Rachel M. Cohen

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

Recent Articles

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...

What Would a Sanders Administration Do on K-12 Education?

The most progressive candidate in 2016 has more work to do in terms of articulating his k-12 ideas on the campaign trail.

Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/AP Images
Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/AP Images Senator Bernie Sanders attends a news conference on May 19, 2015, with members of the National Nurses Association at the Senate swamp on legislation "to eliminate undergraduate tuition at public colleges and universities and to expand work-study programs. P residential candidate Bernie Sanders has excited his base with some bold ideas surrounding higher education. He’s said college should be a right , that public universities should have free tuition , and that public universities should employ tenured or tenure-track faculty for at least 75 percent of instruction , as a way to reduce the growing dependence on cheap adjunct labor. But Sanders’ stances on K-12 issues—arguably more contentious topics for politicians to engage with compared to higher ed and universal pre-K —have garnered far less attention. Here’s what we know so far: 1. He wants to roll back standardized testing, but still supports Common Core. Sanders opposes the expansion...

Why Civic Tech Can't Be Neutral

Harnessing the power of technology to make real social change. 

Rachel M. Cohen
Rachel M. Cohen Catherine Bracy speaking at the 2015 Personal Democracy Forum in New York City. T echnology in the service of democracy—“civic tech”—has become the cause of a growing number of coders, hackers, political strategists, non-profit executives, activists and others who come together at an annual conference called the Personal Democracy Forum (PDF). The most recent meeting in New York City on June 4 and 5 attracted about 850 participants. But as that meeting showed, the civic-tech world is divided on a fundamental question. Some strive to avoid anything that could appear partisan or ideological, while others believe that civic tech’s shared vision cannot come to fruition without challenging power. PDF’s co-founders, Micah Sifry and Andrew Rasiej took a clear position: “Civic tech cannot be neutral,” they said. “When a few have more than ever before, and many are asking for equal rights and dignity, civic tech cannot be simply about improving basic government services, like...

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