The Other Children of Silicon Valley

January is preschool open-house season, and parents with the wherewithal to be picky have lots of criteria to think about. In Silicon Valley—home to public schools that produce some of the best test scores in California—hoards of moms and dads are likely narrowing down their myriad options as they tour campuses, review guidebooks, and consult with fellow parents. The area reflects the degree to which American parents have become obsessed with ensuring their kids have an academic edge by the time they start kindergarten. It also reflects the growing national reality that the children born to low-income immigrants are typically among the children who get left behind: Close to three-quarters of Silicon Valley’s poor preschool-age kids have at least one foreign-born parent, and thousands of them enter kindergarten without any prior formal education.

Fancy preschools in Silicon Valley abound. There’s Action Day Primary Plus, ranked the area’s No. 1 preschool by Bay Area Parent, whose “Tiny Tot” dance classes, weekend sports programs, and other activities “promote enjoyment and confidence through movement.” There’s Galileo Preschool, “which provides an innovative, project-based learning environment for children” and a curriculum that includes everything from American Sign Language to community service. Or there’s the Children’s World Bilingual Montessori School, where kids are exposed to both English and Mandarin on a daily basis as they learn the decimal system, Chinese culture, gardening, and more. The sticker price for enrolling full time in one of these preschools? $1,365, $1,320, and $1,200 a month, respectively.

These price tags are hardly surprising; private preschool is really, really expensive almost anywhere you go. But they mean that even in the nation’s tech hub, where the poverty rate is significantly lower than the U.S. average, the young children of lower-income parents often miss out on the benefits of early-learning opportunities. According to a recent report from the Urban Institute, Silicon Valley tends to mirror the rest of the United States when it comes to early-education inequality. About three quarters of 3-year-olds from poorer families aren’t enrolled in preschool, but a majority of their wealthier counterparts are. Among 4-year-olds from lower-income families, nearly 40 percent don’t attend preschool, compared to only a fourth of upper-income families. “Even in a place of incredible wealth, we’re finding similar gaps,” said Erica Greenberg, one of the study’s authors.

While the return on investment of prekindergarten education is widely debated, researchers tend to agree that high-quality early-learning experiences are most beneficial for children who are poor or speak English as a second language. These programs often provide stimulating environments that the kids may not otherwise get at home: opportunities to develop broad vocabularies, fine-tune motor skills, and eat more nutritious meals, for example.

What’s most noteworthy about the Urban Institute’s findings is that the kids in Silicon Valley who are missing out on preschool are overwhelmingly from immigrant families. These families aren’t made up of the “highly skilled immigrants” who, as Bloomberg might put it, imported to the area for their brains. The valley has “an unusually large low-income immigrant population,” the report says. This is a population consists primarily of service workers—people who, according to ThinkProgress, “help supply Silicon Valley with housekeepers, janitors, restaurant workers,” and the like.

Silicon Valley’s income inequality is well-documented. According to a June 2015 report by the Silicon Valley Institute for Regional Studies, the median annual income for high-skill, high-wage earners across the region is $119,000—more than four times that of low-skill, low-wage earners. And the inequality manifests itself in the education system in obvious ways. More than half of the low-income children in Silicon Valley have parents with low levels of formal education, according to the Urban Institute report; close to 60 percent only have a high-school degree or less. Meanwhile, public-school teachers are being forced out of their communities because of skyrocketing housing prices. Rich kids in those same neighborhoods pay as much as $400 an hour to consultants to help them get into colleges that are less and less attainable to their poorer classmates.

Less obvious, perhaps, is that the achievement gap in Silicon Valley isolates children who are born to poor immigrants, children who “face the double burden” of being poor and living in households that struggle with “language barriers, a lack of familiarity with U.S. systems, and—among those undocumented and mixed-status families—fear of government institutions,” the report says. (The vast majority of the children in Silicon Valley with immigrant parents—97 percent—are U.S. citizens.)

The percentage of low-income preschool-age children in Silicon Valley who have have immigrant parents exceeds rates seen in urban areas known for their large immigrant populations, such as Miami, Los Angeles, and Houston. And while a majority of Silicon Valley’s low-income immigrants come from Mexico and Central America, a sizable minority come from other parts of the world; parents who’ve immigrated from Vietnam and the Philippines, for example, account for 10 percent of the young low-income children in Santa Clara county.

California for its part spent $1 billion on prekindergarten this past school year, a 12 percent increase from the year before. But these programs involve lots of red tape. And according to Greenberg, the ethnic and linguistic diversity within the poor immigrant population poses significant “logistical challenges,” hampering outreach and efforts to ensure the families are aware of all their early-education options. As the study notes, early-learning programs in the U.S. are funded, organized, and delivered in complex ways, and “subsidies for child-care assistance may be much less well known to this community.”

The Case Against Universal Preschool


Interestingly, Greenberg said that the bureaucratic issues that deter undocumented or mixed-status families from enrolling their children in early-learning programs are why some advocates in the area are pushing for a universal preschool. Universal preschool, in which the government provides prekindergarten for all kids regardless of their ability to pay, has been criticized by some educators and researchers who say the already-limited pre-k funding should be reserved for those with limited means. But in Silicon Valley, according to Greenberg, universal preschool would ensure automatic enrollment; parents likely wouldn’t need to fill out paperwork and provide proof that they fulfill eligibility criteria, and that means fewer barriers to preschool access for undocumented families.

Indeed, cost isn’t the only reason so few low-income immigrant parents put their children in preschool. In some cases, parents simply prefer to care for their kids before they’re old enough to enter kindergarten, whether because of cultural reasons or because of unfamiliarity with U.S. approaches to early learning. In other cases, immigrant parents, especially those who aren’t documented, have a general fear or distrust of government institutions and are wary of signing up for publicly funded programs such as California’s need-based state preschools. “Interactions between and among [these] barriers can compound the difficulties facing low-income immigrant families,” the report says.

The early-education barriers faced by Silicon Valley’s low-income immigrants are typical nationwide: Foreign-born parents throughout the U.S. are less likely to access any type of licensed child care, preschool, or child-care-assistance program for their children than their U.S.-born counterparts. As Silicon Valley works to expand access to early-childhood education, the Urban Institute report concludes, other areas in the country that are witnessing similar demographic might want to pay attention. The outcome may never mean sign-language instruction and Chinese-culture classes for disadvantaged children, but it may mean more opportunities for them to start kindergarten equipped with the basic skills they need to succeed.

A Suspension for Melissa Click

Just days after being charged with assault, Melissa Click, the University of Missouri assistant professor of communications who tried to kick student journalists out of a protest in November, has been suspended by the University.

Following a special board meeting Thursday, the University of Missouri Board of Curators declared Click “suspended pending further investigation.” The board didn’t indicate whether she will be paid or not during her suspension. On Monday, Click was charged with third-degree assault, a misdemeanor to which she has pleaded not guilty.

The Prosecution of Melissa Click


The suspension and charges are both delayed fallout from Click’s actions during the race-related protests at Mizzou in November. Click angered free-speech proponents nationwide when she was filmed telling student journalists to stop documenting a demonstration at the Columbia campus on November 9—the same day the president of the university system and the chancellor of the Columbia campus stepped down. A video shows a debate between student protesters and journalists over First Amendment rights escalating when Click calls for “some muscle” to remove student videographer Mark Schierbecker.

After Schierbecker posted the video online, Click recieved a mountain of angry email, and her “courtesy” affiliation at Mizzou’s school of journalism was revoked. In December, a group of state Republican lawmakers wrote a letter to the university asking that she be fired. In response, a group of more than 100 faculty members wrote a letter supporting her, calling the video “at most a regrettable mistake.”

Just Monday, interim Chancellor Hank Foley said the university would “allow due process to play out” and not rush to a decision regarding Click’s employment or tenure status. At the time, Schierbecker told the AP he was “disappointed” by the announcement.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that Click is due in court in February. Meanwhile, student protests against racial insensitivity on campus inspired by those at Mizzou are happening across the country.

