No Child Left Behind’s One Big Achievement?


Some advocates say the notorious law actually improved outcomes for special-ed students—and they fear that Congress’s rewrites to the law could put an end to that progress.

A Chicago mother holds the hand of her 4-year-old son, who has special needs. Martha Irvine / AP

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Nearly two decades ago, when Ricki Sabia insisted her 5-year-old son could read, his public-school teachers didn’t believe her. He didn’t have a clear reading voice, Sabia explained, so they couldn’t understand him. “His expressive-language issues were a big barrier and caused inappropriately low expectations,” said Sabia, whose son, Steve, has Down syndrome. “It wasn’t until he started taking state assessments and far exceeding expectations that they started to take my observations about his abilities seriously and stopped trying to get him into special-ed classes.”

Sabia, a policy advisor for the National Down Syndrome Congress, is among the many disabilities advocates who are disappointed with Congress’s proposed rewrites of the law now known as No Child Left Behind, including the Senate’s widely touted Every Child Achieves Act. That’s because both the Senate and House versions, as they currently stand, would weaken federal provisions meant to track the academic progress of students with disabilities. These are students who, according to official data, account for 13 percent of America’s schoolchildren—and they are a diverse group. They may have physical impairments, such as hearing or visual defects; emotional challenges; or—accounting for the largest percentage of special-needs students—learning disabilities, which can range from mild processing disorders and dyslexia to severe autism.

The new bills—which still must be reconciled and signed by the president—would update the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the law on which No Child Left Behind is based. In part because of a burst of anti-federalism propelled by an unpredictable alliance of small-government conservatives, educators alarmed at the time annual tests take from other teaching, and anti-testing parents, the bills don’t prescribe any consequences for failing to comply with strict accountability provisions such as test-score benchmarks; those parameters would be up to individual states.

The prospective law would likely retain the same general testing requirements, but it could give schools and states more leeway to determine which students take the tests—and thus determine a school’s compliance with the state-determined accountability measures. Under No Child Left Behind, any school that didn’t test at least 95 percent of its students—and 95 percent of students in specific subgroups, such as minorities, English language learners, and special-needs children—faced severe sanctions, such as staff dismissals.

That 95-percent rule would probably stay in place, too, but amendments have been proposed on both the Senate and House versions that would essentially offer more flexibility to schools if parents decide to opt their kids out of tests. The Senate’s amendment would make it clear that the federal law wouldn’t supersede any local or state policies regarding parental opt-outs. That, in the House, would ensure schools aren’t penalized if opt-outs pull the test-taking rate below that 95 percent threshold—a move that opt-out advocates such as Diane Ravitch, the scholar and renowned education-policy analyst, are celebrating.

* * *

Despite the sustained backlash against testing in communities from New York to Seattle, a sizable faction of parents and disabilities groups see the two proposals as a step backwards. Critics say the prospective amendments could create loopholes in which schools allow, or even encourage, parents of special-needs children and other struggling students to opt them out of testing. Strict federal mandates involving both testing and penalties for schools that don’t include students with disabilities, critics argue, ensure all kids are getting access to the mainstream curriculum alongside their general-education peers.

Fundamentally, the problem that students with disabilities face in schools is that people have such low expectations for what they can achieve,” said Barbara Trader, the executive director of TASH, a prominent disabilities advocacy group. In being able to see how special-needs students’ test scores stack up against those of all their peers, teachers and parents can get an idea of how well or poorly special-education students are performing or being integrated into the general-education classroom, according to Trader. “It’s that ability to be held publicly accountable that allows parents and other stakeholders to ask questions.”

That’s not to say there’s consensus on the merits of No Child Left Behind for special-needs students. While disabilities advocacy organizations joined the NAACP and other civil-rights organizations earlier this year in urging Congress to keep those rigorous provisions, another faction of special-education teachers and researchers has long argued that annual testing harms students with emotional and learning disabilities.

Bianca Tanis, a special-education teacher in New York, says she’s witnessed children break down in tears—with one even banging his head on the table—during the standardized testing required by the current law. Determining if a student is learning solely based on test scores seems to be counter to the idea of inclusion, she argued. “One of the hallmarks of a child with a developmental or cognitive disability is that they don’t learn at the same pace [as their peers],” she said, referencing a term commonly used to describe reform-driven testing: “one size fits all.”

Rachel Lambert, an education professor at Chapman University, studied a New York City classroom for a year and witnessed a special-education student go from a top-performing math student to one of the least proficient when test prep time rolled around. “High-stakes testing narrows the curriculum for kids with disabilities. One test score is not enough information to educate that kid,” said Lambert, whose research on special-needs students and testing will be published in a forthcoming special issue of Teachers College Record, a leading academic journal.

Lots of educators are optimistic about the rewrites because they may take the classroom focus off test prep. The problem is that the inferior, blunt state-level tests don’t deliver any kind of nuanced diagnostic assessment for any learner,” said Celia Oyler, an education professor at Columbia’s Teachers College, echoing disabilities advocates in noting that exclusion from the general-education classroom is an ongoing problem. But, she added, “the problem is access to the curriculum. The solution that some of these groups have hit on is the wrong solution.”

* * *

In 2001, No Child Left Behind famously ushered in the era of what George W. Bush often described as “high expectations.” The new policy required states to give rigorous annual tests to students in certain grades, provide specific reports on the test scores of historically underserved groups, and demonstrate that these students were progressing each year. (In edu-speak, students needed to achieve designated benchmarks known as AYP, or adequate yearly progress.)

The recent opt-out trend—in which thousands of (largely middle-class) parents and their children have boycotted new standardized exams—is in large part a reflection of how strenuous those mandates became. But some say it’s a double-edged sword in that it may be unintentionally undermining other kids’ achievement by depriving schools of specific test-score data needed to gauge the progress of student subgroups.

For some advocates, No Child Left Behind marked a new chapter in which kids with disabilities counted. Since 1990, the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) has required that students with disabilities be included in the “least restrictive environment”—that is, general-education classrooms—whenever possible. Later, No Child Left Behind, by stipulating transparency and sanctions for schools that failed to boost disadvantaged students’ achievement, served to measure whether IDEA was being put into action: whether disabled students were getting access to mainstream curricula and the tools they needed to master them. For the first time, “[special-education students] were part of the system and there would be interventions unless academic achievement improved,” said Andy Smarick of the nonprofit education consulting firm Bellwether Education Partners.

Now, disabilities advocates worry that the new proposals’ opt-out amendments—along with the ability of states to determine the consequences for schools that fail to comply with testing expectations—could allow schools to slide back into the ‘70s, when students with disabilities were often warehoused in special rooms and only one-fifth received a public education.  (Some might recall the reporter Geraldo Rivera’s famous 1972 expose of New York’s Willowbrook School, which reveals students naked, some in their own filth, with overwhelmed aides and no instruction.) In some states and districts, that era may have never come to a close: Last week, the Department of Justice issued a letter to Georgia alleging that the state was violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by “unnecessarily segregating students with disabilities from their peers.”

Could the new law mean students with special needs may, once again, all but disappear on test days and end up back in their segregated learning environments? Pre-No Child Left Behind, some advocates argue, special-needs students were often asked to stay home or sit the test out, because it didn’t matter what percentage of them participated in the assessment.

These days, under federal law, students with disabilities get access to the general curriculum rather than, say, “life skills” classes. A blind student today needs a book in Braille, not a separate school; a student with an emotional disorder may require an aid in the same classroom, but while doing the same projects as his peers.

Life After No Child Left Behind

Candace Cortiella of The Advocacy Institute, a nonprofit focused on special-education rights, fears that the potential loopholes in the new law could mean those students would be again relegated to second-rate educations. Cortiella said she and her colleagues are “disappointed” with the bills because they lack “any kind of real provision that require specific intervention activity to take place in low-performing schools.” If schools know they can let students with disabilities slide academically or exclude some lower-performing special education students from their overall testing data, perhaps they wouldn’t make an effort to integrate them with their better-performing peers.

Research shows that the outcomes of special-needs students have improved dramatically in the years since No Child Left Behind was implemented, and while it’s unclear how much of a role the law played in that trend, some data suggests that its rigorous accountability provisions may have been a factor. A study published earlier this year by the American Institutes for Research suggests that when states are subject to strict accountability provisions for students with disabilities, those students are transferred from special-education tracks into mainstream classrooms at higher rates. The last decade has seen an increasing number of special-education students graduate from high school: 68 percent received diplomas in 2011, compared to 57 percent in 2002, and the dropout rate has nearly been cut in half to just 19 percent. Meanwhile, 95 percent of students with disabilities are now educated in regular schools, compared to 20 percent in 1970. “We have so much history of how all these sub-groups are treated,” said Trader of TASH. “If the federal government does not have a role it will get worse.”

