A College Without Classes

MANCHESTER, Mich.—Had Daniella Kippnick followed in the footsteps of the hundreds of millions of students who have earned university degrees in the past millennium, she might be slumping in a lecture hall somewhere while a professor droned. But Kippnick has no course lectures. She has no courses to attend at all. No classroom, no college quad, no grades. Her university has no deadlines or tenure-track professors.

Instead, Kippnick makes her way through different subject matters on the way to a bachelor’s in accounting. When she feels she’s mastered a certain subject, she takes a test at home, where a proctor watches her from afar by monitoring her computer and watching her over a video feed. If she proves she’s competent—by getting the equivalent of a B—she passes and moves on to the next subject.

Kippnick’s classroom is a small study she’s set up in her home in rural Michigan, where she can stare out at apple trees and the occasional passing deer. She can finish her degree as quickly or as slowly as she wants. It costs her just $5,000 a year.

For the most part, colleges and universities have changed very little since the University of Bologna gave the first college lectures in 1088. With the exception of Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs—free lectures and courses on the Internet—most university learning still requires students to put their butts in seats for a certain number of hours, complete a list of courses, and pass tests demonstrating that they learned from those courses (or were able to successfully cram for over the course of a few days).

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But a new model is upending the traditional college experience, and has the potential to change the way universities—both new and old—think about learning.

Called competency-based education, this new model looks at what students should know when they complete a certain degree, and allows them to acquire that knowledge by independently making their way through lessons. It also allows students who come into school with knowledge in a certain area to pass tests to prove it, rather than forcing them to take classes and pay for credits on information they already know.

“They’re taking this process that’s been the same for hundreds and hundreds of years and fundamentally changing it in ways that make it much more efficient,” said Martin Kurzweil, the director of the Educational Transformation Program at Ithaka S+R, a higher-education research and consulting firm.

Competency-based education was pioneered by Western Governors University, a non-profit school founded by governors from 11 states in 1996. Its goal was to create an institution that would better prepare students for the working world, while harnessing the power of technology.

WGU headquarters in Salt Lake City (Western Governors University)

Since then, dozens of universities, have signed on to the Competency-Based Education Network, making a commitment to design and deliver competency-based degree programs. They include not only small technical college and community colleges, but also large universities: the University System of Georgia, University of Maryland, Purdue University, and DePaul. By fall of 2014, three Big Ten institutions, including the University of Michigan, had announced degree programs that use the competency model.

“We’re focused on learning, not teaching,” Larry Gruppen, who runs the competency-based Master’s of Professional Health Education at the University of Michigan, told me. It’s an important development in the field of higher education, which has long been in need of some major changes.

In 2011, the Harvard Business school professor Clayton Christensen called for a “disruptive innovation” in higher education, arguing that online education based on competency and mastery has the potential to make education accessible to more students, and better prepare America’s workforce.

“The essential manner of delivering education has not taken advantage of technological innovation in the way we’ve seen in other universities,” said Josh Wyner, the executive director of the College Excellence Program at the Aspen Institute, told me.

College is getting more expensive, after all, in part because schools have to pay for faculty and buildings and land and football teams and fancy dorms. An online education model does away with most of those things. Some students may want them. But many don’t and can’t afford the additional costs. Neither can the nation, which needs more college graduates to fill the 60 percent of jobs that, by 2018, will require a college diploma.

“If you’re in the privileged class and you can afford to send your kid off to college for four or five years to experiment with life and learn about things and drink a lot, and go to football games, great, do that,” Bob Mendenhall, the president of WGU, told me. “What we’re doing is providing an alternative, equally good educational experience, for the rest of the population.”

Unlike MOOCs, which mainly expect students to use resources online to complete courses themselves, competency-based programs depend on faculty mentors to walk learners through the learning process. It’s almost the opposite of the university lecture. Rather than a professor talking to a roomful of students, a professor talks to students one-on-one while they learn information at their own pace.

“You get to teach them things that matter, when they matter, and not try to cram a bunch of information down their throats,” Gruppen, at Michigan, told me.

The medical school at University of Michigan in 1905 (Wystan / Flickr)

I visited the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor to meet with Gruppen, who launched the competency-based program at Michigan two years ago. We met in an ivy-covered building on the school’s medical campus, in a room decorated with a framed painting of Victor Vaughan, a man who had changed the way medical schools work a century ago. But no classes occur there, because no classes occur at all. Instead, Gruppen and his colleagues have come up with a list of competencies that their students, all professionals in fields such as nursing, dentistry, public health, and social work, have to master. Students make their way through those competencies with the guidance of a mentor, and then are tested on those competencies by separate faculty.

“This is individualized, it’s not time-based, and it comes with the absolute necessity for assessment,” he told me.

One of the advantages of Gruppen’s program is that it doesn’t force students to waste time taking classes about things they already know. Some have years of experience, and can already create teaching curriculum or write scholarly papers for review. Once they prove that they’ve mastered those topics, they can move on. Jennifer Stojan hopes to soon be the first student to complete the program later this year. She’s a medicine and pediatrics professor at Michigan who says her busy schedule wouldn’t have allowed time to go to lectures or classes. Instead, she goes home and makes her way through the curriculum when she can.

“If I would have had to do readings and get tested on them and have assignments due at certain times, I probably would not have been able to get this done in a consistent fashion,” she told me, before rushing off to another one of her work duties.

* * *

Thirty or so miles southwest of the ivy-covered building where I met Gruppen, I stopped in on Daniella Kippnick, who had just sent her 9-year-old triplets off on an errand to a neighbor’s house in order to do some work on her competency-based bachelor’s in accounting from Western Governors University.

Kippnick, who has a GED, first decided to go back to school while she was working 60 hours a week at two different jobs in Ypsilanti, Michigan, and still couldn’t make ends meet. So she went back to community college, hoping to get a degree in accounting. Life intervened and she met her husband, became pregnant with triplets, and the new family moved to North Carolina from Michigan for her husband’s job. Kippnick wanted to continue her schooling, but with no nearby family to help take care of her children and the nearest community college 40 minutes away, she couldn’t find the time. She looked into taking online courses from a for-profit like the University of Phoenix, but was put off by the cost. When she stumbled across WGU, it seemed like a perfect fit.

She applied, and after a phone interview to make sure she could handle the challenges of a self-directed program online, she was accepted (The university accepts about 85 percent of the people who apply, those who are rejected often need to do more prep work or prove they can handle a college course, a WGU spokeswoman told me). Because she’d already taken some classes, she was able to pass some of the competencies right away.

Daniella Kippnick at her home office in Michigan (Alana Semuels)

WGU dissects the different parts of giving students an education. There are “evaluators,” who grade student work, and who have never met the student before. There are proctors, who work for a proctoring company contracted by WGU, who watch online as students take assessment tests and make sure they’re not cheating. Student mentors often don’t have Ph.D.s, but are instead people who have worked for a long time in the field and can help guide students along the way.

When students enroll in WGU, they’re assigned a student mentor, who keeps in touch with them weekly through their college careers. For their courses, they go online and access material that will help them master a certain subject, or competency. Kippnick’s competencies, for example, include gaining an understanding of the current tax system, knowing how to do individual returns, learning how to perform accounting for long-term assets, and how to value liabilities, among a few others. Each course has a different mentor who students can ask questions to or seek out for help, and online forums where students can talk to one another.

The university only offers degrees in business, IT, teacher education, and health care. Students getting bachelor’s degrees do have to pass some general education competencies, but there are no fancy electives at the school. There are no campus police, no student social events, not even a big campus building in Salt Lake City, where the school’s administration is located.

“That’s the secret to controlling our costs—we’re focusing on doing just a few things well, not trying to do everything,” Bob Mendenhall, WGU’s president told me.

By focusing on a just a few subjects, WGU is able to expand to serve more students without accumulating significant costs. It can hone its curriculum online, and more students can sign on without the school having to cram more people into classrooms or dorms. All the school needs to add is individual mentors. WGU’s enrollment has climbed to 53,800 in 2014, from 23,500 in 2010.

Still, it can be difficult for students to push themselves through the curriculum without deadlines or lectures. In the past year, for instance, Kippnick’s father has had heart surgery, her family has moved back to Michigan, they bought a house and started to renovate it. It’s been nearly impossible to find time to study, but that’s where her mentor comes in, offering sympathy while still urging her to keep working. WGU students must complete a minimum number of courses each term to stay in good academic standing, but if they have family issues, they can take a term break and resume their studies later.

Skipping the classroom has its advantages. Kippnick says that when she went to community college in Michigan, many of her fellow students weren’t focused and would waste class time by goofing off or by not preparing ahead of time. Now, the only person that slows Kippnick down is herself. She says that prepares her for being disciplined in the working world, too.

