The Changing Face of America’s Chinese Schools

From the mid- to late 90s, I endured Saturday morning Chinese school the way many of my fellow children of immigrants did: with a healthy a mix of indifference and resentment. While my non-Chinese friends spent their mornings at youth soccer games, I was stuck inside a heritage school classroom for at least two hours, practicing traditional characters and reading texts about buying bai tsai at the supermarket.

Chinese-heritage school, or “Saturday school,” is a dedicated space for ABCs (“Americans Born Chinese”) like myself to learn Mandarin and Chinese culture. In my own experience, it was simultaneously a hub of exclusion and inclusion. Days spent at heritage school were weekly reminders of my otherness in Thousand Oaks, the mostly white suburb of Los Angeles where I grew up.

One Million Strong” initiative to grow the number of K-12 students studying Mandarin from approximately 200,000 to 1 million by 2020. (Students who study in heritage schools were not factored into the 200,000 number.)

The initiative, led by the nonpartisan nonprofit 100,000 Strong Foundation, advocates for a standardized curriculum in classrooms, increasing the number of Mandarin language teachers in the U.S., and using technology to promote language and cultural education, especially in underserved communities. The foundation’s partners include the Chinese government; nonprofits like the American Mandarin Society; and a quirky cross-cultural platform called Crazy Fresh Chinese, which features YouTube videos starring a bubbly blonde named Jessica, who translates English slang words into Mandarin. One recent example: “twerk,” which loosely translates to “electric butt dance.”

Increasing the number of Mandarin speakers fivefold in less than five years is an ambitious goal. And it carries with it a sense of urgency for the U.S., given China’s rise as the world’s second-largest economy, and the paucity of Mandarin language learners in the states compared with the estimated 300 to 400 million English learners in China. One survey, published in state-run newspaper China Daily, indicated that 47 percent of Chinese students are exposed to English learning materials between the ages of 3 and 6.

Communist brainwashing. But formalized programs are popping up across the country, and not just on the coasts: Indiana will roll out its first publicly funded Mandarin immersion program next year in the city of Batesville, population 6,541, of which Asians make up less than 2 percent.

Participation among high-schoolers in the Advanced Placement Chinese exam has surged 257 percent since the College Board introduced it as an option in 2007, although it’s still minuscule when compared with the number of students taking AP Spanish. Of those who took the Chinese exam in 2015, 21 percent (2,444 students) self-identified as “standard students,” meaning they studied the language primarily in the classroom, not by speaking it at home with their families.

Jaime Ocon, 17, a senior at Westlake High in Westlake Village, California, falls into this category. Jaime started studying Mandarin at age 11 at the urging of his father, James, first attending a heritage school in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley. He was the only Latino student there, and later studied independently with a Beijing-based tutor via Skype. Like my parents had with me, James struggled to get Jaime out of bed for an extra day of school on the weekends, resorting to a tried-and-true parenting strategy: bribery.

“I told him, ‘I’ll increase your allowance and give you extra perks,’” James said. “‘Just stick with it—start getting some characters in there.’”

Jaime, a star athlete and second-generation Mexican American whose first language is Spanish, supplemented his learning with summer trips to Beijing and Shanghai. His proficiency allowed him to skip a level of Chinese in high school. On the AP exam’s scale of one to five, he scored a four and recently got a job as a liaison for Chinese clients at a tech company. He said he hopes to earn a scholarship to study at a Taiwanese university after graduation, an unpopular if not entirely unheard of option for his other college-bound friends.

Westside Chinese School, the oldest heritage school in Southern California, appointed its first white principal, John McGlasson, this year. McGlasson, whose wife is also not Chinese, first got involved with Westside when his 12-year-old son Jack started studying there six years ago.

And while McGlasson estimates that up to 15 percent of Westside’s 340 students are of non-Chinese descent, he insists that the school is, ultimately, for students of Chinese heritage. “We don’t want the school to just cater to non-Chinese heritage students, which is pretty funny coming from a non-Chinese heritage guy,” McGlasson said.

If heritage schools aren’t catering, they are adapting.

At my old Saturday school, students are now divided into three tracks: “A” and “B” for students with at least one parent who is a native speaker, and “C” for non-heritage speakers. The school’s principal, Li Hsieh, estimated that of the 600 students enrolled, almost 15 percent are not of Chinese descent, and less than 5 percent are not of Asian descent. Compare this to the 300 students who were enrolled when I was a student, less than 1 percent of whom were of non-Chinese descent.

Hsieh, a former Saturday school teacher, said the growing enrollment has made it difficult to accommodate students in the classrooms they rent from the local high school. There’s talk of building a brick-and-mortar school or cultural center in the area. Gone are the textbooks published abroad and filled with stories of riding the subway in Taipei or shopping for Chinese vegetables. Instead, the school now uses locally published texts that reference scenarios more familiar to American teenagers—mundanities like hallway lockers and joining band or orchestra. The school has expanded its elective offerings to include kung fu, tennis, ballet, chess, and, yes, AP Chinese prep.

When I sit in on a track-C kindergarten-level class, about a third of the students are not Asian. They come from families whose tax brackets largely reflect the affluence of Thousand Oaks, as do their parents’ motivations for signing their children up. “Mandarin is the language of the future,” they tell me, recalling their own experiences where they’ve had to travel to China for business or learn the language to communicate better with co-workers. They hope to give their kids an added edge—the earlier, the better. For some students, like 6-year-old Juan-Isidro Martelli, it’s a third or fourth language; he’s also learning Spanish and German from his Argentinian parents.

At one point, teacher Veronica Li draws a rough map of China on the wipeboard. She shares a story of volunteering in a poor province in the south central part of the country. There she met a family who earned $30 a year and had to marry off their 10-year-old daughter because they couldn’t afford to send her to a school. Her story seems to illustrate the growing economic schism between rich and poor in the country; some of the parents in the classroom nod sympathetically.

“Maybe one day, we can all go there and teach them English,” she suggests enthusiastically. Although, increasingly, it looks like it might be the other way around.

The Place Where Ranking Schools Proves They’re Actually Equal

In Finland you’re not supposed to wonder—let alone ask out loud—if one school is better than another. That’s because all Finnish schools are designed to be equal.

We Finns are very proud of our equal education system. In fact, education is the one positive thing Finland is known for all around the world. Our results in global assessments of 15-year-olds have won us international attention a small nation rarely receives.

The strong ideology of equality doesn’t always make life easy for us Finnish education reporters. We feel, for example, we should rank the nation’s high schools even though the government doesn’t want us to.

Education Writers Association

My boss, the editor in chief of news at the agency, is also a former education reporter. She had been dreaming of the new high-school ranking for a long time. The project sounded very interesting, but also very challenging.

In Finland, ranking schools is unthinkable to educators and education officials. Especially when it comes to elementary and middle schools, Finnish education officials have a clear stand: It’s always best for any child to go to the neighborhood school closest to their home.

The idea behind this policy is that if we started believing some schools were better than others, those schools would attract the best teachers and the most advantaged students. The rest of the schools would see their reputations decline and have a hard time keeping, and recruiting, good teachers. That, in turn, could harm the quality of many schools.

That’s why education officials in Finland believe that ranking schools would do more harm than good.

As a Finn, I feel very strongly that everyone should get equal opportunities in life. I believe one good way to try to accomplish that is to have equally good schools available for everyone, and to avoid letting some schools get a better reputation than others.

As a journalist, however, I’m not at all happy with the idea of officials telling me not to seek information. I find it essential that any question can be asked.

So when my boss asked for my help, I said yes.

Comparing high schools was not unheard of in Finland at the time we began our project. Some of the biggest newspapers published, twice a year, a simple ranking based on one factor: the results of the only standardized test all Finnish students ever take.

Getting the information needed just for that simple ranking was difficult.

To graduate from high school, Finnish students must pass a standardized test we call the matriculation exam. The assessment is developed and overseen by the Matriculation Exam Board, whose members are appointed by the Finnish Ministry of Education. The members are all specialists in education and in the subjects tested by the exam. The topics covered by this wide-ranging assessment include math, writing, English and other foreign languages, history, and biology.

The Matriculation Exam Board used to deny journalists all access to the exam data. It was only after a long struggle by an education journalist at the biggest Finnish newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat, that the data became available for media companies in the mid 1990s—at a cost so high only the biggest news outlets could afford it.

The Joyful, Illiterate Kindergartners of Finland

In the early years of the new millennium, it became a tradition that continues to this day for those outlets to publish high-school rankings every time new data was available.

My boss felt those rankings were unfair, since they weren’t taking into account the fact that some schools took in better-prepared students to begin with.

That’s because, in Finland, students apply to high school based on their middle-school grades.

In the so-called big cities in Finland, young people don’t usually choose their high school based on location. Some high schools are considered better than others and the good students want to go to the best schools.

