The Economic Imperative of Bilingual Education

Garland Independent School District, a fast-growing suburb northeast of Dallas, has undergone a dramatic demographic shift. Like districts across Texas, Garland schools are blacker, browner, and more racially diverse than a generation ago. The multicultural panorama in Garland schools is reflected in its academic offerings. Still, in a school district with a Hispanic majority, and a state where more than a third of residents are Spanish speakers, Garland chose Mandarin Chinese as the focus of its newly launched language-immersion program at Weaver Elementary School. Increasing Garland students’ marketability in a global economy was the rationale. “It’s preparing students for the future and hopefully, lots of possibilities as they get older,” the school’s principal, Jennifer Miley, told the Dallas Morning News.

Over a 40-year span language-immersion schools grew steadily, with the largest increase in the decade that started in 2001. Spanish remains the most popular for immersion programs at 45 percent, followed by French (22 percent) and Mandarin (13 percent), with a wide array of languages rounding out the list of 22 selections—from Hawaiian and Cantonese to Japanese and Arabic.

As two-way immersion grows, the variety of language options now available marks a turning point in the evolution of bilingual education. Once the mainstay of immigrant children, bilingual instruction has a new band of converts: English-speaking parents, lawmakers, and advocacy groups. Research shows that students gain cognitive and academic benefits from bilingualism. Yet an overarching reason for the heightened interest is giving U.S. students a jump on the competition in a global workforce. And some activists find even with this flurry of attention, equal access to dual-immersion remains a thorny issue and persistent challenge.

While many states, including Montana and Oregon, have fully embraced two-way immersion, seemingly none has adopted the approach with the intensity of Utah. In a fairly racially and ethnically homogeneous state, Utah invested millions in language immersion teaching Mandarin Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, and Spanish. Governor Gary Herbert set a target in 2010 for the development of 100 programs in intensive dual-language serving 25,000 students by 2015. Utah met that goal two years ago, and the brisk pace continues with the launch of additional programs.

Utah’s expansion of dual-immersion is designed with one major purpose: to make the state’s future workers attractive to global companies. Herbert boasted that Utah was responsible for one third of all Mandarin Chinese classes taught in America’s schools in February 2013 testimony to the U.S. House Education and Workforce Committee. His remarks highlighted the link between dual-immersion programs producing multilingual students and a workforce that attracts business to the state. Gregg Roberts, who oversees Utah’s dual-language initiative, expressed this same viewpoint to The Salt Lake Tribune: “The reason why we’re doing this during hard economic times is this is all about Utah’s future. We’re going to have a generation of kids to come that will really put Utah on the map and bring businesses here because it really is about [our] future economic survival.”

Utah’s goal is a critical issue nationwide. In an interconnected and rapidly changing world, many believe that America’s prosperity and economic strength depends on its students mastering a language other than English. Marty Abbott, the executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, says the U.S. is still far behind other developed countries in producing a multilingual workforce, due to “the Anglophone factor and Americans believing that English is good enough to get along.” Strides are being made, though, to close the gap. In the nation’s largest school system, New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña revealed plans in January to develop 40 new language-immersion programs this school year, citing the “global advantages of speaking more than one language” and her own experience as a bilingual adult. In promoting the study of foreign languages, Abbott finds parents who travel abroad for business and those who speak a language other than English, including heritage languages in the home, are the most vocal dual-language supporters. Advocates also received a high-profile endorsement in September when President Obama unveiled the “1 Million Strong” initiative with the aim of 1 million American students learning Mandarin Chinese by 2020; with 200,000 students now studying Mandarin, the commitment represents a fivefold increase.

A lingering concern as this trend takes hold, however, is how to ensure all students reap the benefits of foreign-language instruction, with bilingual skills sold as a win-win that bolsters academic and career outcomes. This is the driving force behind the DC Language Immersion Project, a grassroots group with hundreds of parents, educators, and community members working to expand immersion programs throughout the district, especially in Wards 7 and 8, which are home to some of the region’s highest poverty rates.

Vanessa Bertelli, the project’s executive director, points to an elementary-school bilingual-immersion program in Ward 7 approved for 2016 and “immersion … now mentioned by candidates for upcoming local elections” as signs of progress but “it is nowhere close to satisfying the demand,” she says. For every child matched with a seat in an existing immersion program in the District, there are five more children waiting for a seat, according to her group. “The jobs expected to grow most in the next 10 years are heavily related to languages—hospitality, tourism, marketing, and healthcare,” says Bertelli. “There needs to be more urgency around a long term strategy that will ensure that our D.C. kids can fill those positions.”

With the national attention on school segregation, language immersion is also viewed as a tool to entice more white, affluent parents to public schools. Incoming acting Secretary of Education John King was recently quoted endorsing language immersion with this objective in mind. “The diversity that exists in neighborhoods does not translate to the neighborhood schools,” Bertelli said. “The high desirability [of immersion programs] can act as a draw for families to give their neighborhood school a try.”

Notwithstanding the many positives of immersion instruction, factors such as race and class can also unwittingly pit relatively well-off English-speakers against students from historically marginalized communities. The resulting imbalance led Claudia G. Cervantes-Soon, an assistant professor of bilingual education at University of Texas at Austin, to take a closer look at these educational efforts. One of the critiques of traditional foreign-language education programs is that they don’t offer students enough opportunities to practice the target language in a more natural setting, she says, explaining that an important advantage of dual-immersion programs is giving English speakers the opportunity to interact with native speakers in authentic ways. These children’s linguistic strengths and cultural assets become important resources for English speakers to practice and develop their second language, which can lead to unintended consequences.

“When I started to visit classrooms, I was surprised by what I observed: Latino children from Spanish-dominant homes tended to be strikingly more quiet and subdued than their white English-dominant peers—who often and sometimes forcefully dominated classroom discourse,” says Cervantes-Soon. “Also, although language minority students generally did better academically in two-way immersion than in regular mainstream classrooms, their white English-dominant peers continued to outperform them.”