“In a finance department, people don’t really chit-chat. You sit at a computer and you work,” she said.

Western Governors has succeeded in preparing students for professions where they have to interact with others, too, including teaching. The National Council on Teacher Quality ranked WGU’s secondary-school-teacher education program first in the nation, a result that surprised even the NCTQ.

In its annual review of teacher-prep programs, NCTQ wrote that Western Governors “had nearly perfect scores across the board.”

Brooklyn resident Iraida Guadalupe, 32, finished her teaching degree from WGU in five years. She’d taken some community-college courses before, but then got married and started a family. Guadalupe, who has always wanted to be a teacher, says there were some aspects of community college that seemed like a waste of time. Students had to take a gym class. They had to satisfy a biology requirement. She had already learned many of the things she was being taught—in high school. WGU offered her the same student teaching opportunities other schools did, she said.

She easily got a job teaching at a charter school in East New York, near the neighborhood where she grew up. But the school isn’t for everyone, she told me.

You have a lot of work to do on your own,” she told me. “You don’t have friends that are taking the same classes, you don’t know the same people, you can’t just have a study group.”

A WGU graduation ceremony (Western Governors University)

Not every student has such positive results. The overall graduation rate—which tracks full-time, first-degree students to see if they completed a degree within six years (or 150 percent of the “normal time” for completing the program)—is just 17 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That puts it about on par with the University of Phoenix, one of the nation’s largest for-profit universities. The University of Central Florida, by contrast, one of the biggest public schools in the nation, which moved many of its classes online, has a graduation rate of 70 percent for full-time, first-time students. Oakland Community College, a school that Kippnick had attended, has a graduation rate of 8 percent.

But the NCES statistics are for first-time students, which isn’t who WGU serves, Mendenhall says. The average age of a WGU student is 37, and 72 percent are classified as underserved, he said. The school graduates that demographic at a rate that is 20 percent higher than the national rate, he said.

Mendenhall also emphasizes that the school’s retention rates for first-year students is higher than that of most community colleges and for-profit universities. According to NCES, the retention rate for students who began in 2013 was 73 percent at WGU, compared to 42 percent for the University of Phoenix, and 48 percent for Oakland Community College.

And every year, he says, WGU’s student graduation rate is rising. Mendenhall says mentors make the difference. Faculty in most universities are spending just a little time with students, and are instead focusing on research, WGU faculty is spending 40 hours a week with students, he said.

“Students come to education looking for a mentor,” he told me. “They often don’t find one in their undergraduate classes.”

Some commenters question whether the assessment model is truly preparing students for the working world. One student, who graduated from WGU in 2011, wrote online that he feared the school was becoming a “degree mill” that allows students to complete their degrees in just a few months, since there are places online where they can buy WGU papers to turn in, and since the school allows students to progress quickly through competencies.

Mendenhall, of WGU, argues that the school prepares students better than traditional universities. A 2014 Harris survey of employers found that employers reported that 99 percent of WGU graduates meet or exceed expectations, and that 96 percent of employers said WGU graduates were prepared for their jobs, he said.

* * *

The university lecture might not have changed much in hundreds of years, but the role of faculty has been constantly evolving. White, male, religious leaders were the first professors, but now, professors are much more diverse. Rather than analyzing Biblical texts, faculty now spend much of their time on research and publishing in obscure academic journals, if they’re lucky enough to get a job, that is.

Institutions like WGU upend the faculty model once again. Course mentors, who help students through classes, are typically Ph.D.s in their field, but almost no other part of WGU’s faculty are required to have such a high level of education. Though, evaluators, who are often part-time, and who grade students’ work, mostly have Master’s degrees or Ph.D.s. The people who design the courses work with the private sector decide what competencies and subject matters are important for students to learn, but often use learning resources from third parties, rather than making courses up from scratch. This model likely makes proponents of research universities a little nervous. Where would the state of American education be, after all, without Watson and Crick discovering the structure of DNA while on Harvard’s faculty? And in an era where low-paid, overworked adjunct professors are becoming more common, is it really a service to create more jobs that are not tenured or even, in some cases, full-time?

While many of the experiences of faculty working at WGU are positive, a few complain that the job is little different than working as an adjunct. As the university enrolls more students, course mentors have less time to work with students. Pay isn’t competitive, faculty say, on sites such as GlassDoor.com. One person who claimed to be a former faculty member even started a website, Fed Up at WGU, a few years back, complaining that the school was growing too quickly and not treating faculty well.

But the online, competency-based model also has the potential to employ Ph.D. students who might otherwise be without jobs. And it can be a more rewarding. Gruppen, of Michigan, says many of his faculty much prefer mentoring ambitious students to lecturing in a classroom.

Nels Olson is a WGU faculty member. He received his Ph.D. in English from Michigan State University in December of 2014. He was cautious when he applied for a job at WGU—there’s still a heavy stigma against online education in academia, he told me, particularly against professors working solely in online education. But WGU seemed like the type of place that valued him for his expertise, rather than as a laborer, he said.

Olson works as a course mentor in the schools’ writing center. He says job feels similar to working as a writing mentor in the brick and mortar universities where he taught while receiving his Ph.D. He receives a salary and benefits, and is expected to work 40 hours a week.

He still finds some time to do independent research related to his dissertation, even though he’s not required to by WGU. And at WGU, he doesn’t have to grade papers. He also doesn’t have to go into campus every day, though he sometimes  has to work until 11 p.m. to help students on the West coast.

He’s glad that he was able to find a stable job that he enjoys. Many of his friends with Ph.D.s are still holding out for that tenure-track professor job somewhere. Meanwhile, WGU is ramping up hiring. Olson’s team at WGU started out with four people, ramped up to eight when it hired Olson this spring, and now employs 13.

* * *

It would be a little scary to think about every university turning into a version of WGU. What would happen to the college days some students spend lounging around quads, staying up late for exams, and then trying to stay awake the next day for lectures? What would we watch in the cold months without college football and basketball? Where else could you overdose on acapella concerts in a single night, if not on a college campus?

But a complete switch to online, competency-based learning is unlikely. Traditional four-year colleges and universities wouldn’t support that kind of change.

Gruppen told me that the hardest part of setting up his competency-based program was fitting it into the confines of the traditional university.

“They wanted things by credit hours, they wanted a spring semester and a fall semester and deadlines for enrollment,” he told me. He wanted to charge students a fixed price for the course, since they’d be taking as much time as they needed, but the university wanted to charge for semesters and have differences for in-state and out-of-state students and to be able to impose tuition increases.

The Ann Arbor campus of the University of Michigan (Iris / Flickr)

Most schools also have little financial incentive to structure themselves like WGU. If students can pass out of competencies and finish their degrees in just a few years, the college doesn’t earn as much money.

“If you’re certifying learning that they’ve done somewhere else, that doesn’t help you get money for learning that’s done on your campus,” Josh Wyner, the executive director of the College Excellence Program at the Aspen Institute, told me.

But schools like WGU also have no interest in completely replacing traditional colleges. WGU’s goal, Mendenhall told me, is to serve the students who can’t afford traditional colleges, or who don’t have schedules that would fit into the traditional college format. Just 66 percent of people who graduate from high school enroll in college the following fall, a recent study showed. And just 56 percent of students who embark on a bachelor’s degree program finish within six years, according to a 2011 study.

“The American our college system works fine for 20 or 30 percent of the population,” Mendenhall said. “But what are we doing about the other 60 percent?”

It might be difficult for competency-based programs to scale anyway. Since they are so focused on the relationship between a student and a mentor, the more students that enroll, the more mentors are needed, which can get costly.

Nevertheless, it’s a good sign that some universities are thinking about new ways to educate students, some of which are derived from the competency-based model. The competency-based takeaway of allowing students to bypass courses they already know, if they show familiarity, is being implemented at places like the University of Central Florida, which is making it easier for students to transfer community college credits to four-year degree-granting programs, saving time and money.

More schools are thinking about what they want their students to get out of a degree. And many schools are moving to incorporate an online-delivery model to serve students who live elsewhere.

“One of the great strengths of American higher education is diversity, and that will continue to be the case,” Merisotis told me. “But this model of education is not likely to endure for decades longer. We’re on the cusp of an evolution.”

This is a relief for people such as Daniella Kippnick. Her husband is from Germany, and whenever she looks at the contrast between the European education system and the American one, she feels frustrated with the lack of progress here. In Europe many universities are free, or cost very little. Kippnick’s husband actually got paid to attend school, because he got good grades.

It heartens Kippnick to think that her sons will be able to choose their own path, whether it be a German university, an American university, or an online school like WGU. One of the triplets wants to be a veterinarian, which Kippnick knows could be challenging to do online. But, she says, hopefully, in 10 years when he’s ready to go to school, he’ll have more options about how and where he learns whatever subject he chooses.