Outside the urban centers, young people usually apply to the high school nearby, because all the other ones are so far away.

That means in the biggest cities we have high schools for straight-A students, others for B students, and so on. But outside of these cities, each high school typically enrolls all kinds of students, from overachievers to those at risk of dropping out.

We wanted to find data that would allow us to compare the starting level of students in each school to their matriculation-exam results. That turned out to be a lot harder than I expected.

Almost all the schools in Finland are public, and the whole application process is centralized, so it was clear that at some point someone had all the grade information we were looking for.

I made a lot of phone calls to different sorts of education officials and statistic officials. No one seemed to know anything about the data I wanted. They tried to help and often suggested I try other colleagues, but many of them suspected the data didn’t exist.

Education Writers Association.

Saving a School on the Blackfeet Reservation

HEART BUTTE, Mont.—It’s hard to explain just how isolated this town in the far northwest reaches of the Montana plains really is.

On the trip there, three and a half hours from the capital of Helena, cell service and radio reception come and go. The road—speed limit 80 mph—winds for miles past vast plains, scattered farms, and just one town big enough to have a gas station. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a statue rises of two Native American warriors welcoming drivers to the Blackfeet Nation.

The same monument of the two riders—its base made of stones from a circa 1800s tribal mission and its figures crafted from the parts of rusted cars destroyed in a devastating 1964 flood—stands at each of the four main entrances to the 1.5 million-acre reservation.

From the southern gateway off Interstate 89, it’s another 19 miles to reach Heart Butte proper. The school sits on top of a hill overlooking the rest of town—a post office, an Indian Health Services outpost, a few dozen houses, and three churches. And that’s pretty much it.

The nearest town, Browning, is 30 miles away, a doable commute until the brutally snowy winters more or less cut off access. Many families make monthly journeys of more than 100 miles each way to stock up on groceries at the Walmart in Great Falls, the closest large city.

It’s in that remote area that Greg Hirst, the superintendent-slash-French teacher, is attempting to educate just under 200 total students from kindergarten through 12th grade, all of whom live on the Blackfeet reservation, at the Heart Butte School.

The Seventy Four

“My vision is simple: I just want a much better school,” Hirst said.

Creating that much better school—the key to breaking a cycle of poverty for Heart Butte’s children that has persisted for generations—will be no easy task. Money is tight, good teachers are hard to recruit, and the town’s isolation means many of the social-safety-net resources available elsewhere are missing here. Heart Butte is poised for potential turnaround—the school has routinely been identified as in need of improvement under federal performance guidelines—with a new program run by the state and funded by Washington, D.C.

The school, so small it’s fielding a six-man football team this year, has never got more than 52 percent of its students at or above the proficient level on state reading tests between 2007 and 2013, despite more than 80 percent of kids statewide hitting that benchmark those same years. Math and science results were worse.

“I think our community would be hard-pressed to give the reasons. They know our students as being alive and wanting to learn, and yet it doesn’t add up,” Hirst told a group of reporters and visitors from the state education office and Council of Chief School Officers touring the school in October.

With any program financed by Congress, the questions are whether the resources will be enough and how long will they last. Hirst believes in his bones that the kids of Heart Butte can do better and is hopeful this new program will provide the funding and expertise the school so sorely needs.

Students here haven’t had a strong structure in their early schooling, Hirst said, perhaps because the district didn’t have the proper programs and supports in place, or because of the school’s high staff turnover. Some 50 percent of the staff leave each year, voluntarily or involuntarily. The school board takes a “tough stance” in search of quality staff despite the difficulties in attracting teachers to such a remote location, Hirst said.

The students at Heart Butte School tend to come from homes without a lot of money. Jobs on the reservation are scarce, and many of their parents don’t work. Native Americans tend to have higher rates of illicit drug use, domestic and sexual violence, and suicide than other races.

The school doesn’t really have a tax base—only about $15,000 of its $1.8 million annual budget comes from property taxes. Montana has a special state funding stream that aims to mitigate the impacts of that but revenue is still scarce. Heart Butte spends about $1,200 less per pupil every year than the roughly $10,400 per-pupil state average. Officials rely in large part on a dizzying array of federal funds, including Impact Aid, with a sometimes-overwhelming amount of paperwork.

Nature—beautiful but dangerous in this part of the country, so far north that students live closer to the Canadian border than any major city in Montana—presents a threat. In August, just as the school year was starting, a wildfire burned 70 acres of land near Heart Butte. No one was hurt and no homes were destroyed, but the whole town, population 582, had to evacuate.

The school’s roof needs $2 million in repairs, and other physical plant repairs have sometimes meant that curriculum is rarely updated or students lack the necessary books, Principal Carinna Hall said.

“Our students can handle it. We’re Blackfeet, and we’re tough people,” Hirst said. “Our community knows that we’re tough-minded, tough-willed people, but for some reason our public school has not been able to meet those needs.”

The Heart Butte school stands in stark contrast to the other school on the Blackfeet reservation, in Browning, the tribal headquarters. There, about 500 students fill a beautiful new high school. There’s a career- and technical-education program that’s adding new concentrations, and one of the three elementary schools provides dual-language immersion for its kindergarteners in the Blackfeet language.

Hirst believes better incorporating the students’ tribal identity—the Blackfeet confederacy was a group of four tribes that hunted buffalo along what is now the Canadian-U.S. border; their name is thought to come from the black moccasins members wore—will help overcome some of these difficulties and be part of Heart Butte’s turnaround.

The school day now starts with the Blackfeet flag song, and Hirst helps students dig through family trees to find traditional Blackfeet names if they don’t already have them. “Once we get our identity down, our students kind of, I believe, feel a head taller. I know the programs that have been tried, I know the efforts that have been brought in. But I really do not believe any of those will work until our students want to be here,” he said.

This is not just feel-good curriculum. There is considerable research evidence that solid ethnic studies, when taught well, have positive effects on academic achievement and social outcomes, particularly for students whose history has  traditionally been marginalized, like Native Americans.

* * *

Five years ago, state Superintendent of Public Education Denise Juneau—herself an enrolled member of the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes who grew up in Browning—started Schools of Promise. The program, Montana’s effort to improve its lowest-performing schools, is funded by the federal School Improvement Grant, which provides similar grants to help states with struggling schools across the country.

Heart Butte is one of a handful of schools, all on reservations, that will get School of Promise assistance. For Heart Butte, that means $1.4 million over three years.

Montana’s achievement gap is between its white students and American Indian children, who, at 11 percent of the school-age population, are the state’s largest minority group.

American Indian children who live on reservations face a type of poverty not unlike that found in urban areas, Juneau said. It’s deep, generational, isolated, and concentrated.

“When you have those four components of poverty, anywhere in the country, you’re going to have schools that are struggling with academic achievement, just because of a lot of the challenges of their context,” she said in an interview in her office in Helena ahead of the visit to Heart Butte.

Unlike children in Baltimore or the Bronx or other areas where families have been impoverished for decades, though, children on reservations don’t have access to the services or educational options available to children in big cities.

The remoteness of Heart Butte and the other reservation schools necessitated a new turnaround model. Rather than implement some of the more dramatic measures used elsewhere—converting to charters or dismissing and re-hiring large numbers of staff—Juneau “Montana-ized” the School Improvement Grant model using a more collaborative approach.

The state doesn’t have a charter law, and staffing schools in these remote areas is already an issue, Juneau said. She and her staff, with representatives of the state teachers union in tow, visited the schools that fit the formula for assistance to make the case that they should become a School of Promise.

“Because it was a significant amount of dollars, we knew it had to be more of a partnership than just a granting of dollars,” Juneau said. The state has doled out a little more than $11.5 million on the effort since 2010, and will have spent about $14 million in total when the grants run out.

Small groups from schools, including teachers and students, came up with plans for what was needed for turnaround, and then Juneau, plus school leaders and the president of the local union, signed on to an agreement.

The state held on to the money because officials say the districts, all very small, didn’t have the capacity to make large-scale changes. Instead, the state education office provided direct services to districts, things like instructional coaches and reading and math interventions. School-board coaches help the lay people on the local board deal with the complexities of a multi-million dollar budget, hiring and firing, and the intricacies of federal funding.

Teachers also had to agree to a new evaluation system. Montana doesn’t have a federal Race to the Top grant or a No Child Left Behind waiver that in other states have been the impetus for an evaluation system tied to test scores.

Five years in, the program hasn’t always been successful. One district’s teachers union wouldn’t sign on; another district participated for one year but dropped out for the second.

Where schools have stuck with the program, though, Juneau says she sees results.

“I know when I walk into those schools now, they feel different. The community members talk differently about their school, where they feel it’s more welcoming. Students were leaving school, they’re now coming back. There’s just a sort of resurgence of belief in their public-education system,” she said.