Cervantes-Soon cautions that the mutual goals of two-way immersion—bilingualism, bilteracy, academic achievement, and cross-cultural competencies—can mask the differences in the students served, who come to these programs with distinct needs, priorities, and access to resources. A key takeaway from her research is the need to make social justice a central goal of these programs, creating a space where students not only expand their linguistic skills but also learn to interrogate and examine ethnicity, social status, and other overlapping issues.

“When language is used simply as a marketable resource that the dominant group can acquire to increase global competitiveness, all while language minority students are pushed into English assimilation, an entire history of civil rights struggles is undermined and we may lose sight of the opportunity for a truly emancipatory education.”

What’s Happening at the University of Missouri?

Professors at the University of Missouri will walk out of class Monday in support of students who are calling for Tim Wolfe, the university’s president, to step down.

MU Faculty stand with #concernedstudent1950 and urge all who can to cancel their classes and gather on Carnahan Quad. Students, check your email to hear from your professors!

Posted by ConcernedFaculty1950 on Sunday, November 8, 2015

Its unclear how many faculty members will walk out of class, or whether the move will prompt Wolfe to resign.

What’s Happening at the School?

As my colleague Marina Koren reported Sunday, at issue is the school administration’s handling of several racist incidents that occurred this fall. In September, Peyton Head, a senior and the president of Missouri Students Association, said he was called racial slurs as he walked near campus.


“I really just want to know why my simple existence is such a threat to society,” he wrote in a Facebook post.

That incident was followed by one on October 5 when members of the Legion of Black Collegians were called the N-word while rehearsing for homecoming festivities. Three weeks later, on October 24, a swastika was drawn with human feces at a university residence hall.

The School’s Response

The university, at first, was muted in its response. On October 10, members of Concerned Student 1950, a student group named for the year the first black graduate student was admitted to the university, blocked Wolfe’s car as it moved through a homecoming parade. The Columbia Missourian newspaper reports: “Wolfe did not respond to the group’s concerns while he was in the car. His driver revved the convertible’s engine, and the car bumped into” Jonathan Butler, a graduate student who is one of the group’s members.

A week later, Wolfe met with members of the group, and on November 6 he apologized: “Racism does exist at our university and it is unacceptable,” he said.

Too Little Too Late?

That’s Butler’s view. He began a hunger strike on November 2. He says he will continue it until Wolfe resigns or he (Butler) dies. Butler is being supported by Concerned Student 1950, but the group also has other demands. The Columbia Missourian newspaper has more:

Concerned Student 1950 is pushing for the removal of Tim Wolfe from office, but the group has several other demands.

According to previous Missourian reporting, the demands include:

  • Enforcement of mandatory racial awareness and inclusion curriculum for all faculty, staff and students, controlled by a board of color.

  • An increase in the percentage of black faculty and staff to 10 percent by the 2017-18 academic year, and the development by May 1 of a 10-year plan to promote a safer, more inclusive campus.

  • An increase in funding to hire more mental health professionals for the MU Counseling Center, particularly those of color, and more staff for the social justice centers on campus.

Butler does not share all of these demands. (For more on his view, read the Missourian’s extensive coverage of this story.)

What Does Wolfe Say?

Wolfe has refused to step down, but he met with Butler last Friday, five days after the hunger strike began, and apologized in a statement.

“I regret my reaction at the MU Homecoming Parade when the Concerned Student 1950 group approached my car. I am sorry, and my apology is long overdue,” he said. “My behavior seemed like I did not care. That was not my intention. I was caught off guard in that moment. Nonetheless, had I gotten out of the car to acknowledge the students and talk with them perhaps we wouldn’t be where we are today.”

But as Marina noted, things went quickly south.

On Friday night in Kansas City, a group of University of Missouri students approached the school’s president, Tim Wolfe, outside of a fundraiser at a performing arts center he had attended. They asked him to give his definition of systematic oppression.

“I will give you an answer, and I’m sure it will be a wrong answer,” Wolfe said. Then, “Systematic oppression is because you don’t believe that you have the equal opportunity for success.”

The students reacted in shock. “Did you just blame us for systematic oppression, Tim Wolfe?” one shouted. “Did you just blame black students?”

On Sunday, Wolfe responded: “We want to find the best way to get everyone around the table and create the safe space for a meaningful conversation that promotes change. We will share next steps as soon as they are confirmed.”

Who Else Is Protesting?

Besides the faculty who will walk out Monday, 32 members of the Missouri Tigers football team said they would go on strike. The school’s athletics department’s response:

The Board of Curators, the university’s governing body, will meet at 10 a.m. local time Monday. We’ll update this story when we learn more.

The President of Maine Maritime Weighs In

MMA logo

Two days ago I mentioned the welcome news that the Maine Maritime Academy, which John Tierney had written about extensively as part of our ongoing American Futures coverage, had been recognized yet again for providing very high career-earnings value to its students, at a low cost.

The context for this was our also-ongoing discussion of the importance of “career technical education,” once sneered-at under the title of “trade schools” or “vocational ed,” as one of the promising steps we’ve seen around the country with potential to offset at least some of the relentless pressure toward a polarized rich-and-poor society.

Now, a reader who once taught at another maritime academy writes in to say, “Hey, wait a minute.”  His point, as you’ll see, is not that there is anything wrong with Maine Maritime itself but rather that the “value added” in higher salaries comes from legislatively protected earnings for merchant seamen.

There are some obvious comebacks to this case, most of which I’ll save for later installments. One I’ll mention now is: this is a demanding and potentially perilous field, as demonstrated long ago by John McPhee in “Looking for a Ship” and very recently by the El Faro tragedy, in which 5 MMA alumni were among the 33 mariners who were lost. And again, the reader’s complaint is not with the school but regulatory regimes more broadly. It is sort of like saying that medical training doesn’t “add value” to graduates’ earnings, since under different payment systems doctors would make less money.

More on these fronts later. For now, the reader’s response on Maine Maritime. He begins by noting that the 15 schools that got perfect 100 scores in a recent “value added” study included several maritime academies:

Looking over the list, all the maritime academies are represented. Since they all seem to get the top score of 100, there is nothing special about the Maine academy. [JF note: actually, at least two state-run maritime academies did not get a top score. Still, the reader’s point is that this type of school seems over-represented.]

