and outdoor activities. Students used entirely different (and much less convenient) modes of transportation for their school supplies: Until the 1930s, many students used leather straps to hold together the books they carried. Later, students used mini briefcases or one-strap bags. In 1969, the company JanSport created a daypack for skiing and hiking; they happened to be selling them at a store connected to the University of Washington bookstore, and students started using these bags to keep their books dry in rainy Seattle. Today, backpacks have become a staple of student life.

The pictures are beautiful, so be sure to click through!

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Finally today, Lillian Lowery and Evan Stone are in Education Post, talking about ending the "school to prison pipeline":

This isn’t a new epidemic. It is one that is finally getting the broad and needed attention and action it warrants, thanks to youth- and advocate-led coalitions like Dignity in Schools Campaign, the California-based Alliance for Boys and Men of Color and the Denver-based Padres & Jóvenes Unidos; forward-thinking educators; and the Obama administration’s Office of Civil Rights. Teachers are at the forefront of these efforts. They have begun sitting down with administrators to examine their school’s discipline data and rethink policies. They are reflecting on their own implicit biases and critically examining their own practices. And they are engaging in the hard work of implementing alternatives to punitive and exclusionary discipline.

The challenge here is that that Trump administration - SHOCKINGLY (sarcasm) - is backing away from Obama-era initiatives that would curb the over-suspension and -expulsion of young people. Lowery and Stone share some constructive suggestions for advancing the conversation, even in this toxic political environment.

Have a great day!