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.

A University That Prioritizes the Students Who Are Often Ignored

Newark, N.J.—Protests focused on entrenched racism rocked campuses around the country this year. Many top colleges enroll small numbers of black students, and the four-year college graduation rate for black students is half that of whites.

In response, many admissions officers have been scouring the country—and the globe—to attract “qualified” black and brown students, striving to meet diversity targets while avoiding students they consider “at risk” of dropping out.

But a growing group of colleges and universities think that the calculation for who is “at risk” is fundamentally wrong. They not only accept students often turned away by other four-year universities, but also aggressively recruit them, believing that their academic potential has been vastly underrated.

Rutgers University-Newark in New Jersey has a graduation rate for black students that is far above the national average. But instead of offering out-sized athletic scholarships or perks to potential out-of-state students, the university is doubling down on a bid for students who are often ignored—low-income, urban, public high-school graduates with mediocre test scores.

The Hechinger Report

Rutgers offers free tuition for low- and moderate-income Newark residents and local transfer students, regardless of their GPAs and test scores. Its newly minted honors program doesn’t consider SAT scores for admissions. It has put emotional and financial supports in place. Course offerings have been enhanced.

And administrators don’t see their efforts as charity.

“We’re a land grant public institution with a commitment to our state and our city, and that’s the talent we should be cultivating,” said Nancy Cantor, who has been chancellor at Rutgers-Newark for two years. “There’s phenomenal knowledge and talent out there, and that contributes so much to the institution. We don’t have the traditional view that we’re somehow ‘letting these kids in’ to be influenced by us.”

In 2015, Rutgers-Newark’s six-year graduation rate was 64 percent for black students and 63 percent for white students, according to administrators, compared with 40 percent and 61 percent respectively at public institutions nationally.

highest black male graduation rate in the nation in 2013 and the fifth-highest black graduation rate overall. It also had a much higher percentage of low-income students and African American students than the four universities above it.

“These are very talented students who, for a variety of reasons, rarely having to do with their own issues, are going to get bypassed if we don’t draw them into the education system,” Cantor said.

Bashir Ali is one of those students who slipped through the cracks for a long time.

Bashir Ali student at Rutgers-Newark (Meredith Kolodner)

“Growing up in Paterson, I sometimes felt that there weren’t many options,” said Bashir, 52, who will graduate from Rutgers-Newark in December.

He attended a year of community college after graduating from high school in 1982, but it was difficult to find work and pay tuition at the same time. He left to join the Navy, believing it was a better path to a secure future and because it seemed safer than staying in Paterson in those days.

“Race did play a role in my decision not to go to college,” he said, “although not as a personal attack. I watched my peers going to prison, getting shot. I’ve been stabbed … in Paterson it wasn’t easy. Finances, life, it all got in the way.”

Ali meant to finish his degree when he was discharged, but he had bills to pay and eventually two kids, so he went to work. After volunteering at a local school in Newark with children who had discipline issues, and loving it, he was convinced he needed a degree to get a more meaningful and well-paying job. He got his associate’s degree from Essex County Community College and transferred to Rutgers, which he chose for its connection to Newark and so he could study with urban historian Clement Price (who died in 2014).

Ali is vividly aware of how easy it is to get thrown off track, and he credits college faculty for encouraging him and seeing his potential. He also reaches out to other African-American students, especially older males, to help guide them and for support.

median SAT score at Rutgers-Newark is only a few points above the national average.

“You read about honors colleges filtering out students with narrow predictors of success. So who is deemed deserving and capable of an honors education?” said Corlisse Thomas, vice chancellor of student affairs at Rutgers-Newark. “We’re building global leaders from Newark in Newark.”

“A lot of places put a huge amount of emphasis on SATs and ACTs that don’t predict well for these groups,” said Cantor, the chancellor. “If you have a commitment to cultivating this kind of talent, why would you pay attention to those things?”

This year’s HLLC class of 60 was chosen from an applicant pool of 740 students. About three-quarters are from Newark, more than half are first-generation college students, close to half are transfers from community colleges and 80 percent are black or Latino, according to a university dean.

Students in the class Black Lives Matter: HBO series “The Wire” (Meredith Kolodner)

Adegoke Fakorede is one of them. He chose Rutgers because it is close to home, is affordable and has a good debate team. On a Tuesday afternoon in April, he was sitting in a class called Black Lives Matter: HBO Series “The Wire,” listening to an animated debate about how the fourth season of that drama, which focused on Baltimore’s public schools, showed how some characters in the first season—a heroin addict and a gang leader—came into being.

“The kids are going to turn into the adults that the system already failed,” said one student. “The system keeps reproducing the same outcome.”

A professor referenced a previous assigned reading by Frantz Fanon. A young woman described what she saw as the “performance of masculinity.” Some heads nodded, more hands shot in the air. Disagreements ensued and discussion was passionate during the three-hour class.

“I watched the show with my older brother two years ago, and for me at that time it was purely for entertainment purposes, like any other thriller… like The Godfather or Scarface, ” said Fakorede, 18. “We saw drug dealing and killings and these are things that existed around our neighborhood every day outside, but I guess it was better to see it on the TV screen.

“When I got into the class I saw a whole different kind of environment,” he continued. “We’re not watching this for entertainment purposes, we’re watching it because of correlations between issues in the show and issues that exist in society right now, with the Black Lives Matter movement. There’s sociological, economic, political issues in it.”

“One question I have is, does the show actually highlight issues or does it make black life a spectacle for people who don’t have to live in that reality to look in and watch and be entertained?” said Fakorede, who graduated from a magnet public high school in Newark.

The students in the classroom were about half African-American and the rest a mix of other ethnicities—Arab, South Asian, white and Latino.