I used to teach at the US Merchant Marine Academy in King’s Point, NY. It is true that students who graduated did get good jobs. But I think this is really an exceptional industry, one in which the Federal Government has acted in several ways to improve the earnings of it’s graduates.

Another Honor for Maine Maritime Academy, at an Important Time

MMA logo

Two days ago I mentioned the welcome news that the Maine Maritime Academy, which John Tierney had written about extensively as part of our ongoing American Futures coverage, had been recognized yet again for providing very high career-earnings value to its students, at a low cost.

The context for this was our also-ongoing discussion of the importance of “career technical education,” once sneered-at under the title of “trade schools” or “vocational ed,” as one of the promising steps we’ve seen around the country with potential to offset at least some of the relentless pressure toward a polarized rich-and-poor society.

Now, a reader who once taught at another maritime academy writes in to say, “Hey, wait a minute.”  His point, as you’ll see, is not that there is anything wrong with Maine Maritime itself but rather that the “value added” in higher salaries comes from legislatively protected earnings for merchant seamen.

There are some obvious comebacks to this case, most of which I’ll save for later installments. One I’ll mention now is: this is a demanding and potentially perilous field, as demonstrated long ago by John McPhee in “Looking for a Ship” and very recently by the El Faro tragedy, in which 5 MMA alumni were among the 33 mariners who were lost. And again, the reader’s complaint is not with the school but regulatory regimes more broadly. It is sort of like saying that medical training doesn’t “add value” to graduates’ earnings, since under different payment systems doctors would make less money.

More on these fronts later. For now, the reader’s response on Maine Maritime. He begins by noting that the 15 schools that got perfect 100 scores in a recent “value added” study included several maritime academies:

Looking over the list, all the maritime academies are represented. Since they all seem to get the top score of 100, there is nothing special about the Maine academy. [JF note: actually, at least two state-run maritime academies did not get a top score. Still, the reader’s point is that this type of school seems over-represented.]

I used to teach at the US Merchant Marine Academy in King’s Point, NY. It is true that students who graduated did get good jobs. But I think this is really an exceptional industry, one in which the Federal Government has acted in several ways to improve the earnings of it’s graduates.

The Ever-Growing Ed-Tech Market

Every few months, a new study claims that gadgets in the classroom don’t improve learning—but that hasn’t stopped the educational technology market’s steady upward climb.

The ed-tech market totaled $8.38 billion in the 2012-13 academic year, the most recent year the Education Technology Industry Network has such information available. That number is up from $7.9 billion the year before, and up 11.7 percent from 2009, when the network began compiling these annual reports.

recent push to limit testing in schools—the segment may soon see a testing pushback that will hurt revenue down the road.

Revenue for management systems—such as Blackboard Learn—grew 40 percent, putting it back at levels last seen in 2010. The growth is consistent with more ed-tech products across the board, but the pre-’10 dip in this particular area happened in part because “nobody wants to call their product a ‘learning management system,’ because that doesn’t sound exciting,” Billings said. “So if a product is mainly [a learning management system] but also offers some content, they’ll try to put it in a ‘content’ category instead.”

Innovation Zone, or iZone, that acts as a middleman to match schools with ed-tech companies, depending on the needs of both, for these short-term trials. There are similar examples across the country, from a partnership between California’s Silicon Valley Education Foundation with the New Schools Venture Fund, to an organization called Leap Innovations that works with schools in Chicago.

are offered high-speed broadband, while others wait for their rationed-out Internet time. As the ed-tech market grows, companies will, by necessity, first serve the classrooms with the infrastructure to support their technologies. This can lead to a widening in the so-called “connectivity gap”—which activists say can directly contribute  to the achievement gap plaguing K-12 education.

As for future shifts in the market, Wan predicts there will be growing investor interest in so-called behavior management apps like Remind and ClassDojo, which allow teachers to communicate with parents more often and more consistently. Arts and humanities ed-tech tools haven’t taken off yet, in large part because success in those areas is much harder to quantify and assess than in STEM fields, Wan said. And digital textbooks, a once-hot area, are in a tight spot. “Digital textbooks still tend to be PDFs, and most people would agree that an interactive PDF might not be the best way to go, so [I] think we’re going to start seeing a lot of questions about what it means to be a digital textbook in this day and age,” Wan said.

The U.S. Department of Education has started independently tracking technology-related equipment spending after an influx in requests from researchers, according to department spokesman Stephen Cornman.  He added that, currently, ed-tech spending is included in general supplies and equipment, but this new information won’t be available until March next year.

The Education Technology Industry Network is also in the process of finalizing its report for the 2013-14 year. Billings said it projects that the amount of money schools spent on classroom technology will have continued to grow by a few percentage points. “We have come back after the economic downturn a few years ago, and we’re expecting the numbers to be good,” she said. “I don’t think the market is a bubble.”

Sesame Street’s New Brand of Autism Education

“How come Garrett does not want to talk to me?” Grover, the blue-haired Muppet, asks Garrett’s big sister, Angelina. The 4-year-old Garrett and his twin AJ have autism and are more interested in their snacks and Lego bricks than in joining a discussion with the shaggy Muppet and their sister. Later, their mom explains that Garrett is paying attention in his own way, even though he is nonverbal. Their family, the mom says, is just like other families: “We have our challenges, but we have a lot of fun as a family together.”

The Sesame Street Effect

This video, “Family Time with Grover,” is one of nine that were released online last week as part of the latest Sesame Street initiative—Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children. The web-based project includes an interactive storybook that introduces the program’s first autistic Muppet, Julia, as part of an effort to teach kids about their friends with the condition. In addition, the website provides digital cue cards for parents to teach their autistic children basic skills, like brushing teeth and washing hands. At this time, the materials are only available on the Internet, not TV.

Leveraging the expertise of the Sesame Street Workshop, this initiative could amount to a novel and game-changing educational tool aimed at demystifying autism for preschool children. The videos, books, and other resources present children with the disorder as those who may have challenges but go to school, play, and love their families, just like other kids. The goal is to reduce the stigma associated with this disability by promoting greater understanding and empathy for autistic children and their families.

