The 400,000 Latino Children Missing From the Census

Nearly 400,000 Latino infants and toddlers went uncounted during the last U.S. census—a figure that could have implications on their future education, according to a new report.

Researchers for the Child Trends Hispanic Institute and the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund found that the 2010 census undercounted young Latino children at a higher rate than their non-Latino peers—7.1 percent, compared to 4.3. Seventy-two percent of the “invisible” Latinos live in five states—California, Texas, Florida, Arizona and New York.


Image of Report: Census Missed 400,000 Latino ChildrenChild Trends Hispanic Institute


That so many children were left off the census could mean less funding for programs like Head Start, a federally funded early-childhood education program that depends, in part, on census counts of the U.S. population under age 5. Other programs that might be affected include the Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), the Child Care and Development Block Grant and the Maternal and Child Health Services Block Grant, according to researchers.

Education Writers Association


The undercount of this group also reduces potential federal funding for state programs serving low-income families, even as 62 percent of young Latino children live in or near poverty.

In Los Angeles, where researchers estimate 47,000 of the uncounted Latino children live, there is already a shortage of preschool seats, and more money going into federal preschool programs could mean that more children could attend, Deepa Fernandes reports for KPCC, Southern California Public Radio.

It’s difficult to know definitively why so many Latino children were missed, but researchers listed a few possibilities—among them that these young children are concentrated in “hard-to-count areas,” or live in multi-unit buildings with a high proportion of renters, as well as multi-generational households. Other possibilities that might contribute to the miscount include young children living with adults who do not speak English well and/or do not realize these children should be included in the census.

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Fernandes interviewed a Latina mom who did not give census counters information about her children in 2010 because she was unsure what they were planning to do with the information. Another mother of three said many people in her largely immigrant community were afraid the counters were working with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

NALEO Executive Director Arturo Vargas told news service EFE, “The persistent undercount of the nation’s second largest population group is a civil rights issue. Unless we bring Latino youth out of the shadows and into the light in the 2020 Census, the Latino community will continue to have disproportionate access to fair political representation and public services.”

This article appears courtesy of the Education Writers Association.

Playgrounds for All

On a crisp, sunny Saturday morning in February, the yard surrounding San Francisco’s Alvarado Elementary School buzzes with activity. Adept climbers grunt as they swing along three sets of monkey bars, scooters zip across the blacktop, and basketballs bounce alongside playful jibes between parents and children. Over it all, a toddler’s jubilant squeal rings out. Ten years ago silence and stillness would have reigned on the weekend, the gates of the chain-link fence locked.

The need for open space can be dire in dense urban environments, especially amid an epidemic of obesity. According to a 2013 report by the nonprofit NYC Global Partners, in 2007 2.5 million New Yorkers lived farther than a 10-minute walk to a park. Meanwhile, “most schoolyards were locked to the surrounding community all summer, every weekend, and every evening.” In many places, they still are.

When San Franciscan Mark Farrell sought a flat, car-free space to teach his children how to ride their bikes in June 2011, he recalled fond memories of using the local schoolyard with his father. But when Farrell and his own kids arrived, they found it closed. The story might have ended there—but he happens to be a member of the City’s Board of Supervisors.

Farrell investigated and found an unfunded pilot program to reopen schoolyards, created under then-mayor Gavin Newsom’s leadership in 2007, largely sitting dormant. Farrell took matters into his own hands, and this year the Shared Schoolyard Project will expand to 80 schools, opening each space from 9 to 4 on Saturdays and Sundays, often after the fanfare of a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Gail Cornwall

Some were concerned that opening the playgrounds would make them vulnerable to destruction. But a stolen trash can and a broken terracotta pot are the program’s worst reported incidents. Vandalism and trespassing have even decreased. Why? “An active schoolyard is a safe schoolyard,” Farrell says. Weekend users seem to feel a sense of stewardship, picking up granola bar wrappers, broken pencils, and other school-day detritus. The feeling is mutual. Participating schools aren’t required to open their bathrooms, but Alvarado’s principal Jennifer Kuhr Butterfoss does anyway: “I know what it’s like to be a mom at a playground with a kid who has to go.”

Use of the space for weekend events—like Argonne Elementary’s Spring Fair complete with food trucks, carnival games, rock climbing, and live animals as well as smaller gatherings like the community fundraiser organized for a bereaved family at Monroe Elementary—further increase local businesses’ engagement with the schools, and taxpayer goodwill.

joint report by UC Berkeley and the Oakland nonprofit ChangeLab Solutions. The concept, known to policy wonks as “joint use,” generates perennial debate in education and urban-planning circles. “School facilities are natural sites for shared use [because they] already have certain features … such as fences separating fields from busy streets and handicap accessible ramps,” adds a report out of Harvard Law. Yet stumbling blocks to open access abound.

Los Angeles Unified School District’s chief facilities executive, Mark Hovatter, says access to the city’s playgrounds and sports fields isn’t “like it was when I was a kid and you could just walk in and use them on the weekend.” Today, he explains, the district requires permit applications for short-term use and longer arrangements governed by joint-use agreements with individual private groups, like club soccer teams. LAUSD currently allows open access to some fields, but increased wear on synthetic turf means it needs to be replaced more frequently, and adds up to millions of dollars.

Hovatter says state legislation allows the district to charge communities for use of the fields, but that would mean “rich kids would continue to have access, while the ones who need a free place to play the most would not.” But LAUSD can’t just keep bearing the costs, he says. “We have to balance the need for open space against our primary mission to educate kids. We can’t let our desire to prevent unfairness turn us into a parks-and-rec department instead of a school district.”

San Francisco surmounted this obstacle by rallying its municipal agencies to work together. Under the pilot program, each city department was expected to simply absorb the cost of participation. Unsurprisingly, only one schoolyard in each of the 11 supervisorial districts opened under this model. Then Farrell came along and jump-started the effort with private fundraising plus involvement of the nonprofit San Francisco Parks Alliance.

An operating budget of $300,000 a year pays for SF Recreation and Parks patrol officers to open and close participating schoolyards, and inspect them each afternoon to see whether SF Public Works needs to jump in for priority cleanup, repairs, or graffiti abatement. SFPD officers check in throughout the day. Participating schools receive two annual amounts: a $1,000 no-strings-attached stipend for the PTA, and a $2,500 activity fund for weekend events “that promote and bring together the neighborhood community.”

Still only 30 of 106 schools in the district volunteered to take part. About 25 aren’t eligible for various reasons—the playground for Tenderloin Community School, for example, sits on the building’s roof. The remaining 50 schools opening their yards this year do so at the behest of the SFUSD Superintendent, Richard Carranza. The president of the Board of Education, Matt Haney, explains, “Once we saw how well it worked, we knew we had to make it a priority to open as many of our schoolyards to the public as possible, whatever that takes.”

San Francisco’s joint-use program is modest in comparison with New York’s. Dubbing schoolyards an “underutilized resource” in 2007, Mayor Bloomberg made good on an Earth Day speech promise and launched the Schoolyards to Playgrounds Initiative, allocating more than $100 million in funding. The program immediately opened 69 schoolyards—from school close until dusk Monday through Friday, and from 8 to dusk on Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays—by reimbursing each school custodian up to $50,000 a year for associated labor and maintenance.

Though the City reduced capital funding in 2009 and 2011, the remaining money—and private matching dollars provided by one nonprofit, Trust for Public Land, as well as help from another, Out2Play—funded renovation of 160 more schoolyards across all five boroughs with investments in play structures, sports equipment, trees, benches, fencing, turf, landscaping, and the sealing and painting of surfaces. In at least one case this meant transforming a parking lot into an oasis of color and movement.

First Deputy Commissioner Liam Kavanagh says NYC Parks identified candidates by looking for neighborhoods with high population density (or a population projected to grow), limited existing play space, and a lack of vacant land for development. Since the Department of Education was reluctant to give up control of its property, Kavanagh reports, the city agreed to handle procurement and construction, partnering with schools and communities in the design process, and then to turn the completed sites back over to DOE to maintain and operate.

Jointly operated playgrounds in NYC (1956)

It isn’t the first time NYC Parks and DOE have formed a tag team. In 1938, the renowned city planner Robert Moses—dubbed a visionary by some and reviled by others—began the Jointly Operated Playgrounds program. “As the city was growing and developing new neighborhoods, they decided to set aside adjacent land for parks and playgrounds whenever they built a new school,” says Kavanagh. To this day, 265 playgrounds next to schools are owned by DOE but operated and maintained by NYC Parks. The specifics vary by site, but they are all open to the public, sometimes even during the school day.

If San Francisco’s experience proves the feasibility and benefits of increasing use of existing public resources, New York’s makes a larger point: The more people who will ultimately utilize a space, the higher the likelihood of both civic and private investment in it.

In response to the crisis in education funding created by California’s Proposition 13, many school districts sold off property. A high school in East Palo Alto, for example, was demolished and replaced by a Home Depot. Cutting costs and liquidating assets is a common impulse when faced with budget shortages. The successful joint-use programs for the schoolyards of San Francisco and New York, however, show that our public entities may be better off doubling down, increasing and diversifying use of their facilities.

‘Ban the Box’ Goes to College

The long-running “Ban the Box” campaign is now gaining ground at colleges and universities. The movement aims to protect job, and now student, applicants from being asked about their criminal histories and was recently bolstered by President Obama, who is taking executive action to ban the practice at federal agencies. Campus officials say the background question helps them learn as much as possible about prospective students and allows them to take steps to keep everyone on campus safe. But opponents say the question—which requires prospective students to check a box if they have criminal histories—is an undue barrier that harms certain groups of students.