How Rich Parents Can Exacerbate School Inequality


Stewart Cohen / Blend Images / Corbis

I’m a card-carrying member of three parent school associations. I write the weekly newsletter for the special-education parents’ group and help organize social events for disabled kids. But my involvement is minimal compared to the extraordinary efforts by others who raise money for schools in our town. With fundraising skills honed by former careers in business and law, these parents tap into the deep pockets of residents to collect large sums of money, which purchase items as small as a doormat in front of the school for muddy boots to costly gifts, like Chromebooks for every child. These groups also assist those in the community who are less affluent, providing college scholarships and helping create social connections for marginalized families with special-needs children.

But is all this work from parent-school groups—work that is done with the best of intentions—unfairly increasing advantages in already privileged communities? Are my volunteer activities magnifying the differences between rich and poor school districts? Education policy experts disagree about the impact of these groups in schools.

Parents often raise money for their schools through local affiliates of the national Parent Teacher Association or, more commonly, independent parent-teacher organizations. Booster clubs support specific activities at local schools, such as sports teams, raising money for football gear, cultural field trips, and the like. Some towns also establish nonprofit, parent-run foundations, that assist public schools but operate independently from the district. Corporations and individuals receive tax benefits for their donations to these groups.

Clearly, affluent communities have greater financial resources to support their schools. Parents there also have the time and social capital needed to organize elaborate fundraisers and fill out the lengthy legal paperwork required to establish these foundations. With these enormous resources, parents in affluent communities can raise far more money for their schools than parents in other locations.

This extreme fundraising prowess is seen in wealthy communities across the country. Some parents groups at elite public schools in New York City, for example, raise so much money that their schools have earned the nickname “public privates.” School foundations at places like Brooklyn Tech, raise millions to fund science equipment, guest lecturers, and scholarships for summer programs. An elementary school in a wealthy area of Chicago raised $400,000 in one night with an auction that included airfare to vacation homes (while another school in a less-affluent neighborhood raised only $8,000 for the entire year with bake sales and book fairs). The school foundation for Woodside, California, will hold an auction in May that includes six tickets, a makeover, and a limo to a Taylor Swift concert (valued at $3,700), a shopping spree at a jewelry store (valued at $15,000), and a week at a vacation home in the Hamptons (valued at $15,000).

Ashlyn Nelson and Beth Gazley from Indiana University found that the number of parent-led groups raising at least $25,000 annually jumped from 3,500 in 1995 to 11,500 in 2010. These groups collected about $880 million total in 2010. Not surprisingly, these successful groups were concentrated in wealthy communities.

In a 2013 New York Times op-ed, Rob Reich, a professor of political science and education at Stanford and the co-director of the university’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, critiqued the fundraising efforts of parents in wealthy communities. “Charity like this is not relief for the poor. It is, in fact, the opposite,” he wrote. “Private giving to public schools widens the gap between rich and poor. It exacerbates inequalities in financing. It is philanthropy in the service of conferring advantage on the already well-off.” In an interview, Reich told me that wealthy communities often collect millions of dollars not by selling cupcakes at bake sales but by holding auctions with items that include tickets to the Super Bowl. Their proceeds, he contended, purchase items for their school that go far beyond additional niceties, such as lights on the football field, and are connected to the core enrichment of the school district, including science labs, performing arts centers, technology, and additional personnel, ultimately giving these students even more of competitive edge over their peers in poorer neighborhoods.

But Jay P. Greene, a professor of education and political science at the University of Arkansas, said that the money collected by parents is insignificant relative to the total amount spent every year on public schools. According to Greene, who’s written many scholarly articles over the years about philanthropy, most recently contributing a chapter to The New Education Philanthropy: Politics, Policy and Reform, charitable sources, from the Gates Foundation to the local parent-teacher organization, contribute an estimated $2 billion total to public schools annually. When compared to the $600 billion the country spent on K-12 education during the 2013 fiscal year, he noted, the total spending from philanthropy is “buckets into the sea.”

“The millions that the PTAs and foundations raise every years seems like a lot of money,” Greene said, “but in truth, it’s a rounding error.” Greene faulted the media for overestimating the impact of wealthy parents groups, criticizing reporters for sensationalizing $1 million donations and blaming them for causing disparities.

Still, Reich emphasized that the money raised by these groups, however small, is concentrated in certain communities. In his Times op-ed, Reich contrasted the fundraising efforts across school districts in California. He found that parents in the wealthy suburb of Hillsborough, California, raised about $2,300 per student on top of the district’s standard per-pupil allocation. Through online auctions whose items included a vacation on an island off of Belize in a house with a dedicated butler and a trip to see to the final episode of The Bachelor, they financed class-size reductions, librarians, art, and music teachers, along with smart technology in every classroom. In contrast, a foundation in Oakland raised only $100 per child. And, Reich said, parent foundations are nonexistent in most of the country’s poor cities and rural areas.

Reich also pointed out that when wealthy people give money to their town foundations, their tax-deductable donations stay in their own communities. The contributions enhance the schools’ success, which in turn increases the donors’ property value. In other words, the rich receive tax credits for giving money to themselves. “All of us are subsidizing the magnification of inequality in public schools,” he told me. It’s preposterous.”

Parental fundraising activities may even detract from local political activity, too, according to Reich. These highly educated, affluent parents, he said, use their finite energy and wallets to do some something that exclusively benefits their children. As a result, the parents may be less likely to advocate for policy changes that would benefits kids in other school districts, taking away some of their “political voice,” Reich theorized. Instead of going to Trenton or Albany to fight for public schools, they are running the town’s science fair.

Neither Greene nor Reich recommend restricting parents groups as they raise money for their schools. Greene believes that the best way to decrease inequality in schools is to focus on recruiting higher quality teachers to work in disadvantaged school districts, perhaps with higher salaries, while Reich thinks that policy reforms, like eliminating the charitable status of these education foundations, would make this system more fair.

Greene added that preventing parents from raising money for the schools would undermine parents’ connections with their schools. Their fundraising efforts, whether they be bake sales or fancy dinners at a country club, create a reservoir of good feelings for schools. He asked, “do we really want to kill that reservoir?” Besides, if the rich can’t provide their schools with playgrounds and laptops, they’ll send their kids to private schools and opt out of public education all together.

Rather than restricting affluent parents from contributing to their public schools or shaming them for their efforts, perhaps they could be encouraged to think about public education beyond their town boundaries—partnering with schools in less affluent areas and forging a fellowship over time. In better understanding that public education extends beyond the five-mile radius of their communities, parents might be willing to share a portion of their considerable resources and social capital to benefit other kids.

An Easier Way to Enroll in School Lunches

The USDA Food and Nutrition Service has announced a new pilot program for the upcoming school year that hopes to give more children access to the National School Lunch Program.

Under the program, states will use Medicaid data to find qualifying students and directly enroll them for both free and reduced-price meal programs. Under the current system, parents have to go through a cumbersome application process to access the programs, and the paperwork diminishes accessibility.

“Many children who are eligible for free and reduced-lunch meals aren’t enrolled in the program—this is going to help ensure that they receive the benefits, too,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told The Washington Post.

The pilot program will test three key things: whether the program has an impact on including families who are currently not signed up for free or reduced-price lunch; whether it’ll also work for families that are signed up already; and whether it will make a dent in the federal costs of providing school lunches and breakfasts. States must apply and be accepted to the pilot program in order to participate. The White House says the USDA hopes five states will participate in the coming school year, and that the agency is looking to expand to 20 states over the next three school years.

The USDA has high hopes that proving the utility of this program will eventually lead to national adoption. According to the Post, a small version of the program tested in New York City saw a 7 percent increase in enrollment just for free lunches.

Childhood health and nutrition has been a key issue for the Obama administration. In 2010, Obama signed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, which reauthorized and updated federal nutrition programs. And First Lady Michelle Obama has been outspoken about tackling childhood obesity through her Let’s Move program.