Over the course of three years, the Sesame Street Workshop—the nonprofit behind the TV series—developed this initiative with input from multiple universities, professional organizations, and advocacy groups, including the Yale Child Study Team, Autism Self Advocacy Network, Council for Exceptional Children, and Autism Speaks. Sesame Street worked closely with these groups to make sure that the viewpoints of autistic people are represented and that their work is based on solid academic research. And the final product represents a major shift in autism education.

Sesame Street has a long history of creating effective educational tools for young children. In April, The Atlantic’s Alia Wong cited a report from the National Bureau of Economic Research that found that Sesame Street is “the largest and least-costly [early-childhood] intervention that’s ever been implemented” in the United States. Its mission of teaching lessons of diversity has exposed generations of kids to others from different economic and racial backgrounds. The producers’ belief that learning can be fun and even joyful is one reason why Grover and Elmo and Big Bird are cultural touchstones for so many people, from Baby Boomers to Millennials to today’s toddlers.

With one in 68 U.S. children diagnosed with autism and the increased use of specialized programs that keep autistic children in public schools, kids today are perhaps more likely than ever to interact in the classroom or on the playground with an autistic peer. However, the behaviors and communication deficits of autistic children can be puzzling and even scary for other children, said Liz Feld, the president of Autism Speaks. “They don’t know how to interact with them in the lunchroom,” she said. But Jamie Bleiweiss, an assistant professor of early-childhood special education at Hunter College, said their reaction is natural: “All people are anxious when confronted with others who are different.”

To reduce that fear and anxiety, the Muppets, siblings, and parents featured in the new online materials explain autistic behaviors in ways that make sense to other children. In “A Sibling Story,” a girl named Jasmine explains that her little sister has trouble brushing her hair and teeth in the morning, because she doesn’t like the way the brush feels. Whenever it’s time to go to school, she’s so happy she flaps her hands.

The communication challenges of autistic children can also be confusing to their non-autistic peers, so the videos show how kids with the disability might use special tools to communicate, including iPads and sentence strips. Verbal autistic children may struggle to make eye contact and communicate using pragmatic speech, which might make their friends think that they don’t want to play with them. But the videos and other material in the initiative explain that autistic kids want to have fun, too.

In the online book, Elmo’s friend Abby says she thinks Julia, the Muppet with autism, doesn’t like her because she doesn’t answer when she greets her on the playground. Elmo tells Abby that Julia just has difficulty swinging on a swing and talking at the same time. In a video, a dad explains that his sons “might not seem interested in the other kids playing, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t. They just don’t know how to engage.”

While explaining the challenges faced by kids with autism, the videos also show the commonalities of all children. The children are adored by their families. They have to say “thank you” to their parents, even if they have to do so in sign language. The kids participate in typical childhood activities, including visiting diners and museums, riding tricycles down the block, and playing with train sets.

By explaining the differences and presenting the commonalities, one goal of this project is to reduce the stigmas associated with autism that often lead to bullying. One survey found that 63 percent of autistic children have been bullied, and experts hope that Sesame Street’s efforts to foster tolerance and acceptance with preschool children will eventually decrease bullying among older children. “If we can start early and educate kids about differences, they’ll be more understanding as they get older,” said Debra Ziegler, a director at the Council for Exceptional Children. The stigma of autism is also felt by parents when their autistic children exhibit unusual behaviors in public.

Sesame Street’s approach to autism education is noteworthy in that it aims to normalize rather than exaggerate the disability. In the early days, Bleiweiss said, advocates concentrated on simply raising awareness about autism and money for research. Their efforts often used the “disease model,” which described autism as a devastating disability. But according to Julia Bascom, the deputy executive director of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, this language about autism actually increased stigma. Autism was seen as something that changed children and took them away from their families. “The rhetoric,” Bascom said, “was couched in fear.”

Experts describe the Sesame Street initiative as the next stage in education about autism. Bascom, whose group represents the interests of autistic people, said, “Overall, this is a significant step forward in how the public talks about autism. I’ve never seen that rhetoric about autism before. It really is monumental. This initiative celebrates our differences and shows that an autism diagnosis is not the end of the world. Here, we see autistic children doing normal things, like interacting with their family. We see children laughing, communicating, and interacting with kids in their own ways. They teach that we should value the children and their autistic ways.”

She was also pleased that the initiative showed the full diversity of people on the autistic spectrum, including girls and non-white children. “Often the face of autism is a white, upper-class 4-year-old boy,” she said. And the videos are unique in that they focus on the families of autistic children. “It is significant that we see videos where the family members are talking about how normal their lives are,” she said. “They say that our lives are challenging, but life doesn’t stop there.”

The experts and advocacy-group leaders interviewed for this article were enthusiastic about the impact of the Sesame Street project and its potential for use in schools and the community. Feld cited research showing that children are very responsive to public-service messages and that they can bring about change; the successes of the recycling movement, for example, demonstrate how kids can internalize a message from school and then change their parent’s behavior. In turn, younger children might end up teaching their parents about the value of acceptance and diversity from this initiative.

Sesame Street unveiled this package at the Council for Exceptional Children’s conference for special-education professionals in Atlanta last month. Ziegler, an executive director for the group, noted that there were lines of people waiting to see the material and discuss how they might use them in their schools. Sesame Street will also be involved in the council’s next conference in April which will have 6,000 attendees.

With education, empathy, and other tools available on this website, autistic children and their families can be more fully integrated in society. Bleiweiss is the co-founder of Autism Friendly Spaces, an organization that partners with theaters in New York City to provide autistic-friendly Broadway shows. Her group works with production teams to make slight adjustments in the usual performances, such as reducing the volume of microphones, dimming the lights, using glow sticks to warn kids about a sudden loud noise. Through these efforts, they’ve enabled thousands of autistic children and their families to see The Lion King and Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark.

When my son, who has autism, was 5, he was very afraid of the dentist. In fact, he tried to bite off the dentist’s finger when she put her hand in his mouth to count his teeth. Instead of throwing us out of her office, she modified the office protocol.

To alleviate his sensitivity to taste, she told us to bring in his own toothbrush and toothpaste for the next visit. She scheduled his appointment for a time when there weren’t other families in the office, so no one would care if he screamed. My son was worried that the x-ray machine was going to blow up his head, so she didn’t force him to get an x-ray until he was older. She patiently explained to my son exactly what steps she planned on taking before she put that hooked instrument in his mouth. She suggested that we come more often to get him used to the office and staff.