Some colleges routinely ask an optional criminal-background question; some schools are compelled to ask it by the state in which they’re located; and, whether intentional or not, more than 600 colleges and universities ask simply because they use Common App to streamline the admissions process. This year, 920,000 unique applicants used Common App to submit 4 million applications, or 4.4 applications per student, according to the organization. The criminal-background question that Common App asks is:

Have you ever been adjudicated guilty or convicted of a misdemeanor, felony, or other crime? Note that you are not required to answer “yes” to this question, or provide an explanation, if the criminal adjudication or conviction has been expunged, sealed, annulled, pardoned, destroyed, erased, impounded, or otherwise required by law or ordered by a court to be confidential.

Even before its appearance on the Common App in 2006—so far its most far-reaching adaptation—the question has polarized opponents and the institutions that use it.

* * *

Opponents say checking that little box complicates an already intimidating and daunting process. But the organization that administers it sees things differently. “While they represent a slice of colleges, not all colleges use the Common App,” said Aba Blankson, a spokesperson for Common App. “Other colleges have other versions of the question in their applications.” But as Common App becomes more popular—an estimated 700 colleges are expected to use it next year—its share of the approximately 3,000 colleges and universities in the country is significant. “Colleges can suppress the responses to those questions permanently or for a time until they’re ready to see that information,” Blankson said, referring to both the school-disciplinary and criminal-history questions on the form. “Why they choose to suppress them, I couldn’t say. I couldn’t say at what point they look at the information.” More concretely, a survey of postsecondary institutions revealed that 35 percent of respondents had denied admission or enrollment to at least one individual due to criminal history.

Vivian Nixon, the executive director of College & Community Fellowship, which offers mentoring, tutoring, and support to formerly incarcerated women in pursuit of a college degree, is a vocal opponent of the question. She thinks the initial impact on students who face extra steps in the admissions process, especially revealing their criminal backgrounds, can be discouraging. “There’s a chilling effect for many students,” she said. “They interpret the questions as, ‘I’m not going to get in because I have a felony.’” Nixon believes many people see the question and simply don’t apply. She said she has seen applicants with records opt out of completing the application once they receive a list of additional required documentation.

Nixon herself has a criminal record—but she outsmarted the system. She graduated from the State University of New York’s Empire College, where she’d taken courses prior to serving a prison sentence and thus was able to reenroll after her release without repeating an admissions process that would have required her to provide her criminal record (“rap sheet”). The SUNY system has a supplemental-application process for people with felony convictions, but practices vary at the 64 campuses that make up the network. Some ask for a letter from a corrections official, some require a narrative description of the crime, some want to see a rap sheet—which may contain fingerprint records, arrests, crimes that did not lead to a conviction, and other revelations about the person’s time in custody. “If the college went to the Department of Corrections, they would not be provided the information because it’s against the law, but they use the loophole of asking students for the documents to bypass that,” Nixon said, as she emphasized the invasive nature of the additional requirements for students who self-identify as having a criminal past.

Although criminal-history inquiries and other disciplinary questions have been on the form for 10 years, since last summer Common App has been in conversation with its members about keeping or removing them. “We take a look at all questions annually,” said Blankson. “It’s not unusual to review questions on the app and make changes. I would say that we haven’t had a conversation like this before, and when you start a conversation, people’s opinions change.” One member who might have had a change of heart is New York University, which openly questioned the continued use of the box. Still, the questions were initially added, Blankson said, by request from member colleges themselves: “Members thought it was important to understand the background of students, their academic integrity. I think there’s a whole host of reasons colleges want to know as much as possible about their applicants.”

Kelly Walter, Boston University’s associate vice president and executive director of admissions, represents one of those member institutions. “At our last meeting, the membership did have a conversation about whether or not we should continue to ask these questions,” she said. “Overwhelmingly, the membership feels that there is value in asking this.” What’s more, Walter and Boston University don’t really have a choice. “In Massachusetts, if the Common App removed that question,” Walter said, “we would still be required by law, as an institution that is located in this state, to ask a question about students having been convicted of a felony, a misdemeanor that resulted in sentencing, or a misdemeanor in the last five years.”

“Students are allowed to explain the circumstances for their answer to that question,” Walter assured me. “In most cases, this becomes a nonissue. If a student is academically competitive, they will be reviewed based on that qualification.” Boston University has 10 undergraduate colleges and, in 2016, received 57,416 applications for just 3,500 slots in its next freshman class. Walter did not have a sense of what proportion of BU’s applicants might have checked the box.

Whether colleges see many applicants with criminal backgrounds or not, once they have that information in hand, a lot of schools don’t seem to know how to evaluate it. A Center for Community Alternatives study, Reconsidered, examined 273 institutions and found that 66 percent collect information about criminal history, but only 40 percent train staff to interpret the data, and over 50 percent have no written policy regarding the admission of applicants with a criminal history.

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Gathering background information about future students is a core business of admissions departments, but some box opponents believe the criminal-history question has an unintended negative effect. “Students of color are the most likely to be harmed by putting these questions on the application,” said Natalie Sokoloff, professor emerita of sociology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She conducted a study that looked at the use of (or absence of) the question by two-year and four-year colleges in Maryland, a total of 50 schools. She analyzed all application forms used during one year and concluded that 40 percent included a question about criminal background. “Public four-year and two-year colleges are less likely to ask the question at the state and national level. Places that are more likely to give an opportunity to people with criminal records are two-year public colleges, and places that are least likely are private four-year colleges,” she said.

Sokoloff believes, “These kinds of practices really are de facto forms of race-based discrimination, because people of color are disproportionately impacted by these policies.” Scholars like Sokoloff, reform advocates, and public thinkers often point to the structural racism already at work in school systems—in which the over-disciplining of black children creates a school-to-prison pipeline. So not only are black students more likely to end up in prison than other groups, but once they are released and attempting to break that cycle by applying to college, they are more likely to confront the box—and the conundrum of whether or not to check it.

“This question doesn’t belong on the college-admissions form any more than questions about the weather belong there,” said Barmak Nassirian, current director of policy analysis with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. The organization represents 420 four-year colleges, universities, and other educational institutions. “These are not facts that in any way relate to the matter at hand,” he said, “which is to decide if someone is qualified to come learn something.” Nassirian also agreed that the school-discipline and criminal-history questions disproportionately affect low-income students, students of color, and students with disabilities. “We know that communities of color and students with disabilities are disproportionately affected by run-ins with the law”; it follows that they are more often asked to disclose such histories. “This mindless adoption of these mechanical so-called ‘safety checks’ does have the predictable downside of disproportionately affecting the students who need it the most,” he said. “This amounts to extrajudicial punishment on someone who has already served a punishment for a crime.”

Opponents also argue that the questions are merely symbolic—cosmetic gestures from colleges to seem proactive about campus safety. “It has nothing to do with campus safety,” said Nassirian, who pointed out that many schools are quick to say both that the question is justified for safety and that it has no effect on the admissions process. Boston University’s Walter reassured me, “Regardless of the answer, we would never deny a student admission based on the response to that question.” So, if colleges aren’t filtering out menaces to safety, why ask the question?

Researchers and college officials I spoke to unanimously agreed that there’s no real correlation between safety on campus and asking prospective students about their past run-ins with the law. “There is no research that states that students with a criminal history are more likely to pose a threat to fellow students,” said Emily NaPier, the director of justice strategies at the Center for Community Alternatives, which is responsible for one of the more authoritative reports on the issue: Boxed Out. CCA looked at the State University of New York’s 64 campuses, which have a disclosure policy for four-year colleges. What they found was that crimes on campus are often committed by students who have no criminal history and tend to be related to binge drinking, Greek life, and big-time college athletics, according to NaPier.

* * *

Correlation or not, some colleges would rather be safe than sorry. The University of Washington, for example, has very defined questions regarding past criminal history. “We ask for applicants to identify if they have been convicted of a violent felony,” said Paul Seegert, the director of admissions at the University of Washington, where they’ve been asking the question for only about three years. “Less than 1 percent of students applying would fall into the category of having a criminal record,” Seegert said. Then they looked at who comprised that sliver of applicants: “We realized that there were sex offenders who were students. We wanted to know when we had students who were sex offenders or who had committed a violent offense. It was not just a criminal background. It was specifically about a violent felony offense.”

What’s novel about the university’s approach is, “We’re not using it to keep anyone out of the university. We use it to make sure that we know who they are and can take necessary precautions.” So what kind of precautions does a university need to take in order to promote both safety and opportunity? The school put in place mechanisms to ensure that, for example, high-level sex offenders are never in a class with minors or high-school students. If an applicant with a record is competitive for admission, Seegert said he would inform the vice president for student life’s office, which would then consider the action that should be taken. But this is done on a case-by-case basis. The necessary people—staff from student life, academic services, and campus safety—are brought together to consider what would be a good course of action. “There have not been very many cases since then. It’s never been used to keep somebody out,” Seegert said. “We also wanted to ensure that the student [with the criminal background] gets the necessary services he needs.”

For Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, a tragedy drove their adoption of the criminal-history question. A student at Indiana University-Bloomington committed a murder—but that was after he had been dismissed by the University of Illinois for behavior issues (though not a crime), according to Pamela Brown, the associate director of undergraduate admissions for operations at IUPUI. “We adopted a criminal-disclosure policy because of (1) a safety issue, (2) licensure issues for some majors, and (3) fear of lawsuits if an incident occurred like down in IUB,” she wrote in an email. Brown penned an essay supporting the use of the disciplinary-history question, but she is more ambivalent about the usefulness of the criminal-history question. Nevertheless, in 2007, university trustees at IUPUI decided to adopt the question on the admissions application to create a single policy for employment and admissions practices at all its schools.

