More Students Are Eating Locally Sourced Food

Students in public schools are eating healthier cafeteria meals made from an increasing array of locally sourced food, according to new federal data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The USDA surveyed school districts to evaluate the impact of “Farm-to-School” programs in place at over 42,000 campuses. More than 10,000 districts provided input—a response rate of 60 percent on the survey. Among the findings: Nearly $600 million in locally produced food was purchased by schools in the 2013-14 academic year, a 55 percent increase over 2011-12 (when the first Farm-to-School census was conducted). More than half of the census respondents said they planned to increase their local food purchases in the coming year.

The new data come as Congress is debating whether to renew the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which took effect in 2012. The act brought stricter standards to publicly funded school lunchroom menus, including a greater emphasis on fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, as well as promoting foods lower in saturated fat and overall calories. A 2014 survey by the Pew Charitable Trusts, the American Heart Association, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found seven out of 10 parents supported the new standards.

But not everyone is thrilled with the new menus. The School Nutrition Association is lobbying for changes, claiming the standards have reduced participation in the school-lunch program, are costing districts financially, and have led to more food being thrown away because students don’t like it. The SNA, which represents school-meal providers, points to a Government Accountability Office report that outlines the many challenges facing school cafeterias as a result of the new rules.The group also disputes key arguments made by the regulations’ supporters. (U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack responded to some of the most common criticisms of the school-nutrition standards at a recent National Press Club event.)

In addition to factors like the quality and variety of the food offered and the eating habits students bring with them to campus from home, there’s another element Vilsack says needs closer attention: time.

At many campuses, students have less than 20 minutes to eat, giving a new meaning to “fast food.” Crowded high schools also use so-called “nutrition breaks” instead of lunch hours so they can start funneling kids through the cafeteria in the mid-morning hours. And in the younger grades the lunchtime is often tacked on to recess, which means kids have to choose between eating and going outside to play.

“I don’t think we’re asking schools to do too much,” Vilsack told me in a telephone interview Monday. Rather, the problem is “we’re asking them to do it all in too brief a period a time … not just to feed students, but to educate them.”

To be sure, the Farm to School program requires a significant commitment of time and resources from participating districts. The individual responses from local school districts detail how much they’ve spent on locally sourced food, the number of campuses involved in the program, and more.

Of the census respondents, 75 percent of districts said they saw at least one of the following benefits at their campuses with Farm to School programs: “less plate waste; improved acceptance of the healthier school meals; increased participation in school meals programs; lower school meal program costs; and increased support from parents and community members for the healthier school meals.”

The new census data follows a flurry of studies on school nutrition in recent months, in some instances yielding contradictory results about the impact of the new federal regulations.

A Vermont study, for example, used photographs of students’ trays before and after meals to gauge which specific food items weren’t being eaten. (Spoiler alert: The green beans were particularly unpopular.) The researcher concluded “Children consumed fewer [fruits and vegetables] and wasted more … during the school year immediately following implementation of the USDA rule that required them to take one fruit or vegetable at lunch.”

The University of Connecticut compared the lunchtime eating habits of middle schoolers at 12 campuses in a low-income district between 2012 (before the federal rule change) and 2014 (after the new rules were in place). Summing up the findings for the journal Childhood Obesity, the researchers wrote: “Students responded positively … consumed more fruit, threw away less of the entrees and vegetables, and consumed the same amount of milk. Overall, the revised meal standards and policies appear to have significantly lowered plate waste in school cafeterias.”

Does one of these studies override the other? Not necessarily. Rather, they both highlight the difficulty in measuring something as variable—and varied—as students’ eating habits, which are strongly influenced by their lives outside of school. And this is a good example of the thoughtful lens that needs to be used when weighing the relative value of education research.

Even the Vermont researcher, Sarah Amin, told WBUR Radio her findings shouldn’t be used to doom the new standards. Many students weren’t used to choosing a fruit or vegetable with lunch, Amin said, and there could be a steeper learning curve for older students whose food preferences are more firmly set, compared with kindergarteners whose palates might be more malleable.

The USDA is trying to address some of the logistical factors and encourage innovation, according to Vilsack. That includes grants aimed at helping districts, especially those in rural and less-affluent communities, update their kitchen equipment to offer tastier campus fare. A federal program encouraging school gardens is also boosting healthy eating, as students have a sense of pride in eating fruits and vegetables they’ve helped to grow, Vilsack said.

I asked Vilsack what would be considered a “win” for the new nutritional standards—perhaps media outlets in other countries running photos of American school lunches and sighing with envy, rather than the other way around?

But Vilsack offered more trenchant goals highlighting the very serious challenges facing this country at either end of the nutritional spectrum. He wants to see a continued decline in two groups of children: those who don’t have regular access to adequate nutrition—known as “food insecurity”—and those who have obesity-related health conditions.

“To me,” Vilsack said, “that’s headed in the right direction.”

This post appears courtesy of the Education Writers Association.

The Sexism of School Dress Codes

Maggie Sunseri was a middle-school student in Versailles, Kentucky, when she first noticed a major difference in the way her school’s dress code treated males and females. Girls were disciplined disproportionately, she says, a trend she’s seen continue over the years. At first Sunseri simply found this disparity unfair, but upon realizing administrators’ troubling rationale behind the dress code—that certain articles of girls’ attire should be prohibited because they “distract” boys—she decided to take action.

“I’ve never seen a boy called out for his attire even though they also break the rules,” says Sunseri, who last summer produced Shame: A Documentary on School Dress Code, a film featuring interviews with dozens of her classmates and her school principal, that explores the negative impact biased rules can have on girls’ confidence and sense of self. The documentary now has tens of thousands of YouTube views, while a post about the dress-code policy at her high school—Woodford County High—has been circulated more than 45,000 times on the Internet.

Although dress codes have long been a subject of contention, the growth of platforms like Facebook and Instagram, along with a resurgence of student activism, has prompted a major uptick in protests against attire rules, including popular campaigns similar to the one championed by Sunseri. Conflict over these policies has also spawned hundreds of petitions and numerous school walkouts. Many of these protests have criticized the dress codes as sexist in that they unfairly target girls by body-shaming and blaming them for promoting sexual harassment. Documented cases show female students being chastised by school officials, sent home, or barred from attending events like prom.

Meanwhile, gender non-conforming and transgender students have also clashed with such policies on the grounds that they rigidly dictate how kids express their identities. Transgender students have been sent home for wearing clothing different than what’s expected of their legal sex, while others have been excluded from yearbooks. Male students, using traditionally female accessories that fell within the bounds of standard dress code rules, and vice versa, have been nonetheless disciplined for their fashion choices. These cases are prompting their own backlash.

Dress codes—given the power they entrust school authorities to regulate student identity—can, according to students, ultimately establish discriminatory standards as the norm. The prevalence and convergence of today’s protests suggest that schools not only need to update their policies—they also have to recognize and address the latent biases that go into creating them.

* * *

At Woodford County High, the dress code bans skirts and shorts that fall higher than the knee and shirts that extend below the collarbone. Recently, a photo of a female student at the school who was sent home after wearing a seemingly appropriate outfit that nonetheless showed collarbone—went viral on Reddit and Twitter.

