Rachel M. Cohen

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

Recent Articles

Teacher Tests Test Teachers

The practice of evaluating teachers by their students’ performance on standardized tests is coming under serious challenge.

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The Houston teachers union scored a legal victory in May when a federal judge found that the Houston school district’s system of evaluating teachers could violate due process rights . The lawsuit centered on the system’s use of value-added modeling (VAM), a controversial statistical method aimed at isolating a teacher’s effectiveness based on their students’ standardized test scores. United States Magistrate Judge Stephen Smith concluded that the metric's impenetrability could render it unconstitutional. If, he wrote, teachers have “no meaningful way to ensure” that their value-added ratings are accurate, they are “subject to mistaken deprivation of constitutionally protected property interests in their jobs.” More specifically, he continued, if the school district denies its teachers access to the computer algorithms and data that form the basis of each teacher’s VAM score, it “flunks the minimum procedural due process...

Q&A: Drug Addiction Is a Learning Disorder

And treating it punitively, Maia Szalavitz argues, is rooted in racism—not in science

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For the past 30 years, Maia Szalavitz has researched and reported on science, drug policy, and health. Before that, in her early twenties, she herself became addicted to cocaine and heroin, sometimes injecting the drugs several times a day. Even after overdosing, after being suspended from Columbia University, and after getting arrested for dealing—facing a 15-years-to-life sentence under New York’s now-repealed Rockefeller drug laws—Szalavitz struggled to quit. In her latest book, Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction , Szalavitz explores why getting off drugs is so difficult. She challenges the public to see addiction as a neurological learning disorder—much more like autism and ADHD than a moral failing, or a chronic illness. This conversation has been edited and condensed. Rachel Cohen: Your book takes aim at some of the nation’s central narratives around drug addiction. Can you start by describing some of these, and why...

‘Parents Involved,’ A Decade Later

Contrary to reports, the fight for school integration was not derailed.

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Wednesday marks the ten-year anniversary of legal conservatives’ last great effort to kill school integration in the Supreme Court. That effort failed—though few understood that at the time. To this day, misconceptions abound about whether voluntary school desegregation is constitutionally permitted in the United States. The legal showdown came in a landmark decision called Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 . Five Supreme Court justices rejected voluntary desegregation plans in Seattle and Louisville , finding it unconstitutional for school districts to rely on the race of individual students when making student assignment decisions. But, it turned out, it was the opinion of just one of those justices that really mattered. Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. wrote a plurality opinion, co-signed by Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, concluding that the districts’ race-based desegregation plans were...

School Suspensions, Test Scores, and Lead Poisoning

Economists find new evidence that kids with higher exposure to lead are more likely to misbehave in school and do worse academically.

AP Photo/Kalamazoo Gazette-MLive Media Group, Mark Bugnaski
Over the past several years, education advocates and civil rights groups have been sounding the alarm on the harms of exclusionary school discipline policies. Critics say these punishments—suspensions, expulsions, and school-based arrests—are increasingly doled out for minor infractions, and disproportionately given to students of color. A National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) working paper published in May adds a new wrinkle to the debate on disparities in school discipline: Economists found causal evidence linking young children with higher exposures to lead in their bloodstream with an increased probability of getting suspended from school and placed in juvenile detention. Anna Aizer, a Brown University economist, and Janet Currie, a Princeton University economist were the first researchers to look at the relationship between lead exposure and school discipline. While others have explored links between lead exposure, criminal activity, and cognitive development,...

Illinois Poised To Strip Rahm Emanuel’s Control over Chicago Schools

(AP Photo/Seth Perlman)
For more than 20 years, the mayor of Chicago has had the power to appoint not only the CEO of the nation’s third-largest school system, but also the entire school board that governs it. But after years of protests from Chicago residents, the Illinois state legislature may finally end this controversial governance structure, potentially setting the stage for much larger public school shifts in the Windy City. Other than Chicago, every school district in Illinois has an elected school board, as do more than 95 percent of school districts nationwide. But in 1995, as a reform strategy for the state’s largest and poorest district, state lawmakers passed legislation granting Chicago’s then-Mayor Richard M. Daley greater authority to appoint his city’s school leadership. Rahm Emanuel succeeded Daley as mayor in 2011, and took control over Chicago Public Schools (CPS). Supporters of mayoral control—a strategy also instituted in New York City in 2002 and...

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