“There’s a gut reaction that says people with criminal-history records would be a greater risk,” NaPier said. “That’s a reasonable reaction, but the problem is that the research doesn’t bear that out. I don’t fault people for coming up with that reaction, but the evidence doesn’t bear it out.”

Initially, Indiana University’s criminal-history question only applied to undergraduates, but in March 2015, it was added to graduate-level admissions, according to Brown. (Prior to that, graduate admissions were decentralized and schools had individual policies.) In an average year, Brown’s team sees 29,000 applications. “Between 1 and 5 percent of undergraduate applicants answer yes; some answer the question mistakenly,” Brown said. For fall 2014 and fall 2015, her team received an average of 16,500 applications each semester, of which 1 percent answered yes to having a criminal history. After they self-identify, students with criminal records then have to undergo a separate process, which involves providing various documents and undergoing a review by a campus committee. The scrutiny of the review depends on the severity of the offense. A DWI, DUI, or petty theft, for example, merit added review by the admissions team but are not likely to result in moving “the application to another tier for review.” That next tier is the Prior Misconduct Review Committee—composed of legal counsel, a member of the campus police, the registrar, and sometimes the dean of students. The PMRC “evaluates whether the student can be considered for admission,” given their prior criminal history. If the application clears the committee, it goes back to the general admissions committee for the final decision, Brown explained.

“A majority of students who answered yes contact us if they’re worried about having to go through the process,” Brown said. That’s because the yes/no format can lack nuance. Brown told me that applicants worry that their personal statements don’t provide enough clarity or that they will get other parties in trouble. Some are scared of what the revelation will mean for them. And “sometimes they don’t want to own up to what they’ve done,” Brown said. “The majority of students are not held up in this process as long as they disclose the information. They will be able to be considered for admissions. We work with legal counsel and with students so they understand the process and that we’re not trying to penalize them or make them go through and relive the experiences that they have had.”

The problem is that, when the process gets too onerous, it can feel pretty invasive and overwhelming. “People who admitted to a criminal history were less likely to complete the application due to the supplemental material that was required,” NaPier said of the SUNY campuses. A full two-thirds never finished the application. “Requirements went from burdensome to impossible,” she said. Though SUNY schools only ask about felony convictions, like IUPUI they also have a supplemental process that is set in motion once an applicant checks the yes box. This is common. Most schools require a copy of the rap sheet after an applicant acknowledges a criminal history, “but that may have additional information that is not related to the conviction,” NaPier said, alluding to a list of 38 supplementary documents that may be requested of an applicant, including: a report from the prison psychologist, proof of permanent residence since release, and a statement from a prison administrator about the applicant’s behavior while incarcerated. Some schools may even request a letter from the warden at the prison where the person was incarcerated. “That’s impossible,” she said. “It’s ludicrous to expect that anyone would be able to obtain that.” For some applicants at SUNY New Paltz, checking the box meant an interview with the Ex-Offender Admissions Review Committee.

The Boxed Out report concluded that 62.5 percent of SUNY applicants who disclosed a prior felony conviction never completed their applications, compared with 21 percent of applicants with no criminal history. Even the New York State Bar Association called for banning the box on the college-admissions forms in a recent report, citing the lack of evidence for its value in predicting law breaking on campus and the burden of providing supplementary materials. The data from Boxed Out led NaPier and CCA to conclude that criminal-background questions hurt more than they help. Together with other advocacy organizations, they are determined to see the practice end altogether, starting with New York state, where they helped draft a bill—currently in committee—to prohibit criminal-history questions on college applications. For their part, SUNY students recently rallied against the practice, prompting the SUNY board of trustees to organize a public hearing, which will be held next week.

* * *

Universities and states are starting to consider the impact of asking potential students about their criminal histories. As they try to secure campuses, commit to providing educational access to those who need it most, and offer opportunity to those seeking a life reset, they will find few easy answers. The College & Community Fellowship’s Nixon got a life reset and knows as well as anyone that life is more complicated than a box: “When a person makes a decision to increase their level of education, we should do nothing to discourage those decisions. We do plenty to discourage bad decisions, but we should not discourage good ones.”

Before Ronald Day applied to college, he had had several run-ins with the justice system and eventually served 15 years in prison and five on parole. During his time in prison, he earned 51 college credits and decided to pursue his education further upon release. But he found the extensive application process intimidating. “They asked me for a lot of information about my criminal background, even a letter from my parole officer,” Day said. “I was a little leery about that because sometimes you have an antagonistic relationship with your parole officer.”

Day ultimately got through the tedious application process and enrolled at SUNY Empire. “I felt so humble to be a college student in the community,” he said. “Being able to go on a college campus and knowing that one day I would have a college degree—I felt accepted.” After Day graduated from SUNY Empire, he went on to earn a master’s at the City University of New York, Baruch. But he wasn’t done yet. Day was enthusiastically accepted to a doctoral program at SUNY Stony Brook just minutes after his interview with the director was finished. But two weeks later, he received a letter requesting detailed information about his criminal record, which Day had mentioned in his personal statement. Day decided not to attend the Stony Brook program. He did not see his criminal background as relevant to his potential as a doctoral student, especially since he already had a master’s degree. Currently, Day is the associate vice president of the David Rothenberg Center for Public Policy at the Fortune Society, where he helps released prisoners navigate the reentry process. He is also in the fourth year of a doctoral program at the CUNY Graduate Center—where criminal histories are not requested.

Do Smartphones Have a Place in the Classroom?

LOUISVILLE, Ky.—Walking the hallways between classes at Fern Creek High School in Louisville, Kentucky, I dodge students whose heads are turned down to glowing screens. Earbuds and brightly colored headphones are everywhere. And when I peer into classrooms, I see students tuning out their peers and teachers and focusing instead on YouTube and social media.

These are issues I deal with as an English teacher at Fern Creek. I have guidelines for cellphone and smartphone use, but it’s a constant struggle to keep kids engaged in lessons and off their phones. Even when I know I’ve created a well-structured and well-paced lesson plan, it seems as if no topic, debate, or activity will ever trump the allure of the phone.

The Hechinger Report


Many teachers at Fern Creek are stumped about how to deal with student cellphone and smartphone use.

On the one hand, we know that most students bring a mini-supercomputer to school every day, a device with vast potential for learning. On the other hand, just how and even if smartphones might help students learn remains a troubling question. It’s especially vexing with regard to students who already have low achievement levels or learning problems.

According to our principal, roughly 75 percent of Fern Creek students are considered “gap” kids under Kentucky’s definition—students who belong to groups that, on average, have historically performed below achievement goals. These sometimes overlapping groups include students receiving free or reduced-priced lunch, African American students, English Language Learners, and special-education students. More than half of our gap students scored at the novice (lowest) level on last year’s 10th-grade reading exam. I frequently talk with colleagues about the possibility and challenge of using phones to help gap students from all backgrounds learn.

Students Adonis Scott (left), and Donavin Haugen (right) use their smartphones to sign up for an online review quiz. (Paul Barnwell)

To us, it seems that some kids can handle the multitasking that using phones in school would require; for others, the smartphone is almost always a distraction. Even the visible presence of a phone pulls students—and many adults—away from their focus. Some kids can “switch” attention between the phone as an entertainment device and as a learning tool; for others, the phone’s academic potential is routinely ignored.

“The variance in student ability to focus and engage in the actual task at hand is disconcerting,” said Rob Redies, a Fern Creek chemistry teacher, via email. “Because although technology and the wealth of information that it can provide has the potential to shrink achievement gaps, I am actually seeing the opposite take place within my classroom.”

The phone could be a great equalizer, in terms of giving children from all sorts of socioeconomic backgrounds the same device, with the same advantages. But using phones for learning requires students to synthesize information and stay focused on a lesson or a discussion. For students with low literacy skills and the frequent urge to multitask on social media or entertainment, incorporating purposeful smartphone use into classroom activity can be especially challenging. The potential advantage of the tool often goes to waste.

2014 study on at-risk students’ learning with technology concludes that providing “one-to-one access” to devices in school (students don’t have to share) provides the most benefit. The study does not, however, mention smartphones as a choice tool to achieve greater engagement and academic success.

I next contacted Richard Freed, a clinical psychologist and the author of Wired Child: Reclaiming Childhood in a Digital Age, who works with a wide range of children and families in the San Francisco Bay area.

“High levels of smartphone use by teens often have a detrimental effect on achievement, because teen phone use is dominated by entertainment, not learning, applications,” he said.

I considered the Stanford study and my conversation with Freed as I observed students in my own classroom. Struggling students (from all backgrounds) seem to be more susceptible than their higher-achieving peers to using their smartphones for noneducational purposes while in school. Also, the device does make a difference: When I design and schedule instruction allowing for one-to-one computer access, students get better results than when I try the same thing with one-to-one phone access.

Nonetheless, Redies and I and many of our colleagues attempt to use smartphones productively in class, but I don’t know of any Fern Creek teacher who allows students open access to their devices at all times. This contrasts with the approach of Brianna Crowley, a colleague with whom I’ve worked through the Center for Teaching Quality.

Pennsylvania’s Hershey High School, where Crowley taught English for eight and a half years before recently leaving the classroom for a full-time consulting job with the Center for Teaching Quality, is part of a high-achieving district with few disadvantaged students. For three years, the district has been implementing a “bring your own device” (BYOD) policy in an effort to maximize students’ learning opportunities.

