Why Is a High School in One of America’s Richest Counties Still Failing?

BRIDGEPORT, Conn.The inequalities that afflict Connecticut’s largest city have been evident since 1961, when the veteran journalist Nancy Hendrick wrote a blistering column in the Bridgeport Sunday Herald.

“[F]or quite a few years now not enough people in Washington have cared what’s happening here—and in a hundred other Bridgeports across the country,” she wrote. “What frustrates us is that in this crowded, unplanned, unlovely city, there is so much to be done that no one can tell where to start.”

Later that week, The Connecticut Post reported that when state educators came to Bridgeport to evaluate Bassick High School, they praised the teachers but balked at the city’s lack of financial support—noting that students were forced to pay for their own books, science equipment, globes, and maps.

“This situation makes a mockery of a free public education,” they wrote. “If Bridgeport were a poor community in a poor state in a poor nation, this condition might be more easily understood.”

The Seventy Four

Fifty-five years later, Bridgeport is now largely a poor community—despite its location in the richest county in one of the nation’s richest states. The city has sprawling green spaces and gracious parks, some designed by the famed Central Park creator Frederick Law Olmsted. But is perhaps better known for its long line of corrupt politicians, including the current Mayor Joe Ganim, re-elected last year after spending five years in prison for embezzling taxpayer dollars.

Poverty and violence persist. Bridgeport is commonly labeled one of the most dangerous cities in the U.S. Twenty percent of the racially diverse population—which numbers close to 150,000—are living in poverty, including a quarter of all the city’s youth. But just 12 miles away in Westport, where Martha Stewart and Paul Newman once lived beyond the Maserati dealership, the poverty rate is only 2.6 percent.

“Fairfield County is one of the richest counties in America but you wouldn’t know it by looking at Bridgeport,” said Eric Lehman, an English professor who teaches Connecticut history at The University of Bridgeport, and the author of the book Bridgeport: Tales from The Park City. “There’s a huge disconnect.”

Nowhere is that economic divide more apparent today than in the schools. Bassick High School has continued to struggle since receiving that damning state evaluation in 1961. Only 15 percent of Bassick students tested proficient in language arts on last year’s new Common Core-aligned state tests. None were proficient in math. Nearly half of all Bassick teenagers missed 18 days of the 2014-15 school year, compared to 10 percent of students in the state overall. Despite Connecticut’s high-school graduation rate of 85 percent—above national average—Bassick trailed at 62 percent in 2015.

Bassick first opened as a middle school in the ‘20s to meet the demands of a city teeming with European immigrants seeking jobs in factories that produced everything from sewing machines and corsets to guns. The school’s entrance hints at Bridgeport’s past grandeur, with tall white columns ascending above a steep staircase—but has long fallen into disrepair. In a meeting earlier this year, the school board approved $1.5 million to finally fix a leaking roof.

While the educational woes of big cities like Chicago, Detroit, New York, and Los Angeles dominate national headlines, persistent failure in schools like Bassick is no less challenging or urgent.

“In the city of Bridgeport, we have 18 schools that are failing. Of those, 13 have been failing for over 10 years,” said Kenneth Moales Jr., a pastor and former school-board member. “Bridgeport is a microcosm of low-performing school districts [all over] the country.”

filed a lawsuit complaining that Connecticut was failing to fund schools adequately or equitably. Evidence continues to mount in the plaintiffs’ favor—and after more than a decade in the state court system, it is now being argued before Connecticut’s Superior Court.

A newly released report from the U.S. Department of Education found that in 2015, Connecticut spent 8.7 percent less per student in its poorest school districts than it did in its most affluent. In Bridgeport, that comes out to $13,883 per student compared to the state’s $15,700 per-student average and ultra-wealthy Greenwich’s $20,747 per-pupil, according to the Connecticut School Finance Project.

This difference leads to sharp inequality in a student’s school experience. Bassick had four guidance counselors for its 1,200 students in the 2012-13 school year, for instance, while Greenwich’s 2,700 students were served by 18 guidance counselors, according to the lawsuit. A recent New York Times analysis of wealth and school-achievement data found that Bridgeport sixth-graders were lagging nearly two grade levels behind while their Greenwich peers were typically two grade levels ahead.

The starting salary for a teacher with a master’s degree in Bridgeport is $44,101; five miles away in Trumbull, it’s $57,516, according an analysis by Bridgeport Public Schools.

* * *

In the 2007-08 school year, Bassick reported 881 disciplinary offenses. One parent, Evelyn Medina, often feared for her children’s safety, she said, frequently receiving messages that the police had locked down the school because of another serious fight. Medina’s children knew to walk away from violent incidents but struggled to keep up in their classes. Her daughter was slated to graduate in 2010 but dropped out in her senior year.

Her son, with dreams of becoming a mechanic, persisted through tough classes. Three years ago, Medina and her daughter watched with pride as he got his diploma. Still, the moment was bittersweet for her daughter, who by that time had a child and a job but no degree.

“The only thing she said was ‘He made it and not me,’” Medina said. “She started crying. ‘Why didn’t I finish?’”


Other local parents have been unable to wait around for Bassick to improve. After her older daughter started to struggle academically and behaviorally at Bassick, Dione Dwyer began working three jobs—sometimes clocking seven days a week—so she could send her younger daughter to Bridgeport International Academy, a small private school. Her teenager takes two city buses, starting at 6:50 a.m., to get to school on time—a sacrifice the family happily makes for the education she is receiving there.

High-school turnaround is generally seen as one of the hardest tasks in urban education. One of the few places to experience success was New York City, which improved the education of students slated to attend the lowest-performing schools by closing them and opening new, smaller high schools.

Far smaller in scope and with nowhere near the resources of New York City, Bridgeport set out to remake Bassick High School in 2010 when it received one of Obama’s $2.1 million School Improvement Grants.

The then-Superintendent John Ramos took a reform approach that stipulated replacing the principal but keeping the rest of the staff, with a heavy emphasis on professional development, curriculum improvement, and expanded learning time. And when the former Connecticut Education Commissioner toured Bassick with reporters a year after it received the federal grant, he declared that the chronically underperforming high school had entered a “new era.”

Yet in 2012, the Connecticut Department of Education labeled Bassick a Turnaround School, a designation under federal education law for the worst-performing schools in the state. In 2013, Bassick’s basement-level test scores prompted the reform-oriented advocacy organization ConnCan to give the school an F rating in every single academic category. This year, the school was designated a Category 5 Turnaround School because it has failed to shake that distinction for three years.

Graduation rates have declined and then risen again. Scores on the SAT remain low and students continue to lag behind their peers on the state standardized test. Of those who graduated from Bassick in 2014, only about a third enrolled in college the following fall but 80 percent of them—a bright spot—returned for their second year, according to state statistics. (Read more about the forces guiding Bassick High from The 74.)

Fran Rabinowitz, the well-regarded interim schools superintendent who earlier in her career spent 29 years in the Bridgeport schools, said that when she first evaluated Bassick in 2014, the main challenges were the deplorable condition of its 85-year-old building, and the wide variation of talent among the teaching staff.

joined in a letter to the current state commissioner asking her to intervene, saying the dysfunction of the Bridgeport school board “called into serious question the board’s ability to carry out its charge.”

A host of programs have been put in place under Rabinowitz to try and keep Bassick students interested and on track to graduate and to address their learning deficits. Reading and math intervention programs are given to the ninth-graders; some classes at all grade levels begin with cognitive-conditioning exercises to help below-grade-level students hone their critical-thinking skills.

Special attention is focused on freshman attendance and credit retention. If students are in danger of failing or not earning enough credits, they meet with school staff to sign a contract detailing how they will right their course. If they arrive late, they must stop at the principal’s office to get a pass before they can go to class. The freshman monthly attendance rate now regularly surpasses 90 percent. “If you don’t catch them [as 9th-graders], you lose them,” said Kathy Silver, a much-loved former art teacher who is now the freshman-academy assistant principal.