Today, Sabia’s son is 23 and has taken community-college classes. While he never scored “proficient” on Maryland exams, according to Sabia, he improved each year and was eventually included in general-education classrooms. “He never would have been this successful without strong academic skills and the confidence that comes with being integrated in all aspects of life, including general-education classrooms,” she said.

States are poised to regain a say over schools’ expectations, and to take a stance on the merits of high-stakes testing. Yet if states ignore the potential of a child with Down’s Syndrome to read, or fail to provide a child who cannot speak with technological aids so she can demonstrate her intellect, it may come to the feds again—this time through lawsuits.

What About the Math Olympians?

For the first time in more than two decades, a team of American high-school students won the International Mathematical Olympiad, a feat that drew comparisons to the U.S. Hockey team’s “Miracle on Ice” in 1980.

When the individual math scores of the six American teens were combined for the team total, the United States took gold with a score of 185. China was second (181 points) and South Korea placed third (161 points).

If you’re wondering how challenging the questions are for the competitors, representing 100 countries and all seven continents, consider this: Over the course of two days each student works on a total of just three math problems. The questions include a challenging mix of algebraic equations, geometry, and number theory. Here’s one example from last year’s olympiad:

International Mathematical Olympiad

Students from this year’s silver- and bronze-medalist countries routinely outscore their American peers overall on international math assessments. (When their performance is pulled out from the national average, groups of U.S. students in Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Vermont scored closer to academic powerhouses like Finland or Japan on recent international comparisons in both science and math, although they still ranked below Shanghai and South Korea.)

The 2015 U.S.A. Mathematical Olympiad winners (Mathematical Association of America / Flickr)

U.S. students are improving over time, according to these international assessments, but other countries are gaining faster and posting higher overall scores, keeping America’s ranking closer to the middle than the top. (What might the impact be if the nation’s young academic superstars were celebrated on par with their sports counterparts?)

There’s another gap the United States is trying to close: getting more girls interested in higher-level mathematics, with a goal of steering them to the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

The team members for the international event are selected through a series of competitions sponsored by the Mathematical Association of America. Po-Shen Loh, the head coach of the U.S. team and a math professor at Carnegie Mellon University, pointed out to NPR that there were two girls who scored in the top 12 of the U.S. Math Olympiad team this year. “That is actually something that one hopes will change,” Loh told NPR. “One might say, ‘Only 2 out of 12, that’s terrible.’ But I should say in many years, it was, unfortunately, zero.”

When bragging rights to being the world’s best math students are at stake, it might seem like fertile ground for bitter rivalries among nations. But Loh told The Washington Post that’s not the case:

It’s the exact opposite of backstabbing. The coaches are always the same. We are all friends. It’s very collegial. We are essentially going after the same goal, which is to drive the whole world up …

At the end of the day, the talent flow goes in many directions. For example, many of the top students come to the United States to go to university. So we are all the beneficiary.”

Indeed, U.S. institutions of higher education continue to soar in popularity among international students, particularly from Asian nations. That growth actually has some colleges and universities rethinking everything from admittance policies to programs and services.

The Christian Science Monitor wondered whether the victory at the olympiad in Thailand last week is evidence that U.S. math education is improving. I’d argue that’s a heavy laurel wreath to bestow without further evidence. What is known about how the winning team members were educated? Where did they acquire the foundational skills that are the essential preparation for higher-level math? What methods did their teachers use? Are there lessons to be shared amid the growing acknowledgment in U.S. education circles that teaching and learning math is more than mastering the numbers?

Those questions aside, the accomplishment of the U.S. team deserves to be heralded. Still, as Paige Kowalski of the Data Quality Campaign noted on Twitter, America’s “mathletes” unfortunately shouldn’t expect much in the way of public adoration:

This post appears courtesy of the Education Writers Association.

Is Silicon Valley Driving Teachers Out?

SANTA CLARA, Calif.—Skyrocketing housing prices in Silicon Valley, the country’s hub of tech entrepreneurship and one of the most highly educated enclaves in the world, are making it hard for teachers to call the area home.

“Housing is one of the biggest reasons we lose teachers from one year to the next,” said Dave Villafana, the president of the teachers union in Cupertino, Apple’s hometown. “They can’t afford a house, and rent is prohibitive as well.”

Villafana, who has taught in Cupertino for 28 years, said that for the last 15 years district teachers have increasingly had to live elsewhere—often a 45- to 65-minute commute away on the area’s clogged freeways—in order to afford rent. Owning a home, he said, is “not even a thought.”

“In Silicon Valley now [the problem]—for working-class or middle-class professionals—is that a single-family home is just not a reality for them and it probably won’t be,” said Chris Isaacson, the president of the Silicon Valley Association of Realtors.

In Cupertino, the median price of a single-family home was $1.8 million in May, according to data pulled by the Silicon Valley Association of Realtors from the MLS database, the most up-to-date source of information on home prices. In nearby Mountain View, where the Googlers work, the median price was also $1.8 million.

And seldom are these single-family properties giant suburban homes. The average size of homes sold in Cupertino and Mountain View last month hovered around 2,000 square feet, meaning that each square foot costs more than $900, a price that rivals those found in New York City. And with regard to the teaching force, trends in Silicon Valley are especially noteworthy because of how quickly things are shifting there and how little recourse modestly paid educators have when it comes to living comfortably; the housing and rental market in the Big Apple is extremely different from that in California’s sprawling tech hub. For one, it has far more housing stock, as well as more varied pricing and easier access—by foot and public transit—to cultural and commercial venues. While New York’s rental market has been famously difficult for at least a century, that in Silicon Valley is only now heating up, at breakneck speed, with no sign of slowing.

For many residents of the Valley, for which Santa Clara County is the closest geographical proxy, owning a house remains a possibility despite the gargantuan price tags—because salaries here have risen, too. The county ranked in the top 20 for median household income in 2012, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. And recent five-year estimates from the bureau put the median at $91,702.

Median Home Prices in Silicon Valley (2014)

MLSListings / Silicon Valley Association of Realtors / Sarah Butrymowicz

Many of the young workers flocking here quickly surpass that income as soon as they arrive; the San Jose-Santa Clara-Sunnyvale metro area has the second-highest concentration in the country of people earning salaries in the top 5 percent. Various data sources suggest that a new engineer can expect to command a salary of more than $100,000 within a few years here. Add bonuses and stock options, and those salaries can quickly soar toward $200,000 for an engineer in his or her mid-30s or early-40s. Still, despite the high earnings, most of their children appear to attend public schools: Close to 86 percent of school-aged children in Santa Clara County, for example, attend public school, according to the site Private School Review.

Meanwhile, public-school teachers, like other civil servants, are paid based on available state funding, local property taxes, and political will—not the market. They are lucky to hit the regional median in a lifetime, let alone early enough to build the equity needed to buy a home in a boom market. An examination of area salary schedules shows that most teachers working in the 31 school districts serving children in Santa Clara County’s 15 cities earn salaries ranging from about $45,000 to $105,000 depending on education, experience, and the district in which they are employed. 

Those salaries simply don’t compare with what teachers’ neighbors can earn working for tech companies—let alone help those teachers buy homes in the communities they serve. The spiking cost of housing in the area has not gone unnoticedit’s probably the best reliable small talk conversation in the Valleybut the effect that spike is having on teachers seems to have received little direct attention. So, despite the famous ingenuity of the tech entrepreneurs who live here, there’s no clear resolution to the looming teacher housing crisis.

* * *

How the headquarters of the world’s technological-innovation economy got so behind on housing is something like the case of the frog in the slowly boiling pot of water: Many small factors added up to a glaring problem before anyone noticed.

Californians have long been reluctant to build densely, which has resulted in a shortage of housing stock and, in turn, higher prices, according to a recent report on housing costs by the California Legislative Analyst’s Office. Some observers say earthquake safety and environmental regulations, among other policies, have also hindered new construction. Between 1980 and 2010, the number of new housing units in a typical U.S. metro area grew by 54 percent, according to the report. In the San Francisco metro area, the number of new housing units grew by only 20 percent.

Still, these days, the population in Silicon Valley is booming. New jobs are plentiful, and economists are predicting continued growth based on the stable business models of some of the area’s largest companies; an equalizing bust is unlikely. “We don’t have the inventory, and we have so many people [and money] coming here … that I don’t see a significant dip in prices coming,” said Nancy Stuhr, a real-estate agent with Coldwell Banker who has sold houses in the area for 25 years. 

