The Math-Class Paradox

Why do so many students hate math, fear it, or both?

If you ask most students what they think their role is in math classrooms, they will tell you it is to get questions right. Students rarely think that they are in math classrooms to appreciate the beauty of mathematics, to ask deep questions, to explore the rich set of connections that make up the subject, or even to learn about the applicability of the subject; they think they are in math classrooms to perform. This was brought home to me recently when a colleague, Rachel Lambert, told me that her 6-year-old son had come home saying he didn’t like math; when she asked him why, he said that math was “too much answer time and not enough learning time.”

Students from an early age realize that math is different from other subjects. In many schools across the U.S., math is less about learning than it is about answering questions and taking tests—performing.

The Hechinger Report

The testing culture in the U.S., which is more pervasive in math than other subjects, is a large part of the problem. When sixth-graders in my local district came home saying that they had a test on the first day of middle school, it was in one subject only: math. Most students and parents didn’t question whether a test was the right way to introduce a new year of mathematics. As one girl said to me, “Well, the teacher was just finding out what we know.” But why does this only happen in math? Teachers in history or English don’t give tests on the first day to find out what students know. And why do so many math teachers boil the subject down to producing short answers to narrow questions under pressure? It is no wonder that so many students decide mathematics is not for them.

In fact, it is not surprising that teachers test math all the time—in the last decade teachers’ jobs have come to depend on student performance on narrow state tests. The Common Core promises an improvement in the types of tests used—with questions that are less narrow and require thinking, instead of choosing a letter (A, B, C or D)—but the bigger problem is the testing culture in classrooms. It is not unusual for high-school math teachers to test children every week, communicating to students that they are constantly being evaluated.

Educators know that the most productive math-learning environments are those in which students receive positive messages about their unlimited potential and work on interesting and complex problems; in which they feel free to try ideas, fail, and revise their thinking. Students with a “growth” mindset are those who believe that their ability is not “fixed” and that failure is a natural part of learning. These are the students who perform at higher levels in math and in life. But students don’t get the opportunity to see math as a growth subject if they mainly work on short, closed questions accompanied by frequent tests that communicate to them that math is all about performance and there is no room for failure. When students inevitably struggle, most decide they are not a “math person.” The last decade has seen a nation of children emerge from our schools terrified of failing in math and believing that only some students can be good at it—those who can effortlessly achieve on narrow tests.

Teachers see some of the damage caused by our nation’s procedural and over-tested math classrooms in the ideas students hold about math. When asked what math is, students typically give descriptions that are very different from those given by experts in the field. Mathematicians define their subject as the study of patterns. They say it is an aesthetic, creative, and beautiful subject (for example, Keith Devlin, “Mathematics: The Science of Patterns”; and Steven Strogatz, “The Joy of x”). Knowledge of mathematical patterns has helped people navigate oceans, chart missions to space, develop technology that powers cellphones and social networks, and create new scientific and medical knowledge. But students will typically say that math is a subject of calculations, procedures, and rules. They believe that the best mathematical thinkers are those who calculate the fastest—that you have to be fast at math to be good at math. Yet mathematicians are often slow with math. I work with many mathematicians and they are simply not fast math thinkers. I don’t say this to be disrespectful to mathematicians. They are slow because they think carefully and deeply about mathematics.

Laurent Schwartz won the Fields Medal in mathematics and was one of the greatest mathematicians of his time. But when he was in school he was one of the slowest in his class. In his autobiography, A Mathematician Grappling with His Century, he reflects on his school days and how he felt “stupid” because his school valued fast thinking:

I was always deeply uncertain about my own intellectual capacity; I thought I was unintelligent. And it is true that I was, and still am, rather slow. I need time to seize things because I always need to understand them fully. Towards the end of the eleventh grade, I secretly thought of myself as stupid. I worried about this for a long time.

I’m still just as slow…. At the end of the eleventh grade, I took the measure of the situation, and came to the conclusion that rapidity doesn’t have a precise relation to intelligence. What is important is to deeply understand things and their relations to each other. This is where intelligence lies. The fact of being quick or slow isn’t really relevant.

Yet, more than any other subject, mathematics continues to be presented as a speed race: Teachers take answers from the first student to shoot up their hand in class, parents and teachers give timed math tests and drill with flash cards, and math apps race against the clock. It is no wonder that students who think slowly and deeply are put off by mathematics.

The fact that a narrow and impoverished version of mathematics is taught in many school classrooms cannot be blamed on teachers. Teachers are usually given long lists of content to teach, with hundreds of topics and no time to go into depth on any ideas. When teachers are given these lists, they see a subject that has been stripped down to its bare parts—like a dismantled bike—a collection of nuts and bolts that students are meant to shine and polish all year. Such lists not only take away the connections that weave all through mathematics, but present math as though the connections do not even exist.

I don’t want students polishing disconnected bike parts all day. I want them to get onto the bikes and ride freely, experiencing the pleasure of math, the joy of making connections, the euphoria of real mathematical thinking.

When teachers open up mathematics and teach broad, visual, creative math, then they teach math as a learning subject, instead of a performance subject. It is very hard for students to develop a growth mindset if they are only ever answering short questions with right and wrong answers. Such questions themselves transmit fixed messages about math: that you can do it or you cannot. When educators teach open math and ask questions that have many solutions or pathways through them, and give students the opportunity to discuss different mathematical ideas, then students see that learning is possible. To put it simply, math questions should have space inside them for learning, for students to discuss and think about ideas; questions should not simply ask for answers that often require calculations or procedures with no encouragement for broader, engaging thought.

Teachers can see the difference between fixed-math and growth-math questions with elementary- and secondary-school mathematics content. For example, they could ask elementary students to calculate one divided by two-thirds—a fixed question. Or they could encourage them to think creatively and ask them to visually represent one divided by two-thirds and then convince each other why their solution works. Teachers could ask students to find the area of a 12 x 2 rectangle. Or they could pose a more growth-oriented question, asking them to find and draw as many rectangles as you can with an area of 24, which encourages students to think about the relationships between length and width, and represent them visually, instead of simply performing a calculation. At the secondary level, teachers could ask students to prove that the sum of the first n-positive integer cube numbers is the square of the sum of the first n-positive integer numbers. Or they would ask students to make sense of the visual below.

How does this picture illustrate the following:

13 + 23 + 33 + ….63 = (1 + 2 + 3+ …+ 6)2?

In the first, fixed version of each of these examples, students perform a calculation or move around algebraic symbols. In the second, they are using their own ideas, thinking deeply about math. One version is about performance, the other is about learning.

When educators teach real mathematics—a growth subject of depth and connections—the opportunities for learning increase and classrooms become filled with happy, excited, and engaged math students. Although news sites are filled with opposition to the Common Core, the new curriculum is at least a step in the right direction, as it asks students to engage in in the most mathematical of acts—reasoning. Mathematicians prove ideas by reasoning and justifying their thinking. Those who oppose the Common Core often do so because they want to keep the traditional mathematics approach in classrooms, even though this has turned off millions of students.

Changing classrooms to teach growth-mindset mathematics has a transformative effect on students. Society urgently needs to free our young people from the crippling ideas that they cannot fail, that they cannot mess up, that only some students can be good at math, and that success should be easy and fast, and not involve effort. School teachers and leaders need to introduce students to creative, beautiful mathematics that allows them to ask questions that have not been asked, and to think of ideas that go against traditional and imaginary boundaries.

When instructors encourage open, growth mathematics and the learning messages that support it, they develop our own intellectual freedom, as teachers and parents, and inspire that freedom in others. Now is the time to invite young people onto growth mindset pathways, encouraging them to be the people they should be, free from artificial rules and inspired by the knowledge that they have unlimited mathematics potential. For when school systems open mathematics, and give students the chance to ask their own questions and bring their own natural creativity and curiosity to the foreground as they learn, then they change them as people and the ways they interact with the world. When teachers set students free, beautiful mathematics follows.

This post appears courtesy of The Hechinger Report. It has been excerpted from Jo Boaler’s new book, Mathematical Mindsets.

What Is the Future of Higher Education?

A bachelor’s degree is more valuable than ever before, and yet college enrollment in the United States is on the decline. As the economy has improved and tuition has increased, more young adults have sought options outside of higher education. The plight of for-profit colleges—which tend to enroll low-income students—has accounted for much of drop in enrollment. State support for higher education has also weakened. Seven in 10 seniors who completed their degrees at public and private nonprofit colleges in 2014 graduated with student debt.

The Year Behind, The Year Ahead

A look at what happened in 2015 and what to watch in 2016
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Colleges have resorted to an array of cost-saving measures, relying increasingly on adjunct faculty and student-tuition increases, among other strategies. Although MOOCs—massive open online courses—may be past their heyday, virtual education continues to gain traction. Vocational and career-and-technical education is having a comeback, while liberal-arts programs are under attack.

One of the most remarkable phenomena to reach colleges this year have been the student protests, their participants vying to improve race relations on their campuses. The unrest has prompted schools to rethink their institutional missions and services ​and commit​ to properly serving new types of students; several ​​staffers and university leaders have been fired or resigned​​ amid these administrative shifts.

We reached out to some of the leading scholars of, experts on, and advocates for higher education, and asked them what, as the year comes to an end, is giving them cause for hope and despair. Below are their answers, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX

Reason for despair: I am in the field of higher education, and I am continually reminded of how challenging it is to transform this world through technology. While we’ve seen technology revolutionizing so much of the world around us, and providing so much access to everything from entertainment to communication, the same cannot be said of quality education. Education is a basic human right, but has remained relatively resistant to technology, and continues to be either of poor quality, or simply out of reach for so very many people around the world.

Reason for hope: The progress we’ve begun to see in technology-enabled learning gives me reason to hope. Online learning has the potential to revolutionize education in both quality and scale, enabling anyone with an Internet connection and a will to learn access to an education. Experiments with MOOCs have demonstrated that quality education can be offered to millions of students worldwide at near-zero marginal cost. Recently, barriers to university credit for MOOCs have also begun to come down, giving me tremendous hope that soon people will be able to get an education and also a meaningful credential to showcase their work.

Education has also been recognized as one of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) of the United Nations, so I’m hopeful that nations will now see a reason to invest more heavily in education.

Lauren Asher, president of The Institute for College Access and Success

Reason for despair: I’m discouraged that lower-income students and families face such a big gap between the college costs they’re asked to cover and what they’re able to pay, and this affordability gap has widened over the last decade. It’s reflected in the high debt levels of federal Pell-Grant recipients, who mostly have family incomes under $40,000. The most recent data show that nearly nine in 10 college graduates who received Pell grants had loans, and they owed an average of $31,200. Compare that to all other graduates, a little over half of whom had loans with average debt of $26,450. What’s driving rising overall debt levels and these income disparities? One big factor is declining state investment in higher education, which shifts the burden onto students and families. For Pell-grant recipients, the cost of attending a public four-year college increased by $7,400 between 2004 and 2012 (the most recent data available), but their total  grant aid increased just $2,900. And despite recent increases, the maximum Pell grant now covers less than a third of the average in-state cost of attendance at a public four-year college: the smallest share in over 40 years.

Reason for hope: One reason for hope is that growing concerns about student debt have led to growing recognition of the role that state investment plays in making college affordable, including for lower-income students. The vast majority of students attend public colleges, and states have been pulling back their support for these schools for decades, leaving students and families to foot more and more of the bill.  However, a number of recent federal proposals for “debt-free” or “free” college would provide higher-education funding for states that continue to invest in public colleges and the financial aid that helps limit students’ need to borrow. Done right, this approach would provide a powerful incentive for states, addressing one of the root causes of student debt at its source and helping preserve the value of available grant aid.

William Deresiewicz, writer and author of Excellent Sheep

Reason for despair: The continued dominance of a narrowly “practical” approach at all levels. This is the attitude that says that the exclusive purpose of education is to prepare workers for the labor force. It shows up, among other places, in the overwhelming focus on math and reading in K-12 and the fetishization of STEM fields and universal disparagement of the liberal arts in college. It also underlies the continuing privatization of public education through the promotion of charter schools and other aspects of the “reform” agenda as well as the ongoing defunding of state universities—the idea being that if education serves the purposes of the market, it should be under the control of the market.

Reason for hope: The gathering resistance to this mentality, which I see in the movement for tuition-free, or at least debt-free, public higher education; in the opposition to high-stakes testing in K-12, which has led to the repeal and replacement of No Child Left Behind; and in the proliferation of new alternative educational models. Students (and their parents) are getting tired of being treated like revenue streams and exploitable resources. But whether we will gather sufficient political strength to oust the entrenched interests on the other side is still a very open question.

