When Mindfulness Meets the Classroom

A five-minute walk from the rickety, raised track that carries the 5 train through the Bronx, the English teacher Argos Gonzalez balanced a rounded metal bowl on an outstretched palm. His class—a mix of black and Hispanic students in their late teens, most of whom live in one of the poorest districts in New York City—by now were used to the sight of this unusual object: a Tibetan meditation bell.

“Today we’re going to talk about mindfulness of emotion,” Gonzalez said with a hint of a Venezuelan accent. “You guys remember what mindfulness is?” Met with quiet stares, Gonzalez gestured to one of the posters pasted at the back of the classroom, where the students a few weeks earlier had brainstormed terms describing the meaning of “mindfulness.” There were some tentative mumblings: “being focused,” “being aware of our surroundings.”

Gonzalez nodded. “Right. But it’s also being aware of our feelings, our emotions, and how they impact us.”

Arturo A. Schomburg Satellite Academy is what is known in New York City as a transfer school, a small high school designed to re-engage students who have dropped out or fallen behind. This academy occupies two floors of a hulking, grey building that’s also home to two other public schools. For the most part, Gonzalez told me, the kids who come here genuinely want to graduate, but attendance is their biggest barrier to success. On the day I visited, one of Gonzalez’s students had just been released from jail; one recently had an abortion; one had watched a friend bleed to death from a gunshot wound the previous year. Between finding money to put food on the table and dealing with unstable family members, these students’ minds are often crowded with concerns more pressing than schoolwork.

Still holding the bowl, Gonzalez continued with the day’s lesson. “I’m going to say a couple of words to you. You’re not literally going to feel that emotion, but the word is going to trigger something, it’s going to make you think of something or feel something. Try to explore it.”

Should Schools Teach Kids to Meditate?

The slightly built, 30-something Gonzalez, who wears a wide smile and a scruffy beard, first learned about mindfulness from his wife, a yoga teacher in schools around the city. His students referred to him by his first name, and Gonzalez addressed them just as informally—greeting them in the morning with a high five and a “Sup,” or “How you doing, bro?” or even “Hey, mamma.” He told me he strives to make school relevant—explaining what a “motif” is by comparing it to the hook of a rap song, for example—and believes in the value of hands-on teaching, emailing students individually to check in when they don’t show up.

“First, sit up straight, put your feet flat on the ground. Let your eyes close.” Gonzalez demonstrated as he instructed. Most of the 15 or so students followed suit—though a few scribbled surreptitiously to finish overdue assignments. Gonzalez tapped the bowl and a rich, metallic sound rang out. The class fell quiet as the note reverberated.

“Take a deep breath into your belly. As you breathe in and breathe out, notice that your breath is going to be stronger in a certain part of your body. Maybe it’s your belly, your chest, or your nose. We’ll begin with trying to count to 10 breaths.”

There was silence but for the hiss of the 5 train pulling into the station, the clunk of garbage cans, the faint siren of a police car.

“If you get lost in thought, it’s okay. Just come back and count again. Whether you get up to 10 or not doesn’t really matter. It’s just a way to focus [your] mind.”

* * *

It may not be the typical way to start an English class, but Gonzalez’s students were familiar with these five-minute mindfulness exercises—from counting breaths and focusing on the sensations of breathing, to visualizing thoughts and feelings—that he uses to help train their attention, quiet their thoughts, and regulate their emotions.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, the biologist who first coined the term “mindfulness” in the ’70s, defines it as a state of mind: the act of “paying attention on purpose” to the present moment, with a “non-judgmental” attitude. But mindfulness is really a secular philosophy and set of techniques adapted from thousands-of-years-old Buddhist meditation traditions—ones that only recently landed in mainstream Western consciousness. It was Kabat-Zinn who first formally brought mindfulness into a medical setting; he developed the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, which used specific exercises to help patients dealing with chronic pain and is now widely applied in other therapeutic contexts, and founded the Center for Mindfulness at UMass Medical School.

Mindfulness has also been harnessed in increasingly diverse contexts beyond health care—some uses more legitimate than others. Last year, the Congressman Tim Ryan introduced mindfulness into weekly staff meetings on the Hill, Time published a cover story on the topic, and CNN’s Anderson Cooper dedicated a primetime segment to showcasing his own transformative experience at a mindfulness retreat center. Google, General Mills, the Seattle Seahawks, and the U.S. military have all embraced mindfulness as a means of boosting performance and productivity, while its potential as an antidote to the distractions and stress of everyday life is increasingly promoted within the general population and has spurred a cottage industry of books, magazines, and smartphone apps.

Even when the concept of mindfulness was created it was slightly nebulous; now, as it is reappropriated and circulated in the media, it has become even more so. The lack of a universal definition for mindfulness, along with its increasing association with celebrity and vague implications of spirituality, health, and happiness leave some skeptics dismissing it as a superficial, hokey fad. Meanwhile, practicing Buddhists and others who believe strongly in the spiritual roots of mindfulness are concerned that the meditation techniques are being poorly adopted without a proper understanding of the principles behind them, and the long-term commitment they require—a phenomenon they call “McMindfulness.”

improves attention, reduces stress, and results in better emotional regulation and an improved capacity for compassion and empathy. Brain-imaging studies at Harvard and Mass General Hospital have shown that long-term mindfulness training can help thicken the cortical regions related to attention and sensory processing, and may offset thinning of those areas that typically comes with aging. Mindfulness is widely considered effective in psychotherapy as a treatment not just for adults, but also for children and adolescents with aggression, ADHD, or mental-health problems like anxiety. (It remains to be seen whether mindfulness alone is a sufficient replacement for other therapies. In a review last year of 47 different randomized clinical trials, The Journal of the American Medical Association suggested that mindfulness training wasn’t any more effective than other types of therapy, like drugs.)

This strong base of research, along with a growing body of supporters, are fueling the momentum behind mindfulness. And as Gonzalez demonstrates, it’s now spreading to schools, where it could potentially have an impact on students’ well-being; a quarter of American adolescents suffer from a mental disorder, according to a 2010 Johns Hopkins study.

The first major effort to use mindfulness in schools began in the UK in 2007 with a series of fixed lesson plans delivered in classrooms across the country. Interest in the movement has picked up pace since. This past July, Oxford researchers announced plans to launch a large-scale, seven-year, $10 million study on mindfulness in education next year. More than a dozen similar initiatives have sprouted in the U.S., grassroots programs that train teachers in mindfulness and generate their own curricula. Among the two largest are MindUP and Mindful Schools, the California-based nonprofit that trained Gonzalez, which continue to spearhead the country’s steadily growing, but piecemeal, mindfulness-in-education movement. Since its founding in 2010, Mindful Schools has trained thousands of teachers through its online programs, most of them in California, New York, and Washington, D.C., who are said to have a total reach of 300,000 students.

After Gonzalez and his wife signed up for one of their six-week courses—Mindful Schools’ training is open to any educator or mental-health professional who wants to teach mindfulness to young people—he was able to convince his school administrators to help him pay for a year-long certification program. Through a series of online lectures, weekly breakout sessions, monthly meetings, and two week-long summer retreats, Gonzalez worked on his own mindfulness skills, honing his ability to control his attention and regulate his own emotions while receiving specific guidance on how to teach those same skills to the youth populations he’d be working with. Gonzalez also received training about the biology of the nervous system, child development, and the neuroscientific basis for mindfulness’s effects.

Not all mindfulness programs are in schools like Gonzalez’s, where large numbers of students have been identified as disordered or disruptive, or struggle with mental-health problems and unstable living situations. Middlesex School, a prestigious boarding school in Massachusetts, requires that all incoming freshmen take a mindfulness course. The program, which was founded by an alumnus who used mindfulness to cope with both sports-related performance anxiety and T-Cell lymphoma, has proven popular among students. A vast majority—97 percent—of students surveyed in 2014 said they would recommend the course to others, reporting benefits ranging from better sleep and diminished stress to increased focus on schoolwork.

Education reformers have long maintained that there is a fundamental connection between emotional imbalance and poor life prospects. As Paul Tough argued and popularized in How Children Succeed, stress early in life can prompt a cascade of negative effects, psychologically and neurologically—poor self-control and underdeveloped executive function, in particular. The U.S. education system’s focus on cognitive intelligence—IQ scores and academic skills like arithmetic—undermines the development of equally vital forms of non-cognitive intelligence. This type of intelligence entails dimensions of the mind that are difficult to quantify: It is the foundation of good character, resilience, and long-term life fulfillment. It is this part of the mind that mindfulness seeks to address.

* * *

Efforts to implement mindfulness in classrooms haven’t always gone smoothly. Some parents and administrators have challenged its use in schools based on its religious roots—and in at least one instance even managed to shut a program down. As mindfulness is used more routinely in the medical sphere, these belief-based critiques are becoming less common. But the lack of evidence demonstrating the long-term academic impact of mindfulness has raised concerns about its role as an educational tool. Given the inherent nebulousness of mindfulness as a concept, and the grassroots status of the movement, these concerns are understandable.

Qualitative evidence touting the benefits of mindfulness in the classroom—like Mindful Schools’ encouraging survey results and uplifting anecdotes from participants—is easy to come by, and several short-term research studies on elementary- and middle-school students have shown positive results. But serious questions remain about the overall efficacy of such programs on non-subjective measurements of well-being and academic performance, such as test scores, graduation rates, mental-health referrals, and overall life outcomes.

Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning—one of the groups at the forefront of the two-decade-old social-and-emotional-learning (SEL) movement. The mindfulness-in-education movement has a lot in common with, and in many ways complements, SEL, since both aim to teach children how to build self-awareness, effectively handle their emotions, and empathetically manage their relationships. Unlike mindfulness, however, which takes more of an inside-out approach by helping students to slow down, intentionally focus their attention from moment to moment, and build compassion, SEL works from the outside in, teaching children a set of skills like how to mediate a conflict, or how to verbally express and explain their emotions to improve communication. Research shows that SEL programs alone have boosted kids’ academic performance, as well as benefitting them socially and emotionally—but many believe mindfulness should also belong in the SEL toolkit.

Linda Lantieri, who helped found the SEL collaborative and has been working on these issues for decades, argues that the best approach to education combines mindfulness and SEL skills rather than treating one as a sufficient replacement for the other. While Greenberg agrees with Lantieri, he is a sober voice amidst the hype and enthusiasm about mindfulness, earning him the fond title of “curmudgeon” in some circles. “We don’t know if these effects last,” Greenberg told me. “Right now the promised benefits far exceed the actual findings.” He is also concerned that mindfulness is just one “flavor of the month” that may detract attention from SEL programs supported by more substantial evidence. (Greenberg recently co-authored an impressive longitudinal study that followed hundreds of students as they progressed from early childhood through young adulthood and found that poor social-emotional skills in kindergarten helped predict negative outcomes across multiple domains of education, employment, criminal activity, substance use, and mental health.)

Mindful Schools is aware of these criticisms, and is beefing up its research efforts. In 2012, the group worked with a University of California at Davis research team to conduct a randomized controlled study of three elementary schools in Oakland, California. They sent in outside mindfulness instructors for 15 minutes, three times a week, to teach some classrooms but not others, and reported that mindfulness improved students’ behavior and ability to focus, as well as teachers’ sense of well-being—though the research design had several main points of weakness, mostly involving the challenge of measuring children directly rather than through teacher assessments. Mindful Schools’ new research director told me that the group is eager to conduct more studies that are even better-planned, focusing more on the efficacy of the kind of integrated training Gonzalez received. The field is so new that techniques evolve rapidly, constantly going through phases of trial-and-error—so it remains to be seen whether current or future findings can convince skeptics of mindfulness’s effectiveness.

* * *

Back in the Bronx, after a minute or two of the day’s mindfulness exercise, his own eyes also closed, Gonzalez ran through a list of emotions: Happy. Sad. Excited. Mad. Bored. Loving. Worried. Jealous. Silly. The second item on this list seemed to especially resonate with an 18-year-old at the front of the classroom, a young woman with dark skin, shimmering pink lip gloss, and perfectly plucked eyebrows. Sitting up straight with her hands in her lap, her composed posture belied the challenges she faced shortly before transferring to Arturo A. Schomburg two years earlier.

“I didn’t know anybody. I was very depressed. I didn’t want to be in school,” she told me in a hushed voice at the end of class. Shortly before transferring to this school, her favorite big brother had been hit by a car. She said she’d watched him fall into a coma, and sat by his side until his heart stopped; soon after that, she’d seen one of her friends get shot in the head and bleed to death in the street. During the quiet minutes set aside for mindfulness exercises in class, she would often cry.

Now, she writes in perfect, neat script as she fills out a worksheet to accompany the day’s mindfulness exercise. But she told me she wasn’t always so eager to participate. “I used to write, ‘I hate this, I don’t want to do this.’ I ripped those papers up,” she said. But one day when she was in a particularly dark mood, something clicked. “Argos told me to close my eyes. Then he said, ‘Connect to your breath.’ He always used to say it, but I never really did it until then.” Gonzalez told me that his Mindful Schools training had specific segments dedicated to working with trauma.

leave within their first year. Greenberg agrees. One of the ongoing research projects he and his colleauges are involved in is the Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education (CARE) program, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, that focuses on the well-being of the teacher and instructs teachers on emotional awareness, techniques for emotion regulation, and ways to apply these skills to teaching. Greenberg and others suspect that mindfulness specifically tailored to teachers and their struggles—stress and time management, for example—and incorporated into their initial training might do as much or more to improve classroom performance than trying to teach children directly. In its annual surveys, Mindful Schools has found that a majority of the teachers it has trained experienced lowered stress, more connection with students, and higher job satisfaction.

By the end of Gonzalez’s morning class, the quiet, focused tone had long faded. Several students stood up from their desks, leaning over each other, laughing, knowing that personal challenges await them outside the classroom, just as they always have.

Over the chatter, the student with the glossy pink lips told me that hearing Gonzalez say the word “sad” triggered a flashback to all of those overwhelming memories of grief and pain she has been working to move beyond, but that it was okay. “Those feelings are there, but they won’t kill me,” she said. “I still have my days where it’s not easy, but mindfulness helps me a whole lot. Honestly, I feel like if I’d had this before, it would have been easier.”

The Economic Cost of Truancy

It doesn’t matter how good a school is if students don’t show up to class.

In 2012, about 7.5 million students were chronically absent from schools nationwide. According to a report from the Center for American Progress, truancy, defined as unexcused absence from school, is a growing problem.

The consequences of truancy aren’t limited to a few missed lessons, either—there is a litany of long-term side effects that affect not just the children, but also their communities and the nation’s economic health as a whole.

The children who are most likely to miss class are perhaps the children who need it most. Studies suggest that students of color, who make up a growing share of the nation’s students, and those living in poverty are more likely to be absent than their white or more affluent peers. These children are less likely to have access to educational resources outside of the classroom and at home. They have higher dropout rates and are less likely to go to college and to be employed as adults. These students are also more likely to end up in prison.

As California Attorney General Kamala Harris said during a press call to discuss the report Tuesday, “This issue of truancy is a public safety issue, it is an economic issue, and I think we can solve it.”

Harris commissioned a study in the mid-2000s that found that nearly 85 percent of elementary-school students in her state who missed at least 10 percent of the school year unexcused came from low-income families. Her team’s research also suggested that nearly four in 10 African American students sampled were truant.

Up until the 1960s and ‘70s, truancy cases were handled by the juvenile justice system. Now, there is more discretion, and students and their families can be enrolled in mentoring programs or parenting classes. Still, CAP found that between 1995 and 2007, the number of petitioned truancy cases tried in courts jumped from 34,600 to 65,000.

Harris, CAP, and other advocacy groups say more needs to be done to get kids back to school, but it will take an acknowledgement that the students of today are a different set than the students of a generation ago.

In 2014, students of color made up the majority of public-school students for the first time. If the risk of truancy is greater for these students, and the number of these students is growing, “it is even more important for leaders to take action now, as the cost of truancy is simply too high,” the report argued.

Why should you care?

As the authors Farah Ahmad and Tiffany Miller noted in the report, “Today’s students will be tomorrow’s workers.” Truant children are more likely to have low earnings as adults and less stable career paths, meaning they are less likely to contribute meaningfully to the nation’s overall economy.

National Journal

The Alliance for Excellent Education suggests that if half of dropouts in the Class of 2010 had graduated, the nation would have seen an additional $7.6 billion in earnings, $713 million in tax revenue in an average year, and $9.6 billion in economic growth by the time these students hit the middle of their careers.

The benefits of just getting a kid into a classroom could be huge.

“Some researchers posit that if students who live in high-poverty neighborhoods attended school every day with no other changes being made, students would experience increased rates of academic achievement, high-school completion, post-secondary education attainment, and economic productivity,” CAP noted.

“We all as a society have a responsibility,” Harris said, “to own our role and our potential to improve these numbers.”

On Losing a Student

The red markers started to disappear from classrooms. In some of the brand-new marker boxes, the count became seven instead of eight. It was always the red one missing. We, the teachers, hadn’t thought much of it initially; rarely do we end the school year with the same amount of supplies with which we begin. But that was changing now that the students needed red to make corrections and complete their schoolwork—or, for some, to color in the hearts they’d scribbled on love notes. A blend of orange and yellow wouldn’t suffice as a substitute, so we were determined to find the culprit.

But even before investigating, red writing started showing up all over our classrooms. On desks. On folders. On looseleaf. On whiteboards. It became clear that the red markers had a new owner. And that owner he left us little opportunity to apply our Law and Order sensibilities: He used the red to tag his name. And by tagging, I don’t mean the kind of elaborate graffiti that once covered the murals at 5 Pointz in Queens—it was just his handwritten name. If his handwriting were a font, it’d be pretty close to Comic Sans: child-like, nothing distinct or loud—besides the color.