This new program is not the only announcement the administration made regarding child hunger on Wednesday. President Obama also announced his 2017 budget will include $12 billion over the next 10 years to extend the Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer for Children (Summer EBT) program, which provides extra benefits during summer months to families whose children get free or reduced-price meals in school. According to the White House, only a fraction of the 22 million students who receive free or reduced-price meals have access to this food source when school is not in session. Summer EBT aims to make sure these children are not under-nourished during the summer months.

This budget item will need to be approved by Congress, while the USDA FNS pilot program will go through as an executive action. Vilsack told the Post he thinks both will have bipartisan support. “It’s pretty hard to position yourself against feeding kids, politically speaking,” he said.

The Man Who Tried to Kill Math in America

The Common Core math standards have been contentious since they were launched several years ago, with many parents taking to social media to complain about their kids getting incomprehensible homework. Kids are now expected, for example, to explain how multiplication works using the “box” and “lattice” methods. These methods take longer, and are harder to master at first, but have been shown by some research to be more effective than the multiply-and-carry method, particularly for kids who have trouble memorizing things. And while they may be new for this generation of parents, they have been around since at least the 13th century.    

The research and philosophy behind the new math standards aren’t new either: They mirror the ideas espoused by the Mathematical Association of America’s National Committee on Mathematical Requirements, which formed in 1916 and put together a plan to reform math education in the United States. Until then, math education consisted of few attempts at helping students reach a deeper understanding. One impetus for reform was that, while the country had become a leader in technological and industrial innovation in the early 20th century, and while more students were taking algebra and geometry than before, many of its schools had yet to be as sophisticated or academically rigorous as those in Europe.

The Reorganization of Mathematics in Secondary Education,” should be familiar to anyone who has pored over the Common Core standards. They encouraged the teaching of algebra concepts as early as the sixth grade. They promoted understanding over rote memorization using practical math applications. They stressed the importance of a solid math education—including in areas like geometry and even trigonometry—for all students, whether they go into engineering or philosophy, college or the workforce.

One of the primary purposes of math education, the authors stated, was “to develop those habits of thought and of action which will make these powers effective in the life of the individual.” But no matter how exhaustive, the report did not bring about the changes for which the committee had hoped.

That initiative gave way to the increasingly popular progressive education-reform movement, which preached that a deeper understanding of math wasn’t practical for most Americans—that the way it was taught didn’t take into account their interests and thus squashed their will to learn. Less math is more, the thinking went. Because this movement won, instead of raising the numeracy of the general public and ensuring it was better equipped to navigate the increasingly sophisticated technology and global economy, American schools allowed an entire generation of students to fall behind mathematically. Because it usually only takes one generation to erase the gains of the previous one, Baby Boomers, Xers, and older Millennials are still nowhere near as numerate as they should be.

And while many helped make this happen, a lot of the blame lies with one well-meaning, extremely influential educator: William Heard Kilpatrick, Columbia University Teachers College’s “million-dollar professor.”

Kilpatrick (who earned his moniker not for his salary but because his packed lectures swelled Columbia’s coffers), had a lot of cult-leader-esque charisma. “At times there did seem to be a mysterious and unexplainable ambience surrounding Kilpatrick as he taught,” writes Kilpatrick’s biographer, the professor and historian John Beineke, in And there were giants in this land: The Life of William Heard Kilpatrick. “He would teach classes at Teachers College with 500 or 600 students in an auditorium, and individuals would speak of feeling as though they were the only ones in the room.” This may explain why, when Kilpatrick told his adoring crowds that “we have in the past taught algebra and geometry to too many, not too few,” they took him seriously. Kilpatrick believed that anything beyond arithmetic was useless to most of the population. He even worried that the instruction of complex math was harmful to everyday living.

He didn’t always feel that way, having studied math at Mercer and Johns Hopkins universities and spending the earlier part of his life as a primary- and secondary-school math teacher and math professor. What made him turn against the subject? Blame a heady mix of social science, including Darwinism and psychology, and a clear distaste for authority of any kind.

Kilpatrick was born in 1871 in White Plains, Georgia, to a Baptist preacher with enough charisma of his own to become one of the state’s most prominent religious leaders. Kilpatrick rejected his father’s faith as a teen, chose a career in math and science, and soon became a professor at his undergraduate alma mater. But academia would offer no respite from religion: In 1906, he was accused of heresy for refusing to affirm his belief in the Virgin Birth, and resigned from Mercer in disgrace.

A year after that, he enrolled as a grad student at Teachers College. The best way to describe how much influence the school had on American education at the time would be to compare education with a major religion, and Teachers College with that religion’s holy city. As Beineke put it, Teachers College, which was established, “had become, even before its 25th anniversary, a Mecca for the study of education.” It was the first academic institution to effectively turn teaching into a profession, and soon after its founding in 1887 attracted the most influential pedagogues of the day. Its faculty included John Dewey, the pioneer of the progressive-education movement, whose mantra espoused “child-led learning,” in which the student, not the teacher, decides what should be learned. In progressive schools, teachers were no longer implacable authority figures, but gentle guides and partners in education.

Kilpatrick soon became Dewey’s closest protege, and as he got deeper and deeper into the progressive philosophy, he set his sights on reforming math education, making it less about building the intellect and more about whether it was needed for everyday living. The best way to do this, he decided, was to also tap into the burgeoning social-efficiency movement endorsed by several colleagues at Teachers College, including Dewey and the psychologist Edward Thorndike. Social-efficiency proponents believed that universal education was a flawed approach in schools because different populations had different needs and intelligence levels.

By 1915, Kilpatrick wielded such influence in education circles that he was asked to head a National Education Association committee tasked by the U.S. Bureau of Education with devising ways to reform math instruction. Its 1920 report, “The Problem of Mathematics in Secondary Education,” became part of a larger treatise on public education that provided a roadmap for America’s schools for decades to come.

Like the MAA’s report, “Problem of Mathematics” encouraged basic algebraic concepts in junior high school and the importance of practical math. But that’s about all the two have in common. The former, which was far more lightweight, stated algebra, geometry, and any higher math was a waste of time for most students. Advanced math, it posited, wasn’t critical for understanding greater life lessons. Such an idea is conservative, it argued:

To the extremist of this school the “faculty of reasoning,” for example, could be trained on any material where reasoning was involved (the more evident the reasoning, the better the training), and any facility of reasoning gained in that particular activity, could, it was thought, be accordingly directed at will with little loss of effectiveness to any other situation where good reasoning was desired. In probably no study did this older doctrine of “mental discipline” find larger scope than in mathematics, in arithmetic to an appreciable extent, more in algebra, most of all in geometry.

The authors’ rejection of math as critical for overall problem-solving ability was based largely on research by Thorndike, the education psychologist, who earlier in the century had conducted a lot of experiments on cats to gauge how animals learn. He would lock cats in rigged boxes, then see if they could figure out how to step on the right lever to get out, and, if they could, if they could do it again and how quickly. Subsequent studies on soldiers during World War I showed that humans, like cats, don’t necessarily improve their ability to solve a problem just because they’ve previously solved lots of problems. The studies suggested that problems are only easier for the soldiers the subsequent time if they’re very similar to problems the soldiers previously solved.

Relying on Thorndike’s findings, the report’s authors warned high schools against offering advanced math to students who didn’t demonstrate great interest or obvious talent in the subject or who didn’t intend to go into engineering or hard science (these students being invariably female). They concluded that there should even be restrictions for the engineers, too; the country’s future bridge or machine designers didn’t need to waste time on math that was too theoretical. The remaining students were essentially limited to arithmetic (although some more-advanced math was suggested for trades such as machinery and plumbing).