What the New Education Buzzwords Actually Mean

Education writing is famous for its alphabet soup of acronyms and obscure terms, but it could just as well be faulted for trafficking buzzwords in search of clear definitions.

Ideas like grit, motivation, fitting in, and learning from one’s mistakes—often summarized as noncognitive factorsare just some of the concepts that are coming up more frequently these days. A new paper from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching provides definitions for many of these new terms, which arose in part because of the recent push by psychologists, economists, and education experts to delve more deeply into what compels students to understand complex new material.

Each concept has its own section and is accompanied by summaries of key experiments that gave rise to the ideas’ relevance (as well as reference points for reporters whose inboxes are inundated with the latest efforts to boost student grades and college prospects).

Take motivation, for example. In the research world there exist two types: intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is learning for the love of learning—the ideal mindset of a student, the report’s authors write. But for various reasons, that thirst for knowledge lags in many young people, and so researchers have come up with different approaches to spurring that enthusiasm for knowledge among students.

One popular intervention to boost student motivation is the use of money—rewarding kids with cash for displaying positive results. But not all motivators are created equally. The Harvard scholar Roland Fryer studied financial-incentive programs at various schools, discovering that when students are rewarded for reading a book, they tend to perform better on standardized tests than when students are promised cash prizes for scoring highly on those tests.

One explanation for why rewarding inputs beats rewarding outputs is because the former is a clearly defined task: Read a book, improve your reading scores. Incentives for scoring well on tests, on the other hand, require a whole host of activities on which the student may not have a total grasp, like productive studying habits. The Carnegie paper does note that when students come to expect the rewards, their motivation can dip.

Research suggests that, in the United States, the more motivation students say they have, the better they perform on various academic assessments. But that trend doesn’t seem to apply across countries. I wrote about a study that argued that the international education powerhouses—Finland and South Korea, for example—have students who report they’re less motivated than U.S. students say they are, yet the former still perform much better on these assessments than do the latter.

Other concepts explained in the Carnegie report include the idea of “mindsets”—having faith in one’s ability to understand complex tasks through effort, patience, and an appreciation that failure is part of the process.

Grit has its own section, unsurprisingly. The concept is backed by numerous studies led by Angela Duckworth, the scholar most associated with the concept. At its essence, grit tries to measure a student’s passion and perseverance for long-term goals, as the Carnegie report explains. One major experiment highlighted asked students 12 questions about their study habits, such as whether they finish what they begin and if new ideas or assignments distract them from previous ones. Duckworth and her colleagues found that student responses to these questions predicted their grade-point averages, even if their test scores were low. The grit questionnaire also was found to be more accurate in predicting whether students at military academies would complete their first year than were IQ tests or assessments produced by West Point, the Carnegie report notes. Still, while the research is promising, student grit shouldn’t be tied to teacher evaluations, Duckworth and her colleague wrote this year.

“Stereotype threat”—the idea that individuals who are confronted with stereotypes based on their race, ethnicity, social status, or gender hurts their performance at work and school—is also explored in the Carnegie report. In many cases, talented students who have the potential to do well underperform when put in situations that accentuate those stereotypes. My colleauge Emily Richmond wrote about a 2013 study showing that removing the timed element of tests led to girls scoring higher on math tests than boys. Sometimes the stereotype threat is activated in seemingly benign ways. Richmond wrote that “research has found that when girls were asked to identify their gender prior to taking the Advanced Placement math exam, they scored lower than they did when the question wasn’t asked until after the test—or not at all.”

This post appears courtesy of the Education Writers Association.

Debt After Death


When a young person dies unexpectedly, his or her family could end up with the burden of paying off student loans. Can that be avoided?

David Gray / Reuters

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What would happen to all of your debt if you died?

That’s a morbid question, but it’s a pretty important one, even for young adults. Back in 2012, ProPublica told the story of Francisco Reynoso, a gardener from Palmdale, California, whose son was killed in a car accident on the way home from a job interview. Reynoso, who made $21,000 a year, was held liable for paying off his son’s student-loan debt, which numbered in the six figures.

Reynoso’s story is, unfortunately, not a unique one. Millennials are the most educated generation yet, but with all those degrees has come a mountain of debt. On top of that, a shaky economy and changing views of work mean many young adults are working as freelancers or contractors, positions that often don’t come with the benefits that can help families cope with financial burdens should something bad happen.

The conversation about what happens to outstanding debts after death is crucial because not all debt is created equal. While a student’s federal loans would be forgiven if he or she were to pass away, the same can’t be said for loans that are taken out from private lenders. And while the tally of private-student-loan debt isn’t as large as the amount doled out by the federal government, it’s still a large sum—more than $150 billion in total, according to a 2012 report from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.* And private lenders are often much less lenient when it comes to repayment.

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In the 2011-2012 school year, about 1.4 million undergraduate students took out private loans, and as of 2011, 90 percent of private loans involved a cosigner. That means that parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, or even grandparents who happily signed on the dotted line might find themselves saddled with the debt, should something happen to their loved one. The same is true for other kinds of debt from contracts that are cosigned, such as those that come with joint credit cards.

Is there any way for families to protect themselves in cases when a young person with tons of debt passes away? Life insurance is a potential safety net. “If the debt is such that it would transfer to a parent or family member, life insurance can provide a very good and relatively low-cost solution for making sure that debt gets paid off and that family member is not left with that burden,” says Yaron Ben-Zvi, the CEO of Haven Life, an online life-insurance provider.

But, unfortunately many Millennials don’t have life insurance. The milestones that usually spur people to start thinking about such security measures—such as getting married or having kids—are the events that Millennials are delaying. On top of that, fewer young adults are working full-time for companies with traditional benefits packages, which often include some life-insurance coverage.

That leaves Millennials to seek out life insurance on their own, but many aren’t doing that. According to a recent report from LIMRA, an insurance association, and Life Happens, a nonprofit that focuses on life-insurance education, Millennials commonly say that paying for basic expenses gets in the way of buying life insurance, and almost 30 percent listed saving up for a vacation as more important than getting or increasing insurance coverage. Young adults are also likely to seriously overestimate the cost of insurance: The study listed the price of a 20-year, $250,000 policy for a healthy 30-year-old at about $160 per month, but the median guess among young adults was $600.

It’s easy to understand why more young adults don’t have life insurance: The process can feel complex and sometimes involves in-person visits to doctors or insurance agents. And approval for coverage can take several weeks. The multiple-step process can feel discouraging. For their part, Haven Life, which currently only operates in Massachusetts, says they’re trying to simplify that process by allowing prospective clients to sign up online and offering immediate decisions about whether or not coverage is approved (though clients will still need to complete a medical exam within three months).

Even for those whose employers provide life-insurance policies, many don’t quite understand the coverage or its limitations. If someone with life insurance dies, his or her policy will likely pay out somewhere between one year to two years’ worth of his or her salary. In some cases, though, that might not be enough to cover outstanding debts. In addition, Ben-Zvi says that some policies aren’t portable across employers, which could be an issue for a generation that switches jobs relatively frequently.

For many Millennials, insurance isn’t a necessity, and might not even be the best response to managing cosigned loans. But the question of who will be left footing the bill if something happens is a critical one for everyone—especially young people—to consider.

* This article originally identified Sallie Mae as a servicer of government loans. That business was spun off into a separate company in 2014. We regret the error.

The Tricky Politics of Educating Prisoners


The Obama administration’s plan to offer Pell grants to inmates could test conservative support for criminal-justice reform.

Rich Pedroncelli / AP

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Ask any advocate—liberal or conservative—of criminal-justice reform for the best way to shrink the nation’s overcrowded prisons, and one of the first answers you’ll likely hear is this: Keep the inmates currently in jail from coming back once they get out.

Helping prisoners prepare for re-entry into the real world by providing them education and job-training while they’re still behind bars, the argument goes, gives them a better shot at finding jobs, and makes them less likely to return to criminal activity and wind up back in prison.

There’s a broad consensus on that point. But when the conversation turns to actually paying for such programs, the left-right coalition pushing for a major prison overhaul begins to fray. On Friday, the Obama administration will announce that for the first time since the tough-on-crime era of the early 1990s, federal funding for Pell grants will be made available for prisoners to take college courses. The political reaction to the move could give a strong indication of just how realistic the current push for new criminal-justice legislation is in Congress.

At a time when college is out-of-reach for so many working families, will the public support the use of taxpayer funds to educate criminals?

The Moment for Criminal-Justice Reform?

“That’s been the argument all the way along,” said Stephen Steuer, executive director of the Correctional Education Association. Steuer and other supporters of prisoner education point to a 2013 Rand Corporation study finding that for every dollar spent on such programs, “you get $5 back in terms of reduced incarceration costs.” A Department of Education official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to preview Friday’s announcement, cited the same Rand report, which found that prisoners who participated in correctional education programs were 43 percent less likely to return to prison within three years.