That’s how he was, too. Deion was not one of the more boisterous students in my ninth-grade English class. He was a tall and skinny tree, a student who didn’t take up much space. I had one student who’d often ask her classmates to smell her armpit the instant she entered the classroom. Or I had another who’d always spend the class loudly complaining that I was assigning them “mad work”—too many handouts for her to handle. Deion wasn’t like that. He never caused much fanfare upon entering, even though he typically arrived late. He would come in like Casper, typically finding one of his friends—a girl who’d often leave her headphones in during class while reading Crankand plop right next to her. (Few students cared that I had a seating chart.) After a few minutes of schoolboy flirtations, he’d be ready to participate in the freewriting sessions I held every class, scribbling in his makeshift notebook: looseleaf in a red folder, red marker in between blue lines. Even though he’d arrive when half the period was over, he always tried to make up for lost time.

an article from Al Jazeera. The article, titled “Blood on the Tracks: The Short Life and Mysterious Death of Deion Fludd,” started with this description:

One evening almost two years ago, a young couple walked hand in hand to a subway station in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. The girl, Hesha Sanchez, 17, wasn’t carrying her fare card, but she wanted to keep her boyfriend, Deion Fludd, company while he waited for the train. So they squeezed through the turnstile on a single swipe of his card.

Roughly 40 minutes later, Fludd, bloodied and semiconscious, was carried from the station. According to the New York Police Department, officers tried to arrest Fludd for fare evasion after encountering him on the subway platform. He then fled onto the tracks and was hit by a train. But when Fludd awoke the next day, his ankle shackled to his hospital bed, he told a different story: According to his family, the teenager said he’d been injured by police, who’d beaten him after he climbed back onto the subway platform. Nine weeks later, Fludd died from complications from his injuries.

According to this report, Deion had gone from jump shots on the court to shackles on a bed. If he had been paralyzed from the neck down, I couldn’t imagine what the shackles would have been for. Six cops reportedly chased Deion down that night because he had snuck through the turnstile so his girlfriend could use his Metrocard. Al Jazeera obtained reports suggesting that quota requirements may have incentivized police officers to seek out arrests that night, including by leaving their designated areas of patrol. Deion had apparently already been arrested a number of times for minor infractions, including for fighting at school.

Deion’s mother contends that the cops had hit the back of his head and pinned him down on his back with their feet, warning him against running away—telling him that they wouldn’t let him run ever again. Run again, he never did. Whether because of a train accident or police misconduct (or something in between), Deion eventually died in and out of consciousness. He will be the keeper of this truth.

And I was left with half-truths. I couldn’t solve the “mysterious death of Deion Fludd.” Instead, I felt dazed and duped.  I tried connecting the information included in the few articles that floated online. I wanted to remain angry but didn’t have enough information to do so. All of it strained my eyes and heart. Deion was gone and I had not given him enough time. He was not going to return next year and linger by the door to say “hello” or make funny faces. I would have no reports on his basketball stats. All the red markers would remain intact. I regretted not pulling him in from the hallways and asking him more—especially after the fight in the lunchroom. I had failed to advise him about the principles of the real world. I forgot to tell him that the world wouldn’t be as forgiving as I had been with the red markers.

Deion’s mother places his remains on a table in the family’s apartment. (Andrew Hinderaker)

I’ve never met Karen Fludd, his mother, in person, and I can only speculate about her state based on what I had read and later, what we had exchanged through texts. When Claudia Rankine, a Jamaican poet, asked a mother of a black son what motherhood is like, she said, “The condition of black life is one of mourning … For her, mourning lived in real time inside her and her son’s reality: At any moment she might lose her reason for living.” Has Karen Fludd lost her reason for living? She wants to live to see the day that she can meet the officers from that night face to face. She has hired lawyers and is suing the city, but I can’t imagine any of it serving real justice. Justice would be reviving him, and her.

A teacher never goes into a classroom thinking much about her students’ mortality. A teacher wants to teach that mortality bears no color and that it does not come prematurely.

Deion’s Facebook wall—if it ever was his to begin with—is not populated by many posts. It’s so sparse that, below the few uploads and posts, is this:


I’m tempted to friend the ghost—tag its wall red, to show that I remember. But I’m afraid it wouldn’t solve anything.

When Schools Are Forced to Practice Race-Based Discipline

The Obama administration might be disappointed to find out there’s not much support for one of its key school-discipline reform initiatives—at least not from teachers or members of the general public.

A growing body of evidence has long revealed discriminatory tendencies in the ways school districts dole out discipline. Black and Latino students are much more likely to be disciplined and suffer greater rates of in- and out-of-school suspensions. Of the 49 million students enrolled in public schools in the 2011-12 school year, close to 7 million were suspended, about half of them out of school. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection, black students were suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than were white students.

Taken as a whole, white students in the U.S. account for the largest share of one-time suspensions and expulsions. Still, discrepancies emerge when considering how the numbers compare to enrollment. While black students represented 16 percent of the U.S. student population, they accounted for 32 percent of the students suspended and 42 percent of those expelled. Black students also experience the highest rate of multiple suspensions, the DOE data shows.

The discrepancies are particularly egregious in certain parts of the country. As The New York Times reported on Tuesday, a new analysis of the federal data finds that black students in 13 Southern states are suspended or expelled “at rates overwhelmingly higher than white children.” In 132 of the districts analyzed, for example, black students were suspended at rates at least five times greater than their representation in the student population.

In an effort to combat disciplinary bias, the federal government has warned every school district in the country that they face legal action if their discipline policies have a “disparate impact”—“a disproportionate and unjustified effect”—on students of a particular race.

Still, despite widespread concern about the “discipline gap,” the recommendation has sparked a good deal of backlash, including from pundits who’ve speculated that children of color will actually be the ones most harmed. The administration’s guidelines “will encourage schools to tolerate disruptive and dangerous behavior lest they have too many students of one race being punished,” wrote the education-law expert Joshua Dunn in a Fordham Institute blog post last year. “The effect will be to punish students who behave and want to learn since their education will be sabotaged by troublemakers. And the disruptive will certainly learn, and learn quickly, that their schools are now tolerating even more disruptive behavior.”

A recent Education Next poll of nearly 4,000 respondents (including oversamples of teachers, African Americans, and Hispanics) suggests that few people think the disparate-impact approach—which some have argued leads to racial quotas—is the best solution. Some of the strongest opposition seems to be from teachers, fewer than a fourth of whom support such policies, as well as those who identify as white. Thirty-five percent of teachers and 36 percent of white respondents answered that they “completely oppose” policies that prevent minorities from being expelled at higher rates, according to the poll, which surveyed Americans on education-policy issues.

The researchers administered the poll after President Obama made it a priority for teachers to look at these behaviors. The Education Next poll varied the wording of the questions to gauge whether the type of government mandating the policy—federal versus local—would have much of an effect on public opinion. It found that teachers and the general public are opposed to such policies regardless of who’s stipulating them, though they appear particularly opposed to federal policies versus those left up to the discretion of individual districts.

“There’s some general concerns that people have about federal intrusion in schools,” said Martin West, one of the Harvard public-policy researchers who analyzed the data. “My interpretation would be that teachers want to be able to make decisions about student discipline on a case-by-case basis and not have  district or federal officials looking over their shoulders.”

In both instances, African Americans appear most supportive of policies that prevent “disparate-impact” discipline.

Still, the Education Next analysis didn’t look at how a respondent’s race intersects with his or her status as a teacher, parent, or member of the general public. It’s possible, for example, that a majority of black teachers—or teachers who work in areas with high concentrations of students of color—would be more supportive of no-disparate-impact policies than teachers as a whole. And ultimately, teacher opinion on such policies may be more reflective of their perspectives on the mechanisms by which they’re mandated.

“Teachers like their autonomy based on a lot of our polling,” says Harvard’s Paul Peterson, one of the other Education Next researchers. “They don’t like merit pay, they don’t like accountability, they don’t like to be told who’s to be disciplined.”

What Do Americans Really Think About Education Policy?


Two recent polls conflict in their findings on what adults think about standardized testing, the opt-out movement, and the Common Core.

Stefanie Loos / Reuters

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Getting a read on the American public’s views on education is no easy task, made more complicated by just how much local schools vary. In a country with more than 13,000 school districts that enroll nearly 50 million students, a range of experiences and perspectives are to be expected.

According to two polls released this month by different organizations, U.S. adults maintain divergent views on some of the most controversial topics in public education today. For both policymakers and political candidates, the poll results at times say conflicting things, even if the questions were worded differently.

  • Common Core: In the Education Next public opinion poll, 49 percent of U.S. adults said they support the Common Core State Standards; in the other poll, conducted by PDK/Gallup, 24 percent of adults share that view, while more than half said they oppose the common standards for English language arts and mathematics adopted by most states.

  • Testing: 59 percent of adults, and 52 percent of parents, opposed allowing parents to prevent their children from taking standardized tests, the Education Next poll finds. It said 25 percent of U.S. adults support the ability to opt out. The PDK/Gallup poll shows that 44 percent of U.S. adults—and 40 percent of parents—believe that parents should be permitted to opt their students out of standardized tests. And parents surveyed by PDK/Gallup were more likely to support the practice than in the Education Next poll by a margin of 47 to 32 percent.

  • Charter Schools: The polls captured different levels of support for charter schools among U.S. adults. Charters, which are publicly funded but are typically run by private nonprofit or for-profit groups, have the support of 64 percent of adults, according to PDK/Gallup. The Education Next poll found that 47 percent of adults favor the creation of charter schools.

It’s important to remember that polls are like “dipping a thermometer into a giant melting pot of American society,” says Jonathan Supovitz, the co-director of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education at the University of Pennsylvania. “You’re bound to get different readings in different places.”

Given that caveat, how accurate or useful is polling data? Education polls often ask unprepared people to make “finely nuanced distinctions” without the requisite background, said Andrew Rotherham, the co-founder and a partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a national nonprofit in Washington, in an interview last year. “You get a result, but you also get a lot of noise.”