While the “Problem of Mathematics” report itself was likely not as influential as the men behind it, what happened in the next two decades is noteworthy. According to the 1970 text Mathematics in the Evolving Schools: A History of Mathematics Education in the United States, the number of students taking algebra and geometry dropped despite growth in high-school enrollment overall. In 1922, 40 percent of American students were taking algebra, and 23 percent were taking geometry. By 1934,  the rates had dropped to 30 percent and 17 percent, respectively. When the United States entered WWII, the military reportedly had to offer enlisted men and officers in all military branches remedial math classes so they could fulfill their duties; many were struggling with tasks as basic as bookkeeping.

Kilpatrick died at the age of 93 in 1965, four years before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon—a feat that relied in part on a good understanding of algebra and geometry. Although his movement’s ideas about math had largely fallen out of favor by then, those belonging to the other camp—the one that espoused deeper understanding—didn’t quite catch on either. Many, if not most, of the country’s schools reverted back to teaching math the way it was taught at the beginning of the century. It wasn’t until a half century later that the opponents’ ideas began to gain traction nationwide, and whether or not they stick is far from clear. In the end, it may all come down to how many parents complain about it on Twitter.  

A Real-Life PC Principal

(Kristian Hammerstad / The Atlantic)

You might be getting tired of this long, rich discussion by now, but reader emails keep pouring in. Below is a final big roundup of email—which has been, on the whole, supportive of the story from Haidt and Lukianoff:

When citizens in a democratic republic like ours are more concerned about whether their speech will cause offense than they are about expressing ideas, they become incapable of fulfilling their obligations as citizens.  They refuse to hear, much less repeat and promote, important ideas for fear that a listener may take offense. Yet, it is precisely these types of ideas—ideas that are outrageous and upsetting when first expressed—that help to keep the Republic alive and free through continuous change.

Let’s be clear. The goal of speech code has nothing to do with feelings.  The goal is power—power to silence dissent and to force conformity and compliance.

Another reader is at his wit’s end:

I am in a graduate program of social work at a fairly “prestigious” university and this PC stuff is killing our education.

Instead of learning skills and techniques to help people in need, we read thousands-upon-thousands of pages of material about “microagressions” and “microinsults,” often in “studies” that directly contradict each other. Instead of belonging to a community of generally like-minded, altruistic peers, we are all fragmented along every conceivable social fault line of identity politics, “social locations,” and “intersectionalities.” Instead of sharing what we know with each other, we often sit for hours in silence in classes so as not to risk offending anyone else in the slightest.

When I graduate, I fear that I will have no discernible, useful skills to use in the real world. What I will have is crippling debt. And an extensive vocabulary that I can use to label every slight and injury with staggering precision.

Another reader snarks, “Perhaps we should just give into these overly coddled college students by rewarding them with Participation Diplomas.” Reader S.G. presents a new angle:

Whether you oppose or support trigger warnings, I’ve rarely seen anyone address the impact they would have on classes where the curriculum is student submitted work.

Assuming trigger warnings are mandatory, what message does it send to young writers, painters, or musicians that they’ll need to provide advance notice of potentially troubling concepts in their work or risk academic punishment? Even if trigger warnings aren’t mandatory, it doesn’t seem much better to have a system where they’re “strongly encouraged” to the point not including them would be seen as a major social negative. We like to pretend the negative effects of peer pressure and social ostracizing are things we leave behind in high school. They’re not. They have weight.

Another reader, William Petersen, insists that the PC problem spans ideologies:

I have seen more “right leaning” local school boards dispense completely with history or science books that criticize the myth of American Exceptionalism, teach the Theory of Evolution, and/or try to re-write curriculum to fit certain Conservative or Christian presumptions of “what is appropriate” for young people, than I have liberal adjunct professors invoking trigger warnings to dampen right-leaning opinions in the lecture hall. The coddling, that Lukianoff and Haidt rightly criticize, is apolitical in many respects.

Another reader agrees:

Instructors do get some students from time to time who think they have the right not to have their sensibilities offended. This extreme orthodoxy emanates from both liberal AND conservative students.

This is not to suggest there is no such thing as “microagression,” but I think they are making a mountain out of a molehill. Some students are EXPLOITING this situation and creating an atmosphere of paranoia, sometimes because they simply don’t like the instructor, or worse, as a pre-emptive excuse for their own bad performance. I suspect some are just looking for an excuse to nail your ass with whatever tools are at their disposal. I have had these kinds of problems on four occasions— twice with black females, once with a gay male student, and once with two evangelicals in tandem.

I find the root of it is usually that they are disgruntled with their grades and want to punish YOU, so at bottom it’s really a kind of temper tantrum. They are spoiled brats and they know exactly what buttons to push. They can make your life a living hell and they know how to do it. This is the main reason I am retiring from academia.

But Greg Hom warns:

This trend to not allow speech is not confined to the academy by any means. When politicians try to disallow the words “global warming” or “climate change” in political discussion because it goes against their “beliefs,” they are contributing to this nonsense.

Another reader looks to literature and sees life imitating art:

In Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novella 451 Fahrenheit, he worried about society developing institutionalized restrictions on discussing difficult concepts such as race relations, sexual perversion, and political differences because they might hurt people’s feelings. The whole PC movement described in this cover story is a mirror of the speech that the “Fire Captain” made to Montag before he burnt the house with the hidden library of banned books. And the multiple screens on walls and in miniature in Montag’s house which enabled his insecure wife to be in constant touch with her “cousins” was Bradbury’s prescient vision of our overwhelming obsession in 2015 with Facebook and Twitter.

Another looks to advertising:

There’s an interesting article by The Last Psychiatrist that long-windedly examines the idea that Dove Soap’s “Real Beauty” campaign was not specifically crafted to answer any real questions about how we perceive beauty but instead to set up Dove as a voice of authority in that sphere. If we were arguing about Dove’s opinion on beauty, the author posits, it could only benefit Dove no matter which way the argument was settled because by discussing it were were making the assumption that Dove’s opinion mattered at all. By creating an argument, Dove set itself up as an important voice on beauty, which helped it sell soap. It’s hard to argue this wasn’t effective.

In the case of campus PC, we see something similar but twisted into a new form. The administrations of the offending colleges could very easily settle the issue once and for all by simply rejecting the idea of microaggressions and by refusing to get involved in matters of free speech. “Discourse is important,” they could say, as everyone else does.

That the administration of these schools does not do so tells us something. They’ve set up a system where the students bring them complaints on a regular basis regarding the speech and actions of other students, and in those instances the school is expected to render a ruling on the particular instance of speech. It doesn’t matter what the issues are or how the school rules: the point is to condition the students into regarding the University as the authority on what speech and thoughts are acceptable.

This isn’t the University’s job, and the idea that we’ve allowed government-funded establishments to expand their power in this way should be objectionable to us.

Reader K.P. notes an example:

I went to a small private school, the University of Tulsa. The year after I graduated, they suspended (effectively expelled) a senior. His crime? His then-fiancé (a non-student) had written a rude Facebook post with some incendiary remarks about a faculty member and another student. The administration claimed the student didn’t act quickly enough to take down his fiancé’s post and brought the rod of discipline down on his head. He lost tens of thousands of dollars and probably had his career prospects damaged over somebody else’s impolite speech.

Another reader criticizes a part of the cover story that hasn’t been noted yet:

In discussing disinvitation of campus speakers, Haidt and Lukianoff fret that Condoleezza Rice and Christine Lagarde were disqualified from sharing their perspectives. Not only have both of these powerful figures had more than ample opportunities to share their perspectives in the past, but commencement speeches are not public forums from which they are being barred. Instead, speakers are personally invited to confer advice to graduating students, however trite. If a majority of students do not wish to receive someone’s advice, they are free not to. Why seek advice from the abhorrent?

Yes, in the examples given above, the speakers would likely have had an encouraging word for females aspiring to powerful positions, but so would many others who happen not to be complicit in outright misdeeds. Is Dick Cheney free to continue to spout his self-aggrandizing evil over the airwaves? Sure, but we certainly don’t have to provide an audience for him.