Bassick also introduced career pathways in business and science and technology, a program made up of theme-based electives across grade levels. There are six Advanced Placement classes and other opportunities for students to seek college-level work at local community colleges.

Rose Charles, 19, and Jada Pickett, 18, both seniors, have their lives after Bassick planned out. Charles, who plans on attending Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, next year, said Bassick is “what you make of it.” She and Pickett said the school has gotten a lot safer compared to their freshman and sophomore years when fights were common. Student arrests district-wide have gone down dramatically from more than 280 a year to 40. Both girls are a little jealous of the younger students who will have more access to class computers and smart boards.

Uncertainty about Bassick’s future remains. Connecticut Governor Malloy has proposed a budget that cuts state funding to CommPACT, a three-way partnership between Bassick, the teachers unions, and the University of Connecticut, leaving administrators to come up with a new source of money for parent-engagement programming. Meanwhile, some members of the fractious Bridgeport school board are openly hostile to Rabinowitz at the same time they are trying to attract her permanent replacement. No superintendent “worth their salt” will want to come Bridgeport, one board member observed.

Moales, the pastor and former board member, is disappointed by what he said is Bassick’s and other Bridgeport schools’ too-slow progress. He thinks drastic actions would need to be taken to get the results students deserve. “It’s frightening,” Moales said. “Bridgeport is going to struggle for another seven to 10 years easily.”

But Ferris, the parent leader, is more cheerful about Bassick’s future. Back in October 2013, a visiting committee of educators from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges spent four days with Bassick teachers, administrators, and students, and wrote in their 80-page report that the school conveyed a “sense of family and belonging,” and the teachers had positive attitudes. “It is clear that Bassick students are connected to the school and especially to the adults in the school,” they wrote.

“It’s not just money. We need the leadership. We need to build more community relationships. We need to build our parent component,” said Ferris. “I just think it has the potential to be a great school.”

For Dwyer, the mom who worked three jobs to send her younger daughter to private school, those efforts might not come soon enough. She said she knows Bassick has been making improvements but she is not sure if it will be ready to give her 11-year-old son the education she so wants him to have.

“I try not to think about that,” she said.

This story was produced in collaboration with The74Million.org.

The Benefits of Teaching in Two Languages

From New York to Utah, U.S. schools have seen a steady rise in bilingual education. Dual-language immersion programs first appeared in the U.S. in the 1960s to serve Spanish-speaking students in Florida. Since then, the demand—and controversy—surrounding these programs has been widespread, and they now address the needs of more than 5 million students who are English-language learners in the country’s public-school system.

Teresa Chávez has been a teacher for almost 20 years, and is currently the lead teacher for Little Canada Elementary’s Dual Language Immersion program in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I spoke to Chávez about the implementation of the Spanish-language program and how bilingual education facilitates connections beyond the confines of a classroom. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

* * *

Valeria Pelet: How did you get into teaching?

Teresa Chávez: My first passion was poetry. When I was in college, I was also working as a teacher, but as a volunteer. After that, since I was trying to improve my Spanish and I was also clinging to the idea of studying the humanities, I decided to move to Costa Rica. I began to teach, and then I taught in Lima, in Peru, and then in Minneapolis. It was quite a long process to discover that I liked the field of teaching and education.

Pelet: Why do you think bilingual education is important?

Chávez: I believe that it’s important because we are more connected than before.There are many places in the world where people have to speak at the very least two languages. I think that it’s wonderful to learn how to express oneself in more than one language, to be able to travel, work, have friends … I believe that it’s important for children, for example, in the United States, because many families that speak English at home have not thought about the importance of [speaking Spanish]. The ones that speak Spanish at home sometimes want to speak their home language [at school], their first language, and it’s very sad [when it cannot happen].

Pelet: Why did Minneapolis begin to offer bilingual Spanish and English education?

Chávez: The number of different bilingual programs, immersion programs, has already been growing. There’s a population of ESL speakers who are mostly native Spanish speakers. We were thinking about equality and what would be most just. [The program] was conceived so that children would not lose their home language and that they would learn to read and communicate in Spanish, and that they would feel good or proud about their culture. Also, we started it for the kids who speak English at home. There are more families that are interested in this and are asking schools to have more programs like this.

Pelet: What is the toughest aspect of teaching?

Chávez: I believe that our state tests are very difficult because they take up a lot of time. English as a second language takes a lot of time, too. These kids also need to take the normal state exams, and it is time that they are not receiving instruction. These exams are awful because they affect how resources are managed and how time is managed when children should be receiving more instruction instead of taking tests.

Pelet: What is a normal day for you like?

Chávez: There’s almost no day that is exactly like another. Today, for example, in the morning, I met up with teachers from another school who are trying to improve their pedagogy program. A bit earlier, before you called, I was crafting emails to certain teachers; I was also sending emails to families about which students want to enter the program … In my work, even on a day-to-day basis, I need to establish my priorities. Sometimes I’m coaching other teachers, training them, and sometimes I’m with kids or with families … I’m always thinking: What is my focus? What’s coming the next day? Things like that. It’s important to be a bit flexible, but at the same time be very clear about what one can do for the kids. My job is very diverse, very broad, but I believe that, more than anything, it’s about identifying what we need in terms of resources while we’re forming this program. The days when I’m teaching, I maintain kids’ education as the goal.

Pelet: Do you have to manage students who are already bilingual differently than those who aren’t?

Chávez: I have to be conscious of this pedagogy. I’m aware that when they’re starting, I might have to repeat or provide another word, do more with visual cues, or know that, suddenly, there will be cultural shocks. I have high expectations, but at the same time, it’s important to consider that this group of kids is more broad and diverse. It also depends on who their teachers are. There are teachers who want their classes to be more silent, there are others who don’t care if one interrupts a little bit, there are others that become more dynamic in the classroom, and there are others who might want to teach a different way. If one group behaves in a particular way, it’s mostly because of the classroom culture that the teacher fosters.

Pelet: How do you, as a teacher, balance all of these students who grew up with different versions of Spanish—say, Mexican Spanish or Ecuadorian Spanish—or kids who have learned Spanish in the states?

Chávez: It has a lot to do with the books we’re using. We use language books and have standards in terms of what we teach, but when we’re talking about certain vocabulary or an idiomatic situation—“avocado,” for example, is “aguacate” in certain countries, while in others it’s “palta”—then it depends on the teacher. I can’t manage vernacular translations too much because I teach English to kids who are older and also support and coordinate certain aspects of this program. It depends on the teacher’s level of Spanish. Some are very conscious of the differences between words like “plátano” (“plantain”) and “banano,” et cetera. We don’t have a formal document to say, “In this country you say it like this …”

Colleges Pledge to Send More Students Abroad

The young Americans who spend time abroad during college look little like the students at universities across the United States. But there is a growing effort from schools, nonprofits, businesses, and even the federal government to make sure the students who go abroad are an accurate reflection of the nation’s college campuses.

A couple of years ago, the nonprofit Institute of International Education launched a campaign called Generation Study Abroad to double the number of U.S. students who spend time in foreign countries each year to 600,000 over five years. Right now, only around 10 percent of American college students study abroad. While people of color make up about 40 percent of each graduating class, they comprise just a quarter of those who go abroad. The numbers are especially low for black and Latino students. So hundreds of schools across the country that have pledged millions of dollars and promised Generation Study Abroad, which is also dispersing grants and scholarships, that they will send more students abroad are focusing on reaching out specifically to students of color.