The Common Core’s popularity has waned as more Americans have become familiar with the standards, which are opposed by an animated contingent of liberal and conservative voters, though for different reasons. Liberal critics charge the standards were written without sufficient input from parents and teachers, while conservatives see the standards as a federal intrusion on states’ rights. (The U.S. Department of Education created incentives for states to adopt the standards, but did not require their adoption.)

Two years ago, 65 percent of Americans in an Education Next poll supported the standards. That year a PDK/Gallup poll noted that nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults have never heard of the Common Core. Fast-forward to this month and nearly every adult is in some way familiar with the standards, PDK/Gallup says, and support for the standards is considerably lower.

For the Common Core, the “proof will be in the pudding,” said Paul Peterson, a Harvard professor who oversaw the Education Next poll. “If the standards do end up being fully implemented and students start learning more, then the public opinion might change.”

When the PDK/Gallup questions on standards are put next to the Education Next findings on the Common Core, the responses are not out of alignment, Peterson said: People are generally in favor of setting higher expectations for students across states but they also want local teachers to have leeway in how those goals are met. (In an essay analyzing the two polls, he and his colleague Martin R. West wrote that the “two surveys are complementary, because they ask about different topics.”)

Indeed, in a call with reporters, Joshua Starr, the former superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools in suburban Maryland and the newly named chief executive officer of PDK, made points similar to Peterson’s:

The divide between the percentage of parents who believe those standards should be higher and then the percentage of parents who don’t support the Common Core, that’s very interesting to me in signaling the potential for a lack of understanding of what the Common Core is.

The furor over allowing parents to pull their students from taking state tests is a newer phenomenon, but can affect the legitimacy and even funding of high-stakes tests. With too many students foregoing taking the assessments, the results may be limited in what they can tell the public about how much students know in math and reading. And according to the federal No Child Left Behind law, states technically risk losing some federal funding if less than 95 percent of students take the high-stakes exams.

In New York, some 20 percent of students opted out of the recently-issued assessments, which are said to measure students with more vigor now that they’re more closely aligned with the Common Core standards. New York education officials have indicated that districts won’t face financial consequences for dipping below that 95 percent threshold. Washington state also posted testing-boycott numbers that saw some of its districts dip below 95 percent participation among eligible students. Among Seattle’s 11th-grade students, nearly half boycotted the exams.

In the coming weeks, more states are slated to release the scores for their students who took the high-stakes tests, many of which were aligned with the Common Core standards for the first time. With campaign season heating up, public polls that try to get a pulse on American attitudes toward education are likely to play into the policy prescriptions of candidates who are critical of the Common Core and supportive of hot-button issues like charter schools.

Timeout for Opt-Outs?

But Americans have long been of two minds about the quality of the nation’s schools—with most giving their local schools high marks but education in the United States far lower levels of approval on the whole. As Matt Chingos, an education scholar, told the Los Angeles Times last week, “If people like their local schools, regardless of what they think about schools nationally, they’re not going to be very likely to vote based on that issue.” Chingos also told the paper that voters are “not going to vote for someone just because that candidate is going to fix a problem with someone else’s schools.” The news outlet EdSource compared the PDK/Gallup poll to those that focused just on California views, showing another gulf in sentiment depending on the polling group.

Still, both national polls released this month show that adults tend to think the federal government has a far greater role in the affairs of local schools, even though it provides just about one tenth of U.S. public K-12 education. The Education Next poll found that adults believe 32 percent of public-school funding is sourced from federal coffers. The poll also asked adults how much money the federal government should contribute to public education. The respondents gave an average answer of 37 percent—nearly quadruple what the government provides now. The PDK/Gallup poll found that adults believe 23 percent of the education funding should come from the federal government—double the current amount.

The Education Next survey polled nearly 4,100 adults, and has a margin of error of 2 percent; the PDK/Gallup poll asked 1,000 adults by phone and 3,500 adults online. PDK/Gallup’s phone survey has an error margin of 4.79 percent while the online version’s was 3.02 percent.

A Recipe for Sexual Assault


Certain structural factors appear to make rape especially prevalent on some college campuses.

The former home of San Diego State’s Delta Sigma Phi frat, which was banned from the campus after its members were accused of harassing people taking part in an anti-rape march last November. Earnie Grafton / Reuters

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According to a recent national Inside Higher Ed survey of college and university presidents, nearly one-third agree that sexual assault is prevalent on college campuses nationwide. But only 6 percent believe it’s prevalent at their own institutions.

When the survey came out in April, pundits and critics immediately pounced, some of them lambasting the presidents as being “out of touch,” “delusional,” and “in denial” about sexual assault on their campuses. But the apparent gap between national and campus-specific perceptions may have less to do with what critics described as administrative myopia and more to do with the institutional structures of campuses themselves. Can this gap be explained sociologically? And what would such a sociological explanation suggest about sexual assault?

Reading the results of the survey reminded me of the work of the researcher Peggy Reeves Sanday, who roughly two decades ago proposed that some campuses are more “rape prone,” while others are more “rape free.” She concluded that these characteristics are contingent on various “cultural” variables, such as respect for women’s integrity as individuals or a tendency to excuse rape “as a ceremonial expression of masculinity.”

Upon learning of the recent survey results, I decided to analyze the findings using my training as a sociologist in an attempt to see whether they correlate with structural variables—some institutional arrangements that might lead to more “rape prone” and “rape free” campuses. Such an analysis, I figured, might help make sense of the apparently widespread perception among university presidents that sexual assault isn’t a problem on their own turf.

Efforts to parse this along a single line—public versus private, Greek versus non-Greek, sports culture versus non-sports culture, and so on—would, I suspected, yield little. A multivariate analysis—juggling several structural variables at the same time—might help unravel why some schools are more rape prone than others. It would help elucidate what’s happening inside those schools.

* * *

The first variable I evaluated was the range of degrees offered by a given institution. There are a few differences between institutions offering bachelor’s degrees only and those also offering more advanced, graduate-level programs. But the biggest differences are between those granting four-year and associate’s degrees. Community colleges are almost universally non-residential, and most students work off campus. Community-college students tend to be older learners—the average age is 29—and are often returning to school after getting married and having a family, serving in the military, being displaced at work, and so on. Roughly three-fifths of community-college students are enrolled in classes part time.

These characteristics are largely why evening campus activities at community colleges are far less plentiful; people commute to school as they would—or do—for work. Of course, that’s not to say that sexual assault is nonexistent at such institutions, but many of the major structural features of the “rape-prone campus”— a social life that revolves around the campus residential experience, party culture, weekend sports activities—are missing.

A little under a third of the roughly 650 presidents surveyed by Inside Higher Ed are at community colleges, and almost all of those respondents (170 or so) disagreed that sexual assault is prevalent at their campuses. Chances are most of those community-college presidents are being realistic in their responses. Same goes for the estimated 10 respondents who represent all-female colleges, where sexual assault is almost certainly less prevalent (albeit by no means nonexistent).

So what about the others? In theory, that still leaves another 450-plus presidents who are potentially “delusional” in thinking that sexual assault isn’t a problem on their own campuses.

The second variable I considered involves the rapists themselves. While the Justice Department estimates that one in five female college students experience some form of sexual assault, the other half of the equation is far more circumspect: Only 6 percent or so of male college students commit sexual assault, with each committing nearly six rapes on average, according to the psychologist David Lisak, who’s conducted extensive and widely cited research on sexual assault. That suggests that many sexual assaults on campus are committed by serial predators.

Based on the research by Lisak and others, as well as my own findings, I’ve concluded that these predators tend to share several characteristics. Unlike the lone serial murderer on Criminal Minds, the serial rapist has to have the motive (a sense of entitlement to women and an alarming contempt for them), opportunity (sexualized spaces), and support—a “culture of silence” that he interprets as approval. This is probably not the stereotypical rapist who jumps out of bushes. He’s the guy who eyes you seductively when you walk into a party, dances with you flirtatiously, and seems so solicitously chivalrous in making sure your drink is always refilled. The sexualized space may be “upstairs” to his room, while the approval he gets from his friends could count as the support.

On some campuses, certain residential spaces enable these conditions more readily than others. Sexual assault in dorms is possible and does happen, but there are usually resident advisors who are trained and charged specifically with making sure the parties remain safely within bounds. Off-campus residences, on the other hand, fall outside the official scrutiny of campus administrators, while fraternities often fall outside the unofficial scrutiny of those administrators. These residences tend to serve alcohol at their parties, including to minors, and I’ve known of at least a few administrators who opt to stay away from these events avoid having to witness illegal activity and subsequently report on the activities.

The Bro Whisperer

Though little data exists to confirm the role of these environments in sexual-assault rates, my analyses suggest that campuses without such out-of-sight, out-of-mind residential spaces are less likely to harbor and sustain serial predators. That would mean that colleges and universities with lots of dorms and few off-campus options might be less rape-prone, especially if RAs are required to attend official dorm parties. (That’s also why I’ve proposed that colleges experiment with policies stipulating that only sororities—and not fraternities—serve alcohol as a means of reducing the prevalence of sexual assault on campus. Then, sisters would decide who gets into a party and who doesn’t—and when a woman gets too drunk, she can, of course, go upstairs to her own room.)

