Education

Teach For America's Civil War

This summer, alumni and current teachers are launching the first ever national campaign against the organization.

AP Images/Todd Sumlin
AP Images/Todd Sumlin Twenty-four years running, the rap on Teach for America (TFA) is a sampled, re-sampled, burned-out record: The organization’s five-week training program is too short to prepare its recruits to teach, especially in chronically under-served urban and rural districts; corps members only have to commit to teach for two years, which destabilizes schools, undermines the teaching profession, and undercuts teachers unions; and TFA, with the help of its 501(c)4 spin-off, Leadership for Educational Equity, is a leading force in the movement to close “failing” schools, expand charter schools, and tie teachers’ job security to their students’ standardized test scores. Critics burn TFA in internet-effigy across the universe of teacher listservs and labor-friendly blogs. Last July, it earned Onion fame : an op-ed entitled “My Year Volunteering As A Teacher Helped Educate A New Generation Of Underprivileged Kids,” followed by a student’s take, “Can We Please, Just Once, Have A...

Back to School for Labor

The fight for union recognition at Philadelphia’s Olney High School shows the challenges of organizing charter schools.

Courtesy of greatphillyschools.org
Courtesy of greatphillyschools.org Olney High School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania M ost people wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to attend a three-hour meeting after work hours. But on May 29, the board meeting of ASPIRA of Pennsylvania, a non-profit that runs four charters schools in Philadelphia, was packed with teachers, students, and other staff members. Holding signs that read “Let’s Work Together,” a group of 30 from the Olney Charter High School quietly sat through the last board meeting of the academic year, waiting to hear if ASPIRA would continue to resist their efforts to unionize. The public-comment period didn’t begin until 9:00 p.m., with a strict two-minute limit for every speaker. Olney staffers got around the rule. Instead of rushing through their own remarks, each speaker read a few paragraphs from a co-authored statement. Olney employees emphasized their desire to work with the administration and asked ASPIRA to stop fighting their unionization drive. The speech’s...

Children of the Great Collapse

AP Photo/Bloomsburg Press Enterprise, Bill Hughes
AP Photo/Kin Cheung Here’s a piece of good news of which you might not be aware: The U.S. safety net performed a lot better than you thought during the recent downturn, which was the deepest since the Depression. Thanks to expansions to the Child Tax Credit, the Earned Income Tax Credit, food stamps, and unemployment insurance—all beefed up by the $840 billion Recovery Act—the safety net almost wholly mitigated the rise in child poverty. Even middle-income households saw most of their income losses substantially offset by tax and transfer policies that sharply ramped up to help them. That’s the good news. The bad news is that most of the Recovery Act’s outlays have now been spent, and pressure to reduce deficits leaves other spending on children and families under assault. While the safety net performed well during the worst phase of the downturn, other trends have been troubling. Families lost trillions of dollars in home equity, the largest source of wealth for working- and middle-...

Teachers Left Behind

Press Association via AP Images
AP Photo/Randy Snyder K athleen Knauth has had a rough school year. The principal of Hillview Elementary, near Buffalo, New York, has spent so much time typing teacher evaluations, entering data, and preparing for standardized testing, she barely had a minute to do what she used to do in her first 12 years of being a principal—drop in on classes, address parents’ concerns, or get to know students. When a school social worker stopped by her office a few months back to get Knauth’s take on which children might need her help, she realized she had hit a new low. “Normally I’d say, ‘This one’s grandma is seriously ill. This child is going through a huge custody battle. This one has clothes that are too small. I could reel off six to eight things,” says Knauth. “But this year, I had nothing.” Two weeks ago, after she was asked to raise the standards her students would be expected to meet for a fifth time this year, Knauth decided to resign and sent a public letter explaining that the...

Are Vouchers Dead?

AP Images/Ben Margot
When news broke Tuesday that the Louisiana Supreme Court struck down Louisiana’s voucher system, which uses public dollars to pay for low-income students to go to private schools, the fight over vouchers made its way back into the headlines. The Louisiana program, pushed hard and publicly by Republican Governor Bobby Jindal, offers any low-income child in the state, regardless of what public school they would attend, tuition assistance at private schools. It’s something liberals fear will become commonplace in other states in the future if conservative lawmakers get their way on education policy. Yet conservatives have been dominating legislatures since 2010 and there has been little success in creating voucher programs. Louisiana is one of only two states with such a broad program in place. After the 2010 Tea Party wave there was “a big spike in the number of states considering voucher legislation,” says Josh Cunningham, a policy specialist at the National Conference of State...