The restrictions and severity of dress codes vary widely across states, 22 of which have some form of law granting local districts the power to establish these rules, according to the Education Commission of the States. In the U.S., over half of public schools have a dress code, which frequently outline gender-specific policies. Some administrators see these distinctions as necessary because of the different ways in which girls and boys dress. In many cases, however, female-specific policies account for a disproportionate number of the attire rules included in school handbooks. Arkansas’s statewide dress code, for example, exclusively applies to females. Passed in 2011, the law “requires districts to prohibit the wearing of clothing that exposes underwear, buttocks, or the breast of a female student.” These are certainly reasonable provisions, yet the rule makes no mention of male students revealing similar body parts.

Depending on administrators and school boards, some places are more relaxed, while others take a hard line. Policies also tend to fluctuate, according to the University of Maryland American-studies professor and fashion historian Jo Paoletti, who described dress-code adaptations as very “reactionary” to whatever happens to be popular at the time—whether it’s white go-go boots or yoga pants. Jere Hochman, the superintendent of New York’s Bedford Central School District echoes Paoletti in explaining that officials revisit his district’s policy, which has been in place “for years and years and years,” “on an informal basis.” “It’s likely an annual conversation, he notes, “based on the times and what’s changed and fads.”

While research on dress codes remains inconclusive regarding the correlation between their implementation with students’ academic outcomes, many educators agree that they can serve an important purpose: helping insure a safe and comfortable learning environment, banning T-shirts with offensive racial epithets, for example. When students break the rules by wearing something deemed inappropriate, administrators must, of course, enforce school policies.

The process of defining what’s considered “offensive” and “inappropriate,” however, can get quite murky. Schools may promote prejudiced policies, even if those biases are unintentional. For students who attend schools with particularly harsh rules like that at Woodford, one of the key concerns is the implication that women should be hypercognizant about their physical identity and how the world responds to it. “The dress code makes girls feel self-conscious, ashamed, and uncomfortable in their own bodies,” says Sunseri.

Yet Sunseri emphasizes that this isn’t where she and other students take the most issue. “It’s not really the formal dress code by itself that is so discriminatory, it’s the message behind the dress code,” she says, “My principal constantly says that the main reason for [it] is to create a ‘distraction-free learning zone’ for our male counterparts.” Woodford County is one of many districts across the country to justify female-specific rules with that logic, and effectively, to place the onus on girls to prevent inappropriate reactions from their male classmates. (Woodford County High has not responded to multiple requests for comment.)

“To me, that’s not a girl’s problem, that’s a guy’s problem,” says Anna Huffman, who recently graduated from Western Alamance High School in Elon, North Carolina, and helped organize a protest involving hundreds of participants. Further north, a group of high-school girls from South Orange, New Jersey, similarly launched a campaign last fall, #IAmMoreThanADistraction, which exploded into a trending topic on Twitter and gleaned thousands of responses from girls sharing their own experiences.

Educators and sociologists, too, have argued that dress codes grounded in such logic amplify a broader societal expectation: that women are the ones who need to protect themselves from unwanted attention and that those wearing what could be considered sexy clothing are “asking for” a response. “Often they report hearing phrases like, ‘boys will be boys,’ from teachers,” says Laura Bates, a co-founder of The Everyday Sexism Project. “There’s a real culture being built up through some of these dress codes where girls are receiving very clear messages that male behavior, male entitlement to your body in public space is socially acceptable, but you will be punished.”

“These are not girls who are battling for the right to come to school in their bikinis—it’s a principle,” she says.

There’s also the disruption and humiliation that enforcing the attire rules can pose during school. Frequently, students are openly called out in the middle of class, told to leave and change, and sometimes, to go home and find a more appropriate outfit. In some instances, girls must wear brightly colored shirts that can exacerbate the embarrassment, emblazoned with words like, “Dress Code Violator.” Some students contend this is a bigger detractor from learning than the allegedly disruptive outfit was in the first place. “That’s crazy that they’re caring more about two more inches of a girl’s thigh being shown than them being in class,” says Huffman. These interruptions can also be detrimental to peers given the time taken out from learning in order for teachers to address the issue, as Barbara Cruz, author of School Dress Codes: A Pro/Con Issue, points out.

Dress-code battles can also take place at events outside of the classroom, such as prom. At Cierra Gregersen’s homecoming dance at Bingham High School in South Jordan, Utah, administrators asked female students to sit against the wall, touch their toes, and lift their arms to determine whether their outfits were appropriate. “Girls were outside the dance crying hysterically,” says Gregersen, commenting on the public nature of the inspections and the lack of clarity around the policy. “We should not have to be treated like sexual objects because that was what it felt like.” The incident prompted Gregersen to create a popular petition and stage a walkout with more than 100 classmates, but she says she never heard back from administration. (Bingham High School has not responded to multiple requests for comment.)

* * *

Every year, Strawberry Crest High School in Dover, Florida, holds a Spirit Week right around Halloween, during which students wear outfits in accordance with each day’s theme. One of the themes last year was Throwback Thursday, enabling students to dress up in ways reminiscent of a previous decade. Peter Finucane-Terlop, a junior at the time who identifies as gay, decided to come to school in drag as a 1950s housewife.

Wearing a knee-length, baby-blue strapless dress, a button-up on top, a wig, and some make-up, Finucane-Terlop’s outfit, he says, wasn’t only accepted by his peers—it also complied with all the school’s dress-code rules: His shoulders and chest were covered, and his dress was an appropriate length.

But sometimes the ways that schools regulate attire have little to do with explicit policies. According to Finucane-Terlop, a school official commented on his outfit in the middle of the courtyard during lunch that day. Finucane-Terlop recalls him saying, “Why are you dressed like that?” and “You shouldn’t do that. You’re a boy—dress like it. What if little kids saw you?”

Finucane-Terlop says he mentioned the incident to his school counselor right after it took place but didn’t end up getting a response from administrators. April Langston, Finucane-Terlop’s counselor, and David Brown, his principal at Strawberry Crest, however, do not recall talking about or hearing of such an incident.

Beyond this specific case, Emily Greytak, the research director at GLSEN (the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network), says the organization has noticed that incidents like the one Finucane-Terlop described are becoming more frequent, when LGBT students are discriminated against either verbally, or via disciplinary action, for clothing choices that don’t fall in line with either a dress code or dress expectations that starkly demarcate different rules based on gender. According to a recent GLSEN study, 19 percent of LGBT students were prevented from wearing clothes that were thought to be from another gender and that number was even higher for transgender students, nearly 32 percent of whom have been prevented from wearing clothes that differed from those designated for their legal sex.

“This isn’t occasional; this isn’t just some students. This is something that happens quite regularly,” Greytak says. The discipline is sometimes informed by teachers’ personal biases while in other cases, school policies discriminate against transgender or gender non-conforming students expressions of their gender identity.

As Emery Vela, a sophomore, demonstrates, eventually some students manage to navigate and help reform the policies. Vela, a transgender student who attends a charter school in Denver, Colorado, dealt with this issue when looking for footwear to match his uniform in middle school, which had different requirements for boys and girls and suspended students if they broke the rule. Despite some initial pushback, the school adjusted the policy after he spoke with administrators.

“While they’re trying to achieve this goal of having a learning environment that supports learning, it’s really disadvantaging transgender and gender non-conforming students when they have to wear something that doesn’t match their identity,” Vela says.