Bernadette Gray-Little, chancellor of the University of Kansas

Reason for despair: While I don’t find much that causes me to despair, I do have concerns about the way we invest in our future. If public funding for universities continues to decline, we will need to find different ways to support the way we educate our future leaders and the way we discover new things in our country. So many of our great societal and technological advances happen because of universities, and we need to make sure to protect these efforts from harm.

Reason for hope: I am inspired by the enthusiasm and intellectual capacity of our next generation of leaders. I interact with students each day, which is a great joy. Our students are intellectually curious, and they pursue interesting goals. They’re building faster race cars and more sustainable buildings. They’re looking for cures to the latest diseases. They’re already finding ways to do all these things better than their elders. And they’re also ensuring that we stay focused on issues like economic disparity and racial inequity. The problems of our society will not be getting any easier during the next 50 years, but I’m glad we will have the young people I engage with today to help try to solve them.

Federick M. Hess, resident scholar and director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute

Reason for despair: The ominous push by self-styled crusaders for “social justice” to make bastions of higher education into reeducation camps and to silence or bully competing voices. Major universities have been called upon to ban the use of historic, anodyne terms. To scrape the names of presidents from campus buildings. To bar white faculty from teaching in certain academic departments. To require select faculty and students to undergo mandated reeducation programs. Student protesters accost journalists, harangue faculty, and seek to have professionals fired for the slightest of imagined slights. Their behavior is increasingly Orwellian, yet is met with cheers from campus-diversity officers, prideful looks from left-leaning faculty, indulgence from campus officials, and mostly benevolent adoration from the mainstream press. I see aspiring campus fascists basking in their power and success—much as was the case in 1990 and 1970—but this time liberal civil libertarians and champions of academic freedom are standing silent. I despair because we’re in a troubling spiral and I don’t currently see any corrective emerging short of scorched-earth campus culture wars.

Reason for hope: The creativity and ingenuity of so many educators and entrepreneurs in the world of education. We have at our disposal powerful tools that we could hardly have imagined a generation ago, including simulators, communications tools, data systems, and software that make it possible to reimagine what teaching and learning should look like. Ventures like New Classrooms, ClassDojo, MasteryConnect, LearnZillion, Rocketship, Carpe Diem, and 4.0 Schools are just a handful of those working to rethink classrooms and schools by taking fuller advantage of talented teachers and offering new opportunities to students. New Classrooms is using new technology to help schools morph math instruction from “one-teacher-lectures-thirty-kids-for-180-days” to a model in which a team of teachers uses an array of instructional tools to help students learn at the pace that suits them. ClassDojo, MasteryConnect, and LearnZillion offer educators tools that help cultivate supportive classrooms, use assessment to fuel learning, and make it easier to deliver great lessons. Rocketship and Carpe Diem are using computer-assisted learning to supplement teacher-led instruction, giving students more practice and teachers more time to work closely with students in more intimate settings. 4.0 Schools is helping team up educators, engineers, and entrepreneurs to devise and then launch promising new community-based schools and learning tools. Such efforts have too often been overshadowed in recent years by a narrow focus on reading and math scores, but I’m hopeful that the end of No Child Left Behind and a larger cultural shift herald an embrace of possibility.

Janet Napolitano, president of the University of California and the former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security

Reason for despair: I’m not someone prone to despair, but, for the future of public higher education, a continuing source of concern is the state of political will and leadership. Across the country, too many states have cut funding of colleges and universities at a time when they should be investing in teaching and research that will fuel opportunity for individuals, families and communities. If there were no elected leaders making higher education a priority, that would be cause for despair, but there are leaders, in California and elsewhere, who recognize the value of a high-quality college education to both society and the individual. The concern is that there aren’t enough of them.

Reason for hope: Students and those who teach them give us all plenty of reasons to hope for a future built on opportunity. Across University of California campuses, tens of thousands of first-generation college students are learning side-by-side with the sons and daughters of alumni and other parents who span a very wide spectrum of heritage and circumstance. Like their contemporaries at other public research universities, many are joining faculty in research that is creating knowledge and making the world a better place to live. America’s future truly is being shaped by students and their teachers, and that gives me hope.

Joshua Wyner, vice president and executive director of the College Excellence Program at the Aspen Institute

Reason for despair: For too long at too many American colleges and universities, it has been assumed that students alone control their educational destiny. So, static lectures, irregular student assignments and feedback, and disjointed course offerings remain in place even though better alternatives exist.

Meanwhile, student outcomes leave a lot to be desired. Evidence shows that college students spend less time studying—yet grades continue to increase (over 40 percent of grades today are As). About 50 percent of college students drop out—they never graduate. And studies suggest that even those who earn a degree often lack the critical reading, math, and analytical skills needed to participate thoughtfully in our democracy and fully meet the demands of a rapidly changing workplace.

Reason for hope: The good news is that we know that colleges and universities can do better. Georgia State University and Valencia (community) College in Florida have dramatically increased graduation rates. Both enroll large, diverse student bodies, including significant numbers of diverse students from low-income families who are excelling. Vassar and Franklin & Marshall College have substantially increased the number of low-income students they serve while seeing no diminution in student grades or graduation rates. And in recent years, national efforts have enabled an increasing number professors to rigorously assess critical thinking and other core competencies with the goal of measurably improving student learning.

These examples offer reason for hope, but it’s by no means inevitable that they will become the norm. Achieving these outcomes at a greater number of colleges and universities will require focus in two areas above all others.  First, our nation and states must invest more dollars in talent development. Higher education funding has shifted over the past decade from public taxpayers to students and families. The result is a dramatic rise in student debt, most painful for students who never complete their degrees. Colleges and universities can and should become more efficient and effective in delivering strong student outcomes, but it is, simply put, harder for students to succeed when they bear increasing financial burdens.

At the same time, we need to develop new college and university leaders capable of ensuring that the public and students alike receive a strong return on their investments. With the average age of college presidents now over 60, the sector will soon experience tremendous turnover in leadership. The new generation will be called upon to lead their institutions to deliver more degrees of higher quality to an increasingly diverse population at a lower per-pupil cost. If colleges and universities are to meet this challenge, board of trustees, faculty, and policymakers must ensure that the new generation of presidents believe that all students can succeed—and that colleges and universities are accountable for student outcomes.

Looking into the next decade, then, we may despair about waning public will to invest in higher education. Our elected officials can reverse this narrative if their actions better align with the understanding that postsecondary education holds enormous promise to improve the lives of individuals and strengthen communities, states, and the nation. We may also look to the future and be hopeful about the opportunities we have to usher in a new generation of college leaders prepared to lead institutions to deliver on that promise.

Can Schools Be Fixed?

It’s been a tumultuous year for America’s schools—one marked by an expanding minority-student population, an increasingly discontent teaching force, a backlash against standardized testing, and shifting understanding of education reform. It’s seen greater attention on areas traditionally dismissed as nonessential: things like early-childhood education, after-school programs, and project-based learning. It’s also seen evolving attitudes toward discipline, with tactics such as restorative justice starting to replace zero-tolerance approaches, including in high-poverty urban districts. Debates over how to address disparities in achievement have been highly politicized. The ed-tech market has continued to grow.

Education is often touted as a means for boosting social mobility and making communities more equal, but inequality in school funding and resources has made that difficult to achieve, especially amid increasing poverty rates. Segregation in districts, both tacit and explicit, is holding scores of children back, and performance on math and reading assessments has remained relatively stagnant. President Obama has just signed into law an act that will replace the widely despised No Child Left Behind, but whether it’ll succeed in its goals—boosting the attainment of disadvantaged students, reducing the amount of testing taking place in schools, promoting classroom innovation, and so on—is far from guaranteed.

We reached out to some of the leading scholars of, experts on, and advocates for K-12 education, and asked them what, as the year comes to an end, is giving them cause for hope and despair. Below are their answers, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Joshua Angrist, professor of economics at MIT

Reason for despair: “No Excuses” pedagogy is characterized by a long school day and year, an emphasis on traditional reading and math, extensive use of Teach for America interns, data-driven instruction (just as pro sports teams use data and review video), and an emphasis on discipline and comportment. Our research team and other colleagues have repeatedly and rigorously shown the power of this approach to produce life-changing gains for students who would otherwise do poorly (the “No Excuses” moniker refers to schools and not students: No excuses allowed for a failure to educate). I’m worried because the foundations of this success are under attack: The federal government and many districts now propose to limit the testing that provides essential feedback and accountability. And it has been regular, reliable testing that’s laid the empirical foundation for discussions of school quality and educational inequality. Also worrying: In Massachusetts and elsewhere, concerns about racial imbalance in school discipline are making it harder to use suspension to establish a structured and safe school environment (the primary beneficiaries of which are poor African American children).

Reason for hope: In the 21st-century, administrations from both parties expanded the federal role in education, encouraging reform and experimentation to an unprecedented degree. These policy explorations have been extraordinarily fruitful, yielding findings that are as clear and convincing as any in the history of social science. The most important of these findings is my reason for hope: Although charter schools vary in quality, schools adhering to “No Excuses” pedagogy (like KIPP, and many of the charters in Boston, Denver, New Orleans, and New York) consistently produce spectacular achievement gains for low-income minority students—enough to close the black-white achievement gap in a few years of enrollment. We see this in data from randomized admissions lotteries and from districts (like the New Orleans Recovery School District) that assign responsibility for failing schools to “No Excuses” networks. Research designs exploiting lotteries and takeovers take the guesswork and politics out of the analysis of education policy.

Charles Best, founder and CEO of

Reason for despair: We already know teachers go above and beyond to give their students an excellent education, a lasting love of learning, and the self-confidence to succeed. But teachers can only do so much with the resources they have. More and more, projects on our site tell us that teachers face a large population of young people who go to school cold or hungry. In addition to school supplies, they are requesting food, warmth and care for their students. As a society, it’s time to confront that problem.

Reason for hope: More than ever, students understand that they have the power to shape their own education. We gave young people the access to do that through crowdfunding this year with an expansion into student-led classroom projects. After just a few months, hundreds of students have led the charge by posting projects that matter to their communities. At Ritenour High School—a 15-minute drive from Ferguson, Missouri—one group started a reading buddy program with younger students at their school. Their project, “Reader to Leader: Mentor Program,” delivered 300 elementary-school books for their initiative. It’s just one of more than 840 projects that students have successfully gotten funded on their own terms.

Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN)

Reason for despair: I despair over the growing number of so-called Religious Freedom bills that would grant licenses to discriminate—even for education professionals working with children—and at the schools that seek permission to discriminate by getting religious exemptions to their Title IX responsibilities. My mom was a teacher. She always told me being with people who are different than you, even if you disagree with them completely, is one of the most valuable aspects of school. You have to learn to articulate your ideas and defend your beliefs, and really listen to understand. “RFRAs” and religious exemptions are about withdrawing from that social contract. They also do real harm to youth—when an education professional, a counselor or a nurse, refuses to deal with an LGBT student, simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity/expression, it sends a horrific message.

Reason for hope: I get hope from the dedication and goodwill of great educators everywhere. I have seen it time and time again: When education professionals learn about how discrimination and violence hurt their LGBT students, they want to know what they can do. During my tenure, as GLSEN has raised awareness of these challenges, we’ve seen an explosion in adult support for LGBT youth in schools. In 2001, only about 60 percent of LGBT students could identify a single supportive adult in school. Today, more than 95 percent can. Good people want to do the best by all the students they work with. When we show them what they can do, they’re ready to act. And great teachers make all the difference in a students life—when they have that support, they do better in school, feel better about themselves, and feel more hopeful and determined about their own future. It’s a joy to see, and a privilege to support educators in making that difference.

Linda Darling-Hammond, professor of education emeritus at Stanford University and president of the Learning Policy Institute

Reason for despair: Fifty years after passage of the Voting Rights Act and 60 years after the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education, America’s education system is still one of the most segregated and inequitable in the Western world. The most advantaged public schools spend many times more than the poorest, and resource allocations exacerbate race and class inequities in many states. While some students attend schools in palatial settings offering small classes, expert teachers, and high-tech computers, others attend a growing number of apartheid schools serving low-income students of color in crumbling buildings, where a revolving door of substitutes and untrained teachers try to teach in overcrowded classrooms lacking enough desks, not to mention books and learning materials. In the last few years, matters have gone from bad to worse: As poverty levels for children have grown to one in four nationwide, and the number of homeless children has doubled, states have been cutting funds for both education and social services. In 2015, at least 30 states were funding their schools at lower levels than they had before the Great Recession, with those serving the neediest students often the hardest hit. Because of the aggressive neglect of so many our children, the United States has slipped to the level of many developing countries in virtually every category of child welfare and education. This situation is perhaps the greatest threat to our national security. In today’s knowledge economy, we need every young person to be well-supported and well-educated, able to find a good job and pay taxes to pay for the social security and health care of the growing number of seniors if our social contract is to survive.