LLM: Lawyers Losing Money

AP Images/Chitose Suzuki
American University’s Washington College of Law (WCL) is in crisis. Situated in the toughest job market for lawyers in the United States, the Washington, D.C. school has fallen 11 spots in the U.S. News rankings since the class of 2013 applied. This is in part due to the release of detailed employment statistics that show the schools’ full-time, long-term legal employment rate of 39 percent ranks 5th out of 7 area law schools. A group of students have started a petition to fire Dean Claudio Grossman and a WCL theatrical troupe staged a play, “Grossman’s Eleven,” alluding to the 2001 heist movie starring George Clooney. The school is undergoing a $130 million expansion and has moderately grown its LLM program—a once rare post-graduate degree whose recent proliferation is becoming to critics a symbol of unscrupulous law school practices. American is not alone in growing its LLM program. From the early 1970s to the late 1990s, the LLM was a marginal degree aimed primarily at foreign...

Underfunded and Under Five

AP Photo/The Hawk Eye, John Lovretta
AP Photo/The Winchester Star, Jeff Taylor A s we contemplate the possibly bright future of pre-K laid out in Obama’s state of the union address this year, in which the feds work together “with states to make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America,” along comes a sobering glimpse of what public preschool looks like now. It’s not quite as rosy. Rather than charting progress toward getting all four-year-olds ready for kindergarten, the National Institute for Early Education Research’s annual survey of programs, just issued last week, shows a system in disrepair—or perhaps even retreat. Even as recognition of the benefits of preschool for four-year-olds has grown, the actual implementation of it has stalled—and, in places, lost ground. Meanwhile state funding for pre-K has gone down by more than half a billion dollars in the last year, according to NIEER. In 2012, state spending per child fell to well below what it was ten years ago. The backsliding, which can...

The STEM-Shortage Myth

Flickr/jasonandrebecca09
Flickr/jasonandrebecca09 The Economic Policy Institute published a report yesterday on the supposed shortage of professionals in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). You've probably heard of the crisis by now. America is not producing enough STEM degrees. This will be the death of innovation and global competitiveness. We must reorient higher education to convert more liberal arts students into STEM students. And so on. The problem with this alleged crisis is that it is not real. As the EPI report lays bare, the common wisdom about our STEM problem is mistaken: We are not facing a shortage of STEM-qualified workers. In fact, we appear to have a considerable STEM surplus. Only half of students graduating with a STEM degree are able to find STEM jobs. Beyond that, if there was an actual shortage of STEM workers, basic supply and demand would predict that the wages of STEM workers would be on the rise. Instead, wages in STEM fields have not budged in over a decade. Stagnant...

Smith's Unsisterly Move

Flickr/Patrick Giblin
Flickr/Patrick Giblin C alliope Wong isn’t woman enough for Smith College. At least that’s what Smith’s admissions office has decided. Wong is a charming, smart teenager with a strong writing voice who calls Smith, an all-women’s college in Northampton, Massachusetts, her “dream college.” She’s also transgender. Last summer, she reached out to Smith to see if her application would be welcome. After some back-and-forth, Smith’s dean of admissions, Debra Shaver, told Wong that she was welcome to apply as long as she checked the “female” box on her application and explained her situation in the Additional Information section of the application. Yet on March 10, Smith returned Wong’s application unconsidered , citing her gender as the reason. If that sounds like an unsisterly way for a women's only college to act, that’s because it is. Feminists have been arguing for decades that neither our genes nor our genitalia should define our lives. Yet Wong has been found wanting in the woman...

A Good Old-Fashioned Education

Flickr/Thomas Favre-Bulle
W hen it comes to education policy, inconstancy is the only constant. During the past generation, self-styled reformers have pitched such nostrums as vouchers, charter schools, high-stakes accountability for teachers, and a near-total emphasis on reading and math. Nothing seems to be working, though: American students continue to lag on international tests and racial and ethnic achievement gaps stubbornly persist. Here's the good news: From Houston to Long Beach, Charlotte to Brownsville, school systems across the country—big and small; generously and meagerly funded; mainly Latino, mainly black, or heterogeneous; with elected school boards and mayor-appointed school boards—have figured out how to boost reading and math scores and shrink the achievement gap. The public has never heard about these accomplishments, and it’s easy to see why. Journalists thrive on color, and there’s nothing jazzy to report. Each of these districts has identified a few evidence-based strategies like high-...