Another reader takes a step back:

Up till now, I had been reluctantly moving towards giving up on The Atlantic; that it had fallen totally in thrall to the worship of every imaginable liberal piety, to the exclusion of all other sensibilities. So understand how thrilling it was for me to read this vigorous and well-reasoned broadside directed against the campus thought police, which basically accused the conjurers of all things PC to be suffering from mental illness, and to be endangering students with same.

Another felt differently:

I think this story was the final nail in the coffin for me for The Atlantic. I reread this a few times. I looked for the word ‘tenure’ to appear in the article. I did a text search. The word never appeared.

Tenure has been disappearing in the name of cost-cutting. There are some schools where the concept barely exists. You have adjunct professors, some with Ph.Ds, who are essentially in paycheck-to-paycheck, quarter-to-quarter jobs. The universities who employ them are increasing non-academic staff but cutting tenured professors. Adjunct professors don’t require health insurance. If they’re unpopular, they’re easy to fire.

To me, this is the real decline of American Minds. It’s shocking to me how such a basic principle seemed to escape the authors.

One more reader:

While I’m not American, I am a recent grad and it was interesting to read this essay and compare it with my own uni experiences. Many of the same issues are currently playing out here in New Zealand, though perhaps not to the same degree of absurdity. Great article, well written, interesting, informative, well researched. I was so impressed I even turned off adblock for The Atlantic website.

Thanks! Ads keep the lights on.

The Strange Rituals of Silicon Valley Intern Recruiting

The Wozniak Lounge, located on the northern side of campus at the University of California, Berkeley, looks like it was decorated by engineers, to the extent that one could say it’s decorated at all. The room’s sole testament to its namesake—a small collage with images of the Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, old Apple computers, and a retired Apple logo—hangs on a wall at the back, but otherwise the room is plain. The lounge sits at the farthest end of Soda Hall, the home of Berkeley’s Computer Science department, and one of the few buildings on campus that contains both classrooms and shower facilities.

Throughout the academic year, the Wozniak hosts the tech companies who come to Berkeley hoping to recruit computer-science and engineering students for internships and post-graduate programs. The attendee count at these events typically numbers well into the hundreds—computer science is now the most popular major at Berkeley, which has an undergraduate population of around 27,000 students. An introductory computer-science course, CS61A, had 1,277 students enrolled last semester, all of them encouraged by the department to watch the lectures online rather than physically attending (no lecture hall on campus has the capacity).

Attend enough recruitment events in the Wozniak Lounge and certain patterns began to emerge. The food—typically heavily advertised, a sure draw for college students looking for a free meal—is almost always served at the event’s end, to make sure that people stay for the full presentation (Google was one notable exception to this rule). There’s also an unofficial dress code of sorts. Many students arrive sporting t-shirts bearing the logos of other tech companies; at one of the first recruitment sessions this year, the lounge was filled with people sporting Dropbox, Intel, LinkedIn, and PaymentWall shirts, filing in with backpacks and energy drinks in hand. Students typically get the shirts in one of two ways: Some receive them as interns, while others nab theirs from the promotional giveaway piles that lie near the food after most of the talks. After a few minutes in any café on campus, it’s possible to figure out from the ubiquity of the shirts which companies have a more relaxed freebie policy (A9, Stripe) and which tend to be more selective (Twitter, Quora).

AirBnB’s visit to the Wozniak comes on a hot Thursday in late August, just a few days after the start of the fall semester. Twenty minutes before the event was due to begin, a large group is already lined up behind an open MacBook Air on a table at the front of the room, waiting to fill in their names and email addresses on a spreadsheet. No one explains the purpose of this line, but I instinctively step in anyway, waiting around 15 minutes to reach the front. Once I type my information onto the MacBook screen, I ask if an empty seat on the front row is taken, and am told confidently by a panelist that it’s “all me.” A few minutes later, I’m asked to move.

Six rows of eight chairs have been set up for the talk, although at least five times as many people are in attendance, many of them speculating about what the food might be as they wait for the presentation to start. Next to me, one student turns to his friend: “I’m only here for the resume drops.” He’s referring to the moment at the end of the event when students will surge forward, resumes extended, to pitch themselves to recruiters in as many seconds as they can secure. The phenomenon is so well known among EECS kids (students from the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science department, Berkeley’s largest) that when a recruiter at the start of one session encouraged students to “stick around after for a chance to chat with us one-on-one,” laughter rippled through the room.

Regardless of the company at the front of the room, all of the presentations tend to follow a similar structure. Most begin with some version of a “founding story” that lays out the company’s humble beginnings, taking the audience back to when it was just a few people on a mission to solve one simple problem. Next, they typically launch into a “growth history” explaining the company’s expansion. At the AirBnB talk, we learn that the service is currently operating in 34,000 cities and was one of the first American companies to expand to Cuba after relations between the two countries were restored in July.

The presentations also have a tendency to emphasize a company’s newness, in spirit if not in actual years. Seemingly keen to avoid coming off as a legacy organization, AirBnB tells us that each of its departments functions as a “startup within a startup.” Later in the month, a Google recruiter will assure the students crammed into Wozniak that each of them could be the “mini-CEO of your product … responsible for the experience of billions of users.” A few weeks later, an engineer from Amazon’s CloudFront team will tell the room that “we definitely get to disrupt an industry.” The Amazon presentation will conclude with two quotes from founder Jeff Bezos: “In the end, we are our choices,” and “It’s still day one for us.” (Amazon launched more than 20 years ago.)

Such sweeping rhetoric is common at these sessions, as is an emphasis on the quirkiness of a company’s culture—sometimes both at once. We learn from the AirBnB team that weekly meditation classes in the office can help us “master the feeling of being able to bring your full self to work every day.” One panelist, who begins by noting that he’s worked at “all the major San Francisco tech companies,” tells us that “AirBnB engineers don’t act like engineers at other companies”—and how could they, when one staff member is a “dude who won the U.S. National Scrabble Championship” and another is “currently speed skating in Salt Lake City?” We also hear about the company’s “search bar,” the area where the Search team stores its alcohol, and the “nerd cave,” a social space decorated by AirBnB’s engineers, complete with a disco ball.

On Monday of the following week, Facebook makes the trip up from the South Bay. This time, students head to the Sibley Auditorium, a larger venue not far from the Wozniak. Sibley was built to hold 227 people, but even the space upgrade isn’t enough to accommodate the hundreds of people who show up. Crowds spill out of the theatre and into its surrounding corridors while excited members of Facebook’s WhatsApp and Oculus teams photograph the mania from the front of the room.

Facebook’s pitch begins with a video promoting its internship program, the footage full of young people falling into blue-and-white ball pits. Once the video ends, we’re told that earlier that day, Facebook celebrated its first time being accessed by a billion people in a single day. This, the recruiter says, is “why we need you.” More platitudes are sprinkled throughout the presentation: We learn that the company’s core belief is that “the riskiest thing to do is to not take any risks at all,” and that Facebook thinks of itself as being “just as much a people company as a tech company.”

These sessions are the easy part. Once a presentation is over, students who want to apply for one of these lucrative positions (internships at some tech companies pay upwards of $7,000 per month, plus a rent stipend) will typically need to make it past a phone interview, an onsite meeting with a hiring committee, and, in some cases, a final essay. They’ll need to field questions like “How much money is spent on the Internet?” (Facebook) and “How would you design an alarm clock for the blind?” (Google).

For the most part, the presentations, with their cheery slideshows and stories of meditation and disco balls, betray little of the grueling road ahead. When each one is over—and the food has been eaten and the t-shirts have been scooped up and the resumes dropped—students will head back to their dorms, already thinking about the next one.

The Future of Restraint and Seclusion in Schools

A teacher asks her students to take out a pencil for a pop quiz, but one child won’t pick up his pencil. The teacher repeats her request. The child refuses.

