The New New York Public Library

“This is our moment!” said Tony Marx, the President and CEO of the New York Public Library (NYPL), as he was winding his comments about the present and future of libraries up to a crescendo: “Libraries are the central institution of civil society with the largest reach for everyone.” He continued with his carpe diem challenge that now is the time to work in a bigger way than ever before to scale up his library’s reach and to both preserve its long-held traditions and transform its offerings to suit the 21st century.

Marx, formerly the President of Amherst College, was on stage in conversation about libraries with Arianna Huffington at the Aspen Ideas Festival.

City Makers: American Futures

The people, organizations, and ideas reshaping the country
Read More

The NYPL, like many other libraries around the country, has already begun to seize the day in an effort to answer the needs and wants of its community.

Marx listed a number of the efforts underway in the NYPL system: free classes for English as a foreign language and citizenship preparation, after-school (10,000 strong) and pre-school programs, basic computer skills and even coding instruction, and a  program to lend 10,000 wifi hotspot modems to New Yorkers needing internet access.  He described a dream to build a two-block long educational space to showcase some of the library’s unique treasures (long stored in protected vaults) so school kids can come to see an original copy of the Bill of Rights, a copy of the Declaration of Independence with Jefferson’s own handwritten edits, and a letter from Christopher Columbus to King Ferdinand declaring, as Marx paraphrased, “I think I found something.”

The NYPL is famous as a working space for writers and academics, a “sacred space” Marx calls it, where people come to be together and to be inspired. But the real enthusiasm in his remarks, I thought, was for a less celebrated cohort of his library system’s population, those who reside in the poorer areas of New York.

Research room at New York Public Library (photographer Leonard G via Wikimedia Commons)

New York has the largest public library system in the world with over 90 locations. In poorer neighborhoods, Marx said, the library is the place for people to go, where people find essentials that may be missing at home: quiet, air conditioning, books, and computer access. Part of his mission is to bring those branch libraries “up to snuff,” as he puts it.

Mott Haven branch, South Bronx (NYPL)

Marx talked about visiting a library in the South Bronx and finding a young boy sitting outside on the library steps, after hours, doing homework on his aged laptop because it was the only place where he could get internet access. “Holy Moly,” he said with incredulity, citing as well the fact that there are close to 3 million New Yorkers who can’t afford internet service.

I wrote about a similar story from Charleston, West Virginia, here:

…Some 41 percent of West Virginia households do not have broadband internet connections (trailed by New Mexico and Mississippi). Furthermore, more Internet users without computers at home report going to the public libraries for access than anyplace else.

If you need more convincing that these services are necessary, listen to this human story: One early morning before the library opened, a man was spotted settled in outside over behind the dumpsters—the dumpsters!—working on his laptop. He had found a strong library wifi signal right there, and was getting some work done while the library was still closed.

And Marx could probably have added other stories, like the one I heard in Columbus, Ohio, about library services for job-seekers:

Education efforts in Columbus libraries are a continuum from the kids on through “life skills” for adults. This means adult literacy programs, career and technology literacy, and financial literacy. Here is a true story that gives a sense of the realities: A young man comes into the library seeking help with a job search and filing his application for work. A librarian helps him load the application onto the screen. They agree he’ll fill it out and she’ll return to look it over. The librarian returns to discover the man has completed the application, not by keying in the responses, but with a marking pen on the screen.

The successful libraries I’ve seen on our American Futures adventure, in tiny towns like Winters, California, and Columbus, Mississippi, or medium-sized ones like Redlands, California, and Bend, Oregon, or larger cities like Columbus, Ohio, all share at least one trait: a deep, keen sense of the communities they serve.  Here are some examples of how libraries are already seizing the moment to change:

Expanding Their Reach

In Winters, the Friends of the Library scout the town parks for new moms pushing strollers, and present them with a baby box including bibs, books (in a choice of Spanish or English), and an application for a library card. In Columbus, Ohio, library staff hit the laundromats, churches, shelters, and shops looking for moms with preschool-age children to entice to the library.

Preserving Traditions

In Columbus, Mississippi, the library holds the archives of handwritten journals chronicling Civil War battles and slave sales and purchases. In tiny Eastport, Maine, there is a special display featuring a newly-completed 1200-page dictionary of nearby Native American Indian language, Passamaquoddy-Maliseet.

Transforming the Mission

In Columbus, Ohio, the new spaces in the libraries provide quiet, comfortable reading space for older “guests,” as they are called, as well as tech-enabled classroom space, and bright, colorful pre-school areas.  In Redlands, California, there are story hours in Mandarin. In Fayetteville, New York, there are maker-spaces. In libraries all over, there are  young entrepreneurs who are making the library their  start-up business office. In Duluth, Minnesota, there is a seed lending project within the library for the busy community of gardening enthusiasts.

The lists go on and on.

For Marx, it is about making libraries the vehicle for delivering an equality of opportunity. He says, speaking to his Aspen audience, that he wants “a world in which opportunities we all have in Aspen, at home, are shared by everyone—access to ideas and information, not constrained by economic ability or physical proximity. I want everyone in the game.”

Teenage Writing Competitions: The Story Behind the Story

Every spring, some teenage hearts leap with the kind of joy that Paulo Coelho describes as “sometimes a blessing, but … often a conquest.” Others break all over the Internet.

“The entire [teen writing] community seize[s] up,” says Yasmin Belkhyr, who who graduated from a small private high school in New York last year. “You look down your newsfeed, message your friends constantly, ‘Did you hear back? Did you win? Did they call?’ waiting with this heavy feeling deep in your stomach, refreshing your email, or checking your phone over and over.”

On a mid-March day at noon, the New York City-based Scholastic Art & Writing Awards announces which teenage writers, in grades 7 through 12, have won national silver or gold medals in categories including poetry, short story, and personal essay/memoir. Writers are invited to collect their awards at a special ceremony at Carnegie Hall in early June, and certain submissions, such as senior portfolios, can each win as much as $10,000 in scholarship cash. Either way, medals can translate into invitations to attend choice summer camps and colleges. The program, which has been operating for nearly a century and boasts alumni such as Sylvia Plath and Truman Capote.

Belkhyr, who won four Gold Medals in 2013 and another two last year, now edits Winter Tangerine, a literary publication that she founded in 2013 that features the work of teens alongside that of more-established writers.“If you win, then you talk to the other winners, congratulating and praising them. If you lose, then you read through your submission, noting mistakes that weren’t there five minutes before, wondering where you went wrong,” she adds. “You tell yourself, ‘It doesn’t really matter. I’ll survive.’ But a squeaky voice in the back of your head is saying, ‘So-and-so won. They’re obviously way better than you. Why are you even trying?’”

Scholastic Art & Writing is one of several awards programs that tempt budding teenage writers into the laps of college recruiters.

YoungArts, whose notable writing grads include The New York Times bestseller Sam Lipsyte, typically receives 11,000 entries annually. Lower-tier winners do the same later on in either Miami, New York, or Los Angeles, while finalists gather in January in Miami for a week of classes with masters in the field and performances. Upon finishing their week in Miami, every finalist receives a cash prize, earmarked for education, ranging from $1,000 to $10,000. Based on assessments from their instructors, some of them are then nominated for the U.S. Presidential Scholars in the Arts program, for which only 20 students are selected each year.

Colleges such as Princeton and Kenyon, along with arts-focused schools—from Santa Fe University of Art & Design to Columbia College of Chicago—also offer high-school competitions with currency and credit at stake. The Poetry Society of America and the Norman Mailer Center likewise sponsor student awards. Many of these invite the prizewinners to read at public ceremonies, while a few even fly in and host out-of-state honorees or gift them with scholarships to summer writing seminars.

Such riches are beyond tempting to young authors who will revise work to the point that they—to paraphrase Raymond Chandler—throw up on their computers every day and clean them up every night.