Still, even Crowley has noticed the challenges for struggling students. “Many students who may perform poorly on academic measures seem to see their devices as useful for a narrow range of tasks—most of which involve passive consuming of entertainment or knowledge-level content,” she wrote in an email. If all students are to be successful using smartphones and other technology for learning, Crowley added, then it’s clear that different students may need different activities and different types of support from teachers.

student phone access and the achievement gap by Louis-Philippe Beland and Richard Murphy for the London School of Economics and Political Science echoed my concerns. “We find that mobile phone bans have very different effects on different types of students,” the authors wrote. “Banning mobile phones improves outcomes for the low-achieving students … the most, and has no significant impact on high achievers.”

The study focused on standardized-test data, however, and many educators, like Crowley, question the usefulness of that measure; they would prefer to evaluate learning based on more varied, deeper measures, such as student projects.

“We shouldn’t put these results on a pedestal,” Crowley said.

Yet analyses of other academic metrics seem to support limiting students’ smartphone access, too. Researchers at Kent State University, for example, found that among college students, more daily cellphone use (including smartphones) correlated with lower overall GPAs. The research team surveyed more than 500 students, controlling for demographics and high-school GPA, among other factors. If college students are affected by excessive phone use, then surely younger students with too much access to their phones and too little self-control and guidance would be just as affected academically if not more.

Some school districts with large percentages of struggling students have forged ahead to increase student access to their phones. Last year, New York City’s public-school system lifted its ban.

“It’s like giving kids equal access to cigarettes and candy,” Freed said. “There is a reason that adults have tried to limit and regulate young people’s behavior, given that teens are not as adept at understanding risk and cause and effect.”

However, Crowley believes teachers must adapt classroom instruction to the modern world. “If educators do not find ways to leverage mobile technology in all learning environments, for all students, then we are failing our kids by not adequately preparing them to make the connection between their world outside of school and their world inside school,” she said.

So, is the best learning environment one that’s free from digital distractions for struggling learners—a refuge from the constant barrage of information? Or should schools adapt to the realities of a hyper-connected world in which the vast majority of students carry access to almost-infinite information in their pockets? Or is there a middle ground?

For myself, Redies, Meyer and the staff at Fern Creek—and at many other schools serving large numbers of disadvantaged learners—there is no simple answer.


This post appears courtesy of The Hechinger Report.

Why Would a Teacher Cheat?

It was almost exactly a year ago that 11 former Atlanta educators were convicted of conspiring to tamper with thousands of students’ test scores. The cheating scandal, which led to years of prison time for some of the offenders, has grown to symbolize the ills of America’s emphasis on standardized testing. Tell teachers their salaries are tied to test scores and, the thinking goes, they’ll do whatever it takes to ensure those scores are up to par—even if that means fudging the numbers. Even if that means hurting student achievement.

A state investigation concluded in 2011 that many of the Atlanta students whose scores were falsified by nearly 200 teachers were consequently excluded from remedial education they otherwise needed. And a later Georgia State University study, published last May, found that the tampering had negative long-term academic impacts for those kids, particularly in language arts. “When test results are falsified and students who have not mastered the necessary material are promoted, our students are harmed, parents lose sight of their child’s true progress, and taxpayers are cheated,” Nathan Deal, the governor of Georgia, said in a statement announcing the findings of the state’s probe.

Deceptive scoring practices can be found in schools across the country, and they seem to be growing in popularity in an era that places heavy emphasis on standardized testing. But rarely do those practices involve the kind of cheating that happened in Atlanta, where teachers were caught erasing and changing students’ answers. Instead, they’re typically a lot more subtle—a teacher turning a blind eye to a few errors, for example, or grading an open-ended response leniently—and a lot less selfish. And it turns out that this kind of manipulation might even benefit kids.

One recent study, published earlier this month by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), looks at New York’s Regents Exams, the high-school tests in a handful of subjects that students are required to pass to graduate. Until 2010, teachers were responsible for grading their own students’ exams; they were also required to rescore any tests that fell just a few points below the proficiency threshold. These scoring policies, the economists found, enabled widespread manipulation: 40 percent of the scores near the cutoffs—or 6 percent of all the exams in core subjects—were inflated.

A similar analysis of students in Sweden, published by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research in February, focused on the nationwide math exams administered among all ninth-graders to help determine their GPA and eligibility for high school. (High school in Sweden starts at grade 10.) As was the case with New York’s Regents Exams, the tests are graded locally by students’ own teachers, who at times had to award points based on subjective qualities like “clarity” and “beautiful expression.” True to form, the researchers found that a good deal of test-score inflation happens in the Scandinavian country as well.

The prevalence of test-score manipulation in the United States is well-documented. In fact, with the help of the same researchers who authored the Regents Exams study, The Wall Street Journal in 2011 revealed a significant spike in the number of exams in all the main subjects with scores of 65 points out of 100—the minimum passing grade. (The authors of the Sweden study based their conclusions on similar patterns.) The New York State Education Department quickly adopted a series of changes to grading policies, and by 2012, evidence of manipulation had all but disappeared. What hasn’t been well-documented are the causes and consequences of such manipulation.

When Teachers Cheat


There’s good evidence that score manipulation does harm kids, particularly when teachers are falsifying their responses outright for the sake of avoiding sanctions. But there’s also good evidence to suggest that score inflation—teachers grading a bit more leniently, often because they think the student underperformed on the exam—may have positive effects as well. While inflating an individual student’s test score doesn’t magically inject her with more knowledge, the two aforementioned studies indicate it significantly boosts her odds of overcoming an obstacle increasingly critical to future success: high-school graduation. In New York, according to the NBER authors, having a Regents score manipulated to fall above a cutoff increased the probability of graduating by a hefty 22 percentage points. And because black students were more likely than their white peers to have scores just below the cutoff—and because the score inflation was more common at schools with high concentrations of low-income students of color—the manipulation actually shaved 5 percentage points off the gap between white and black students’ graduation rates. Once the state changed its scoring policies, roughly a quarter of just-below-the-cutoff students weren’t able to pass their exams even after retaking them and thus couldn’t graduate.

The Sweden study yielded similar graduation-rate results, but it also revealed broader advantages. Unlike the U.S., Sweden keeps detailed longitudinal data that allowed the researchers to track student progress not only throughout school, but into the labor market, painting a comprehensive picture of the potential long-term effects of score manipulation. And those effects went well beyond just better grades in one course. For one, the students who had their math scores inflated performed better in other subjects, too, and ultimately received higher cumulative GPAs. The students were more likely to attend college and secure higher-paying jobs. They were less likely to wind up pregnant as teenagers.

The Stanford economists who conducted the analysis speculate that the reason is psychological—the higher test score boosts a kid’s confidence and effort, and perhaps boosted other teachers’ opinions of them as well. For years, psychology studies have demonstrated powerful effects from a phenomenon known as “stereotype threat”: when individuals are primed with negative stereotypes about a group they belong to, they can fail to perform at their genuine ability level on tests. The study on Swedish students suggests a contrary effect: when kids thought they did better than they actually did, that confidence boost helped them to perform better than they previously could.

* * *

When Deal’s office announced the findings of its investigation into the Atlanta cheating scandal, it described the teachers’ and administrators’ actions as “ethical failings.” After all, the educators who tampered with the tests didn’t do so in the name of their students’ educational success; they were avoiding their own punishment. Researchers have long suspected that harsh accountability policies such as those enacted under No Child Left Behind encourage teachers to act dishonestly: “The incidence of negative events associated with high-stakes testing is so great, corruption is inevitable and widespread,” wrote the researchers Sharon Nichols and David Berliner in a 2005 study on the repercussions of such testing.

But the Atlanta example, according to Thomas Dee, a Stanford economist who directs the university’s Center for Education Policy Analysis and co-authored the Regents study, is an anomaly. Indeed, a growing body of international research suggests that the prospect of a raise—or the threat of sanctions—seldom induces teachers to fudge their students’ test scores. Altruistic motivations appear to be at play.

In New York City, for example, Regents scores factor into schools’ progress reports (and, until recently, teachers’ evaluations). Yet manipulation was actually just as prevalent—if not more prevalent—before the city introduced accountability systems under No Child Left Behind. Similar trends were found even in a randomized experiment that explicitly linked teacher pay to Regents scores teachers at some schools.


Distribution of Scores in Non-Math Core Exams Before and After the Implementation of No Child Left Behind  

Thomas S. Dee, Will Dobbie, Brian A. Jacob, and Jonah Rockoff / National Bureau of Economic Research
New York City Department of Education

Distribution of Scores in All Core Exams Based on Whether Teachers’ Salaries Were Tied to Regents Scores (2008-2010)

Thomas S. Dee, Will Dobbie, Brian A. Jacob, and Jonah Rockoff / National Bureau of Economic Research
New York City Department of Education


Dee suspects that teachers often choose to bump up a student’s test score based on “soft information” about that student. By the time the exams are administered, teachers are typically familiar with a kid’s aptitude—whether she’s a good student and well-behaved classmate, how much effort she puts into her homework. If that student’s performance on the Regents exam understates her real-life academic performance—maybe she was sick on the day of the test; maybe her nerves got the best of her—it’s easy to see why a teacher would be tempted to inflate her score.

The authors of the Sweden study draw similar conclusions. While external factors may play a role— the country’s middle schools complete for students and are ranked in part based on the average GPA of their exiting class—teachers, it seems, mostly use their discretion to ‘undo’ having a bad day on the test.” Many may also “experience emotional discomfort when awarding bad grades.”

All this suggests that a little cheating does more good than harm, helping shepherd the kids in need on the path to college or a good career and compensating for the systemic challenges that perpetuate stubborn achievement gaps. But what about the just-below-the-cutoff students who aren’t lucky enough to have their scores inflated? As the authors of the Sweden paper put it, “teacher discretion undermines the equality of opportunity.”