Reason for hope: This month, Congress passed and the President signed a new federal education act into law—one that could begin to change our current landscape of inequitably funded schools, too often focused on a low-level curriculum unsuited to our 21st-century needs. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) replaced No Child Left Behind, a much-criticized law whose emphasis on high-stakes testing frequently narrowed the curriculum to the content and format of low-level multiple-choice reading and math tests, especially in low-income schools. Under this law, inequalities in educational access grew, while achievement stalled and then dropped on measures assessing higher-order thinking skills, like the international PISA tests and the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The new law encourages states to focus on students’ opportunities to learn (the resources and quality of curriculum and teaching they receive), as well as a broader range of outcomes—such as graduation rates, completion of college-and-career-ready coursework, and richer measures of student learning that evaluate the critical thinking, collaboration, and problem-solving skills essential for success in today’s society and workplaces. If this law is successful in rekindling state innovation, while focusing them on educational quality and equity, it could provide the shot in the arm the nation needs to reclaim the American Dream for the next generation of young people and their families.

Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association

Reason for despair: I don’t despair; I’m an educator, so I live in a constant state of hopefulness. But I am frustrated and angry about the inequality that denies many of our students a great education. Here’s just one example of what this means: overcrowded classrooms, like the class of 39 fifth-graders I taught in Utah. In those conditions, students don’t get the individualized, one-on-one time they need to thrive. We are [one of the richest nations] in the world, yet we have not ensured that all students, regardless of ZIP code, have the well-staffed and well-resourced schools they need. We know a well-rounded education offers students a way out of poverty, yet the schools serving the poorest students are often impoverished. We say every student who’s able and has the desire should have access to college, yet we don’t make higher education accessible and affordable. These disparities are immoral and costly for our nation. But fighting for equity is our calling as NEA members. Our frustration and anger just make us fight harder.

Reason for hope: What gives me the most hope right now is that everyone is focusing on education. “No Child Left Untested” was such bad policy that it got people’s attention, and it was the law for more than a decade. It created a crisis in public education, but we can use this crisis to move forward. President Obama signed a law that ends test-and-punish policies and opens the door for real teaching and learning. We finally have an opportunity for transparency and an opening to make every school a place that inspires students’ curiosity, imagination, and desire to learn. We will have meaningful indicators to show us in black and white what educators have been saying all along: Not all students have what they need for success. And we can finally begin addressing these opportunity gaps. This could be a new golden age for education, but we’re not just hoping it happens. We’re organizing with parents, business leaders, and communities to make it happen.

Anya Kamenetz, lead education blogger for NPR and the author of The Test

Reason for despair: The continued tacit acceptance of deep racial and social segregation across most of our school system, from prekindergarten through colleges and grad schools. All this year we have been hearing eruptions of despair across the country from students who have climbed the heights of elite education only to brave chilly winds of hostility and aggression. Some members of the highest court in the land seem to believe that the status quo is just and right. I believe this comes from a basic confusion about the nature of excellence in education. A high-performing institution can’t be defined any longer by who is barred from its doors.

Reason for hope: The requirements of No Child Left Behind, with its insistence on math and reading benchmarks, have been softened. Thanks to the work of countless researchers, policymakers, and educators, I see real and serious attention being paid to cultivating and measuring the human tasks of education: communication, collaboration, empathy, creativity, self-awareness, and self-management, to name a few.

We have a lot to learn, but it seems that schools that excel in building these qualities are places where students are loved and supported by highly engaged teachers, where they work on getting along better, play together, satisfy their curiosity, make art, try new technologies, and explore new ideas. I believe this work will continue to build momentum. Measuring what matters can help tug schools in the right direction.

David Kelley, founder and chairman of IDEO and founder of Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design

Reason for despair: In my work across different domains and disciplines, one of the biggest sources of frustration for me has been the dismal state of K-12 education. Today’s public-school system is the same one we’ve had since the Industrial Revolution, and it’s no longer relevant. Sure, there are great ideas and initiatives scattered here and there, but they’re not making a large enough dent in the system as a whole. And one of the main reasons the current system is not working is because we don’t value teachers enough. Though we all collectively say we value education and that we value our kids, somehow that esteem is not reflected in the reality of the salaries and status of our educators. And when we don’t value teachers, the system as a whole suffers. Plus, with more emphasis on grades and test scores, we don’t make the necessary time and space for the things we actually want for our kids—things like social and emotional skills and creativity.

Reason for hope: As a designer, I have had the great pleasure of seeing the impact of design on some of the most important innovations of our time. The biggest surprise for me was realizing that the innovations themselves are not the most exciting outcome of design—it’s seeing what happens when people are able to unlock their creative confidence. Whether it’s a business leader, a politician, the head of an NGO, or a student, anyone who has opted out of believing that they’re creative, it’s exciting to see that sudden spark of realization. We see that glimmer in their eyes and they’re thrilled by the ability to flex those creative muscles to solve just about any challenge. With a little help, that confidence grows, and it can have a profound affect on their lives and what they are able to accomplish. From where I sit, the more people who have confidence in their creative abilities, the more hope I have for our future.

Amanda Ripley, Emerson Senior Fellow and the author of The Smartest Kids in the World

Reason for despair: Countries around the world have become measurably smarter in recent years—which should be a reason for hope, I know. But bear with me. Fifteen years ago, teenagers in Poland scored below their American peers on the PISA test of critical thinking; today, Polish students perform well above our kids (despite Poland’s significant child poverty and political dysfunction). A greater percentage of Polish kids now graduate from high school than our kids. So what’s wrong with that? Well, it’s fantastic for Poland, but over the same time period, the U.S. has not budged. We remain subpar in math and science, and average in reading. Even our richest kids do worse in math than rich kids in 27 other countries. I’d feel better if we were trying our hardest and not succeeding; but we are not. We still don’t do the few things we know help all kids in every time zone: make teacher colleges serious and selective; offer all kids quality pre-k; and for God’s sake, stop tracking young kids into different schools and academic programs based on their alleged abilities. I am waiting for one U.S. state—just one—to do those three things with relentless focus. I hope I live to see it.

Reason for hope: Washington, D.C., where I live and where my child attends public school, has done something almost no other U.S. district has managed to pull off. The city has turned teaching into what appears to be a serious profession. For real. You can earn $125,000 in fewer than 10 years on the job here. You can coach other teachers and influence policy and curriculum. Teachers I know spend more time talking about the intellectual challenges of the craft than most teachers I meet in the rest of the country, where many school systems are still too broken for such conversations. It’s also true that D.C. still has a very long way to go, and I could list a hundred things that could be better. But I have to admit it: This city has proven that it is possible to treat teaching with something close to the respect it deserves—even in America. And that change is always going to be Step 1. Nothing else will work. Now just 99 more steps to go.

Diane Ravitch, historian of American education and author of Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools

Reason for despair: In my field, public education is under unprecedented attack by a bipartisan coalition that calls themselves “reformers.” It includes the Obama administration, the Republican leadership, the Gates Foundation, the Eli Broad Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, hedge-fund managers, ALEC, and rightwing governors. They seek alternatives to democratically controlled public schools, such as privately managed charters, for-profit charter schools, virtual schools, and, in some states, vouchers for religious schools. The reformers’ excessive reliance on standardized testing as both the measure and goal of schooling has corrupted education. Because of the reformers’ attacks on teachers, experienced teachers are retiring early, and the number entering teaching has dropped sharply.

Reason for hope: The reasons for hope are two-fold: first, the public doesn’t want to abandon its community public schools. No district or state has ever voted to privatize its schools. Second, every so-called “reform” has failed to promote better education or equal opportunity for the neediest children. Neither charters nor vouchers consistently get better results for children, unless they exclude the weakest students. Measuring teachers by student test scores has been a costly failure. The great majority of the public admires their public schools and their teachers and wants them to be better, more equitably funded, not eliminated. If democracy works, these misguided “reforms” will be consigned to the ashcan of history.

Dale Russakoff, reporter for The Washington Post and author of The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?

Reason for despair: My primary reason for despair is the polarized state of relations between reformers and defenders of the status quo in public education. As these two groups make war over everything from the growth of charters to the role of test scores in teacher evaluations, critical issues for children go unattended. One example is the dire financial state of school districts in cities where charter schools are growing rapidly. When children leave traditional public schools for charters, the dollars leave with them, and districts are unable to downsize as quickly as the money exits. Districts in Newark, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Detroit, are facing budget crises that have major consequences for learning, and they still educate more than half the children in those cities. The only way to address this issue is for every force in education—politicians, unions, philanthropists, reformers, parents, community activists—to make difficult compromises and commitments necessary to stabilize school districts in the face of charter growth. Polarization makes this impossible to contemplate, and children are the losers.

Reason for hope: I find hope in the growing attention of politicians and policymakers to forces outside K-12 classrooms that impinge on learning, particularly for the poorest children. The mounting emphasis on early-childhood education, the renewed interest in community schools—with services for adults and neighborhoods as well as for children—and the movement to create trauma-informed classrooms for children exposed to violence all reflect this trend. The education-reform movement argued that poverty was an “excuse” for failure, but these developments embody a shift in perspective: America may not have to solve poverty before improving education for the poorest children, but we definitely have to address it.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers

Reason for despair: It’s easy to despair when politicians stoke fear and hatred, and ignore the millions of Americans struggling to get by. Poverty, wage stagnation, income inequality, violence, discrimination, lack of opportunity—all of this impacts our kids. For many, school has been a way out, a safe sanctuary to grow in the face of incredible odds, to get the skills they need to succeed in life. But the recession dealt a heavy blow to our schools and working families, No Child Left Behind took the focus off equity and put it on testing, and privatizers swooped in to capitalize on a system struggling from swift, unbridled change with little support, financial or otherwise. After more than a decade, we know that this “test, punish, and privatize” strategy hasn’t worked to help all students succeed.

Reason for hope: Today, the tide is turning in public education. Policymakers on Capitol Hill, heeding the calls of parents and teachers, have rolled back high-stakes testing and put the focus back on logical decision-making, listening to those closest to kids and targeting funding to support the children who need it most and the public schools they attend. States have the chance to take the ball and move plans that let teachers teach and students learn. We know that high-quality early-childhood education, additional pathways like career-and-technical education, community schools that provide wraparound services, and changing instruction to include project-based learning are ways to engage students, address poverty, and make every public school a place where parents want to send children, educators want to work and kids are engaged. We need the resources and support to get there. And by doing so in 2016, we can bring back the joy of learning and widespread economic opportunity. When we do that, we will help kids, families, and communities get ahead and stay ahead.

Eric Hanushek, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University

Reason for despair: Improved education is the key to the future for the U.S., as our economy depends on having a highly skilled workforce. While most people give lip service to the desire to improve schools in order to invest in the future, they often stop short of endorsing any significant changes in the schools. This reflects, in my opinion, two factors—an imperfect understanding of just how important quality schooling is for the country and complacency with the current situation. The complacency enters from the fact that the U.S. remains a wealthy country, leading to a sense that maybe it is alright just to keep going along as we are. From this complacency springs a myopia that is difficult to overcome but that could harm the future of the country.

Reason for hope: Over the past five years, my sense of hope and optimism has actually overtaken despair with U.S. schools. First, there is now broad recognition that quality teachers can lead to revitalized schools that are competitive internationally. Second, there is a new willingness by legislatures in a majority of states to push actively for more flexibility in hiring, paying, and retaining teachers and for improved teacher evaluations so that we identify the teachers that we want to nurture and retain. By focusing attention on the effectiveness of teachers in raising student achievement, these progressive states are setting the stage for U.S. schools to climb out of their doldrums and to compete with the top schools around the developed countries of the world. For the first time in the past half century there appears to be a strong possibility that we will serve all of our students and that we will restore the strength of the U.S. workforce.

When Restorative Justice in Schools Works

PITTSFIELD, N.H.—When the freshman Hope Parent left her cellphone unattended at Pittsfield Middle High School, last year, her classmate Brandon Bojarsky saw his chance for a little fun.