* * *

Dress codes trace back to the 1920s and ‘30s, and conflicts over the rules have been around ever since, says Paoletti, the fashion historian: “Dress has been an issue in public schools as long as teenagers have been interested in fashion.” Several cases, including Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent Community School District in 1969, in which students alleged that wearing black armbands at school to protest the Vietnam War constituted free speech, have even gone all the way up to the Supreme Court.

The subjectivity inherent to many of these judgment calls—like the dress-code cases contending that boys with long hair would be society’s downfall—is often what ignites conflict. As with the kinds of protests staged by Sunseri and Huffman, many of the larger movements to resist school attire regulations today echo a broader momentum for women’s rights, pushing back against existing attitudes and practices. “We’ve seen a real resurgence in the popularity of feminism and feminist activism, particularly among young people and particularly in an international sense, facilitated by social media,” says Bates, who sees dress code protests as one key everyday impact of such trends. “I think that one of the striking elements of this new wave of activism is a sense of our entitlement and our courage to tackle the forms of sexism that are very subtle, that previously it was very difficult to stand up to, because you would be accused of overreacting, of making a fuss out of nothing.”

Similarly, Greytak says these conflicts are also an indicator that LGBT students are feeling safer in their school environments and able to criticize them: “It’s very possible that we are hearing more and seeing more about these cases because before less students would even feel comfortable being and expressing themselves.”

As this issue has gained exposure and traction, students have also derived inspiration from the actions of their peers, including Sunseri, who’s now in the process of negotiating changes to the dress code with her school administration, “If high-schoolers across the country were standing up for what they believed was right, why shouldn’t I?”

* * *

According to students, the best solutions for remedying these issues entail more inclusive policymaking and raising awareness about the subject. And students and administrators tend to agree that schools should involve students early on in the rule-creation process to prevent conflicts from popping up. By developing a system like this, they have a stake in the decision and are significantly more likely to both adhere and respect the final verdict.

This also helps reduce some of the subjectivity that shapes the rules and acknowledges how touchy the topic can be for all stakeholders. “It’s sensitive for the students, it’s sensitive for the parents, it’s sensitive for the teachers,” says Matt Montgomery, the superintendent of Revere Local Schools in Richfield, Ohio. “You’re in a tough position when you’re a principal evaluating the fashion sense of a 15- or 16-year-old female. Principals are doing things like engaging female counselors and other staff members to make sure that everything is okay.”

Similarly, when conflicts do arise, maintaining an open dialogue is critical. “I always tell administrators to not be on the defensive, to hear students out, to hear families out, and then to have a well-reasoned explanation and if at all possible, to look at some of the research and be able to cite some of that,” says Cruz, the author. “Most of the time, school administrators are basing their decisions more on anecdotal evidence rather than empirical research. They need to be able to explain their rationale.”

Huffman, too, highlighted the importance of student involvement.“Adults aren’t going to be shopping at American Eagle or Forever 21,” she says, “They don’t know that it’s not even possible to buy a dress that goes to your knees.” Like Huffman, Kate Brown, a senior at Montclair High School, in Montclair, New Jersey, met with school administrators after organizing a protest, helping secure many of the policy changes her campaign had sought: removing words like “distracting.”

After all, teachers and administration don’t always realize that their policies are offensive—and this is where more education comes in. “Even for a lot of teachers in 2015, they have never had a trans student or a gender-nonconforming student where they’ve had to deal with this,” Finucane-Terlop says. “It’s new to them, so I understand that they might not know how to react.”

Ultimately, such rules could be the wrong way to handle some of the issues that they purport to cover. Since so many have previously been used to address the potential of sexual harassment in schools regarding male students paying inappropriate attention to female students, it’s clear other practices, like courses on respect and harassment, may be needed to fill this gap. These initiatives would shift the focus of school policies. “Is it possible that we can educate our boys to not be “distracted” by their peers and not engage in misogyny and objectification of women’s bodies?” asks Riddhi Sandil, a psychologist and co-founder of the Sexuality, Women and Gender Project at Teachers College at Columbia University.

I think we live in a culture that’s so used to looking at issues of harassment and assault through the wrong end of the telescope,” Bates says, “that it would be really refreshing to see somebody turn it around and focus on the kind of behavior that is directed at girls rather than to police girls’ own clothing.”

There’s a growing interest in making dress codes as gender-neutral as possible as a means of reducing sexism and LGBT discrimination. But even beyond policy changes, students say there needs to be a fundamental shift in admitting that teachers and administrators come in with their own set of biases, which they may bring to creating and enforcing school rules. “I feel like there’s this misconception…that you can separate your prejudice from your profession, because so often prejudice is unconscious,” says Vela. “The biggest piece of advice I can offer is to recognize that.”

In order to combat latent prejudices, schools must first acknowledge that they exist.

A Call for Pitches on Education

When my wife was struck by mysterious, debilitating symptoms, our trip to the ER revealed the sexism inherent in emergency treatment.

Early on a Wednesday morning, I heard an anguished cry—then silence.

I rushed into the bedroom and watched my wife, Rachel, stumble from the bathroom, doubled over, hugging herself in pain.

“Something’s wrong,” she gasped.

This scared me. Rachel’s not the type to sound the alarm over every pinch or twinge. She cut her finger badly once, when we lived in Iowa City, and joked all the way to Mercy Hospital as the rag wrapped around the wound reddened with her blood. Once, hobbled by a training injury in the days before a marathon, she limped across the finish line anyway.

So when I saw Rachel collapse on our bed, her hands grasping and ungrasping like an infant’s, I called the ambulance. I gave the dispatcher our address, then helped my wife to the bathroom to vomit.

When the Boss Foots the Bill for College

With a tepid economic recovery and wage growth that fails to meet expectations, some workers may be wondering whether there’s an antidote to the fiscal malaise.

Increasingly, many large companies are offering their employees the chance to pursue a college education at little or no cost, giving them an opportunity to bulk up their resumes even when their paychecks can’t keep up with the growing costs of a degree.

Large companies like the oil giant BP, accounting firm Deloitte, tech behemoth Google, and even food-maker Smuckers either provide discounts to select courses at eligible colleges or cover the full cost of tuition. An employer survey from 2013 found that 61 percent of companies make available some type of tuition-assistance program. Parcel firm UPS offers its employees a $15,000 tuition credit and cut deals with regional colleges in Illinois and Kentucky to provide its workers free courses.

The Upwardly Mobile Barista

That’s in addition to the marquee partnership between Starbucks and Arizona State University, which grants workers of the coffee colossus who work at least 20 hours a week reimbursement for a four-year online bachelor’s degree at the university. The Atlantic reported on this initiative in the cover story of its May 2015 issue.

The growing prominence of employer-backed college attendance speaks to a larger trend that sees more adults in the United States attending college later in their lives, said Nicole Smith, an economist with the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce. Rather than viewing education as a “pipeline,” Smith said the current education landscape is “more of an ecosystem, … perhaps a revolving door, because we have so many people who at their various points in their lives are required to go back to school.”

Already roughly one in five jobs requires a certificate on top of a bachelor’s degree, forcing current and aspiring workers to pursue additional educational training. But the financial strain workers might feel from keeping up with employer demands can be daunting, even when factoring the wage premium college educations can bring.

Smith said that whereas in the 1980s the ratio for financing a college education was 60 percent federal, 33 percent state, and 7 percent from families, today it’s much different. Families are now on the hook for half of all education expenses, while state spending has dropped to just 16 percent and federal to a third.