To a large degree, the array of conservative groups that are supporting criminal-justice reform—including the Koch brothers, FreedomWorks, and Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform—are united behind a pair of priorities: reducing the exorbitant government cost of incarcerating so many people, and reducing the sheer number of crimes for which people can be imprisoned. That’s not to say that many conservatives aren’t focused on the racial inequities in the system, or the moral failings of a society that tears so many families apart for minor crimes, but the reducing the costs of the system remains a top concern.

“There’s so much to be done that people who are talking about spending more money really need to get to the end of the list,” Norquist told me. “Because if you’re talking about reducing mandatory minimums, that doesn’t cost money. That saves money. If you’re talking about reducing the 4,000 federal laws and the several hundred thousand regulations that can send you to prison if you fill out the paperwork wrong, that doesn’t cost a penny.”

“Asking for more money up front is a distraction from what can be accomplished,” Norquist said.

The Obama administration is characterizing the Pell grant initiative, which was first reported Tuesday by the Wall Street Journal, as a “limited pilot program” that it is permitted to launch under a provision of the Higher Education Act. The administration won’t say how much it will cost, or whether the funds will in any way limit the Pell grants available to low-income families outside the prison system. Other important details are also unknown, Steuer said, such as how many inmates would be eligible whether people convicted of certain crimes would be excluded.

Congress banned inmates from getting Pell grants in 1994, and there’s already concern among conservatives that the administration is acting unilaterally rather than waiting for approval from Capitol Hill. “President Obama, through administrative actions, is risking conservative support for justice reform,” said Jason Pye, the justice director for FreedomWorks, the D.C.-based conservative advocacy group. “To avoid any controversy, as well as undermine prospects for reform this year, the administration should go through Congress to lift the ban on Pell grants.” A group of Democrats in the House has already introduced a bill to restore Pell grants for prisoners permanently, and many liberal lawmakers want criminal-justice legislation to include an infusion of funds for urban programs aimed at keeping teenagers out of jail in the first place.

Importantly, Pye did not object to the policy change as much as the process. “Education, work training and other rehabilitative programs implemented for eligible nonviolent offenders will have an upfront cost, but the reductions in recidivism could save taxpayers a lot of money,” he wrote in an email. He pointed to the example of Texas, which saved $2 billion by scrapping plans to build new prisons and used some of the money to boost spending on probation and other programs.

As far as restoring Pell grants for prisoners, increased access to education would play a crucial role in reducing a prisoner’s of risk recidivist behavior. But policymakers could head off the cycle of crime and poverty before it starts through other reforms, such as providing parents more choice in their child’s education.

Norquist also praised the Texas example, but he said a restoration of Pell grants would have limited value if it were not paired with other reforms, like a relaxation of regulations and union rules that prevent convicted felons from getting licenses in many fields once they get out of prison. “I don’t care how much Pell grant education you’ve got if you can’t get a job because you don’t have a license, and you cant get a license because they say that felons can’t get a license,” Norquist said. “What was all the Pell money for?”

Conservatives seem willing to accept some new spending if they can be convinced that it will be outweighed by savings in the longterm. Starting Friday, it will be up to the Obama administration to make the case that giving Pell grants to prisoners adheres to that principle.

How One Campus Cop Undid a City’s Police Reforms


Samuel DuBose’s death at the hands of a university police officer points to problems with piecemeal approaches to reform.

A still from Officer Ray Tensing’s body cam depicting his stop of Samuel Dubose Hamilton County Prosecutor

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During a news conference Wednesday, discussing the killing of Samuel DuBose, Hamilton County, Ohio, prosecutor Joe Deters said several remarkable things.

“This is without question a murder,” he said, adding that Ray Tensing, who killed Dubose—an unarmed black man pulled over for a missing front license plate—“should never have been a police officer.” Deters said, “This is the most asinine act I’ve ever seen a police officer make.”

Amid a string of cases where police have killed black men, what makes this case different, as Robinson Meyer notes, is body-cam footage that captured the incident, and helped bring about Tensing’s indictment for murder. But the case is also interesting because Tensing wasn’t a Cincinnati police officer. He was employed by the police department of the University of Cincinnati—a fact the prosecutor lamented.

“I just don’t think a university should be in a policing business,” Deters said. “I just don’t.”

Body-Camera Footage Gets an Officer Indicted for Murder

The United States faces nationwide problems in policing, but the solutions so far have often taken the form of federal intervention in local police departments on a case-by-case basis: a civil-rights investigation in Ferguson, Missouri; a consent decree in Cleveland; and so on. This piecemeal approach risks producing only piecemeal results—there are, after all, around 18,000 police departments nationwide at last count—and worse, what fixes one department may not fix its neighbor.

That’s a story that Cincinnati can tell with tragic eloquence. The city has been hailed as one of the success stories of police reform in this century. In 2001, race riots erupted in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, just a stone’s (or bottle’s) throw from downtown. Tensions between police and black residents were already high when an officer shot and killed a 19-year-old black man, touching off the rioting. In the years since, as Alana Semuels detailed in May, Cincinnati has worked to fix its broken department and repair relations in the community. It has deployed a technique called community problem-oriented policing, which prioritizes fixing underlying problems over arresting people and hauling them in. Cincinnati Chief of Police Jeffrey Blackwell, who is black, attended DuBose’s funeral and offered his condolences—a sign of the department’s outreach.

None of that helped save DuBose’s life, though, since Tensing was an officer with the University of Cincinnati police. It’s a much smaller department, with just 72 officers. And, it’s not even the only campus department in the city—Xavier University has one, too.

Data on campus police departments is even less comprehensive than on municipal police. Much of the academic literature over recent decades focuses on the ability of campus police to ensure law and order, rather than the extent to which they are subject to it. That’s a mirror of the broader police landscape, where researchers, reporters, and reformers alike have been frustrated by the lack of good data on questions like police violence.

Here’s some of what is known: There are more than 800 campus police departments around the country as of last count. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that as of 2005, starting salaries for campus police were lower than for officers in municipal departments. Campus departments also have a reputation among cops for being boring—they’re small and tend to cover small areas, there’s less crime, and the issues they’re dealing with are often minor cases like speeding on campus roads or underage drinking. (This police forum provides some examples of this complaint.) Of course, this means that campus police may be less experienced and less prepared for higher-pressure encounters. In December 2013, Cameron Redus, a student at San Antonio’s University of the Incarnate Word was shot by an officer under questionable circumstances. There’s been a robust debate over whether campus police officers ought to be armed like their municipal counterparts.

There’s a persuasive argument for the existence of campus police: They’re patrolling places full of young people who may raise hell but aren’t serious threats to public order, and the slate of crimes they handle are different from what municipal police tend to address.

Problems crop up where cities and towns closely abut campuses. Go to any place with fraught or even occasionally tense town-gown relations and you can find stories of townies—and often, though not exclusively black ones—being hassled simply for being on or near campus areas where they have every right to be. (Similarly common are stories of campus police hassling black students whom they take to be interlopers.) Many campus police departments also have jurisdiction off campus, often by means of agreements with local departments. The North Dakota Supreme Court recently invalidated such agreements in that state.

Campus police are just a part of a bigger system, though. In addition to local police, the nation has thousands of other law-enforcement agencies: nearly 2,000 “special-jurisdiction agencies” like campus police departments; state police forces; sheriff’s departments; and several hundred more that don’t fit any of those categories. In a highly publicized case in March, a student at the University of Virginia was beaten near campus by Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control officers for allegedly using a fake ID. All charges against him were later dropped. Together, these departments make up an important piece of the law-enforcement landscape, and one that poses particular challenges.

DuBose’s death will likely prompt a reassessment of the role of campus police, whether most universities ought to have their own forces, and what those forces should look like. It might also encourage a more important, broader conversation among police reformers about the ways that interlocking departments and jurisdictions demand interlocking solutions.

In preparation for Wednesday’s news conference, the University of Cincinnati canceled classes and prepared for possible riots—probably remembering what happened 14 years ago. If Cincinnati can solve its police problem, but one rogue officer on a tiny force within the city can bring it back to the brink of riots, it suggests a more systemic overhaul is needed.

Can Schools Integrate When Neighborhoods Do?

SAN FRANCISCO—In recent years, students at Malcolm X Academy in the city’s Bayview section have been coming up with design ideas for a paved pathway that will eventually link their public elementary school to a housing complex that’s under construction nearby. The complex is slated to replace a once-crumbling public housing development that was torn down in 2010.

Some students have asked for benches in the shape of fruits and vegetables; others have requested raised planting beds. All voted for a mural paying homage to national heroes like Rosa Parks and Sonia Sotomayor. Developers who are building the pathway have promised to include some of their ideas in the new structure. 