Grabbing the device off a windowsill in their Spanish class, he quickly shot off a few obnoxious text messages to people in her contact list—including one to Hope’s mother.

By the time Hope figured out what Brandon had done, her phone battery had died. She couldn’t immediately follow up with people to tell them the unkind words hadn’t originated with her.

The Hechinger Report

But even worse, her mother—who lives out of state—was deeply upset. Brandon had texted “I hate you” to her, particularly hurtful language at the time.

“The relationship with my mother wasn’t that great so [the message] seemed believable,” Hope said.

At home after school, Hope had to convince her father she had nothing to do with the prank message to her mother. In the following days, having to encounter an apparently unremorseful Brandon at school made it impossible to forget the incident had happened, Hope said. She took her complaint to a teacher who had a suggestion: What if the school’s new justice committee heard the case?

* * *

In traditional school-discipline programs, students face an escalating scale of punishments for infractions that can ultimately lead to expulsion. But there is now strong research that shows pulling students out of class as punishment can hurt their long-term academic prospects. What’s more, data shows that punishments are often unequal. Nationally, more black students are suspended than white students, for example.

As a result, alternative programs like restorative justice are gaining popularity in public schools from Maine to Oregon. Early adopters of the practice report dramatic declines in school-discipline problems, as well as improved climates on campuses and even gains in student achievement.

In 2009, Pittsfield was rated one of New Hampshire’s weakest campuses. A massive influx of federal aid and private grants  (including the New England-based Nellie Mae Education Foundation) has since been poured into the rural school, located in a former mill town in the state’s Suncook Valley.

For the past year, The Hechinger Report, which produced this story, has been following Pittsfield’s transformation into a “student-centered learning” environment. The 260 students at Pittsfield are given more choices of how and when they learn, and they are encouraged to pursue their interests through project-based learning and internships.

The student-centered learning approach now also extends to campus discipline. Lower-level offenses can be redirected to the justice committee, which is made up of student mediators, with school administrators and teachers serving as advisors. The goal is to provide a nonconfrontational forum for students to talk through their problems, address their underlying reasons for their own behaviors, and make amends both to individuals who have been affected as well as to the larger school community.

, it’s been a bumpy two years since suspensions for classroom misbehavior were banned in favor of a restorative justice model.

The policy analyst Andrew Rotherham of Bellwether Education Partners in Washington, D.C., said that while he’s seen strong school-based restorative-justice programs in action, he has concerns about the sudden popularity of—and political pressure for—alternative programs.

“We have a proven track record in the American education system of taking things that are working, replicating them quickly and badly and consequently discrediting the otherwise good idea,” said Rotherham, who was a policy advisor to the Clinton White House. “Restorative justice has become a hot issue and everyone wants to do it—but it may not be what every school needs.”

Kathy Evans, an assistant professor at Eastern Mennonite University, which offers a graduate certification program in restorative justice for educators, shares Rotherham’s concerns. Restorative justice can’t exist in a vacuum, Evans said. Schools also have to address the campus-climate issues that contribute to student behavior.

Quantifying the number of schools using restorative justice is difficult. In addition to the large-scale district programs that have been well-documented, many teachers are opting to use the model in their individual classrooms. That’s one of the reasons why a group of restorative-justice advocates and educators met last summer to begin outlining plans for a national association, according to Evans. The goal is to support grassroots efforts and to ensure that there’s both consistency and accountability for restorative-justice programs in schools.

Evans said she observed a restorative-justice circle at a school recently in which the students were still looking to the teacher for permission to speak. That’s a red flag, she said.

“Educators do this quick-and-dirty one-day training and they think they’re qualified to do restorative-justice work—they’re doing the best they can with what they do know,” she said. “But the circles are supposed to equalize the power and give students the right to speak. That didn’t happen.”

To be sure, it takes time to build trust among students and adults for alternative discipline programs to bear fruit. A school like Pittsfield where student-centered learning is the norm has a head start, said Evans, but restorative justice can—and does—work in many different kinds of campus settings.

“We often assume adolescents aren’t capable of these kinds of thoughtful interactions, but they just need to be given the opportunity to develop that capacity,” Evans said. “We need to stop underestimating students and trying to motivate and regulate them with carrots and sticks.”

* * *

After hearing from both Hope and Brandon, Pittsfield’s student mediators asked Hope what she needed to resolve the situation from her perspective, and she said she wanted Brandon to apologize. The peer mediators suggested he write letters to the people who had received the prank texts.

That would work for her mother who lives out of state, Hope told the committee. But her father would want something more.

The student mediators agreed that a face-to-face apology was in order. Brandon admitted that he was nervous to face Hope’s dad, but when the time came, “he was actually really nice about it. He accepted my apology and we had a good talk.”

Additionally, the mediators decided Brandon should talk to students in younger grades about what he had done and use the experience as a life lesson.

As he completed each of the obligations, Brandon found it easier to meet Hope’s gaze when he saw her at school. He also said he realized something else—he didn’t want to be in trouble anymore. (In fact, that incident was his last serious infraction, said the committee advisor, Jenny Wellington.)

Hope was impressed with how seriously Brandon took his duties—and her dad was, as well.  “A lot of kids would have just taken the suspension and not owned up to what they did,” she said.

Taking part in the restorative-justice process has also left them on better terms. Now both in 10th-grade, they say “hi” when passing in the hallway between classes, and Hope said she’s no longer angry. Those feelings probably would still be lingering if Brandon had only been given a more traditional punishment like detention, Hope said.

Brandon agreed.

“When you’re mad at another person and you’re walking down the hallway, you don’t even want to look at them,” Brandon said. “So when you talk it out in JC, it’s like the good relationship you had with the other person is restored.”

This post appears courtesy of The Hechinger Report.

Education in 2015 Visualized

Education issues can be difficult to grasp; they can feel  overwhelming, intangible, or even irrelevant. Sometimes, the best and most effective means of conveying education stories are through charts, graphics, images, and videos. Here are some of the visuals from around the Internet this past year that helped visualize what mattered—student debt, early-childhood education, regional inequality in schools, campus protests, and so on—in a way that was engaging and provocative.

School Discipline:​
When Schools Are Forced to Practice Race-Based Discipline | The Atlantic

According to U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection, white students made up the largest percentage of one-time suspensions and expulsions,  but black students were expelled and suspended at rates three times higher than their white peers. Education Next polled 4,000 people and concluded that a higher percentage of white respondents, teachers, the general public, and parents opposed federal discipline policies set to correct disparate-impact policies.

Regional Inequality:

Countries With The Most Students For Each School Computer | Forbes / Statista

Niall McCarthy / Statista

The “digital divide”—the gap between regions that have access to modern technology as a tool, and those that don’t—is a growing problem that hinders how schools around the world are able to educate students. A report by OECD reported that some countries claim to have multiple computers available per student at school, but this does not translate to “appreciable improvements in student achievement in reading, mathematics or science in the countries that had invested heavily in ICT (Information and Communications Technology) for education.”

Dividing Lines | EdBuild

In the U.S., the quality of public education is heavily determined by where a family lives. Lower-income families sometimes live in areas of concentrated poverty. School districts often receive funding from local property taxes, and without the funding generated by large income taxes from residents, barriers limit low-income students’ access to well-funded schools close to their homes. This map shows a system where community wealth and school budgets are inextricably linked: “School districts [are] drawn in odd shapes and sizes, many sitting next to—or even inside of—districts of wildly different means.”

Teacher Diversity:
More Minority Students, Fewer Teachers of Color | The Atlantic

As the student population grows more diverse—with minority students slated to outnumber their white counterparts by 2022—the Albert Shanker Institute, a think tank funded by the American Federation of Teachers, noted that the number of black teachers dropped from 2002 to 2012.  The report looks at nine major cities—Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.—to quantify the drop in teachers despite the presence of more students of color.

Early-Childhood Education:

Playground | James P. Mollison

Much debate in education circles has centered on the lack of playtime in schools, and its effect on early learning. This collection of photos was intended to be a series of moments that happened during a single break time, a kind of “time-lapse” photography. Students are featured playing in schools around the world: from Kenya to Israel to Japan to Norway.

Common Core Math Problems | Vox

The Common Core is a set of math and reading standards that students will need to have mastered by the end of a given grade level. For math, the problems are intended to help students understand the concepts and mechanics of mathematics by showing their work (a concept called “number sense”), instead of simple rote memorization. Some parents have been infuriated by problems that appear more complex than the non-Common Core math they were taught, and some students may find it tedious. This video explains simply why problems that look like they’re being made unnecessarily complex are actually teaching students in a more thoughtful way.

Student Debt:

Mapping Student Debt | The Washington Center for Equitable Growth

Pim Linders / Kavya Vaghul / Dave Evans / Marshall Steinbaum / Washington Center for Equitable Growth /

According to a paper by the Brookings Institute, federal student loan balances in the U.S. are exceeding $1.1 trillion. The amount of debt held by single individuals has sharply increased over the last generation, and now affects students in every state across the country. This map shows how the student-debt crisis and borrowing for college affects the nation, specific cities, and even zip codes. You can toggle between different map layers using the menu at the top right corner.

Student Poverty Timeline: 2006-2013 | EdBuild

Press the play button in the top right-hand corner to watch student poverty—a result of the student-debt crisis among other factors—increase drastically across the country from 2006 to 2013. Student poverty appears to develop the most drastically in the South and Northwest regions of the U.S.

Educational Attainment | OECD

In the first graph, the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), tracked post-secondary education levels of the adult population ages 25 to 34 around the world from 2000 to 2013. The OECD average was in 2013 was 40.53 percent. Korea topped the list with 67.14 percent of adults attending post-secondary institutions or programs; the U.S. is listed at 44.77 percent. The second graph breaks down what percentage of the population achieved different levels of education: tertiary (post-secondary or college), upper secondary (high school), below upper secondary (primary or middle school).

Art in Classroom:
A Visit From Kendrick Lamar | NPR

Mito Habe-Evans / NPR

Brian Mooney, a teacher at High Tech High School in North Bergen, New Jersey, used Kendrick Lamar’s album To Pimp A Butterfly, an album centered around blackness, beauty, and social justice, as a learning tool to teach his freshman english class Toni Morrison’s classic novel, The Bluest Eye (a novel about a young black girl who wants blue eyes). Mooney wrote a blogpost about the lesson, which made it’s way to Lamar, who visited the school for a day.

College Student Protests:
Campus Politics: A Cheat Sheet | The Atlantic

Campuses across the U.S. have experienced a surge of student activism surrounding in response to race relations and diversity at colleges. Several student groups have issued demands to their respective universities ranging from the removal of members of the faculty and administration, the implementation of mandatory diversity trainings, and the removal of racist of symbols from university buildings. The first graph gives a timeline of major protests and aftermaths at universities starting with the protests at the University of Missouri, which resulted in the ousting of its president and chancellor, to the resignation of Erika Christakis, a Yale lecturer who came under scrutiny after making comments about students’ halloween costumes. The second graph shows many of the college or universities that have been faced with student demands.

Oberlin Students and Alumni Reflect on Activism at the College

I have some thoughts in defense of Oberlin students. Let me make clear that I am a foodie and a white person who enjoys cooking ethnic cuisines. While at Oberlin, I remember CDS served something called the “Indian Platter,” which consisted of feta cheese, pita, raw spinach, and hummus. The feta cheese was listed as “paneer” and the pita as “naan.” The previous day, CDS served exactly the same dish but called it “Mediterranean Platter.” CDS was known for casually using ethnic buzzwords to remarket old dishes. I wouldn’t be surprised if the exact same Banh Mi sandwich depicted in your article was served the day before, but listed as “pulled pork sandwich.” I understand how it seems extreme to accuse CDS of cultural appropriation for these minor transgressions, but I also think there is some background you must understand.

Oberlin advertises itself as the first racially integrated college in the country. From my understanding, a very low percentage of Oberlin’s students of color make it to graduation, and many students feel this results from a lack of institutional support. There are few professors of color. At least once a year, racial slurs and threats are posted on some public forum. Many students are in the process of learning about the racial inequality of our criminal-justice system and are rightly angry about it. Campus officers are not immune from racism. I have heard stories about officers assaulting students of color. And financial aid is almost non-existent. A lot of students of color feel like they don’t matter to the college.

In that climate, it is easier to understand how minor transgressions like inauthentic food can offend students of color. They feel their school doesn’t care about them. Inauthentic food is just one more aggravating factor that brings them over the edge. Food is embedded in culture. It’s nothing new for offense to be taken when someone misuses the name of a dish.