This jump in expenses incurred by families comes just as far greater numbers of Americans are heading to college and many of those students will need more than loans to fund their way to a degree. A forthcoming Center on Education and the Workforce report finds that one-third of all undergraduate students younger than 30 are working full-time; the same is true for 75 percent of undergraduate students older than 30.

“It’s no longer, ‘Okay, I graduated, I throw my mortarboard in the air and it’s done; I’m never going back,” Smith said.

Companies may have an incentive to help as well. Numerous employer surveys show bosses are unsatisfied with the skills their employees bring with them; partnering with colleges can be a way for companies to plug the holes in their workers’ professional skills.

Already companies spend more than $164 billion on employee training and education according to a recent employer survey—only about $15 billion less than what states and the federal government combined spend on higher education.

“Why is it that companies have to replicate dollar for dollar the entire U.S. spending on all postsecondary education,” began Karl McDonnell, the CEO of the for-profit Strayer University. “Seems like a huge opportunity cost to me.”

Strayer recently inked a deal with the United States division of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles to provide 118,000 employees of the car manufacturer’s 2,400 dealerships a full ride to attend Strayer’s degree programs. All employees who have been on the job for more than 30 days and are seeking an associate’s, bachelor’s, or master’s degree are eligible and receive the money for tuition, books, and fees upfront—unlike the Starbucks plan that reimburses workers, meaning virtually all its workers take out loans.

The arrangement between Strayer and Chrysler followed two years of conversations between the two companies. The university overhauled its courses to address the specific needs of the automotive firm, tossing out case studies on other industries and replacing them with a curriculum directly tied to car dealerships, like supply-chain logistics and sales.

“We see it as a really transformative benefit,” McDonnell said. “If you just think logically: If I’m selling cars and I work for Honda and I don’t have a degree but I want one, and Chrysler is offering me the opportunity to get a college education with zero debt, zero out of pocket expenses, I’m probably going to leave Honda.”

Adding and maintaining workers is one of the chief reasons Chrysler risked the huge costs to finance its partnership with Strayer, which in addition to its online courses has nearly 80 campuses across the country. An executive for the car company told Fortune magazine in May that 45 to 60 percent of its dealership employees quit their jobs each year. The “largest issue is how to attract the right talent to take customer service to the next level,” the executive told Forbes.

McDonnell is confident Strayer can eventually cut that turnover in half, ultimately generating more revenue for Chrysler in employee retention than it spends on its relationship with Strayer. He may be right: A 2008 report by the Society for Human Resource Management calculates that total costs associated with turnover range from 90 percent to 200 percent of annual salary.

McDonnell carries the same confidence when talking about Strayer’s other large business partnerships, like those with Verizon and Home Depot.

But the for-profit provider and Arizona State may be outliers. “For most colleges, they need to think about whether they think they can bring in more money than the additional students cost,” said Robert Kelchen, a professor at Seton Hall University who studies the relationship between employers and colleges. “So if capacity is a concern, particularly for an in-person program, colleges might be less likely to do it.”

Smaller companies may be unwilling to float the expenses of providing workers funds to attend college. With few exceptions, the federal tax code limits tuition reimbursement incentives to slightly more than $5,200 a year before workers pay taxes on their benefits. That’s a sum that may be enough for tuition at a community-college education, but not typically a four-year institution.

And then there are the optics. A reporter with Inside Higher Ed asked Strayer’s McDonnell if companies are touting their tuition-assistance programs just to win media points.

“Yes,” he said.

This post appears courtesy of the Education Writers Association.

American Liberal Education Is Happening in Singapore

Last week, I traveled to Singapore to attend the opening of a new liberal-arts college campus. That college is Yale-NUS—the product of a partnership forged about seven years ago between Yale and the National University of Singapore. Students and faculty have been working at the institution for a few years already, but this was its official inauguration. Pericles Lewis,Yale-NUS’s founding president, joked that the campus’s coming-out party marked a rare festivity: It’s not every day that one is able to celebrate the opening of a new liberal-arts college.

Here we were, in Singapore, to launch a new American-style college, while back in the United States the principles of that model—broad, contextual, and conceptual study—were under enormous pressure. The irony wasn’t lost on any of us. Education leaders across Asia have become interested in moving away from exam-dominated curricula and their requisite memorization and toward experiential, interdisciplinary learning aimed at exploring connections between research and action. Having traditionally insisted on early vocational specialization, universities in India, Korea, and China are now considering how best to encourage the inquiry, collaboration, and experimentation that are key to the American traditions of liberal education. These are traditions that I, as the president of Wesleyan University and author of Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, champion.

report, Lewis quotes the Confucian philosopher Mencius’s description of the “transforming influence of education” as being “like a timely rain.” For many Americans who labor in the fields of liberal education, it has recently felt like a drought as financial support and public understanding dries up. During this time of arid anxiety—in which so many pundits and policymakers are calling for quick utilitarian nanodegrees or certificates—even defenders of broad inquiry often find themselves promising to quench the public’s thirst for a return-on-investment with a vocational justification of liberal-arts education.

Why ‘Nano-Degrees’ Can Never Replace Liberal Arts Colleges

But perhaps these defenders need a more untimely rain if they are to preserve the “transforming influence” of college. Liberal education in American history has often been powerful because it has challenged the status quo. Liberal education today that is worthy of the name must recover the capacity to be untimely so as to equip teachers and students with the courage and the ability to resist the demand for the narrowly vocational.

Lewis identified in Singapore the rare opportunity of starting a new college from scratch—and one backed with the enormous resources of two prominent research universities. He and his team managed to hire scores of new faculty and engage them in discussions about curricula for the institution as a whole, which I find to be one of the most remarkable aspects of the Yale-NUS experiment. I am especially impressed by Lewis’s decision to “decline to institutionalize faculty within departments representing the academic disciplines.” This has led to a re-conceptualization of majors as complements to a core curriculum, and, in turn, to the welcoming of faculty with diverse skill sets over those tethered to divisive academic specializations. In higher education, the lure of professional recognition through increasingly narrow disciplines has been growing stronger since the creation of the research university in the late 19th century—and this has had a pernicious influence on undergraduate teaching for decades. Far too many faculty feel an allegiance to “their field” rather than to the teaching of “the whole student.”

by emphasizing vocational training in postsecondary education. Like many others, I have defended liberal education by demonstrating why vocational training alone is inadequate—but often pointing to the long-term career benefits of broad learning. In an effort to appeal to students and their parents, I’ve learned how to make arguments for the utility of contextual and conceptual learning; I can cite the evidence for the lifelong economic advantages of a broad course of study; I’m able to point to illustrious examples of “innovators” who draw on their humanistic study to productively “disrupt” an economic sector.

But in Singapore, as I contemplated the idealism of the founding of a new college, I worried that advocates like myself may have become too adept at arguing that a liberal education is the best bet for becoming a leader in the digital economy. After all, the enemy of thinking, and hence of education, is conformity. The (occasionally hyperbolic) accusation that the great colleges and universities of America today are producing sheep—no matter how excellent—is a valid one. The response that higher-education institutions in the United States are in fact incubators hatching heroic entrepreneurs is more of a confession than a rebuttal.

wrote, “that the Lord may undeceive my ignorant brethren and permit them to throw away pretensions and seek after the substance of learning.” That’s why, almost a century later, W.E.B. Du Bois criticized the call for education to be more vocational, writing that “there is an insistence on the practical in a manner and tone that would make Socrates an idiot and Jesus Christ a crank.”