And those modifications worked. Within a year, he was getting his teeth cleaned with a smile just like every other kid. I’ve learned that a little knowledge and sensitivity goes a long way. It’s great to see Grover and Elmo preaching that message, too.

Cheating in Online Classes Is Now Big Business

Video showing students’ faces on Harvard Business School’s online platform, HBX, can help weed out cheaters. Gretchen Ertl / AP

When I was in high school, I cheated pretty regularly. And I mean all the time. I remember writing chemistry formulas on small bits of paper that I then sealed to the bottom of my dress shoes with transparent tape. When I crossed my legs, the information I needed was literally in my lap.

That was before education went online. Cheating, it seems, has gone with it. Today, entrepreneurs and freelancers openly advertise services designed to help students cheat their online educations. These digital cheaters for hire will even assume students’ identities and take entire online classes in their place.

I reached out to one of these companies—the aptly named No Need to Study —asking, for the sake of journalism, if it could take an online English Literature class at Columbia University for me. I got an email response from someone identifying herself as Kelly Reynolds-Seraphin, the Customer Relations & Writing Department Lead. Reynolds-Seraphin told me that, not only could the company get a ringer to take my online class, it could also guarantee I’d earn a B or better. The fee for such an arrangement, she wrote, was $1,225.15.

That extra fifteen cents made it seem official.

When I asked Reynolds-Seraphin for more information to be absolutely sure I understood her company’s services, her reply was crystal clear. “We offer the services of a pool of experienced academic tutors to take classes and complete course work for our clients,” she wrote.

Her company even has handy reference videos that ostensibly show satisfied clients sharing how easy it was to pay someone else to take their online classes. My favorite is a video from a client named Muhammad who explains that he hired the company to complete his math lab courses for him. He’d taken these classes before, he notes, but “the quizzes were just way to difficult” so he searched for a solution. “They got it done, and they did really, really well,” he continues. “They absolutely killed my final math and app classes with a 90 percent, and I can definitely tell you I never got a 90 percent before on anything.” (I informed Reynolds-Seraphin that I planned on using our correspondence in a news story; she eventually stopped responding to me.)

There’s no way to directly link the growth of online-education options to an increase in online cheating. But more online classes means more online students, which means more potential customers for cheating providers. According to the 2014 Online Learning Survey, roughly a third of all higher-education enrollments in the U.S. are now online—with almost 7 million students taking at least one online class. Other statistics put the number a bit lower, at a fourth of the overall student populations. Either way, that’s millions of potential customers for ambitious providers of cheating services.

Online education is already poised to be a $100 billion global industry. But it could be even bigger if online degrees earn more clout, especially with employers. If online degrees and certifications achieve the same stature as traditional, on-campus ones, an online education marketplace could transform higher education and change the very meaning of going to college. That’s exactly what some some online education advocates want. Kevin Carey, a well-known online-education supporter, wrote about the quest for online education credibility in March in a New York Times op-ed titled, “Here’s What Will Truly Change Higher Education: Online Degrees That Are Seen as Official.”

Arizona State University offers a complete bachelor’s degree in a variety of majors—entirely online. Others schools, such as SUNY Empire State, do too. At the University of Florida, students can take their underclass core classes—which account for about half their undergraduate degree requirements—virtually. And the University of Central Florida has been posting many of the lectures for its popular courses to the web so students can “attend” classes virtually, a reality that prompted one UCF student to tweet, “Thanks, UCF, for having lecture-capture courses so I don’t have to go to class ever.” These degrees are, in theory, credible, even if they were “earned” online.

I asked UCF if providing ways for students to never physically attend classes made academic fraud and impression more likely. Thomas Cavanagh, the associate vice president in distributed learning, told me in an email that “we work extensively with online faculty to design activities and assessments that mitigate cheating to the greatest extent possible which, combined with a large number of technological strategies, helps to significantly reduce the risk and opportunity to engage in unethical behavior.”

Yet “mitigating” cheating with “technological strategies” may not be enough. Just four days before UCF’s Cavanaugh responded to my question, a Craigslist ad in Orlando, where UCF is located, effectively offered to cheat for students online. The ad read, “Between your busy work schedule and personal life, you may not get time for your online classes. We will provide you an excellent support for all your online classes needs such as discussion boards, tests, quizzes, and assessments. We are a team of highly qualified professionals who are experienced in writing all types of assignments. We offer 100% plagiarism free papers that assure top grades.”

With the availability of online-cheating services and more online degree options, it’s conceivable that someone could pay an extra $1,000 a class—about $40,000 for an entire 120-credit bachelor’s degree—to simply hire someone to earn the degree for them. Considering the already high cost of tuition and the boost in earning potential a degree affords, an extra $40,000 to never even go to class, even online, may be the deal of a lifetime for someone with means. An easy No Need to Study path through college for those who can literally pay extra should also fuel lingering questions of class and race bias in higher education. Elite education opportunities already skew to those most able to afford to them. But the ability to get a degree by opening a checkbook instead of a textbook does, at a minimum, complicate efforts to flatten the education-access pyramid.

This surrogate option for those with financial capacity isn’t lost on the cheating providers either. The No Need To Study website is clear about it: “Society has allowed it to become an accepted fact that those who can pay will always have an edge over those who can’t. And as such No Need To Study is merely fundamental market economics in action. Plus, we are pretty efficiently prices so almost anyone can afford our service [sic].”

According to 2013 Congressional testimony of the Education Department’s inspector general, Kathleen S. Tighe, taxpayers lost $187 million between 2009 and 2012 to fraudsters impersonating others in order to scam financial aid from colleges offering online classes. “Management of distance education programs presents a challenge for the Department and school officials because of limited or no physical contact to verify the student’s identity or attendance,” Tighe told Congress. “Because all aspects of distance education take place through the Internet, students are not required to present themselves in person at any point.”  