Third, time matters just as much as location. A majority of sexual assaults take place during the “red zone,” those first three months of college life—generally from first-year orientation to Thanksgiving break. According to a Justice Department report, more than half of all campus sexual assaults take place between August and November. A subsequent article in The Journal of American College Health found much higher rates of sexual assault among first-year women than among those in their second year. So, campuses that pay attention to the timing of sexual assaults—by developing mentorship opportunities pairing freshmen with juniors and seniors, for example, or even organizing weekly programming— would be in a far better position to prevent them and hence theoretically less “rape-prone.” (It seems that few, if any, such programs currently exist.)

Fourth, campuses with large and powerful Greek systems tend to also be places that place exceptional value in sports. A relatively dated, but reputable, survey suggested that athletes are overrepresented in reports of sexual assaults on campuses. Not all athletes are equally likely to be accused of sexual assault. Research suggests that the so-called “helmet sports”—football, hockey, and lacrosse—are dramatically overrepresented in incidents of assault, while tennis, swimming, soccer, and track are far less so. The “revenue” sports also exist in a protected bubble of alumni boosters and loyal local fans (including police and prosecutors) who run constant interference for them. Living “under the dome” may keep residents inside on television, but on campus, that dome is what keeps others out.

Finally, there are the ways in which young men and women tend to interact with each other on campus. For two decades, the UCLA psychologist Neil Malamuth has surveyed students using an “attractiveness-to-sexual-aggression scale,” which measures respondents’ inclination toward sexual aggression, as well as the likelihood that they would consider using such aggression. He’s found that between 16 percent and 20 percent of male students said they’d commit rape if they could be certain of getting away with it. That’s at least one in six. When he used the phrase “force a woman to have sex” instead of “rape,” the percentage jumped to between 36 percent and 44 percent—that means for nearly two out of every five guys, the key deterrent seems to be the fear of getting caught.

Based on Lisak’s research, the sense of entitlement—to act with impunity—seems to be what enables so many guys to believe they can do what they want. And, when they’re enabled and abetted by administrators and alumni and boosters, they’re largely right.

All of these structural variables may help clarify what distinguishes “rape free” and “rape prone” campuses and, ultimately, allow college and university presidents to more accurately assess the prevalence of sexual assault on their own campuses. They wouldn’t eliminate sexual assault on America’s college campuses—but they outline some empirically testable structural changes that just might have an effect.

Sexual assault happens everywhere, yes, but it happens more often in some places than in others. As the aforementioned research on athletics and fraternities suggests, it likely happens the most on residential college campuses where there are lots of people of the same age going to alcohol-soaked parties in all-male residences with no official administrative oversight—in places there is a high-level of gender inequality in social life, a pervasive attitude male sexual entitlement—in places where men bond over sexual conquests and believe that true brotherhood means silence. Tinker with any of those variables, and there might be some shifts in rates. Take them all on, and assault rates will, I would hypothesize, plummet.

Timeout for Opt-Outs?


A new poll suggests that a majority of adults think annual standardized testing is a good thing. They’re not as fond of the opt-out movement.

Mark Humphrey / AP

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Americans aren’t as pissed off about standardized testing as headlines often make it seem. In fact, it looks like most of the country’s adults support it. What the public isn’t so fond of are the people who are pissed off—the ones who are so pissed off they’re boycotting the assessments as part of a growing “opt-out movement.”

These are some of the conclusions of a new poll of roughly 4,100 adults, administered by Education Next, a journal out of Stanford’s Hoover Institution, and analyzed by researchers at Harvard’s Kennedy School and Louisiana State’s Public Policy Research Lab. The survey results contain important and often counterintuitive insight into what Americans really think about all the brouhaha surrounding education policy.

As indicated by the public-policy researchers—Louisiana State’s Michael Henderson and Harvard’s Paul Peterson and Martin West—these findings are likely to help shape forthcoming education debates on Capitol Hill and elsewhere. The Senate and House will soon come together to deliberate rewrites to the long-standing federal education law that was most recently rewritten as No Child Left Behind. Since its creation half a century ago, this law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), has largely widened the gaps it was designed to “bridge.”

The national backlash against testing has been pervasive and hard to ignore. It’s even gotten teacher’s unions and Tea Party Republicans to join forces. In New York, which is said to be the boycott’s epicenter, 20 percent of students in tested grades opted out of the state’s Common Core-aligned exams this past school year. That’s more than 200,000 kids.

Highly polarized debates over the use of test scores as part of school-reform efforts have stymied efforts to overhaul the ESEA, which was supposed to be reauthorized years ago. Now, Congress is closer than ever to finally doing away with George W. Bush’s version and replacing it with something that gives states more control. But the Senate’s leading proposal—the Every Child Achieves Act—doesn’t reduce the emphasis on testing. And that’s causing major consternation among some Republicans who reason that the federal government’s reliance on test scores for accountability is both counterproductive and universally unpopular. After all, isn’t overtesting a key reason why so many American people believe No Child Left Behind actually worsened education?

For many, exercising the parental right to opt out of testing isn’t only understandable—it’s respectable. The prominent education-policy analyst Diane Ravitch indicated in a blog post earlier this year that if Congress members—and the president and governors and legislators—were to support the opt-out movement, they would be “[hearing] the voice of the people.”

But based on the new poll results, it seems that’s the voice of a relatively small group of people. Only about 25 percent of the general public supports the opt-out movement, while roughly 60 percent opposes it.

The survey findings—which reflect a nationally representative cross-section of American adults—raise questions about the merits of the opt-out movement and its clout in policy talks. Some Senators and Representatives have insisted on rewriting the ESEA in a way that bolsters parents’ opt-out rights. (Under current regulations, schools need to test at least 95 percent of their students.) “The parents know what the system is doing and have a right to inquire,” stated the Republican Senator Johnny Isakson last month, touting the passage of his amendment—a relatively moderate provision that would require better access for parents to test-participation regulations and rights.

The House version of the law’s rewrite includes an amendment that explicitly allows parents nationwide to exempt their kids from testing. The Hill quoted the amendment’s author, the Republican Representative Matt Salmon, as saying, “parents are becoming increasingly fed up with such constant and onerous testing requirements, as well as the teachers.” And efforts to facilitate these exemptions are happening at the state level, too. Oregon, for example, recently passed a law similar to the Isakson amendment.

Nuances are evident once the data is broken down into subgroups. Unsurprisingly, the people who dislike opt-outs the most are Democrats, with 61 percent of them in opposition, versus just 22 percent in support. Parents and teachers in particular are more supportive of opt-outs, with about a third of each group endorsing them (though the objection to it is almost just as strong as that of the general public).

Meanwhile, African Americans and Hispanics (which, along with teachers, were oversampled in the survey) fall somewhere in the middle, and they appear to be the least opposed to the movement. Notably, civil-rights groups, many of them advocating on behalf of children of color, have been especially vocal in their opposition to testing exemptions on the grounds that the data is critical to improving the outcomes of disadvantaged students.

Also noteworthy is that a sizable chunk of Republican respondents actually say they oppose the movement: 57 percent, which puts them in second place (tied with teachers) if each subgroup were to be ranked on how much they object to opt outs. To be sure, as a Republican education summit earlier this week demonstrated, there’s hardly any consensus on testing within the GOP. The New York Times reported that Jeb Bush, for one, emphasized his support for annual testing, invoking one of his brother’s signature phrases when defending the mandate: the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”

The Education Next survey (whose results were published a day before the summit) found overwhelming support for the assessment requirement: About two-thirds of the general public supports the requirement, while only a fifth or so opposes it. That ratio is relatively consistent across the subgroups—except one: teachers.

But even teachers were just short of coming out with a majority opposition to the testing. In fact, they appear evenly split on the topic, with just under half of the group each supporting or opposing the federal requirement.

These survey results could suggest that Bush’s education platform is more representative of the American people than that of his contenders. After all, most of the Republicans candidates have vowed to get rid of the Common Core despite data from the survey suggesting that just over a third of the general public opposes it. Moreover, as the Education Next researchers write, although support for the standards has continued to decline, the rate of decline “slowed markedly … perhaps suggesting that opinion on the issue has begun to stabilize.”

But again, there are nuances. The survey found that, though only a minority of the general public opposes the Common Core, it continues to lose outright support. This year’s poll found that just about half—49 percent—of Americans overall support the standards, down from 53 percent last year. And even though Education Next varied the questions’ wording for some respondents—replacing the phrase “Common Core” with the more generic “standards in reading and math that are the same across the states”—opinion was relatively consistent.

That comparison is notable given numerous polls, including this one and a survey earlier this year, indicating widespread misperceptions about the standards. The Education Next researchers say these details are an encouraging sign for proponents because “the broader public’s opposition to the Common Core appears to rest on a shallow factual foundation.” A fourth of the respondents residing in the few states that don’t use Common Core believed their districts were using the standards. Another curious finding: The label “Common Core” played a significant role in shaping teachers’ opinion on it, with 48 percent of them supporting the generic idea of universal “standards” and only 40 percent of them supporting “Common Core.”

Ultimately, the findings as a whole suggest that education-reform policies face what the Washington Post might describe as a “public-relations challenge.” People tend to like (or at least not dislike) the building blocks of those policies: annual testing, universal standards, an emphasis on “core” academic subjects, and so on. But when those building blocks come with fraught political labels or, in the case of teachers, personal stakes, feelings start to change.