But having that promise fulfilled isn’t the main objective for child advocates at the nearby Center for Cities and Schools, an urban-planning think tank that has spearheaded the conversation about the pathway in collaboration with a local chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects. “The pathway is a symbol of a larger goal,” said Shirl Buss, the center’s creative director who oversees its elementary-school workshops, helping students connect with the neighborhoods in which they live. “It represents a pathway into the new community.” 

Housed at the University of California at Berkeley, the Center for Cities and Schools spends a lot of its time pressuring local officials to address struggling public schools in their housing-redevelopment projects. And that is exactly what the center is trying to do now with Malcolm X—a small, under-enrolled elementary school in which close to 95 percent of the students come from low-income families and more than four in five children are African American, Hispanic, or Pacific Islander. In 2013, the last year California ranked its schools, Malcolm X performed in the lowest 10 percent of all the state’s schools. If the organization’s work is successful, advocates say, the K-5 school could become a model for a cooperative approach between cities and school districts seeking to overhaul troubled communities.

If the approach doesn’t work, Malcolm X could join a long list of schools that were left to flounder when gentrification came knocking. 

Finding ways to integrate the nation’s most segregated neighborhoods and desegregate its public schools tend to be separate endeavors. The work is generally undertaken by different city agencies, culling from different budgets. And the officials doing the work rarely sit down together to debrief each other on their projects. “School-district planners are not often in communication with developers,” said Heather Schwartz, a policy researcher who specializes in education policy at the RAND Corporation. 

But in recent years, as racial and economic isolation continues to plague American cities, a small group of planners in Maryland’s Montgomery County, Atlanta, St. Louis, and here in San Francisco are working to promote a more cooperative approach. Their motivation stems, in part, from a 2012 report showing that more than 15 percent of the nation’s African American students still attended “apartheid schools,” a term coined by Gary Orfield, the co-director of the Civil Rights project at UCLA, to describe schools in which at least 99 percent of the students are black. The news has given planners a renewed sense of urgency about using neighborhood-integration efforts to bring about school integration. But it’s not clear whether that urgency will translate into progress.

Despite its otherwise picturesque location overlooking San Francisco Bay, drugs and poverty have long plagued the historically black Bayview neighborhood. Many of the residents live in shabbily built public-housing developments, and the crime rate is notoriously high. Because of this, in 2005, officials decided to include the neighborhood in an ambitious redevelopment program.

Broad in scope and utopian in vision, the $2 billion project, known as Hope SF, seeks to desegregate five of San Francisco’s poorest pockets by tearing down federal housing projects and building mixed-income units in their place, which officials hope will bring greater racial and economic balance to the neighborhoods. The plan was undertaken in collaboration with affordable-housing developers and has been celebrated by city and state leaders, along with House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi and the Senator Dianne Feinstein. And while detractors complain that these types of programs sometimes push a community’s original residents out during the construction phase, supporters say it is a way to make good on federal housing goals as laid out in the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which urged communities to do away with segregated public housing. But the program has worried educators and child advocates who want to make sure schools like Malcolm X aren’t left out of the integration process.

The Center for Cities and Schools has worked with an array of stakeholders in an effort to make it a better place for current students and an attractive one for newcomers, many of them middle class and white, who began moving into the nearby apartments in 2013 when the first phase of construction was completed. The final Hope SF project will contain a housing complex with up to 800 units, including 250 public-housing units, some market-rate homes for sale, and some affordable rentals. It already includes attractive walkways, courtyards, a concrete-floored community center, and lots of lighting for evening. Developers say the project will eventually include a store, a daycare center, and several play areas for children.

Carol Galante, a longtime affordable-housing advocate who served as the Federal Housing Administration commissioner in the Obama administration until this year, says the idea behind these types of redevelopment projects is to do something “holistic.” “It’s an opportunity to bring people into the neighborhood and make it better for the people who already live there,” said Galante, now a faculty member at UC Berkeley. 

The school-board member Shamann Walton says these projects are also an opportunity to invest in campuses that are often neglected. “We want to make sure our schools grow and get better with these new developments,” he said, noting that the city is working to integrate schools in other redeveloping communities as well. 

As part of that broader effort, the district has introduced Mandarin-immersion programs and strong science departments, features that are popular with middle-class families, at schools in and around the transforming Bayview neighborhood. One such school is the STEM-focused Willie L. Brown Jr. Middle School, which will open this fall. School officials have tried to encourage middle-class parents to enroll their children at Willie L. Brown by guaranteeing them a slot—a sort of “golden ticket”—into their high school of choice if they attend the school. It’s a big sell in a school district with a highly competitive high-school entrance process. 

Malcolm X, for its part, got a boost a few years ago when the district placed it on a list of schools in need of intensive support. That allowed the district to pump money and resources in, adding a full-time literacy coach and a facilitator to keep track of how students are doing and what strategies are working to keep them on target. In turn, the school hired a new principal and got grant money to purchase new iPads for each classroom. It retooled its reading program to be more appealing to both reluctant and voracious readers and to better serve students at all reading levels. The new system includes book bins inside each classroom, allowing students to choose what they want to read, rather than an all-class system in which everyone reads the same book.

School officials also tried to create a sense of community by instituting features common in upper-middle-class schools, such as nights for games, science activities, and movies, and added a robotics program and a school garden. It even added an outdoor classroom designed by fourth- and fifth-graders, who spent months determining its décor, building planting beds, walkways, and walls, with the help of the National Organization of Minority Architects and the Center for Cities and Schools.

On a recent morning this past spring, 10 fourth-graders were musing over the ideas they had come up with for a playhouse that will accompany the outdoor classroom; some wanted the playhouse to be decorated with large geometric shapes, while others thought it should include thick, painted plywood flowers. There was talk of a superhero theme, and a discussion of flooring options. Buss, with the Center for Cities and Schools, stood by a cardboard panel that incorporated all of the student’s ideas. As they waited to vote, they were given one last chance to promote their proposals. “Do you want to talk about your idea?”  Buss asked a boy sitting at a table near the front of the room. “You’re lobbying for it. Talk it up.” The boy mumbled something nearly inaudible, after which Buss went on to the next student, who wanted to incorporate several themes into one playhouse, a collaborative idea that had been bantered about earlier in the day. “If we do that, we can have a floor,” the girl, Genesis Martinez, said. “And we can put the flowers on the floor.”   

Nearby, in a fifth-grade classroom, the teacher Laura Walker was showing her students a documentary about their historic neighborhood. It was developed in the 1940s during the Great Migration, when African American men flocked to the area with their families to work in the now-defunct naval shipyard. Walker said the film was part of a social-studies unit on migration and exploration, which would include lessons on the Vikings, Christopher Columbus, and the American explorers Lewis and Clark. 

Families whose children attend the school say they have noticed a difference. Lisa Afalava, a mother with a fifth-grader, says Malcolm X offers impressive after-school programs, including Mandarin classes. The school, she says, has worked to improve attendance by offering students awards for coming to school on time, and has created a warm learning environment. “The staff is really passionate about the kids,” she said. Others, like Brenda Rios, whose son graduated from the school and now attends KIPP Bayview Academy, a highly regarded charter nearby, said the staff members excel at helping to place students at good middle schools. 

But Diane Gray, the executive director of the Bayview Association for Youth, which offers academic support to students in the area, says the school needs to do a better job of promoting itself. Gray pointed to other San Francisco schools that she said have been successful in diversifying their populations to reflect their evolving neighborhoods by targeting preschools, looping in middle-class parents, working aggressively with developers, getting their names on brochures and fact-sheets, and encouraging teachers to attend community meetings. “I have no doubt that the same thing can happen here,” she said. “But there has to be a lot of work done on both sides of the fence.”

Across the country, efforts to integrate public schools and keep them integrated have been fraught. Many school districts are finding themselves rapidly resegregating once released from federal desegregation orders put in place in the ‘70s and ‘80s; have dipped back to pre-Civil Rights-era segregation numbers. San Francisco was released from its race-based federal desegregation order in 2001, and though it’s tried to promote more integration with a race-neutral school-choice program, it’s gotten mixed results.

In 2005, the former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom added a new post to his staff: a special advisor to address issues related to education and families. Hydra Mendoza, who has held the post for the past decade, also sits on the school board, working to create collaborations between the city’s housing authority and its school district, keeping key officials apprised of new developments, and telling them about development plans that might present opportunities to improve struggling schools. “We’re building stronger ties between the school district and the city,” she said. 