As a foodie from New York who, growing up, could easily find a great Banh Mi sandwich for $10, I was never satisfied with Oberlin’s cafeteria food. I am a picky snob. But the people fighting to change CDS are not picky snobs from New York. They are people of color from many walks of life who feel like their college doesn’t care about them. They are trying to improve their living conditions. That is a noble cause, and I hope I have shed some light on why students think it is important.

A 2010 graduate agrees that the “food appropriation” controversy should be viewed in a larger context, but thinks that context reflects poorly on today’s students:

When I read the reports coming out of Oberlin I’m ashamed and embarrassed, but I also find myself thinking: It didn’t used to be this way. Among the activist-minded students there were always a few who were shrill, intolerant, allergic to critique, and bent on subsuming the whole of reality within their preferred ideological framework. They didn’t care about persuasion … they knew they were right and didn’t give a damn if they alienated everyone to whom they were ostensibly preaching.

But their approach to advancing their agendas on campus was different. Before, student activists generally viewed a direct and immediate appeal to institutional authority as a double-edged sword (one that could bring your goals to fruition, but not without the cost of some degree of democratic credibility). Today, student activists have become acutely aware that the decision-making authority at Oberlin is the college administrators, and they’re increasingly willing to take even the most minute problems straight to the top to be institutionally rectified.

Ideas that thrived in a space of open exchange, a space that the administration stayed out of, are now seen as needing institutional validation, codification, and, indeed, enforcement. The various conceptual iterations of “privilege,” for instance, were current and widely discussed, as were “whiteness,” “safe spaces,” and the many different “-isms.” But such concepts were not then what they have since become–cudgels. They had not yet hardened into a rigid system of moral norms, enforced by a self-appointed activist vanguard with the backing of cowed administrators, norms that to transgress would invite public shaming, harassment, or social ostracizing, to say nothing of official disciplinary action.

There were plenty of people who vocally proclaimed their categorical dismissal of the very existence of forms of oppression that today no one would dare question. Did I myself agree with such people? Not at all. I almost always came down on the side of the anti-oppression crowd when I felt their positions were staked out in good faith, were intellectually sound, were practically applicable, and weren’t fueled by that uniquely liberal-arts-college brand of narcissism and self-indulgence. I enjoyed learning about their work and being challenged by their ideas, and I tended to regard the majority of complaints about PCism as short-sighted, because I never felt like I couldn’t disagree with anyone. For the most part, people with seriously divergent views could air them without risking any kind of official infraction. There simply was not a precedent for reporting someone to the authorities because their very opinions made you feel, to use the watchword of today’s activists, “unsafe.”

In short, beyond a certain point, people with opposing views simply left each other alone, and even in as small a place as Oberlin there was room enough for everyone. There was a tradition of grudging inclusiveness toward different views–and genuine inclusiveness need not be anything more than grudging. Yet everything I see from Oberlin now suggests that this tradition has given way to something very different. There is now an atmosphere of close-mindedness, intellectual submission, conformity, and fear. Anti-oppression activism, something inherently noble, has become an extensive apparatus for suffocating freedom of expression and crushing dissent, and an increasingly illiberal left devotes its energies to denouncing, pillorying, and silencing anyone who doesn’t march in lockstep with its latest orthodoxies.

Whoever can most cunningly, loudly, and shamelessly cloak themselves in the flag of social justice is empowered to effectively disregard everyone’s speech other than their own. Administrators, terrified of being accused of this or that ism, are unwilling to push back in any way against activist bully tactics and have allowed them not only to dictate the course of campus life but to have effective veto power over curricula as well. And who do the victims mostly end up being? Who are the harassed or dis-invited speakers? The professors who can’t teach what they want? Liberals and other leftists whose crime has been to presume that they are in some sense on the activist side but who have failed to meet their limitless criteria. This is not social justice at work.

The business about culturally insensitive dining-hall fare is attention-grabbing for its ludicrousness, but it’s hardly the prime example of what has taken hold. A better example would be the the list of demands issued by the Black Student Union. Beyond the stunning extent of these demands, which include firing certain faculty and staff… they reflect a truly perverse view of education as the forcing of a worldview down the student’s throat.

An ability for nuance, for a recognition of degrees, subtle differences, finer essences, and other aspects of abstract thought in which the liberal arts are supposed to train one, seems to escape these students. It’s not enough to point out contradictions and inconsistencies in enlightenment universalism, with its tendency to take a certain dominant group’s narrative as applicable to all people, and attempt to rectify them. No. All of Western culture is tainted by white supremacy, and thus Western higher education as we know it should itself be dismantled. 

Student activism in this country is only possible because generations of Americans on and off college campuses have forged a tradition and a culture of freedom of speech, in tandem with a jurisprudence of expansive legal protections for speech and expression. Yet, not only are today’s activists turning on the very tradition that has allowed them to be activists: they may also be unwittingly engaged in long-term self-sabotage in the event that the various speech restrictions they demand are one day used against them. Conservative Christian safe spaces, anyone?

My sincere hope for the future of Oberlin and for student activism is that it turns off from its present course, toward one that honors principled disagreement, self-critique, and individual conscience. As it stands now, all of those values are endangered. I am, of course, interested to hear what current Oberlin students have to say about all this (including the ones who would disagree with me), so I hope you’ll receive some responses from them and compile them in another article.

This next correspondent agrees that Oberlin activists contribute to an intellectually “oppressive” climate, but defends their good intentions and primary goals:

Oberlin is not, sometimes, a “safe space” for those who express skepticism about safe spaces. This call for less cultural appropriation in the dining halls comes amidst giant upheaval in other areas: there was the petition calling for better food to be served at the African Heritage House, for it to contain less cream, since African-Americans are often lactose intolerant; and there was the petition from the Black Student Union which was quickly picked up by conservative blogs (like here) which demanded fairly outrageous structural changes to the institution, including paying activists for their work on an hourly basis, developing a prison to college pipeline, firing specific administrators, and tenuring certain professors.

That said, these complaints and demands arise from one of the most liberal wings of fairly liberal colleges at a time when the plight, struggle, and disadvantage of people of color in this country is finally coming to light in vicious and often incomprehensible ways: black people are being killed with impunity, and, it now dawns on us, always have been, but the general public didn’t notice, as individuals chose to look the other way.

There is a sense at Oberlin that something should be done about this, especially at an institution that prides itself as a beacon of progress and enlightenment, a bulwark against backwardness and ignorant conservatism. Oberlin students want what other college students are asking for, whether they phrase it this way or not: better control of the college’s money. It’s time, I think, to revoke some of the power that the boards of trustees have—the undue sway of the moneyed few—in favor of the consciences of the paying and physically attending students. So for us, I think, legitimate complaints have gotten mixed up with more questionable ones.

As someone who lives in the Oberlin environment, I can speak to the enormous outrage about—and the difficulty of expressing—the gross narcissism involved in some of the students’ rhetoric. Considering the privilege most of us have––which most of us have to have in order to even stumble on a place like Oberlin––it’s sickening to hear certain complaints, not about the quality of the food, which of course is pretty terrible (situation normal, all fucked up) but the language-mantle of colonialism. This group of largely white students is also young and fairly privileged, and it makes sense that they can be blind to the circumstances of many whose lived existence they use as an excuse for leverage and social cache, ignorant of the hypocrisy of campaigning for even greater privileges for themselves by using the experience of the benighted poor as justification. That experience of the American poor, a population they’ve been separated and insulated from, is not necessarily your experience, and to appropriate it can be as scandalous as bad sushi.

My classmates are bright and articulate people—often. In many senses they are the future: the future of government, the future of NGOs, of non-profits, the vanguard of green-energy policy, et al. And their progressivism is often to the good.

Yet we (Oberlin students as well as onlookers) must not fail to recognize that the most seemingly progressive of people are not the most goodly people by default; rather, like others with extreme views, they are fully susceptible to blanketing over inconvenient truths and signing away liberties (particularly involving free speech) in the name of more and more rules that “protect” us. This is not something we are inclined to support when it comes to the NSA, and we should be very careful when considering enforced codes appended to documents meant to “keep people safe.”

There is no safety from ideas, merely ignorance, and to argue that “some things just aren’t up for discussion,”—rather than to posit that by arguing something one feels cheapened, or sacrifices a part of one’s morality—but to insist that things simply can’t be talked about, is more conservative and narrow than I think my classmates realize. Many Oberlin students reading this would argue, I think, that it mischaracterizes honest efforts to change an unjust institution within a damnably unjust world. I hope I can honor and join in the efforts of my classmates to change our many situations for the better while reserving the right to point out creeping egotism where it erupts—but the atmosphere for doing that work of semi-judicious skepticism is just a little tough right now.

This correspondent believes the media’s focus on the “food appropriation” story is misplaced:

As a current 4th year at Oberlin College, I would like to take you up on your offer and provide one (of many) insider’s perspective … This was not a unified issue on campus: I saw many Asian-American students who were unconvinced that this constituted a cultural appropriation… while the complaints were circulated, this did not receive nearly as much publicity as MANY other issues on campus.  The amount of attention that this issue has achieved in the media is COMPLETELY MISREPRESENTATIVE …

Just last week a petition was circulated detailing various institutional demands which generated around 700 signatures within a day.  However, the petition was defaced with INCREDIBLY RACIST, ANTI-SEMITIC, AND VIOLENT words and symbols (which I have attached below).  This issue was FAR MORE RELEVANT, IMPACTFUL, PUBLICIZED, and IMPORTANT than any of these food complaints, yet NOTHING in the media has covered this.  In truth, what the general public believes to have been the “focus” of student activists this semester is a fabrication by the media and not remotely representative. I do appreciate the fairness and depth to which you wrote your article (compared with any other news source I have seen).  But now I am urging you:  please share this racist incident and encourage all others in the media to do the same.  If you truly want to hear what is going on at Oberlin: this is it!  While calling out cultural appropriation in food is valid, this is how you can report what truly are relevant and important issues not only at Oberlin but facing marginalized communities as a whole!

This next alum started to mistrust the earnestness of fellow Obies after observing the social incentives to laud and defer to members of groups that are perceived as victims:

At Oberlin, anyone seen as vulnerable is given the benefit of the doubt: there is no room for understanding, there is a victim speaking their mind and there is the oppressor. This mode of thought impacts all issues (race, gender, sex politics, etc.). In order to be hip, one should identify or sympathize with whatever group is being oppressed. Most of it is for show.

I would be happy to take a bet that the Vietnamese freshman was not offended as much as they were excited to see an opportunity to be the victim… I guarantee they got 10+ emails congratulating them on their courage… If you’d like another outrageous story, I urge you to find ABUSA’s petition which made waves within the Oberlin community and demanded (basically) a hostile takeover of the college by black students and students of color (my last name is _____, mind you. Not all POC Oberlin people feel this way). This included the hiring and firing of professors, inclusion of incarcerated folks in the college community, and boycotting Israel.

It’s wild.

​Honestly, the social climate of that school is bullshit. Plain and simple. Very privileged kids trying to run away from their privilege by being part of the solution.

A 2014 graduate criticized the press, cautioned against dismissing the complaints of black students, and posited that Obies know they’re not exposed to enough dissent:

… While Oberlin students can be a bit overzealous in their social justice efforts (which I think is a good thing!), what is disturbing is not their activist excesses but how journalists frame them as ridiculous, pie-in-the-sky claims… The idea that students at “elite” campuses (where, by the way, many black students attend not from their parents’ wealth but from Pell grants) are too privileged to be taken seriously is an old canard. When students claim their campus is racist, or culturally insensitive, we should listen …

You end the article with these sentences, which I found striking: “From the outside, Oberlin seems unable to provide dissent in anything like the quality and quantity needed to prepare these young people for the enormous complexity of life in a diverse society, where few defer to claims just because they are expressed in the language of social justice. Is that how it looks from the inside, too?”

Yes. That is exactly what it looks like from the inside. And students are very aware of this problem. Although the “radical left” students are the most vocal, many of us (and many of them) recognize that the lack of political diversity on campus is concerning. It makes our arguments weak and it prevents us from honing our claims against the grindstone of critical opposition.

I’m only one alumnus, and others may feel differently, but what I would emphasize is that there is a lively debate, both in and outside of Oberlin, about how to find the balance between idealism and pragmatism, zeal and diplomacy. When articles like yours appear online, we discuss them at length—and there is plenty of disagreement. I can only hope that journalists will take it seriously, and view it as a sign of deliberative democracy rather than the thoughtless churning out of liberal sentiment.