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The State University of New York at Oswego has turned to its most abundant resource, namely students, to increase its numbers. After university staffers heard about the I, Too, Am Harvard movement to highlight black student voices at a diversity conference in 2014, they decided to try something similar for study abroad at Oswego. Instead of holding generic study-abroad panels, the school asked students to talk specifically about things like racial identity overseas and what it’s like to be an LGBT person abroad. One young woman wanted to talk about her experience as an African American in particular, so the school helped her set up an event with the black student union that turned out to be one of its most popular panels. The result, said Caitlin Pollard, an education-abroad specialist at the school, has been a “considerable growth” in the number of racial minorities and low-income students who travel to foreign countries. Returning students field questions from prospective students about where they can get their hair done, whether people will understand their religious beliefs, and if they can find certain foods. One returnee told classmates thinking about applying that studying in London was the first time she’d been viewed as an American first, not black first, which had a profound impact on her sense of self.

Where study abroad has traditionally been viewed as a year-long immersive experience, universities are expanding short-term opportunities for students who don’t have the money or time to go away for longer. These days, more than 60 percent of students who go abroad do either a summer program or a trip during the school year that is less than eight weeks. Around a third spend a semester abroad, and just 3 percent go for an entire school year. Carlos Poblano, a 20-year-old nursing student at Texas A&M International in Laredo, where more than 90 percent of students are Latino, spent three weeks in Ireland last winter taking a leadership course taught by instructors from his home campus. Poblano, who is the oldest of four children and whose family lives just an hour’s drive from Laredo, said his parents were worried about him going so far away, but the short timespan made things more bearable. “For Hispanics, there’s a family orientation,” he said. “A lot of families don’t like to let their kids go out. They don’t want them to go out and get in danger.” Poblano earned a scholarship from Generation Study Abroad to go to Ireland, but not all of his friends knew financial help was available. “They don’t know for our school, if you talk to the person in charge of study abroad, she tells you all these ways to get scholarships,” he said.

Wagaye Johannes, the project director of Generation Study Abroad, said students see cost as the biggest barrier, even though some study abroad programs are less expensive than staying at their home universities. The program, which aims to highlight “best practices” for sending more students abroad and increase funding, has found that small scholarships of a few thousand dollars can mean the difference between getting on the plane and staying home for students. Often tuition and other expenses are the same as if they stayed home, but students need help with travel costs.

Culture is another, sometimes tricker, topic. “So often students don’t think study abroad is for them,” Johannes said. “We want to redefine what it means to study abroad.” Sometimes the pushback comes from families who are fearful of their children going someplace unfamiliar. So the institute has put together information for parents in both English and Spanish to allay concerns about their children studying in a foreign country. Johannes’s team also encourages study-abroad offices to reach across campus to diversity offices and work together to assure students from all backgrounds that studying abroad is a possibility.

Alexis Attinoto, a Latina student who graduated recently from Case Western Reserve University in Cincinnati, Ohio, completed her senior capstone project in Galway, Ireland. “You definitely stand out [as a person of color],” she said, but “it’s life-changing and broadens the scope of your world.” Attinoto joined her school’s theater and improv groups, and spent weekends in London, Barcelona, and Berlin. Jack Boatman, a Caucasian music-education major from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, at Case Western who spent a semester at Trinity College in Dublin, said he wouldn’t have gone abroad if his mom hadn’t suggested it. The school encouraged it, he said, but “first and foremost, it was my mom’s idea.” The academics were “a little more forgettable for me than I would like,” he said, but he relished the chance to play his violin in Irish pubs, and to become more self-sufficient. “A lot of people get too attached to home,” he said. “Most people I know go to school close to home and these people don’t want to take chances.”

more reflective of the country it serves and more in tune with politically and economically important places like Asia, Latin America, and Africa. To that end, the department sponsors something called the Gilman Scholarship for low-income students, most of them people of color, who are willing to study outside of Western Europe and learn languages like Arabic and Chinese. The Obama administration has also proposed directing more funding to academic exchanges with students in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. But convincing students to go outside of their comfort zones has proven challenging. While there has been a double-digit uptick in the number of American students going to Mexico, Chile, and Peru, places like The United Kingdom and France continue to be among the most popular. The students I spoke with selected Ireland for various reasons. Some said it was because they could take classes in English and others said course credit from classes in Ireland was easily transferrable to their home schools, where credit from courses in other countries was not.

The Generation Study Abroad team is less concerned with where students go than whether they go. While the number of students studying abroad has slowly risen in recent years, at the current rate, only slightly more than 452,000 U.S. students are likely to go abroad each year by the end of the five-year initiative, well below the 600,000 goal. Part of the challenge is convincing people there are real benefits. Daniel Obst, the deputy vice president of international academic partnerships at the Institute of International Education, said it’s been difficult to convince some hiring managers that studying abroad is a great way of developing the so-called soft skills, such as flexibility, initiative, and collaboration, that they are looking for in employees.

Yet studies back Obst over and over again. There is evidence that studying abroad has measurable benefits. A study prepared for the European Commission found that students who went abroad had lower unemployment rates after graduation. A report by the University System of Georgia found that graduation rates were higher for students who had been abroad, especially for low-income and minority students. Other studies have indicated that students come back more culturally aware.

While Generation Study Abroad says it hasn’t yet seen a marked shift in the demographics of the students going abroad since it launched in 2014, more schools are offering scholarships for low-income and students of color and making a conscious effort to diversify the students they send to foreign countries each year. If their efforts do cause a shift in the makeup of American students going abroad, not only do individual scholars stand to benefit, but so does the nation’s ability to interact with other countries in an increasingly global economy.

Heads Roll at Baylor University Over Sexual-Assault Reports

Updated on May 26 at 1:57 p.m. ET

Baylor University has demoted Ken Starr, its president, and fired Art Briles, the head football coach, over the handling of accusations of sexual assault on campus.

The university in Waco, Texas, said in a statement Thursday that Briles had been suspended and will ultimately be fired. Starr, the former independent counsel in the investigation into then-President Clinton, has been demoted; he will serve as Baylor’s chancellor and will remain a professor at the university’s law school, the statement said. Additionally, the statement said, Ian McCaw, the athletic director, has been sanctioned and placed on probation. Baylor named David Garland interim president.

At issue are complaints of sexual assaults that victims said the university had not taken seriously. An independent investigation of the allegations, conducted by Pepper Hamilton, the law firm, reported Thursday:

Based on a high-level audit of all reports of sexual harassment or violence for three academic years from 2012-2013 through 2014-2015, Pepper found that the University’s student conduct processes were wholly inadequate to consistently provide a prompt and equitable response under Title IX, that Baylor failed to consistently support complainants through the provision of interim measures, and that in some cases, the University failed to take action to identify and eliminate a potential hostile environment, prevent its recurrence, or address its effects for individual complainants or the broader campus community.

The allegations came to light after Sam Ukwuachu, a former football player at Baylor, was convicted in 2015 of raping a student. During his trial, it emerged Ukwuachu had been investigated, but not punished, by the university. Several similar reports have since emerged, including at least five women who said they were raped by Tevin Elliot, another former Baylor football player, who was sentenced in 2014 to 20 years in prison for rape.

The investigation by Pepper Hamilton found that two Baylor administrators, who were unnamed in the report, discouraged complainants from reporting or participating in student-conduct processes, “or that contributed to or accommodated a hostile environment.”

“In one instance,” the investigation found, “those actions constituted retaliation against a complainant for reporting sexual assault.”

The report singled out Baylor’s football program, saying the findings “reflect significant concerns about the tone and culture within” the program.

“Leadership challenges and communications issues hindered enforcement of rules and policies, and created a cultural perception that football was above the rules,” the report said.

Baylor failed to take appropriate action to respond to reports of sexual assault and dating violence reportedly committed by football players. The choices made by football staff and athletics leadership, in some instances, posed a risk to campus safety and the integrity of the University. In certain instances, including reports of a sexual assault by multiple football players, athletics and football personnel affirmatively chose not to report sexual violence and dating violence to an appropriate administrator outside of athletics. In those instances, football coaches or staff met directly with a complainant and/or a parent of a complainant and did not report the misconduct

“We were horrified by the extent of these acts of sexual violence on our campus. This investigation revealed the university’s mishandling of reports in what should have been a supportive, responsive and caring environment for students,” Richard Willis, chair of the Baylor Board of Regents, said in Thursday’s statement from the university. “The depth to which these acts occurred shocked and outraged us.”

