Tuesday Reading List: Predators in Higher Education, School Discipline, and Federal Law

The Atlantic has two new pieces about the financial ramifications of higher education. First, Melinda D. Anderson looks at the ways in which the for-profit sector takes advantage of vulnerable students:

Increasingly, for-profit schools have come under scrutiny from regulators and critics for leaving students—disproportionately black and Latino young adults—with heavy debts, poor graduation rates, and weak job prospects. Corinthian Colleges, one of the largest for-profit chains, closed its doors last year following a U.S. Education Department investigation and a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau lawsuit that charged the company with falsifying its job-placement rates. Last month, ITT Technical Institutes also shut down operations after 50 years in business, apparently buckling under “allegations of fraud, deceptive marketing and steering students into predatory loans,” as reported by The Washington Post.

Anderson follows one particular student's story, which is illustrative. The line between "for profit higher education" and "vocational training" has become quite blurry, and many student experiences land on the "trade school" side of that porous border. There's nothing inherently wrong with trade school, but if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, don't call it "college," and don't take advantage of vulnerable students.

Emily DeRuy, on the other hand, writes about disparities in student loans:

According to Judith Scott-Clayton, an associate professor of economics and education at the Teachers College at Columbia University, and Jing Li, a research associate in the Department of Education Policy and Social Analysis at the college, black graduates have almost $53,000 in student loans four years after graduation, close to double the amount white graduates hold. Just a few years earlier, when students collect their diplomas, the gap is just $7,400. As the authors note, those racial gaps are larger than many thought. They’re larger than they used to be, too, and seem to be tied not only to default rates, but to where black students enroll in graduate school.

The culprit, in a lot of cases? You guessed it: the for-profit institutions chronicled in Anderson's piece above. It doesn't really matter whether or not for-profit higher education works in theory, as in practice, it seems to be a huge problem. There are obvious problems in the nonprofit higher education sector as well, but the profit seeking seems downright predatory at this point.

In Chalkbeat, Ric Zappa, a teacher at a charter school, discusses his school's transition away from zero-tolerance discipline policies:

At KIPP Summit Academy, punishment and suspension had resulted in obedient behavior. But those measures left a sizable proportion of students feeling that adults were adversaries, not partners, and separated them from the learning process ... So our school ultimately took a different path, and chose a process that led Luis to learn from his mistakes rather than simply being punished for them. This path, called restorative justice, has a 40-year history in the U.S. and is finding favor among a growing number of schools nationally, including many of my school principal colleagues leading KIPP schools in the Bay Area and across the country. It’s not because restorative justice is easier than the traditional approach. When Luis was told in 2011 that he would have to engage in tough conversations with his classmates and teachers, he actually asked to be suspended instead. We didn’t suspend him.

Zappa describes the process of restorative justice in detail, which is helpful in understanding what kind of attitudinal shifts are necessary to implement the concept. Sharif El-Mekki talks about discipline as well, and he emphasizes that restorative justice is not incompatible with rigid self-discipline:

Black families should not have to choose between chaotic or callous schools for their children. At the Philadelphia school where I serve as principal, our families expect us to have a no-excuses policy. I’ll ask them directly how they feel when they hear educators—often White educators—tell their children there are no excuses in striving for excellence. They tell me that if excellence is what the entire school community is striving for, then they have no issue. What these families don’t want is an intense focus on disciplining students without also motivating their children to be self-disciplined. They expect us to help our students be successful despite any trauma they may have experienced or learning challenges they must overcome. They appreciate that we use restorative justice practices and consider cultural context.

As usual, there is a lot of gray area here. Before you form strong opinions about the various shades of school discipline, you should visit schools whose choices represent a full range of approaches. Schools should be responsive what families want and need. Not all parents want the same things, and even within families, different children thrive under difference circumstances. Parents who pay for elite private schooling expect the expression of their preferences in schooling, but for various reasons, public schools are less responsive to the preferences of parents.

Finally, Nichole Dobo, writing at The Hechinger Report, wonders whether states will change their approach to schooling based on a new federal education law:

A new federal law hands more control to state leaders, untethering them from rules that threatened dire consequences for failing to achieve certain test scores. But in return for this freedom, states must come up with their own ways of ensuring that their schools give all students a high-quality, equitable education. And this is why state education commissioners and board members are finding an army of inside-the-beltway advocates suddenly interested in local goings-on. They are releasing a flurry of policy papers and hosting events meant to persuade states to try new models of education.

In a prior life, I ran a nonprofit organization that worked with states on issues like these. In my experience, neither policy papers nor events are sufficient to change the practice of large bureaucracies. Changing the behavior of public institutions requires sustained work, in the trenches of schools in government, so I hope that some of those advocates are ready to do the hard work of change management.