Previously, just a select few, often identified by AP English teachers, would enter these competitions, as would a handful of secret bedroom scribblers. But organizers say teens have been showing much greater interest in the past several years—and the quality of competition is on the rise. That’s in part because of recruitment. YoungArts, for instance retains personnel to travel around the country and make presentations in high schools.

The increase in literary rank and file also means that more student writers are losing than ever before. In the Scholastic competition, to even reach national adjudication, a piece must first be handed a Gold Key from regional affiliates. This past year, only 17,000 of the more than 300,000 pieces of art and writing went on to nationals, according to McEnerney. Of those finalists, just 2,200 received medals. In other words—or, more appropriately, numbers—less than 1 percent of the original 300,000-plus took top accolades.

But Brent Busboom, a public-school teacher in Reno, still encourages his students to go for it—among other reasons, because winning a competition can help sell parents on their child’s chosen career. Busboom points to a student who was poised to become a doctor or lawyer like his parents when he decided to enter a writing competition. “Winning an award legitimized his talent,” he says. “Last I heard, he was doing a master’s degree in writing at Columbia. Whether he would have gone into writing regardless is an open question.”

Carissa Chen, a rising junior at Phillips Exeter Academy who this year seized the coveted Bennington Young Writer’s Poetry Award, says the competitions provide “an extra push of confirmation” for young artists amid art-class cuts and increasing emphasis on “the value of STEM over creativity.” More importantly, she says, “The more competitions I enter, the more I understand that I’m not searching for a résumé filler but that I’m looking for connections, experiences, classes, and a community.”

For many young writers, engaging in such a contest comes with other benefits. Many of them use it as an opportunity to connect with like-minded peers. In the process, they gather tips and inspiration, says Brandon Young, a 16-year-old writer from Melbourne, Australia, who leads an online peer writing group called Inked Voices. “The desire to tell a good story comes before winning a mere competition.”

* * *

Of course, it can be hard for teens to take loss in stride. “When validation is dispensed like that—in such small doses, and on the basis of technical prowess rather than sheer authenticity of emotion—I’m not exactly sure it’s good,” says Katherine Frain, a Princeton student who edits The Blueshift Journal.

Hilary Levey Friedman, a sociology professor at Brown, compares these prose-and-prosody matches to youth athletic events, whose participation levels have also skyrocketed. In her book, Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture, she writes about the allure of contests that divvy up tributes. When it comes to getting into college, she says, “It’s not enough to say you do something or that you are ambitious, you have to prove it.” Such competitions help measure motivation.

Belkhyr, whose resume reads like that of a poet twice her age, remembers more anxiety than bloodthirsty thrills. “I had panic attacks and felt utterly worthless and miserable,” she says, recalling the times she lost. She also admits to molding her writing based strictly on what she thought would impress the judges. “I wasn’t writing for me, I was writing for the contests.”

The Spelling-Bee Obsession

This destruction of self-esteem and erasing of voice is exactly what Nora Raleigh Baskin, author of the new book Ruby on the Outside, fears. Having taught for almost 15 years at organizations including Gotham Writers Workshop, Raleigh Baskin has seen those mindsets trending. She refuses to critique manuscripts to send off to literary magazines or to judge competitions on the grounds that budding writers’ voices shouldn’t be “held up against a random opinion. This is the time for exploration and for encouragement … Writing is all about process and setting these arbitrary achievements takes away from that.”

For some young writers, that pressure can be far more insidious than the pain of rejection. The competitive spirit may persuade parents to hire well-known writers to tutor, edit, or even rewrite their children’s work. It may even lead minors down the path of plagiarism.

Frain and several other teens I spoke with singled out a former teen writer who received top recognition from both Scholastic and YoungArts, and who they say stole a poem nearly “word-for-word” from an undergraduate Yale literary magazine. Despite eventually being caught, “he’s still considered a rising star,” Frain says. Belkhyr has witnessed similar problems; she’s involved in a current dispute with a student who she says copied from her for years. “If it gets to a point where you feel like you need to steal someone’s intellectual work,” she says, “you need to seriously reconsider why you write.”

Scholastic Arts & Writing and YoungArts say they have revoked awards when plagiarists have been detected. The former has an eight-page document on its website explaining various legal terms related to the practice. The organizations, however, refuse to comment on individual cases, perhaps because revocation is embarrassing and seldom made public. I once judged a local contest where I caught a plagiarist completely by accident three months after the ceremony. An obscure D.H. Lawrence poem came across my path, and I recognized it as a piece that one student had used as his own. The sponsors of the contest took back his gifts, which included a laptop computer and $500, but he’d already performed his poem and received accolades from hundreds of people.

Meanwhile, competitors also struggle, knowingly or not, against elitism. “Competitions attract the children of privilege who go to private schools, summer writing camps, and have tutors who guide them along,” says Joann Biondi, a preliminary judge for YoungArts. “The underprivileged kids who actually need the scholarship money fall through the cracks and still rarely get that much-needed break—and it’s not for lack of talent or drive.” And while waivers are sometimes offered, their availability varies depending on the competition, and application rules can be strict.

True, the better off a student is, the more likely he or she can manipulate the system. Take the Scholastic Arts & Writing poetry category, which is the only writing genre (aside from portfolio) one can enter an unlimited number of times. The rules state that poems must be a “collection” ranging from one to five poems. Together the poems must total at least 20 lines, but not go over 300. It costs $5 to enter each time. But if you have, say, five poems that are all more than 20 lines each and the means to enter them all singly, why not do so and increase the odds of winning five gold keys and, later on, gold medals—versus the student who can afford to enter only once, and must put all five poems into the same entry? If you have the money, why not do it for 15, 20 poems? Why not do it for 50?

In competitions where judging isn’t blind, judges may subconsciously come to the table predisposed to expect superiority from certain boarding schools. More recently, however, students from publicly funded magnet and charter schools that focus on the fine arts have emerged as strong contenders. In fact, of this  year’s 20 U.S. Presidential Scholars in the Arts, the four who are writers are all products of public education, including two who attended regular district schools. And increasingly, much of the prize-winning writing is being done by first- or second-generation hyphenated Americans, or students who have some identity other than traditional, white, and cisgender.

YoungArts has found a way to level at least one of the playing fields by opening a new category for the next annual competition: spoken word, which like hip-hop and rap frequently brings to light issues that combine the self with social justice. By identifying the talent in this area, where it doesn’t matter what the writing looks like on the page, YoungArts will be able to boost a sector of students from across the nation who might never have had an opportunity otherwise.

Ultimately, if there’s any real good news to be had out of the competitive-writing circuit, it may be this, from Scholastic’s McEnerney: “There is so often discourse around poetry being dead. But if you look to our youth, it is thriving. It is our largest category of writing, inspiring thousands of young teens.”

100 Percent Is Overrated

ASPEN, Colo.At whatever age smart people develop the idea that they are smart, they also tend to develop vulnerability around relinquishing that label. So the difference between telling a kid “You did a great job” and “You are smart” isn’t subtle. That is, at least, according to one growing movement in education and parenting that advocates for retirement of “the S word.”

The idea is that when we praise kids for being smart, those kids think: Oh good, I’m smart. And then later, when those kids mess up, which they will, they think: Oh no, I’m not smart after all. People will think I’m not smart after all. And that’s the worst. That’s a risk to avoid, they learn.“Smart” kids stand to become especially averse to making mistakes, which are critical to learning and succeeding.

“Mistakes grow your brain,” as the professor of mathematics education at Stanford University Jo Boaler put it on Monday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, a festival of ideas in Aspen, Colorado, co-hosted by The Atlantic. I wondered why, then, my brain is not so distended that it spills out of my ears and nose. I should have to stuff it back inside like a sleeping bag, and I should have to carry Q-tips around during social events as stuffing implements. Boaler notes, more eloquently, that at least a small part of the forebrain called the thalamus can appreciably grow after periods of the sort of cognitive stimulation involved in mistake-making. What matters for improving performance is that a person is challenged, which requires a mindset that is receptive to being challenged—if not actively seeking out challenge and failure. And that may be the most important thing a teacher can impart.