Hard numbers, though, are tougher to come by. Montana hasn’t had a statewide test in three years, so there isn’t test data to compare year by year. (The state was field testing the Smarter Balanced test, aligned to the more rigorous Common Core standards, in 2014 but this year’s exercise was so plagued with technical problems that Juneau let schools stop administering the exam.)

Graduation rates are disheartening. Of the three high schools that were served for four years, rates actually declined substantially at two—from 52.8 to 38.9 percent at Lame Deer High School between 2011 and 2014, and from 83.3 percent to 44.4 percent at Frazer High School.  At Plenty Coups High School, the graduation rate was pretty much flat, at 63.1 percent in 2011 and 61.5 percent in 2014.

Juneau pointed out, though, that with class sizes as small as those at the Schools of Promise—the largest of the three high schools had a total enrollment of 95—having only a few students drop out could cause a dramatically swing in a class’s graduation rate.

The state has funding to fully implement the program in Heart Butte in 2016-17, but after that is anyone’s guess. Republicans in D.C., now in charge of the federal purse strings, have been skeptical of setting aside funds designated just for school improvement. Juneau’s pitch to the legislature in Helena for state dollars went nowhere.

“We’ve been working with our congressional delegation” to get the federal dollars, she said. “We hope it does [come through] because it’s really good work. It’s some of the most important work we do as a state agency.”

Juneau hopes to soon be part of that delegation. Forced out of the state superintendent’s job next year by term limits, she announced in early November that she’ll challenge Republican Ryan Zinke for Montana’s lone seat in the House of Representatives.

* * *

Some money is already flowing to Heart Butte, but Montana got a year window to do some serious planning before implementing the full turnaround programming next August. But that doesn’t mean school staff are just waiting around in the meantime, Hall, the principal, said.

The teachers asked to make some changes now, she said. They’ve done diagnostic reading tests for their kindergarteners through sixth-graders and ordered appropriate materials; interventions will begin in the next few weeks. Faculty will take the interventions to the junior and senior high school students in January at the start of the new semester.

The school has also had some new professional development through a local college, as well as in-class instructional coaching. State and school officials are hunting for a school board coach and a counselor.

“I’m excited about Schools of Promise coming in” with the accompanying host of resources, both financial and professional, “but we are not waiting, we’re doing the work that needs to be done now,” Hall said.

The school is also bringing in other improvements at a smaller scale. A federal Twenty-First Century Learning grant finances many new after-school programs, everything from tutoring to ceramics to possibly a new robotics program or other STEM activity.

The grant also provides an evening school meal program: an afternoon snack, given at about 3:30, and dinner, offered between 5 and 6 p.m. The evening meal is free to anyone under the age of 18—including the athletes on opposing sports teams that make the trek to a Heart Butte home game—and adults in the community can get a meal for $3.25. The school took the commitment a step further, sending a bus back down the hill to students’ houses to pick up those that didn’t stay after-school but might also be hungry.

“It was a big vision to put in for 100 students eating a night, and we actually are hitting that,” Hall said.

Hirst is also enriching the class offerings. After student council leaders approached him, he agreed to move the standard academic classes to earlier in the day and leave afternoon periods open for new electives. The deal is contingent, though, on the students performing well in their more core courses.

They now have class options like psychology, strength and conditioning, and basketball, all wildly popular with a group of students who spoke to the visitors. And while French is no longer offered at many public schools across the country because of declining enrollment and budget cuts, Hirst has brought the language of diplomacy to Heart Butte.

Most students hope to attend community college in nearby Browning, with the usual goal to transfer to the University of Montana’s main campus in Missoula, Hirst said.

Although all five high-school students who spoke to the group of recent visitors have plans to leave the reservation after graduation—to Cornell University to study veterinary medicine, to University of California Santa Barbara to study law, to Gonzaga University for biology, to the U.S. Army, and to Missoula to become a pediatrician—they all want to return to the Blackfeet Nation.

“Montana is home,” said freshman Taysa Andrew. “We’ll come back and help our people. We know how it is on a reservation.”

This story was produced in collaboration with

Congress Prepares to Launch a New Era in Education Policy

In the next few weeks, a bipartisan majority in Congress is likely to pass a law that, in various ways, repudiates the education legacies of both the Bush and Obama presidencies.

House and Senate negotiators last week agreed to a legislative framework replacing George W. Bush’s signature No Child Left Behind law, a landmark reform of K-12 education placing strict federal requirements on states and schools that proved unworkable over time and led to a culture of testing that drew criticism from liberals and conservatives alike. While some federal benchmarks for accountability will remain in place, the new bill gives much more latitude to the states and restricts the ability of the secretary of education to punish or reward them based on their progress.

The overhaul is years in the making—Congress has been due to reauthorize the underlying Elementary and Secondary Education Act since 2007. And in the absence of action on Capitol Hill, the Department of Education has amassed even greater power by negotiating waivers with 42 of the 50 states to exempt them from the law’s sanctions, which included the potential closure of schools. Ultimately, the mounting frustration both with the original law and the waiver system that took its place propelled an alliance among Republicans, Democrats, and even the teachers unions that have battled the leadership of both parties over the years.

The Chicago Protests Aren’t Just About Laquan McDonald

The final bill is still being drafted, but a House-Senate conference committee approved its framework in an overwhelming vote—of the 40-member panel, only Senator Rand Paul voted against it. Despite concerns about the restrictions the new law would place on the secretary of education, the White House “is pleased with the framework,” said Roberto Rodríguez, an education adviser on Obama’s Domestic Policy Council. Advisers and advocates in both parties described the bill as a genuine compromise between a bipartisan plan that passed the Senate and a more conservative House bill that would have eviscerated the federal role in education policy and shifted more resources away from needy schools.

Praise has come from unlikely corners.

“It corrects what the federal government has gotten wrong in terms of policy, but it maintains what the federal government has right in terms of policy,” Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, told me in a phone interview. “Is it perfect? Of course not. But by doing those two things simultaneously, it’s a very big step.”

Unions have railed against the mandates for teacher evaluations that the Obama administration required in exchange for No Child Left Behind waivers, calling them an excuse to scapegoat educators. While the new law would keep in place requirements for yearly testing of students in grades three through eight and once in high school, it scraps the federal evaluation requirement. And instead of mandating that schools demonstrate “adequate yearly progress” through test scores, the government would allow states to submit their own plan for accountability that could take into account factors beyond testing.

“Our bipartisan agreement will reduce reliance on high-stakes testing, so students and teachers can spend less time on test prep and more time on learning,” said Senator Patty Murray, the lead Democratic negotiator.

Democrats successfully pushed for what they called “federal guardrails,” or provisions that allow Washington to intervene if states don’t address schools performing in the lowest 5 percent or where more than one-third of students drop out before graduation. States will also be required to report data on the performance of key subgroups to ensure that disadvantaged students aren’t being ignored, and the law would cap at 1 percent the proportion of students with disabilities who could be excluded from the main state assessments.

“This is not an up-and-down conservative triumph,” said Frederick Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “The federal machinery of NCLB, while largely defanged, is still in place. From the administration perspective, that’s a win. They get to keep that machinery and the head-nodding toward Washington.”

Yet Hess said that overall, Republicans got 75 to 80 percent of what they wanted. They succeeded in their drive to consolidate about four dozen federal programs and shift the balance of power in education policy strongly back to the states. Many of the Democratic “wins” in the bill were about preventing even more conservative policies from becoming law, not advancing the vision of accountability-driven reform that Obama and his departing education secretary, Arne Duncan, promoted early in their tenure through competitive programs like Race to the Top. Duncan in particular has become a target of ire for conservatives, and Republican negotiators insisted on provisions that specifically rein in the secretary’s power to grant waivers in the manner that Duncan did.

“Never in my life have I seen major legislation driven as much by a desire to repudiate a Cabinet secretary and his way of doing business,” Hess said.

For years, Duncan has prodded Congress to fix the law, and he has repeatedly said that the waiver system was intended as a “stop-gap” to prevent schools from being hit with sanctions under No Child Left Behind. And while the administration is not happy with what it considers ideologically-motivated provisions that seek to curb the secretary’s authority, Rodriguez said the White House was pleased that the new law would affirm the federal role in regulating education policy in many areas. He also said the agreement achieves key administration priorities by providing $250 million in annual funding for early childhood educations and by rejecting a House Republican proposal for “portability” in education dollars that Democrats worry would drain resources from schools in poor neighborhoods.

Passage of the new law could coincide neatly with Duncan’s departure as education secretary next month. But officials said the desire to finally get something done had more to do with the next president. Republicans want to do away with the waiver system, while even Democrats who backed Duncan are worried about what a GOP president could do with the authority the Obama administration has used. Privately, those who support accountability-based reform are also unsure of how a President Hillary Clinton would use the waivers, given her alliance with teachers unions and her recent endorsement by the National Education Association.