“School reform”—the improvement of schools—is starting to mean precisely the opposite in the eyes of the many American people. Public support for each of the seven categories outlined by Education Next as part of the “school-reform agenda” (from charter schools to ending tenure) has declined compared to last year.

“In retrospect it looks as if 2014, an election year that swept Republicans into power in Congress and many state capitals, propelled school reform to a high-water mark that has proven difficult to sustain,” the study’s researchers wrote, acknowledging some of the caveats to their findings. “School reformers might take the 2015 findings as a red light on the dashboard, a warning that efforts to alter the public’s thinking on education policy may be faltering.”

Who’s Picking Up the Cost of Graduate Student Debt?


The number of student-loan holders enrolled in income-based repayment plans has jumped by more than 50 percent since last year.

Brian Snyder / Reuters

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A government program that allows student loan borrowers to significantly reduce their monthly payments is growing in popularity—and increasingly eating into federal coffers.

The U.S. Department of Education is sticking to the rosier news in a brief report released this week that shows the number of U.S. student-loan holders enrolled in income-based repayment plans has jumped by more than 50 percent since last year. According to the government, 3.9 million borrowers have signed up for income-based repayment plans as of this June.

But while these programs, which have existed in some form since 1994 but were supercharged only in the past few years, can cut monthly loan payments by hundreds of dollars for individual borrowers, their cost to taxpayers overall is rising fast.

There are several versions of income-based repayment, some more affordable than others. But most function like this: Borrowers whose incomes don’t exceed a certain threshold relative to their debt repay a smaller portion of the monthly payment they would otherwise be required to submit. Depending on the program, the qualified borrower pays either 10 or 15 percent of his or her income over a duration of 20 or 25 years (10 years if the borrower spends that entire time employed at a government or nonprofit position). Any amount not paid off after those periods is excused, a perk that can translate into hundreds of thousands of dollars for borrowers with high student-debt loads.

$57,500 if the student has an independent tax status, and $31,000 if the student is considered a dependent—the only stipulation for graduate students is that they take out no more than the cost of attendance, which in addition to tuition includes living expenses. The result is that the borrowers who likely need debt relief the least—graduate students, who on average earn far more than even bachelor’s degree holders—can look forward to the most generous debt relief through income-based repayment programs.

The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that graduate-school loans account for 40 percent of the entire $1.2 trillion student debt pie, even though just 14 percent of borrowers attended a graduate school program. In the past decade, the percentage of borrowers with debts exceeding $100,000 has quintupled to nearly 2 million borrowers, the Journal notes.

Already more than $200 billion in loans are signed up through income-based repayment programs, according to a Bloomberg Business article that ran in early August, which appears to be a big change from a year and a half ago, when 1.3 million borrowers were enrolled in the programs. The most recent DOE data shows there are 41 million borrowers overall in the United States repaying their public student loans.

The uptick in borrowers with repayment plans pegged to their incomes is one of the reasons the Congressional Budget Office in January and March estimated that student-loan debt will cost taxpayers an additional $66 billion in the period between 2015 and 2024. Given the income the government generates from various other federal student loan programs, it claims taxpayers still come out ahead in servicing student loans, particularly graduate student loans and those taken out by parents for their kids (though there’s a fierce debate over whether the government calculates its student debt revenue accurately).

take out large amounts of debt that’d be excused after 10 years as part of the income-based repayment program’s public-service provision.

Already, roughly half of current income-based repayment participants are former graduate-school students. “It makes sense. If you have a low loan balance, you can’t even use [income-based repayment] because it won’t lower your monthly payment,” Delisle said. For borrowers with graduate-school loans, the stakes are higher. “They enroll because they need it,” he said.

Various think-tanks and the Obama administration are proposing to close some of the loopholes that allow borrowers with graduate-school loan debt to forgo paying large chunks of what they owe. A recent rule released by the administration would extend the loan-repayment period from 20 years to 25 years for some graduate-school borrowers, but also forgive some portion of the unpaid interest each month. In other words, the rule packs in a new restriction and benefit at the same time.

“We have a federal program that will provide a $150,000 of loan forgiveness to someone who graduates from Georgetown Law, but a poor kid who wants to go to Georgetown undergrad can only get $5,000 a year,” Delisle said. “I would struggle to find a more regressive federal education policy,” he added.

Still, while much attention is being paid to wealthier borrowers, many students who could benefit from the financial cushion income-based repayment plans provide are struggling to sign up for them. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau points to the complexity of the initial application process and the fact that borrowers must reapply each year as chief hurdles students face in taking advantage of income-based repayment programs.

‘School Choice on Steroids’

Chatfield High School in Minnesota doesn’t offer sociology (or German or criminology, for that matter), but when senior Keagan Clarke, 18, finished a fall-semester class in psychology, his teacher suggested he try the subject. And thanks to a relatively new state policy, he could. Over the course of the spring semester, Clarke went to the school library during second period for an online sociology class.

“It was very cool,” said Clarke, noting it lived up to his psychology teacher’s description: “It was a very interesting topic with some things that will tie back to psychology.”

The state initiative that made this possible is, as one proponent described it, like “school choice on steroids.” Estimates suggest that at least 10 states have adopted policies that allow students, most of them in high school, to take classes part-time online (and sometimes in off-campus classrooms), courtesy of a variety of providers they can choose from, including charter schools and other districts. Collectively, these policies are often referred to by advocates as “Course Access” or “Course Choice.” The idea behind the programs is to expand students’ options beyond the limited offerings available on their campuses or at one state virtual school. And the Course Access movement has been gaining momentum nationwide, with eight states adopting or considering such laws in just the last four years, according to a report on Course Access.

For Clarke and other students, online schools mean options, but for district officials, they can mean less revenue, as education dollars flow toward charter schools or other districts that offer the online courses. Not unlike what often happens with charter schools and vouchers, these policies can set up a competition for public funding.

States generally allocate money per student to districts, but in states with Course Access, districts have to share that funding based on the number of courses a student takes elsewhere. In some cases, much of the money can end up in the hands of for-profit companies that supply the curriculum, directly provide the classes, or run the online schools in which students enroll part time.

“What is possible is the exploding wiring—if you will—of money across district lines or even state lines,” said Patricia Burch, an associate professor of education and policy at USC. “That can have a very immediate funding implication for a district.”

School administrators echo Burch’s concerns. “It is a significant cost,” said Randy Paulson, the principal of Chatfield High, which he acknowledged can manage the strain partly because no more than 40 of its 400 students total are taking an online class annually. In Chatfield’s case, nearly all the classes are provided by the Minnesota Virtual Academy, run by the nearby Houston Public School District, with help from the for-profit company K12 Inc. “What we want to do is serve our own students the best we can,” said Paulson, noting that adding an online class or two sometimes helps keep kids in school. “We don’t want to lose students.”

Similar to efforts to open charters or offer vouchers for private schools, Course Access aims to allow students and their families to make choices in their education. Advocates believe that the programs have universal appeal, even for those either wouldn’t consider leaving their local schools or don’t have the option of a nearby charter. “We think the market is infinite,” said Mary Gifford, of K12 Inc., which is the nation’s largest virtual-school operator and provides the curriculum and some management for the school where Clarke and his classmates enrolled. Although no more than 2 percent of U.S. students will ever enroll in virtual schools full-time, she said, the company is now working closely with districts to help them start online programs as part of Course Access policies.

So far, only a tiny fraction of eligible students have enrolled in online classes. For example, in Minnesota, which began allowing part-time online enrollment in 2006, roughly 1 percent of the state’s secondary-school students enrolled during the 2013-14 school year, according to state data. But on top of for-profit education businesses, that policy has powerful backers, including at least three Republican presidential candidates—Jeb Bush, Bobby Jindal, and Scott Walker—along with conservative groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC, the Koch Industries-backed association of state legislators and businesses).

John Bailey, who oversees policy issues at the Jeb Bush-founded Foundation for Excellence in Education—which along with the lobbying firm EducationCounsel co-sponsored the aforementioned Course Access report—pointed out that just two governors campaigned for the policies last election cycle: Illinois’s Bruce Rauner and Texas’s Greg Abbott. “When a policy reaches that high a profile,” Bailey said, “you’re making some progress.

And the group Chiefs for Change, also founded by Jeb Bush, is pushing to include a provision in the update to the federal No Child Left Behind Act to set aside 5 percent of Title I dollars to be used, among other things, for Course Access. (The House version of the bill already sets aside 3 percent, or roughly $410 million, mostly for outside tutoring services; changes could be made when the House and Senate versions are reconciled in conference committee.)

Many of these backers prefer the term “Course Access” to “Course Choice,” to distinguish it from school choice and the controversies surrounding it, and also as a way of indicating its focus on expanding access where it’s needed. Widespread shortfalls in key classes—only half of high schools nationwide offer calculus, for example—have become a rallying cry for supporters, particularly as states try to better prepare students for life after high school and ramp up STEM offerings.

“Having a high-quality education must no longer depend on location,” wrote Jeb Bush in the introduction to last year’s Course Access policy brief. “For the next generation of students, the international stakes are too high to restrict access to great courses based on zip code.”