In New York, attitudes toward manipulation—the propensity among teachers to score leniently—appear to have varied significantly from school to school. They also, interestingly, may have even varied within schools. In the Regents study, white and Asian students were more likely than their black and Latino counterparts to have their test scores manipulated if they fell just short of the cutoff—there were just much more black and Latino students total who scored below the threshold. In other words, the score manipulation may have contributed to inequality just as much as it erased it.

“You could argue that … these are students who are close to the threshold, very near it, and it appears that teachers are using information outside of the Regents exam when deciding when to give a students a little bit of a nudge over that threshold,” Dee said. “Getting students to graduate at a higher rate is unequivocally a good thing—being a high-school dropout is sometimes called an economic death sentence with some legitimacy.”

“But someone else might legitimately argue that another goal here is fairness and consistency in high-stakes evaluation procedures,” he continued. “And there’s some capriciousness here that could be understood as problematic … If teachers are going off script in making those designations, we might worry about the implicit biases they bring to bear in making those decisions.” Even seeing a student’s name on a test, Dee said, might lead a teacher to make subconscious assumptions about her merit—to exercise (or not exercise) discretion when scoring the exam.

Meanwhile, in some cases, inflating a student’s Regents Exam score actually undermined her odds of getting a diploma. At the time of the analysis, students could receive one of two diplomas: a basic one and an advanced one. Although the practice may have helped students seeking the former, it hurt those seeking the latter—likely because they weren’t, according to the study, “pushed to re-learn the introductory material or re-take the introductory class that the more advanced coursework requires.”

All that aside, the research lends credence to the criticism of standardized testing as a flawed measurement of student achievement. “As the stakes associated with a test go up, so does the uncertainty about the meaning of a score on the test,” Nichols and Berliner wrote in their analysis, “The Inevitable Corruption of Indicators and Educators Through High-Stakes Testing.” As Dee argued, maybe teachers should have the ability to use their discretion and incorporate “soft information” into their scoring—as long as there’s a systemic way to do so that doesn’t benefit certain students and not others.

This research “really constitutes a cautionary tale about the design elements associated with these tests—[a reminder] that we should take particular care in how we grade them,” Dee said. “This is really going to be salient as we continue to move into this Common Core era, where tests are going to have more open-response elements. There’s going to be human scoring involve in that, and this tells us we want to pay particular attention to … how that scoring occurs.”

What Workplaces Gain When They Send Their Employees Back to School

Can a corporation do right by its workers and boost its bottom line?

A welter of companies have in the past few years made big media splashes about their programs to underwrite the college educations of their workers. While Starbucks, JetBlue, and Fiat-Chrysler are some of the largest to announce their postsecondary plans for employees, the benefit exists at roughly 60 percent of all U.S. companies.

Far less common is an employer evaluating whether its creel of college perks actually benefits the company. A new analysis did just that, and the results suggest that bosses can get serious mileage out of their workers even after spending up to $12,000 annually per employee on their college educations. Though the report focuses on one company, its findings may tamp down suspicions that the recent spate of company offerings are in effect feel-good PR strategies with limited benefits.

Cigna, the health-care giant that posted $38 billion in revenues for 2015, generated a return on investment of 129 percent for its more than 2,200 workers who took advantage of the company’s education-reimbursement program from 2012 to 2014. Employees pursuing a bachelor’s or less received an allowance of $5,250 per year, while those seeking a master’s degree received $8,000. The number crunching, conducted by the Lumina Foundation and the business-consulting firm Accenture, shows that for each dollar spent on their employees, Cigna gained back that dollar and saved another $1.29 in talent-management costs.

Workers gained big, too. The analysis found that entry-level and mid-management employees saw their wages grow by 43 percent over the three-year period compared to colleagues who didn’t take part in Cigna’s education-reimbursement program. The wages of participating entry-level workers alone grew by 57 percent, based on an examination of roughly 200 similar workers who did and didn’t take part in the tuition program. Overall, the number of promotions rose by 10 percent and that of internal transfers by 7.5 percent for all employees irrespective of skill and rank, compared to the non-participating employees. Crucially, turnover declined by 8 percent, which on its own may lead to major savings. Workforce churn can cost up to 200 percent of the annual salary of the outgoing worker, a 2008 study estimated. In addition to expanding their educations at a discount, Cigna also reimbursed workers for fees associated with applications, course registration, exams, and graduation.

previously reported for The Atlantic. Other companies either partner with a single institution or give their workers latitude and promise to reimburse those employees after they’ve completed a term or more. The tuition benefit often maxes out at what the IRS permits as a tax write-off—$5,250. This month airline company JetBlue announced a partnership with Thomas Edison State University, covering the associate’s degrees upfront for its workers while a bachelor’s would cost the employee $3,500.

Business Champions, a group of large U.S. employers that produce strategies to bring more workers up to speed on what employers spect of them.

Half of Cigna’s workers participating in the tuition-reimbursement program are first-time college students, suggesting that such plans may help to drive up the total number of U.S. workers with college degrees or certificates. (Currently, an estimated 1 million Americans are enrolled in postsecondary institutions through their employers.) Still, the foundation and others have contended that financial aid from state and federal funds will need to be better target the low-income students who are the least likely to attain a degree. Lumina’s stake in this is clear: The foundation wants 60 percent of workers in the United States in possession of a degree or certificate by 2025; the percentage today is around 45 percent. At the pace the country is going, the United States will hit 54 percent by 2025—a deficit of nearly 3 million workers who will lack college credentialing.

How Forgiving Student Loans Helps Farmers

This is the first spring Davon Goodwin will spend running his own farm. The young farmer is planting grapes and elderberries and raising pastured pork and lamb on Off The Land (OTL) Farms. He’s leasing 150 acres in Raeford, North Carolina, from the farm that he currently manages, Fussy Gourmet, owned by an eye surgeon in town.

Starting a farm is hard for anyone, but Goodwin has an extra burden to bear: $9,000 in student-loan debt. And although he works for both farms, Goodwin’s financial prospects are bleak. The average U.S. farm brought in only $43,750 in net income in 2012 (according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture), an amount usually divided between operators.

When it comes to his own farm’s income, Goodwin is often torn between buying what he needs to expand his operation or spending that money to pay back his student loans.

Civil Eats


Stories like Goodwin’s have become a rallying cry for the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC), an advocacy group representing farmers in the first 10 years of their professional careers.

Young farmers are facing tough odds—yet they have very little support. The average age of the American farmer is 58 years old, while only 6 percent are under the age of 35 years old. In the U.S., 63 percent of farmland is on the cusp of being passed on and many of these older stewards will need to find new tenants or sell their land in the next five years. But in many cases, that transition just isn’t happening—and banks, equity firms, and large corporate farms are buying up the land instead. Between 2007 and 2012, the number of farm operators in the U.S. dropped by 90,000, while the number of young farmers increased by only 1,200.

The NYFC has pinpointed a number of barriers of entry for new farmers, including sky-high land prices, lack of access to water, and lack of training. Along with these hurdles, NYFC has zeroed in on an issue affecting about 40 million Americans and around 70 percent of college graduates: student-loan debt.

Like Goodwin, people with student-loan debt are less likely to buy houses or cars, and they save less for retirement. This applies to would-be farmers: In a survey of 700 members with student loan debt, NYFC said that nearly 30 percent are waiting to pursue farming, or chose not to pursue it at all, because they don’t think a farming salary would help them pay off their loans.

“It gets frustrating because we hear that we need more farmers, but I don’t see the government—local, state, or federal—trying to increase the number of us,” Goodwin said.

Now, NYFC is campaigning to elevate the role of the farmer to that of a public servant, much like a doctor, teacher, or police officer. It’s an issue that NYFC has lobbied strongly for in recent months, releasing a report on the matter in June and recruiting celebrities like chef Curtis Stone to advocate for the cause.

“Farmers are stewarding our environment, producing food we eat, and they are the anchor of rural communities,” says Eric Hansen, a policy analyst at NYFC. “A really important public benefit is being provided by these farmers.”

With the help of the NYFC, Representatives Chris Gibson, a republican from New York and Joe Courtney, a democrat from Connecticut, introduced the Young Farmer Success Act in Congress last June. The bill would add farming to a list of careers that receive student-loan relief through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. Under the program, participants would have the balance of their student loans forgiven after working full-time on a farm for 10 years while making income-driven payments towards their loans. There would be no age limit to take advantage of the program, but eligible farmers would need to work on a farm or ranch that brings in annual gross revenue of $35,000 (adjusted annually for inflation) or more.

Some have criticized the bill for not putting an age or income cap on the program, but Hansen says that the bill’s wording ensures that those with the most need will be given the most aid. Because loan payments are based on a farmer’s yearly income, they will rise when his or her salary does. “If the farmer makes enough money, they will pay off the loans before the loan forgiveness kicks in,” Hansen wrote in an email.

Going forward, the plan is to attach the bill to the much larger Higher Education Act (HEA) reauthorization as an amendment to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. While the current Congress is notorious for stalling on and even blocking a high percentage of legislation, Hansen says the passing of the Every Student Succeeds Act (HEA’s K-12 equivalent) in December has cleared the decks for the HEA reauthorization to move forward. This, and the energy surrounding the HEA reauthorization on the Hill, has given the NYFC and Gibson hope that it will gain momentum this year.

In addition to attracting new farmers to the profession, Representative Gibson also sees the bill as a way to fight the growing influence that large, consolidated farms have had on U.S. agriculture.

“The USDA says that we need to inspire 100,000 new farmers over the next decade or we are going to get more consolidation and more imports from overseas,” says Gibson. “If you want to be a thriving country, you have to grow and produce locally. We’re not nearly keeping up.”