What happens next—what sort of discipline is meted out, how long it lasts, and whether administrators or parents are notified—may differ drastically from one state to the next.

While all educators struggle with how to cope with defiant or disruptive kids, there is no federal legislation and only a patchwork of state laws regulating how two of the most fraught responses—restraint and seclusion—are used with them. As a result, restraint and seclusion are misapplied on what could amount to millions of American schoolchildren each year, sometimes with deadly consequence.

Mississippi is one of five states without a policy governing restraint and seclusion in schools—but in a group that also includes New Jersey and North Dakota, it could be the next to set a baseline for how these interventions should be handled.

The Seventy Four

Some believe this change is long overdue in a state that still allows corporal punishment in schools. Horror stories about misbehaving children, many with disabilities, who are locked in supply closets or physically restrained with handcuffs and harnesses for infractions as minor as wearing the wrong color shoes have spurred headlines—and lawsuits—for years.

Mississippi students were forcibly restrained or secluded more than 700 times in the 2009-10 school year, according to the most recent online data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. But the actual number of incidents could be greater. Data on school discipline, including the use of seclusion and restraint, is self-reported by districts to the federal government. So it’s difficult to tell whether a district with zero incidents is restraint- and seclusion-free or whether it’s simply not keeping track. At the state level, there’s no snapshot whatsoever—Mississippi doesn’t collect data on restraint and seclusion.

The widely reported case of an autistic boy who was isolated in a wooden pen in a Lamar County, Mississippi, elementary-school classroom two years ago has helped highlight the glaring lack of accountability for school districts, parents, and advocates like Joy Hogge say.

Hogge, the executive director of Families as Allies, which provides training and support services for families of children with emotional and behavioral problems, said parents often hesitate to address potential abuse in their children’s classrooms because they may fear retaliation or lack the skills to navigate the school bureaucracy. She was heartened, however, that the state invited parent input at two public hearings last year on the proposed policy.  

“I think there’s a real opportunity here to kind of change that part of our culture,” Hogge said.

If a policy prevails in Mississippi, it would put the state in line with new federal guidance in the recently reauthorized Every Student Succeeds Act (formerly known as No Child Left Behind). The new law requires states to develop plans on how they’ll reduce the use of restraint and seclusion, as well as bullying, harassment, and student suspensions.

Ron Hager, a senior staff attorney at the National Disability Rights Network, called the ESSA language “a kind of foot in the door” toward ultimately doing away with restraint and seclusion.

For the time being, that’s far from being the case in Mississippi.

“They do whatever they want to do, whenever they want to do it, however they want to do it,” said Heather Rhodes, the mother of the boy who was secluded in the pen. She intends to file a civil case against the Lamar County school district, while a criminal complaint she filed against the teacher was dismissed in 2014.

Rhodes said she entered the classroom to find her son, Cade, who was 8 at the time, confined in a three-sided wooden pen, banging his head on the floor, screaming to get out and calling for her as his teacher held the gate closed with her foot.

Cade also has central auditory processing disorder (CAPD), which impairs his ability to listen and communicate back what’s been said or done. His teacher wanted him to sit down, but he knew his mother was on her way to his classroom with birthday treats for his classmates and wanted to find her, according to an investigative story by the Mississippi Clarion-Ledger.

The Clarion-Ledger reported:

The school dismissed the incident as no big deal, Rhodes said, but she was furious. “If I had that contraption in my house,” Rhodes said, “and my child told his teachers, ‘My mom puts me in a box when I’m bad,’ I would have been arrested and my kids would have gone to foster care.”

* * *

State by state, an effort to regulate these tactics and better protect students from potential abuse in their classrooms has slowly gained traction in the last six years, following a 2009 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The collected testimony from schools around the country included the case of a 14-year-old boy in Texas who died after being pinned down by a teacher; another involved a volunteer teacher’s aide in Florida who gagged and duct-taped 6- and 7-year-old students who were misbehaving.

Often in these cases, the GAO found, children with disabilities were forcibly restrained or isolated when they were not physically aggressive, and by staff who were not trained in these techniques.

Even in states with policies, there’s no guarantee that the adults in charge are aware or will heed them. Take the recent case of the Kentucky sheriff’s deputy who, in a viral video, is shown handcuffing an 8-year-old boy’s biceps together behind his back—his wrists apparently too small for the cuffs—because he had misbehaved. The boy has attention deficit hyperactive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, but the officer wasn’t properly trained to discipline elementary students, much less those with disabilities, according to an ACLU complaint. Kentucky’s policy explicitly prohibits mechanical restraints.

The GAO report and subsequent criticism of the practice by former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan led to several attempts to pass federal legislation that ultimately failed. “As education leaders, our first responsibility should be to make sure that schools foster learning in a safe environment for all of our children and teachers,” Duncan wrote in a letter to state education officials in 2009, urging them to take action.

A federal bill sponsored in 2013 by U.S. Representative Gregg Harper, a Republican from Mississippi, would have established minimum standards for the practice of restraint and seclusion, as well as guidelines for state reporting and enforcement. It also stalled.

Meanwhile, in the last few years, 25 states have either strengthened existing laws or adopted them for the first time, according to an analysis called “How Safe is the Schoolhouse?” an Autism National Committee report by Jessica Butler, an attorney and parent advocate.

In addition to Mississippi, New Jersey, and North Dakota, the states that remain without any law, policy or guidelines are Idaho and South Dakota, according to Butler’s report, last updated in July 2015.

Nationwide, far more often than not, the subjects of restraint and seclusion are children of color and children with disabilities. That’s evident in Mississippi, according to 2009 data from the Office of Civil Rights. Of the total 715 incidents of restraint and seclusion reported by schools that year, 72 percent involved black or Hispanic students while 28 percent involved white students.

* * *

L. René Hardwick, grew up in Vicksburg, Mississippi, and returned to Jackson several years ago after working as a university professor and administrator and a K-12 consultant and advocate in places like Atlanta; Durham, North Carolina; and Baltimore.

Now the advocacy coordinator for the restraint-and-seclusion project run by the Mississippi American Civil Liberties Union, she said there are cultural and historical factors at work here that influence attitudes toward behavior management and classroom discipline. Those factors are at least partially rooted in Mississippi’s painful history of segregation.

“What’s going on in Mississippi and particularly Jackson … is simply a microcosm of the legacy of oppression that hovers over Mississippi as a state and us as a country,” she said.

“I believe you have certain groups, some of whom are our legislators, who are dedicated and determined to support” the status quo of white supremacy, either out of fear or ignorance, she said.

Now in Mississippi, when a child doesn’t follow the teacher’s instructions, “you don’t know where that case will lead,” Hardwick said.

If a child is being disruptive or fails to obey a teacher’s request, the “natural propensity of school personnel” in Mississippi, Hardwick said, is not, “to teach that child and guide that child, which takes time and needs to be repeated over and over to correct behavior.”

Many of Mississippi’s 490,225 students arrive at school from family environments strained by poverty and neglect, so it’s imperative that educators are prepared to meet them at the doors, Hardwick said. That means presenting school as a place of refuge, nurturing interpersonal relationships between adults and children, setting high expectations for teachers and parents, and, in the classroom, rooting curriculum in students’ real-life experiences.

Ensuring staff receive better training to prevent and respond to crisis situations involving children with disabilities and those in the general population is also badly needed, she said.

“What we’re pushing for is the tone of the policy to not be in reactive mode but to be in proactive mode,” Hardwick said, meaning it should promote a “climate of positive intervention” that starts at the top with effective district- and building-level leadership.

Some Mississippi schools have tried to address the problem of disruptive students on their own. In 2012, an alternative school for children who’d been suspended or expelled from other schools agreed to stop shackling students to fixed objects after the Southern Poverty Law Center sued Jackson Public Schools in 2011. The SPLC alleged that students were “handcuffed and shackled to poles” for up to six hours for non-criminal offenses such as violating the dress code or talking back to a teacher, Reuters reported.