Silicon Valley also boasts some of the best public schools in the state, at least according to English and math standardized test scores, and its highly educated residents are often willing to pay top dollar to live within the best districts. School ratings are routinely included in marketing materials of homes for sale, said Isaacson of the Silicon Valley Realtors Association. “Many people have decided which school they want before they start looking” to buy a house, she said.

Mai Nguyen, a stay-at-home mother of two with a husband who works in tech, said they moved to a small house in the Cupertino Union School District to send their children to a Mandarin-immersion program. “That was the reason why we got the house, because of the school district,” Nguyen said. “It’s a really old house, and the price is higher than other places, but because of the school district, we decided to get it. I do wish they would retain good teachers.”

But the state’s school-financing policy could work against Nguyen and other parents like her. A state law from the late 1970s limits property taxes, a main source of school funding, placing California at the bottom of the national education spending list and making large raises for teachers unfeasible. It’s worth noting that 14 of the 31 Santa Clara County school districts have local property taxes that are high enough to qualify them as “basic aid” districts, which receive only minimal funding from the state and are therefore solely responsible for their teachers’ salaries. (Cupertino is not a basic-aid district.)

Some policy developments and other initiatives, however, suggest that solutions to the problem are possible. In June, the California Supreme Court upheld a City of San Jose law requiring that developers price 15 percent of new units affordably for people earning 110 percent or less of the neighborhood’s median income. Similar laws—as well as fees for building new housing, which are then used to support affordable housingare on the books in nearby towns as well, though teachers often make too much to qualify for official affordable-housing benefits. And earlier this month, SV@Home, a new advocacy organization with backing from Google and LinkedIn, opened its doors with the objective of expanding affordable housing in Silicon Valley.

But these latest developments have focused on the affordability of housing more generally—not for teachers or other community workers specifically. Teachers, for the most part, must find living solutions on their own.

Some older teachers, like the Cupertino teachers union’s Villafana, have stable rentals with landlords who are not out to make a large profit. Younger teachers who rent in the towns in which they teach often live with multiple roommates, but that situation that can become less appealing as the educators reach their 30s and start to look at having family or simply gaining some more personal space. Meanwhile, those who want to own but didn’t buy into the market at least 15 years ago are often left to buy condos on the edges of the Bay Area or in Santa Cruz on the coast, which is actually a less expensive place to live. Still other teachers end up marrying a partner with a job in tech that makes up for the teacher’s smaller salary.

Some teacher-specific solutions do exist. The San Francisco Teacher Next Door program provides loans of up to $20,000 towards a down payment to qualified teachers employed by the San Francisco Unified School District. That’s about 10 percent of the amount needed for a down payment in San Francisco. And nationally, the federal Good Neighbor program offers 50 percent discounts to teachers, police, and firefighters on homes it owns. But there isn’t a single house in Silicon Valley on the program’s list of discounted homes. 

Perhaps one of the most straightforward solutions to the lack of affordable housing for teachers in the Valley is the “Casa del Maestro,” or “House of the Teacher” apartment complex in the city of Santa Clara. Over the past 15 years, 70 one- and two-bedroom units have been built on district-owned land and rented only to new Santa Clara public-school teachers at reduced prices ranging from $1,110 to $1,805 a month for a maximum period of seven years. 

The second-grade teacher Megan Winslow, 33, said she benefitted from that program. In her years living in Santa Clara’s teacher housing she was able to put money away for retirement, build a savings account, and travel a bit in the summer. Now that she’s moved into the real-life rental market, she’s had to stop putting money into retirement entirely. Money for savings and travel have become limited, too, although she still finds cash to put into her classroom or to help her students. (She says she once covered a few nights in a motel for a student’s family whose homeless shelter was temporarily shut down.) Winslow now pays half of the $2,515 monthly rent, plus utilities, on a two-bedroom apartment she shares with a roommate.

“Buying a house—I’ve just been kind of okay with the fact that that might never happen,” Winslow said.

Kevin Zwick, the CEO of the Housing Trust Silicon Valley, a nonprofit that provides training and loan assistance to qualified applicants, said buying a house shouldn’t be entirely out of reach for teachers. His organization has helped get 440 teachers into homes in the last 14 years by offering down-payment loans to teachers with a family income of under $102,050 annually. 

Those teachers, like Mark Stolan, who teaches eighth-grade math in San Jose, are grateful for the help. In 2013, with a down payment loan in hand, Stolan and his wife were able to buy a two-bedroom condo in Campbell, one of the last communities in the Valley that is still somewhat affordable to middle-income earners, according to the MLS Listings. (Campbell, along with Santa Clara and San Jose, are the three communities within Santa Clara County that are within close commuting distance to the major tech companies and have median home prices of $1.2 million or less.) But the purchase means the couple is tied to a home on which they were only able to pay 3 percent of the purchase price out of pocket. If prices continue to soar, this potentially risky investment will pay dividends. But if the market settles into a more normal growth rate, the Stolans will have to wait a long time before the amount they’ll “make” by selling will be enough to buy a bigger or nicer house.

“We’re going to have to wait 10 years before we can even think about moving,” Stolan said. “The area is growing so much faster than the income is going up. In teaching, the income only goes up so fast.” 

But if they hadn’t bought when they did, the Stolans might not have been able to buy at all. Paying rent from their salaries would have made it almost impossible to save up for the down payment that would qualify them for a loan on their own. And now, two years later, their joint income hovers just above the maximum allowed to qualify for assistance from the trust. The Stolans have joined the ranks of seemingly well-paid professionals in the area who make too much to qualify for assistance, but too little to buy into the market. 

This housing predicament for “community workers” like teachers, police, and nurses eventually becomes a problem for everybody, said Maya Brennan, the vice president of the Terwilliger Center for Housing at the Urban Land Institute, which researches housing trends throughout the country. Such professionals, she said, should be considered “their own class of workers” because their jobs can’t be outsourced.

If a Bay Area tech company needs to set up a server farm, they could, say, open it in a less expensive mid-sized city, like Bend, Oregon. But a Bay Area school has no such luxury. Advances in computer-based learning aside, Stolan’s eighth-graders are unlikely to teach themselves algebra while he monitors their work from Oregon via video conference call.

“You can’t really have teachers just living in the Pacific Ocean,” Brennan said. “We need to make sure these workers can afford to be in our communities.”

But unless something changes drastically (or an as-yet-unknown app is invented to solve the problem), Silicon Valley risks losing the very people it’s counting on to educate its future stars.

This story was produced in collaboration with The Hechinger Report.

How One Law Banning Ethnic Studies Led to Its Rise

The irony is that if Arizona lawmakers had never squashed one Mexican American studies class—in a single district in one city—Curtis Acosta would have no interest in duplicating that same class across the country. Certainly, California and Texas public schools would not be considering to offer the course in all its high schools. And Tony Diaz would never have become the book smuggler.

In fact, today Mexican American studies has spread to high schools at a rate that no one could have imagined before Arizona banned the class in 2010.

“It sped up the evolution by about 25 years,” says Diaz, the self-dubbed “librotraficante,” or book smuggler. “It’s clear to me that our intellectual advancement is a threat to some people, because they tried to make it illegal.”

The story of how Mexican American studies flourished begins in 2010, with Arizona House Bill 2281. A group of Republican legislators in the state designed the legislation specifically to ban the course—or more specifically, to ban the Mexican American studies class taught in the Tucson Unified School District, which attracted mostly Latino students. The legislators sought to implement the ban while leaving similar classes geared around Asian, black, and Native American cultures untouched.

The housing crisis had crippled Arizona’s economy. Legislators had just passed the most controversial anti-immigration law in the country, Senate Bill 1070, which allowed local officers to question people’s citizenship. And the governor, Jan Brewer, had declared (incorrectly) that cartel members were beheading people in the desert. There seemed to be a lot more to worry about than a high-school course.

The focus (or some might say vendetta) on Mexican Americans started when Dolores Huerta, an influential activist with United Farm Workers (of Cesar Chavez fame), told students at a Tucson High Magnet School assembly that “Republicans hate Latinos.” The then-state superintendent of public instruction, Tom Horne, dispatched an aide to tell students at the majority-Latino school otherwise. As the aide spoke, students raised their fists and turned their backs.

From there on, Horne and his replacement, John Huppenthal, tried with puzzling ferocity to squelch Mexican American studies. The bill designed to eradicate the course said the program taught Latino students to hate other races and that they’d been historically subjugated and mistreated by the government, and that it even encouraged sedition. “When I came into a classroom, they were portraying Ben Franklin as a racist,“ said Huppenthal. “They got a poster of Che Guevara.”

