Rachel M. Cohen

Rachel M. Cohen is a journalist based in Washington, D.C., and a former American Prospect writing fellow.

Recent Articles

NEA Members Announce They Will Fight Institutional Racism. Do They Mean It?

At the National Education Association’s recently concluded annual meeting—a gathering where the country’s largest labor union sets its policy priorities for the coming year—delegates passed several historic measures that committed the union to fighting institutional racism.

Perhaps the most notable measure was New Business Item B, which passed unanimously. It opened with language stating that the NEA “acknowledge[s] the existence in our country of institutional racism—the societal patterns and practices that have the net effect of imposing oppressive conditions and denying rights, opportunity and equality based on race.” Allocating $277,000 to the effort, the union pledged to, among other things, focus on providing support for programs that can “end the school to prison pipeline” and expand professional development opportunities that emphasize “cultural competence, diversity, and social justice.” While this funding will last for one year, the measure includes a clause that says some money should go toward “researching implications for NEA’s Strategic Plan and Budget for 2016-2018,” which suggests that the union would consider devoting more resources to anti-racist efforts in the future.

EduColor—a relatively new movement to elevate public school advocates of color on issues of equity and justice—released a statement following the NEA’s conference. While EduColor’s members applauded the steps taken by the union to confront institutional racism, they pointed out that “it should humble all of us to some degree that it took such a long time to do what seemed so obvious to NEA members of color.” With school segregation, inequitable school funding, and shortages of black and brown teachers, EduColor said, “Now, we must go beyond statements and into the substance of our actions.” Making anti-racist work compulsory for their union, they argue, must “sit side-by-side with collective bargaining rights.”

Jose Vilson, the founder of EduColor, writing on his blog, said he hopes the NEA is committed to fighting racism because its members truly believe in social justice, and not because its members are afraid of being labeled as racists if they don’t. Vilson noted that the NEA introduced and passed bills that he “wouldn’t have thought possible even a few months ago”—a testament to the hard and difficult conversations taking place in their union and across the country—but that still, “we have to recognize that many of our colleagues aren’t ready to hear that they may be part of the problem, too.”

The questions that have come to the forefront of education policy debates over the past year are not about to disappear, or be resolved, anytime soon. The NEA joins the American Federation of Teachers, a union with a much longer history of tackling racial justice issues, in reckoning with how to fight politically for greater equity and opportunity both within and outside of the school building. While the two unions seem to recognize that education is greatly impacted by economic inequality, incarceration, and racism, it will no doubt take activist educators to keep their organizations’ priorities focused on results. 

Are Uber and Lyft Driving Recalled Cars?

While aggressively marketing their services as safe, the ride-sharing giants do not require drivers to repair recalled cars. 

Imaginechina via AP Images
Imaginechina via AP Images U ber and Lyft—two popular ride-sharing companies sweeping cities worldwide—work hard to market their transportation services as safe and secure. On Lyft’s website, the company boasts , “As pioneers in transportation, we’re changing the industry with safety front of mind.” Touting their mandatory inspection requirements, like driver criminal background checks, the company declares: “We designed safety into every part of Lyft.” Uber’s rhetoric is quite similar. “From the moment you request a ride to the moment you arrive, the Uber experience has been designed from the ground up with your safety in mind,” their website states . Phillip Cardenas, the Head of Global Safety at Uber says that while his company is committed to continually improving its policies, he believes Uber has “built the safest transportation option in 260 cities around the world.” Over the past year I’ve spent a lot of time looking into the growing number of recalled but unrepaired vehicles...

Will Students Soon Be Tested for 'Grit'?

The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP)—nicknamed “the Nation’s Report Card”—is the largest nationally representative assessment that tests what American students know and can do in different subjects.

Curiously, it was recently announced that beginning in 2017, NAEP plans to start measuring so-called “non-cognitive skills” like motivation and grit in the background surveys they issue to all test-takers. Additionally, according to Education Week, questions about “self-efficacy and personal achievement goals may be included on questionnaires for specific subjects to create content-area measures.”

Though schools won’t be judged based on these NAEP measures, the article says, “other such tests for accountability purposes may be on the horizon.” A coalition of seven districts in California are reportedly developing an accountability system that will evaluate schools in part by including measures of “growth mindset, self efficacy and self-management, and social awareness.” These are supposed to be in place next year.

The odd thing about this NAEP announcement is that very recently psychologists Angela Duckworth and David Scott Yeager published a paper in the journal Educational Researcher arguing that while emerging findings on character skills are promising, existing research is not ready to be incorporated into accountability assessments. Angela Duckworth told NPR that she feels “enthusiasm” for these measures “is getting ahead of the science” and that wanting to use these skills for evaluation would be gravely premature.

In April I published a long piece on the rise of grit fervor in education reform, which looked at the ways in which current tools to measure grit and other character traits are flawed. There are significant limitations to self-reported assessments, and Duckworth and Yeager’s subsequent journal paper echoed these concerns. Researchers haven’t given up on developing improved measures, and they are currently exploring future possibilities like computer simulations.

The intellectual humility Duckworth and Yeager demonstrated in their paper (and this video) is quite impressive, and should not be understated. Why school districts and NAEP are still intent on moving forward quickly with measuring these skills then deserves some further clarification.

Sorry, Walmart: Charter Schools Won't Fix Poverty

The Walton Family Foundation may not want to raise wages or lose tax breaks, but education reform alone can't reduce income inequality.

(Photo: Mike Mozart/Creative Commons)
L ast week, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and In the Public Interest released a highly critical report on the Walton Family Foundation’s K-12 education philanthropy, which ended with a call for increased transparency and accountability in the charter sector. The gist of the report is that the Walton Family Foundation—which has kick-started about one in four charters around the country—“relentlessly presses for rapid growth of privatized education options” and has opposed serious efforts to regulate and monitor fraud and abuse. While the foundation supports rapidly scaling up charter networks that have produced promising results, the AFT and In the Public Interest cite a 2013 Moody’s Investment Services report which found that dramatically expanding charter schools in poor urban areas weakens the ability of traditional schools to serve their students, forcing them to lay off teachers, increase class sizes, and cut programs to make ends meet. A month earlier, Philamplify, an...

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