The agreement was reached just a few weeks after the Obama administration made a high-profile announcement that it would encourage schools to reduce the frequency of student tests, a move seen by critics as a mea culpa for a climate blamed in part on its policies. Advocates in both parties said they hope the new law will relax the test-prep classroom culture without abandoning accountability, but transferring power to the states offers few guarantees, and there are concerns about what the shift will mean for states that have had a persistently high achievement gap.

“What educators and parents are going to look for is, do we have some latitude to help our kids succeed? And do we have the tools and conditions that we need to help children succeed?” Weingarten said. “Or is it just going to be doubling down on federal policies, but on a state level?”

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How to Make Middle School a Smoother Ride

This story is part of a short series on innovative ways teachers are rethinking the traditional lesson plan. What’s one that resonated with you or the student in your life? Tell us about it:

When I tell people I teach the 7th and 8th grades, their initial response is usually the same: “What a terrible age!” or something to that effect. Then: “How can you stand it?”

While it bothers me to hear strangers make these assumptions, I try to remember: This isn’t about my students; it’s about them.

People tend to recoil at the thought of middle school because of their own experiences. It can be hard for them to push aside the trauma or awkwardness they remember to understand why I love working with middle-school aged students.

That said, the preteenage years can be a fraught phase in life. As adolescence takes over, things become less black and white. Relationships evolve. Bodies change. Students become more conscious of their outward appearance and how that sometimes conflicts with what they feel inside.

On a far more essential level, racial and gender identity start to solidify as students begin to see how they fit into the larger world. As a teacher of literature, my role in that process might not be immediately apparent. But I’ve seen what exposing students to relatable works can do. I try to be mindful of the precarious path they walk during this time of transition, using the literature I teach and the lessons I plan as steadying tools to guide them.

Five years ago, I was lucky enough to join the small English department of Marin Country Day School, an independent school that takes diversity, social justice, and inclusion seriously. We draw students of diverse backgrounds from San Francisco, Marin, and the East Bay; the number of students of color at our school has consistently grown over the last ten years, now approaching 33 percent of the student body. We have openly gay and gender-fluid students, and a multiplicity of family structures at play among parents. My colleagues and I saw an opportunity for the English department to help students through these potentially turbulent years using the very building blocks of our curriculum.

When I started at Marin Country Day, the department’s syllabus already touched on aspects of identity—a few personal narrative essay assignments and poetry included. Given free rein by our school’s administration, and taking advantage of the fact that we were one of the rare English teams in our area that had more teachers of color than white teachers, we decided to make identity the central focus of our curriculum.

I remember walking into my classroom for the first time, bare walls and all, and spending hours poring over the existing curriculum with my new team. I remember a smile spreading across my coworker’s face as I pushed Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese to become one of our new texts. This was the kind of material we wanted students to know about early on.

We’ve continued to add more texts to each year’s plan that better reflect the myriad identities that file into our classrooms every September.

We choose writing from all over the world, stories that speak about gender and sexual orientation, and texts that touch on race and socioeconomic status. We can’t always cover every cultural identifier during the semester, but we try our best. And we make it a point to include our students in that process.

At the end of the year, students rate the three major texts and various short pieces they’ve read on a scale from one to five; when our department meets at the end of a semester, we try to change at least one text for the next year. Though we’ve consistently kept American Born Chinese on our syllabus, no text is sacred to us, regardless of prestige. Two years ago, we chopped To Kill a Mockingbird from our reading list in response to negative feedback from students of color.

During the annual survey, we also ask students for books they’ve enjoyed reading in their free time. As a result, we’ve added things like Every Day by David Levithan to our syllabus. The goal is for students to understand reading as an opportunity for enjoyment, not merely an obligation.

That enjoyment—seeing themselves and becoming familiar with identities deemed Other—is more than an escape. Students of color live in an especially reactionary world, one that is frequently unreceptive to their attempts to push back against injustice. Students who are gender-fluid or non-conforming still have to gel with a cissexist society. For an hour and 20 minutes a day, my fellow teachers and I have a chance to help them sort through the static and find a sense of place.

In a typical year, eighth-graders read several pieces about identity, both fiction and nonfiction. For the past two years, the fall curriculum has started with Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, moved to excerpts from Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club, and lands on a short personal essay by Alice Walker titled “Beauty: When the Other Dancer Is the Self.”

Then we take a deep dive into what we call the “identity unit.”

On Day 1, students answer two questions in a writing exercise: When someone meets you, what is the first thing that you think they notice about you? What are some things you wish someone knew about you when they first met you? The students break into pairs, sharing some or all of the bullet-point lists they’ve created with each other.

Next, I have students read a modified version of anthropologist Edward T. Hall’s article, “Iceberg Theory of Culture.” In 1976, Hall theorized we all have two significant layers: how we present to others—racial and gender presentation, etc.— and what’s “below the surface”—learning differences, morals, ethics, etc.

Students are asked to process these topics in different ways, sometimes physically. I’ll pose statements like “I think about my race on a daily basis,” or “I have been judged based on perceived socio-economic status,” and students will then move around the room to show where they fall on a spectrum,  “agree” on one end, “disagree” on the other. We’ll usually have some class discussion afterward, and I’ll ask them to free-write a paragraph based on the topic.

I recently reached out to one of my former students, Darcy, who now attends Phillips Academy Andover in Massachusetts. She told me by email she still remembered the activity, a full three years later.

“Discussing our identities for the first time felt foreign, strange, and perhaps awkward,” she wrote to me. “However, the conversation about identity became more fluid with each new discussion. I appreciate that the iceberg concept was introduced to me at a young age because the activity forced me to communicate with myself in-depth, something that I know is hard even for adults.”

Once the class has discussed the iceberg and various identifiers, the students turn the lens inward. They spend some time brainstorming all the aspects of their identities, mulling over how much these elements contribute to their self-perception and how the rest of the world sees them.

To drive home these concepts, I have them visually create their own interpretation of the iceberg to depict their identity. In the last few years, I’ve seen students create models to speak for them—an advent calendar, for example, that featured “white” under a box labeled “race,” revealing “multiracial” once a tab was lifted. The student sought to show how important his multiracial Asian ethnicity was to his sense of self, though everyone else perceived him as white. Another student drew a cross-section of an apple, listing her presentational identifiers on the outside and her morals and ethics in deeper layers inside.

Most of the work we do around identity is geared toward beginning the long process of understanding these shifting concepts in society. These are issues my students will grapple with for as long as they live around other people. But already, I can see the impact of this work as students move on from my class.  Again, I turned to Darcy to get a read on whether this material resonates.

“In middle school, I think many aspects of what I thought my identity to be were subconsciously influenced by my family. I wouldn’t say that pieces of my identity are necessarily easier to process now, but as I’ve matured I can identify independently,” she wrote. “I understand and appreciate that there is much more to a person’s character than what appears at the tip of the iceberg—a lesson produced by the discussions in my middle school English classroom.”

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Campus Politics: A Cheat Sheet

The country’s college campuses have seen a surge in student activism amid escalating tensions over their hostile racial climates. Student groups nationwide—many of them in conjunction with national initiatives such as the Black Liberation Collective and Black Lives Matter movement—have issued sets of demands aimed at improving the campus climate, enhancing student and faculty diversity, and ensuring better support for people of color in higher education. Common demands include the development of curricula focused on teaching cultural competency, the creation of cultural centers, and leadership changes.

In a November 20th op-ed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, outgoing U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan noted that the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights has received more than 1,000 complains of racial harassment at colleges and universities during his nearly seven years in office. The Atlantic’s Andrew McGill has found that the number of black students at top-tier universities has actually shrunk. As McGill put it, the numbers suggest that the activism that’s exploded since the University of Missouri is more an “inevitability” than a “spontaneous uprising of discontent.”

The protests have been met with widespread support, though they’ve also triggered debates about free-speech rights and backlash including threats of violence against the protesters. Meanwhile, some students question whether college administrators will respond with constructive plans for change or merely band-aid approaches to allaying the turmoil. “Genuine opportunity is about more than enrolling; it’s about finding a home and a community,” Duncan wrote.

This cheat sheet and timeline provide a working overview of how things look right now and include highlights from some of the most high-profile campus protests. We will be periodically updating it throughout the year. (The protests’ exact dates are often hard to nail down, so unless otherwise noted, the ones summarized below are organized in reverse chronological order by the day on which protesters published their demands; doing so helps ensure a consistent national comparison.) While the schools mentioned below have gotten national media attention, students at about 60 schools nationwide—from Occidental College in California, to the University of Alabama—have submitted lists of demands to their respactive universities. A running list of those schools can be found here.