In the spring of 2010, the majority-Republican legislature signed HB 2281 into law.

* * *

Acosta had taught Mexican American studies for several years, and led the development for its design and curriculum. Each day at Tucson High Magnet School, Acosta started his class with a poem by Luis Valdez: “If I do harm to you, I do harm to myself.” Next, students might read passages from a Chicano author, analyze rap lyrics to tie in pop culture, write an essay about poverty or disenfranchisement among young men and women of color, or ponder current issues of feminism and heterosexism. Acosta taught students to view history not just through the lens of Manifest Destiny and the nation’s conquering heroes, but also through the eyes of the displaced and conquered. “All that scary revolutionary crap,” Acosta recently said, jokingly.

In a district of some 55,000 students, only 3 percent took the course each year, according to school data. Tucson High Magnet School is mostly Latino, and nearly half of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches. Mexican American studies, Acosta says, was a way to engage those students who found school rote and unexciting, or those who might otherwise drop out. In fact, a year later, the University of Arizona would publish a report that found offering Mexican American studies increased graduation rates, grades, and college enrollment.

Almost immediately after legislators passed the bill on Mexican American studies, activists and lawyers fought back and resisted the directive; they would eventually take the ban to court. But in 2011, in his last days in office, Horne announced that if the school district didn’t drop the course, it would lose significant funding. So many schools dropped or significantly watered down Mexican American studies. Some even banned books for the course.

During the following months, Acosta—slogging to school, forced to teach a censored class—learned a new type of dehumanization, he says. “More so than someone saying racist stuff to your face.”

Then one day in April, around 5:45 p.m., the fight for Mexican American studies shifted gears.

As the Tucson Unified School District’s governing board prepared to discuss removing Mexican American studies from a list of classes that would count toward core requirements (seen by many as another move to demean it), nine students rushed the boardroom. They pulled chains from around their waists. Behind a curved wood desk with microphones, they sat in the board’s rolling chairs and locked themselves in place. They pounded the table and chanted, “When education is under attack, what do we do?”

“Fight back!”

National media had covered the story before. But the issue seemed to take on new vigor. At the next board meeting, so many people arrived that large speakers were placed outside the boardroom so they could hear the discussion. Officers arrested several people, most of them students.

* * *

Seeing the protests in the news, Jose Lara, a Los Angeles social-studies teacher at Santee Education Complex High School, wondered why his district didn’t have its own Mexican American Studies course. “What are we doing in our classrooms [to help]?” Lara thought. “What type of awareness are we bringing?”

In Houston, Texas, a group of Chicano writers, poets, artists, and activists hatched an idea: They would bus all those banned books into Tucson. “Librotraficantes,” they’d call themselves—book smugglers.

Soon, a tiny program that leaders hoped to silently squash quickly became the focal point of a Southwestern Chicano movement.

The Texas author and professor Tony Diaz, together with his band of book smugglers, raised money for their trip. Donations poured in from across the country, he says, as well as books sent directly from banned authors. The book smugglers rented a tour bus and made their first stop in San Antonio, where they delivered a package of contraband books (“wet-books“) to the Southwest Workers Union. “A mobile underground library,“ Diaz called it. He marched the streets in a suit and tie, fist raised.

National Journal

They made several stops, including El Paso, Albuquerque, and finally Tucson, where Diaz handed books out to former Mexican American studies students and created a library at a local youth center. “[Arizona has] been oppressing Mexican-Americans for years,” Diaz says. “And they were used to bullying and controlling immigrants, and they wanted to control our thoughts. They were wrong. I’m a Mexican American citizen with a master’s. I know my rights.”

Meanwhile, Acosta had started Sunday gatherings to replace the banned Mexican American studies classes. With all the attention, he was able to partner with Prescott College, a local liberal-arts school, to offer students free college credit. But where once he had 150 students, he now had just 10. Still, they met for two hours each week.

The next year, Acosta quit teaching at the high school. He handed his Sunday class over to a group of teachers. “I couldn’t live with the idea of what I thought was political opportunism and fear-mongering,” Acosta says.

Around the same time, Lara, the Los Angeles teacher, had begun implementing an ethnic-studies course in his district. Then the district made it mandatory to graduate.

“It was an idea whose time had come,“ Lara says. “The ban in Arizona lit a fire for everyone here to think, ‘Hey, we should be doing something about this.’”

​ * * *

Within a year, Lara had spoken with leaders in San Diego, San Bernardino, San Francisco, and Ventura counties who wanted ethnic studies in their schools. The reaction in California couldn’t have been more different from Arizona’s. When the school board held a meeting to discuss implementation and Lara had no money to bus students to it, “teachers started reaching into their pockets and soliciting online donations. We heard from people all across the country—teachers, parents, professors saying, ‘Here’s $25. And I wish I could be there.’”  Lara told The Los Angeles Times, “It’s been pretty amazing.”

Lara says five California school districts now require an ethnic-studies class, and 11 others offer it as an elective. There’s even a law proposed that would compel all California high schools to offer some form of ethnic studies.

This year, the National Education Association awarded Lara the 2015 Social Justice Activist Award, largely for his work in spreading ethnic studies in California.

After the success of the book-smuggling tour, Diaz and his group of traficantes went before the Texas legislature and petitioned for Mexican American studies to be offered statewide. “The ban of Mexican American studies in Arizona opened our eyes to the discrimination,” Diaz says, “and how important it is to embrace our history and culture. We realized there was nothing to ban in Texas, so we needed to start one.”

In response, the Texas State Board of Education allowed interested schools to begin including ethnic-studies courses. It also put out a call for course books.

This year, Mission High School, in Mission, Texas, became one of the first public schools in the state to offer a Mexican American studies course. Soon, Diaz says, they plan to spread it to more than 100 school districts.

As for Arizona, the Tucson Unified School District eventually rescinded the book ban. The law that banned the course is still being fought in court. A federal appeals court recently rejected arguments from opponents that the ban was overly broad and vague. But it upheld complaints that the ban was motivated by “discriminatory intent.”

It was a partial win for Acosta and other activists.

Acosta no longer teaches in public schools. Instead, he opened his own education consulting company called the Acosta Latino Learning Partnership, and with a group of educators he also founded in 2013 the Xicano Institute for Teaching and Organizing. There, they instruct and consult with teachers and school staff on how to develop a curriculum for their own Mexican American or ethnic-studies programs. They get calls from across the country.

Last week, Acosta flew to an educational conference in San Francisco. Every school in the city now offers ethnic studies.

One Step Closer to Life After No Child Left Behind


A promising rewrite to the notorious law just passed another hurdle.

Patrick Semansky / AP

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After months of anticipation—and nearly a decade of neglect—No Child Left Behind’s demise is closer than ever to becoming a reality. The U.S. Senate on Thursday passed a much-anticipated bill that would remake the 50-year-old law on which No Child Left Behind is based, ending a chapter in which the federal government was the key decision-maker at local schools.

The new law—the Every Child Achieves Act—would give much of that decision-making power back to states. Instead of the feds, state-level officials would determine how to assess academic performance, what counts as a struggling school, and which mechanisms to use to hold educators accountable for achievement. No more top-down reforms. No more mandatory interventions. No more Washington, D.C., bureaucrats stepping on the toes of local policymakers and educators who are much more in tune with their communities’ needs.

Right? Of course not. There’s plenty of important nuance here, and the legislative tug-of-war is just getting started. But the optimism—and celebration on social media—is justified, if only because it’s a rare example of successful bipartisan collaboration in Congress. It’s even more extraordinary given the recent years of partisan gridlock on the issue: Since 2007, Congress had failed to address No Child Left Behind’s original law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Despite No Child Left Behind’s horrible reputation, including among everyday Americans and even childless adults, the law stayed in place year after year.

Commentators and advocates on the left and right applauded the legislation’s co-authors—Senators Lamar Alexander, a Republican, and Patty Murray, a Democrat—for shepherding the measure through the Senate and fending off polemical amendments that could’ve jeopardized its survival. The Senate’s final version got overwhelming support Thursday, with just 17 senators voting no.

“Today the Senate’s shown that not only is there broad consensus on the need to fix this law—remarkably, there’s also broad consensus on how to fix it,” Alexander said in a statement Thursday. “This is the consensus: continue the law’s important measurements of students’ academic progress but restore to states, school districts, classroom teachers and parents the responsibility for deciding what to do about the results of those tests.”

Life After No Child Left Behind

But compromise also means that the law’s passage probably wouldn’t change much at most schools—at least for now. After all, almost all states (43 and D.C.) already have waivers from the Obama administration that give them flexibility under No Child Left Behind. In other words, the law’s influence in a majority of the country’s schools has been significantly diluted in recent years.