The lead plaintiff in the case was an eighth-grader with a history of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, asthma and seizures who, on one occasion, was handcuffed to a pole for hours and had to call out to be taken to the bathroom, according to Reuters.

Advocate groups in Mississippi say requiring training for school personnel and prioritizing positive behavioral interventions ahead of force—all part of the current proposal being considered by state officials—will help avoid chaotic and potentially dangerous incidents like the ones in Jackson and Lamar County.

In fits and starts, legislators have moved to enact minimum standards for use of restraint and seclusion in Mississippi schools. But a tendency by the Republican majority to fiercely oppose limiting school districts’ local authority has stymied those efforts.

Skeptics of regulating restraint and seclusion frequently point to the education dilemma that’s caused anguish for teachers everywhere: How to preserve the learning environment for the many that is threatened by the few?

Republican Representative John Moore, the most recent chairman of the House Education Committee, said he’d consider a restraint-and-seclusion bill if one is reintroduced this year, but he is “wary” of placing limits on school districts’ ability to control students if they become violent.

“If you are a teacher or a school and you have a child that will just not be quiet or sit down, what do you do with that student? Do you let them just destroy the education for the rest of the class? Or do you do what needs to be done?” Moore said.

Moore, who’s spent 20 years in the House of Representatives—four of those as education chairman—said he grew up in an era when a call from the principal to his mother or father meant he was in for a spanking when he got home. Moore’s wife is a veteran elementary-school teacher.

He said he supports the use of restraint and seclusion in schools if and when “positive-reinforcement” strategies have been tried and are ineffective.

“People have to learn that there are consequences of bad actions and if they don’t, it only elevates down the road,” Moore said, “And if you don’t believe me, just look at our prison systems.”

The education department’s proposed policy would dramatically redefine the threshold for using physical restraint in Mississippi classrooms: If approved by the nine-member state Board of Education, restraint and seclusion could only be used as an emergency response when “all other verbal de-escalation measures have failed” and when the student poses a danger to themselves or others.

Pat Ross, the education department’s chief performance officer, said there’s no question about the need to have a policy. One of the major sticking points is whether the new rules would prohibit seclusion altogether, as the ACLU and other advocates groups have pushed for.

“Nobody likes for things to go badly in schools but sometimes they do and so restraint and seclusion has to come into play,” Ross said. “Taking seclusion off the table completely maybe (is) a little unrealistic.”


This story was produced in collaboration with The74Million.org.

When Class Is Run by a Robot

The first “teaching machine” was invented nearly a century ago by Sydney Pressey, a psychologist at Ohio University, out of spare typewriter parts. The device was simple, presenting the user with a multiple-choice question and a set of answers. In “teach mode,” the machine would advance to the next question only once the user chose the correct answer. Pressey declared that his invention marked the beginning of “the industrial revolution in education”—but despite his grand claims, the teaching machine failed to gain much attention, and soon faded into obscurity.

It stayed there until the 1950s, when the famed behaviorist B.F. Skinner introduced a teaching machine of his own (Skinner  blamed “cultural inertia” for Pressey’s previous lack of success). His new device taught by showing students questions one at a time, with the idea that the user would be rewarded for each right answer.

This time, there was no “cultural inertia.” Teaching machines flooded the market, and backlash soon followed. Kurt Vonnegut called the machines “playthings” and argued that they couldn’t prepare a kid for “one-millionth of what is going to hit him in the teeth, ready or not.” Fortune ran a story headlined “Can People Be Taught Like Pigeons?” By the end of the ‘60s, teaching machines had once again fallen out of favor. The concept briefly resurfaced again in the ‘80s, but the lack of quality educational software—and the public’s perception of mechanized teachers as something vaguely Orwellian—meant they once again failed to gain much traction.

But now, they’re back for another try.

Why Can’t Robots Understand Sarcasm?


Scientists in Germany, Turkey, the Netherlands, and the U.K. are currently working on language-teaching machines more complex than anything Pressley or Skinner dreamed up. These devices will help students learn basic vocabulary and simple stories, using microphones to listen, cameras to watch, and artificial neural networks that will analyze all the information that’s collected. The machines are part of L2TOR (pronounced “El Tutor”), a program funded by the European Union to develop artificially intelligent teachers for preschool-aged children.

But the machines won’t only teach and collect data on their students’ language skills—they’ll also monitor things like joy, sadness, boredom, and confusion. Human teachers can see and hear their students and make sense of all nonverbal cues they get from the class; these machines are being designed to do the same.

“The problem with previous generations of teaching machines was their complete lack of social intelligence,” says Stefan Kopp, an artificial-intelligence researcher at Bielefeld University in Germany and one of the scientists working on L2TOR. “Yet it’s possible to design emphatic machines. Our robots will notice tears, smiles, frowns, yawns … and dynamically adjust to how a child feels.” Past research has shown that “affect-sensitive” teaching systems, as they’re known, may be more effective at imparting knowledge than machines that don’t take emotions and experience into account.

The L2TOR researchers who launched their project earlier this month, still have a few years before they can measure their technology against human educators, but similar projects have offered some hints about potential challenges. FACET, a commercially available image-processing software that analyzes 19 different facial-muscle movements, works with nearly 80 percent accuracy. Earlier this year, a research team at the University of Notre Dame used it to identify children’s boredom, confusion, and delight  as they played educational games, using videos taken with laptop cameras in real classrooms. In more than one-third of instances, FACET recognized nothing at all. Kids wriggled, covered their faces with their hands, talked with their friends—all sorts of things, except for sitting still in front of the cameras.

And successfully interpreting students’ emotions is just one challenge; knowing how to react to that information is another. What should a robot do with a 5-year-old who is frustrated, or bored, or has just thrown a paper airplane right into its robotic face?

To figure out how to imbue their machines with human-like reaction skills, Kopp and his colleagues plan to spend some time in kindergarten classrooms, observing the teachers at work. “We need to learn more about their methods, learn from their experience, and then program our robots to act like them,” Kopp says. “We want the machines to be as friendly to kids as possible, yet I think a robot should react to bad behavior.” The challenge is figuring out how these machines can exert authority in a way that teaches the kids how to behave, in addition to the lessons of the day.

Another thing that remains to be seen: whether the kids can learn to relate to the machines the way they would ordinary teachers. “People, especially children, tend to ascribe human qualities to objects—teddy bears and so on. We also know that part of the brain responsible for our interpersonal skills becomes active in the presence of social robots. Yet, adults who took part in these experiments knew that they were dealing with machines, with objects,” Kopp says. “But nobody has ever tried such a thing with 5-year-olds. We can’t tell if these kids will treat robot tutors like toys or like living, caring persons.”

Learning Empathy Through Dance

“Ch-ch-tsss. Ch-ch-tsss.” On a chilly Wednesday morning, Baja Poindexter sounded out the steps of the rumba to a classroom of fifth-graders at West Athens Elementary School, located in one of Los Angeles’s most violent neighborhoods. She encouraged her class of mostly Latino students to do the same. They tenuously clasped each other’s hands in ballroom dance “frame,” or body position, and swayed to the music at “Miss Baja’s” command. “Side, together, to the lady! Side, together, to the gentleman!” she bellowed.

Toward the end of the hour, the students grew restless and squirmy, the volume of their chatter drowning out Poindexter’s voice. She paused. “You’ve got enough things against you in the outside world. When you come to school, it should be a safe space for you, but you have to make it that way by being respectful to each other.”

Poindexter is a teaching artist for Dancing Classrooms, a nonprofit based in New York City that brings ballroom dancing to schools primarily in underserved communities. Started by the dancer Pierre Dulaine in 1994, the 10-week program was featured in the 2005 documentary Mad Hot Ballroom and uses ballroom as a vehicle for teaching elementary- and middle-schoolers social-emotional skills like respect and teamwork and, by extension, empathy. For many underprivileged students, in-class time with programs like Dancing Classrooms is the only time they will have regular exposure to the arts.