An Oberlin senior writes:

Really, this is about much more than food. It’s about the myth of multiculturality that our school likes to perpetuate, but fails to enact. Here’s an example regarding the serving of beef in recognition of Diwali: on the surface, this looks like an attempt to make Hindu students feel welcome. However, by using beef, they served a dish that Hindu students could not eat. By doing this, our dining services showed that they are not concerned with serving authentic food to Indian students, but instead with branding our dining hall and institution as multicultural.

Its reflective of a tendency to value the foods of other cultures while rejecting the people of that culture.

That’s a problem.

Ignorance of Hindu dietary restrictions strikes me as a far more likely explanation for the misstep of dining hall workers than “rejecting” the culture of Hindu students. I don’t understand the impulse to frame matters in a way that presumes that others are acting in the most hostile way possible when odds are against that interpretation.

The senior continues:

In response to your quote from Freddie de Boer: No one is berating the underpaid workers. In fact better benefits for dining hall workers have been the subject of recent protests. You didn’t include this in your article. Instead, complaints have been directed towards the management level.

I should have mentioned that some student activists have called for better treatment of dining hall workers. And de Boer did mention that in his commentary. However, I think the students who insist that they are targeting the corporation that runs the dining halls at Oberlin without affecting the workers preparing their food are naive about the likely effect of students complaining that they’re being served incompetently prepared fare that has been offensively named.

A 1970 graduate believes that the college should just stop trying to serve ethnic fare because it will only upset people when the cooks inevitably get various things wrong:

The dilemma of a college food service trying to be all things to all people seems a modern one.  My vague memory of Obie food back in the day was that it was decent American food.  There weren’t many attempts to be multi-cultural.  I knew some of the food service workers at the time.  The meals were prepared by cooks, not chefs.  The one constant is that college students always, always complain about the food. My daughter’s a sophomore in college and she complains about the food.  Venturing too far afield from the cuisine food service cooks have mastered … is an invitation to insult, and complaint.  Rather than cook Indian, or Thai, or Japanese food badly, I just wouldn’t go there.

Another correspondent explains why people who go to Oberlin tend to pick fights over seemingly small matters––and defends that inclination as laudable and salutary:

I graduated from Oberlin with majors in English and Dance in 1997. I was inspired and emboldened by recruitment and admissions materials that were glossy black, with an image of earth in the center. The text above the satellite image read, “Think One Person Can Change the World? So Do We.” Oberlin is a small campus.The student population hovers below 3,000. The insularity makes it such that potential injustices or oversights do both seem and become worth fighting for. This is inspiring. It can also mean that these issues can seem too big, too immediate, to be rational or appropriately reflective. But I would rather see students’ risk overreacting for the sake of what feels right, than dissipate their political awareness in humility—and I say that while NOT agreeing with all of Oberlin students’ missions, including the embrace of BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) against Israel.

While the reactions may read to some as knee-jerk self indulgence, I gather they are a sincere response to approaching the cafeteria serving line, and––despite the names of the dishes being served––feeling on some level miscounted, anonymous, voided. Oberlin is not only the kind of place where this can be expressed, but where there is the latent promise that dialogue about how we understand and interact with one another is viable. While it may seem small, or entitled, it is also within the promise of the campus to consider that small things can resonate largely, because values systems translate from what is on the plate to more impactful levels of global discourse, outside of the dining hall.

A former Oberlin dining hall worker takes a dim view of today’s students and wants to give them a taste of their own medicine:

As a teenager, I worked in the food service area of the college.  The staff members were overwhelmingly black.  I doubt that’s changed.  How dare these privileged college snobs complain about food prepared by oppressed minorities? Administration should forced these students to attend sensitivity sessions until they learn to respect other cultures.  And hire another administrator to oversee the program. That’s the way it’s done at Oberlin.

A 1998 grad who worked in the dining hall isn’t quite so down on the student protestors, but is annoyed:

Students really do care about food, and they also really care about oppression. They’re not insincere, but they can be annoying … When I worked in the dining halls, employees were either students on work study or adults from the community. Most of these adults were low-income African Americans …

There’s something I find deeply irritating about mostly privileged students whining about how the dining hall staff isn’t preparing the sushi with the same reverence as a Japanese chef. There also seems to be very little understanding of how much it costs to serve food on a large scale, and how the changes students are seeking will inevitably impact tuition. None of this means Oberlin can’t make improvements. But students have to recognize that dining halls have limitations, and that sometimes bad sushi is just bad sushi.

The next correspondent feels that the college is in crisis:

I’m a current Oberlin student.

Sadly, academic merit, deep history, and dedicated faculty aside, it seems the only thing we’re known for these days is being the target of ridicule from The New York Post and others. First and foremost I wanted to thank you for writing an article that treated us like people, not children. But the story of Oberlin in 2015 is much more than the small, incredibly loud, socially conscious minority that drives mainstream opinion here.

Oberlin is a campus in crisis.

A week ago, a petition was posted by the Black Student Union that was rightfully criticized for being utterly ridiculous. It included such demands as the renaming of buildings, admissions quotas for black students, an increased number of exclusive safe spaces, and free classes for town residents, among others. They also demanded the alteration of several meals served in African Heritage House, which the New York Post included in their article. The administration responded to these demands by revoking Bill Cosby’s honorary diploma. The (public) Google doc containing the signatures was unfortunately posted anonymously to 4chan and vandalized with racist language/imagery and a threat to the auditorium, although it was never specified which one. The next day there was an increased police presence on campus and a protest on one of our quads in which white students formed a barrier around black students. Students groaned on Facebook as to why the food incident was being reported on but this was not.

My greatest disappointment about the reality of Oberlin is its failure to recognize differing opinions. As upsetting as these online threats were, I and others understand that they were radical, extreme, anonymous threats with little reason to send the campus into the frenzy that they did.

Of course racists hate us, of course they want us killed, but I hold the belief that it’s only then that we need to be bigger than them and maybe not stoop to their level. Of course I never voiced this opinion outside of a small group of friends. It truly would have been social suicide and I would have been labeled the racist, cisgender, heterosexual white man that I am. The complaints about the food on the other hand were maybe valid on a certain level but were completely ill-intentioned and alarmist on behalf of those students. That’s why as a proud Oberlin student I am completely split on where I stand on these issues.

It is enraging to see how we are depicted in The New York Post, but still there’s truth to it. It still baffles me trying to come to terms with how we can be ranked so highly as an academic institution, with some of the best professors in the country and some of the most brilliant young minds, but also stoop so low as to engage in petty complaints about the ingredients in our campus food while a number of students scrub dishes in our kitchens to desperately try to alleviate some of the burden of debt.

Another alum blames consumerism for the food protests:

As a 2001 graduate of Oberlin, I have lately begun to cringe whenever my alma mater makes headlines. I guarantee you that the students are perfectly serious in their intent. Think about it: approximately $60,000 buys one year of classes, housing, and dining at Oberlin, placing the student in the highest tier of American educational consumers.

Given this, why should they not place demands—substantive, banal, and yes, even ridiculous—on the very system that so gleefully accepts their tuition checks? Look, I co-oped all four years at Oberlin. I ate my tofu, protested financial aid policies, and generally did all the usual things that one did at Oberlin. But you know what I didn’t do? I didn’t dream that campus dining was ever trying to be authentic (even if they said they were) when serving Asian, Italian, or any other kind of food. You know what you’re getting with campus dining. To pretend otherwise is just stupid. And to appropriate the language of social justice as a tool with which to badger folks working in the service industry is just cruel.

The next correspondent feels that the problem is that critics of Oberlin students just don’t understand the social justice concepts that would help them to see reality:

I’m emailing you just to explain some of the reasoning behind some of the complaints. Cultural appropriation is the “adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of a different culture.” At Oberlin people take cultural appropriation very seriously. For example, at a school sponsored event a few months ago students were outraged by the presence of henna tattoos. Giving people henna tattoos would be an example of cultural appropriation because it trivializes a traditional act by another culture. I think that people were trying to bring attention to the lack of appreciation for other culture’s foods when they’re reduced to just another thing on the dining hall’s menu. CDS in general has done a poor job of giving other cultures dishes the recognition they deserve. Bahn Mi and sushi are both traditional dishes from cultures that are not our own, so, if prepared at all, they should be prepared in a manner that gives the dish the respect it deserves. People don’t usually think about food as something that deserves respect, but food is reflective of the heart of different cultures. I identify as religiously and culturally Jewish and I would be offended if someone prepared a traditional Seder plate incorrectly at some time other than Passover. This would de-sanctify the religious meal of Passover and reduce it to just another quotidian meal.

Food plays a large part in people’s cultural background and I agree that it is wrong to prepare traditional foods incorrectly. Cooking a traditional dish with improper ingredients and using incorrect method demeans the culture of those who hold those dishes dear. I hope you read this and at least gain a bit of understanding about why students were upset about the quality and nature of food they were being served.

As best as I can tell, most critics of the Oberlin students are well aware of the rationale set forth in the email above, but reject many of its premises as wrongheaded.

An Oberlin freshman is shocked by the climate at the college:

I’m a freshman at Oberlin College. My first semester at Oberlin was interesting to say the least. I’m a liberal, politically active kid from [very liberal city].  I didn’t expect the atmosphere at Oberlin to be much different from the one I’ve been used to for the past 18 years. I was mistaken.

Not everyone at Oberlin is a lunatic. Yet the most radical students are by far the loudest so it seems like Oberlin is way more radical than it actually is. I hadn’t even heard about the food thing until I got home for break and saw Oberlin students sharing a Fox News article about food appropriation.  But there have been many heated discussions (via Yik Yak, an anonymous iPhone app for instance) regarding similar issues. For instance, a couple months ago, there was this big debate about whether Henna is cultural appropriation.  When these discussions come up, I, along with the other smart Oberlin kids, don’t get involved.

The reason is that the radical vocal minority is quick to ostracize anyone who disagrees with them. This is why I would ask that if you would like to quote me on anything, you keep it anonymous. The far left radicals are as bad as equally radical right wingers. Although I agree politically on almost all issues, their inability to tolerate people with different views is absurd. They tend to not focus enough on reaching a goal but instead on having a strong reaction.  I feel frustrated when I think about my school because I know that if I were to do something like share the Fox News article and make fun of my school, I would get disparaged on Facebook.

Oberlin students responded to these articles by complaining that they detracted from the big issue now at Oberlin, the ABUSUA petition. This petition was created so that black students could demand certain changes to address issues at Oberlin. I agreed with many of these issues but I didn’t sign the petition because some of it was completely unrealistic. And it demanded that certain teachers be fired without giving enough explicit info about their supposed wrongdoing. On Yik Yak, many people were against the petition but no one said anything against it in public.

This is because it became abundantly clear that to critique the petition would be racist.  Any dissenters are called racists by the vocal minority which completely shuts down conversation. This is a very long winded email but I hope to convey some of my uncertainties about my new school. I think these issues have become apparent in many liberal arts schools. If you have any specific questions for me, I would be happy to answer them. But again, I wish to remain anonymous for obvious reasons.

Finally, a reader who neither attended nor worked at Oberlin remarks from afar:

The most valuable thing I learned in college was that (aside from a few close friends and family members) nobody in the real world cares what happens to me. They don’t care where I’m from, what my dreams are, if I’m happy, or even if I’m fed or clothed. It was a hard lesson, but a formative one. It’s important to know that. The idea that a college administrator would care that I’m satisfied with, or at least not offended by food choices is an idea that I have literally never considered before.

My mind is blown.

I worked in a college cafeteria. The people who prepare the food are trying to get through their shift. They are assembling pre-packaged ingredients according to standard protocols. They are quite uninterested in who eats the food, or how they feel about it, or even if they like it. There is no scheme to appropriate culture. They are indifferent to culture. I don’t doubt that the students are offended, and I don’t mean to minimize their feelings. It’s just hard for me to relate to their demands.

The Rise of Urban Public Boarding Schools

WASHINGTON—The founding Monument Academy teachers and staff knew that running a 24-hour school for children who’ve survived trauma and violence would be difficult.

They just didn’t know how difficult.

“It was chaotic,” said Emily Bloomfield, the school’s founder and CEO, recalling the first few weeks of class last summer. “There was a lot of fighting … a lot of cursing, a lot of running around.”

The 40 fifth-graders who started in August at this unusual new charter school in northeast Washington include children in foster care or at risk of entering the foster-care system. Some live in homeless shelters. Some have seen or experienced domestic violence or abuse. Some have grieved painful losses. And some have changed schools or been suspended or expelled so many times that they’re significantly behind their peers, both academically and emotionally.