Rebuilding Schools—and Happiness—in Pakistan

Education reformers come to the former Taliban-occupied Swat Valley.

AP Photo/John McConnico
AP Photo/Alexandre Meneghini When the Taliban ruled in the Swat Valley, from 2007 to 2009, it set up in enclaves in the mountainous terrain. In better times, this area was a vacation destination that drew many to its hilly hamlets. Visitors often left with apples from the orchards or jars of locally cultivated honey. People here were known for their folk music and dance, but those traditions quickly faded into the background. Taliban fighters enforced their own brand of draconian Islamic law, requiring men to grow beards and forbidding women from going to the market. Pakistanis watched as the region's famous “Green Square” turned into “Bloody Square” when the Taliban meted out punishment to those who dared cross its authority. More than two million fled the conflict, and many have since settled elsewhere, not daring to return. The region shuddered in thunderous bomb blasts. Some of those blasts were aimed at schools, and the Taliban destroyed 200 of them throughout the Swat region...

Education for Sale

Amy E. Price, SXSWedu
Amy E. Price, SXSWedu Bill Gates and Iwan Streichenberger, CEO of nonprofit inBloom Inc., discuss the potential for personalized learning technology to transform classrooms during Gates' keynote at SXSWedu, in Austin, Texas. A t a conference made up of educators, administrators, and entrepreneurs, Bill Gates is bound to be polarizing. The mega-philanthropist, who’s put billions into education-reform initiatives like charter schools and data-mining to better evaluate teachers, is a hero to some in the education community, an enemy to others. Last week, at South by Southwest Edu—the nerdy cousin of Austin's popular music and multimedia festival—Gates seemed to relish his role. “Software’s able to create this interactive, connective experience for the students in a way that simply isn’t economic in a public-school context,” he said at the final event of the four-day conference. Behind him, a pie chart showed a $9 billion dollar education market—a market in which technology currently has...

Obama's Plan for Universal Pre-K

White House / Flickr
White House / Flickr If you haven’t already, you should read Sharon Lerner on Oklahoma’s attempt to provide high-quality preschool education to all of its students. It offers a glimpse into what the Obama administration intends with its universal pre-K push, and it’s a hopeful story to boot. In the meantime, it’s worth look at the administration’s proposals, which were released this morning. Here is an extended excerpt from the White House fact sheet : The President’s proposal will improve quality and expand access to preschool, through a cost sharing partnership with all 50 states, to extend federal funds to expand high-quality public preschool to reach all low- and moderate-income four-year olds from families at or below 200% of poverty. The U.S. Department of Education will allocate dollars to states based their share of four-year olds from low- and moderate-income families and funds would be distributed to local school districts and other partner providers to implement the program...

Q&A: How Do You Measure Value in Higher Education?

P. Morrissey / Flickr
P. Morrissey / Flickr The Rotunda at the University of Virginia. In the State of the Union, President Obama gave a brief mention to higher-education reform, asking “Congress to change the Higher Education Act, so that affordability and value are included in determining which colleges receive certain types of federal aid.” Across the country, researchers are working hard on just this question: What “value” do colleges and universities add, and how do we measure it? The Center for American Progress recently released a paper on performance-based funding for higher education , and last year, the Gates Foundation—in collaboration with HCM Strategists—began a project called “ Context for Success .” Its goal? To give policymakers and colleges tools to better judge what works in higher education. To find more about what this entails, I had a brief conversation with Charles T. Clotfelter, a professor of public policy, economics and law at Duke University, who worked on the project. Last night...

The State of the Kindergarteners Should Be Strong

Flickr/SFA Union City
Flickr/US Army Africa O bama gave the country a glimpse of his new pre-K initiative in last night State of the Union address—and reason to hope that he’ll bring the rest of the country toward the national models set by states such as Georgia and Oklahoma . About halfway through the roughly hour-long speech, the President proposed “working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America,”—an ambitious goal, given that only 27 percent of four-year-olds are currently in public pre-K. With his comment that “Most middle-class parents can't afford a few hundred bucks a week for private preschool”—which was met with an emphatic “that’s right” from the audience—Obama gave voice to a huge frustration of parents across the political spectrum. Those close to the issue had already been tipped off to the new initiative at a January meeting with Health and Human Services official Linda Smith, who estimated that the expansion of pre-K would reach some 1.85...

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