So far, the schools have been slow to clamp down on online identity fraud—both academic and financial. A cynic could argue that a lack of enthusiasm to stop online identity fraud in education may be related to financial benefit. Online classes, degrees, and certifications are less costly to provide than traditional methods; a 2012 report by the Thomas B. Fordham institute estimated that colleges save more than 40 percent when they move classes online. Indeed, the cost savings are a key selling point of those encouraging a move from having students show up to simply asking them to log in.

“What online classes do is cut out the prohibitive expense of education,” Reynolds-Seraphin wrote in a post on No Need to Study’s blog. “It’s expensive to build a school and find qualified teachers… It’s far less expensive to develop an online course, and it can have the exact same effect.”

But lower production costs are just half the economic equation. There are also far more potential customers/students online than on campus. And because taking classes online can be less expensive and more convenient than on campus options, student interest is high. While higher-education enrollment has hit a plateau or even dipped in the past five years, participation in online college education continues to increase, up by more than 570,000 last year.

Lower production costs and more customers, even at a reduced price points for tuition, can create massive profit. Take Wal-Mart. This one-two punch of lower delivery costs and higher student interest could be a powerful motivation to keep online education growing, in spite of problems like the ease and costs of online cheating. In at least this way, it seems both the schools and the cheating providers have a similar economic incentive—they may both profit by having more online students.

But the financial benefits spurring its growth aren’t the only impediments to stopping the online cheating. Experts say there’s no way to stop the cheating providers directly. “You can sell anything online if you have a basic knowledge of search engine optimization,” Adam Fridman, founder of the Chicago digital marketing firm Mabbly, told me. Mabbly specializes in helping people get their businesses listed high up in search results. “There’s no one checking what you’re selling, who you’re selling to or who your customers are. That’s an amazing competitive opportunity but it unfortunately leaves the door open for some less legitimate uses.” In addition, few people want the responsibility of deciding which “tutoring” services are legitimate aids to learning and which are outright cheats.

But the fight isn’t hopeless. There are steps colleges and online education companies can take to cut down on online impersonation. Infusing online courses with more direct engagement between teacher and student—using video technology, for example—can help. “One way to reduce identity spoofing in online education is to embrace tools like video chat which is both unspoofable and creates a documentary record,” said Steve Gottlieb, founder of the online video engagement system, Shindig. “The more schools and their technology partners can integrate face-to-face engagements online, the more online cheating will become impossible."

The Great German School Turnaround

To make a good national school system, a country needs to help its most disadvantaged students. So says Andreas Schleicher, the man in charge of the most authoritative international test. “It’s the capacity of those systems to invest in those students from disadvantaged backgrounds” says Schleicher, the education director for the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), which administers the triennial Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) among its roughly three dozen member countries. “What those education systems do is attract the best teachers and best principals to [the] most challenging classrooms and schools.” Moreover, he notes, “reducing inequality is not just a social imperative but an economic imperative.”

While U.S. students have scored in the bottom half of nations on the PISA and have made no significant gains over 10 years, Germany—Schleicher’s home country—has managed to increase test scores while decreasing inequality in its school system. In fact, Germany was one of just three countries surveyed by the OECD that reduced inequality while raising math scores between 2003 and 2012, the other two being Mexico and Turkey.

And Germany has, notably, made these strides without closing or threatening to cut funding from its poorest-performing schools—a tactic used by the United States during the same time period. Germany now ranks 20th for math proficiency; the U.S., meanwhile, is 49th, just behind Turkey. (Some critics question the validity of PISA scores as a tool for gauging proficiency, but they offer the only reliable and consistent means of comparing achievement across countries.)

Germany’s reform efforts included the creation of national standards and standards-based tests for students in grades three and eight, which sounds much like the U.S. approach. But unlike the U.S., Germany doesn’t penalize schools for poor performance, nor does it publicize school-level test scores. Experts say its focus instead on providing school-based support, and monitoring and targeting the most disadvantaged students has allowed it to improve performance. It offers striking contrast to the U.S. “accountability” movement, whose focus on high-stakes testing recently prompted a somewhat ironic directive out of the White House that schools reduce the amount of testing taking place in schools. (And according to the recent results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress—another standardized test that itself has come under scrutiny—the emphasis on testing may not be boosting student learning.)

struggle most in school, and are less likely to graduate, are immigrants or children of immigrants. Their families speak another language and, in cities like Berlin, live in segregated neighborhoods. This is largely what makes the country’s turnaround so remarkable. Yet the country absorbed a record number of immigrants last year, serves more asylum seekers than any other European nation, and is on track to receive up to 1 million refugees alone this year. And it’s unclear if the extraordinary gains it made over the last decade can continue.

* * *

In 2000, Germans learned that they were not as smart as they may have assumed. This was the year that nations received their first PISA scores, which were devised by the OECD to measure how much 15-year-olds know in reading, math, and science. German schoolchildren scored below the average for tested nations—and below the United States—in all three tested subjects. The national press and eminent researchers in Germany, where students rarely took standardized tests, refer to this as “the PISA shock.”

German schools were struggling in part because they were incredibly inequitable, offering little chance of social mobility, according to the OECD, which also measures the association between social class and test scores. In fact, Germany had the distinction in 2000 of being the OECD country with the most unequal education performance: The difference between the top 25 percent and bottom 25 percent, in socioeconomic status, was more than 100 points in reading—nearly five times that of Japan, the most equal country academically. Even worse, Germany’s dual-track school system—where students around the age of 12 are identified by teachers as ready for either college-prep high school (Gymnasium) or vocational school (which includes Hauptschule, the lowest level, and Realschule, the mid-level academic-apprenticeship mix)—appeared to perpetuate inequality. Thirty percent of students with two German-born parents made it to Gymnasium, the only way to get to university. But among students with parents who were not German by birth, the figure was half that.

“It was a major embarrassment for public policy in Germany to see such large disparities,” says Schleicher. “It was always equal in inputs—everyone got paid the same, same funding—everybody assumed it would be fine on the outcomes. PISA revealed there was huge inequality in outcomes.”

Change was swift (for a large bureaucracy) and systematic. Within five years of receiving the dismal scores, Germany instituted its academic standards, required national tests, and emphasized newer, more hands-on, problem-based teaching methods. By 2012, German students had pulled above the OECD average, raised their actual mean scores compared to 2000, and trounced the U.S., which continued to see scores slip—even as states instituted more mandated tests under No Child Left Behind and, later, newer assessments aligned with the Common Core State Standards.