Ron Murff, chair-elect of the Baylor Board of Regents, added: “We, as the governing board of this university, offer our apologies to the many who sought help from the university.  We are deeply sorry for the harm that survivors have endured.”

Labeled as a Pedophile Simply for Being Gay

My adviser and class sponsor called me into his office and, after interrogating me, swore that if he ever could prove that I was a “practicing homosexual” that he “would do everything in (his) power to make sure that (I) never taught!” I was devastated beyond words. I wanted to teach more than anything in the world, and at that moment I truly felt that everything I had worked so hard to achieve was being ripped from me.

I was also grilled with questions by the Dean of Men in his office. I was forced to lie about who I was in order to graduate. It was very scary time. I was numb with fear, anxiety, distrust, confusion, and panic.

My supervising teacher was informed of the “situation” and tried to talk me out of becoming a teacher. I’ll never forget her questions: “Wouldn’t you rather be an interior designer or a hairdresser?” (It sounds funny now, but at the time it was very frustrating.) When she couldn’t talk me out of becoming a teacher, she lowered my grade to a 2.0 ( I had a cumulative 3.5 GPA at the time) and would not sign off on the official paperwork recommending me to the teaching profession.

It all happened very quickly, and without a support system, it was too much. I fell into a deep depression that spiraled downward until, in a moment of utter helplessness, I took an near deadly overdose of sleeping pills and passed out on the floor of my dorm room late on a Saturday night. Fortunately a dear friend, who realized how upset I was, came to my rescue, literally breaking into my locked room and rushing me to the emergency room, where my stomach was pumped and I gradually regained consciousness.

I somehow managed to graduate and moved to Florida. After seven years as a classroom teacher (including two years as Teacher of the Year), I was asked to serve as a Curriculum Specialist at the district level. I thoroughly enjoyed the next two years coaching new teachers and working to rewrite the district’s curriculum.

At that time, I was approached by the educational publishing industry to work as a consultant. This great opportunity involved a move to the Lone Star State and starting a new life in Dallas. That was nearly 15 years ago, and today I am still enjoying a career in educational sales.

I am very active in the Episcopal Church, where I met my life partner. We have shared 18 wonderful years together and were married in Cape Cod two years ago. Being in a Christ-centered, monogamous, caring, gay relationship may not be something that many “Christians” understand or accept, but I look forward to the day when all of God’s children can learn to love and accept each other regardless of religion, race, age, or gender orientation.

Although that nearly fateful night when I hit rock bottom seems several lifetimes ago, I still carry a silent reminder of what fear and self-hatred can do to someone in a moment of weakness: a slight heart murmur. Each year during my annual physical my doctor reminds me of this condition, which in turn reminds me of my experience at Asbury College and a time in my life when I almost bought into the lies that Asbury was touting: that one couldn’t be a gay Christian, that being gay was a choice—a sinful choice at that!—and that as long as I was true to myself, I couldn’t ever please God.

Today I know beyond a doubt that I am a Child of God who is loved, accepted, and nurtured by God and who has so much of God’s love to share with the world.  No one can take that knowledge away from me.

But I worry about those young people who are at Asbury now. What kind of “wake-up call” will have to happen before the faculty and staff and  realize their homophobia and bigotry must stop? Will a student have to successfully kill herself before they are willing to have an open dialogue? How many students will have to lie about who they are and “die” a little bit every day before they are willing to have the conversation?

The Colorado Paradox

DENVER— Colorado businesses are enjoying a robust recovery from the recession. Good jobs and great quality of life are luring college graduates to the state. But Colorado’s own students are at a disadvantage.

By 2020, three-quarters of Colorado’s jobs are likely to require some kind of education beyond high school. Right now, about 70 percent of jobs require some sort of postsecondary education, said Nicole Smith, the chief economist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. To fill that need with local talent, the state will need to increase the number of credentials and degrees it awards by two percent annually. The state doesn’t seem to have an issue attracting people from elsewhere to fill open positions; unemployment is an impressive three percent. But the state has struggled to educate the children born and raised here so that they can also tap into the economic opportunities around them. It’s a well-known but persistent problem that locals call “the Colorado paradox.”

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Right now, half of the adults  from out-of-town in Denver, the state’s largest city,  have a college degree. But less than a third of the city’s adults born in Colorado can say the same, and that statistic is even worse for people of color. According to state data, four years after they started college in 2011, 32 percent of white students had at least one credential, compared to just 14.5 percent of black students and 21 percent of Latino students. And children of color make up a growing portion of the state’s K-12 students, as they do nationwide. Educators and state officials need to figure out how to help these students graduate from high school and succeed in college, or fewer of the young people born in Colorado will find jobs there as adults.

In Denver, a beacon for businesses, about three-quarters of K-12 students are children of color. Denver is somewhat unusual in that the number of white children in its schools has actually grown in recent years, largely because of gentrification. That shift, combined with an overall uptick in the district’s performance that has happened faster for white and affluent students than for their peers, has widened the district’s achievement gap.

The city has shown that it can boost its students’ scores and graduation rates. A decade ago, a dismal 40 percent of Denver’s students graduated from high school in four years. So the district did something relatively radical: It opened enrollment. Families could choose between traditional public schools, charters, magnets, and hybrids. Schools that did well would be studied and scaled, while others would be closed. Denver’s decision was even more unusual because all of this politically risky maneuvering happened under an elected board.

The move was—and continues to be—controversial. But just shy of 65 percent of Denver Public Schools students graduated last year, up more than 25 points in just a decade. During that time, more than 70 new schools, many of them charters, have opened, and more than 40 schools have closed. The shift has forced schools of all sorts to look at the students they enroll and come up with new ways to help them succeed. The city is hoping that it can build on those lessons to boost lagging educational attainment among children of color.

*  * *

The CEC (which used to stand for Career Education Center) Early College of Denver has morphed into something almost unrecognizable from the vocational school it was 40 years ago. Back then, few students pursued higher education. Now, most do. Students can take college classes at a nearby university campus while they are still in high school. At the same time, the school’s technical-education roots have been preserved, so that students get hands-on experience with things like welding and audio engineering. Not many schools offer both options, principal Scott Springer said during a recent interview at his office on the second floor of the imposing beige building not far from downtown. Most of his students come from poor Latino families, many relatively new to the United States, many looking for a path to success, but not necessarily sure how to find it. Springer says his curriculum gives them the option to pursue what interests them while also connecting those interests to real careers.

Students at the CEC Early College of Denver take some of their classes at a local college. (Emily Jan / The Atlantic)

Children from affluent families have long been able to take advanced courses and earn college credit in high school, or visit university campuses for a taste of college life, but that’s not true for many of Springer’s students. So he helps his students get both. Instead of taking a bunch of advanced-placement classes, his kids actually spend a good portion of their junior and senior years taking classes at the Community College of Denver, at no cost to their families. The college sits just across the river from the high school at the Auraria Higher Education Center, a sprawling campus where three of the state’s universities offer classes. The students earn college credit and get to experience college life at the same time.

Springer and his team have found the “concurrent enrollment” model more effective than offering advanced-placement courses. “Our kids persist better than they test,” he said, noting that even as standardized-test scores remain middling, his students are successfully completing college courses taught by professors who sometimes don’t even know they’re still teenagers. The high school picks up the cost of the college classes Springer’s students take if they pass. If they fail, the students are on the hook. But he says the pass rates for his kids are typically in the 90s, well above pass rates for the college’s other students. Students who have earned some college credit after four years have the option to stay on for a fifth year to finish up an associate’s degree. While Springer says most students pursue some form of higher education, students who graduate with technical certificates have connections to the local job market because the school works with local businesses to get kids work experience through internships. That’s “huge for aspirations,” Springer said. A kid is more likely to focus in his geometry class if he can see it in use at a construction site.