Moreover, the Every Child Achieves Act wouldn’t lessen the nation’s current emphasis on standardized testing: High schoolers and kids in grades three through eight would still have to take reading and math assessments annually, and certain students would also have to take science tests. But states would come up with their own plans for how to use and respond to the scores, and they wouldn’t be required to incorporate that information into teacher evaluations—or to evaluate teachers at all for that matter. Same idea with standards. Although Common Core was never, despite widespread conviction, a federal program, the law would explicitly prohibit the feds from prescribing or in any way incentivizing the adoption of a specific set of benchmarks; states would still have to adopt “challenging” standards, though. And just as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act originally intended, federal funding would still be earmarked for supporting struggling schools and students.

The Every Child Achieves Act is a compromise. Some Republicans wanted to get rid of those provisions altogether, pointing to the testing opt-out movement and teacher fatigue. But the Obama administration and civil-rights groups  have insisted on strict, universal accountability systems, arguing that they ensure the most disadvantaged students are identified and targeted. This emerged as a key sticking point in deliberations, with some Democrats arguing that too much flexibility could undermine protections for the neediest children. An amendment aimed at reducing that flexibility—largely by requiring states to intervene at the lowest-performing schools, including “dropout factories”—was among the dozen or so that were ultimately rejected.

The bill “gives states more flexibility while also including federal guardrails to make sure all students have access to a quality education,” Murray told Education Week. Some senators, though, aren’t convinced that it does enough to ensure equal access to quality education. The Democratic Senator Chris Coons, for example, said in a statement that although he voted for the Senate version, he will not support the final bill unless the accountability provisions are strengthened. Civil-rights groups are expressing similar concerns, including some organizations that have highlighted the bill’s failure to ensure discrimination protections for LGBT students.

Now, the Senate and the House, which passed its No Child Left Behind rewrite proposal last week, will go to conference and come up with yet another compromise. And that’s when the real drama is sure to unfold. Democrats appear committed to getting the accountability provisions strengthened, while Republicans are vying for absolute flexibility that would allow public money to follow low-income kids to their school of choice—proposals so incongruous that chances are neither would appear in the version that makes it to the president’s desk.

And again, that’s if something even makes it to the president. If history is any indication, this final stretch of No Child Left Behind’s demise may still be a long one.

Children’s TV—Left Behind

Something huge is about to happen to kids’ programming—something so huge that it “may well turn out to be the most ambitious experiment in children’s television.” So reports the one-time CBS News writer Norman S. Morris for The Atlantic in an August 1969 article titled “What’s Good About Children’s TV.” His excitement about the potential of the forthcoming “experiment” is palpable.

A production company called the Children’s Television Workshop “is trying to develop concepts that will literally channel children’s avid interest in television into preparation for the educational journey so vital to their lives,” writes Morris, then the father of two young boys. It will promote the “intellectual and cultural growth” of preschoolers, particularly disadvantaged ones, teaching them not only specific academic skills but also the capacity “to think for themselves.” The show is also slated to feature a diverse cast, Morris adds, including a pair of adult “Negro or Puerto Rican” hosts.

Turn, Turn, Turn

The 1960s through the eyes of The Atlantic
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Morris is, of course, talking about Sesame Street, whose first episode ended up airing several months later. Starring in its premiere were characters ranging from Kermit the Frog to Cookie Monster, along with two African American adult hosts. (A couple of years later, Sonia Manzano, a Puerto Rican New Yorker, would begin her 44-year run playing the character Maria.) It was also the first time the country heard “One of These Things (Is Not Like the Other).” The show, which now boasts 4,300-plus episodes, has since “educated the educators,” inspiring kindergarten classrooms across the country to abandon the daycare model in favor of academic instruction, according to a 2009 Newsweek article by the early-education expert Lisa Guernsey. The Sesame Street co-creator Joan Ganz Cooney also told Guernsey that the show fundamentally changed race relations in America, suggesting it may have even “had something to do with Obama’s election.” Sesame Street would indeed prove revolutionary; as Guernsey contended, it “changed our society, and many others, for the better.”

So why was I—a Millennial whose parents were only going through puberty at the time of Sesame Street’s premiere—struck with deja vu when reading Morris’s descriptions of educational inequity and the shortcomings of schools? Why did I feel ashamed of the world that Cooney and Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch had supposedly changed? Why did I feel like someone, at the very least, owed Morris and other early-education advocates of his time an apology?

The author Rob Kirkpatrick describes 1969 as “the year everything changed.” It was the year of Apollo 11, Woodstock, and Nixon’s “silent majority”; it marked the rise of Led Zeppelin and the demise of The Beatles. It was, according to Kirkpatrick, “a year of extremes.” Maybe Sesame Street was in part responsible for that remarkable shift. There’s little doubt that it spearheaded an evolution in the realm of children’s TV. Unlike other educational children’s series at the time, Sesame Street made education its centerpiece, delivering its entertainment through a research-based curriculum. Sesame Street was also probably the first endeavor of its kind to deliberately celebrate racial and socioeconomic diversity—to focus on enhancing opportunity for what the late Robert Keesham (i.e., Captain Kangaroo) described to Morris as “the ghetto child.”

This social objective made a lot of sense to Morris. He interviewed Phyllis Harris, a New York psychiatrist who argued that TV had “a special appeal and a particular benefit to the disadvantaged child.” Citing her experience working with kids at Head Start, Harris said such children have a hard time staying still and looking “at picture books for long periods of time.” “It’s not a disease,” she clarified. “It’s simply a part of their makeup. They haven’t learned to sit and concentrate.” Harris reasoned that TV programming could offset the learning challenges faced by low-income youth because they don’t need to stay still when they’re watching the screen: “In fact, they can even stand on their heads and watch and hear what’s being said. And they’ll come away with something.”

If Harris were interviewed today, chances are she’d use different terms to describe those behavioral challenges. In many ways, though, her perspective—that external factors can greatly hinder the development of disadvantaged children—was quite progressive at the time. Up until the second half of the 20th century, mainstream child psychology subscribed to the notion that cognitive ability is entirely inherited. It wasn’t until the publication of the influential 1961 book Intelligence and Experience, among other scholarship, that Washington policymakers started paying serious attention to and investing in educational opportunities for young, poor children. Hence, Head Start: one of a suite of federal programs established in the mid-1960s as part of Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, including the law that has since been reauthorized as No Child Left Behind.

The key takeaway of Harris’s argument still holds true today. Research suggests that Sesame Street has boosted early learning for thousands, if not millions, of kids. After all, only 19 percent 4-year-olds were in preschool in 1970—a reality that Morris points out in the first sentence of his 4,000-word essay. (Meanwhile, as many as 36 percent of preschool-aged children in the United States were watching Sesame Street at the time.) Evidence demonstrating the show’s impact on children’s achievement started circulating as early as the 1970s, when one study showed correlations between viewing the show and higher test scores. More than 1,000 studies, many of them with similar findings, have been published since—to the point that talking about Sesame Street’s educational value is almost cliche. They include a study released by the National Bureau of Economic Research just last month, whose findings clinch conclusions about the show as an effective early-education intervention.

Still, taken together, the recent study and Morris’s 1969 article are also a reminder of how almost nothing outside of the Sesame Street vacuum has changed since some of these grand ideas first took shape—at least with regard to the state of education.

* * *

Sesame Street is “the largest and least-costly [early childhood] intervention that’s ever been implemented” in the United States, Phillip Levine, one of the new study’s authors, told me a few weeks ago when I first reported on the research. It’s had such a significant impact on the cognitive skills of disadvantaged young children that Levine and his co-author likened it to Head Start. Similar to their peers in Head Start in the 1970s, children who watched the show in its first few years on the air were more likely to be academically prepared for school and advance through their educational paths at rates “appropriate for their age”; Sesame Street was just a lot more cost-effective than the government’s program. “Sesame Street,” the paper concludes, “was the first MOOC.”

Massive open online course, indeed. Preschoolers in the late 1960s actually watched much more TV than their counterparts today, according to Morris and Nielsen data: 54 hours a week versus 32. In other words, youngsters back then were watching—or, to borrow Morris’s language, “looking at” —the tube for close to eight hours daily on average. (For what it’s worth, the American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends limiting children’s screen time to two hours a day.)