But some have also questioned what that new generation of farmers will look like, noting that forgiving student-loan debt has the tendency to favor white and more affluent young farmers. About 40 percent of white Americans age 25 to 29 years old had a bachelor’s degree or more in 2013, compared to only 20 percent of African Americans and 15 percent of Hispanics in the same demographic.

However, NYFC’s Hansen pointed out that while there are more white young people carrying student loan debt in America, that’s only half of the story. “There has been a lot of interesting research recently on the effect of student-loan debt on minority communities. While these communities carry less debt overall, they are disproportionately impacted by that debt.” For these reasons, he adds, “we know we have to look for additional ways to lower barriers for people of color who want to be farmers.”

For Goodwin, the bill poises a very real opportunity, one that could help bridge the gap between part-time and full-time farm owner—and the gap between an aging farm population and a new generation of American farmers.


This article appears courtesy of Civil Eats.

The Tools of Campus Activists Are Being Turned Against Them

At UC Davis, where student activists still hope to oust Chancellor Linda Katehi, critics of their activism are using concepts like “safe space” and “hostile climate” to attack it.

The student activists had occupied a small room outside Katehi’s office, planning to stay until their chancellor resigned or was removed from her post. By the time they left 36 days later, a petition that now bears roughly 100 signatures of UC Davis students and staff were demanding that they prematurely end their occupation, criticizing their tactics, and alleging a number of grave transgressions: The signatories accused the student activists of sexism, racism, bullying, abuse, and harassment, complaining that many who used the administration building “no longer feel safe.” The student activists say that those charges are unfair.

The conflict illustrates a pattern that campus observers are likely see more and more in coming years: Insofar as progressives succeed in remaking campuses into places unusually sensitive to psychological harms, where transgressing against “safe spaces” is both easy to do and verboten, confrontational activism will no longer be viable.

Too many people feel upset by it.

* * *

Like the activists who’ve called on Katehi to resign, I’ve condemned the 2011 pepper-spraying of UC Davis students lawfully assembled on a quad, the Katehi administration’s costly attempt to scrub that assault on students from Google, and Katehi’s ill-conceived if lucrative moonlighting on the board of a textbook company.

This week, the Sacramento Bee reports that Katehi hired more crisis communication consultants when the student activists started occupying her office, because, in her words, “You have students in front of your office, you know it’s a crisis.” She didn’t use her existing communications staff for whatever it is that the consultants do because “no one on UC Davis’ communications staff has crisis-management experience.” Though the students have now left her office area, “the firm is still in the university’s employment working on another crisis that the chancellor said she could not reveal.” Nothing about these statements is reassuring!

The fact that anti-Katehi students are now under fire should not influence UC system overseers, state legislators, Davis professors, or voters as they gauge their confidence in the chancellor’s administration. Even critics of the activists note that their movement neither supports nor opposes Katehi—its members are united only by objections to activist tactics.

But the anti-activist backlash is relevant to those trying to understand campus politics and to activists who care enough about righteous causes to avoid derailing them. The 100-some critics of the campus activists began their statement as follows:

Some of us agree with the broader issues of the protesters, like greater transparency and more dialogue between the students and campus administration. But we write to strongly condemn the tactics of the protesters, including sexist and racist behaviors, threatening and bullying of staff, students and faculty who come to Mrak Hall to work. We feel that these actions undermine not only the values of our campus community, but also the ideals which the protesters claim to defend. Several students and staff have been treated abusively by the protesters.

It’s worth pausing here to note that, this being a group petition on a college campus, what’s characterized as “threatening” and “bullying” and “abuse” may describe behavior that others would call “harassing” or “annoying” or “irritating.” Concept creep has robbed us of linguistic clarity or precision in these  matters.

That said, the first specific allegation is disconcerting:

Several protesters took to shouting that an employee was a “coconut” (brown on the outside, white on the inside) for being a Latina who works for UC Davis.

Since my days in college, when I first heard a friend attacked as a “banana” for challenging a belief of a campus Asian American group, my blood has boiled at the tiny but noxious subset of leftists who stress the importance of identity in politics, then try to exclude people of color from their own  respective racial groups–– often using slurs––to evade an inconvenient reality: Neither African Americans nor Latinos nor Asian Americans  nor Pacific Islanders nor women are ideologically monolithic. Social-justice progressives do not speak for many in those groups.

The statement continued:

Several students and staff were stalked for a period of time after leaving a meeting with the Chancellor. Many students and staff who are supposed to work in Mrak no longer feel safe. Staff and student workers have been also filmed without their permission. For the sake of the daily operations of UC Davis, we call upon the Mrak Hall protesters to move their protest to a location that does not lead to these aggressive disruptions of UC staff and student work spaces in case they have plans to continue this protest.

Again, I suspect my threshold for what constitutes “stalking” is higher than that employed by the authors of this letter. What’s beyond dispute is that a group of protesters followed Katehi and a small group of students and staff she was speaking with across campus, filming them without their consent, snarking at  Katehi, making her companions visibly uncomfortable—as almost anyone would have been in similar circumstances—and coming off … well, you can judge for yourself:

This was petulant and self-indulgent. It was an excuse for two or three activists to peacock and self-aggrandize. The fact that it was posted publicly, as if those who took the footage thought it reflected well on them even in hindsight, astonishes me. The female activist who shouts her head off across campus, literally serenading her chancellor with insults, claims at one point that she is being silenced!

But the part that struck me most is when, at roughly 6:25, one of the student activists reacts to the apparently unplanned arrival of an adult black male, who is friendly toward Katehi, by accusing the chancellor of “doing what they usually do, which is grabbing a person of color as a shield—that’s a tactic that the chancellor likes to use.”

This for merely talking to a black person who approached.

That activist couldn’t see the black man as an autonomous subject—only as a white person’s prop. The offensive jump makes sense within a highly stylized ideology wherein Katehi is “the oppressor” and all black people are “the oppressed.” By that logic, the only possible reason she would be doing something as enlightened as cordially interacting with one of “the oppressed” is if the black man was functioning not as a person, but as a “prop” and a “tactic,” never mind his agency.

The whole encounter is dripping with dehumanization.

It’s ironic, this recurring feature of campus protests: Time after time, activists wield phone cameras, intending to publicly discredit any adversary who lets so much as a “microaggression” slip. And in doing so, they inadvertently reveal prejudices that spring predictably, though quite unintentionally, from flaws in their belief system.

The statement opposing the occupation of the administration building concluded as follows:

The administration has also committed to addressing conflict of interest issues more transparently. Beyond this, what is the real goal of this protest? Day by day more staff and students are harassed as they merely commute to their offices to do the work that supports the primary mission of this institution: teaching, research and public service.

We feel that this protest has lost its purpose and is dividing the campus community. The protest has fostered a hostile climate on UC Davis campus. We want to see a united campus and not a divided campus. The reality is that Chancellor Katehi’s resignation will not solve the problems of privatization.

The tactics of the protesters to aggressively and abrasively silence other students, staff and faculty with whom they do not share the same opinion is hypocritical, abusive and contrary to the ideals of our institution, which fosters free and open debate. We call upon the Mrak Hall protesters to ‘walk the walk’ and engage the broader campus community in a dialogue on the legitimate issues of transparency, privatization and reform. By dialogue we do not mean acquiescing to the Chancellor’s or Regents’ opinion. Rather, we would like to encourage the protesters and the rest of the campus community to have a constructive dialogue in an environment that is not hostile, aggressive and threatening to those with whom they do not share an opinion.

Notice that the activists are being accused of fostering “a hostile climate,” of acting to “silence” students, staff, and faculty—the very transgressions that loom so large on college campuses because of the ideology advanced by other social-justice activists.

Of course, one needn’t adopt the social-justice left’s ideas about “sensitivity to harm,” or find it credible that anyone on either side was somehow “silenced” at UC Davis, to believe some anti-Katehi activists behaved badly. I’ve already objected to the behavior of the activists in the video above. Legally speaking, I rather doubt that anyone crossed the “hostile climate” threshold for any staffers in the administration building, but I can’t be certain. A rotating band of more than one hundred students were in and out, in small groups, for a month. Some were polite, others rude. I do not know who did what to whom, or how often they did it. Odds are I would find the behavior of some activists laudable and others worthy of sharp criticism. But the accounts of Katehi’s subordinates can’t be presumed unbiased.

Regardless, all this raises a larger question: almost everyone agrees that student protests of some sort should be tolerated, or even celebrated—and that, beyond a given threshold of aggressiveness or disruptiveness, it’s legitimate to enforce harassment laws, constitutional time-and-place restrictions, and other lawful limits.

But how is that threshold set?

The classic liberal answers are relatively well trod.

The civil-rights movement, the free-speech movement, the anti-Vietnam protests, and protesters on both sides of the gun and abortion questions have all deliberately tried to make others uncomfortable, intellectually if not physically. They’ve all shouted, insulted, provoked, and tried to deny their opponents “safe spaces.”

Today’s strain of campus progressivism has a more ambiguous relationship with traditional liberal values, finding them too viewpoint neutral and rough-and-tumble.

Still, most campus protests are left-leaning. And administrators cannot help but realize that almost all of that activism is, on some level, about confrontation—that it frequently involves a lot of shouting or chanting or marching or banging on drums. Now, any time such protests challenge the interests of the administration, or make their jobs marginally harder or their lives marginally more inconvenient, they can always pinpoint some folks who are earnestly upset or unnerved by all the ruckus.

They can always undermine the activists of the moment by finding the students experiencing “trauma” from all the conflict; the staff members who feel “unsafe” around protesters, the community member who, in the new paradigm, somehow feel “silenced.”