But no one thinks turning Malcolm X into a coveted school will be easy. The school’s poor academic performance makes it a hard sell to middle-income parents: The number of students proficient in reading dipped from 48 percent to 25 percent between 2011 and 2013, with math proficiency seeing a similar dip. The school lost more than 17 percent of its student body between 2009 and 2014, and according to teachers some of those who remain are homeless or living in unstable conditions. Teachers believe the construction in the neighborhood is partially to blame for the decline in enrollment because it forced some families to relocate. The first-grade teacher Anthony Arinwine says the loss of students and the poor test scores have given the school a branding problem, even with longtime Bayview residents: “It has a lot of reputation to overcome,” he said. 

But for Ray McClenter, who finished fourth grade this spring and recently moved into one of the new Bayview apartments with his family, there is much to be gained if the city can lure newcomers to the struggling school. “If more kids come,” he said, “I can make new friends.” 

The Debate Over Free Community College


New programs in Oregon and Tennessee face praise and scrutiny about which students they actually benefit.

Students watch a physics demonstration at the College of DuPage, a community college in Illinois. COD Newsroom / Flickr

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This fall, Cesar Sanchez, 18, will do something he never thought possible.

He’ll enroll at Southwest Tennessee Community College through a state program called Tennessee Promise, which lets students complete two years of community college at no cost.

“At one point, I didn’t see myself going to college after graduation,” he said. “It made me really happy. It really made me set my mind to a goal and accomplish it.”

While the Obama administration’s proposal to make community college free languishes in the Beltway, several states, including Tennessee, are moving ahead with their own plans to make earning an associate’s degree as standard as a high-school diploma.

National Journal

This month, Oregon Governor Kate Brown signed into law a program that will offer tuition-free community college to the state’s recent high-school graduates. Other states are also exploring the concept.

“Today, we fling wide open the doors of opportunity by expanding access to postsecondary education, the precursor to a better life,” Brown said in a statement after signing the bill.

It might seem surprising that a blue state and a red state are pursuing such similar goals, but demographic similarities between the states provide some clues.

Both Oregon and Tennessee have seen shifting populations in recent decades, with particular increases in the Latino population, according to Census figures. The Pew Research Center names Tennessee as having one of the fastest-growing Latino populations, with growth coming both from immigration and births in the state. The states have higher-than-average poverty levels and lower-than-average median household incomes. Fewer than 30 percent of residents in each state hold a bachelor’s degree, and there are thousands of students who may be interested in college but lack parental guidance and financial support when it comes to navigating the system.

Students like Sanchez see an opportunity to go to college that didn’t exist before.

Raised by a mother who came to the United States from Mexico and didn’t attend college herself, Sanchez said his family had no money to pay for school. “I went through a little stage where I … was kind of feeling down,” he said. “I didn’t know what I was going to do after high school.”

Proponents of the Tennessee and Oregon programs have said offering tuition waivers will help boost college-graduation rates and grow their states’ economies as they adjust to less homogenous populations.

Tennessee’s program is aimed at “workforce and economic development,” said Mike Krause, the executive director of Tennessee Promise. “The hazard is that people see it as [higher-education policy.]”

How to make college affordable is a contentious topic right now, and Tennessee’s Republican governor doesn’t necessarily want to look like he’s getting in line with the White House’s free community-college proposal.

Still, students like Sanchez are not as concerned with how Tennessee Promise is categorized when it launches this year. “I think it’s a really good thing because it helps people like me,” Sanchez said. “It gives them a hope for something.”

High-school seniors in Tennessee are eligible to attend two years of community college at no cost. Unlike the Oregon program, Tennessee’s does not have a minimum GPA requirement, and students are required to perform eight hours of community service and meet with mentors. The Oregon program, meanwhile, is slated to permit students to enroll in community college within six months of graduating from high school. Students must have lived in Oregon for at least a year, have at least a 2.5 high-school GPA and complete a FAFSA, the federal financial-aid application. Oregon officials expect up to 6,000 students to enroll in the 2016-17 school year, when the program is expected to launch.

“I hope opportunities like this create a college-going culture,” said Meghan Moyer, the director of government relations at Portland Community College. Her school expects, she said, to see between 1,200 and 2,000 students enroll per year through the forthcoming program.

But Moyer pointed out that most of her students are older (the average age is 29) and don’t fit the requirements, adding that any student—even one without financial need—could take advantage of the program. “[Portland Community College] would like to see students prioritized who would be unlikely to attend higher education without assistance,” she said.

Michael Horn, the executive director of education at the Clayton Christensen Institute, a think tank that focuses on using “disruptive innovation” to develop solutions for the world’s problems, said his concern with the idea of free community college is that the people who will take advantage of the offer are not the students who most need financial assistance. He’d like to see studies done on other approaches to expanding college access—such as income-sharing, in which a company or other entity pays for a student’s tuition and the graduate pays a percentage of his or her income for a set number of years in exchange, instead.

Mamie Voight, the director of policy research at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, which focuses on ways to expand access to college to underserved students, shares Horn’s concern. Instead of initiatives that make funding available to students who would attend college regardless of the programs, she’d like to see funds directed specifically to low-income students. The programs work by helping fill the gap left after Pell and other grants kick in, and Voight is concerned that someone with a higher income who isn’t eligible for those grants could ultimately receive more money.

But to Krause, the Tennessee program’s director, that mindset “completely fails to account for the catalyzing effect financial aid has.” First-generation college students, he explained, aren’t necessarily familiar with the FAFSA or Pell Grants, or how to get them. Tennessee Promise’s makes it clear that college is an option for everyone, he said, and that there’s a spelled-out pathway for how to achieve it.

“It has the potential to be a game-changer,” said Dwayne Scott, who oversees student services and enrollment at Southwest Tennessee Community College, where Sanchez plans to enroll.

While Scott doesn’t know yet how many students his school will add as a result of the program, he supports the effort. He added that his school hasn’t been tasked with additional work beyond reminding students (in conjunction with the nonprofit Tennessee Achieves, the program’s partner) that they must complete community-service hours and fill out the FAFSA annually.

“I don’t think we make it easy for first-generation students to see themselves in college,” Krause said. “What the Tennessee Promise brings is a clear sense of vision … that you can go tuition-free, you are college material.”

That message appears to be resonating with at least some students in the state. Krause said that 58,000 students, or about 80 percent of public-school seniors, applied, and he expects about 16,000 to actually enroll. Many of those who applied, he said, will likely attend four-year universities instead.

While Krause said figures aren’t yet in on how many of those who signed up are first-generation college students or how many would be unable to attend otherwise, about half are on full Pell Grants, designed to help the nation’s lowest-income students attend college. “We have a range of anecdotal evidence indicating these students are different than the students who would typically enroll,” he said.

Where Obama’s Community-College Plan Falls Short

Krause, who participated in the development of the Oregon program, said the West Coast state isn’t the only one that has reached out: Five others have expressed “serious interest,” while are watching closely as the program gets underway, he said, declining to specify the five. “I would absolutely say this is the beginning of a nationwide conversation about going to community college,” he said.

The momentum comes as President Barack Obama continues to call for free community college nationwide, and 2016 presidential candidates are laying out their own plans to make college more affordable. While Obama outlined a plan in January that’s since been proposed in legislation introduced by several Democratic lawmakers, however, the chances of community colleges nationwide becoming free are slim. The White House has said it would cost the federal government about $60 billion over 10 years, a price tag that Republican lawmakers are reluctant to accept. But if interest in Tennessee’s and Oregon’s programs is any indication, more states may soon draft their own proposals.

Teachers Save Lives in Another Mass Shooting


Besides law-enforcement officials, educators have received some of the best training to handle emergencies like Thursday’s fatal shooting in Lafayette, Louisiana.

Denny Culbert / AP

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When discussing the movie theater shooting Thursday in Lafayette, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal recounted his conversation with one of two teachers who were in the audience when the gunfire broke out:

“Her friend literally jumped over her,” Jindal said from the scene. “If her friend hadn’t done that, she believed the bullet would have hit her in the head.”

Instead, the bullet struck the second teacher in the leg. But despite that injury, she was able to reach a fire alarm in the theater and pull it. Two people died in the shooting, and the gunman then reportedly killed himself. Nine other people were injured, including one person in critical condition, according to news reports.

“When you think about ittwo friends togetherone jumps in the way of a bullet to save her friend’s life,” Jindal told reporters. “The other, even though she was shot in the leg, she had the presence of mind to pull the fire alarm and in the process saved other people’s lives.”

It would be tough to find a group of professionalsoutside of law enforcementmore keenly aware of the potential threat of an active shooter. In the aftermath of tragedies like Sandy Hook, learning to respond to such scenarios is now a regular part of staff training at all levels, from the bus drivers to the classroom teachers and administrators.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, offered this statement about the Lafayette shooting:

Teachers are everyday heroes who are well-trained to make a difference in the lives of their students. Teachers naturally have the instinct deep down in their souls to help others. We saw that in the Newtown, Connecticut, massacre and again last night in Lafayette. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families of those who were killed and to those injured. But more than thoughts and prayers, let us take action to curb gun violence and end these mass shootings for once and for all.