His tone solemn and (perhaps amusingly) ominous, Morris at first warns parents against promoting their kids’ addiction to screens: “Parents have turned more and more to the electronic baby-sitter. The risk is that the practice can easily be carried to extremes at the expense of helping the child develop other human contacts or an interest in reading.” He then, however, presents an argument that sounds a lot like it came out of Levine’s recent study, which concludes that “TV and electronic media more generally can be leveraged for real social good.” Morris intended to convince readers of the positive potential of TV for “tiny people,” reasoning that shows like Captain Kangaroo and Mister Rogers Neighborhood helped children “deal with their emotions,” in part by acknowledging that kids are, in fact, “intelligent human beings with potentially good taste.” Emphasizing the importance and feasibility of making education entertaining, Morris anticipated that Sesame Street would be able to both achieve that fusion and help to elevate lower-income children along the way.

But Sesame Street didn’t stop the rise of educational inequality; it only helped stymie it. It certainly hasn’t ensured that all kids start their K-12 trajectories on equal footing. Access to early education today, nearly half a century after the show’s debut, remains extremely limited: About 40 percent of the country’s 4-year-olds are in publicly funded preschools, a seeming improvement over 1969’s 19 percent, but many of these programs are considered to be low-quality and the evolving economy means that benefits of a preschool education have likely increased over time. It’s easy to dismiss pre-k as nonessential or overblown, but the array of skills integral to success—from creative problem-solving to effective communication—depends largely on how a kid performs in school from day one, according to a recent report by the Economic Policy Institute.

“Unfortunately, the weak early starts that many of our children are getting make it hard to attain these societal goals,” the institute wrote. “Since key foundations for learning are established beginning at birth, starting school behind makes it likely that early disadvantages will persist as children progress through school, and last into their adult lives.” And given that disadvantaged, minority students are often raised in households where cognitive stimulation (vocabulary building, for example) is limited, they’re the kids who benefit most from pre-k opportunities. “As is true of odds of school and life success among Americans today, social class is the single factor with the most influence on how ready to learn a child is when she first walks through the school’s kindergarten door,” the institute continued. “Low social class puts children far behind from the start. Race and ethnicity compound that disadvantage, largely due to factors also related to social class.”

Still, Morris didn’t just remind me that the country has largely failed to expand access to early-learning opportunities. In fact, one of his most staggering references draws parallels with what economists at the University of California, San Diego, a few years ago described as “The Rug Rat Race”: the intensified parental focus since the mid-1990s on getting kids ahead by spending more on childcare and extracurricular activities. The researchers attributed the phenomenon to increased competition for college admissions, as slots at top institutions have become more and more scarce, driving up requirements and incentivizing parents with means to spend more money on their children.

That race often becomes institutionalized in schools, too, through strategies such as tracking (in which students are sorted based on their achievement levels) and public-school systems in which some campuses are selective in their admissions, typically offering specialized curricula. Six of New York City’s nine elite high schools, for example, are focused on science, technology, engineering, and math.

If Morris’s critique is any indication, it looks like the (STEM-driven) race started heating up well before the 1990s:

In the umbrage of Sputnik I, many children are being more and more ensnarled in the octopus—like tentacles of technology. The gravitational pull of science is being aided and abetted by parental influence. Scarcely are children able to walk than parents have outlined a complete program designed to get them into the “right schools” and eventually Harvard or Radcliffe. This presumably necessitates any number of assorted intellectual pursuits beginning with the choice of the “correct nursery.”

Indeed, Morris’s concerns could have been taken verbatim from almost any tirade these days against American education, especially amid ever-growing resistance to standardized testing and de-personalized learning. “The prevailing view [in today’s schools] is that if teachers focus too much on students’ pleasure they will somehow be encouraging wanton self-indulgence and dangerous hedonism,” wrote the developmental psychologist and author Susan Engel in an essay earlier this year for The Atlantic. According to Engel, who directs the Program in Teaching at Williams College, this “prevailing view” traces back to top-down directives that children are to be taught standards and skills and self-control, that structure and consistency are paramount:

I have visited some of the newer supposedly “effective” schools, where children chant slogans in order to learn self-control, are given a jelly bean when they do their worksheet, or must stand behind their desk when they can’t sit still. When I go to these schools, all I can think of is Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, in which Wackford Squeers, the headmaster of a school, says with great certainty, “Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them” …

Many of the assignments and rules teachers come up with, often because they are pressured by their administrators, treat pleasure and joy as the enemies of competence and responsibility. The assumption is that children shouldn’t chat in the classroom because it disrupts hard work; instead, they should learn to delay gratification so that they can pursue abstract goals, like going to college. They should keep their hands to themselves and tolerate boredom so that they become good at being bored later on.

It was around Morris’s time, writes Engel in her new book The End of the Rainbow, that it became clear schools “were no longer a path to cultivation and a life of the mind; they were a path to a job.” The Cold War-era pursuit of scientific prowess has stuck in the nation’s mindset, continuing to shape educational priorities: Learning became a mechanism for advancing national interests and, eventually, a process of assimilating standards-based knowledge and engaging in rote memorization. The “race to the top” to which Morris alluded has only become more institutionalized—particularly since the passage of the beleaguered No Child Left Behind law.

What bothers Morris the most is the widespread notion among adults that education and imagination are mutually exclusive. Robert Homme, the star of Friendly Giant, another popular children’s TV program during Morris’s era, tells Morris that he’s skeptical of a new, experimental show like Sesame Street joining the ranks of children’s TV; kids, he argues, prefer repetition and like to “have things seep down slowly.” “I think the world is preoccupied with the whole notion of change,” Homme says. “But there are lots of things that had better not change.”

Morris has a different view. He juxtaposes Sesame Street to Romper Room, a long-running, arguably frivolous children’s TV series that he abhors. “The philosophy seems to be that kids are little creatures who must be taught their ABC’s,” Morris writes. “Everything takes place in a formal classroom setting, and creativity is hiding somewhere under the teacher’s desk or perhaps in a broom closet. The prevailing attitude is one of condescension, and humor is hiding somewhere, too, perhaps keeping creativity company.” He argues that human beings should be able to enjoy the assimilation of knowledge, to feel engaged in their learning, to revel in imagination. “Youthful fantasy is also an essential ingredient in the development of problem-solving techniques.”

Citing Mister Rogers as an example, Morris speaks of the value of kids’ playtime. The late writer and child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim fleshed these same ideas out in a March 1987 article for The Atlantic, “The Importance of Play,” writing: “From a child’s play we can gain understanding of how he sees and construes the world—what he would like it to be, what his concerns and problems are” and that “Besides being a means of coping with past and present concerns, play is the child’s most useful tool for preparing himself for the future and its tasks.”

But it looks like their arguments have largely failed to prompt much change in American education. As the teacher Tim Walker lamented last year, free play is hard to find in schools. “What’s most important is not where kids take breaks but how much freedom we give them from their structured work,” Walker wrote, comparing U.S. schools to those in Finland, which prioritize playtime. “It’s free-play that gives students the opportunity to develop social competence. During these times, they not only rest and recharge—they also learn to cooperate, communicate, and compromise, all skills they need to succeed academically as well as in life.”

All in all, Engel would probably agree with Morris: What sets children apart from adults, she wrote, isn’t that they’re less intelligent, but rather that they have an “enormous capacity for joy.” And inserting joy into learning, she said, could have an incredibly positive impact on their academic achievement; research shows that kids need to be engaged and willing to learn in order for them to actually do so. “‘Pleasure’ is not a dirty word,” Engel argued. “And it’s not antithetical to the goals of K-12 public education.”

Kansas’s Teacher Exodus


Educators in the Sunflower State say they aren’t getting enough support from schools.

Jeff Tuttle / Reuters

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Frustrated and stymied by massive budget cuts that have trimmed salaries and classroom funding, Kansas teachers are “fleeing across the border” to neighboring states that offer better benefits and a friendlier climate for public education, NPR’s Sam Zeff reported.

To be sure, this is a tough time for the Sunflower State, where funding shortfalls forced a half-dozen districts to shorten their academic calendars, and teacher jobs are being advertised on billboards. But it’s hardly an outlier. Las Vegas, home to the nation’s fifth-largest school district, is undergoing a particularly brutal struggle to recruit, and keep, enough new teachers for the upcoming academic year. (After all, how many superintendents have been reduced to zipline stunts to draw attention to a hiring crisis, as was the case with the Las Vegas district’s Pat Skorkowsky?) And it doesn’t take much to find stories of teacher shortages in Arizona and Indiana, among many others.

There are plenty of creative ways of improving teacher retention but many of them cost dollars that districts say they simply don’t have to spend. At the same time, researchers and advocates contend that existing dollars aimed at teacher retention could be more wisely spent.