As best I can tell, this does not worry leftist activists yet, perhaps because they mostly operate on shorter time-horizons than other campus power brokers, or perhaps because they see themselves as marginalized and mistakenly believe these standards will never be applied to them, even though it’s already happening.

When I reached out to a contact at UC Davis, soliciting a response to the allegations made against the anti-Katehi movement, I got a few thoughtful emails back.

Here’s Rebecca Senteny, an English major at UC Davis:

Being in a position of power means that you should be open and responsive to criticism. It also means that you have advantages over those who would criticize you, such as students, workers, and lower-level staff. Because of this advantage, these groups often have to engage in tactics outside of the system in order to have their concerns be truly addressed.

Loud forms of protest such as marches and sit-ins might be classified as bullying by some and as a refusal to engage in civil dialogue, but this critique is assuming that so-called “civil forms of dialogue” are not disproportionately in favor of those in leadership positions and that student activists, workers, etc will be able to engage in that dialogue in a fair way.

Have the Fire Katehi protestors been loud? Yes. Have we been direct? Yes. Have we been bullies? I do not think so. Many of the students, workers, and community members that have been involved in this protest are from marginalized communities and in a much more vulnerable position than Katehi or her administration; they have the chance to really harm us, either by arrest, academic suspension, or even expulsion.

If we had the power to bully the chancellor, then why is she still in office? We are so powerful that we have been protesting for over a month and she is still there. We have more people than her, but she has more power. She has the power to contact the entire student body at once; we do not have the power to respond to all of the students in kind with our own side of the story. The administration can continue to paint us as bullies, Katehi can say that she feels personally attacked, and some people will continue to buy into that, because what is the argument of a few passionate students in the face of administrative power. However, we will continue to fight for our university and for the disenfranchised, even against the odds, because together we can be powerful.

There are important aspects of that email that I agree with, and it would be a relatively strong response to the counterprotesters if they’d just accused the student activists of bullying Katehi. But the difference-in-power argument disappears when the allegations of “bullying,” “silencing,” and creating a “hostile climate” are being made by low-salary staff and fellow students.

Here’s an email from anti-Katehi activist Carli Hambley, a third year Anthropology major:

Living in Mrak Hall was on the one hand, for the sake of the community the protesters created, one of the more supportive, inclusive, and accountable spaces I’ve been a part of; while on the other, for the fault of the administrators, was one of the more draining, toxic, and unhealthy spaces I’ve been in. While many of the staff in Mrak Hall were genuinely supportive of us and shared our goals, many more of the administrators were condescending, transphobic, immature, and just outright mean.

Every day, some high up administrator—usually Milton Lang, Anne Myler, or Sheri Atkinson—would come in to give us “our daily reminders” as they would call them, which, in reality, were candid threats against our safety as they served to remind us of the omnipresent police that “were out of their control” and of our violations of Student Code that could cost us our position as students at UC Davis.

I remember one night Sheri and Milton came in and told us that the staff of the fifth floor were filing reports against us because they were concerned for their safety, and when I questioned them about what we are supposed to do about our safety, all Milton could say was to call the police or file a report. The whole reason we were in that room and the reason we are continuing to fight for an accountable administration is because our safety as students and workers, especially that of people of color and queer and trans* people of color on this campus, has been under attack for so long.

While the administrators on the fifth floor make multi-figure salaries and write their reports behind locked doors, we sit open and vulnerable with no process or promise for our safety.

Notice that this student complained about some sort of “I’m concerned for my safety” reports being filed, ostensibly illegitimately, against student activists—the very development that critics of illiberalism on campus have predicted. In her view, it’s the people on her side who are unsafe, who are “under attack.” She’s implicitly appealing to outsiders who read her press statement to make a judgment call, to skeptically evaluate what others at Davis are claiming about their safety.

Again, I don’t know enough about what really happened to take sides. But I don’t think activists like her can prevail in this dispute if they live on a campus where subjectively asserting that one feels unsafe is never to be questioned or challenged. Hambley implicitly made a case for objective standards and logical scrutiny.

Here’s another voice from UC Davis, former graduate student Amandeep Kaur, who is now a Chancellor’s Science Fellow and Director of the Emerging Leaders in Policy and Public Service program. As a woman of color she is, in the previous emailer’s telling, under attack from the Katehi administration. Yet she wrote this in a public Facebook post:

Today I was BULLIED by Fire Katehi protestors when I entered the 5th floor of Mrak Hall. I am Chancellor Linda Katehi’s Science Fellow and I have been working in the Office of the Chancellor for almost last 2 years.

Before that, as a student leader and an advocate for underrepresented student groups during my time as a PhD student at UC Davis, I advocated for numerous causes and organized Diversity Dialogues on Graduate Education which were attended by 300 members of UC Davis community. I organized a campaign in 2012-13 which led to new post candidacy fellowships for international PhD students and a revised budget model the following year. I know what oppression feels like and today 2 of these protestors oppressed me and questioned my identity as a woman of color.

They engaged with me when I entered the office through the elevator. They stalked the Chancellor, Vice Chancellor, me and a student when we were walking to the Mrak Hall prior to that. And then one of them laughed in my face when I said to them stop bullying me after they engaged with me and questioned my ethics because I work in the Office of the Chancellor. I have kept quiet for a long time but today when I was bullied I have decided to break my silence. I will not tolerate racism, bullying and oppression ever, no matter where it comes from. To me its hurtful and its unacceptable.Chancellor Linda Katehi has been a huge supporter of students and I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to not only work with her when I was a student on this campus and now as her science fellow as well. ‪#‎StopBullying‬ ‪#‎StopBullyingUCDStaff‬

Some campus activists seem to think that, by declaring themselves marginalized and the people they protest “oppressors,” they can benefit from a double-standard in how sensitive to harm they’re expected to be. In the short run, this sometimes works. But the world is rarely divided neatly between oppressors and the oppressed, especially on college campuses. There are people of color on every college campus who will sharply, earnestly disagree with almost any activist effort of any significance.

And in the long run, it’s strange to count on a status quo where the powerful willingly hold themselves to disadvantageous standards with regard to people they’re “oppressing.”

That just isn’t going to happen.

None of that is to render any overall judgment in the dispute between the UC Davis occupiers, who’ve done a service by bringing wider attention to Katehi’s misdeeds, and the folks who urged them to end their occupation, who may or may not have sound grievances. There’s too much I don’t know about the contradictory claims flying around, and all of it is cloaked in such slippery language and creeping concepts as to be impenetrable. But I’m confident that both sides really do feel “unsafe” and “bullied,” whatever those words have come to mean in their campus subculture. To me, that underscores why subjective feelings about such things just can’t determine winners and losers in campus politics.

Now that the Davis occupation is over—as Katehi confers with her crisis communication consultants as they work on their secret project—anti-Katehi activists are plotting their next steps. I hope the offending activists will reconsider their ugly, prejudicial treatment of black and brown people who are allied with the embattled chancellor, and refocus on the fact that a powerful substantive case for Katehi’s ouster can be made without any need to be personally hostile, snide, or sanctimonious to any classmates, professors, UC Davis staff, or even Katehi herself.

Hopefully, the more responsible anti-Katehi activists will influence their peers.

A lot is at stake. The UC Davis protests touch on nationally important problems: administrative accountability, the stifling of lawful protest, police brutality, excessive union protections for cops, and the corporatization of higher education, exemplified by a chancellor taking money from a textbook company and—it’s almost too perfect—the hiring of a PR firm to scrub posts about police brutality on campus from the web, which is to say, a university elevating corporate image over the search for facts.

Yet for a subset of activists, righteous grievances have not translated into constructive activism. They’ve needlessly alienated a sizable group of their peers, whether because they lost perspective on how they are seen outside their bubbles or underestimated their vulnerability to attack by social justice concepts. Respectability politics is a much maligned term in left-wing activist circles––to a counterproductive degree, Randall Kennedy has argued––yet it seems to me that a new type of respectability politics is the unintended consequence of social justice ideology. If that ideology keeps spreading, successful left-wing activism will have to police itself, on college campuses, to be less confrontational, less “silencing,” whatever that means, and less aggressive, so that no one feels “unsafe.” It isn’t clear to me that any activism of significance can survive those conditions.

In the end, unreformed social justice activism may destroy itself.

Beyond the Word Gap

My co-teacher is stirring sugar into a pitcher of hot water. Our students, ages 4 and 5, stand around the table, watching the sugar intently. “It’s dissolving!” one student cries out. “What does that mean—dissolving?” my co-teacher probes. Another child raises his hand. “It means, like, disappearing, or disintegrating.”

My students are the children of doctors, lawyers, teachers, and other professionals, and have been hearing words like “dissolve” and “disintegrate” since they were babies. The extensive vocabularies of children like them have been causing quite a stir among researchers and policymakers for two decades now, since the publication of a study finding that children of professionals might hear 45 million words uttered before the age of 4, and that children on welfare might hear just 13 million. This early difference in exposure to vocabulary, the study claims, can shape how well kids do in school later on.

Betty Hart and Todd Risley, then child psychologists at the University of Kansas, published those findings in 1995. They later called this disparity the “word gap,” and their work on it has been cited in more than 5,000 academic publications, inspired dozens of news articles, and garnered eager, vocal advocates, chief among them Hillary Clinton. These advocates see campaigns to encourage parents to talk more with their young children as a first step toward closing the achievement gap. But some experts are pushing back, saying that efforts to close the word gap, while well-intentioned, might represent just another attempt at a quick fix to solve complex social and economic problems.