Harvard University

What: A group of students initially issued a list of demands back in December 2014, but the school’s racial tensions reemerged on the public radar November 19 after portraits of Harvard Law Schools’ black professors were each covered with a piece of black tape. The Guardian reports that the same tape had previously been used by activists from the group Royall Must Fall to cover the law school’s seal in several locations on campus in an effort to raise awareness about the seal’s history: “The family crest of the wealthy and ruthless slaveholder Isaac Royall Jr.” According to The Crimson, hundreds of law-school students, faculty, staff, and administrators subsequently gathered to condemn the law school’s “racist and unwelcoming environment”; some criticized Law School Dean Martha Minow for failing to adequately support minority students. One law-school student wrote a post for Blavity describing it as “a hate crime.”

Who: Royall Must Fall, Harvard Black Law Student Association, Chan School Justice

Aftermath: Campus police are still investigating the vandalism. Administrators, including Minow and Harvard President Drew Faust, said they’re committed to making the Ivy League college a more inclusive place. Last year, the school created a working group on diversity and inclusion, and on November 20th, a day after the vandalism was discovered, officials released the group’s report. It recommended more diversity at the college and better support for affinity-based students groups on campus and in multicultural centers, among other proposals.

Princeton University

What: Students staged a 32-hour protest and sit-in, taking over President Christopher Eisgruber’s office. They issued a set of demands, including calls for the university to revisit how it treats Woodrow Wilson’s “racist legacy.” (The 28th president supported racial segregation and opposed efforts during the civil-rights era to combat discrimination.) Some of their efforts focused on raising cultural awareness through required courses and supporting students of color by creating a space on campus tailored to their needs. The protest ended when Eisgruber signed a document conceding to some of their requests. (A list of the protesters’ demands can be found here.)

Who: The Black Justice League

Aftermath: Eisgruber has agreed to consider—and in some cases execute—the students’ demands; he issued a letter on November 22nd explaining that changes were already underway. Eisgruber agreed to the possibility of renaming the Woodrow Wilson School of International and Public affairs and removing a mural of him. He also agreed to creating a cultural space and indicated that campus leaders were contemplating the creation of a course on diversity issues that would be required of all students. Soon after the protest, the university issued alerts that there had been anonymous threats of violence involving bombs and firearms.

Brown University

What: After a Dartmouth student was handcuffed and thrown to the ground in a “heated and physical” incident with Brown campus police while attending a conference on race, gender, and socioeconomic issues, Brown President Christina Paxon promised a full investigation. Hundreds of students at Brown, a campus known for being progressive, teamed up with peers from Providence College to protest in solidarity with the students at the University of Missouri. Students organized a “blackout,” wearing black in honor of those who’ve faced racial discrimination on campus and elsewhere. Students gathered on the green and took turns speaking into a megaphone and telling their experiences of being victimized by racist remarks. (A list of the protesters’ demands can be found here.)

Who: Black Student Union, other groups

Aftermath: Brown plans to invest $100 million achieving the goals set out in a new 19-page outline called “Pathways to Diversity and Inclusion: An Action Plan for Brown University.” Paxon has asked students and faculty to complete an online feedback form to comment on what they think of the new diversity initiative. It includes: adding staff to the Brown Center for Students of Color, the Sarah Doyle Women’s Center and the LGBTQ Center, offering sensitivity and social justice training, compiling statistics on bias and inclusion, and doubling the number of faculty from diverse backgrounds by 2024-25.

Yale University

What: After a string of racially charged events on campus—including a fraternity barring black women from their party, swastikas drawn across campus, and a letter from an administrator implying that students offended by culturally insensitive Halloween costumes should just “look away”—students held a “March of Resilience” that garnered more than 1,000 supporters. Students gathered in the Afro-American cultural center for hours discussing how they felt left out of Yale’s culture, and President Peter Salovey admitted in a closed-doors meeting that the university had “failed” its minority students. Students demanded that the university increase support for cultural centers, address mental health issues for minority students and remove the administrator who had written the letter, Erika Christakis, from her position as the associate master of Silliman College. (A list of the protesters’ demands can be found here.)

Who: Black Student Alliance, Yale Next

Aftermath: The controversy at Yale has inspired debates around free speech and initiatives by administrators nationwide to acknowledge and address systematic racism. Salovey met many of students’ demands by their November 18 deadline, notably omitting the one calling for the removal of Christakis and her husband Nicholas, whose emails largely sparked the debate in the first place. Salovey did, however, announce that the school will increase funding for cultural centers, hire four diverse faculty members, and launch a series of conferences on diversity and inclusion.

Amherst College

What: An initial sit-in was organized by three students at the small, elite liberal-arts college in solidarity with their peers at Mizzou and other institutions around the world “where black people are marginalized and threatened.” Students gathered to speak about their experiences with racism at the college and elsewhere and called for the university to abandon an unofficial mascot, Lord Jeff, commemorating the college’s namesake, who allegedly engaged in germ warfare against Native Americans by giving them smallpox-infected blankets. (A list of the protesters’ demands can be found here.)

Who: Amherst Uprising

Aftermath: Most of the Amherst students’ 11 demands were ultimately rejected. A majority of faculty did, however, vote to change the mascot; the vote is nonbinding and will be presented to the board of trustees in January. Several of the Uprising’s demands have garnered a good deal of criticism over free-speech concerns. They include a request that the college to discipline the students who posted “All Lives Matter” signs and other posters criticizing the Mizzou protesters. The college’s president, Biddy Martin, expressed her support for the protesters and seemed to side with them in response to accusations that they were seeking to stifle free speech on campus.

Claremont McKenna College

What: Although the events at Mizzou and Yale seem to have sparked the current spike in unrest at the Claremont McKenna, the uprising at private liberal-arts college in Southern California actually traces back to April, when a group of 30 minority students originally wrote to the university president with their own list of demands. Greater faculty diversity and funding for multicultural services were among the original requests—most of which hadn’t been met as of the recent wave of protests, according to The Student Life. The national movement, combined with a controversy at Claremont McKenna involving former Dean of Students Mary Spellman, prompted new attention on the racial tensions at the California school, with protesters issuing an open letter outlining the same demands and fervidly pushing for new leadership. Spellman reportedly precipitated the campus-wide protest and hunger strikes by two students after sending an email to a Hispanic student (who’d written an op-ed in the campus newspaper criticizing the college for failing to support marginalized students) pledging to better support students who “don’t fit our CMC mold.”

Who: CMCers of Color, Brothers and Sisters Alliance, Sexuality and Gender Alliance, Asian Pacific American Mentors, GenU

Aftermath: Spellman resigned on November 12. A day earlier, when the demonstrations took place, President Hiram Chodosh sent out a letter announcing the creation of new leadership positions on diversity and inclusion; a greater emphasis on recruiting and hiring people of color and teaching about diversity issues; and the establishment of a center dedicated to diversity, identity, and free speech. Protest organizers continue to push for their involvement in decision-making around resources and hiring, stressing that their efforts are just beginning. “This is not the be-all and end-all,” Jincy Varughese, a senior environment, economics and politics major, told the Times. “The fact that it took eight months of protest and two students saying that they wanted to go on a hunger fast to create all of this to happen is very telling.”

Ithaca College

What: A “solidarity walkout” organized during the college’s family weekend whose main demand was that its president, Tom Rochon, step down. Protesters distributed a document, “The Case Against Tom Rochon,” a scathing censure that accuses the president of “incompetence,” “disregard for minority community members,” and “disconnection from what is actually happening at [Ithaca College] and what needs to happen.” (The source of the document is unclear.) The Ithaca College protest has been closely compared to that at Mizzou and was, according to the Ithaca Journal and student newspaper The Ithacan, prompted by “ongoing concerns of racial injustice” on campus, including “a string of … race-related incidents” in the weeks leading up to the demonstration.

Who: People of Color at Ithaca College

Aftermath: The chair of the school’s board of trustees, Tom Grape, issued a statement on the same day of the walkout assuring students that administrators would do their best to heed their concerns. Rochon, however, is still in office, and Grape noted that the board is “actively partnering” with the president and other campus leaders to ensure “that Ithaca College will emerge from this chapter stronger and more resolute in its direction forward.” (The day prior to the protest, college leaders announced the creation of a new chief diversity officer position; the college’s current associate provost for diversity, inclusion, and engagement is taking up the role in the interim.)

University of Cincinnati

What: In July, a white University of Cincinnati police officer shot and killed an unarmed black man, Samuel DuBose, after a routine traffic stop. Students in response formed the Irate 8—a group that’s named after the percentage of black students at UC last year and has since spearheaded racial-justice efforts on campus. A petition outlining their demands went live November 9th, calling for the development of a curriculum focusing on “racial awareness” and the recruitment and retention of black students and faculty; it’s also demanding that the school improve its handling of police misconduct and divest from companies involved in the operation of private prisons. Students also staged a silent protest on November 18 in solidarity with the other campus demonstrations. (A list of the protesters’ demands, which were first presented to the university on October 15, can be found here.)