There are a few things to keep in mind about how schools are preparing for worst-case scenarios. First off, the decades-old approach of “shelter in place”—in which people were told to hide, stay quiet, and wait for help—is no longer the default response.

Indeed, the change has been building for at least several years. In a 2013 interview, Victor Herbert, a veteran educator and the director of the Academy for Critical Incident Analysis at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told me that “What I’m hearing is people being told to be prepared to fight rather than simply hide—that represents a real change in the advice … People in schools had been told to put the lights out, lock the door, and hope for the best.”

When Schools Simulate Mass Shootings

Some school districts are adopting a protocol known as ALICE—Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Confront, Evacuate—in which staff are trained to take more decisive action to defend against an intruder. ALICE training “does not believe that actively confronting a violent intruder is the best method for ensuring the safety of all involved, whether in a school, a hospital, a business, or a church,” according to the organization’s website. Rather, those are “last-ditch efforts” that should follow steps to hide or escape.

In one Alabama school using the ALICE model, a letter from the principal—which asked parents to donate canned goods that could be thrown at a classroom intruder—was deemed so preposterous it earned an entry on the popular Snopes.com website, which debunks Internet myths. (Snopes reported the letter was, in fact, true.)

It’s worth noting that the FBI’s recommendations for the public response to an “active shooter” scenario are not inconsistent with the ALICE approach: Run, hide, and, as a last resort, fight. Of course, developing more effective means of responding to an active shooter, whether it’s in a school, a movie theater, or a church, doesn’t address some of the preventative measures being recommended.

The untreated mental illness of the Sandy Hook shooter was a significant factor in the massacre, according to a report by the Connecticut Attorney General investigating the December 2012 incident, which left 26 people dead, including 20 first-graders.

Taking a more preventative approach is something that has strong public support: In a 2013 Gallup Poll, Americans favored increasing mental-health services over hiring more security guards as a means of improving school safety, and rejected the idea of arming educators. In the meantime, the reported bravery of the teacher in the Lafayette movie theater builds a strong case for the merits of being prepared for what were once considered unimaginable scenarios.

This post appears courtesy of the Education Writers Association.

Why Schools Over-Discipline Children With Disabilities


Despite the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act 25 years ago, students with disabilities are still punished at disproportionate rates.

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A quarter-century ago, on July 26, 1990, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act to give people with disabilities equal access to services like public education. But the rate at which special-needs students are disciplined raises questions about how equal that access truly is. In public schools today, children with disabilities are far more likely than their classmates to be disciplined, removed from the classroom, suspended, and even expelled.

A report by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project released earlier this year found that just over 5 percent of elementary-school children with disabilities were suspended during the 2011-12 school year, more than double the overall suspension rate. Among secondary-school students, 18 percent of kids with disabilities were suspended, versus 10 percent overall. Even more striking, a third of all K-12 children with emotional disabilities—such as anxiety or obsessive compulsive disorder—were suspended at least once, according to Daniel Losen, the lead author of the UCLA report.

These discrepancies amount to what some researchers and advocates call “the discipline gap,” and it potentially matters for tens of millions of K-12 students with conditions such as oppositional defiant disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, and depression. These are often kids who can’t sit still, who challenge their teachers, or who struggle with social interactions, among other behavioral challenges—all of which can look like deliberate misbehavior or defiance and, in turn, lead to disciplinary action. The disparity widens when race is added to the mix: More than one in four black boys and one in five black girls with disabilities will be suspended in a given school year, according to Department of Education data.

In addition to suspension, disciplinary policies can include having a child sent to the principal’s office,  barred from recess, or verbally scolded. And in some cases—typically ones involving uncooperative students with severe behavioral challenges, such as those with autism, and educators who aren’t trained in proper protocol—kids are pinned down or isolated against their will, a practice known as restraint and seclusion. A 2014 Propublica investigation of federal data found that restraint and seclusion was used more than 267,000 times nationwide in the 2012 school year, and that three-quarters of the students restrained—often by being tied up or strapped to a chair with materials such as bungee cords and duct tape—had physical, emotional, or intellectual disabilities. Some school officials say these practices are a necessary last resort to protect other students’ and teachers’ safety. Nonetheless, they have resulted in injuries ranging from bloody noses to broken bones—and at least 20 deaths as of 2009, according to a Government Accountability Office report cited by Propublica. Yet as of last year, only about half of states had laws prohibiting schools from using restraint.

Not only does this disciplinary imbalance appear to run counter to the law, it also seems to challenge some of America’s core values: that all people are born equal and that anyone can succeed with hard work and determination. “You can’t shun or banish kids with disabilities from public education,” Losen said. “It’s so detrimental to our society as a whole, for economic reasons as well as for our understanding of how all sorts of people can be successful. To be persisting in 2015 with policies and practices which we recognized were so undemocratic and contrary to our values as a nation in the ‘60s is very upsetting.”

The White House spotlighted punitive discipline this week, coincidentally coinciding with the ADA’s anniversary, in a gathering of educators, policymakers, and nonprofit leaders. They discussed how each suspension increases a child’s odds of becoming delinquent, abusing substances, connecting with gangs, dropping out, and falling into the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Studies have found that just one suspension makes a kid three times more likely to be involved with juvenile justice in the following year, and more than twice as likely to drop out of school. These outcomes can come with severe and long-term implications given the connections between dropping out and incarceration, and perhaps even, according to a recent study, premature death. The dire situation has prompted an Obama-administration initiative to improve “school climate” and efforts in some large, urban school districts, such as Los Angeles, to ban suspensions for non-violent offenses.

The Racial Imbalances of Special Education

Why are more than 3 million children suspended nationwide annually, despite scant scientific evidence that removing children from the classroom improves their behavior or learning? Some educators have told me they feel they have no other option when children are misbehaving, regardless of whether their acting out stems from an underlying learning or emotional disability. With strained resources, large classes, and the placement of special-needs children in mainstream classrooms, teachers feel poorly equipped to manage the kids who are especially challenging or uncooperative; some assume that any non-punitive models of school discipline will demand too much money and time. So they fall back on punishment as a reflex.

Cinthia Randolph, an office manager in Redding, California, was shocked when her son’s fifth-grade teacher regularly disciplined him by making him stand outdoors, unsupervised, even in the coldest winter days—simply because, according to Randolph, he would get out of his seat or talk when he wasn’t supposed to. “By November or December I figured out he was spending an average of an hour a day outside the classroom,” Randolph said in a phone interview. “He missed a lot in math.”

But education reformers are promoting new discipline methods that they say nudge even the most-challenging students onto the right path without a school official having to yell, use threats, or resort to suspension. The models vary district to district, but what they tend to have in common is an understanding that educators should look beyond a child’s actions to address the root causes of misbehavior, rather than labeling the student as a problem. Whether or not a child has a diagnosed disability, the issue may be a learning struggle that makes the student embarrassed or resistant to beginning an assignment. Or it could be an undiagnosed emotional or neurological condition. Discipline can be especially challenging when it comes to preschoolers, who are just becoming accustomed to a school environment and are more likely to have undiagnosed disabilities. The Justice Department in March released the first-ever report on the thousands of children suspended from preschool each year, some of them multiple times.

At the White House event, which featured new discipline guidelines and other resources for educators, a teacher Juan Govea said his Salinas, California, high school cut suspensions by 70 percent through “positive behavioral interventions and support,” or PBIS, giving students the kind of acceptance they may have otherwise sought in gangs. In PBIS, which is one of the most studied and validated new discipline models being used in schools, educators are expected to teach kids both appropriate behavior and the consequences for inappropriate behavior, acknowledging when students follow the rules, whether with kudos from a teacher or a reward such as quarterly lunch with the principal.

Broward County School Superintendent Robert Runcie, for example, said his Florida district (which is one of the country’s largest) saw a dramatic drop in student arrests and suspensions after implementing its new disciplinary program. The initiative, he said, focuses on giving students support, including by pairing each student with a caseworker who follows up with the kid over the course of as many as four months after a suspension. More than 90 percent of students didn’t commit a second offense, according to Runcie, who attributed the strides to the district’s move away from punitive discipline. “It’s about changing the culture; it’s about changing beliefs,” Runcie said.

Indeed, “beliefs”—or flawed assumptions about the realities of school discipline—may be the biggest obstacle to disrupting the status quo. Some critics, for instance, have dismissed these more progressive models as impractical and too expensive. But it could be a worthy investment. One Maine school I recently wrote about used a $10,000 grant to implement school-wide collaborative discipline. That’s pennies compared to what it costs annually to incarcerate a young person in the same state: $224,960, according to a Justice Policy Institute report that estimates it costs $8 billion a year to incarcerate young people nationwide.