Almost more important, in terms of both national self-perception and insights for other ethnically diverse countries, the improvement was largely attributed to dramatic increases in the math performance for students with the lowest socioeconomic status. (The OECD measures socioeconomic status not by household income, as the U.S. does, but by a series of questions students answer, such as whether each parent holds a job and what kind.)

kindergarten seats has been growing since 2006—particularly in former East Germany, which has a strong prekindergarten tradition.

Germany’s 16 states are traditionally responsible for schooling, similar in some ways to the U.S. education system. Yet in Germany, following the release of the first PISA scores, the states and federal government quickly agreed on a plan to establish a new set of common standards. So in 2004, a nonprofit tasked with developing the math, reading, writing, and foreign-language standards and accompanying tests—the Institute for Quality Development in Education (IQB)—opened, and by 2006 children were taking its assessments. Housed at Berlin’s Humboldt University, the organization works closely with the state education agencies. “This was a widespread or large-scale intervention program where the ministries in all German states collaborated with researchers and teacher educators, and there was a shared understanding of good science and math teaching,” says Eckhard Klieme, who oversees the German Institute for International Educational Research.

But the new tests aren’t meant to serve as tools that monitor and penalize schools, says the IQB director Petra Stanat. Instead, they’re meant to provide feedback to individual teachers and schools and drive instruction. Before the new tests, for example, middle-school teachers might have assumed that all their students had already become competent at reading in elementary school when that wasn’t always the case. “The focus on the weaker students increased,” says Stanat, in response to the new standards. The shift in priorities has had promising results, according to Kleime: “What we found was that the important gains that show up in the mean scores [were] due to an increase in the lower end of the distribution—the low SES students, mostly migrant students, they improved…  Something really important happened with the migrant population.” (To monitor student progress at the national level, Germany has developed a separate set of tests that are administered every few years.)

29 percent of students receive the high-school degree that qualifies them for university, a steady increase over time. Proportionally, more immigrants of the younger generation are taking and passing exams (Abitur) that allow them to go university, though it is still much less than those who don’t have immigrant backgrounds.

According to the OECD’s Schleicher, Germany may be witnessing the positive effects of de-tracking—that is, getting rid of a school system in which students are segregated based on whether they’re preparing for basic work, trade professions, or university. Germany had long separated children as young as 10 into vocational or university tracks; and while other countries’ school systems do have programs that separate students by ability, few do so for such young children. But those traditions are starting to evolve. Many of Germany’s 16 states, including Berlin and Saxony, recently decided to phase out the lowest-level secondary school (Hauptschule), in part because parents criticized the program as leading students directly to low-wage jobs. In those states, students now attend comprehensive schools that allow them to move between vocational and university-bound tracks. “The tracking system is a big part of the problem in Germany,” says Schleicher, adding that international comparisons based on PISA data “absolutely” show that tracking holds back the most disadvantaged students. In “most of the countries with highly equitable results”—Korea and Norway, for example—you don’t see tracking.”

Yet other researchers say that Germany’s original vo-tech system works—and that any overall test gains might have little to do with de-tracking. A recent statistical analysis by Hartmut Esser, a professor emeritus at Mannheim University, shows that the stricter inter-school tracking in Bavaria actually helped disadvantaged students. It’s possible that de-tracking is a red herring: Stanat herself published an analysis attributing a large percentage of the gains to “changes in educational participation, with more students attending Gymnasium and fewer grade retentions” as well as “changes in background characteristics, such as the language used at home.” She emphasizes, however, that her research didn’t entail experimental or longitudinal studies and that some of the test-score improvement may still be due to de-tracking. Plus, thanks to parents’ complaints, Hauptschule is disappearing regardless.

Ultimately, the “metric” that best measures whether a student received a quality education may be getting his or her job attainment and standard of living, according to Americans who’ve sought inspiration from Germany’s vo-tech, among them President Obama and the University of Massachusetts Provost Katherine Newman. By this measure, Germany is doing relatively well. Unemployment overall is at historic lows, 4.5 percent, while youth unemployment is just under 7 percent, the lowest in the European Union and lower than in the U.S., where 13.4 percent of people under 25 can’t find jobs. “It’s not that I think tracking is so wonderful,” says Newman, who is writing a book about the potential of apprenticeship education in the U.S and Germany. “But there is still something important we have to learn about preparing a capable high-tech workforce and adapting it to our workforce.”

Yet now, after 15 years of German-style education reform, Germany is now just as unequal as countries like the U.S., meeting the OECD average for inequity in education. For immigrants, the joblessness rate is higher, nearly double that for those native-German-speaking workers, and unrelenting. With the trove of data gathered through the PISA, says the IQB’s Stanat, “the myth that [Germany is] not an immigrant country fell apart.”

Segregation is still a huge problem in Germany—particularly in the cities, where immigrants coalesce in affordable neighborhoods and neighborhood-based primary schools replicate patterns of housing segregation. Parents and school leaders in Berlin point to the invisible “wall” that has risen for schoolchildren between the gentrifying former east, where educated, relatively affluent, mostly white European professionals live, and the working-class and immigrant-saturated western precincts of Wedding, Kreuzberg, and Neukoln. In a way, “the Berlin Wall still exists,” says the educator Herbert Weber, who until this year directed an after-school program in Berlin’s Wedding neighborhood. Thirty percent of Berlin schoolchildren speak German as a second language—and in some neighborhoods and schools the figure rises to more than 70 percent.

Still, Germany is methodically collecting the data to prove that its future as a nation depends on how well it integrates outsiders—newcomers, second-language speakers, ethnic minorities—into its education system. Stanat and her staff at IQB began parsing data from the 2015 national assessment this summer. And with refugees streaming into Germany by the hundreds of thousands, there will be many newcomers this school year.