Who: The Irate 8, UC Students Against Injustice

Aftermath: The group’s petition has received hundreds of signatures. The university’s chief diversity, Bleuzette Marshall, told The Washington Post that she’s met with the group repeatedly to ensure them that changes are taking place. (The percentage of black students on campus, for example, has slightly increased.) Some activists are skeptical of all the commitments being made, with one telling the Post he’s “getting weary of the niceties.”

The University of Missouri

What: Protests kicked off after a series of racist incidents on campus in the fall, including a report that feces that had been smeared in the shape of a swastika in a dorm restroom. Black students have long described a segregated and unwelcoming environment at the university that administrators failed to address. On October 10th, activists tried to confront University President Tim Wolfe, stopping his car during the school’s homecoming parade and reciting through a megaphone incidents of racism on campus tracing back to the university’s founding in the 1830s. Wolfe reportedly remained silent during the entire confrontation. The ensuing protests included a hunger strike by one student, a mass student demonstration and faculty walkout, and a strike by the university’s football team—the last of which is believed to have clinched Wolfe’s resignation. During the demonstrations, activists were shown on video seeking to keep journalists away from protests, including a clip of some of them—students and professors—intimidating a photographer. (A list of the protesters’ demands can be found here.)

Who: Concerned Student 1950, a coalition leading the protests that’s named for the year Mizzou admitted its first black graduate student; Jonathan Butler, a graduate student and veteran of the Ferguson protests, launched a hunger strike that ended when Wolfe resigned; Faculty​; The Mizzou football team

Aftermath: On November 9, Wolfe and Chancellor Bowen Loftin both announced their resignations (which seem to have been precipitated not only by the uproar, but also by preexisting questions about their leadership). That same day, the university’s Board of Curators announced that it was enacting a series of diversity initiatives—including the appointment of a chief diversity, inclusion, and equity officer and efforts to recruit and retain more faculty and staff of color—that would go into effect within the next three months. A number of employees involved in the altercation with the photojournalist apologized, including a communications professor who resigned from a courtesy appointment she held at the university’s School of Journalism. The protests were followed by a good deal of disorder on campus, including canceled classes, threats of violence on social media and by phone, and other suspicious activity. On November 10th, a 19-year-old white Missouri University of Science and Technology student was arrested in connection with a Yik Yak post in which he threatened to shoot every black person he saw. The movement leading up to the departures of Wolfe and Loftin has been described as “seismic, ” with the Mizzou protests attributed with sparking a wave of protests on campuses nationwide over racism on college and free speech, among other related issues.

‘The Amount of Stress on a Student Is Ridiculous’

Having someone come into my community, to where I lived all my life and through four years of them with the constant reminder of this situation at my high school, and telling the world through a very public article about what is wrong with my community IS silencing to me and my fellow Palo Altans. This is not only an article that does not give a truthful representation of the city I love, but it’s biased in the framing of the “cluster” of suicides in our community. And the article blames certain groups of people (people of color, parents) for something that we may never understand.

Palo Alto WILL NEVER FORGET, and the article does nothing to talk about how students on campus have been giving support to other students within our community. Using the words “abolished” and “won” [in the the debate over early-morning classes at Gunn] changes the frame of how we as readers think of the situation; it’s seen as a battle, and that one group is winning over another. Truthfully, the article has defined our pain as the author sees it, not voicing how the community views it.

So yes, I feel silenced, which is why it took so long to me to write this. The Atlantic is a huge media hub that is well-recognized across the nation, as well as the world. Smearing Palo Alto and explaining the “problems” with the community does nothing to help the community from the already open scars (truthfully, they will never heal) and only triggers them.

This article makes the Palo Alto community hurt. It does not give us a clear sense of mind, nor does it give us solutions to the “problems” that are laid out by the author. Now all that other people will think about my alma mater, Gunn High School, is that it is “‘the suicide school’” [as conveyed to Hanna from local middle-school kids who call it that].

Why am I so upset, you say? There are people close to me who are directly affected by what is written here. These are people’s feelings that the author has written and painted to fit her argument. Not only does that limit the validity of our feelings, but it silences us to have to believe that these factors that she’s written down are the reasons for these suicides. People are trying to cope, but all this does is expose the wound for people not in our community to make decisions about why we are feeling what we are feeling.

Even writing this comment is taking a toll on me. The author can never TRULY understand what is going on here, which is why it is so hard to read. She did not grow up in the community, she did not go to school here, she did not experience high school like Gunn students have, so how can she write about it like she knows what the problems are, and that our future generations will forget about this when they go to Gunn?

A current Paly student addresses Hanna:

I don’t think anyone will read this email, nor should they. I’m a teenager who believes she knows everything, when I know nothing. But I wanted to tell you my story. Maybe it’ll give me some solace, maybe it’ll help me sleep tonight.

I’m 17 and I go to Palo Alto High School. I’ve been in the district all my life. I have a fantastic rapport with people, and I have depression. For a long time, I wanted to kill myself. For a long time, my brother wanted to. And before that, my mother felt the urge. And before that, my great grandmother actually did. It’s in my genes to be depressed, to be anxious, to hate every cell in my body.

Maybe it was in the stars for me to be abused by friends and family. Maybe had I not been a kiss-ass wanting my parents attention, I would be dead. I want you to know what it’s like to fight a statistic. I think before you had gone ahead and judged people like me in that article, you should have at least heard me out. Because I am a survivor. Such a stupid phrase, but it’s true. I’m not a survivor of this town; it had nothing to do my depressive state. The atmosphere did not contribute in any way.

For some it could have been a factor. But I think I know that for those who have wanted to kill themselves, and have, Palo Alto is not what is making us cut ourselves, burn ourselves, starve ourselves, mutilate ourselves. It is those who do not get us, who demean us, who try to simplify our disorder in a sensationalized piece, writing as if they know everything.

Now I don’t want to put the blame on you. For you seem good at heart, you seem like you want to help. But have you ever starved yourself, hidden the marks on your skin, have had a panic attack everyday for years, have stood in the road trying to decide whether to move from the cars coming, held your brother’s gauged-out wrists, sent him to rehab, seen him in the psych ward on suicide watch, have your friends die on you, have your friend’s brother kill himself when you were ten? Have you taken a knife to your throat and want an earthquake to happen so that you are not the one responsible? Have you?

Please don’t defend your ignorance, I’m sure it’s bliss. But you’ve hurt me. No, I’m not suicidal or in a depressive state anymore. I have help, and I’m now going off medication because I am good. I am happy. I love myself and my family and my amazing best friend and dog. I am applying to college to become a teacher. I have passions, and although I don’t see my current self teaching and in college, I see a version of myself doing so and still being happy and true to herself. But I thought you should know me before you judged us kids who can’t help it.

I hope this doesn’t come off as hate. I hope that if you actually do read this, or emails like it, you don’t get sad or depressed and want to hurt yourself too. I hope that you are happy, and that you love yourself and what you are doing with your life. I wanted to be a writer. But I thought it’d be hard. I bet this is hard for you now, having an affluent community target you. So please be well. Do well for all us kids who aren’t well—across the whole nation, not just Palo Alto. And please—this is not sarcastic in any way—have a good day.

From a very recent graduate of Gunn (‘15):

I was the vice president of ROCK (Reach Out, Care, Know) on campus, a suicide prevention and Sources of Strength club. I helped my friends who were struggling with depression and suicidal ideation. In eighth grade, one of my best friends attempted suicide. I want to stress, unlike this article did, that she had, and still has, diagnosed bipolar disorder and depression.

The main “why” of suicide is mental illness. Stress can heighten mental illness, it can cause depression, but there is no evidence showing that this stress is what led to any of these suicides. Harry Lee was suicidal and depressed. His parents stressed that at his funeral. He had been fighting a mental illness for years, and the depression won.

I agree that we have a stress problem at Gunn. I would see my peers doing incredible internships and I even begged my mom to let me go to SAT camp. It didn’t matter in the end; I took the ACT and did more than fine on it, and I am at a university that makes me so happy. But I don’t think the choice to put the suicides on the cover and then say things that have been said in other pieces for pages on pages is just inconsiderate.

We should address mindfulness on campus. We should address the stigmatization of mental illness. We should be offered multiple paths of success from the very beginning of elementary school, as well as different views on what success is. I was interviewed for this article, and she completely disregarded everything we had to say that wasn’t “Gunn is known as the suicide school in the middle school communities.” She didn’t even mention my English teacher telling her that “if you want to know what Gunn students are really like, sit in my class for a day.”

There are kids who are pushed along by their parents and have their whole lives planned out for them. This happens everywhere across the country. But publicizing this issue using the suicides in my hometown, where there is no connection between this and the kids who committed suicide, is just painful and harmful to this group of people trying to heal.

I do not have “Stockholm syndrome” from this. It is not “embarrassing” that we have had so many suicides here. We are sensitive about being interviewed because our voices have not been heard, and apparently continue to not be heard.