People are born with some innate cognitive differences, but those differences are eclipsed by early achievement, Boaler argues. When people perform well (academically or otherwise) at early ages and are labeled smart or gifted, they become less likely to challenge themselves. They become less likely to make mistakes, because they stay in their comfortable comfort zone and stop growing. And their fixed mindset persists through adulthood. The simple and innocent praising of a smart kid feeds an insidious problem that some researchers track all the way up to gender inequality in STEM careers.

So ending the reign of the S word, as Boaler calls it, is a grand mission. “It’s imperative that we don’t praise kids by telling them they’re smart,” she argued in a Monday lecture to an audience that received her message with many knowing nods. “You can tell kids that they’ve done something fantastic, but don’t label them as smart.”

The idea of a fixed mindset, in which people are smart or not smart, stands in contrast to a growth mindset, in which people become intelligent and knowledgeable through practice. In her 2006 book The New Psychology of Success, psychologist Carol Dweck described the two: People with growth mindsets believe that the harder they work, the smarter they get. And the subtleties of the ways in which we praise kids are related to the mindsets those kids develop.

The group most damaged by fixed-mindset thinking is high-achieving girls, Boaler argues, because it’s girls who are told by society that they probably won’t be as good as boys at math and science. That means girls are only more likely to avoid challenging themselves in science and math, and that aversion to making mistakes leads to less learning and progress. The more that certain disciplines cling to ideas of giftedness, the fewer female Ph.D.s there are in those fields.

Ideas 2015

Dispatches from the Aspen Ideas Festival/Spotlight Health
Read More

“When we give kids the message that mistakes are good, that successful people make mistakes, it can change their entire trajectory,” Boaler said. 100 percent is not an ideal score. When kids come home from school and announce that they got everything right on their school work, Dweck advises parents to offer some sympathy: Oh, I’m sorry you didn’t get the chance to learn.

Speaking of percentages, math is a good example of the importance of avoiding the fixed mindset. The idea of a “math person” or a math gene is a primary reason for so much math nihilism, math failure, and “math trauma,” as Boaler called it on Monday. When kids get the idea that they “aren’t math people,” they start a downward trajectory, and their career options shrink immediately and substantially. There is also the common idea of a wall in math: People learn math until they hit a wall where they just can’t keep up. That wall may be trigonometry, and it may be advanced calculus, and it may be calculating a tip. In no other discipline but math are people so given to thinking, instead of I need to practice, just Well, I’m not good.

“Big news,” Boaler said during her lecture, “there is no wall.”

With that, she advanced her Powerpoint and to a slide bearing a rendering of the Kool-Aid Man busting through a brick wall.

“I didn’t know who this was,” she said. “One of my teammates made this slide. I’ve learned that this is Kool-Aid Man.”

The Problem With Ds

“They sit there and blink. They approach sub-mediocrity,” says a former coworker when I ask her to describe her “D students.” She’s only partially joking.

Getting an F typically requires some combination of compulsive truancy, a keen distaste for holding a pen, and problems outside of school. An F leads to summer school or an online course, and unrepentant F students tend to drop out or head to an alternative school before long. Fs are a serious problem in education.

D students, however, often stick around and cause another serious problem: They may pass, but they learn close to nothing along the way. Plus, they have little chance of attending a four-year college out of high school. A D student may flake on at least one major assignment a semester but breezily make up minor reading quizzes two months after they were originally administered. Maybe he shows up—but only after sauntering in 10 minutes late. Maybe he doesn’t ask for help and casually breaks appointments for tutoring. Rarely reading and occasionally despairing (with a smile) that he “can’t understand the book,” the D student probably falls behind early and catches up late. But not too late to prevent that bad grade from morphing into a worse one—and not wholeheartedly enough to get the C or B he’s likely capable of earning. This D student knows exactly what he needs to do to avoid an F before grades are due.

don’t admit any student who got a D in a prerequisite core class, like algebra. And most reputable private colleges across the country set similar expectations.

As educators, politicians, pundits, and parents debate the logic of Common Core testing and deliberate how to best hold teachers accountable, inspire students, and improve educational opportunities for American kids, it seems counterintuitive that what my former coworker calls “sub-mediocrity” can lead to a diploma. The bulk of my 12th-graders passed the California High School Exit Exam as 10th-graders. (Every public-school student in the state must pass the exam in order to receive a diploma.) Still, a healthy minority of those seniors left high school a few weeks ago with abysmal GPAs—largely because of Ds—and will probably soon enter the slow-moving currents of part-time community-college attendance. Community college is a fine continuing-education option for people who are committed to their studies, but too many students let it become the only one by racking up Ds.

Same Performance, Better Grades

Although I dislike reducing student performance to simple letters and numbers, studies show that grades are a better indicator of college success than is test performance. Unfortunately, when students know that Ds will earn a diploma as readily as As will, some game the system. If pride, intellectual curiosity, social pressure, and vigilant parents do not compel them to do otherwise, some students only work to avoid getting Fs. These students appear indifferent toward class discussion and content. Those habits often follow them after they leave high school. In my correspondence with former students who have already graduated, I have observed that the kids who became accustomed to Ds in high school often struggle if and when they’re in college because they never developed the academic and personal skills necessary to succeed there. Without the oversight of teachers, counselors, and parents that they may have had in high school, they are freer to fall—and to lose what scant interest they may have once held.

Eliminating Ds might reduce the behavior that tends to cause them. Some schools and districts in the country have already done so, including a New Jersey school district that banned them in 2010. I once worked at a Los Angeles charter school that did away with Ds to increase college acceptances. At this school, students “failed” a class when they scored below 62.5 percent—a cut-off number derived from a five-point grading scale that was based on state standardized tests. Yet very few scored below that threshold. The percentage distinguishing a C- from the abyss of failure below was significantly smaller than it had been before, but it was the midway point between “Basic” and “Proficient” on rubrics using that five-point scale. At the end of the school’s first year without Ds, over 90 percent of the senior class accepted invitations to attend four-year universities, and most students had at least entertained the option.

The elimination of Ds at the charter school required teachers and counselors to frequently remind struggling students of their precarious status and give them, when needed, extra help before school and at lunch. Tellingly, the strategy worked at a small school with a small student-to-counselor ratio. Few students missed assignments, and many rewrote essays until they were good enough. One could argue that such a system potentially allows subpar students to just barely nudge up their grades, permitting entrance into four-year higher-education institutions from which, with their abilities, they may struggle to graduate on time or at all. So far, though, my former C- students have not stumbled.

Ds may, in an odd twist, benefit schools more than students. While no school I’ve known likes transcripts brimming with Ds, schools are really scared about the prospect of seniors not graduating; many of them face sanctions if they don’t report high-enough graduation rates. Mass failures also create a logistical nightmare for counselors and administrators who must answer to enraged parents, placate concerned district and board officials, and find kids make-up opportunities.

Schools may not be able to accept the risk of more failing students, if only for a transitional period. Even a year in which the failure rate doubled or tripled would be dangerous. Many schools couldn’t provide the aggressive counselor interventions and tutoring a gradebook without Ds might require. But if Ds are markers of adequacy that everyone recognizes as inadequate, doling them out seems illogical and cynical.

I wouldn’t be opposed to Ds if it weren’t so easy to get one without doing much. Some teachers give kids an automatic 60 percent (i.e., a D-) for turning in an assignment with nothing more than a name at the top—and that’s problematic given that, as reformers stress, students suffer due to low expectations. Other teachers push students to earn every point they receive; in a perfect world, a D would be the lowest grade that a kid gets when she enthusiastically confronts challenging material. The student still learning English while tackling grade-level college-prep content in a mainstream literature class doesn’t deserve to fail. The student in the same class with specific learning needs who requires extra time for assignments and shortened texts doesn’t, either. In my experience though, the majority of these traditionally high-risk students can get a C.