I also thought of Jane Addam’s commitment to empathy and to affectionate interpretation, and of John Dewey’s “practical idealism.” Addams supported learning that enabled one to better understand and act on points of view quite different from one’s own, and Dewey envisioned a pragmatic liberal education that would address the pressing problems of the day with a variety of perspectives and methodologies. My highest aspiration for the new “American-style” college in Singapore is the aspiration that Walker and Du Bois, Addams and Dewey had for liberal education: to promote freedom as a good in itself and to be a vehicle for expanding individuals’ knowledge of themselves and the world. That would be a most welcome “untimely rain.”

The Unexpected Schools Championing the Liberal Arts

WEST POINT, N.Y.—Christian Nattiel rattles off the way his course of studies has prepared him for his prestigious role as a company commander in charge of 120 fellow cadets at the U.S. Military Academy.

Nattiel, of Dade City, Florida, isn’t focusing at West Point on military science, or strategy, or leadership. He’s majoring in philosophy.

Ramrod straight in his Army combat uniform on the historic campus—where future officers are required to take humanities and social-sciences courses such as history, composition, psychology, literature, and languages—he said that, in philosophy, “There’s no right answer, and that’s very useful in the Army, so you’re not so rigid.”

Thirty miles up the Hudson River, students in chefs’ whites and toques experiment with recipes and test ingredients at the Culinary Institute of America, one of the nation’s foremost schools for chefs, whose seal is a knife crossed with a knife sharpener. They’re required to take liberal-arts courses, too, including sociology, psychology, and languages, and have to write and present a senior thesis, all to help them later with such things as managing employees and preparing business plans and raising capital to open their own restaurants.

cut liberal-arts courses and programs in favor of more vocational disciplines, and the number of students majoring in the humanities continues to decline, unexpected types of institutions are expanding their requirements in the liberal arts with the conviction that these courses teach the kinds of skills employers say they want, and leaders need: critical thinking, problem-solving, teamwork, and communication.

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“Some people are surprised, yes,” said Brigadier General Timothy Trainor, West Point’s academic dean, in his high-ceilinged, wood-paneled office in the Gothic-style stone administration building.

“It’s important to develop in young people the ability to think broadly, to operate in the context of other societies and become agile and adaptive thinkers,” Trainor said. “What you’re trying to do is teach them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. They’re having to deal with people from other cultures. They have to think very intuitively to solve problems on the ground.”

That’s what employers say they need in their new hires, too. Three-quarters want more emphasis on critical thinking, problem-solving, written and oral communication, and applied knowledge, according to a survey of 318 corporate leaders by the Association of American Colleges and Universities—exactly the kinds of skills advocates for the liberal arts say they teach. Ninety-three percent agree that “a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems” is more important than a job candidate’s undergraduate major.

Throughout higher education as a whole, however, institutions have been dropping the liberal arts. Between 2007 and 2012, four-year universities reduced their number of departments offering art history, English, languages, history, linguistics, literature, and religion, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences reports. The proportion of all bachelor’s degrees awarded that are in humanities disciplines has dropped to 6 percent from a peak of 17 percent in 1968.

“A lot of colleges are getting so first-job-focused that they’re going in the opposite direction,” said Michael Sperling, the vice president for academic affairs at the private, nonprofit Culinary Institute. This is in part because, he said, “There’s a certain level of anti-intellectualism in the popular culture that inappropriately sees the pursuit of core disciplines as frivolous. And that’s unfortunate, because the kind of things you learn in philosophy courses and history courses deepens your ability to act in the world.”

Sperling said, “I’m not talking about content. You learn a lot about logic. And that affects how you approach a business problem in the future, and that’s really powerful,” including for Culinary Institute graduates who may someday run their own restaurants, and who—even if they don’t—need to be able to alternate their “Yes, Chef!” subservience made familiar by cable-TV food shows with the occasional “Why, Chef?”

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“If service is at 6 o’clock, the food needs to be ready,” Sperling said. “But at the same time, we also want to create the ability to question. That student should be thinking, well, is there a better way to do this? So we give them the academic background to support that. We should be educating students, yes, for a first job, but really for their fifth job or their 10th job—for a lifetime of success.”

In addition to the military academies and the Culinary Institute, other chefs’ schools such as Johnson & Wales University also require their students to take liberal-arts courses. So do a few art schools, including the Savannah College of Art and Design, and a handful of engineering universities such as Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

Future chefs at the Culinary Institute of America, which has expanded its liberal-arts requirements. (Culinary Institute of America)

The retreat from the humanities is more pronounced at public than private universities, propelled by governors, legislators, and others who question subsidizing programs such as women’s studies and philosophy on the grounds that they’re not practical.

A task force in Florida recommended that public universities there charge more for “non-strategic majors” such as history and English, than for degrees in science, technology, engineering, and health. “Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so,” Governor Rick Scott told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

“If you want to take gender studies, that’s fine. Go to a private school and take it,” said North Carolina Governor Patrick McCrory in a 2013 radio interview. “But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.”

The Republican presidential contender Senator Marco Rubio has questioned whether it’s worth taking out student loans “to study, you know—I don’t want to offend anybody—Roman history? Are there any Romans here?”

Indiana State University has cut art history and German. The University of Southern Maine is shedding French and combining its English, philosophy, and history departments, as well as music, art, and theater. The University of Alaska, Fairbanks, plans to revise or eliminate its undergraduate degree in music. One of the reasons members of the Board of Visitors at the University of Virginia reportedly fired its president, Teresa Sullivan, in 2012, was because she resisted their calls to get rid of German and the classics. After protests, Sullivan was reinstated.

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“There are some governors and demagogic politicians of whichever party who aren’t listening to the business leadership and the military leadership,” said Jim Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association. “It’s shortsighted. They don’t understand what students take from courses like history. They don’t realize that what you really learn are ways of thinking about things like how does change happen, and how to learn and think clearly.”

Culinary students learn both cooking technique and strategies for evaluating their work. (Culinary Institute of America)

In fact, a new project under which 126 faculty analyzed work by students at some 60 higher-education institutions in nine states found that two-thirds did not demonstrate critical thinking skills, fewer than a third could use evidence to investigate a point or reach a conclusion, two-thirds didn’t know how to demonstrate the use of sources and evidence in writing, and fewer than half could draw conclusions based on analyzing data.

Forty percent of those corporate leaders surveyed say colleges aren’t teaching students what they need to know to succeed, and more than half say new employees with college degrees don’t have the skills they need to ultimately be promoted.

Without their liberal-arts studies, said Ted Russin, the associate dean for culinary science—who has a degree in philosophy himself—students at the Culinary Institute “would definitely have technical skills. They could make a croissant and it would be exquisite. But there’s a difference between knowing how to do something and understanding what’s happening.”

The stakes are even higher in the military, said Bruce Keith, a professor of sociology at West Point. Cadets who graduate from there “will be in charge of people’s lives. We want to make sure they have the ability to not only make decisions but reflect on the consequences of those decisions for themselves and for everyone else involved.”

