Rachel M. Cohen

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

Recent Articles

There's Plenty of Evidence on the Value of School Integration

I read an exchange on Twitter yesterday between Maggie Severns, an education reporter at Politico, and CJ Libassi, a researcher at the Education Policy Initiative, an organization committed to “applied, policy-relevant research for improved educational outcomes.” They were discussing my recent piece about Obama’s record on school integration. I was struck in particular by this part:

 

 

I found it surprising, and worrying, that a prominent education journalist and an education policy researcher would both say that they have looked around and cannot find “any actual evidence” on the value of school integration.

School desegregation conversations are complex and difficult, which is all the more reason we should strive to make our discussions as informed as they can be. I have no idea what Severns’ and Libassi’s attempts to find evidence looked like, but given that perhaps there are other mainstream journalists and researchers who have faced similar issues, I decided it would make sense to quickly post some starting points:

1. The Spivack Archive is an accessible social-science database that explores the impacts of ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic integration. Its stated purpose is to “provide scholars, education rights attorneys, policy makers, and the general public with accessible state-of-the-art knowledge.” The archive has been an on-going project led by sociologist Roslyn Mickelson since 2005. It’s received funding from the American Sociological Association, the National Science Foundation, and the Poverty and Race Research Action Council.

2. The National Coalition on School Diversity, which formed in 2009, has published a series of short policy briefs on the benefits of school integration. The briefs explore impacts on academic achievement, on college attendance, on poverty reduction, on non-minority student impacts, and other areas. NCSD is a coalition of educators, policy advocates, and civil rights leaders.

3. The Civil Rights Project/ Proyecto Derechos Civiles has commissioned hundreds of studies on issues related to desegregation, racial diversity, racial disparities in school discipline and other related areas. CRP is a research and policy think tank that was founded at Harvard in 1996, and has been run out of UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies since 2007.

This list is by no means comprehensive, but it’s a decent place to start if you’re looking to familiarize yourself with some of the quality research. I hope more people do, especially those writing and thinking about education.  

Obama's Mixed Record on School Integration

While a handful of small programs have taken steps toward promoting diversity, desegregation has remained absent from Obama's signature education initiatives. 

AP Photo/Evan Vucci
AP Photo/Evan Vucci President Barack Obama, accompanied by Education Arne Duncan, speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, April 29, 2015, during an event to honor the teachers of the year. A s Congress debates competing revisions of the No Child Left Behind Act over the next several weeks, lawmakers are unlikely to spend much time looking at the growing problem of segregated schools. Despite strong academic and civic benefits associated with integrated schooling , and a unanimous Supreme Court decision which ruled that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” American public schools have resegregated quickly by race and class over the past two and a half decades. Many advocates had hoped to see the Obama administration take steps to address rising school segregation, but so far its record has not been great. While the Department of Education has paid lip service to the need to promote integrated schools, and has included modest diversity...

How Domestic-Worker Activists Helped Fight Jim Crow

From the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, to Ava DuVernay’s award-winning movie Selma, to #BlackLivesMatter activists who have refused to stay silent in the face of racial injustice, there has been no shortage of civil rights remembrances this year. And yet, there’s plenty about the struggle for racial justice many of us are not aware of. A case-in-point is the subject of historian Premilla Nadasen’s new book Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement. Nadasen’s text narrates the struggle and activism of 20th century domestic workers—women who were integral, yet rendered invisible—in the fight against racism and Jim Crow.

As someone who has reported previously on the inspiring labor organizing of domestic workers, I was floored by all the history I learned from Nadasen’s book. She focuses on household worker activists from the 1950s to the 1970s, though readers glean some context from before and after those decades as well.

You’ll learn about Marvel Cooke, an investigative journalist in the 1930s who went undercover to expose the disturbing working conditions of domestic workers in New York City. And you’ll read about Georgia Gilmore, who raised money for those boycotting buses in Montgomery, Alabama, by selling cakes and pies that she cooked daily. “Had it not been for people like Georgia Gilmore, Martin Luther King Jr. would not have been who he was,” Nadasen writes. There are others, like Geraldine Roberts who mobilized household workers to advocate for higher wages and job training in Cleveland, and Edith Barksdale Sloan, who helped to organize the first national organization of household workers: The Household Technicians of America (HTA).

Just last week, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia upheld the Department of Labor’s new regulations, issued in 2013, that entitle home care workers to minimum wage and overtime pay under the Fair Labor Standards Act. For 80 years, these workers—mostly women, immigrants, and people of color—have toiled away without the basic labor protections that other workers have long been afforded. Yet while contemporary domestic worker organizations, like the National Domestic Workers Alliance, have been instrumental in pressuring governments to take action on behalf of the rights and needs of exploited workers, Nadasen’s book is a powerful reminder that 20th century activism, led by some truly incredible women, has helped to make our present-day victories possible. 

Unionized Charter Teachers in Chicago Reject Merit Pay

Last week, unionized teachers at three schools operated by Civitas—a subsidiary of the Chicago International Charter School network—negotiated a new contract that no longer has merit pay in it. This means 31 out of 32 unionized Chicago charter schools have now rejected merit pay. And the one unionized charter that still has it—Rudy Lozano Leadership Academy—is currently negotiating a new contract and teachers hope to remove it there as well.