Yet the program may not actually be creating greater access for the very kids who might need it most—at least not yet. Participating students in Texas are wealthier and whiter overall than the public-school population as a whole, for example. Data on the Florida Virtual School show a similar trend. In Utah, a stunningly low 6 percent of students participating in the state’s program are considered poor enough to qualify for a fee waiver, though officials have suggested that course providers could be providing incorrect information.

When Utah passed its Course Access law in 2011, school districts panicked over what it would do to their budgets. “We were fearful because those who were pushing it were pretty intense,” said Ken Grover, now the principal of Salt Lake City’s Innovations Early College High School, describing billboards that advertised free online courses.

The initiative—officially called the Statewide Online Education Program—has been gradually phased in. While remaining enrolled at their local schools, high-school students this upcoming year will be able to take as many as five classes online. Last year, when according to state data it cost $366 per student per semester, students could take four classes, and next year they can take up to six (usually considered a full load of coursework). The Utah law also allows private-school and homeschooled students to participate through a separate funding stream.

Utah’s policy was the model for what the program’s conservative backers  had imagined. In fact, its legislation was one of two—the other one is based on policies in Louisiana and Texas—officially approved by the Koch-backed ALEC. The disaster that the state’s public-school districts anticipated never materialized—partly because, within a few months, many of those districts had established online schools to compete for dollars with the online charter schools.

Canyons School District, for example, went from having no online students in 2011 to 1,900 this past year, all of whom are enrolled part time and the vast majority of whom come from within the district, said Darren Draper, who runs what’s believed to be the district’s largest part-time school. “If we didn’t build [Canyons Virtual High School], we would have many students going elsewhere, without question,” Draper said. Just under 1,400 students statewide took an online class outside of their district in 2014-15, according to preliminary figures, meaning district budgets were largely spared. In the end, both advocates and skeptics of the change can claim victory in Utah—at least so far.

Course Access backers, however, claim credit for creating the competition that spurred the public schools to change. “The amount of options skyrocketed in some form or another,” said Robyn Bagley, who chairs the board for the Utah group Parents for Choice in Education, emphasizing that the program will continue to expand.

But Grover doesn’t expect to see a spike in numbers, arguing that most parents prefer to have their kids go to a physical campus. “They want them at school learning,” he said. “It’s their identity.”

Rural school districts across Texas are using its version of Course Access to ensure students fulfill basic high-school requirements and even to save money. In the tiny 100-student Dell City Independent School District, every single secondary-school student was enrolled in an online social-studies class after the district’s teacher left mid-year. Algebra II and Spanish classes were also offered virtually, said Veronica Gomez, a P.E. teacher who doubles as a liaison to state’s Court Access program, Texas Virtual Academy Network. We’re “out in the middle of nowhere,” she said, stressing that staff shortages has forced the district to offer online options. But the online program has other advantages, too: “It’s cheaper for us. We don’t have to pay benefits or anything like that.”

Most Texas districts, however, appear to be taking a different route: opting to spend money on their own schools and teachers rather than on online classes. When the state originally started up the program’s catalog, in 2009, students could take courses online without the districts having to cover the costs; the state had allocated a separate pool of money for the program. But after the state stopped covering the cost, the number of spots filled in the semester-long online classes dropped precipitously, from roughly 22,900 in 2010-11 to about 5,800 three years later.

The law’s wording may have been a major factor: It says districts can turn down a student’s request for a state-vetted online class only if his or her school offers a “substantially similar” class. Backers of Course Access suspect that many districts are interpreting that provision generously. (An attempt to get the legislature to close that apparent loophole didn’t pass.)

In a strikingly innovative move, Louisiana adopted a program that includes off-campus classes on top of online ones. The original law allowed for-profit companies and other outside groups to compete to directly provide the online or in-person classes, with funding going to the ones selected by families. But fierce political opposition to the Course Choice program prompted a change to the law, with the Supreme Court deeming its funding approach unconstitutional because it didn’t give school boards a say. Since being revamped by the legislature—which removed the competition for resources, gave schools control over students’ enrollment, and added additional money—the program has expanded rapidly and been championed by the state as a model for Course Access policies. And some Course Access proponents now say a program that doesn’t start off as competitive for funding may be best.

Still, state superintendent John White said it hasn’t lived up to his original vision: a program that would, in theory, bring new and inspiring classes to high-school students preparing for life after graduation with “things that would not have existed without Course Choice.” Although some novel offerings, such as welding and an elite private college’s associate’s degree program, have flourished under the revised policy, Louisiana’s schools most commonly use it to equip high schoolers with college credits through existing courses at the state’s postsecondary institutions. However, White acknowledged that support from educators for the revised program has allowed the state to better collaborate with them in addressing students’ needs.

Of course, for many advocates of Course Access, the ultimate goal is to give students and parents more of a say in school spending. Nevada recently passed a law that allows parents to spend state education dollars any way they please  through education savings accounts, or “vouchers on steroids,” as they were called in one news story about the legislation. Parents can decide whether to spend those allocations on private, public, online, part-time, or full-time schools, on tutoring or extra books. (Four other states have similar laws, but they significantly limit the savings accounts significantly—to students with special needs, in foster care, and/or from high-poverty households.)

Policy-wise, ALEC’s Lindsay Russell says Course Choice is evolving “into what you may know as an educational savings account” and is part of a greater national shift in education. Students, she emphasized need to be competitive not only within the U.S. but also globally “as we continue to slip.” “I think education savings accounts are the purest form of educational freedom,” she continued.

“Nevada is the poster child for seeing a different way to approach this,” said Michael Horn, the co-founder and executive director of the Clayton Christensen Institute. “We need to step back and start learning what policy environments work in terms of incentivizing the right behavior.”

Indeed, while seemingly less radical than Nevada’s approach, Course Access in its current form tends to appeal to conservatives because of its approach to accountability, with schools and providers generally getting their money only when a student completes the course or otherwise fulfills all the requirements. Proponents say this is paying for the right thing: results rather than student attendance alone—especially given the dismal completion rates for online classes. (In Louisiana and Utah, course providers receive half on enrollment and half when the course is completed, for example.)

As Horn put it, “Course Access is this intriguing place to play with a lot of policies”—policies “that move away from seat time toward [things like] competency-based learning and measuring individual student growth.”

This story was produced in collaboration with The Hechinger Report.

Single Moms and Welfare Woes: A Higher-Education Dilemma

Jacklyn Trainor was a 28-year-old single mother in a writing class I taught in 2014 at Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Trainor was raising two kids, juggling childcare, homework, and waitressing. (Because I’m open about my own struggles attending graduate school as a single parent, students often ask me for advice or share their experiences.) “I hated working dead-end jobs and barely getting by,” Trainor, whose last name back then was Canales, recently told me. “I really want to further my education to get a career and a better life for my kids.”

For Trainor, hard circumstances made achieving that goal difficult. She’d defaulted on a student loan a few years earlier from a false start in nursing school, so it was nearly impossible to qualify for financial aid to go back to college. But Trainor was lucky; her family offered to pay for a few classes at Housatonic Community College, or HCC.

Out of the 12 million single-parent families in the United States, the vast majority—more than 80 percent—are headed by women. These households are more likely than any other demographic group to fall below the poverty line. In fact, census data shows that roughly 40 percent of single-mother-headed families are poor. Why? Experts point to weak social-safety nets, inadequate child support, and low levels of education, among other factors.

Although most poor, single mothers today are employed, many of them are working in low-wage jobs, often in positions without benefits. Earning a college degree is typically the best route to a high-paying career but many of these women find it hard to squeeze classes into a schedule already packed with work and childcare. One study of 158 single-mother college students in New York found that 100 percent of the former welfare recipients who earned four-year degrees stopped relying on public-benefit programs, compared to 81 percent of those who got two-year degrees. If earning a degree is so effective in ending poor mothers’ reliance on welfare, why aren’t policymakers making it easier for low-income single moms to go college? The answer is complicated.

For single parents who rely on public assistance, college classes do not count as “work” in most states, so many of those who return to school lose access to benefits like childcare vouchers and cash assistance. The Welfare Reform Act of 1996, which limited recipients’ access to cash assistance, also restricted the definition of “work” to nine core categories. Work credit is largely limited to vocation-focused educational training, and only for a maximum of one year. Each state has its own specific regulations.

For Trainor, attending classes counted toward some of her work benefits. So, every two weeks, she would wait until the classroom emptied to ask me to sign her work-verification forms and confirm she’d been in school. To retain eligibility for cash assistance, the state of Connecticut requires that recipients meet two times a week with their caseworkers to provide documented proof of any hours they work, attend school, or search for a job.

Even complying with all of the complicated regulations doesn’t guarantee recipients receive benefits when they need them, as Jessica McLeod, a single mother in Boston, discovered. I first interviewed McLeod for my dissertation a few years back. She’d lived in a shelter before she enrolled in community college. After earning a 3.7 GPA in community college, she was accepted into the nursing program at Bay State College, a for-profit institution that primarily offers two-year degrees. As a full-time student at Bay State, McLeod relied on food stamps, cash assistance, and a childcare voucher for her 8-year-old daughter Alia.