One solution: Residency programs that provide new teachers with intensive mentoring, coaching, and support for their first few years in the profession are gaining in popularity. But an underlying issue is that fewer people are opting to become teachers, and when they do, about half will quit within five years. Indeed, in last year’s Gallup poll, the percentage of people who said they didn’t want their children to become teachers jumped to 43 percent from 33 percent a decade earlier.

Orlin Wagner / APCredit

Catherine Brown, the vice president of the Center for American Progress, a think tank based in Washington, D.C., said teacher colleges could help ease the crisis by setting a higher bar for applicants and developing partnerships to help their graduates make the transition to the workforce. However, schools are not attractive enough workplaces to draw top talent, and teachers have “virtually no opportunity to distinguish themselves for excellence,” Brown told an audience of education journalists in at a seminar this past April in Chicago.

“It’s not the kind of job that, frankly, many Millennials or high-achieving young people see themselves going into for their career,” Brown said.

So, what’s the solution then? Some experts contend that teachers are not set on a path for success at the start of their careers, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that they opt out early. Liam Goldrick of The New Teacher Center, a nonprofit organization that works with districts in 40 states to improve training, laid it out at last year’s education-journalism seminar:

Just as students are expected to be lifelong learners we also should expect our teachers to be lifelong learners. We need to do a far better job of giving them that contextual support on the job than we do typically in America’s classrooms today.

Big changes are coming to teacher prep as new voluntary standards are being rolled out next year. The White House also wants states to shut down low-performing teacher-training programs, something that’s currently a rarity. But increased accountability won’t help if teachers don’t find the actual work meaningful and fulfilling. That’s where issues like education policy, school design, and campus leadership come into play. For teachers to stay, they have to actually like their jobs.

Over at Education Week, the veteran teacher Walt Gardner writes that the looming national shortage is “more nuanced” than the numbers reflect. Districts are in desperate need of highly qualified math and science teachers, and there are more elementary specialists graduating from teacher training programs than the job market can support. And then, there’s the current climate for educators:

The accountability movement and relentless criticism have undermined teacher morale in a way that I’ve never seen before. There will always be teachers who are able to rise above these factors and make the classroom their career. I applaud them. But the sheer number of new teachers needed means that a sizable portion of them will quit. This does not bode well for students.

This post appears courtesy of the Education Writers Association.

How to Build a Better Digital Book


Interactive graphics, sound effects, and animations can all enhance a child’s reading experiencewhen used in the right places.

Brad Flickinger / Flickr

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It was, she remembered, the first standing ovation she ever received as a librarian.

Laura Fleming was working at an elementary school in River Edge, New Jersey, a tiny, suburban school district across the river from Manhattan. It was 2009, she’d been working in education for 12 years, and she’d long been searching for books that would engage her students. But each fall, it seemed, they arrived less interested in the books she loved.

Fleming often felt like a stand-up comedian in a smoky nightclub. “You have that go-to joke that always gets the crowd going,” she said with a laugh. But all of a sudden, her material wasn’t working. The crowd was silent. The books fell flat.

So, she began searching for something different. She found a series of young adult novels called Skeleton Creek that embedded Internet URLs into the plot—the links took readers to a series of jittery, handheld Blair Witch-style videos, seemingly shot by the protagonists. The videos moved the story along nicely, but mostly they terrified young readers.

Then Fleming found Inanimate Alice.

Created by the British novelist Kate Pullinger and British-Canadian multimedia artist Chris Joseph, Alice is a book that blinks, buzzes, hums, sings, jitterbugs, plays games, and, on occasion, rains and snows. Using her laptop, Fleming projected the first Alice story onto a library whiteboard … and her fifth-graders went nuts. The story was immersive like little else, the first piece of fiction that helped them see life through a character’s eyes. A few students approached her afterwards to thank her, tears glistening in their eyes.

A screenshot illustrates the vivid graphics that are part of digital book, “Inanimate Alice.” (The Bradfield Company)

Welcome to the brave new world of reading: the clickable, interactive future of books. Just as digital technology is transforming people’s work, social lives, and family ties, it’s naturally transforming the slow, solitary act of reading. Think beyond paper versus pixels—this technology cuts to the very core of what it means to read a book.

What is a book, anyway? If players of the brooding computer game Dear Esther can consume a full-blown ghost story simply by wandering at will through a deserted island in Scotland’s Hebrides (finding fragments of letters, music, and clues as they walk), shouldn’t that be called a book?

Critics can’t seem to agree on a name for this new genre reflected in Inanimate Alice: multimedia online novels, ebooks, touchable TV, paratext, or technotext have all been used. Someone has even suggested “Franken-novel.” Most often, though, “transmedia” has stuck. Kevin Kelly, the co-founder of Wired magazine, has called them “books we watch or television we read.”

Fleming doesn’t much care what new terms people come up with for whatever Alice is. “It’s a book,” she said. Her students read it. They like it. The lines between different media “are so blurred for them” that there’s nothing to discuss. Alice’s world, she said, “is the world the kids are growing up in.”

With a few reservations, Warren Buckleitner might agree. The founder and editor of Children’s Technology Review, he pointed out that this is by no means the first time technology has changed the medium. At the turn of the 20th century, Beatrix Potter was “just another children’s author,” until she persuaded her publisher to invest in expensive four-color printing, and her books took off. “By using the latest technologies, Beatrix Potter became a rock star,” he said.

Buckleitner has spent his career test-driving children’s media and has seen it all—the good and the bad. He remains hopeful that e-books, or whatever we call them, can be done right. “Quality illustration and quality narrative can live in any form, whether it’s in print or on a screen,” he said. And if it’s done well, “you can get some real magic.”

Animations offer glimpses of different perspectives throughout Inanimate Alice. (The Bradfield Company)

But magic isn’t easy. It took the children’s author and illustrator Eric Carle six tries and three studios to get the iPad version of his Very Hungry Caterpillar right. My Very Hungry Caterpillar, which debuted last November, “is gorgeous stuff, but it engages children in a way that pulls them in rather than tries to push them,” Buckleitner said. The app is wordless and the illustrations invite tiny touchscreen interactions that playfully move the story along. “At the end of the day, children’s books and the whole definition of what is an e-book—it’s never been more interesting … There are more ways for an author to tell stories currently than at any other time.”

But whether publishers are using digital tools to tell stories more effectively is open for debate, said Heather Schugar, a researcher at West Chester University. She and her husband, Jordan Schugar, who also works at West Chester, have studied ebooks and found that “interactive” doesn’t necessarily mean better. “Most of the features we’re seeing are more on the distracting end,” she said. “You’re making things wiggle and talk, but they’re not really supporting the text itself.” The Schugars’ research has found that students tend to spend more time reading enhanced books, but that they often comprehend less of the material.

A few publishers are starting to get it right, they said. The duo recommend an app of Judy Sierra and Marc Brown’s Wild About Books, in which readers touch the word “stampede,” for instance, and trigger a stampede of animals across the page. “For a child who is reading that book, ‘stampede’ may or may not be in their vocabulary,” Heather Schugar said. “So it visually shows them—it helps them make that inference.” Yet in the same book, touching an animal produces, for no good reason, its sound. “That’s distracting,” she said.

“Book publishers have told us, ‘We’re putting all of these things in because the more interactive it is, that’s what the parents want to buy, that’s what’s selling,’” she said. “Okay, we get that. Let’s think about the quality of what we’re putting in. Instead of just having it make a noise, let’s have it support what your text does.”

Most publishers have actually taken a conservative approach to technologically enhanced versions of their books. The children’s author William Joyce recalled that his publisher warned him he was “going over to the dark side” when he began experimenting with interactivity. He and his Moonbot Studios partner Brandon Oldenburg, based in Shreveport, Louisiana, had already begun shooting a short film based on his illustrated book The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, and were using iPhone cameras to set up shots. Then the iPad appeared. They realized that its bigger screen was “exactly what we need,” Oldenburg recalled. “We didn’t want to just regurgitate the same experience that you had with the film in a book form or a digital book form.” So they decided to create an app that could explore the “cool things the tablet could do” that the book couldn’t, Joyce said.

The film won an Academy Award, the book was a New York Times best seller, and the app has been downloaded more than 200,000 times. Moonbot has since created interactive versions of several Joyce titles, including an “augmented reality” app called Imag-n-o-tron that requires users to have the paper book handy. “That was sort of our response to the fear, love, and hatred of what we were doing with digital picture books,” Oldenburg said. In 2012, Imag-n-o-tron led School Library Journal’s list of “Top 10 Apps.” According to Joyce, the best reason to turn a book into an app is to create “a compelling experience” that the book can’t provide. “This is going to happen, so what we have to do is figure out how it can be cool, and how it can be an extension of the idea of a book,” he said.