While the school’s 430 or so full-time students (several hundred part-time students take classes at the campus that aren’t offered at their home schools) don’t have the district’s best test scores, they do have higher-than-average attendance and graduation rates. Most students who don’t stay on for a fifth year enroll in a two-year college after graduation. Up until several years ago, Springer said, the school just cared about getting kids through high school. Now, it’s interested in where students go after they leave campus.

Springer said the district traditionally hadn’t made early college a focus, but it received a grant several years ago to test out the idea, and now a handful of other schools in the area are trying it, too. Other cities, such as El Paso, Texas, have been using the early-college high school model for at least a decade with quite a bit of success when it comes to helping ease the transition to college for students who have traditionally been left behind.

Eryc Olivas is one of those students. The 17-year-old moved to the U.S. from Mexico when he was two. His parents, who had both traded school for work by the time they reached sixth grade, were deported when he was 14. Now, Olivas lives with his recently divorced sister and her two children. There is little guidance at home about how college works, but he’s confident he’ll be successful because of the preparation he’s received in high school. White kids in Denver have more educational opportunities right now, Olivas said, but he appreciates that his school tries to level the playing field for kids like him. Sonja Carling, 18, has wanted to be a teacher for years and chose CEC Early College because it would let her gain experience working with kids even while she was still a student. A first-generation college student, Carling works at a preschool on campus and will be a certified paraprofessional educator by May. She said she plans to stay for a fifth year so that she can work toward an associate’s degree. “I see it as a jumpstart to my career,” she said.

Sonja Carling, a student at CEC Early College, wants to be a teacher. (Emily DeRuy / The Atlantic)

* * *

Across town on the approach to the Denver airport, the bright yellow exterior of Green Valley Ranch High School welcomes students. Inside one recent morning, teenagers are assembling under soaring ceilings for their morning meeting. It’s a standardized-testing day, and the students are being entertained by a teacher who seems more than happy to dance like a fool—the teachers are facing off against students in a lip-sync battle. “It’s important you go into this test focused and energized,” another teacher tells the teens before sending them off to their day of classes and tests.

The lip syncing might seem frivolous, especially on a testing day, but it’s an important display of the school’s values. Green Valley Ranch is part of a charter-school network called DSST that focuses, at least academically, on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). But school leaders say it’s the emphasis on school community and culture that helps them achieve their mission to “[transform] urban public education by eliminating educational inequity and preparing all students for success in college and the 21st century.” Student achievement comes second, Bill Kurtz, the CEO of the network, said after the students had dispersed for testing. “It’s not about scaling test scores, it’s about scaling schools that develop young people.” Cliche? Perhaps. But since the school opened in 2012, all of its graduates have been accepted to four-year colleges. With a largely Latino and black population where two out of three kids are eligible for either free or reduced-cost lunch, the school (and other campuses in the network) boasts some of the highest scores in Denver. Low-income kids in the network test better in some areas than high-income kids in Denver’s traditional public schools. More than half are the first in their families to go to college.

Lip syncing clearly doesn’t translate automatically into great scores and outcomes, so what’s really going on? There’s no simple answer, but Kurtz says everyone at the school, from administrators to teachers, operates with the mindset that every single kid needs to be prepared to succeed in college. No exceptions. “I think that clarity is really important,” he said, noting that in the private sector, the problem is “never the product; it’s management.”

Getting kids there starts with relatively small schools (typically fewer than 500 students) and good teachers. Good teachers are especially critical for poor kids, Kurtz said, because they can’t rebound from bad teachers the way rich kids who have access to more resources at home can. While many of the teachers come from Teach for America, which is often criticized for putting young instructors who last just a few years into the nation’s neediest classrooms, Kurtz said the teacher retention rate is around 80 percent, which is in line with the district’s rate. Each teacher has a coach they can turn to with questions. For students who are struggling, after-school tutoring (each teacher has a tutoring day) is mandatory. There are reading and math interventions in the early grades to catch up kids who are behind, and the network is not above having children repeat ninth grade if there is too much ground to make up. Teachers know which of their students are having trouble because the kids take mini assessments constantly and the network analyzes the data they collect on a regular basis. The assessments align with state standardized tests and the SAT and ACT, the latter of which all kids take. Even as protests erupt at traditional public schools about the over-testing of kids, DSST and other successful charter networks, including the California-based Summit Public Schools, say the regular assessments are crucial to gauging in real-time how kids are doing.

In a freshmen English class that escaped state testing that day, the students discussed a passage from Americanah, a novel about a young Nigerian girl who moves to the United States for college by the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The teacher, a young Caucasian woman, coaxed the students along as they discussed everything from religion to identity to hair. While the network has nothing against Shakespeare, it makes a point of selecting books its students can relate to. There are all-female, and all-male advisory periods a couple of times each week, where kids have space to talk about issues that are bothering them and teachers can check in on students. It’s intended, school director Jenna Kalin said, to make sure “each kid has an advocate in the building.”

Every student who has graduated from Green Valley Ranch High School has been accepted to college. (Emily DeRuy / The Atlantic)

Local businesses coordinate with the school to offer 11th graders internships that help them connect what they’re learning in class to the world around them. Like Springer and a growing number of educators, Kurtz recognizes that kids need to not only be prepared for college, but understand the career trajectory of the major they choose.

The network has also begun operating a series of middle schools so it can begin to reach kids earlier. By 2022, Kurtz said, the network stands to serve a quarter of Denver’s middle- and high-schoolers. And in some ways success begets success. Affluent parents are interested in sending their kids to the school in a way that simply is not true yet for someplace like CEC Early College. “We have a brand that people want,” Kurtz said.

And it’s a brand that is developed and managed out of a central “home” office, so that the directors at each of the network’s schools are freed from some of the bureaucracy that can weigh on traditional public-school principals and get in the way of focusing on academics. “I think as a nation, we aren’t thinking as creatively as possible” about education, Kurtz said. “We need a workforce that is trained differently. This has to be about long-term strategy.”

While the district has pushed schools to be innovative, it is behind on several goals it had set for 2020, including a 90 percent graduation rate for students who were enrolled in a district school in ninth grade.  As Colorado Public Radio pointed out recently, Colorado is the 14th richest state, but it ranks 42nd in spending-per-student. Critics have pointed to teacher shortages and ballooning class sizes, calling for more money, but it hasn’t been quick to materialize. A recent report said the achievement gap in Denver between poor and affluent students in the Denver area was worse than the gaps in 90 percent of other large U.S. cities.

But the report also cited several charter networks, including Kurtz’s, that have made progress toward closing the gaps. While critics of Denver’s charter schools have pointed out that they are dealing only with families who actively choose them, many of the most successful are working with student populations that mirror Denver’s more broadly and getting good results. The district overall has improved dramatically. “The only way to improve things is to come together,” Kurtz said. “Money well invested does change things.”

Whom Do College-Affordability Efforts Help the Most?

Determined that he and his younger brother would go to college, Eduardo Medina’s parents put money away in a savings account to pay for the tuition.

It never added up to more than $5,000, and before he finished high school on his way to the Ivy League, they were compelled to use it for a different purpose: to help his grandmother avoid losing her home to foreclosure.

Much of the rest of the family’s income went to pay for the cramped two-bedroom apartment in a San Diego suburb where they moved because the schools were slightly better than in the city.

What has happened to Medina since is a case study in the way some government, university, and private programs to help Americans pay for college have become more likely to benefit wealthier students than even the most academically talented lower-income ones.

The Hechinger Report

At a time when the presidential primaries have refocused attention on income disparity, and new data show the socioeconomic divide on campuses getting wider, some policymakers want to change these programs to better help lower-income students. Without these students, the United States can’t meet its goal of increasing the proportion of the population with degrees, a measure by which several economic rivals now have an advantage.

But such reforms are given long odds even by the people who support them. Meanwhile, still more obstacles are being put up in the way of the same low-income students politicians and university officials say they want to help.