That’s among the reasons the liberal arts—now referred to by academics as “liberal education”—are being expanded instead of eliminated at such places as military academies, Trainor and others say. The Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, is now ranked ninth among the nation’s liberal-arts schools by U.S. News and World Report’s influential “Best Colleges” rankings, West Point 22nd, and the Air Force Academy 29th.

“It’s fine to train people to do a specific job,” said Nattiel, the West Point cadet leader. “But you still have to teach them to question their assertions.”

Besides, as Hannah Debey, a student from Houston at the Culinary Institute who hopes to someday open her own bakery, puts it: “It seems kind of boring not to have the liberal arts.”

This story was produced in collaboration with The Hechinger Report.

The Need for More Professors of Color

In the 1990s, many institutions made a concerted effort to hire more black faculty members. The universities were propelled by a number of civil-rights lawsuits in higher education whose outcomes mandated swift action by states to remedy the effects of segregation in higher education and by White House guidelines reaffirming the need for affirmative action. These schools, including Duke University and the University of Michigan, sought intentionally to recruit faculty of color to their ranks.


However, 20 years later, though there has been an increase in the number of non-white faculty members overall, National Center for Education Statistics data show that increase has primarily been among Asian faculty members. The percentage of black professors on campus has increased only incrementally, while the number of Native American faculty has remained consistent over the last 20 years. (Female professors, however, have seen consistent, though modest, increases across all ethnicities.)

Dr. Jerlando F. L. Jackson, the Vilas distinguished professor of higher education and director and chief research scientist of Wisconsin’s Equity and Inclusion Laboratory (Wei LAB) at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, says “there still remain significant concerns about our institutions’” commitment to diversity.

“It doesn’t take an empirical study … to see that there are some places where you can see some movement and some where there’s none at all,” he says of the hiring trends.

Christopher Torres, a faculty member at the Ohio State University at Mansfield and the Latino & Latin American Space for Engagement and Research (LASER), said that, as a Latino faculty member, it was little things such as not seeing any faculty of color on the staff­ portraits in the faculty lounge.

“There are pictures of the faculty over the years, but it isn’t until, I think, the ’80s when there’s only one [faculty member of color]… And it wasn’t until I really started looking at it [that] I started thinking there’s no one really that looks like me,” he says.

The lack of representation led Torres to question a number of things, including, “Do I belong here? What am I doing here?” Jackson says a concerted effort toward hiring and retaining faculty and administrators from diverse backgrounds must be as intentional an e­ffort as recruiting and retaining diverse students.

“If we put our largest emphasis on diversifying a [student] population that is by definition transient, that presents a problem,” he says.

“There’s a great similarity between administrative and faculty diversity” and the diversity of the students choosing to attend an institution, says Jackson. “Unfortunately, many institutions tend to focus [on students] and, in some cases, faculty, but very few [pay attention to the administration].”

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The attention to diversity has to come in more than just hiring goals, such as those set by Duke and Michigan. Attention must also be paid to developing the faculty member through opportunities and experiences on campus, say experts. Jackson recommends considering the role of leadership programs on campus and helping faculty members, once hired, to understand fully what is required for promotion.

“Minorities — women and people of color — tend to enter academic leadership immediately after receiving tenure,” he says, which means “research production suffers.”

But Torres says that, for many faculty of color, it is difficult to avoid those areas and focus exclusively on research and general academic productivity.

“Basically, being a person of color, you’re by default working in diversity and doing service,” he says.

Torres continues, saying, “Three percent of the U.S. population has [a] Ph.D. Of those, 5.9 percent are African-American [and] 5.4 percent are Hispanic.” Not only does this mean there is not a strong enough pipeline for faculty of color, but it also means there are not enough mentors in whom students of color can see reflections of themselves and their potential, he notes.

Jackson argues that the burden of service can’t come at the expense of academic productivity necessary for promotion, admonishing that service activities, such as chairing a department or serving as an adviser to student organizations, do not count toward promotion.

Still, Torres says, many black and Hispanic faculty members feel more responsible for serving their students.

“If I weren’t doing this, who’s doing it?” he asks. “I think it’s interesting the extra things that we do. And I don’t consider myself to have a chip on my shoulder, but I do those things that are going to, one, keep me safe and, two, get me access to the resources that I need.”

Torres also says that, sometimes for faculty of color, who may often be one of few or even the only face of color in an entire department or school, it seems “the cards [are] stacked against us.”

This means reviving the old sentiment among minorities of having to work twice as hard and be twice as good to even be considered equal because, as Torres puts it, “it’s not a level playing field.”

If they require five articles [for promotion], I’m writing 10,” Torres says. “I’m writing articles now so that, when it’s time for promotion and tenure, there’s no reason they can deny me.”

* * *

Jackson says that there must be a commitment to diversity by the entire institution. Top administrators need to ask themselves, “How serious are you about the hiring in these institutions?” and then go on to implement policies that reinforce that commitment, he says.

Critical for retaining faculty of color is providing opportunities for them to convene with people who share their cultural experiences.

This includes mentoring programs and faculty affinity groups as well as opportunities to attend conferences that promote comfortable cultural spaces. A trend toward eliminating diversity departments because the work of diversity is “everybody’s job” is a step in the wrong direction, says Jackson.

“Departments often hire amongst themselves with little policing,” he says. This means that no one at the top level is monitoring to make sure that hiring practices reflect the institution’s proclaimed commitment to diversity.

Without some directing an intentional effort to correct the lack of diversity in the ranks of academia, the outcomes are often unfavorable, he says.

“The U.S. is still a society that needs policies to correct our behavior,” Jackson says. “There’s evidence that, in all of the places that have eliminated policies that consider race, there has been a reversal of diversity.”

This article appears courtesy of Diverse: Issues in Higher Education.

Why Debt-Free College Is A Big Issue for 2016 Democratic Candidates

As Democratic presidential hopefuls assembled in Las Vegas Tuesday night for their first formal debate, one topic that has received little airtime during the Republican face-offs garnered far more attention: the high cost of attaining a college degree.

Three of the five Democratic candidates have released detailed proposals that seek to reduce dramatically the amount of debt students might accrue on their way to a college degree, including the field’s two front-runners: Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, who’s an independent but sides with Democrats in the Senate.

Political experts who spoke at a higher-education seminar at Valencia College last month say the campaign for debt-free college could be the new flagship issue for the Democratic party, assuming the mantle after affordable health care—the party’s signature political rallying cry for a generation—was written into law by President Obama in 2010.

“Health care has receded as an issue,” said Terry Hartle, the chief lobbyist of American Council on Education, the nation’s largest higher-education association for colleges and universities. “That used to be the centerpiece of Democratic presidential campaigns for a long time… And higher education now occupies that place because many families care a great deal about their health, and they care about college education for their kids.”

But like the quest for expanded health care, debt-free college can come in many forms, with some permutations considered more liberal than others. Former Secretary of State Clinton’s plan would allow borrowers to refinance their debt, a component that’s also included in Sanders’s proposal and in the plan of Martin O’Malley, the former governor of Maryland. The Sanders’s higher-education overhaul would grant free tuition at any public college or university irrespective of the student’s income; Clinton’s plan would effectively charge students based on what they can pay.

While proponents of the senator’s proposal credit him for creating a simple formula, some see an irony to Sanders’s higher-education overhaul. “He wants to pay for his plan by taxing carried interest [a tax benefit wealthy Americans enjoy],” said Hartle. “So he would tax hedge fund managers to pay for his plan, but then he’d give their kids free college.”