Buckleitner, the Children’s Technology Review editor, agrees. “Children today deserve adults who are willing to take a close look at this technology,” he said, “if for no other reason than because it has so much power.”

I asked Joyce and Oldenburg about their ground rules for creating compelling literary experiences. Joyce jotted down suggestions on a sheet of paper and later sent me a photo of his notes. During our 23-minute chat, he and Oldenburg came up with six rules, including: “Don’t do anything crummy.”

This story was produced in collaboration with The Hechinger Report.

Millennials Who Are Thriving Financially Have One Thing in Common


… Rich parents.

Jessica Rinaldi / Reuters

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Millions of America’s young people are really struggling financially. Around 30 percent are living with their parents, and many others are coping with stagnant wages, underemployment, and sky-high rent.

And then there are those who are doing just great—owning a house, buying a car, and consistently putting money away for retirement.

These, however, are not your run-of-the-mill Millennials. Nope. These Millennials have something very special: rich parents.

These Millennials have help paying their tuition, meaning they graduate in much better financial shape than their peers who have to self-finance college through a mix of jobs, scholarships, and loans. And then, for the very luckiest, they’ll also get some help with a down payment, making homeownership possible, while it remains mostly unattainable for the vast majority of young adults.

To start with, most of those who continue their education after high school have families that are able to help financially. A recent report from the real-estate research company Zillow looked at Federal Reserve Board data on young adults aged 23-34 and found that of the 46 percent of Millennials who pursued post-secondary education (that’s everything from associates degrees to doctorates), about 61 percent received some financial help with their educational expenses from their parents.

And yet, even with this help, the average student with loans at a four-year college graduates with about $26,000 in student-loan debt. Millennials who are lucky enough to have some, or all, of a college tuition’s burden reduced by their parents have a leg up on peers who are saddled with student debt, and they’ll be able to more quickly move out on their own, and maybe even buy their own house.

Rich Kids Study English

And that matters a lot in the long run: While many remain skeptical about the real-estate market, homeownership is still the primary way that Americans build wealth. But first-time buyers—a group generally made up of younger adults—have been scarce since the recession. And research indicates it’s not because many of them want to remain renters, but because they just simply can’t save up enough for a down payment, especially not the down payments needed in the expensive urban markets where so many Millennials prefer to live. According to Svenja Gudell, the senior director of economic research at Zillow, “There’s a ton of people out there who want to buy. In our most recent survey in the beginning of the year, we had 5.3 million renters interested in buying over the next year.”

But, because of their student-debt loads, they cannot. “When it comes to taking out a mortgage, they aren’t able to carry that mortgage payment because they have very chunky payments to make to the lenders of their student loans. So that’s certainly holding Millennials back along the way,” Gudell says.

The Next Economy

A recent study by the real-estate company Trulia laid it out this way: Imagine an individual who earns $50,000 and is shopping for a $200,000 home (the median U.S. income and house price). This person would like to put 20 percent down. If he or she follows the popular financial advice to save 10 percent of his or her annual pay, it’ll take him or her about eight years to have that down payment ready to go. If that same person has $26,000 of student debt, which means monthly payments of $280 based on a 10-year repayment plan, it’ll take this person closer to nine years.

But even these numbers are optimistic, with many Millennials owing monthly payments much more than $280 per month, and making much less than $50,000 a year. And in many markets, a $200,000 house is hard to come by. In some of the priciest areas, such as San Francisco, it would take those with a college degree and student loans nearly 30 years to save up enough for a 20 percent down payment. For those without the wage boost that a degree brings, it probably won’t be possible at all.

According to Zillow, 43 percent of Millennials who got help from their parents in paying for school were also able to become homeowners. According to Census data the homeownership rate for all young adults was about 36 percent in 2014.

Then there is the group that the Zillow study dubs “double lucky.” These are the select few whose families had enough money to not only help them with college, but to then also assist them with a down payment on a home. This group accounts for more than half of the Millennial homeowners in the Zillow’s data, though they account for only 3 percent of the total Millennial population. Only about 9 percent of Millennials whose parents were able to contribute to their post-high school education were also able to help them purchase a home—and the group that had such significant help is an incredibly low percentage of the total Millennial population.

The study calls this a “funnel of privilege”: Young adults with rich parents soon become rich themselves.

“Haves are turning their riches or their wealth into bigger wealth because they are investing in the housing market by simply living in a house,” says Gudell. This advantage is one that these Millennials will carry forward as they earn more than their degree-less peers, and save more than those who were forced to throw away tens of thousands of dollars on rent due to their inability to buy. In the future, they’ll have wealth to pass down to their own kids, continuing the cycle.

What Happens When Struggling High-Schoolers Take College Classes


Encouraging teens to complete higher-ed credits gives them a better shot at getting a degree.

Stephane Mahe / Reuters

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High schools across the country are taking what might seem like a counterintuitive approach to educating some of their most at-risk students.

They’re enrolling them in college before they even graduate from high school.

A new report from the Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy suggests that dual-enrollment programs, where students take classes simultaneously in high school and at a local college, have proven especially successful at getting less-affluent and first-generation students into college—and through it.

“It’s an acknowledgement of the changing demands of our society and the need of our education system to better equip students for the 21st century,” Chad d’Entremont, executive director of the center, told National Journal.

Such programs, the center argues in its report, “have the potential to increase the size and diversity of the college-going population.”

And as high schools see an increasingly heterogeneous student body, interest is growing, d’Entremont says.

Students often enter college without a clear understanding of what is expected of them, and many drop out when challenges arise. That’s especially true for less-affluent students, those who are the first in their families to pursue higher education, and those who do not have access to people with college experience who can offer guidance. A host of factors are at play, but inadequate academic preparation is key, the report argues.

Other research from the American Institutes for Research supports the theory that students who enroll in early-college programs are more likely to then enroll at an institution full time, than their peers in traditional high-school programs.

National Journal

Giving students an idea of what college is like by letting them enroll in college classes seems logical enough. It’s a test-run without the tuition bills and student loans. The center points to figures that suggest 86 percent of early-college graduates who go on to college stay for year two, compared with just 72 percent of college students nationally. These students are also less likely to need remedial classes.

Early-college programs let students pick up credits while they’re still in high school, giving them a head start once they get to college. That’s particularly valuable for students who do not grow up in the affluent, suburban areas that are are most likely to offer access to Advanced Placement classes that let students earn college credit in high school.

At Marlborough High School in Massachusetts, students in the school’s “STEM Pathway” can take writing classes at Framingham State University, and plans are in place to let students take additional courses at a local community college.

Seniors at Murdock High School, also in Massachusetts, can take technical classes at Mount Wachusett Community College that lead to a credential in information technology.

The State College of Florida and the University of Central Florida offer early-college programs to some parents, and El Paso Community College in Texas has partnered with several school districts to offer early-college programs. North Carolina, Michigan, and California also have programs. The Gates Foundation (which provides support for National Journal’s “Next America” series) has supported early college efforts in more than 30 states.

Dual-enrollment programs, which have been around in small numbers for years, picked up steam in the early 2000s and have seen a resurgence in attention as policy makers debate ways to expand access to college. But there are certainly challenges. Setting up dual-enrollment programs takes coordination between high schools and local institutions of higher learning, and funding.

Elisabeth Barnett, a senior research associate at Columbia University’s Community College Research Center agrees. She has studied dual-enrollment programs for nearly a dozen years. “There’s good research that shows it’s effective in terms of improving student outcomes,” she said.

The funding component is critical. Often, programs are supported through grants or private donations, solutions that aren’t easily scalable. But as tuition costs and student-loan debt soar, advocates of early-college programs say they offer a viable path to college completion for the students who need it most.

“Early-college programs improve students’ overall grit and persistence,” d’Entremont insists, “but also help them become knowledgeable about the overall [college] system.” And, Barnett points out, helping students earn college credit while they’re in high school may ultimately save them money in the long term, since a student will enter college already armed with some credits.

Enrolling students in such programs also helps schools catch weaknesses early, which can help a student avoid costly and time-consuming remedial classes later. The Massachusetts-based center points out that 36 percent of the state’s public high-school graduates who start at public colleges wind up in remedial classes. That jumps to 60 percent at community colleges.

Dual-enrollment programs also let students who have never been on a college campus get a sense of not only the academic rigor but the social environment as well.

Education dollars are tight at both the secondary and postsecondary levels, advocates of these programs acknowledge, but they say funding early-college opportunities could assist some of the nation’s most disadvantaged students, and boost the economy in the process.