Medina’s father is an administrator at a Navy hospital; his mother, a Mexican immigrant who works for AT&T. Neither was aware of college-savings accounts called 529 plans that the federal government makes tax-free as a way of easing the burden of paying tuition. Only one in 10 families that earn less than $50,000 knows about 529 plans, a survey by the investment firm Edward Jones found; 70 percent of these accounts are held by households with incomes of $150,000 or more, according to the research and consulting firm Strategic Insight.

Next America: Higher Education

Understanding the opportunity and achievement gaps in U.S. universities
Read more

Accepted to Cornell, Medina, whose friends call him Eddy, didn’t apply for any private scholarships like those provided by Rotary Clubs and other civic groups and businesses. More than $16 billion a year is made available by organizations like these, College Board figures show, but the U.S. Department of Education reports that more of it goes to students from families that earn $106,000 and up than to those with incomes under $30,000. This is largely because wealthier families know to apply for private scholarships or their kids go to private or suburban high schools that have savvy college counselors. By comparison, Medina said he met with the overworked college counselor in his school only twice in four years.

which fall over time. To pay for the rest of the tuition, fees, and other costs, which this year totaled nearly $63,000 for out-of-state students, he took a work-study job, part of a more than $1 billion taxpayer-funded program to help students pay for their educations.

There was a limit on how much work Medina could get. Money for the federal work-study program is divided up under a 50-year-old formula based not on how many students at a university actually need it, but on how much the university received the year before, and how much it charges. So, a quarter of the students who receive it come from families whose annual income exceeds $80,000, and one in 10 from households with $100,000 in earnings or more, federal data show. And wealthier recipients get more of it, on average—$2,300 for students from families that make $100,000 or more versus $2,100 for recipients whose families make less than $20,000.

Medina’s parents also didn’t know they could qualify for federal tax credits to offset the tuition they were paying. The federal government gives $18 billion a year in tuition tax breaks to “make college affordable for all Americans,” as President Barack Obama put it when he pushed for them. But more than a fifth goes to families earning more than $100,000 a year, according to the Congressional Research Service, largely because those families tend to send their kids to colleges and universities that charge more for tuition. And those families get an average of $1,900, versus about $1,100 for the lowest-income households. (Another analysis suggests it’s people earning between $65,000 and $106,000 who disproportionately benefit from these tax credits.)

Eduardo Medina, a junior at Cornell (Cristina Acosta)

Medina and his family struggled to stay afloat. His mother had to take money out of her 401(k) to keep up with the bills from Cornell, paying a penalty to do it. With nearly $14,000 worth of federal student loans already, he applied this year for a $38,000 private loan to stay in school. Loans like those generally carry higher interest rates than federal loans, can’t be deferred, and don’t qualify for new types of repayment plans based on income. Only after he finally got one did he learn he couldn’t use it to cover the $6,500 he owed Cornell from last year, including late fees.

In January, documents provided by Medina show, the university kicked him out, and said he couldn’t come back until he paid. After weeks of hacking his way through further red tape, he managed to use his new loan to cover his old balance—and the additional $350 late fee the university charged him.

a new report from the University of Pennsylvania shows the proportion of wealthier students earning degrees continues to rise, while the proportion of lower-income degree recipients is falling. And a study by researchers at Stanford and the University of California, Santa Cruz, found that higher-income parents would send their kids to college even without help from such things as federal tax credits.

Proposals to reform these programs have had scant success. One bill that passed the House of Representatives would have lowered the maximum income at which families are eligible for the tuition tax credit from $180,000 to $160,000. It died without being taken up in the Senate. Nor has there been much support for an idea floated by a coalition of advocacy groups that would block the tax credits from being applied to tuition paid to institutionss with low graduation rates, small numbers of low-income students, and high levels of student debt.

The White House tried to reduce the $1.6 billion-a-year cost to the Treasury, in forgone revenue, of those tax-deductible 529 college savings plans—the recipients of which the U.S. Government Accountability Office says have a median household income of $142,000. The Obama administration wanted to tax withdrawals from the plans, which are now tax-free. That idea, which administration officials said was a response to the fact that the benefit does little to help the lower or middle classes, was branded by Republicans as a tax increase, and was dropped within days.

Now the president has proposed, in his 2017 budget, a seemingly insignificant change in the federal Pell program, which are awarded to students of families earning around $40,000 or less. Colleges and universities apply these grants to tuition first, leaving low-income students little or no tuition costs to claim under the tax credit. The Obama plan would let them use their Pell grants for living expenses first and tuition second, nearly doubling the proportion who would become eligible for those tuition tax breaks from 44 percent now to 82 percent, according to calculations by New America. The Obama budget has already been rejected by Republicans, however.

All of this comes against the backdrop of other money meant for low-income students relentlessly being shifted to their higher-income classmates. The financial aid given out by colleges and universities themselves, for instance, has steadily moved from lower-income to higher-income students. Wealthier students still pay more to attend, but the gap is closing as universities offer deeper discounts to families that can afford to pay the rest of the tuition and whose children went to better high schools and arrive with strong test scores and grade-point averages that are factored into rankings by the likes of U.S. News & World Report.

The proportion of the highest-earning families who get financial aid in the form of so-called merit grants from universities is up from 23 percent a decade ago to 28 percent today, the government’s National Center for Education Statistics found, while the proportion of the lowest-earning families getting aid has dropped from 23 percent to 20 percent.

States, too, have started awarding financial assistance based not only on need, but on grades and other measures, mostly to keep top students from moving somewhere else. Nearly a quarter of state financial aid now goes to students for reasons other than financial need, the College Board reports. As recently as the 1980s, none of it did.

Other state policies also take a toll on low-income students, researchers and advocates contend. The new movement by states to underwrite public universities based on things such as their graduation rates, instead of simply on the number of students they enroll, one study found, has pushed colleges to give even more financial aid to families that may not need it, as they try to attract the students most likely to succeed. Flagship public universities also are increasingly using financial aid as a weapon in their escalating battle to lure out-of-state students, who pay more than in-state ones. One in five public colleges and universities now gives financial aid to 20 percent or more of its freshmen who don’t have financial need, New America reports. Such policies leave fewer seats and less money for lower-income, in-state students.

To try and ease the burden of the loans taken out by 69 percent of undergraduates such as Medina—who now has borrowed $52,912 toward his education, with a year still left to go—the government has instituted a program tying graduates’ monthly payments to their income. Under the plan, which applies only to federally subsidized student loans, any remaining debt is forgiven after 20 or 25 years.

But even this well-intentioned scheme, called income-based repayment, tends to favor wealthier students. That’s because more of them go on to graduate and professional schools, for which even more borrowing occurs, studies show; though they’re more likely to earn high salaries as a result, the income-based repayment scheme slows down their repayments enough that they’re less likely to end up paying off their entire debts before the balance is forgiven, leaving the rest to be covered by the government. “That’s a high subsidy to someone who went to graduate school who isn’t poor,” Delisle said.

Graduates who earn lower salaries, on the other hand, could see the cost of their loans go up under income-based repayment, since it increases the duration of the loan and interest continues to accrue. A borrower making $35,000 a year with about $30,000 in debt would pay 26 percent more, when adjusted for inflation, than called for by the standard 10-year repayment plan, according to the Institute for College Access and Success.

As for Medina, he’ll be spending the summer on a side project with a classmate: developing a micro-loan concept they call a “social collective investment option,” encouraging the working poor to save by letting them invest as little as $30 at a time in local small businesses with good prospects for returns. Medina said the idea was inspired in part by his own experience. “How can I fix this?” he said he asked himself. “How can I help my family maximize their income? Help people with very little money make more of it?”

Meanwhile, Medina expects to have to borrow even more next year to finish his degree in industrial and labor relations, with a concentration in developmental economics and social finance. After graduating, he plans to continue working on his social investment idea. At least he knows now how the college-financing process works, he said. But Medina said it still leaves him with self-doubt.