A student is not the sum of his or her high-school transcript. The D students may not end up in prison or in minimum-wage jobs, but they are preordained to face extra obstacles to future goals—goals they may not have yet set. Meanwhile, some students never realize that they have the potential to do more than man a cash register. There’s nothing wrong with deciding against college, but a high-school education should give all students the opportunity to sort through as many options as possible. Allowing them to opt out at the age of 14 shouldn’t be one.

Youth as a Force for Peace

ASPEN, Colo.On December 3, 2009, about 30 students at South Philadelphia High School were brutally attacked by their classmates during school. About 13 were sent to the emergency room. The victims were all Asian, many of them recent immigrants from China. The attackers were mostly black.

According to a detailed account of the day’s violence from Philadelphia Magazine, the attackers were organized, and unrestrained:

Most of the Asian students … ate their lunch hiding out on the second floor. A few, though, made the mistake of going to the lunchroom. At 12:31 p.m., a group of predominantly black –students — really, a front of about 70 — moved on the cafeteria. Attackers put up the hoods of their sweatshirts and, surrounded by a crowd of cheering, laughing supporters, crashed on their Asian targets in the hall outside the lunchroom like a wave.

Several Chinese students suffered face and head injuries, and one boy’s nose was smashed, horribly broken and gushing blood. The campaign moved into the lunchroom, where the 70 or so attackers and supporters found a handful more Asian kids. Some in the crowd seemed to serve as pointers, directing the fighters toward new victims. Cafeteria workers, following school policy, pulled down steel doors to shut off themselves and the possibility the fighters could grab kitchen utensils to use as weapons. The school police arrived, but were shielded for several moments from reaching the victims by the crowd around them.

One of the students at South Philly High School that day was Wei Chen, who’d arrived in the U.S. from China at the age of 16, without speaking any English. His first welcome to his new country, he said in a panel at the Aspen Ideas Festival on Sunday, was two punches to the back of the head.

Ideas 2015

Dispatches from the Aspen Ideas Festival/Spotlight Health
Read More

There was a culture in the school that allowed young people to beat each other,” Chen said. The adults in the school were unable or unwilling to stop the violence that Chen and his fellow Asian students endured daily.

So Chen decided to fight back himself, using a move straight out of the textbook of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee—he organized a boycott. He called his fellow students one by one to encourage them to stay away from school. He organized the collection of homework assignments. He wrote a letter for his classmates to take home to their parents explaining their actions. And for eight days, Chen and about 50 of his classmates studied and rallied outside of the school.

Chen’s boycott would bring national attention to the violence facing Asian students at South Philadelphia High School, ultimately resulting in a Department of Justice settlement with the school district that described authorities as “deliberately indifferent to known instances of severe and pervasive … harassment of Asian students.”

What might be most extraordinary about Chen is that he directed his actions not at the students who attacked him and his classmates, but at the system that enabled those attackers, and failed to protect their victims. As a result, five years later, according to Kevin McCorry of Newsworks, the school is much changed. “For the second year running, Philadelphia’s Vietnamese community held its Lunar New Year celebration in the gymnasium at South Philadelphia High School,” reported McCorry, “an event that many in South Philly’s Asian community would have thought impossible just five years ago.”

What happened at South Philadelphia High in 2009 was not just an isolated incident, but a more conspicuous symptom of a larger structural problem,” said Chen and his co-author Duong Ly in a column from this past December reflecting on the events at South Philly High. The column continues:

The increasing dehumanization of students and teachers as a result of relentless attacks on public education (for example: high-stakes testing, reduced individualized support for students, attacks on the teachers’ union, etc.) had eroded a focus on us as students. It pitted groups against each other and contributed a great deal to the rise in racial tension between the different student groups in the school. Moreover, the School District’s indifference toward the harsh anti-Asian, anti-immigrant climate contributed to a culture of normalized violence that hurt all students, especially and including Asian immigrant youth.

In that small student movement,” Chen said in the panel, “we found out that young people had a voice, and we had the power and the right to change school systems.”

From left: Wei Chen, Mary-Pat Hector and Baratunde Salaam at the 2015 Aspen Ideas Festival (C2 Photography)

Chen is on stage as one of three recipients of the Peace First Prize, a two-year, $25,000 fellowship described by its co-creator Eric Dawson as a sort of Nobel Peace Prize for young people. Dawson, who led the panel, said that his organization Peace First studied more than a century of movements that resulted in massive social change, and found that those movements almost always begin with young people. “We’ve interviewed hundreds and hundreds of young peacemakers,” Dawson said, and two things came up again and again: “One is, ‘[Adults] took me seriously.’ … And the second is, ‘They got out of the way.’”

Joining Chen and Dawson on stage were Babatunde Salaam and Mary-Pat Hector, both recipients of the Peace First Prize. Hector, the National Youth Director for the National Action Network, launched a billboard campaign in Atlanta to combat gun violence. She starts college in August. “In 2044,” she told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “I plan to be president of the United States.” I believe it.

At the age of 16, Salaam produced a documentary, “Kids and Cops,” aimed at helping youth and police in Baltimore understand each other. Asked about the documentary before the panel, Salaam offered a semi-apology for the production values, but the exchanges he captured are compelling. The candid exchanges are reminiscent of a similar film, about a group of peacemakers in Chicago, PBS Frontline’s “The Interrupters.” Take, for example, this exchange two minutes in, where two teenagers talk about the allure of the infamous Baltimore corner, followed immediately by a retired police officer talking about when kids hung out with families on steps without being hassled by police:

The documentary was released more than two years before Freddie Gray’s fatal ride in the custody of the Baltimore P.D., an event that sparked nights of protest, criminal charges against six police officers, and a nationwide focus on interactions between youth and the police in Baltimore.

“Our models for thinking and talking about young people is that they are victims or potential victims that we need to protect, or they’re problems that we need to fix,” Peace First cofounder Eric Dawson told NPR’s Michel Martin in 2013. Otherwise, he told the audience in Aspen, “we do tend to talk about young people as the future—you’re going to be a great artist someday, or a great leader, or whatever —which has the effect of telling them, That’s not who you are right now.”

Watching the panel, I thought about an essay Garance Franke-Ruta wrote for The Atlantic about being a member of ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, one of the organizations credited with helping turn the world’s attention to the swiftly unfolding catastrophe of AIDS. The description she gave of the organization’s efforts could apply to the young students holding sit-ins in the ‘60s, to the activists of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, to Wei Chen’s pacifist army of immigrant students:

It was group of despised, gorgeous, terrified and terribly, terribly young people who looked death and society in the face and said no, we will not go quietly into that good night. Save us or give us the means to save ourselves.

Where Girls Are Missing Out on High-School Sports

Forty-three years ago, a federal law was passed requiring what today seems like a no-brainer: gender equality in schools. Over the past few years, that law—Title IX—has figured most prominently in discussions about sexual assault on college campuses. But the impetus behind Title IX was the lack of opportunity for female athletes. In 1972, the year the civil-rights law was enacted, only 30,000 women were participating in National Collegiate Athletic Association sports, compared to 170,000 men. The NCAA didn’t offer scholarships to women, nor did it hold championship games for female teams.

“No person … shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination” in any school-based program, including athletics. That means that any educational institution receiving federal funding (virtually all the country’s colleges and public K-12 campuses) must allocate equal resources to male and female participants, from locker rooms to tutoring. Violating the law puts an institution at risk of having its federal funding cut.

Title IX would appear to have done its job. The number of women playing college-level sports today is more than five times as high as it was in 1972. And the number of girls participating in high-school sports today has reached a record high of 3.27 million. About two in five girls participate in high-school varsity sports, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation.

Still, critics argue that the law has come with unintended consequences. Some advocacy groups, including the American Sports Council, say the law disadvantages male athletes. Meanwhile, as the writers Linda Flanagan and Susan Greenberg have reported, others are concerned that the shifts brought on by Title IX are coming “at a serious cost for many female athletes” because they’ve increased the health risks for players and prompted a drop in the number of women coaches, among other ramifications.