I didn’t love high school. I am so glad to be out of Palo Alto and be with people who are passionate about what I’m passionate about. But, when she characterizes the people I spent four years with, crying on the quad with, holding so tight because we thought we were going to fall apart, as soulless zombies, I take issue with that. In the words of Kathleen Blanchard, we are not data.

I ran all these dissents by Hanna and she’s probably crafting a follow-up note soon. But here’s one more Gunn graduate for now, addressing Hanna:

First, thank you for your article. I’m very grateful to you for being able to articulate what I’ve been thinking about my former city for years. However, I seem to be one of the few from Palo Alto who thinks positively of what you’ve had to say. A lot of the comments seem to stem from something along the lines of, “She didn’t focus on mental illness,” and to a degree I think they are right, but I also appreciate more what you have to say.

A little about me so you may understand where I am coming from. I graduated from Henry M. Gunn High School in 2012 and knew some of the original people who committed suicide back in 2009. Since then, the experience of attending Gunn has sort of haunted me. I hated my time in Palo Alto and I’m frankly glad I never have to go back. Like many you interviewed for the article, I am wildly accomplished, but I won’t go into specifics.

All you need to know is that I was miserable despite this. I had all these incredible achievements wrapped up with my self worth and it was detrimental to my mental health. I only valued myself in terms of what I had accomplished, instead of who I was. I felt isolated from my parents, I was lost and timid, I didn’t question anything, and I was never intellectually curious. The only things that I ever focused on was accruing more achievements.

However, upon graduating, I moved to NYC to study Anthropology and Art History and experienced a completely different and diverse environment from the toxic and homogenous one I left. It’s taken many years but I can now confidently say I am happy with myself.

Upon moving to NYC, I’ve learned more about myself than I ever could have in Palo Alto. I have learned that I am more than just my resume, and that I am a human capable of holding pride in who I am as an individual. It took three years of extended leave from Palo Alto realize this. So I thank you for finally identifying to me the problems that the culture and myself are/were guilty of, problems that I’ve had to fix unknowingly.

I think those in my hometown choosing to ignore the larger implications of society are almost saying there’s nothing at all wrong with Palo Alto. They’re completely sidestepping the problem. Yes, I agree a lot of the problem is mental health issues, but to blame the mass suicides on that is to isolate the individuals and eliminate responsibility for the community and culture. Culture affects people and many Palo Altans don’t realize that.

They also don’t realize that given the city’s socioeconomic privilege, we live in a bubble where hard capitalism is the norm. Being purely capitalistic, which I think a lot of my peers are, is problematic.

I think that you’ve rightly turned the attention to the wider community. Obviously, like you said, no one wants to be criticized amidst tragedy, but isn’t it tragedy that brings upon change? I think your article will promote dialogue and hopefully positive change in my hometown. I think it’s time we stop looking at ourselves with rose-colored glasses and really evaluate the culture we come from, in order to find a solution.

Thank you again for writing this article. It was very difficult for me to read and it opened a lot of wounds and tears, but after reading it, I felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders and I could finally breathe again.

The Missing Black Students at Elite American Universities

Over the past 20 years, black enrollment in colleges and universities has skyrocketed. It’s a huge success story, one that’s due to the hard work of black families, college admissions officers, and education advocates. But at top-tier universities in the United States, it’s a different story. There, the share of students who are black has actually dropped since 1994.

Among the 100-odd “very high research activity” institutions scored by Indiana University’s Center for Postsecondary Research, most saw their percentage of black undergraduates shrink between 1994 and 2013, the product of modest growth in black enrollment amid a much more rapid expansion of students on campus, according to data collected by the U.S. Department of Education.

Campus Politics

Power, identity, and speech in the new American university
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This list includes not only Ivy League schools and selective private colleges, but also many large public universities, including UCLA, Florida State, and the University of Michigan. Meanwhile, other institutions of higher education—including speciality schools, baccalaureate programs, and colleges that primarily offer associate degrees—have seen black representation increase, sometimes dramatically.

This statistic put the recent campus discussions on race in a different light: less a spontaneous uprising of discontent, and more an inevitability.

“When you already have an issue around inclusion … these incidents of late heighten that perception and confirm that perception,” said Tyrone Howard, an associate dean for equity and inclusion at UCLA and director of the university’s Black Male Institute. “It gives some students of color some pause—do I really want to go to a place that, at least from the optics, suggests they’re not inclusive?”

Since 1994, black enrollment has doubled at institutions that primarily grant associate degrees, including community colleges. In 2013, black students accounted for 16 percent of the student body there, versus 11 percent in 1994.

Universities focusing on bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees also broadly saw gains, with blacks making up 14 percent of the population, compared to 11 percent in 1994.

But at top-tier universities, black undergraduate populations average 6 percent, a statistic that has remained largely flat for 20 years. (It’s less than half of what their share of the population might suggest; the Census reports that 15 percent of Americans between the ages of 20 and 24 are black.) While some schools have had success—the University of Missouri’s main campus has actually increased its black share by 3 percentage points since 1994—the median school barely budged.

(At Harvard, for example, 6.5 percent of undergraduates were black in 2013, down from 7.4 percent in 1994.)

Researchers say top-tier schools have left black students behind in their push for ever-more-selective admission rates. Many rely heavily on measures that disadvantage minority students, including standardized test scores. The greater emphasis on such criteria has left high school counselors in predominantly black schools underprepared to respond. And tighter admissions may have prompted high school counselors to steer black students toward less selective schools.

“Those schools don’t have as much support around college prep as they should. As a result, those students are woefully in the dark about their college options,” Howard said. “If a student shows he or she has a profile that would be considered at UCLA or Berkeley, if no one at the school or a counselor or an administrator helps the student to recognize it, that student shoots for a [less-selective] state school instead.”

But simply admitting more black students isn’t enough. Persistently lower graduation rates among black students show that promising enrollment numbers alone won’t build an inclusive campus. The curriculum matters, academics say, as does support. So does the diversity of the faculty.

“Even at places that are impressively diverse, students still feel very much on the fringes,” said Shaun Harper, a professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania and executive director of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education. “Simply having more students of color on a college campus does not ensure that they are going to feel included and respected.”

There’s no question that top-tier schools are becoming more diverse. White students made up 58 percent of the student body in 2013, down from 72 percent in 1994. Universities have also recruited more Hispanics, the United States’ largest minority group.

But indifference to black students isn’t an issue colleges can afford to take lightly. “Young black folks are refusing alteration or the mollification of conformity and are simply demanding justice,” the New York Times columnist Charles Blow recently wrote. And the numbers are their side.

Learning From Yale

Many fields have moved away from a materialist view of the world and toward a seemingly obsessive focus on discourse as the most important explanation for social problems like income inequality, racism, sexism, etc. The idea, to put it simply, is that the way we represent people, places, and things is as important—if not more important—than reality itself.

In fact, reality is actually itself shaped by the way it is represented.  Thus, making use of clichés and stereotypes, using a word that contains certain connotations, or even simply speaking at all without the proper qualifications (primarily based on gender/race/class identity) may not just be questions of taste but, instead, potentially grave acts of violence.

Some may remember that in the 1990s, this formed the basis for a broad debate in academia over the merits of what was generally referred to as “postmodernism.”  This debate is pretty much over, partially due to the turnover of older professors trained in materialist methodologies retiring and being replaced by younger scholars who enthusiastically embrace the priorities of the “cultural turn.”

Also, I suspect, the debate is over because of the frustrating inefficacy of a conversation in which disagreement is construed as oppression or violence. It’s simply easier for the many professors who do not share the research priorities of the cultural turn—for example, a sociologist studying the reasons for poor health conditions in Indian slums instead of the language surrounding poor health in an Indian slum—to simply defer to their discourse-focused colleagues on most issues rather than risk career-damaging accusations of “silencing” or “marginalizing” or “epistemological violence.”

Perfectly apt and inoffensive words like “native” are considered too retrograde for public use owing to their perceived, oppressive connotations. That word is replaced by longer, Latinate synonyms like “indigenous,” which are in turn rotated out for even longer, clumsier alternatives (“autochthonous”).  It is in this triviality-addicted academic environment that intellectually-engaged students begin to discover the world around them and to grapple with its many injustices.

A student concerned about the plight of Central American immigrants living illegally in the U.S., for example, learns that the first and most important steps to alleviating this problem are to change the language he or she uses to talk about the issue.  They are not “illegal immigrants”; they are “undocumented,” or preferably just “immigrants.” One should be wary about referring to them as “Hispanic” or “Latino,” as this may reify harmful, generalized stereotypes.  Referring to them as “refugees” rather than “immigrants” may call much-needed attention to the role of the U.S.’s drug policies in fomenting societal unrest in their countries of origin, but on the other hand it may reinforce negative perceptions of Central American nations as violent, backwards “banana republics.”