The Hechinger Report

That means students as old as 12 are reading at a kindergarten or first-grade level or exhibiting behaviors like thumb-sucking that are typically seen in much younger children.

When the students moved into their new “home,” their fragile emotions collided, staffers said.

“They fed off each other,” Bloomfield recalled. “There were a couple of kids who were really in crisis and when you have a child in crisis, and by that I mean, really, totally unregulated, melting down, behaving very dangerously, it’s a trigger for many other kids and their anxiety level goes up and their behavior goes up.”

Furniture went flying. Fights broke out. Police were called and ambulances were summoned to take kids to psychiatric hospitals. One child who had been accustomed to roaming the streets alone at night brought a fake gun to school for protection. And some staffers started to wonder if they would find a way to make it work.

But Monument’s founders had designed a secondary school that will eventually educate fifth- through 12th-graders using every tool they could find that’s been proven to work for kids who’ve experienced trauma. They scheduled yoga and meditation classes in the daily curriculum. They hired as many therapists as teachers—four of each—to take on the serious mental health issues that went largely neglected in students’ previous schools. And, most significantly, they took advantage of an unusual quirk in Washington, D.C.’s education law that offers extra funding to schools that provide housing to their students.

That makes this school extremely unusual in American education: It’s a free, urban public boarding school for kids who need extra attention.

* * *

Urban public boarding schools themselves are not new.

The SEED School in Washington opened in 1998 to give kids from struggling neighborhoods access to the kind of rigorous college prep boarding schools that were once available only to the nation’s wealthiest families.

SEED has generated controversy for its expensive model. It spends about three times more per pupil than a typical Washington charter school. The school has also been criticized for a high attrition rate since last year’s graduating class of 29 was much smaller than the 80 students who won the lottery seven years earlier to enter the rigorous “no excuses” sixth-through-12th-grade program. Students transferred to other schools for a variety of reasons, the school said.

But SEED has clearly gotten results. A 2012 study by the Harvard economist Roland Fryer compared students who were admitted to the school through its annual lottery to those who applied but didn’t get in. The study found that admitted kids not only had significantly higher math and reading scores, they also seemed to have better life prospects—a 3.8 percent increase in future earnings for every year spent at SEED, 1 to 1.3 percent decrease in the probability that the child will commit a crime, and a 4.4 percent decrease in the likelihood of the child developing a health disability.

“Urban boarding schools are expensive,” the study concludes, but the “implied benefits are enormous.”

Fryer cautions, however, that the school’s oldest students are still too young to draw conclusions about whether SEED’s impact will affect students’ lives into adulthood. “Whether or not the total benefits of attending SEED outweigh the costs can be known with the passage of time,” he wrote.

SEED has been featured on “60 Minutes,” visited by President Obama, and celebrated in the movie Waiting for Superman. It opened a second campus in Baltimore for students from across Maryland in 2008.

Now, the newest urban public boarding schools—including Monument and the latest SEED campus in Miami—seem to be taking the model a step further, using the round-the-clock structure to serve even needier children.

Monument is specifically gearing its curriculum to children in foster care and those who are trauma survivors while SEED-Miami is required by Florida law to set aside a third of its seats for children who’ve received services from the child-welfare system. Students can’t even apply to SEED-Miami unless they fall into one of five categories of children who have traditionally struggled to graduate. That includes foster youth, children with incarcerated parents, and kids whose families receive public housing assistance.

Eric Adler, one of SEED’s founders, said the unusual admissions criteria were spelled out in the Florida law that established the Miami school, but he stressed that students in Miami are not significantly different from those in Washington or Baltimore.

SEED has always served kids facing serious challenges—as should any school with such a high price tag, Adler said. “What would be the point of lavishing these resources in [wealthy] upper northwest Washington?” he asked. “We are aiming to deploy these resources on kids for whom we believe they will make the most difference.”

Bloomfield said she was inspired to create the Monument Academy after trying to help some relatives who had taken custody of two grandchildren with learning and emotional challenges. The relatives weren’t sure they could care for the children but when Bloomfield started looking into what might happen to them if they entered the foster system, she found alarming statistics: Roughly half of foster youth don’t graduate from high school, only 20 percent enroll in college, and just 2 to 4 percent earn a college degree by age 26. Foster youth are also statistically more likely than their peers to end up homeless, pregnant, or in jail.

Though Bloomfield served on a school board in California and was on Washington D.C.’s public charter-school board, she had never considered starting her own school, she said. Her background is in economics and public administration but the more she learned about what helps foster youth beat those overwhelming odds—things like a stable, quality education and the presence of caring, consistent adults—the more she wanted to build a school that would serve the needs of these neediest kids.

* * *

Experts on treating children with emotional issues will be watching closely to see if a public boarding-school model is something that could work in other districts to help foster youth, homeless kids, and other trauma survivors.

Some experts, like Susan Cole, the director of the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative, will be watching very skeptically. “I know it’s well meant but it does raise concern that we may be harkening back to the old days when ‘troubled kids’ were sent to special homes or schools and excluded from mainstream classrooms,” said Cole, whose organization advocates for children who’ve endured difficult circumstances.

Some studies have shown that as many as two-thirds of American children in a random sample group experienced at least one traumatic event by age 16, and 13 percent experienced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.  Cole worries that if schools like Monument and SEED-Miami proliferate, it might give typical schools an excuse to neglect students who’ve endured personal challenges.

“It could be great when done well but it could also send a message to some schools that says: ‘You don’t have to have supports and services for students in foster care or homeless students. You can send them away,’” Cole said.  “That would be very troubling.”

But Bloomfield and her crew say typical schools are stretched too thin to give kids like their students the help they need. “I don’t think it’s because they don’t care. I’ve worked in those schools, too,” said Monument’s principal, Marlene Magrino. “It’s that they don’t have the resources. They weren’t built and structured around providing resources for that particular student or multiple students who are in that space.”

In many districts across the country, kids with difficult home lives act out in school and are treated as discipline problems. They’re suspended, expelled, or banished to a special-education classroom where they won’t disrupt mainstream kids.

“Many children who end up getting into disciplinary problems … are kids who have a significant history of adverse childhood experience and resulting trauma,” said Christopher Blodgett, whose CLEAR Trauma Center at Washington State University works with schools to help them respond more sensitively to children recovering from trauma.

In some cases, when behavior becomes extreme, communities set up residential treatment programs where children are assigned by the criminal-justice or social-service systems. San Diego County in California opened what it calls the nation’s first residential education campus for foster youth in 2001. The San Pasqual Academy is part school and part foster-care group home.

But Monument is not a treatment facility or group home. No one is assigned to the school or placed there by social workers. Kids live with their parents or guardians on the weekend and at school the rest of the week.

Bloomfield recruited this year’s applicants by spreading the word to social-service agencies, homeless shelters, and organizations that work with high-risk kids and, as is required of all Washington charter schools, used a lottery for admissions.

Then, she applied TLC.

“At any school that I’ve worked in except for this one, my students have been the bad kids or the stupid kids, and that’s kind of how the whole school community views them,” said Julia Ellis, Monument’s special-education teacher. “That is not happening here … These are the students that need the most love, and I think this is the place that gives them the most love.”

In designing Monument, Magrino and Bloomfield said they’ve been careful to avoid the pitfalls of some of history’s failed special-education schools—the ones that isolated so-called “troubled kids.”

Magrino cited studies that suggest that putting kids with emotional issues in segregated schools or classrooms can create problems. The students tend to clash with each other and lack the positive role models they would find in mainstream classrooms.

“Putting all these kids in the same school or in the same class without appropriate skill building or supports is absolutely a bad idea because there’s nobody modeling what you should be doing and nobody filling in gaps in skills,” Magrino said. “The difference here is we have a well-being team that’s the same size as our teaching team and every kid’s getting therapy. We have positive action every day where they’re being taught explicitly social and emotional skills. We have them living here to stabilize some of what goes on in the evening and we have exceptional, really small classes … We’ve built the school on research around what helps kids become independent and successful.”

A few months after opening, the school still is struggling with behavior issues.

Recently in a science and math class, two teachers spent the first 30 minutes trying to settle the class as one girl wrote on her arm, another pulled her desk down into her lap, a third shoved construction paper cards she’d made for her boyfriend under the door into the hallway, and a fourth stood on a sofa doing a dance move that resembled twerking.

The teachers refused to start class until every student—they were all girls since the school is experimenting with separating sexes in most classrooms to reduce conflicts—had written an apology to me (a reporter) and an administrator who were watching the class.

One student apologized “for acting like im a animal,” spelling that last word “anmial,” and decorating the note with a picture of a dog. (Apology letters are a common form of discipline at the school since they help focus kids on the fact that others are affected by their behavior.)

But despite tough mornings like that, staffers say they see progress.

When one boy cussed out Magrino, the principal, later that day and ran to the door during a house meeting, she called this an improvement. A few weeks earlier that boy would have knocked over furniture and left the room, she said. This time, he stood at the door, simmering, until he was able to control his rage and come back to the group.

“That was a win,” Magrino said later.

* * *

At Monument, students live together in brightly painted apartments from Sunday night until Friday evening.

The additional time provided by the 24-hour model lets the school push some activities—like health class—into student homes at night so there’s more time during the day for academics and therapeutic interventions. Some students also receive therapy or counseling during evening hours.

The boarding model also provides more consistency and stability, making it worth the extra costs, Bloomfield said. Her school received a $400,000 startup grant from Next Generation Learning Challenges, she added, which supports school innovation, and $250,000 from the Walton Family Foundation, a grant that will help hire additional staff now to prepare for the school’s expansion to sixth grade next year, then seventh the year after.

The school is also raising funds to help cover the cost of reconfiguring the former Washington public school into a campus with classrooms on one side, apartments on the other, and a recreation area on the roof.

Going forward, Bloomfield says she expects to spend roughly $48,000 per student per year. That’s about three times more than typical Washington charter schools, but her school gets more money from the district because 55 percent of its students receive special-education services.

The expense is why schools like Monument and SEED aren’t likely to expand quickly across the country. Efforts by educators and advocates in Buffalo, Detroit, Chicago, and other cities to create public boarding schools haven’t moved much beyond the idea stage.

Advocates in Ohio went so far as to get state laws changed to open a SEED campus in Cincinnati or Cleveland but funding and politics have so far failed to come together.

Still, Adler says he continues to hope that schools like his—which supporters say save money in the long run since graduates become taxpayers instead of criminals or welfare recipients—will someday open in every city in the country. “It works and it changes lives,” he said.

At Monument, students learn to cook and set the table in apartments called “houses,” where bunk beds are separated from the living room by a series of sliding doors. Students have long lists of chores—scrubbing toilets, making beds, mopping up—and gather as a family for breakfast, saying a blessing before digging into their oatmeal and tea. At dinner, the students in one of Monument’s four houses write what they’re thankful for on colorful strips of paper and put them in a jar. Students are graded on how they behave at home as well as in the classroom but they have fun too, they say.

“Last night we watched a movie, ate popcorn, and we was over with our stuffed animals playing games,” one 11-year-old girl told me during a visit to the school in November.

That girl, who the school asked not to identify by name, lives in the Monument house supervised by houseparents Paul and Joy Langmaid. The Langmaids’ house includes 10 girls, the couple’s own infant daughter, and a friendly golden retriever named Midas. The girls vie for the daily “No Drama Queen” award that gives them the right to hold Midas’ leash when the house heads to the other side of the school each morning to exercise in the gym before class. The “No Drama Queen” winner also gets to select music for the house’s morning dance party, and anyone who wins three days in a row will get a pedicure and foot massage from Joy Langmaid. The award goes to the girl who best distinguishes herself in class and at home—one of many ways the living and learning environments are intertwined here.

“We’ve seen a lot of growth in the kids. The beds are relatively made. They’re waking up on time,” said Paul Langmaid, 33, who, with his wife, previously worked as a houseparent at the Milton Hershey School in Pennsylvania.

The wealthy Hershey School, a free private boarding school for low-income students, is one of the schools Bloomfield visited as she prepared to open Monument—but it’s hard to apply the lessons of a private school with a $9 billion endowment to a public urban start-up. Houseparents here don’t have the extensive support system they have in Hershey, Paul Langmaid said, but Monument is starting to show some results. “You can go through school now and there’s kids not running all over in the hall,” Langmaid said.