“I went through three different caseworkers who were so nasty about my being a full-time student,” said McLeod, who’s now 38 and working full-time as a registered nurse. As with Trainor, the caseworkers had to verify McLeod’s work-participation paperwork to ensure she was fulfilling all of the benefit program’s requirements. And even though education programs like the one in which McLeod was enrolled can count toward those requirements, it seems that caseworkers often favor vocational training as opposed to college classes. “Unless you’re doing their training to become a home health aide … [the caseworkers] just want you working,” McLeod said. “Don’t they understand I’m going to college so that I don’t have to use these benefits anymore?”

Studies in Georgia and California show a similar lack of support among welfare caseworkers for poor mothers trying to earn college degrees. Slightly more than half of the recipients surveyed in the California study reported that their welfare caseworkers were a “hindrance” to their college success. In interviews with case managers in Georgia, Fiona Pearson, an associate professor of sociology at Central Connecticut State University, found that some admitted to discouraging single-mother recipients from pursuing educational opportunities and instead steering them toward paid work. “Even if they felt themselves that a particular [cash-assistance] participant should stay in school, they felt bound by [federal] policy to counsel them away from a four-year degree,” Pearson told me.

Indeed, according to Pearson, the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program encourages caseworkers to focus on work versus education. In her paper, published in the journal Gender & Society in 2007, Pearson cited the 2006 law reauthorizing the program as the reason behind that shift in focus: “The TANF program was not intended to be a college scholarship program for postsecondary education,” the law reads.

As a nursing student, McLeod was required to document 20 hours per week of additional volunteer or work activities to remain eligible for welfare benefits. She said she always submitted those forms on time. Still, the state kept terminating her benefits, saying she’d failed to fulfill the requirements or submit the necessary forms.

“It’s an awful feeling to get that letter in the mail, saying your childcare voucher has been terminated,” said McLeod, adding that she spent hours in various offices trying to get her benefits straightened out, sometimes even missing school. Finally, McLeod found a legal-aid attorney who managed to reinstate her benefits after talking to officials at the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA), which oversees the state’s welfare programs.

The DTA doesn’t comment on individual cases, but Thomas Mills, the department’s spokesman, emphasized its commitment to “helping those in need gain the skills and experience necessary to obtain and maintain economic self-sufficiency.” He added that “gaining an education is an essential component to escaping poverty, and DTA encourages clients to take advantage of educational activities during their time-limited benefits.” (McLeod no longer relies on food stamps, childcare, or cash assistance.)

* * *

Until 1996, most welfare recipients could pursue a four-year degree under the Job Opportunities and Basic Skills Training program, though some states limited higher-education opportunities to associate’s degrees. Just before welfare reform, 649,000 student parents were receiving cash assistance while enrolled full-time in education programs. Today, there are more parents than ever enrolled in college—one study estimates 4.8 million. But only 35,000 full-time students receive TANF aid, largely because of the policy reform. This trend can be seen at higher-education institutions across the country. The City University of New York, for example, had 27,000 welfare recipients enrolled in 1995. By 2000, the number had fallen to somewhere between 5,000 and 6,000. It’s hovered around that number ever since.

There is one federal program—TRIO—aimed at helping disadvantaged students “progress through the academic pipeline,” but it’s generally earmarked for those who are low-income, the first in their families to go to college, or disabled. While many single mothers would probably qualify for TRIO support because they’re low-income, the program doesn’t target service at their specific needs. The program’s website bears no specific mention of “student parents.”

Meanwhile, experts suggest that most of America’s postsecondary institutions are ill-equipped to meet the needs of the growing numbers of student parents—which according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research now comprise a whopping 26 percent of the country’s overall undergraduate-student population. (Colleges appear unable to deal with and accommodate poor students in general, including those who are homeless or rely on food stamps, despite their growing numbers.)

The limited on-campus support helps explain why so few student parents complete their programs on time; just 4 percent of student parents in bachelor’s-degree programs graduate within six years, according to Autumn Green, who oversees the Center for Residential Student Parent Programs at Endicott College in Massachusetts. “We haven’t changed the way we design and provide college education,” Green said, reflecting on the country’s higher-education system. “It’s still geared toward childless 18-to-24-year-olds who are supported by their parents.”

Single parents are more likely to attend community rather than four-year residential colleges, in part because the former tend to cost less and feature more evening and part-time options, but also because targeted resources are more widely available at the latter. On-campus childcare, for instance, is widely available at community colleges in some states. It’s unclear how many single mothers would seek out or stay in four-year degree programs if childcare were more accessible at those campuses, but chances are such resources would make a bachelor’s degree a lot more appealing to student parents.

Endicott offers one of the few comprehensive residential-college programs in the U.S. designed specifically for single parents. The “Keys to Degrees” initiative arranges on-campus family housing, academic supports, and childcare or school for the kids, who eat for free with their parents in campus dining halls. Keys for Degrees boasts 100 percent employment after graduation, according to Green, and while many participants do rely on public assistance during their time in school, none of its graduates report using public benefits. The challenge is bringing highly successful resource-intensive programs like this one to scale. The Endicott program can only serve 10 students at a time.

Other schools are finding ways to support student parents by allocating money from their own budgets, too. In 2011, Portland State University—where more than a fifth of the students are parents with dependent children—increased funding to expand its Resource Center for Students with Children. The university now offers a range of services targeted at student parents, from emergency loans and childcare subsidies to family counseling and even children’s-clothing exchanges.

“Our biggest challenge is getting the word out about our programs and services,” said Lisa Wittoroff, a licensed clinical social worker who oversees the resource center. Student parents’ unique needs “can be invisible unless they have their kids with them. You don’t check a box when you apply that says you have a child. And some of them are hiding [their circumstances] because of the stigma attached to being a student parent.” Indeed, according to Pearson, some students don’t reveal their family status because they don’t want to be seen as “playing the ‘student-parent card,’ asking professors for favors even though they might actually need special accommodations.”

Amid limited resources at the colleges themselves, nonprofit organizations are also working to accommodate the needs of single-parent students. The Jeremiah Program, a Minnesota-based nonprofit, was founded in 1997 after interviews with local single-mother students revealed how little access they had to safe and stable housing and childcare. “We recognized that single-mother students had needs beyond what a typical admissions officer or career counselor could address,” said Gloria Perez, the program’s president and CEO.

The Jeremiah Program now serves roughly 300 women and children annually at locations in St. Paul and Minneapolis. The families are typically housed there and receive help with early-childhood education, academic guidance, and career counseling. (The organization is also expanding into Austin, Texas; Fargo, North Dakota; and Boston, Massachusetts.) “We’ve found that creating cohorts of women with children who are all going to school really boosts morale and creates a sense of community, the feeling that they are not alone,” Perez said. And the model seems to work: Almost all the program’s graduates earn some sort of college degree, while the remainder complete certificate programs. More than 90 percent of its recent graduates are employed or continuing their education.

* * *

When I was applying to Ph.D. programs in 2008, a former professor of mine actually advised me not to mention my status as a single parent—even though I planned to study the sociology of single-parent-headed families. During the first two years of my Ph.D. coursework, I sat through classes worrying about having to pick up my 2-year-old daughter and finish my research paper while she napped. I rarely found the time to attend on-campus lectures or study sessions, let-alone extracurricular departmental activities like Red Sox games and camping weekends in the Berkshires.

For the majority of single-parent students without access to comprehensive resources like those at the Jeremiah program, day-to-day responsibilities remain overwhelming. “Balancing everything is so hard,” Trainor, my former student, told me. “It’s like: Wake up, drop off at daycare, go to school, pick up from daycare, drop off to father or grandma, go to work, pick up, repeat … I felt like there was so much pressure on me, and I was alone.”

I recall extending a deadline for Trainor, who excelled in my writing course, after she had to miss a class because her daughter was sick. But  deadlines in her algebra course were harder to meet, she told me. Between the kids and her work schedule, she didn’t have time to finish her math homework on the library computers; the assignments required Internet access, which she couldn’t afford.

Basic needs like Internet access for homework assignments are taken for granted in the mom-and-dad-pay-tuition-and-visit-on-parents’-weekend model common at today’s colleges. A 2001 study of welfare recipients in central New York who were pursuing postsecondary degrees found that nearly three-fourths of the respondents cited an inability to juggle demands of work, family, and school as their reason for dropping out. Other common reasons included inadequate childcare or insufficient childcare funds; a lack of academic support; and feeling misunderstood or undervalued in class. “If you have a student who is hungry or who doesn’t have a safe place to live or care for their child, they can’t really be a student,” said Endicott’s Green, who also pointed to the cost of textbooks and supplies.

Between 2007 and 2012, Central Connecticut State’s Pearson interviewed 40 student parents attending community and state colleges in Connecticut, and found many of the same unmet needs. “Why don’t we provide student parents some of the same resources we offer to student athletes?” she said, citing services like priority registration and additional tutoring as resources that could help student parents to succeed.

I lost touch with Trainor for a while after she was my student. By the time I reconnected with her for this story, she had moved from Connecticut to Massachusetts, where her mother and brother live, remarried and was paying off her student loans. Once again eligible for financial aid, she’s now enrolled as a full-time student at Springfield Technical and Community College.

McLeod, too, has recently gone back to school—in her case, as a part-time student pursuing a bachelor’s degree at New Hampshire’s Saint Anselm College while continuing to work full-time. Now that her daughter is in a school program that starts at 7 a.m. and ends at 5 p.m., she no longer struggles to find childcare. “Looking back, I don’t even know how I got through it,” McLeod said. “But it’s what you do for your kids.”