All three candidates have policies in place to encourage states to hold the line on rising tuition by offering them incentives like federal cash. O’Malley would like to cap tuition to no more than 10 percent of the state’s median income for four-year public schools and five percent for two-year colleges. The other proposals over the duration of their plans would pour hundreds of billions of dollars into state coffers with a combination of carrots and sticks.

Some ideas appear contradictory to analysts. Sanders would mandate that all public colleges and universities maintain at least 75 percent of their teachers as tenured faculty. That adds thousands of dollars per instructor in wage costs at the same time that colleges would be tasked with reducing the expenses. The move would, however, be a boon to low-paid instructors at colleges, like adjuncts, who typically earn $20,000 to $25,000 a year. Still, recent studies show that state disinvestment in higher education, not building or staff expenses, accounted for the lion’s share of recent increases in college cost for students.

Perhaps what’s remarkable about these competing proposals, though, is that they exist at all. When scrimping for change to fund major government programs and final-hour congressional scrambling to avoid government shutdowns have become common, floating federal legislation that would set the treasury back $350 billion to $700 billion—depending on the debt-free plan—is astonishing.

According to Adam Green, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, the push for debt-free college aligns with the Democratic party’s game plan to win over voters. After the 2014 midterm elections, Green says Democratic strategists argued the party’s huge losses were the result of a poor get-out-the vote campaign. “Our main point was, ‘no,’” Green said. “Democrats lost because the Democratic party brand was not associated with big, bold economic populist ideas that would be game-changing in the lives of millions of Americans.”

“It was an election about nothing. And when it’s an election about nothing … the people that Democrats need to vote—the young people, people with multiple jobs, are least prone to vote,” Green said.

Late in 2014, his organization launched the Big Idea Project, which asked voters and lawmakers to submit major policy changes that were then put to a vote. To lend the project credibility, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee ensured that top lawmakers like Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Chuck Schumer would review the most popular suggestions. Thousands of proposals trickled in, and more than 1 million online votes were cast for the most popular idea. The winner was debt-free college.

A poll of 1,500 likely voters confirmed the popularity of the debt-free idea, Green said, and his organization circulated the findings to Democratic party leaders, including Senator Schumer, “someone we don’t work with a ton; he literally represents Wall Street,” but who heads the Democratic Policy Committee, which is in charge of finding fresh ideas for the Democrats to rally around.

The meeting set in motion a series of policy workshops among congressional staffers, paving the way for resolutions in the Senate and House of Representatives that call for debt-free college in the United States.

That the idea has resonance is no surprise, said Jennifer Wang, policy director at the left-leaning organization Young Invincibles. “If you talk to young people, you’ll often hear that they’re thinking about college affordability in terms how things have changed since their parents generation,’ said Wang. “So they’ll say, ‘My mom went to college in the 80’s and worked full-time at a minimum wage job and could afford the entire cost of her public college—not just tuition—but more.’” That reality is laughable to people under 30 today, Wang said.

But while the demand for debt-free college is real, serious questions need to be answered about what gets funded and who pays. “If we have limited resources, do we want to help a recent college graduates or do we want to put things in place for the next generation of college grads?” Hartle said.

“If students should not pay for higher education, who should pay?” asked Sandy Baum, a higher-education scholar at George Washington University who consulted the Clinton campaign. “If we’re not going to have [students] pay before or after, it’s going to have to be people who didn’t go to college. Somebody has to pay.”

Baum argues that the moniker “debt-free college” is misleading, anyway. Federal programs like the Pell grant and state aid for low-income students virtually cover the entire cost of tuition at community colleges and some public four-year institutions. What students do need to borrow for are the living expenses—housing, food, transportation, and school supplies.

“It’s not like free high school where everyone lives with their parents… We are talking about how people live,” she said.

Nor does Baum believe borrowing for college is necessarily “a bad thing.” As an investment, it pays off remarkably with higher average wages and lower unemployment rates compared to workers who don’t attend college. She faults the media for glomming onto attention-grabbing numbers that disguise the larger problems in higher education affordability. While it’s true college debt exceeds $1 trillion in the United States, much of that is being held by top earners who attained degrees that proved dividends for their careers. “About half of the outstanding debt is held by the top quarter of the income distribution,” Baum said, while the bottom quarter of the income earners maintain just 11 percent of college debt.

A recent study also shows that much of the surge in postsecondary debt can be attributed to students who attended for-profit schools or community colleges. Combined, adults who attended these schools accounted for roughly half of all federal loan borrowers who were repaying their loans and 70 percent of adults who defaulted on their loans, suggesting the educations they received did not translate into worthwhile jobs.

And while debt-free college largely has been a Democratic party issue, Hartle expects Republican candidates to ramp up their talking points on this fast-moving topic. “Republicans at this point are talking to primary voters, and this issue just isn’t a matter of concern to Republican primary voters. When they get to the general campaign, it will come up,” Hartle said, because the party will be targeting the same centrist voters as Democrats.

No matter how one slices it, families have been shouldering a much heavier load for completing a college degree. Nicole Smith, an economist at Georgetown University, said during the higher-education conference that whereas in the 1980s the ratio of paying for college was 60 percent federal, 33 percent state, and 7 percent family, today families front half the costs while the states contribute just 16 percent.

The changing demographics of who’s going to college are adding urgency to these debates on the price of a degree. What was once a pathway for largely high-income families is fast becoming a prerequisite for acquiring a job that pays a living wage, adding millions of Americans to the postsecondary shuffle. The cost of a college education is an issue that’s here to stay. Whether it’ll join affordable health care as the policy plank that took decades to become law is an open question.

This post appears courtesy of the Education Writers Association.

More of Your Education Questions, Answered

What’s up with school reform?

Broadly, school reform is exactly what it sounds like: a push to fix the education system. This can take a lot of forms as administrators, officials, and motivated advocates try out different strategies.

I found Education Next’s breakdown of the proposed systemic changes pretty helpful. The authors of Education Next’s latest public opinion polling categorized the agenda into charter schools, tax credits for scholarships to low-income students, school vouchers for low-income students, universal vouchers, merit pay for teachers, and teacher tenure. That doesn’t include hotly contested issues like standardized testing and Common Core standards, which pollsters also addressed.

Back in August, Alia wrote about the “highly polarized” debates on testing when it comes to school reform:

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 approval aside, school reform appears to be working (slowly) when we look at closing the achievement gap for historically marginalized students. A report released in May this year—just in time for graduation—showed how African American and Hispanic students had made progress in high-school graduation rates:

Between 2011 and 2013, the two demographic groups saw their graduation rates rise by roughly 4 percentage points. The 2013 graduation rate for Hispanic students was 75 percent, and for black students it was nearly 71 percent. Still, while low-income students demonstrated gains, they still lag considerably behind their peers. The national graduation rate for students not considered low-income is estimated at 88 percent, while the graduation rate for low-income students stands at 73 percent.

The report’s authors attributed the increases to reform efforts, not an improvement in the economy, specifically highlighting the closures of schools plagued by low graduation rates.