The Hershey school has been supportive of Monument. The storied academy even sent two of its longtime employees, Karen and Allen Brown, to work at Monument for a year while on Hershey’s payroll. The couple, both 59, are pitching in however they can, from filling in as houseparents to preparing food and fixing doors. “I was very shocked by the violence and outbursts we saw in the beginning,” Karen Brown said. “But it’s gotten much better as the kids have gotten consistency and gotten used to it.”

The school has a long way to go before it provides the kind of stable education that a well-resourced school like Hershey does, but if Bloomfield and her crew can figure out a way to help their students on a public school budget, they might be on to something, Allen Brown said.

In seven years, the Browns say they hope to come back and proudly watch this year’s fifth-graders accept their diplomas and get ready to move on to college or careers. The school plans to add a grade every year until this year’s inaugural class reaches graduation.

“Sometimes I look at these kids and I hear some of their stories and I feel like Emily Bloomfield is kind of Santa Claus,” Allen Brown said. “She’s landed on the island of misfit toys to help them. It’s a very challenging task to bring these kids up to that place where they need to be … but there are dedicated people, doing hard work.”

This post appears courtesy of The Hechinger Report.

No Child Left Behind Is Gone, But Will It Be Back?

For years, there has been talk of leaving the 2002 “No Child Left Behind” law—the first real attempt by the federal government to hold schools accountable for helping all students learn—behind. 2015 is the year it finally happened. But the story of why NCLB ultimately failed may also tell the tale of why the legislation now standing in its stead might, too.

First, though, a quick review of the rise and fall of NCLB: Although “NCLB” began its life as a much-revered, bipartisan effort with something for almost everyone to love, it ended up having something for almost everyone to hate.


NCLB, the most recent version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, was preceded by the Improving America’s Schools Act. Under that law, high-quality teaching and learning were not prevalent in all schools, and achievement gaps persisted, leading to agreement that a greater federal role for accountability was necessary—from which NCLB was born. NCLB authorized 45 programs in 10 different areas, but public debate tended to focus on the law’s testing, accountability, and teacher-quality requirements. NCLB required that students be tested in the subjects of English language arts (ELA) and math in grades three through eight and once in high school, and for states to use the results to assess how well schools were meeting “adequate yearly progress” goals for student proficiency in these subjects. Schools that consistently did not meet these goals overall, or for subgroups of students, were targeted for interventions, and eventually for sanctions. Additionally, recognizing the important role teachers play in student learning, the law strove to ensure that every student have a “highly qualified teacher” (HQT), as based on teacher credentials in the grade and subject area taught.

The popular narrative is that NCLB failed at least in part because each of these aspects of the law resulted in real issues. Testing took on an outsized role in schools, and the focus on math and ELA began pushing out electives, like art. Many of the suggested interventions for schools identified as needing improvement were more like a machete than a knife, such as replacing all of a school’s staff (although few schools chose this option). And even teachers who were still working toward certification were deemed “highly qualified,” making the HQT provision largely toothless.

As a result of these issues, many agreed that NCLB needed to be replaced. But that didn’t mean that members of Congress and the White House could agree on what should replace it. First up for reauthorization in 2007, NCLB continued to be the acting law of the land until 2012 when states began to loudly voice concerns about NCLB’s most daunting ultimatum: that 100 percent of students be proficient in ELA and math by 2014, a goal that was clearly becoming unachievable. In response, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan provided many states “waivers” from NCLB, with major conditions for instituting college- and career-ready standards, rigorous teacher evaluation systems, and school rating and accountability systems.

Many members of Congress believed the Secretary greatly overstepped his authority in putting conditions on states’ waivers, and some were furious. Republicans in particular were motivated to put a law in place that strips authority from the Secretary and put it in the hands of states. And, in what would seem like a perfect storm for replacing NCLB, the traditionally Democratic-leaning teachers’ unions also wanted to devolve control back to the states, in an effort to relieve “high-stakes” federal pressure on teachers.

But the Secretary’s actions may have actually pushed the anti-federalist Tea Party wing of the Republican party, some of whom want the federal Department of Education fully dismantled, further away from voting for any bill the President would sign. Meanwhile,some civil rights groups wanted to ensure that strong school accountability systems were a federal requirement. 2014 came and went, and Congress could not come to agreement.

Then, a series of unexpected events occurred. First, on the Democratic side, two key players on the House and Senate Education Committees who supported a strong federal role for school and teacher accountability decided to retire. This brought new voices into the mix that were more sympathetic to the teachers’ unions agenda. Second, amidst pushback from the Tea Party for being too open to bipartisan compromise, the Republican speaker of the House—a key architect of NCLB—suddenly announced he was stepping down and retiring as soon as a replacement was chosen. All of this took place against the backdrop of the upcoming 2016 elections, and anxiety about which party would be in power the next time NCLB was revisited. The perhaps counterintuitive (and, to many, unexpected) result was that all stakeholders—including the Obama administration, which exceedingly wanted to pass a bipartisan Elementary and Secondary Education Act into law—came together to cut back, though not gut, the federal role in education.

The result? The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Signed into law by President Obama last week, ESSA was a much congratulated, bipartisan effort. But was so was NCLB. Will ESSA fare better?

Under ESSA, states still must test students in grades three through eight and once in high school and use test results to inform their assessment of schools’ performance. And states are still required to break out school performance by student demographic subgroups, and intervene in schools where specific subgroups of students are chronically performing extremely poorly. But ESSA allows states to develop their own school accountability rating systems, providing only rough guidelines for how to identify schools in need of improvement. Also, ESSA limits the number of schools states must target for improvement and expects local school districts to step in and help struggling schools. States must only step in if districts are unsuccessful in helping schools improve. And while that’s all actually quite similar to what states with NCLB waivers are doing now, under ESSA, there is no requirement that states put teacher accountability and improvement systems in place, though they have the option to do so.

The Bloated Rhetoric of No Child Left Behind’s Demise

Even with all of these differences, ESSA could fail students, and the nation, for similar reasons as NCLB. Because, despite the dominant narrative, much of the pushback to NCLB came because the law actually succeeded, in part, at doing what it was intended to do: identify and intervene in schools that were not helping students achieve overall, as well as those with large disparities in outcomes among different student subgroups, and bring urgency to the need to improve in these instances. An alternative narrative could be that the real issue with NCLB was that chronically failing schools were that way for a reason: They didn’t know how to improve, and the interventions mandated still provided wide latitude in how to do so (“some other major change” was an allowable strategy). And while it acknowledged the critical role that teachers play in student and school success through HQT and school interventions targeted at replacing the teaching force, it did not directly attempt to improve the quality of teaching. That would have required training educators on how to analyze more fine-grained data on student and teacher performance, setting related goals, and putting coherent systems in place to support educator growth in targeted areas. NCLB identified what schools had to be, but that didn’t mean that schools knew how to be that.

Under ESSA, it’s no more likely that schools will know how to improve, or that they will focus on improving the quality of teaching. And despite states’ best intentions, there are fewer incentives to do so. For example, in schools with big achievement gaps between different groups of students, but no subgroup is performing horrendously on state tests, schools must develop an improvement plan and districts must step in if no real improvements are made. But if the “majority” of students are doing well, schools, teachers, and the larger community may be perfectly content to stick with business as usual. If the community is content, districts will have little interest in butting in, and there’s no requirement for the state to do so. As such many may be perfectly happy with the more lax ESSA, and its tenets may live on in future federal education laws.

However, education watchdog groups and civil-rights groups have pledged to keep tabs and take action if it seems students are still being “left behind.” In all of these ways, ESSA is not so dissimilar to the version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that preceded NCLB, the Improving America’s Schools Act. Will ESSA take a similar trajectory, leading us back to consensus that a federal role is required to keep some states from walking back from holding schools and educators to high standards, and intervening when schools fail to meet them? 2016 will be a transition year between NCLB and ESSA; the following year, ESSA will be in full effect. And the years thereafter will tell if this experiment worked, or if this country is still leaving our students behind.

This post appears courtesy of New America.

Why Aren’t Costa Rica’s Indigenous Students Graduating?

TALAMANCA, COSTA RICA — In a globalized society where people are buried in phones, computers, and tablets, the quiet calm of Costa Rica’s Yorkín River evokes a sense of simpler times. The only disruption comes from the roar of a motor. The sound sputters from mechanized canoes that carry food, supplies, and passengers upstream to the village of Yorkín, a community of 280 indigenous Bríbri people nestled against the Panamanian border.

Recently, the boats began carrying something new to the hard-to-reach community: cellphones.

The Bríbri are referred to as the “hidden people” of Costa Rica. It’s only been in recent decades that economic necessity has led the historically isolated community into developed areas of Talamanca, the province in which they live. This contact has exposed Yorkín to an unprecedented amount of information—and not all of it is welcomed. The rise of technology in Costa Rican society is the cause of mounting concern among some local community leaders as the next generation of Bríbri spend more time on their cellphones than with their school books. And the tech phenomenon may be having an unanticipated effect on the community: Many locals, academics, and activists suspect it helps explain why Yorkin’s high school hasn’t had a graduation ceremony in several years.

The last ceremony took place in 2010, when 12 students received their high-school diplomas. Since then, mobile phones have increased while graduating students have decreased. It appears that a combination of factors, including the influx of technology, high rates of poverty, and the Bríbri culture itself are contributing to the low graduation rates. According to UNICEF, in 2012, the typical indigenous child in Costa Rica attended school for an average of 3.4 years total, after which many of them dropped out; the average time spent in school nationwide is 7.6 years. It is a complex issue with which community leaders and experts alike are grappling.

Rolando, a high-ranking community leader in Yorkín, believes that technology use plays a significant role in the falling numbers of high-school graduates. “Sometimes when I take my lunch at noon… I see the students in classes using their phones, not using time wisely for classes,” Rolando said in Spanish through a translator. “They are just distracted with the devices.” He paints a startling dichotomy, but one not hard to find within Yorkín’s dense jungle. It’s increasingly common to see groups of four or five teenagers trudging through the muddy rainforest, the sound of their footsteps eclipsed by mp3s singing from their pockets. Pierced ears and ball caps cocked to the side are reminiscent of popular American music videos. Some teens want to learn English; others are interested in inking their bodies. None of these ideals are Bríbri.

* * *

Worldwide, laptop and smartphone use in classrooms has risen. Fifty-seven percent of recent college grads around the world used a laptop, tablet, or smartphone in class at least sometimes, according to the Pew Research Center.

Yorkín’s students, however, cannot utilize technology within the classroom. For one, there is no current government program to help cater to the specific needs of indigenous communities so they can learn how to integrate technology into their education system. In addition, there’s no electricity in the school, so a generator has to be fired up before any technology can be used, explained Elizabeth Mitchel, a Peace Corps English teacher in Yorkín.

A dog chases a young Bríbri boy through the Yorkín river. (Rebecca Gibian)

Indeed, indigenous children in Costa Rica face educational obstacles that are very different than those of an urban Costa Rican student. For example, indigenous students suffer from illiteracy rates six times higher than the national average, UNICEF reports: 30 percent of Costa Rica’s indigenous children are illiterate, compared to 4.5 percent of the country’s youth population at large. Some believe the national curriculum is specifically aimed at urban students, and many rural schools have no books for class, the Middlebury Institute reports.

Pamela Araya, a psychology professor in the education department at the University of Costa Rica, thinks poverty has a huge impact on these statistics. “There’s still a large poverty index in Costa Rica, and much of it is in rural communities,” Araya said in Spanish to a translator. “One of the most common reasons [for children leaving school] is the economy.”

education system was implemented nationwide in 1869. Historically, the national curriculum has been a major issue for indigenous students. The logic of the Costa Rican government was that indigenous students needed to assimilate to mainstream society. According to Araya, another goal was to “open up possibilities to people for professional development [and development of technical skills].” As a result, the last two generations of Bríbri students haven’t learned their own language, said Adilia Caravaca, a Costa Rican lawyer and peace activist. They learned Spanish in school like everyone else, and their interest in learning Bríbri declined overall.

42 percent of people across 32 countries say it is a bad influence on morality. Araya believes that Bribri people can potentially harness technology to maintain and even enrich their culture, rather than let devices and exposure erode it. “I think that the indigenous people have the capacity to have this technological platform—to learn how to use it and also, according to their beliefs, choose whether to use it or not,” she said.

But Guevara was more ambivalent: “Technology can be a resource, but it can also take people away from their culture,” he said. “It really depends on the context of how you use it, if the tool is used to help, or not, in developing culture.”

This report was produced with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.