Flanagan and Greenberg did acknowledge the progress that has been made thanks to the law, however: “Title IX has clearly triumphed in its mission to equalize the playing field for young women. Its impact can be felt at every level of competition,” they wrote. “The numbers bear it out.

But do they really? Nearly 4,500 public high-schools across the United States have large gender inequality in sports and could be in violation of Title IX, according to a new National Women’s Law Center analysis of 2011-12 Department of Education data. These campuses account for well over a fourth—28 percent—of the country’s public high schools. Some states have far more inequality than others, though most of them have large gaps in at least one in five high schools. In six of those states, large gaps exist in more than half of all public schools.

The state where gender inequality in sports is most severe? Georgia, where two-thirds of high schools have large gaps. In fact, each of the 10 worst-ranking states—including Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee—are in the South.

A gap is considered “large” if the difference between the percentage of spots on teams allocated to girls and that allocated to boys is 10 points or higher. If girls account for, say, 55 percent of the population at a school but only get 43 percent of all the spots on teams, that school has a 12 percent gap. That’s similar to the formula used by the federal government in enforcing Title IX, which says that a school can demonstrate compliance by showing the percentage of spots for girls and that for boys are about the same. (States where the gaps are smallest include Vermont, Hawaii, Maine, and Maryland.)

“This data shows what schools are very likely to be out of compliance” with Title IX, said Neena Chaudhry, the senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center.

Whether that’s going to change, however, is an open question. According to Chaudhry, although it does conduct investigations and regulate the law, the federal government has never taken funding away from an institution because of noncompliance with Title IX.

It’s true that it’s hard to assess whether a school is denying girls of sports participation or simply isn’t providing an athletic opportunity because girls aren’t interested in participating. Schools must proactively prove that the latter is the case to demonstrate Title IX compliance by surveying female students and coaches to gauge their athletic interests and ensure they’re “satisfying girls’ interests,” Chaudhry said.  But Chaudhry, who also directs the law center’s Equal Opportunities in Athletics program, says she’s never heard of a school with a large gender gap successfully proving that it’s indeed fulfilling their interests. Typically the school just hasn’t done its due diligence.

Chaudhry said the new findings “sadly” aren’t very surprising: “We’ve seen this for a long time now … not having opportunities for girls [in sports], not having equal facilities for girls’ teams—this is all still a big problem.”

What Gender Inequality Looks Like in Collegiate Sports

Why certain states—namely those in the South—struggle with gender imbalances in athletics more than others isn’t clear. But Katherine Gallagher Robbins, the director of research and policy analysis at the National Women’s Law Center, said one clue might exist in the parallels between these findings and those contained in a separate study on the opportunity gaps faced specifically by girls of color.

The other analysis, which the National Women’s Law Center produced in partnership with the Poverty & Race Research Action Council, found that schools with high concentrations of minority and low-income students not only tend to have fewer resources for extracurricular activities, they also tend to have much larger gender disparities in sports participation than do schools serving majority-white populations. According to the study, 40 percent of heavily minority schools have large gender gaps in sports participation, versus just 16 percent of heavily white schools. (Schools are heavily minority if 90 percent or more of their students identify as such, and vice versa for heavily white schools.)

The study highlighted 13 states where school segregation is especially prevalent (based on the number of heavily minority and heavily white schools). Perhaps unsurprisingly, about half of those states are in the South: Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. And Gallagher Robbins said it’s telling that each of those six states is also among the 10 states identified in the new analysis as having the worst gender inequality in high-school sports.

Percentage of High Schools With Large Gender Gaps in Sports Participation, by Racial Composition of School

National Women’s Law Center / The Atlantic

The disparities faced by female athletes of color are particularly severe in Alabama, Mississippi, and North Carolina, where about four out of every five heavily minority schools also have large gender inequality in sports participation.

“States that fell to the bottom of the ranking of our [new] report also have larger populations of people of color,” Gallagher Robbins said, noting that Southern states tend to have some of the highest poverty rates among women, as well as larger gender-based wage gaps. “That’s part of the overall story and part of the untold story of Title IX.”

Gender- and race-based disparities in high-school athletics could be exacerbating the ever-growing inequality in educational or career attainment that already plagues women and people of color. Participation in high-school athletics often correlates with academic success and increases the likelihood that a student will attend and earn a degree from college. One study found that an increase in females’ involvement in sports leads to enhanced female participation in occupations that were previously dominated by males and that being a high-school athlete was associated with higher wages for women.

‘Dollar Signs in Uniform’: Why For-Profit Colleges Target Veterans

For nearly two decades, the federal government has barred for-profit colleges from relying entirely on its coffers for their revenues. These institutions tend to enroll disproportionately high percentages of low-income students, meaning they also rely heavily on the federal need-based aid those students receive. The rule, which was implemented in 1998, allows these institutions to take in no more than 90 percent of their tuition money in the form of such aid, which includes loans and grants.

However, other forms of federal student funding—namely benefits for military veterans—don’t count as part of this 90 percent.

The consequence is a “loophole” that incentivizes for-profit colleges to target and aggressively (sometimes deceptively) recruit veterans and their family members. A two-year U.S. Senate investigation into the industry, led by the former Democratic Senator Tom Harkin, revealed just how egregious those recruitment practices had become. Among the 2012 report’s 150-plus pages were subpoenaed correspondence among for-profit-college insiders discussing how to “leverage” military-spouse benefits and internal documents with strategies for enrolling veterans with access to Department of Defense aid.

“Servicemembers, veterans, spouses, and family members have become highly attractive prospects to for-profit colleges, and many schools have put significant resources into recruiting and enrolling students eligible for these benefits,” the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) report’s executive summary said. The summary pointed to the existence of lead-generation websites that were designed to resemble official military pages, as well as efforts to recruit students at wounded warrior centers and hospitals. “This loophole creates an incentive to see servicemembers and nothing more than ‘dollar signs in uniform.’”

The landmark report bolstered and spurred huge shifts in the industry, including a swath of lawsuits and investigations—the probe that resulted in Corinthian Colleges’ dramatic demise, for one. It coincided with a steady decline in overall enrollment at for-profit colleges and intense scrutiny from the news media.

The report largely failed to prompt change in Congress, though. Legislation to close the loophole has been introduced a number of times since 2012; it’s never even gotten a vote. “With so many issues out there in the veterans community, this is one that just hasn’t been pushed as hard,” said Christopher Neiweem, an Iraq war veteran who formerly worked as a recruiter for the for-profit DeVry University. “Without that constant energy, it’s sort of fallen by the wayside.”

A U.S. Marine looks over a college brochure (Mike Blake / Reuters)

But perhaps this year could be different. On Wednesday, the same legislation—dubbed the Military and Veterans Education Protection Act—was introduced yet again. It features the same text and the same key backers: Democrats including senators Tom Carper, the bill’s sponsor, and Richard Blumenthal. What’s different is the context.

The general consensus in the country now seems to be that the words “for-profit” and “college” make for a pretty nasty combination. (Advocates do stress, however, that not all for-profits are bad.) Corinthian, which received hundreds of millions through veterans benefits, is out—and other institutions under investigation could be heading that way, too. The Obama administration has started to crack down on the industry, and hundreds of former for-profit-college students are striking against their debt. It’s no wonder more than two dozen senators are endorsing the bill this year—more than any year before—though all of them are Democrats.

The Downfall of For-Profit Colleges

“There are too many for-profits that are more interested in getting the dollars, picking up the revenue … adding to their bottom line,” said Carper, a veteran himself who attended college thanks to the GI Bill and has spearheaded the legislation over the years. “They’re more interested in that than they’re interested in making sure a GI—man or woman—gets the kind of education that will allow them to provide for themselves and their families for the rest of their lives.”

In recalling his work as a recruiter, Neiweem, who now works as a legislative associate at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (an advocacy group that’s backing the bill), said that DeVry was little more than a “business operation”—“a school in name only.” “The environment, day to day, was almost a mini Wall Street,” he said. “We were in an office [of cubicles] … It was a business center, phones ringing all day, jovial elation whenever a sale happened.”