Meanwhile, some skeptics of non-punitive discipline argue that schools put safety at risk by eschewing harsh punishment. Yet data from a handful of existing programs suggests that these approaches can actually improve safety. After the Meridian Public School District in Mississippi implemented a new positive model, for example, suspensions and expulsions dropped by 50 percent, while 85 percent of students and teachers surveyed said they felt safer, said Vanita Gupta, a U.S. Justice Department civil-rights lawyer, at the White House event.

Schools that fall short of their legal obligation to provide equal access to students could face lawsuits. The Obama administration last January released guidelines detailing how school districts should address educational disparities based on race, which serve as both a resource for schools looking to improve their practices and a basis for legal action on all issues involving unequal educational opportunity. Some school districts are already taking action. In Syracuse, for instance, a New York state attorney general investigation of unequal suspensions forced the city’s school system to change its discipline practices, under the oversight of an independent monitor. The education department is currently developing similar guidance on disabilities.

And according to Losen, that’s sure to bolster the already-growing interest among government officials, educators, and advocates in closing the gaps. “It’s both race and disability—often it’s black students with disabilities,” he said. “The confluence of race and disability is getting more attention.”

What Does It Mean to Have ‘Grit’ in the Classroom?


By learning how to persevere and change course, students learn how to push themselves.

A middle-school student reads test questions in Annapolis, Maryland. Patrick Semansky / AP

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Nestled within the New-Age-y sounding concept of “noncognitive factors” are fairly concrete examples of what parents and educators should and shouldn’t do to prepare students for the rigors of college and their careers. Gleaned from research into brain development and human behavior, a toolkit is emerging on how to best respond to and encourage students’ grit, persistence, and the ability to learn from one’s mistakes.

If done right, the use of these concepts could change the classroom in significant ways. Students could see far fewer quizzes and tests. Teachers would follow students’ progress at a much more customized level to quickly identify where they are struggling, offering aid that is better targeted. Short tutorials designed to boost motivation and resilience could accompany the students’ math and reading lessons.

But, before exploring what classrooms that are focused on noncognitive factors might look like, how about a definition for the term itself?

“If we think of noncognitive factors as all of the things that are not just content knowledge and academic skills that go into academic performance, then really we’re talking about psychological factors, emotional factors, social factors” as well other aspects that determine how a student learns, explained Camille Farrington, a leading scholar on noncognitive factors who’s based at the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research. “A teacher who knows that all of that stuff is contributing to a young person’s ability to pay attention, to get involved, to get engaged, and think about what they are learningthat’s what we’re talking about when we talk about noncognitive factors.”

To take a page from Julia Child’s editor, these factors can be described as the art of learning—the technique and finesse a student uses when handling the challenges of receiving new, complex information.

Teachers and parents can play an important role in helping students recognize that learning is not just about the end goal, but a process that is valuable in its own right, too. The Atlantic’s James Hamblin highlights one crucial lever that puts that self-awareness into motion:

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.

Rewarding learners on effort rather than accomplishment stimulates a host of cognitive signals that can have the effect of strengthening their resolve. Tell a student she’s smart, and you run the risk of crimping her ambition to tackle more challenging tasks down the road; laud her for the time and energy she expended, and the link between effort and positive outcomes grows stronger. “To be successful, students must choose to learn and persist when learning is challenging,” said Dave Paunesku, the cofounder of a research lab at Stanford University that’s putting into practice the research on noncognitive qualities like persistence and learning from failure, at a seminar for education journalists last year.

Rewarding a child for her smarts can sometimes result in a counterproductive attitude researchers refer to as a “fixed mindset.” Studies show that having a fixed mindset—believing that there’s such a thing as being “no good at math,” for example—can block students’ faith that they can learn. If a concept isn’t immediately understood, the student with a fixed mindset essentially resists applying the new efforts required to comprehend the material.

One such study measured the brain activity of learners with a fixed mindset versus those with its opposite: the “growth mindset”—the belief that challenging concepts can be learned over time. Participants wore an EEG cap so that researchers could study their brain activity when they were asked trivia questions. Both types of learners’ brains were equally active when they were told whether they gave the right or wrong answers. However, the researchers found that growth mindset learners displayed more brain activity when they were given the correct answer. The fixed mindset participants “tuned out,” as a Stanford University summary of the experiment puts it, when they were confronted with an opportunity to learn from their mistakes.

In another experiment, researchers issued a test with difficult questions. The researchers then told all the participants they performed poorly on the test, and gave them the option of reviewing the results of participants who did well and those who scored poorly. The growth mindset participants opted for the higher-scoring assessments, while the fixed mindset group gravitated toward the scores that were lower than their own, suggesting that they wanted to feel better about their own lackluster performances.

100 Percent Is Overrated

Other studies point to students improving from a C to C+ in math the more they demonstrated a growth mindset compared to similar students with fixed mindsets. One experiment taught a set of students that the brain is malleable, and that the more the brain is exercised, the stronger the neural links become—a key component to boosting smarts. Across the school year, that short lesson made the difference between a high C average and a low C average in math compared to students not exposed to the tutorial. Researchers say these and similar experiments make the case that classrooms should change to teach in ways that help students develop positive mindsets.

Farrington, the University of Chicago researcher, said student grades should be based more on what they know at the end of the course rather than the interim tests and quizzes that comprise a large percentage of their overall grades. She would like to see more schools assign students multi-month projects where students can learn from their mistakes without compromising their overall grades.

“I am a big fan of feedback, detailed feedback, and early feedback. A grade is not necessarily that helpful in terms of early feedback because all it tells you is where you fail in terms of the expectation,” Farrington said. “It doesn’t necessarily tell you what you need to do, or what part of your work needs to improve.”

In fact, a growing number of education researchers say low early grades shake the confidence of students who are at risk of giving up. The researchers also contend that the low grades punish students who require more time to learn new content because their overall grade average doesn’t reflect the knowledge they’ve actually acquired by the end.

That critique on grades fits into a larger criticism of how schools are structured. Some schools that are adopting these techniques are attempting to foster more collaboration among single-subject teachers so that subjects are interrelated rather than what they tend to look like now: hermit kingdoms of content. Another effort gaining traction is better record-keeping of where students are falling behind within a specific subject. “A really common thing is that a student will fail a semester, then is asked to repeat the entire semester when they might have mastered a big chunk of the work,” Farrington said. “We don’t keep track of what they’ve actually done or haven’t learned. We say, ‘Hey just start it over, and try and pass the class.’”

The body of research on noncognitive factors has its detractors. Some argue the research tries to explain away the effects of poverty or the systemic injustices that can disproportionately affect black, Latino, and low-income students. Other critics deride the research community for proffering school-reform nostrums, turning attention away from efforts like equitable school funding.

Journalists who cover this field often hear those criticisms. Katrina Schwartz, a reporter at KQED in San Francisco, said in an interview that teachers gripe about how some schools buy into the “narrative of grit” at the expense of examining student experiences outside the classroom. “We’re going to say the girl who turns in her homework every day is super gritty, because she is persisting through this boring homework, and she is going to do well in school,” Schwartz cited as an example. Meanwhile, some educators don’t recognize the grit of a student “who had a lot of challenges outside of the classroom, [who] is often demonstrating a lot of grit in terms of even getting to school or doing anything connected to their academics when they’re trying to help their family or take care of their siblings,” Schwartz said.

Evie Blad, a reporter at Education Week who covers this field, is also mindful of the grit narrative’s critics. “If you go to a high-poverty school, and they are doing nothing to acknowledge or remediate some of the systemic problems that maybe are affecting their students, they’re sitting in classrooms drilling them on grit, then that’s probably something that the [reporter would] want to pick up on in a story.”

In some cases, schools may just miss the point of grit. Schwartz said that some teachers or school leaders view grit as conformity. “Grit means you turn in your homework, you take these tests, you fill out these work sheets,” Schwartz said. “You do exactly how I tell you to do it and you sit still while you’re doing it.” And much of the lessons learned from concepts like grit and perseverance require significant student buy-in.

The scholars on grit, persistence, and mindsets are aware of the pushback. “We’re terrified as a field,” David Yeager, a researcher at Stanford and University of Texas at Austin who focuses on academic mindsets, said at last year’s journalism conference. He acknowledged the risk of the research being overhyped and told journalists that he and his colleagues are policing their own studies against misuse. He recently published a paper with Angela Duckworth, the University of Pennsylvania scholar most associated with grit research, that warned against linking measurements of grit to teacher evaluations.

“Mindset interventions are not a replacement for addressing root problems in schools or society, such as poor teaching or the widespread and brutal effects of poverty and bias,” Yeager and two of his colleagues wrote last year. “Children will always need safety, security, and adequate resources at home and in school.”

This post appears courtesy of the Education Writers Association.