“Is this system really this hard to understand,” he asked, “or is it just me?”

This story was produced in collaboration with The Hechinger Report.

What Are Massachusetts Public Schools Doing Right?

When it comes to the story of Massachusetts’s public schools, the takeaway, according to the state’s former education secretary, Paul Reville, is that “doing well isn’t good enough.”

Massachusetts is widely seen as having the best school system in the country: Just 2 percent of its high-schoolers drop out, for example, and its students’ math and reading scores rank No. 1 nationally. It even performs toward the top on international education indices.

Education Writers Association

But as Reville and others intimately familiar with the Bay State’s school-improvement efforts emphasized in a panel at the Education Writers Association National Seminar earlier this month, the “Massachusetts story” is complicated. The Bay State’s famous successes are juxtaposed with stubborn achievement gaps and concentrations of poverty that have made across-the-board strides all but impossible. Income-based disparities in academic performance have actually grown over the last decade or so, and last year the state’s achievement gap was the third highest in the nation.

“On the one hand, these first-place finishes and so forth—which are all based on averages—are great, we’re proud of it, but it should be a pretty short celebration in light of the deep, persistent achievement gaps that look a lot like they did when we set out on this,” said Reville, now a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

The Massachusetts experiment with transforming public education traces back to 1993, when state leaders decided to set high standards, establish a stringent accountability system aimed at ensuring that students from all backgrounds were making progress, and open its doors to charter schools. And despite some hiccups, it was able to do so largely without all the partisan wrangling and interagency tensions that have notoriously confounded such efforts on a national scale.

The goal wasn’t just to boost performance in some pockets, but to “get everybody there,” Reville said. “Not just in our rhetoric, but in our intent, we said, ‘All means all.’” By 2000, the state also had doubled its funding of public education, when compared with 1993.

Still, as Hardin Coleman, the dean of Boston University’s School of Education, stressed to the EWA audience, the reason the state has struggled to achieve wholesale improvement has to do with phenomena that exist outside the classroom.

The widespread misconception is that “if you say poverty’s a problem … we’re backing off the issue,” said Coleman, who also serves as vice-chair on the Boston School Committee, the district’s governing body. Now that the improvement in Massachusetts is slowing down—and achievement gaps are widening—“I think there’s going to be a change away from a significant primary focus on academic-skill acquisition to those other aspects of what children need in terms of their social-emotional learning … being engaged in school, learning more about themselves, having access,” he continued.

Tommy Chang, the superintendent of Boston Public Schools, said at the EWA event that he sees the conversation shifting, too, pointing to the district’s recent appointment of an assistant superintendent of social-emotional learning and wellness.

Echoing national trends, the school system is homing in on how childhood trauma can undermine achievement and developing means for helping kids cope with it. In fact, the district recently received a $1.6 million federal grant to address the early symptoms of trauma in students. Trauma is one of the many barriers, Chang said, that keep disadvantaged students behind. So are things like a lack of access among many low-income families to jobs that pay a living wage and quality health care. Dental disease, for instance, is one of the most common reasons kids miss school. All this explains why Chang and others are now thinking of achievement gaps as “opportunity gaps.”

Still, as much as external factors stymie efforts to lift disadvantaged students’ performance, Chang notably criticized certain district policies in Boston as contributing to those inequalities, including its approach to selective schooling and gifted-and-talented programs. (Chang became the Boston superintendent in July of 2015.)

“In BPS, we start segregating kids at very young ages,” he said, noting that children are separated by ability starting in the fourth grade in ways that often correlate with race and linguistic background. “We have to figure out how we stop doing that at such an early grade level. We are literally tracking kids still.”

It’s no wonder a forthcoming ballot measure that would lift the state’s cap on charter schools is so controversial.

To address the poverty-based obstacles to the goal of “all means all,” Reville envisions differentiating the classroom experience so that it meets kids’ myriad non-academic needs.

“Is it just a coincidence that all the inadequacy in education is aggregated around poor kids or is there something about poverty, which on average is just too strong for the relatively weak intervention for a school to overcome?” Reville asked rhetorically. “That’s one of the problems with our current delivery system: It dismisses or marginalizes or avoids coping with the impact of poverty on the lives of children.”

The kind of high-quality “common school” envisioned by the 19th-century political and educational leader Horace Mann, Reville said, isn’t “enough to rectify the massive inequalities in financial and social capital that exist outside of school.”

This article appears courtesy of the Education Writers Association.

Does Mindfulness Actually Work in Schools?

A research team in Chicago has spent a year studying whether students who are taught to be in touch with their emotions do better academically. And they say the initial results are promising.

Perhaps counterintuitively, when kids take a break from a classroom lesson on the solar system to spend a quiet moment alone watching a three-minute nature video, or participate in a teacher-guided breathing exercise with their class after lunch, they seem to become better overall students. That’s likely because the children have a renewed sense of focus, they handle transitions from one lesson to the next better, and they need less time to regroup if they become upset about something, said Amanda Moreno, an assistant professor at the Erikson Institute, a child-development-focused graduate school in Chicago.

here, but the basic idea is to allow kids, as Moreno told me, to “slow down and not be on automatic-pilot and not be overwhelmed by all the things they could be focusing on.” The idea has been popular in some public and private schools for years, but there’s been little in the way of evidence to back it up as an effective academic intervention, and where studies exist, they’ve tended to focus on older students. Erikson says its ongoing research is the largest study ever conducted, and the only in the country to focus specifically on whether mindfulness exercises improve academic achievement for young kids of color from low-income families.

That focus is important because, if mindfulness proves effective, low-income children of color may stand to benefit disproportionately. Children growing up in poverty are more likely than their affluent peers to be exposed to violence and to experience long-term stress that can derail their academic progress. Some research has suggested that children living in high-stress environments (drug-addicted parents, abusive caretakers, neighborhood gun violence) are constantly on edge, ready to fight or take flight, which can lead to outbursts in class that turn into suspensions and even expulsions, all detrimental for learning. And recent brain science suggests that exposure to stress can shorten periods of brain development, meaning it’s especially crucial to limit stress in the early years when brain growth is rapid.

When disadvantaged kids aren’t focused in class, achievement gaps can widen, and, Moreno suggests, purely academic attempts to close those gaps miss the significant impact that the state of a child’s emotional and social well-being can have on his ability to learn math. For kids who have suffered from prolonged stress or trauma, mindfulness seems to offer a way of “short-circuiting” the fight-or-flight response, Moreno said. It helps kids with the greatest self-regulation challenges adapt to slower, more methodical classroom settings. Moreno said she’s heard from teachers with students who have gone from five or six tantrums a day to none because they know they can go to their classroom’s “calm spot” whenever they feel like they’re spiraling out of control.

Moreno pushes back at the idea, levied by critics of mindfulness in the classroom, that it is a craze designed to turn kids into compliant robots or a form of victim-blaming. “[Proponents] see mindfulness as a way to amp up an education system that will create compliant students who can manage their own behavior, focus on their assignments, and calm themselves when angry or frustrated with school. Such students can then turn into passive, unquestioning consumers and cooperative workers who will help their corporate employers better compete in the global economy,” wrote David Forbes in Salon. That is not the case, Moreno said. Kids aren’t supposed to be robotic or unquestioning, but an angry or frustrated kid isn’t going to be able to learn as well as a calm, focused kid, so mindfulness is intended to give kids the tools they need to be active classroom participants. In other words, children are supposed to fail occasionally, Moreno said, but they need help learning tricks and techniques for getting back on track. “Mindfulness helps reduce their suffering,” she said.

But does mindfulness really work for little kids? Initial results seem to indicate it can when it’s taught in an age-appropriate way, said Moreno, who has a background in developmental psychology and insists she is “not a yogi.”