Perhaps the student should avoid using any labels at all and allow individuals from the marginalized community identify themselves?  The stakes here are very high. While none of this, of course, has any effect on the living conditions of undocumented immigrants, change must begin somewhere.

Is it any wonder then, that within this academic zeitgeist, where terminology is considered the foundation of social change and language itself contains the capacity to inflict violence and heap misery upon millions of people, that politically-active students have begun to demand administrative action to control speech and other forms of expression on campus?  A blonde-haired, Anglo-American student dressed in a Villa-esque costume with bandoliers and a large sombrero is not just having fun with a pop-culture archetype on Halloween. She is mocking and degrading Mexican-American students on campus by appealing to clichés of Mexican lawlessness, and in so doing she makes campus an oppressive, potentially violent and unsafe space for other students of Mexican ancestry.

We know this because scholarship has been telling us this for decades. Decades of research on the role of language and representation in processes of oppression and marginalization has led to an academia where the free expression of ideas is tightly-controlled and the proponents of language-policing believe, with the kind of certainty that comes only from religion or theory, that they are engaged in a war against the forces of injustice.

In order to move beyond the kind of campus environment where students feel threatened by their peers’ poor taste in costumes—or by an email written by a professor suggesting that their fellow students may be entitled to their poor taste—there must also be a change in the priorities and attitudes of professors themselves. It is up to the next generation of scholars entering the academy to find a way forward, out of this unpleasant and deeply trivial intellectual quagmire.  Based on the worldviews expressed by the current generation of students leading the “P.C.” charge, I am not optimistic.

Disagree with that assessment or simply have a different view to share? Email and I’ll air the strongest dissenting views. Update from a reader:

I am a graduate student in the humanities at UC Berkeley, and though my name/position are clear from my signature and email address, I would ask that I remain anonymous if my words should ever see the light of day. The second email you posted, from the graduate student at the midwestern research university, is illuminating in its anonymity. The position that the student takes, which I believe to be well-founded and fair, cannot really be taken with one’s name attached to it, especially if the speaker is a graduate student.

The reader’s fear is that the next generation of faculty—that is, the current graduate students—are training and learning in an intellectual environment detached from reality, all gripped by the fear that reckless talk about “reality” will make it real. Further, we are to fear that, if we describe reality as it is, we will be complicit in its ills. And thus we add successive layers of insulating language until we are engaging in nothing but semantics, a realm that people of our skill set can comfortably dominate.

As your first reader suggested, the tendency is inherently authoritarian, and like any authoritarian system, it is prone to internecine conflict. Sealed from the outside world behind this growing intellectual barrier, the near enemy is the only one near enough to throttle—thus the reason for the reader’s anonymity, and mine. The whole worldview leads inexorably to purges, and graduate students (and, increasingly, non-tenured faculty) are the most vulnerable targets.

In a roundabout way, though, I think the graduate student’s email is reason for hope, if indeed we hope for a revival of free speech and room for dissenting views. A fractious ideology like this one makes more enemies than friends, and although its proponents are quite loud, they are not necessarily preponderant in numbers.  Those who are skeptical of the entire edifice, and wise enough to keep their mouths shut, might very well comprise a silent majority—the term’s historical and cultural connotations be damned.

The Future of Native American Imagery in Sports

When California recently became the first state to officially outlaw use of the term “Redskin” for mascots throughout the state, it again sparked conversation over the use of Native imagery and likenesses in sports—from amateur to collegiate to professional.


Gyasi Ross, an author and speaker who hails from the Blackfeet Nation and Suquamish Nation, says, “When you’re talking about mascots or prohibited words … it is always about power and/or access.”

“It’s the portrait of privilege when [the Washington football owner] Dan Snyder says, ‘This is how you’re supposed to feel about’” his team’s persistent use of the word,” Ross continued. “Because our ancestors suffered for that history and had faithfulness to survive that history. … Far be it for any person not of that family, not of that tribe, not of that community to have an opinion on this.”

“The origin of the word comes from the historical context. It was published in newspapers in the West—placing bounties on Native [people], using the R-word. So how can it be thought of as being anything but derogatory and a hate word?” asks Robert Holden, the deputy director of the National Congress of American Indians.

Holden’s NCAI colleague, the legislative associate Brian Howard, agrees. He pointed out that many of the Native representations in collegiate and professional sports sprung up “in the early 1900s, when a lot of the perception by the general populace toward Native Americans was that we were a dying race, in terms of actual numbers and as concerted efforts to try to assimilate Native peoples into mainstream society and to do away with” the idea of sovereign nations and cultures. Howard notes that the argument that the names are intended to honor, not offend, are flawed.

Ross challenges where the line of acceptability is drawn by the non-Native majority in this country. “If ‘Redskins’ is an inappropriate title, then we shouldn’t use any Native names,” he suggests.

Holden agrees, saying, “I would like to do away with all of them. They’re all derogatory, they use caricatures, and they all use the things that Native people use as part of our culture … Eagle feathers within Native communities and societies [are] given for doing good things for the community, for their families … and for warriors who faced death defending our homelands, so these are things that are not taken lightly.”

Holden and Howard point out that to associate symbols that mean so much to the tribal community with something as trivial as athletics is insulting and derogatory.

“To kind of minimalize that into a sports setting doesn’t really do them honor,” Howard says.

Holden says that it is important that other states follow suit and that Native representation across all levels of sports stop. He is encouraged, though, that there appears to be growing support for this perspective.

“There are a lot of folks out there who are like-minded and rational thinking and they’ve become enlightened,” he says. “Sports writers, President Obama, [and] members of Congress” have expressed support, and “schools across the country are changing [their] mascot, caricatures, and names.” Such actions are a move in the right direction, says Holden.

“How is it that folks can’t understand or see what is the truth? … Why they’re being so obstinate or not willing to be educated about Native people and what this really means and what it stands for” is puzzling, he continues.

Ross says it isn’t necessarily for people to understand. “This isn’t about subjective offense,” he says. “It’s about voice. … It’s about saying we have enough agency, autonomy, and intelligence to decide what’s right for us.”

In Tallahassee, Florida, one institution, aided by a regional tribe, has worked hard to show that not all representation of Native imagery and symbols are created equal and at least one tribe is being given the opportunity to decide exactly what works for it.

“For almost 70 years, Florida State has worked closely, side by side, with the Seminole Tribe of Florida in a relationship that is mutually supportive and built on respect,” says Browning Brooks, the assistant vice president for university communications at Florida State University.

The university, whose athletic teams are known as the Seminoles, embraces its relationship with the Seminole Tribe of Florida and considers members of the tribe community partners. The tribe’s involvement is critical to the success of the university, say officials, not just a group of people whose name might conjure up inspiring imagery for student athletes on a war path.

“This may be splitting hairs,” Brooks says, “but we do not have a mascot.”

The student who portrays the great Seminole warrior Osceola and rides the Appaloosa horse Renegade during football games must maintain good grades and demonstrate personal character. Portraying Osceola on game days is a great honor and one that is supported by members of the tribe, the women of which sew the garments worn by the Osceola actor, according to the university.

At Florida State, Brooks says, the university maintains an ongoing relationship with the tribe that goes beyond just “a man in feathers on a horse” riding out on game days. Instead, the university has “the honor” of being affiliated with the tribe, which administrators work hard to integrate into the entire university experience.

Tribal liaisons are heavily consulted on many university initiatives; they are also included in the shaping of many traditions and are invited to celebrate in many of the most prestigious ceremonies on campus. In exchange, the university helps to preserve and teach the culture of the only Native American tribe never “conquered” by the U.S. government, as they never signed a peace treaty. Tribal members also crown the homecoming chief and princess with authentic Seminole regalia.

“The university welcomes these opportunities to expose our students, faculty, staff and alumni to the Seminoles’ history and traditions and reflects what we value as an institution: multiculturalism and diversity,” says Brooks.

The relationship, she says, has been endorsed on both sides.

“In 2005, the Seminole Tribal Council took a historic step and passed a resolution affirming its enthusiastic support for the university’s use of the Seminole name, logos and images,” Brooks continues.

The resolution “recognized Florida State’s continued collaboration with the tribe to include prominent participation by tribal members in many of the university’s most meaningful events and to seek advice and direction to make sure the tribal imagery we use and the history we teach our students are accurate and authentic,” Brooks says.

Not lost on the Florida State community was the fact that the resolution passing was unusual for a culture that “rarely puts such things into writing,” according to the university. Due to the uncommon nature of the resolution cementing the institution-tribe relationship, members of the university community say they feel the gravity of responsibility accompanying the representation.

“If at any time [the tribe’s members] were to decide they are not okay with” the use of the Seminole name, logos, imagery and likeness, says Brooks, “it would stop immediately.”

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