School reform has put intense pressure on districts around the U.S., yielding cheating scandals in cities like Atlanta and D.C. When it comes to scrutiny of teachers in general, Dana Goldstein, author of The Teacher Wars, points to a long history:

“The history of education reform,” she notes, “shows … recurring attacks on veteran educators.” In the early 1800s, reformer Catharine Beecher argued that young women with a missionary calling should replace male teachers who were “intemperate … coarse, hard, unfeeling men, too lazy or stupid” to teach; she suggested those men should be sent into the mills instead. Two centuries later, Goldstein notes, programs like Teach for America are promoted as a kind of missionary calling, in which young fresh-faced college graduates replace lazy, stubborn, unionized teachers.

Finding the right equation for school reform continues to confound, though Cincinnati has fairly recently shown there’s hope for urban districts.

How effective are charter schools really?

The charter school movement turns 25 next year, but we still don’t have a clear answer on how advantageous they are for the education system in the U.S. According to a new report by the nonprofit consulting group Bellwether Education Partners, 2.9 million students attend more than 6,723 charter schools, which receive public funding but maintain independence from the public school system.

Efforts to study the effectiveness of charter schools have yielded controversial results, like this 2013 study from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO). It concluded that charter school students were doing worse or about the same as their peers in traditional schools, though African-American and Hispanic students, as well as English-language learners, made solid gains in the 26 states studied.

Pro-charter activists took issue with the study’s methodology. As Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, told NPR at the time: “[T]he CREDO study did not compare real kids to real kids. Instead, researchers took selected data and created a ‘composite’ student to represent public school kids.”

Bruce Fuller, a professor at UC Berkeley, traced the history of the movement to see how close its current M.O. hews to the original idea—“an easy way of liberating inventive teachers from the burdens of staid classroom routines, bland textbooks, and cumbersome union contracts.”

Though they may display less fervor than they once did, charter activists continue to help diversify the nation’s landscape of schools; few parents yearn for the public-education status quo. A growing percentage of parents across the country now seek a school that’s outside their neighborhood attendance zone. The issue being debated in education circles is whether charters have gone “too corporate,” said [Dan Shalvey, the founder of California’s first charter who currently works at the Gates Foundation], but “thirtysomething parents don’t notice these debates. They simply see lots of options now.”

And whether America’s widening kaleidoscope of schools will one day elevate student learning overall or simply breed a patchwork of segregated schools remains a pressing question. But Shalvey may be right. A quarter-century later, charter schools offer worthy options for many parents, rich or poor. “I began teaching in the Summer of Love,” Shalvey said. “All those earlier education fads—team teaching, moving classroom walls around—quickly disappeared. The charter movement has stuck.”

As it’s stuck, however, trends have emerged that change the foundation. Charter schools are uncommon in the suburbs. In some ways, they’ve heightened the competitive school decision process for parents, and the lottery system to enroll isn’t as neutral as it appears.

Finally: We don’t have a clear idea of whether the majority of American adults support charter schools.

So the short, unsatisfying answer is that we still can’t say definitively how effective the charter school movement is in serving students. But it continues to play a major role in the evolution of schools, so let’s wait (even impatiently) and see.

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If you still have any lingering questions on education, ask them here.

Where Education Is a ‘Feminine’ Endeavor

KINGSTON, Jamaica—Less than 1 percent of Haile Selassie High School’s students go on to college. An overwhelming majority of the seventh-to-11th-grade students at the school are taking remedial courses designed to get struggling students back on track. Their counterparts in a ninth-grade reading class, too, are working hard to attain a first-grade reading level by the end of the school year; currently, many students are on a preschool reading level, data shows.

The school is flanked with murals that depict the alternative to successfully attaining an education: crime and eventual incarceration. Doors made up of metal bars—similar to those one might find on a jail cell—flank each classroom, each door adorned with a metal padlock to deter theft.

“The word education is not even a part of the conversation for some of our young men,” said Joseph Heron, the dean of student discipline at the school. Much of this, Heron said, is because young men in Jamaica, like many of their U.S. counterparts, are struggling with an identity crisis. In Jamaica, many educational endeavors like reading and mastery of English and other modern languages are considered feminine pursuits. “I was confronted many times by students as if I were lesser because I simply do my school work and answer questions in class,” said Akeem Edwards, an 11-grade student at the school.

Edwards, who will be graduating this year and hopes to attend Yale or Carnegie Mellon next fall, said he sees education as his ticket to a better life.“Without learning and education, you won’t be able to survive in this world,” he said, adding, “I have gone to bed without food, so … I know the value of education.”

For many of the students, education is not emphasized at home and certainly not as much for boys as it is for girls. “Parents are more strict on the females based on what they see in the news and they don’t pay attention to the boys,” said Rico Christie, a 10th-grader at the school. Christie said this tendency to ignore and set lower expectations for the male students “leaves a scar on the boys mentally.”

Heron said that, in many cases, the parents of the students served by HSHS have not had the exposure to education to be able to instill in their students the necessity. “When we call parents to address these issues, the parents are also having similar identity crises,” the dean said. “If the conversation of education is not within the parents, it cannot be within the students.” Parents may instruct students to go to school, “but there is no process of caring” or investment in ensuring the students receive an education.

But Heron quickly clarifies that the education level of the students is not reflective of their intellect: “Opportunity is the issue, not intelligence.”

Citing such opportunities as the International Colloquium on Black Males in Education, which was taking place in the same city but which his students were not attending, Heron said, “Most of [the HSHS students] will never get the opportunity to rub shoulders with people who are [professors, university administrators, practitioners, policymakers, and others in positions of influence]. They’re rubbing shoulders with people who are carrying guns and” participating in illicit activities. “We have to create opportunities for our young men to be exposed to these things,” he added.

It is in this spirit that the College Academy was created, which this year took a small group of U.S. scholars from the University of Wisconsin and Ohio State University to Haile Selassie High School to discuss opportunities in higher education.


The students whom staff believed might have “an inkling of hope of attending college” assembled in the school’s multi-purpose room October 6 to hear current graduate students and long-time scholars talk about the college experience and pathways to higher learning.

Despite immense heat and difficulty hearing the presenters (who were speaking without microphones over blaring fans hoping to circulate the thick air in the room), the students sat absorbing as much information from these visitors as they could. Other students—those whom staff believed would not be able to attend a university upon graduation from Haile Selassie High School—peered through cracked window vents and from behind bars that separated the auditorium from the corridors.

Heron said he was “cussed out” by many students who were not selected to attend the program as they expressed their dissatisfaction with being excluded.

But for those who did attend, even for just the two hours they were in the room, there was a noticeable difference.

“It was very appreciated,” Heron said. “The students are even more motivated than they were before.”

For some, like Edwards, the time spent at the College Academy reinforced the idea of going to college and re-ignited an excitement for learning.

“I already had my mind made up that I was going to college,” Edwards said. But the speakers at the academy “provided more motivation to really cement a desire to go to college.”

“They opened my eyes and presented [new] opportunities,” he said.

For others, like Christie, the experience with the academy gave him a new perspective. Christie said he had previously been intent on just going into the workforce in Jamaica and trying to make money for his family, but participation in the academy helped him realize “why it’s really, really important to further your education.”

“I really wasn’t thinking about going to college,” he said. “But based on the information that was shared and their spirits, I’m having second thoughts.”

The most important message he gleaned from the accounts shared was “it’s not about where you are now, neither is it about where you are going. It is about what you do once you get there,” Christie said.

This article appears courtesy of Diverse: Issues in Higher Education.