In the late ‘90s, Clinton convened a White House conference on early-childhood development, working in her capacity as the First Lady. Then, in 2013, she announced the Clinton Foundation’s “Too Small to Fail” initiative, which in part intends to expose parents to scientific research on child development, and engage businesses as partners in doing so. With nearly each effort, Clinton has highlighted Hart and Risley’s study. Too Small to Fail has launched a campaign through social media and community partnerships, “Talking is Teaching: #TalkReadSing,” to encourage parents to engage in those activities with their children. (Clinton resigned from her board position in April in order to focus on her presidential run.)

The talking campaign has attracted support from all kinds of influential entities and players—the American Academy of Pediatrics and Univision are just two of its partners. Celebrities like Jennifer Garner and Kelly Rowland have joined the effort, mooing and clapping their way through PSAs about talking, reading, and singing. Elmo nabbed an exclusive interview with Chelsea Clinton for People magazine, in which the former first daughter revealed how often she and her husband read to their young daughter, Charlotte. When Dana Suskind, a University of Chicago neurosurgeon, published her book, Thirty Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain, last fall, Arne Duncan, then the Secretary of Education, headlined an event on her book tour.* President Obama partnered with Too Small to Fail in 2014 for “Bridging the Word Gap week,” a White House initiative that announced federal grants to fund “low-cost, scalable technological interventions” to support caregivers’ interactions with their children. These advocates see talking, reading, and singing as ways parents can make a big impact in their children’s lives, particularly when those children grow up in poverty. In the United States, 47 percent of children under 5 live in low-income families.

In a video for Too Small to Fail, Cindy McCain, the wife of Senator John McCain, spoke of the “word gap” as one might refer to an illness, noting, “This troubling difference among vocabularies in young children presents itself early in life.” She urged parents, “It’s not hard, and it doesn’t take any money. All it takes is a little love and a little time throughout the day to build talking, reading, and singing into the parent’s daily schedule.” But experts wonder: Is the word gap really as wide as advocates claim? And if so, is closing it really that easy?

group of linguistic anthropologists concerned with social justice has raised concerns about the study’s racial undertones and its methodology. They point out that the sample size was small—just 42 families in the Kansas City area—and that nearly all of the professional families were white, while all of the six families receiving welfare were black. There are challenging, historically rooted power dynamics at play when researchers enter homes of low-income people of color, two members of this group, Eric Johnson and Netta Avineri, stressed in an interview. These linguistic anthropologists and other scholars have suggested that the highly educated, white families may have become more talkative than normal with their children in response to the presence of university researchers, where the less-educated, black families in Hart and Risley’s study may have become withdrawn, fearing judgment. “Think about how odd that is—a family is welcoming someone into their home who is not part of their community, and whose only purpose there is to study them,” Johnson said.

That aside, these scholars argue the emphasis on how many words kids hear is problematic in itself. Hart and Risley chose to study the total number of words uttered to a child. But such counts say little about about the range of vocabulary caregivers used, let alone the quality of an interaction. Were a caregiver to repeat the word “dog” hundreds of times a day, that would, strictly speaking, satisfy the requirements to “close the word gap.” In reality, a complex web of factors affects child development. As Michael Erard, a linguist, wrote for The Atlantic in 2014, “Just as solving climate change isn’t about closing the polar bear gap, and preventing environmental degradation isn’t about closing the tree gap, you can’t increase children’s school readiness by closing the word gap.”

Meanwhile, some experts who study the well-being of low-income children of color wonder whether the word-gap data, valid or not, is being overemphasized. Hakim Rashid, a human-development professor at Howard University, said, “I think the word gap is real but I don’t think it is the major determinant of what happens to young children, and young black boys in particular,” noting that low-income children of color are least likely to have access to the most well-resourced early-childhood programs. Oscar Barbarin, a child psychologist who chairs the African American Studies department at the University of Maryland, concurred, adding that interest in the word gap speaks to a widespread interest in miracle solutions. “If the problem facing low-income children of color is simply a question of parents saying more words and longer words, it would be much easier to fix than poverty and access to education for adults,” he said. “It’d be much easier to fix than the sense of alienation that poor and ethnic minority groups feel from mainstream society.” Elizabeth Rose, a historian and author of The Promise of Preschool, said the search for such solutions is unsurprising: “In any historical period you’re more likely to see reformers who are not about creating revolution but reforming a system.” “Efforts to improve the poor by improving their families,” she noted, “have quite a long history.”

are more likely than others to work overnight and on weekends, and have irregular schedules without paid time off. Their hours require them to find childcare for hours that many centers are closed and commute when public transportation may not be available. These are the parents that Hart and Risley were most likely to classify as “taciturn.”

Claire McCarthy, a pediatrician who has worked with low-income families for more than two decades, has participated in Reach Out and Read, a partner of Too Small To Fail. “I’m sure I’ve helped,” she wrote in a piece for The Huffington Post, emphasizing that she admires Too Small to Fail’s work and appreciates the chance to educate parents about reading with their children. “But the lives of my patients haven’t gotten appreciably better.” She reflected on the things that “a book and a pep talk can’t do”: improve adult literacy, relieve parents’ workloads, or eliminate the toxic stress that can pervade every family interaction, for example. According to the nonprofit Child Trends, the U.S. spends a smaller percentage of its GDP on benefits for families than nearly any other high-income country, despite having one of the highest relative child poverty rates.

The Ever-Tightening Job Market for Ph.D.s

If you’re a grad student, it’s best to read the latest report from the National Science Foundation with a large glass of single-malt whiskey in hand. Scratch that: The top-shelf whiskey is probably out of your budget. Well, Trader Joe’s “Two Buck Chuck” is good, too!

Liquid courage is a necessity when examining the data on Ph.D.s in the latest NSF report, “The Survey of Earned Doctorates,” which utilized figures from the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center. The report finds that many newly minted Ph.D.s complete school after nearly 10 years of studies with significant debt and without the promise of a job. Yet few people seem to be paying attention to these findings; graduate programs are producing more Ph.D.s than ever before.

Getting a Ph.D. has always been a long haul. Despite calls for reform, the time spent in graduate programs hasn’t declined significantly in the past decade. In 2014, students spent eight years on average in graduate school programs to earn a Ph.D. in the social sciences, for example. It takes nine years to get one in the humanities, seven for science fields and engineering, and 12 for education, according to NSF. In other words, Ph.D.s are typically nearing or in their 30s by the time they begin their careers. Many of their friends have probably already banked a decade’s worth of retirement money in a 401K account; some may have already put a down payment on a small town house.



While most doctoral students rely primarily on some combination of grants, teaching assistantships, and research positions to cover tuition and living expenses, they also often use personal savings, spouses’ earnings, and student loans. Consequently, more than 12 percent of all Ph.D.s complete their doctoral programs with over $70,000 of combined undergraduate and graduate student-loan debt. Rates are especially high in the social sciences and education. Those debt levels are alarming, especially because fewer students have jobs lined up immediately after graduation than was the case 10 years ago.



The job market for those with advanced degrees is clearly tightening, according to the NSF study, with many more Ph.D.s in all fields reporting no definite job commitments in 2014 compared to 2004. Nearly 40 percent of the Ph.D.s surveyed in 2014 hadn’t lined up a job—whether in the private industry or academia—at the time of graduation.

It may not be surprising that Ph.D.s in the humanities and social sciences are struggling to find tenure-track faculty jobs. After all, graduate schools produced two new history Ph.D.s for every tenure-track job opening in 2014. However, with the heavy push towards STEM at universities and opportunities for positions in the private industry, the employment woes for engineering and science Ph.D.s are puzzling.



Ph.D. graduates who reported that they had accepted positions found work in the private industry, academia, or as post-docs. Most Ph.D.s in the humanities, education, and social sciences who have secured plans will work in academia—but the report does not indicate whether they are employed in tenure-track positions, in non-tenure track jobs, or as temporary adjunct jobs, which have grown in popularity in recent years.

A Ph.D. who wins the rare job as a tenure-track professor earns on average about $60,000 per year, according to the NSF report. In contrast, post-doc positions—temporary research spots that are most common in the sciences and draw 39 percent of the Ph.D.s with post-graduation commitments at universities—pay a little over $40,000 per year. Incidentally, the median entrance-level salary for college graduates with a B.A. in 2014 was $45,478.

It’s unclear what happens to the 40 percent of Ph.D.s who don’t get a job of some sort—even of the post-doc variety—after graduation. Perhaps some move onto other professions after a year or so. Maybe some work for peanuts as adjuncts. Others may rely on their partner’s income. What’s more, as Inside Higher Ed’s Scott Jaschik notes, the tightening job market means increases job market competitiveness, as new Ph.D.s must compete for positions not only with their own cohort but also with the unemployed Ph.D.s. who graduated in previous years.

So, you would think that this kind of information, which has already been discussed in many news articles and books over the years, would dissuade universities from admitting more students. You might even think that super smart students would try their hands at other careers. After all, when news about the bad employment market for lawyers came out, the number of applications to law schools plummeted. Wouldn’t the same thing happen to Ph.D. programs? Apparently not.

In 2014, doctoral programs in the United States awarded 54,070 Ph.D.s—12,000 more than 2004. All fields, except for education, saw an increase, with the biggest increases in science and engineering.



Why hasn’t all this information helped winnow down the ranks of aspiring professors—why hasn’t it proved to be an effective Ph.D. prophylactic? Are people risking so much in the hopes of getting a cushy job with a six-figure salary and no teaching requirements? Is it because academia is a cult that makes otherwise sane people believe that there is no life outside of the university? Are graduate programs failing to inform their students about the realities of the job market? There are no answers to those questions in the charts and graphs from the NSF.

Without serious changes in higher education, such as higher pay for adjunct professors or decreasing the time spent in graduate school, chances are thousands of new Ph.D.s in their early 30s will be struggling this fall.