“You can’t touch someone in a ballroom-dance frame and that person, for any length of time, be an ‘other,’” said Rodney Lopez, the global program director.

For Poindexter, 26, teaching ballroom is also an empathic exercise. Growing up in Chicago’s South Side, she started working at age 12 to help financially support her family while participating in every free or low-cost dance program she could find. She often used dance as an outlet for the same frustrations she sees in her students at West Athens. She said one of her classes last year descended into a collective crying fit when students threw verbal jabs at each other about relatives dying from gang violence.

“They’re at a disadvantage, and, at some point, they realize they’re at a disadvantage,” she said. “Will dance keep them away from some of these negative things? I do believe that, and that’s why I teach.”

And by the end of 20 classes, which culminate in a regional showcase and competition, the effects in the classroom are palpable: In a 2014-2015 survey of L.A.-area school principals, 66 percent reported an “increased acceptance of others” among their student bodies, while 81 percent of students said they treated others with more respect, following the program. Rob Horowitz, the associate director of the Center for Arts Education Research at Columbia University’s Teachers College, recently conducted a two-year study on the program in New York City whose results have yet to be published. In year one (2013-14) of the study, 95 percent of teachers reported their students improved cooperative and collaborative skills; researchers observed 95 percent of students demonstrating cooperative skills.

“They’re more respectful toward the girls. In the morning when we go into class, they always say, ‘Ladies first.’ [After the 10 weeks], I call them ladies and gentlemen so they remember,” said Michael Peñate, a teacher.

Baja Poindexter teaching students dance at West Athens Elementary School. (Audrey Cleo Yap)

It’s a similar belief in the power of movement that prompted Ricka Glucksman Kelsch to start Dance and Dialogue. The free one-day workshop convenes middle-schoolers from various socioeconomic strata in L.A. County to take master dance classes in different genres; last year’s event featured a class taught by a deaf instructor. They also bond with each other by sharing personal stories in small group sessions modeled on the Native American talking circle. Topics range from coming out to parental substance abuse, and Kelsch credits the willingness of students to share to their common interest in dance. “These kids don’t know each other. They would never tell each other this,” she said.

Kelsch teaches dance part-time at the elite private school Crossroads School for Arts & Sciences in Santa Monica (the Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel and actress Kate Hudson are alums) and was partly inspired by her own privileged students, some of whom she said “didn’t know that some students wake up and, less than a mile away from Crossroads, don’t have food to eat, don’t have outfits to put on, wear the same clothes every day.”

In its first year, Dance and Dialogue drew 80 students; now in its third, the workshop is expanding to two days (one for middle-schoolers and one for high-schoolers), and Kelsch anticipates over 300 students will participate. Approximately 80 percent of the students will hail from underprivileged communities.

Studies have shown the cognitive benefits students experience through being exposed to dance and other art forms, which is then linked to improved test scores and grade-point averages, especially for disadvantaged students. However, empathy—the notion that someone can share in and feel the feelings of another—is a squishy concept. It’s also not always easily quantifiable, although a 2010 University of Michigan study indicated declining rates of empathy among college students which some attribute to lack of interaction and play with peers at a younger age, qualities inherent in dance.

“[Dance] is incredibly effective in terms of social-emotional development and in terms of being able to incorporate kids from different backgrounds, different ethnicities, different social backgrounds and have them do something common,” said Columbia’s Horowitz. Horowitz is leading a two-year study on Dancing Classrooms commissioned by the organization.

While the long-term effects on students’ capacities to be empathic aren’t yet clear, Horowitz’s findings suggest a lasting impact. “Empathy is hard to observe, but we do see kids helping each other with the dance or seeming to care about each other. We know that we can’t reduce everything from the arts to a number, but we work on it.”

Numbers, though, are crucial for making the case that arts education deserves a place in the classroom. Since the 2008 recession, arts funding in school districts around the country has been adversely affected, making programs cost-prohibitive for schools in low-income communities in particular, where other sources of funding are often hard to come by.

Last year, the Los Angeles Unified School District revealed the results of its Arts Equity Index, a survey of school principals on arts instruction and access at their schools filtered by factors like local income and professional development for arts teachers. LAUSD officials then categorized the approximately 635 participating schools’ programs in categories that ranged from “non-existent” to “excelling.” The results were abysmal, revealing what some officials had feared: that arts education access had been restricted to mostly affluent schools while poor ones languished. Dance programs were particularly lacking.

“What we find ourselves doing sometimes is putting the fewest amount of dollars in the schools where the students need it the most,” Rory Pullens, the district’s head of arts education, told an audience at an event last March. In an email, Pullens said he hopes to boost LAUSD’s arts budget to $33 million in the 2016-17 school year from its current budget of $26.5 million; some argue a robust program would require $45 million in funding.

The 1970 Ryan Act compounds the problem for dance curriculum specifically in California. Pioneered by teacher-turned-congressman Leo J. Ryan, it abolished dance- and theatre-specific teaching credentials in the state, creating a hurdle for specialists to teach. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this may not have been Ryan’s intention, but Ryan himself did not live to formally clarify its language: In 1978, he was gunned down while investigating the Peoples Temple settlement (a.k.a. Jonestown) in Guyana.

But there are places bridging the gap between student populations who have access to arts education and ones who don’t. At Gabriella Charter School (GCS) in East L.A.—where 88 percent of students are considered socio-economically disadvantaged, qualifying for free or subsidized lunches—dance is an integral part of the K-8 school’s curriculum. GCS students dance for at least one hour day, often integrating movement with academic subjects: Think of a “digestive dance” to help learn how food moves through the digestive system in fifth-grade science or original choreography inspired by chemical bonds in eighth-grade chemistry. Students also learn to critique each other’s dances, which, the principal Rhonda Sivaraman argued, makes them more empathic toward each other.

Students dance at Gabriella Charter School. (Audrey Cleo Yap)

But even a dance-heavy curriculum is not necessarily a treacly, “You Got Served”-style panacea to issues like bullying. Much of the evidence that dance is an effective tool for improved school environments and student relationships is anecdotal and survey-based. It also relies on variables like a school’s administrative investment and program continuity, the latter of which goes back to funding. In a three-year study of dance education in Utah (led by Horowitz and published in 2008), school teachers reported positive impacts on students’ social skills, but 28 percent were “not sure” if peer relations improved.

“I cannot say we’ve never had instances [of bullying], but if you can show me a school that has had no bullying or behavioral problems, please point it out,” said Sivaraman.

Still, dance can be an effective tool for conflict resolution. When Sara Potler LaHayne studied as a Fulbright Scholar in Bogotá, she observed Colombian students bonding with each other over reggaeton music and dancing, engaging with each other more than they were with textbook lessons about compassion and diversity they were learning in class. The experience inspired her to start Dance 4 Peace in 2008. Later re-branded as Move This World, the nonprofit outfits schools with a video-based curriculum of daily ritualized tools (movements and mantras, for example) designed to help students and teachers manage stress and express emotions.

When Mindfulness Meets the Classroom


“Think ‘8-Minute Abs’ but for emotional well-being. Empathy is a muscle that we have to flex. It takes active work. You don’t just check the box that you’re emotionally intelligent,” said Potler LaHayne of the program, currently in 34 Title I schools. The results are encouraging: Move This World partners reported an aggregated 37 percent decrease in incidents of conflicts from the 2013-2014 to 2014-2015 school years, although the decrease cannot be exclusively attributed to using the curriculum.

Certainly it’s a nice idea, that somehow if students, regardless of ability or class, could simply “dance out” their problems during the school day.

“Dance is the ultimate form of expression, which sounds elitist,” Kelsch said. “But when I watch West Side Story, I say, ‘If we could just solve the world’s problems like that.’ Just do a pirouette and BOOM. ‘I’m mad at you.’ Wouldn’t that be great?” She laughed. If only it were that simple.