For-profit colleges typically spend more money on marketing and recruiting than on actual instruction, the HELP report found. And, according to Senate research, in the past five years, 40 percent of post-9/11 GI Bill tuition benefits have gone to the for-profit sector.

So why has the legislation floundered? Why has veteran enrollment at the eight for-profits most reliant on their revenues “dramatically increased” in the years since the 2012 HELP report, while overall student numbers have shrunk? Why are taxpayers, as a follow-up report last year revealed, paying twice as much for a veteran to attend a for-profit college as they are a veteran at a public one?

Carper, whose father also relied on GI Bill benefits, suspects that lobbying money—which in the for-profit sector alone has amounted to tens, sometimes hundreds, of thousands of dollars annually—has been one of the biggest obstacles to getting the loophole closed. Whether those influences will continue to outweigh the growing public interest in holding colleges accountable this year isn’t clear. A recent Propublica investigation found that the for-profit industry has maintained its political clout this year thanks to a rather unlikely ally: the traditional higher-ed lobby, which has largely sided with its for-profit counterpart in an effort to stymie broader initiatives aimed at beefing up regulation.

There’s also the challenge of getting the greenlight from the Republican Senator Lamar Alexander, who now chairs the HELP committee and will determine whether the bill advances. Alexander in an email declined to give specifics when asked whether he planned on considering the 90/10 legislation this year. He did note that the Senate education committee is currently deliberating the Higher Education Act, which is up for reauthorization and would need to be amended if the 90/10 rule were changed. The committee is “examining bipartisan proposals around accountability … as part of that process,” he said. Laws and regulations affecting colleges, he added, should be applied equally across all higher-education sectors. Alexander has been vocal in criticizing the over-regulation of colleges.

Meanwhile, the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, the main trade and lobbying organization representing for-profit colleges, appears poised to wage intense opposition against the legislation. “The only effect that the proposed changes will have will be limiting access to education for the students who need it most,” said the association’s spokesman, Noah Black, in an email. He cited a study from Edvisors that found that 80 percent of community colleges would fail the 90/10 rule if it applied to them, and that institutions serving large percentages of low-income students are more likely to be in violation of the policy. “This proves that 90/10 is not a measure of institution quality, but rather a measure of the amount of income or savings a student has at the time of their enrollment,” Black said.

Still, if the 90/10 were amended to include military student benefits, it could make it clearer which institutions are surviving merely by enrolling veterans.

A Center for Investigative Reporting analysis last year found that federal funding at roughly 160 for-profit colleges—including Corinthian’s subsidiaries and other big names such as Ashford, Kaplan, and the University of Phoenix—accounted for more than 90 percent of revenue in 2013. But that was only if veterans benefits were included; only 27 of them actually violated the current 90/10 law. In other words, dozens of institutions may have been able to keep afloat by exploiting veterans and their family members to offset their obligations—including a responsibility to offer “a quality product at a competitive price,” Pauline Abernathy, the vice president of the Institute for College Access and Success, once told me.

“If for-profit colleges really want to have veterans be successful and their outcomes to be meaningful, they should prove it,” Neiweem said. “They should prove it by investing in support staff, investing in programs, investing in instruction, and not just giving us the lip service. There are too many examples of veterans with a for-profit degree on their wall and an unemployment check on their table.”

Gaming the School System

Paul Cross has a resume that many high-school students today would probably salivate over. When he was the lead designer at Criterion Games, he developed a series of high-speed racing games called Burnout. He also served as a consultant for the powerhouse game company Electronic Arts, helping it develop its first-person shooter game Medal of Honor. Now he’s the director of game design at Ubisoft Entertainment, the multinational video-game developer responsible for titles such as Assassin’s Creed, Just Dance, and Rocksmith—the hugely popular game he created that teaches players real songs on the electric guitar. To date, 3 million copies have been sold.

One credential Paul Cross doesn’t have, though, is a high-school diploma.

Sitting on a sleek white sofa in a tucked-away room at last week’s E3 Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, he described his backstory as the room’s walls throbbed with the crescendoing beats from a new Ubisoft shooter game on display outside. Cross was 16 when he dropped out of his performing-arts school in England. “Traditional methods didn’t work for me,” he said. The school, he continued, failed to accommodate a glitch in his high-school trajectory when he moved with his family to Scotland for a year and then returned to England the following term. “The school didn’t have my course work [from Scotland], so in some subjects I was pretty far ahead, and in other subjects I was miles behind because I missed an entire chunk,” he said. By Cross’s account, the school wasn’t equipped to help catch him up on the parts he missed, and when he suggested doing more advanced work in math, in which he excelled, he was shut down. “‘Nope. Stop being difficult,’ was the reaction I got,” he said.At that point school was kind of broken for me.”

Cross left school and started slinging burgers at Burger King. “I worked my bottom off, doing anything I could to get money to pursue my career in entertainment,” he said. Eventually he was hired as a gopher at a sports-entertainment company and managed to work his way up through the ranks. It was hard work—but that wasn’t a problem. Hard work had never been the problem. The problem, he explained, was the system.

Now, the system is asking for his help.

Ubisoft has been at the forefront of efforts to bring the game industry into schools, with the U.S. Department of Education even tapping Cross to help raise awareness about the potential of video games as educational tools. He joins a host of other designers who are already having an unlikely impact in the education sector—people like Markus Persson, who created Minecraft, a classic example of video games being used as teaching resources. Persson famously dropped out of high school in Sweden.

Games program, an offshoot of its film and computer-science schools that offers four different degree tracks in game design and development. In the 1980s and 90s, when many of today’s most accomplished video-game designers grew up, schools generally weren’t teaching design—let alone video-game design in particular. “We grew up in a time when, even if you studied film or early computer science, there was no way of connecting that to digital media or games specifically. A lot of folks just didn’t find [school] useful … Education wasn’t serving them,” she said. As a result, “there are many people in the games industry today [who] don’t have a degree.”

That’s changing, though. And video games could have something to do with it. Digital games are now being used as instructional tools by nearly three-quarters of K-8 teachers nationwide, according to a 2014 study by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, an independent research lab focused on emerging education technologies. Experts say the trend is likely to increase in coming years, in part because of ConnectED—the White House’s initiative to bring high-speed broadband Internet to essentially all of America’s students by 2018 to promote “interactive, personalized learning experiences driven by new technology.”

Video games are increasingly being hailed by education experts as the future of learning. Greg Toppo, USA Today’s national K-12 education reporter, recently wrote a book touting the games’ educational benefits called The Game Believes In You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter. In it he emphasizes just how much support there is for the idea, writing that the DOE and National Science Foundation alone are investing millions in “gaming experiments.” “Deep-pocketed philanthropies like the Gates and MacArthur foundations,” he writes, “have committed to spending upward of $100 million to promote educational gaming.”

E3, the annual trade show for the video-game industry, took over L.A.’s convention center this year with massive screens displaying previews of the season’s newest, most-exciting products. Much to the chagrin of video-game fans (who are known for posting threads on Reddit asking for advice on how to get in), the event is exclusive to industry insiders.

One portal into that world may now be education policy. The lucky souls granted access to this year’s E3 conference included high-school teachers, bespeckled university researchers, and a group of policy wonks from the DOE—all of whom had convened on the conference’s first day for the annual “Games for Learning” summit, an event devoted specifically to the role of this technology in classrooms.

The summit began six years ago as the brainchild of Erik Huey, the senior vice president of the Entertainment Software Association. The idea traces back in part to advocacy by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, whose representatives had approached Huey at E3 and asked for his ideas on how the video-game industry could serve education.

They weren’t talking about “educational video games,” the kind with which American adults today are probably familiar. They wanted to know how the most popular existing video games—games like Madden Football and World of Warcraft and Mario Kart—could be integrated into public education in America. Huey admits this took him by surprise. “The ESA represents game designers who are extraordinarily good at putting out entertaining products. We manufacture amazement. We don’t necessarily know a lot about education and learning,” he said.