The traditional concept of social-emotional learning, a broad category that’s become an education buzzword these days, can be tricky for little kids to embrace because it asks children to think about how they acted in the past and how they’ll behave in the future. Consider a playground spat. After recess, a teacher might say to a first-grader, Why do you think you shoved Johnny off the swings and what would you do next time? Moreno says that’s not a bad thing and it’s proven effective in some cases, but there’s not solid data to suggest specific academic gains. Moreno says the Erikson study is more of a “complete equation” because it aims to take a particular type of social-emotional learning (mindfulness) and target it directly into classroom activities to study the academic impact.

Flanker test, which helps give researchers a sense of cognitive flexibility, something Moreno and other researchers think mindfulness has a positive impact on. Moreno and her team also talk to teachers about their ability to teach well to get a sense of whether mindfulness helps prevent burnout, something that is more prevalent in high-poverty schools than at well-resourced schools.

In the first year, Moreno’s team says the mindfulness program seems to be helping schools that already have a good sense of community, where teachers and students are supportive of each other and committed to learning, go from “good to great.” For the schools that are really struggling, the program “can only do so much,” she acknowledged.

In the Chicago study, the kids are even encouraged to get up in the middle of a lesson if they feel they need to and “refocus” by visiting their classroom’s designated “calm spot.” In an age where teachers face incredible pressure to make sure their kids are reaching certain academic markers, Moreno said that mindfulness was sometimes a tough sell in the beginning. But after a year, she says feedback has been positive and there are signs that suggest mindfulness decreases suspensions and expulsions by giving kids the tools to process their emotions in a productive way. “We should not be using imperfect skills as reason to disqualify kids from membership in the group,” she said.

Ultimately, she said, the students in her study have been spending anywhere from 10 to 12 minutes per day on mindfulness exercises. But classes appear to be gaining more instruction time as a result because there are fewer outbursts and disruptions. Some teachers have told her that where their classes used to need half an hour to settle down after lunch, a three-minute mindfulness exercise is now enough. (Moreno was careful to say that the team is still testing this theory and it’s too early to know for sure yet.)

And the notion that mindfulness requires those practicing it to be entirely quiet is false, she said. Kids in Chicago have been participating in music scribble exercises, where they listen to everything from African drumming to classical tunes and then scribble what they feel on paper. Some do stretching exercises, she said. A representative from Chicago Public Schools was not immediately available for comment.

Moreno is pleased that mindfulness is something the government and Chicago schools are open to studying. Teachers face so much pressure to “go, go, go,” she said, that the fact that the school system and Education Department are recognizing that educators need to focus on children’s inner lives to get anything into them academically is “powerful.” But the practice may find its way into more schools around the country because the nation’s new federal education law asks schools to consider some non-academic measures, such as school climate, in evaluating how students are doing. “There’s a productivity to it and a humanity to it, and people are beginning to realize the two are quite compatible and necessary for each other,” Moreno said.

She and her team are under no illusion that mindfulness is going to solve all of a school’s problems, and she’s upfront about the fact that the study is in the early stages. But Moreno’s initial results do seem to indicate that where little kids feel comfortable making mistakes because they have tools for getting back on track that don’t involve a trip to the principal’s office, they are better prepared to succeed as students.

‘The Point of College Is a Credential’

Some remaining thoughts from readers on the question:

This summer I accompanied my mother to her 65th college reunion. Part of the weekend’s program was a video about the Cornell University Class of 1950, the first class that came in with a large supply of veterans on the G.I. Bill. The film had some inspiring cameos about veterans who would never have gotten to college otherwise and the lives they made for themselves as a result. I wonder if our preoccupation with credentialism and the faith in the bachelor’s degree as a gateway to success and wealth is a legacy of that postwar crop of veterans.

Another reader:

I have observed the 20-year trend toward arbitrarily requiring college degrees for jobs that do not truly need them.  I believe this goes hand-in-hand with the growth of Human Resources as a profession.

A company’s HR department usually handles recruiting functions, and it serves as the gatekeeper over which skills and credentials are required for a given position.  The trouble is that they have no idea of what it takes to perform well in those positions, and they are absolutely the wrong people to create the requirements.  The actual department heads who are hiring are often very busy and appreciate the HR gatekeepers because it means they have to look at fewer resumes.

I entered the professional workforce in 1979 as a general bookkeeper and later, between on-the-job training and self-study, became a controller.  My husband was an electronics technician and ultimately started his own business.  The ranks of college-degreed professionals in the workforce was a small percentage, and my husband and I, along with many degreeless others, had good careers without a college degree.  It was common.

In the mid-late 1990s I noticed that more and more jobs in finance and accounting wanted bachelor’s degrees in “a related field.”  The CPA designation, once available to anyone who took the appropriate coursework, was changed to require five years of education in accounting.  Only the CMA (Certified Management Accountant via the Institute of Management Accountants) was available to me—but then only if I had a baccalaureate degree.

I did go back to school, majored in history (for the love of it), and obtained my CMA. Once I had a BA, I had opportunities I never had before. My career took off.  Still, even now, although I have been a CFO and now serve as a Corporate Controller for a mid-sized companies, I am viewed to be unqualified for many lesser accounting jobs because I do not have a bachelor’s in accounting or finance.  It’s absurd.

My last two great hires have been experienced professionals without a college degree.  I frequently see articles about open jobs that can’t be filled because of skill deficits and mismatches between the needs of business and the employment pool.  That is also absurd.  Businesses are allowing a department (HR) that doesn’t understand job requirements to set the standards for those candidates.  This harms business and shuts out a lot of really talented, qualified people, relegating them to perpetual underemployment.

Keep stoking this issue. This needs to be changed for our long-term prosperity.

Another would prefer we stop stoking:

So since you’re someone who’s asking the perennial “is college worth it anymore?” question, I thought I’d ask you to look at it from a different angle. My own fascination isn’t with that question, which to my lights has been answered positively, again and again and again—here’s an absolutely massive trove of recent data on the question, for example.

No, my interest is in why journalists are so eager to ask the question over and over again despite the durability of the “yes” answer. It strikes me that our media is really predisposed to find that the answer is no, despite such large empirical confirmation of the value of college.

And I think that’s more interesting: Why do so many journalists and writers want to say that college isn’t worth it, particularly given that almost all of them went themselves?

I, for one, would not say that, especially since I actually used my B.A. in History to a practical end, meaning my first salaried job out of college was writing about history. Eleven years after graduating, I’m still paying off student loans, but they’re definitely worth it, all things considered. The question of whether an M.A. is worth it—that seems much less doubtful, especially given stats like these:

Catey Hill / Market Watch

Indeed, between 2004 and 2012, the amount of debt carried by a typical borrower who had a master of arts degree rose an inflation-adjusted 70%, according to an analysis of data by the New America Foundation. The report says this surge may be thanks to a 2005 congressional move that lets grad students borrow nearly unlimited money for school.

Personally I was fortunate to slip into journalism without going to J-school and rack up more debt. Instead, I got a paid internship at The Atlantic back in ‘07, working part-time to make ends meet and living in a rickety group house. So an M.A. definitely would not have been worth it to me. If you have strong feelings about the M.A. question from your own experience, let me know. Update from a reader:

Your reader who points to a “massive trove of recent data” settling this question should perhaps go back to college himself to learn about statistical inference and the difference between correlation and causation. All the data he points to documents advantages gained by college graduates, but makes no attempt to correct for confounding variables, of which there are many plausible ones.

The most obvious would be family income: people’s whose parents were rich tend to go to college more than those whose parents were poor, and they tend to have higher incomes and better other outcomes later in life. Is it really likely that higher education explains all or even most of those differences? Matt Yglesias ably explains this fallacy.

Furthermore, even if we knew with certainty that college education made people more productive, we couldn’t say with any certainty that it’s worth how much we invest in it, from a social perspective. I made this argument in more detail on my blog a few weeks ago.

I think, taken holistically, it’s pretty clear that getting a college education is worthwhile for most people, but it’s a valid question, and the concern about the growing requirement of bachelor’s degrees for jobs that don’t really require them is a hugely important issue to discuss.