The Costs of English-Only Education

In 1998, Ron Unz, a Silicon Valley millionaire and former gubernatorial candidate, set out to abolish bilingual education in California. Fueled by an anti-immigrant climate, Unz spearheaded a statewide campaign for Proposition 227, a highly controversial state initiative that required schools to teach language-minority students almost entirely in English. The ballot measure passed with 61 percent of the vote and made California the first state to prohibit bilingual programs in schools, radically altering the education of hundreds of thousands of children. Now almost 17 years later, while the political tensions remain, a reversal is underway, powered largely by findings that bilingual instruction is what’s best for English language learners.

Nationally, bilingual education has been rechristened “dual-language programs” and is gaining fresh appeal. The templates of dual-language instruction vary—some programs transition students into English-only after several years while others emphasize ongoing two-language immersion at different ratios—but the common strand is an attempt to build literacy and proficiency in more than one language. The approach is found to outperform traditional ESL, where lessons are typically taught entirely in English. Research shows two-language instruction is linked to numerous positive and long-term benefits, including stronger literacy skills, narrowing of achievement gaps, and higher graduation rates. And the academic advantages of two-language programs even carry over to an unexpected group: children who only speak English at home. A Michigan State University study of Texas elementary students in 2013 found “a substantial spillover effect”—higher math and reading scores—for children from English-only homes who were enrolled in schools with bilingual education programs.

Bilingualism: When Education and Assimilation Clash

Today, more California students are learning the three Rs in their native languages, aided by a provision that allows public schools to bypass Proposition 227 if parents sign a waiver. According to the state Department of Education, some 50,000 California children are receiving dual instruction in English and another language, including Armenian, German, Mandarin, French, and Korean. This is a small but growing segment of California’s 1.4 million English learners. The National Association for Bilingual Education estimated in 2011 there were 2,000 dual-language programs in U.S. schools, a tenfold increase over the prior decade.

Beyond the politics are parents seeking a quality education for their children and the real-life costs of English-only education. The goals of dual-language are closely related and intertwined—better teaching models for non-English speakers, fostering cross-cultural understanding, and in special settings reclaiming disappearing Native American languages—and the approach is earning praise.

With this growing momentum, schools like Camino Nuevo Charter Academy in Los Angeles are embracing the cultural and cognitive value of dual-language courses. As a charter school, Camino Nuevo is exempt from California’s requirement for exclusive English education, allowing it to offer dual-language instruction in Spanish and English from kindergarten through fifth grade. The curriculum, which emphasizes culturally relevant literature, is showing signs of success. Rachel Hazlehurst, the academy’s literacy and language specialist, sees an obvious link between celebrating children’s ethnic roots and school performance.

“Students need to see themselves in the school in order to excel academically,” she says. “If there’s a disconnect between students’ home identities … and what’s promoted by the school, students are more likely to disconnect, disinvest, and experience educational failure.” The situation is worsened, Hazlehurst stresses, when the first language isn’t taught, hindering a child’s ability to communicate. “[When] children lose their home language skills, we as educators have a serious problem … fractured communities are created when families can no longer [talk] on a deep level about issues that matter.”

While underscoring the importance of bilingual programs, Hazlehurst also acknowledges a perennial challenge: the shortage of qualified bilingual teachers. Teachers certified to lead a bilingual classroom are scarce and those with experience teaching in a bilingual program are rarer. With bilingualism’s rising popularity and myriad gains—from stronger critical thinking skills to higher lifetime earnings—many school districts around the country are finding it hard to keep pace with rising demand.

New America, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C., looked at communities that are revamping how they serve language learners and found that even well-designed, well-resourced efforts can suffer from hiring woes. In San Antonio, Texas, one of the cities profiled, planning and executing a dual-language effort is complicated by the supply of available teachers, with the analysis concluding, “Districts seeking to shift to a dual immersion model need to begin with a human capital strategy.”

These challenges take on a special twist with Native American language-immersion programs, which blend the language, culture, and traditions of indigenous peoples in dual instruction. Decades of research show documented results for indigenous-language immersion—including significant gains in achievement, family involvement, and community pride—for a population of students with dismal education outcomes. America’s assimilation policy of educating Native American children which was enforced through oppressive boarding schools that stripped them of their tribal languages, cultures, and beliefs means many Native languages are now lost or endangered. Last month, the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education published a report calling on states and communities to “help ensure the preservation and revitalization of Native languages,” emphasizing the “healing for students [that] can begin to address a history of exclusion that began with mission and boarding schools and continues today.” A Native American youth’s excerpt is profound:

“I would like to bring languages into our schools—our Native languages and many more; it spreads our language around. Our languages are dying. One Native language just died away because the last man who spoke it died.”

Charitie Ropati (Yup’ik), Student Anchorage Listening Session

Teresa L. McCarty, a professor of education and anthropology at UCLA and prominent scholar on Indigenous language planning and policy, says the centuries-long history of punishment in government schools for speaking tribal languages continues to pose fundamental challenges, such as the lack of Native-speaking teachers for Native-language immersion. “Often the teachers in these programs are second-language learners themselves, so not only does a novice teacher need to learn a unique pedagogy and curriculum, she also must master the language to a high level such that she can teach math, science, social studies, language arts [and other subjects] through the Indigenous language,” McCarty explained. “If you have ever seen English taught in Navajo, or Japanese taught in Hawaiian, you gain a profound appreciation for the level of knowledge and skill possessed by these teachers.”

Additionally, Native teachers must scramble for appropriate learning tools: “There is nothing … in the way of books and other teaching materials comparable to what is available for mainstream English programs, or even Spanish-English bilingual education programs. This means that teachers spend a lot of time adapting and creating their own materials, including language and content-area assessments. All of this takes an enormous commitment of time (as in many years), dedication to program goals, and human and material resources,” McCarty said.

Federal legislation now working its way through Congress would provide $5 million in grants annually for five years to tribes, tribal organizations, public schools, and other entities to establish Native-language immersion classes from preschool through college—a much-needed infusion of funds to educate Native learners. “Cultural knowledge and pride are important in all children’s cognitive and social development,” McCarty said, adding that self-esteem and self-efficacy are “key factors long known to support academic engagement and success in school and life.”

This fact helps explain why some of the strongest proponents of dual-language programs are youth themselves, whether current or former students who grasp the urgent need to reclaim their identity, culture, and history as part of their education.