But Huey was intrigued enough to engage in a conversation, and found plenty of video-game designers who were, too, despite expressing a fair amount of surprise and confusion. Dave Kosak, a 41-year-old game designer who serves as the lead narrative designer for World of Warcraft, admitted that while he’s always believed in games as powerful tools for education—he loved playing Oregon Trail on an Apple 2E at the back of his elementary-school classroom—when colleagues recently asked him to collaborate on educational video-game projects, he was stumped. “They tapped me for my experience as a game designer, and then they often had questions like, ‘What do … students need?’ I honestly don’t know what they need. I’m not a teacher! I can’t tell you,” he said. When it comes to Warcraft, for example, he and the other designers “just really wanted to make a cool game,” he said. “It’s about creating an experience for the players, and less about learning—that’s not something we’re conscious of or trying to do.”

A Surprising Benefit of the Common Core: Really Cool Video Games

This is indeed new territory. The Joan Ganz Cooney Center study found that four out of five game-using teachers used games specifically created for an educational audience, compared to just 5 percent who used commercial games.

Still, Richard Culatta, the director of the DOE’s Office of Educational Technology, insists that video-game designers have what it takes to help mend America’s education system—a space he freely admits needs an overhaul. “There are problems in the education space that the gaming industry has found solutions for,” Culatta said. Games, for example, are often much more effective at assessment than any scantron form could ever be. They assess their players constantly—that’s how they determine when a player is ready to move to the next level. Similarly, feedback is provided instantly in games; unlike having to wait a week for a grade on an assignment, students playing a game can, say, look at the top of the screen and see a bunch of cartoon hearts letting them know how many lives they have left.

Another major challenge facing American education, according to Culatta, involves “[holding] students—almost like a surfboard—right on the wave of their ability.” In other words, schools often struggle to give them tasks that they are capable of doing but for which they also need to work and stay vigilant. “There are a lot of times in schools when students are sitting there and they’re bored, or they’re checking out because it’s too hard,” Culatta said. Meanwhile, he added, video games could help students build what the White House describes as “social and emotional learning”: life skills, including how to deal with oneself, others, and relationships, and work in an effective manner.

Advocates for games in learning say designers don’t necessarily need to straddle both worlds to have an impact on students; they are already creating powerful tools for learning, whether they realize it or not. At least, that’s the theory behind GlassLab, a joint effort by Electronic Arts and the Educational Testing Service (the company that makes the SATs). Hatched at the 2011 Games for Learning summit, GlassLab has since created 10 games, some of which are educational versions of commercial video-game titles such as Sim City. Its newest game, Use Your Brainz, is a spin-off of the popular game Plants vs. Zombies. Jessica Lindl, GlassLab’s executive director, says almost no changes were made to the original game—the only main difference is that Use Your Brainz includes a built-in tracker that assesses how players are doing at problem-solving.

Lindl, whose background is in educational software, now works to bring learning-program designers and entertainment-game designers together to create the blended versions of the two. She says she actively recruits from commercial game-design companies because of the way their designers think about engagement. “That’s a piece that’s frankly missing from most of the educational experiences that kids have today,” she said.

When he reflects on the creation of Rocksmith, which was released in 2011, Cross recalls a marketing mandate that urged designers to refrain from using the word “learning” anywhere on the game’s packaging. Using the word “learn” made the game sound boring. That’s really what the game is, though: a way to learn how to play the guitar. People who just want to have fun—who don’t want to suffer through bar chords, who don’t want to develop callouses on their fingers—they can and should go off and play Guitar Hero, Cross said. Learning is hard, but when it’s fun, he argued, people are more likely to stick with it.

Four years later, Cross is proud to say that the No.1 reason buyers have given for purchasing Rocksmith was a desire to learn to play guitar. With a wide grin, he said that the game’s packaging last year touted it as “the fastest way to learn guitar.” The next thing he hopes for is to see his game in schools.

The (Accidental) Power of MOOCs

Back in 2013, the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote that MOOCs—massive open online courses—were about to change everything:

Nothing has more potential to lift more people out of poverty—by providing them an affordable education to get a job or improve in the job they have. Nothing has more potential to unlock a billion more brains to solve the world’s biggest problems. And nothing has more potential to enable us to reimagine higher education …

MOOCs have since lost their hype, undergoing flameouts and suffering from poor participation and competency rates. A University of Pennsylvania study of 1 million MOOC users who participated in 16 of the school’s Coursera classes, for example, found that only about half of the registrants viewed even a single online lecture and that the average completion rate was just 4 percent.

Even so, it may not be time to write them off. An unexplained phenomenon in early MOOC data, now illuminated by another recent study (this one from Harvard and MIT), could help the courses live up to the education-reform hype after all—but with a somewhat ironic twist. Perhaps one of the overlooked values in MOOCs is not in sharing Ivy League wisdom with the masses, but in teaching educators—and, in turn, improving traditional K-12 schools.

70 and 80 percent) already had college degrees. That’s about double the rate of the U.S. population at large. And in other parts of the world—where free online college classes were envisioned as tools of social mobility—the portion of already-educated students was even more dramatic. Last year, a piece of commentary that ran in The Times cited a study showing that in countries such as Brazil, China, India, Russia, and South Africa—where just 5 percent of residents have college degrees—more than 80 percent of MOOC students had one.

Although there wasn’t a lot of hard research to support it, many analysts pegged the high percentage of already-degreed students in MOOCs to an interest in freshening up job skills. Meanwhile, some MOOC backers attributed the lack of degree-seekers in the free courses to limited broadband access among lower-income populations.

Then, earlier this year, Harvard and MIT released what’s ostensibly the largest study to date of MOOCs and their participants. The joint study examined 68 courses offered by the two institutions though the edX platform, covering 1.7 million participants and more than 1.1 billion “events”—what the study defines as each participant “click” recorded in the edX servers. The report not only confirmed that MOOC students tend to be college-educated, but it also demonstrated that a striking percentage of those students are educators themselves. “What jumped out for me was that … as many as 39 percent of our learners [in MOOCs overall] are teachers,” said Isaac Chuang, one of the study’s lead researchers. In some of Harvard’s MOOCs, half the students were teachers. And in “Leaders of Learning”—a course out of its Graduate School of Education—a whopping two-thirds of participants identified as such.

This makes sense. Teachers devote their lives to the arts and sciences of sharing information and imparting skills. That they would voluntarily participate in an online-learning experience focusing on a field they already know isn’t that surprising; as practitioners of education, teachers may also have an interest in the processes and applications of MOOCs, studying how questions, assignments, and tests are handled in online teaching environments, for example. Nor is it surprising that teachers are interested in pedagogy—watching and learning how an applauded instructor delivers a lesson. Educators may want to see how an esteemed Harvard professor, for instance, teaches topics they cover in their own classrooms. Or they may want to appropriate the learning resources used in the MOOCs.

And if teachers are flocking to MOOCs to observe their more-accomplished colleagues or pick up new ideas to apply in their own classrooms, this trend could accelerate a needed renaissance in professional development for teachers.

What MOOCs Can’t Teach

Nationally, professional development—the process of keeping teachers up to date on subjects and teaching methods—is a costly and (arguably) futile endeavor. Every state requires some form of ongoing education for teachers; the U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, has said the United States spends about $2.5 billion on it every year. “But when I say that to teachers they usually laugh or cry,” Duncan said. “They are not feeling it. We have to do better with professional-development money.”

And that’s probably an understatement: Teachers don’t seem to be “feeling” professional development at all. According to a 2009 study from the Center for Public Education, when asked about their experience in professional development, most of the teachers surveyed “reported that it was totally useless.”

In general, with the exception of moving from chalkboards to PowerPoints, professional-development programs for teachers over the generations have hardly changed. The programs seldom involve more than presentations and narrations on new classroom tactics or standards—even though research has shown that those teaching methods aren’t the most effective.