Merit pay, a policy that ties teacher salaries and bonuses to student standardized test scores and evaluations, is one of the most controversial tenets of the education reform movement. The idea has been tossed around for decades, but has never really gained steam. Most teacher salaries are tied to their level of education and the number of years they’ve been teaching.

Michelle Rhee, former chancellor for Washington, D.C., schools, says merit pay is needed to create the kind of culture “where excellence is rewarded.” Proponents believe that this kind of policy would incentivize high-quality teachers to enter the profession. The Obama administration’s $4.3 billion Race to the Top program encouraged states to implement merit pay systems within their schools.

(Photo courtesy of the Council of State Governments)

 

While teacher salaries are notoriously low, many teachers have generally opposed merit pay because they do not think the system in which they’d be evaluated could ever really be objective or fair. They also worry that it could have unintended consequences, like incentivizing cheating or teaching to the test. 

Brian Harris, the president of the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff, said that when his school unionized in 2009, they first tried to improve their “really awful” merit pay scheme by negotiating more objective metrics into their evaluation system. Teachers aimed to reform merit pay, not remove it.

Over time, according to Harris, teachers began to feel increasingly frustrated with even their new-and-improved merit pay system. When I spoke to Harris in April as I was reporting my When Charters Go Union piece, he had told me, “the opposition to merit pay at my school has grown insane.” Four months later, it’s now gone.

I asked Harris if anyone in his union wanted to keep merit pay and he said he has no idea. “Nobody has been brave enough to tell me to my face that they like merit pay.” He did note that some who like the idea of paying teachers who work really hard more money, acknowledge that it is really difficult to do so fairly. “Even a lot of people who were evaluating us acknowledged that this stuff was unfair,” Harris said.

About eight months ago, their union released a document with guiding principles for contract negotiations. Beyond killing merit pay, other contract goals include advocating for smaller class sizes, increasing teacher voice, and securing protected time during the workday to grade, plan, and collaborate.

It will be interesting to see if the momentum that unionized charter school teachers have created in Chicago motivates other non-unionized charter teachers who are dissatisfied with merit pay to consider unions of their own. It will also be interesting to see if this creates any pushback from the public—a majority of public school parents say they support the idea of merit pay.

Using Tech to Improve Government

In the modern digital era, a growing number of individuals and organizations are trying to figure out how to harness technology to improve democracy. I have written previously about the Personal Democracy Forum—an annual conference of civic tech groups in New York City—and while these spaces can certainly give rise to overblown hype (think HBO’s Silicon Valley but for Washington, D.C.), some innovations really do create opportunities to improve civic life.

One interesting new tool is called Balancing Act. Created by Engaged Public, a Denver-based company, Balancing Act is pitched as a public-budget simulation that local residents can use to better understand how their tax dollars are being spent. It also allows users to share their personal budget priorities, and to explore how to make that work given the available amount revenue. So, for example, if someone wants to see more money allocated for park maintenance or education, they’d have to take money from some other budget line, or indicate that they’d be willing to increase taxes elsewhere.

The tool should not be confused with “participatory budgeting”—a process first developed in Brazil in 1989—in which local community members come together to deliberate how a portion of a public budget should be spent. Balancing Act is about helping citizens engage with the entire budget, and reckoning with how governments really spend the bulk of their tax dollars.

After launching this past spring, Balancing Act is currently being used in HartfordSan Antonio, the state of Colorado, and the Meridian Library District in Idaho. Governments pay annual fees to use the technology—ranging typically from $891 to $3,141 per year—and from there, the governments transfer their data and budgeting info into the system.

I am a bit skeptical of civic tech tools that prioritize engagement over power. This summer, I read Democratizing Inequalities, a terrific book that looks at how we have increasing levels of inequality alongside an ever-expanding number of opportunities to “participate” in civic life. Some scholars have rightly noted that many digital tools offer the illusion of openness and inclusion without actually providing more political power to those who have the least.

Right now, governments can claim to be “transparent” or “open” if they publish extremely long PDFs on their websites; few citizens actually have the time or expertise to comb through these dense documents and make sense of what’s going on. Democracy is consent of the governed, but if citizens can’t understand what their leaders are doing, then consent means little. Balancing Act breaks the information down in a way that is easier for the average citizen to sift through, and that’s important.

“We want to help create the basis for a much more intelligent and thoughtful conversation that reflects people’s actual priorities,” said Chris Adams, the president of Engaged Public, who also thinks that these types of tools can foster more trust between citizens and government. According to the Pew Research Center, just 5 percent of Americans think state governments share data very effectively, and only 7 percent think local governments share data very effectively. When trust in government is low, participation drops.

Adams hopes this tool will be attractive to adults, but he acknowledges that it can be challenging to get people to actually use it. Playing around with budgets, even accessible and comprehensible budgets, isn’t exactly fun. The tool may turn out to be much more valuable for teachers, who can use it as a way to augment civic education. Even if kids don’t want to use the budget simulations after they graduate, at least they’ll have developed a deeper understanding of how budgets actually work.

It’s possible that government agencies will eventually work to make their information more accessible in-house, rather than contract out these responsibilities to various companies. But technological change within the government moves quite slowly, so I wouldn’t expect that any time soon.

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