A MOOC approach to professional development—having teachers watch and learn from other successful educators who are actually teaching—could help move these offerings past the status quo. “The entire future of education needs to shift from analog to digital and from being about the process of teaching to [being about] the process of learning—how we prepare teachers will be a major part of it,” Arthur Levine, a former president of Columbia University’s Teachers College, told me. Levine, who now oversees the nonpartisan Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, is so interested in teacher development that he’s started a joint Woodrow Wilson/MIT teaching lab to find and scale up needed improvements. “A blended approach of online learning, some in-person training, and things like competency assessments [is] coming to education at all levels, and we can ill afford to leave anyone out—especially the teachers we expect to lead that transformation,” Levine said.

Having teachers watch their peers model classroom methods in real time has already proven to be an effective way of helping them improve their practice, experts say. “Being able to actually see teaching practices modeled—as opposed to just being lectured to on the concepts—is a game changer in professional development,” said Alvin Crawford, the CEO of Knowledge Delivery Systems (KDS), which provides interactive professional-development programming for teachers. A pilot of the KDS model, according to Crawford, showed a 44 percent jump in competency among teachers who participated. “We’ve seen already that the interactive nature of the online experience, with sustained coaching and ongoing engagement, can really change everything about how we help teachers become teaching rock stars,” he said.

Given their high rates of voluntary MOOC participation, according to the Harvard/MIT study’s authors, teachers may have discovered these benefits on their own, turning to the free courses to fill in for what traditional professional-development programs are lacking. “There is an opportunity to make the ‘secondary’ use of online course resources by teachers a primary goal,” the researchers wrote.

If MOOCs take advantage of that opportunity, and if the teaching practice improves as a result, these massive open online courses may help improve education worldwide after all. And that wouldn’t necessarily be by exposing eager minds to free higher education, as advocates once hoped, but by enhancing learning at traditional, brick-and-mortar public schools.

And the results could be powerful. More than 6,100 of the participants featured in the Harvard/MIT study were teachers who took MOOCs in subjects they already taught. That’s roughly the number of public-school teachers in San Diego. In a way, then, perhaps Friedman was inadvertently right: It’s hard to imagine many things with “more potential to lift more people out of poverty” and “unlock a billion more brains to solve the world’s biggest problems.” Perhaps that potential, however, lies in their ability to improve the quality of the country’s public-education system.

When High School Means a Build-It-Yourself Education

Jon Bullock was the principal of Redmond High School, in Redmond, Oregon, when he sat down at his kitchen table with colleagues eight years ago to hatch the beginning of an idea for what would become Redmond Proficiency Academy (RPA).

Jon Bullock, Executive Director of RPA

Bullock was a product of public schools and a strong believer in them. They had worked for him, he told me recently, rattling off the names of four of his early public school teachers in his small lumber mill hometown of Roseburg, Oregon.  He described how those teachers changed his life and propelled him toward the dreams of college and a professional career.

But, Bullock continued, with obvious discomfort at saying it, despite his belief in public schools and admiration for the people who pour their efforts into them, he had come to believe they are not designed for all children. In 10 years of public school teaching and administration, he explained, he had seen a model of education in which swaths of students were not thriving.

Not thriving is a broad term. Applied to the 800 RPA students, it covers many definitions. There are very smart, talented kids who are not “enriched” by a traditional school environment. Some students are under-challenged or just bored; others are at high risk of dropping out. And there are others who just need a personal pace, to slow down and take more time to show their learning, or to accelerate to stay engaged.

The main building of RPA, a former office building in downtown Redmond, Oregon. Other school buildings are nearby places of business converted to classroom space. (Deborah Fallows)

City Makers: American Futures

The people, organizations, and ideas reshaping the country
Read More

Bullock and his kitchen-table colleagues wanted to build a program that was loose enough to encourage each student to work in their own way to best suit their own learning. This means that students have great liberty to choose the classes they want, even to show up at class or not, to find a groove of learning they’re comfortable with, and to have their success be measured in terms of proficiency or mastery for the content and skills.

Bullock is now the Executive Director of RPA, and he often speaks about the school on his weekly podcasts.

* * *

RPA believes that when students take responsibility and “ownership” of the process and content of their education, they are more likely to  succeed.

T-shirt with RPA word cloud

Of course there are requirements to meet before students can graduate. And there is a steep learning curve, just like there is for college students, when they discover that not attending class can have consequences.

There are also safety nets built into the system, including January and June terms, which offer a chance to make up uncompleted work, but also offer the opportunity to pursue some of the many electives the school offers. These range from wilderness preparedness and “remote first aid,” to the science of breadmaking.

Class prep for a wilderness and remote first-aid course

The magic underlying this kind of education—and this should come as no surprise as it is pretty much the magic in all education—is the teachers. The word I heard a lot around RPA to describe the teachers is passion. Bullock looks for teachers with passion for their subjects or even more broadly for their lives, and who can translate that passion into a love of learning for their students.

So how does this work? Teachers at RPA have a tremendous amount of flexibility to design their courses. For example, an ex-policeman teaches history through the lens of his passion, which is the evolution of mobs and gangs in the U.S.; his class is called “mobology.”

* * *

We got a further taste of RPA’s culture when we went to a show that was “of and by students” at RPA and other local schools. It was held in the historic Tower Theatre in downtown Bend, Oregon, just down the road from Redmond. The show was billed as a production “where TEDx meets teens.” Two of the performers, one a teacher and one a student, gave us a sense of what passionate teaching looks like and how passion translates to students.

Flyer for the “Limitless” program put on by RPA students and teachers, and other local talent, at the restored Tower Theatre in Bend. (Facebook)

One of the RPA teachers, Brandy Berlin, a humanities teacher and professional yoga instructor, engaged the entire theater audience in a mini yoga session, to demonstrate how she engages her class.  She says that she uses yoga as part of the students’ “social and emotional education,” something she says they desperately need. She asks them to sweat, breathe, laugh, and even cry. The audience, from students to grandparents, seemed understandably reluctant at first, but by the end of her demo was breathing as one, eyes closed, sitting with perfect posture in theatre seats, and I would say, transported in the moment.

Later, Wyatt Carrell, a Bend High School student with natural stage presence, showed masterful magic skills in making things disappear, appear, move, and change, and talked about his lifelong love of magic. He left the audience with no doubt that he had become a happy, skilled, and successful young man already. Here is a video of his performance at TEDxBend earlier this year:

The hardest part for me to understand about RPA is the final step, measuring a student’s proficiency.  What does it mean to “measure proficiency?” Without tests, how do you tell if a student has mastered material, especially in a class like English or history?

I talked with George Hegarty, a humanities teacher with over 15 years of experience in a variety of high schools before he came to RPA  three years ago. In explaining how a young student might reach proficiency and what that says about a student’s ability to learn, he emailed this example:

Students who struggle with their ability to construct thesis-based arguments about a novel, poem, or play in an English class have taken walks with their teachers and shared their ideas and analyses of the texts while the teacher took notes. The teacher, then, sits down with the students and helps them see the structured nature of their thinking, and helps them convert the notes into an outline for a paper.

This process highlights that education follows a growth trajectory rather than a “one and done” pass or fail mentality, and we have found that it encourages … students to immerse themselves in particular subject areas rather than simply “survive” Humanities classes.

I commented that this kind of teaching sounded like it involved more individual attention than could be done in traditional public schools. He replied, with a small chuckle, if it would be possible to say it took about 10,000 percent more individual attention.

* * *

During our travels around the country with American Futures, I have by now seen many different kinds of schools with many different visions and styles. From rural high schools in the desert and the farmland, to public boarding schools focused on high end humanities or sciences; skill-tracked schools from which students graduate with job-ready skills in high-end trades like nursing or mechanics; and schools where one-by-one kids are plucked out of traditional programs and nurtured along paths from certain failure to college track. Yet, just when I thought I had about seen it all, I ran into yet another model, the RPA.