“More than anything I learned tolerance in this class,” Fakorede added.

Part of the Rutgers-Newark overhaul of the last couple of years has included a challenge to the faculty—welcomed by many—to create courses that will better engage students from diverse backgrounds and develop critical thinking and writing skills.

“I worked at Columbia [University], and a lot of those kids are given permission to think critically, but not all of our young people have been,” said Marta Esquilin, the new associate dean for the HLLC. “Traditionally used canons are dominated by white males. You can gain the same skills—critical thinking, civics, writing—through different content that feels more relevant.”

Classes such as Shakespeare and Race, Literature and Controversy, and Love Stories Old and New (taught by a professor of medieval literature), have been added to the course catalog.

Faculty and staff object to the idea that this approach will in any way bring down the academic level in the classrooms.

“Are we dumbing down when we talk about meeting students where they’re at?” asked Sherri-Ann Butterfield, the senior associate dean of the faculty of Arts and Sciences and a sociology professor who co-teaches “The Wire” course. “Why is that necessarily a lower quality or less rigorous? That’s not what we think.”

Several students said they took practical lessons from the class about Black Lives Matters and “The Wire.”

“What The Wire tries to teach you is that there’s an issue, but it’s not as simple as it seems,” said Austin, who, like Ali, hopes to get a job after graduation helping improve the prospects and opportunities for young people in Newark. “It’s not necessarily a bad cop, it’s the system of how they’re being taught, and how they perform what they’re told to do; the obedience they kind of require and that they’re protected by their own. … You can’t really change the system until you understand how it works.”

This story was produced in collaboration with The Hechinger Report.

Why Young Kids Learn Through Movement

One of my children is spinning in a circle, creating a narrative about a princess as she twirls. The other is building a rocket ship out of a discarded box, attaching propellers made of cardboard and jumping in and out of her makeshift launcher. It is a snow day, and I’ve decided to let them design their own activities as I clean up and prepare a meal. My toddler becomes the spinning princess, imagining her character’s feelings and reactions. What seems like a simple story involves sequencing, character development, and empathy for the brave princess stuck in her tower. The rocket ship my first grader is working on needs a pilot and someone to devise the dimensions and scale of its frame; it also needs a story to go with it. She switches between roles and perspectives, between modes of thinking and tinkering.

This kind of experiential learning, in which children acquire knowledge by doing and via reflection on their experiences, is full of movement, imagination, and self-directed play. Yet such learning is increasingly rare in early-childhood classrooms in the U.S, where many young children spend their days sitting at tables and completing worksheets. Kindergarten and preschool in the U.S. have become more and more academic, rigorously structuring kids’ time, emphasizing assessment, drawing a firm line between “work” and “play”—and restricting kids’ physical movement. A study from the University of Virginia released earlier this year found that, compared to 1998, children today are spending far less time on self-directed learning—moving freely and doing activities that they themselves chose—and measurably more time in a passive learning environment.

With so few years under their belts, my 3- and 6-year-old daughters are still learning to inhabit their bodies. They are learning how to maneuver themselves physically, how to orient themselves in space. As Vanessa Durand, a pediatrician at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in Philadelphia, says, freedom of movement is necessary for children to meet their developmental milestones: “Children learn by experiencing their world using all of their senses. The restriction of movement, especially at a young age, impedes the experiential learning process.”

Movement allows children to connect concepts to action and to learn through trial and error. “If you walk into a good kindergarten class, everyone is moving. The teacher is moving. There are structured activities, but generally it is about purposeful movement,”comments Nancy Carlsson-Paige, a professor emerita of early-childhood education at Lesley University and the author of Taking Back Childhood, describing the ideal classroom setup. In the classroom culture she advocates for, “[Kids] are getting materials for an activity, they are going back and deciding what else they need for what they want to create, seeing how the shape of a block in relation to another block works, whether they need more, does it balance, does it need to be higher, is it symmetrical. All of these math concepts are unfolding while kids are actively building and moving.”

Research has shown time and again that children need opportunities to move in class. Memory and movement are linked, and the body is a tool of learning, not a roadblock to or a detour away from it. Any parent who has brought home a kindergartener after school, bursting with untapped energy yet often carrying homework to complete after a seven-hour day, can reasonably deduce why children today have trouble keeping still in their seats. Many children are getting 20-minute breaks, or none at all. (In Florida, parents whose children have no recess have been campaigning to legislate recess into the curriculum.) Recess, now a more frequent topic of research studies, has been found to have “important educational and developmental implications.” Schools that have sought to integrate more movement and free play, such as short 15-minute recess periods throughout the day, have seen gains in student attention span and instructional time. As Carlsson-Paige points out, “Recess is not a separate thing in early-childhood education.”

Pedagogy of Play initiative at Harvard’s Project Zero, observes that even when adults do incorporate play into learning, they often do so in a way that restricts free movement and agency. “The idea that there should be formal instruction makes it no longer play,” says Mardell. “In play the player is choosing to participate, choosing a goal, and directing and formulating the rules. When there is an adult telling the kids, ‘This is what we are supposed to do,’ many of the important developmental benefits of play get lost.”

The role of play has been established not just as a part of learning, but as a foundation for healthy social and emotional function. The National Association for the Education of Young Children has published widely circulated position papers on the need for developmentally appropriate teaching practices and for reversing the “unacceptable trends in kindergarten entry and placement” that have been prompted largely by policy makers’ demand for more stringent educational standards and more testing.  Some teachers are enacting changes, seeking ways to bring movement back into the classroom. Lani Rosen-Gallagher, a former first-grade teacher for New York City public schools and now a children’s yoga instructor, explains the shift in thinking: “I would have [my students] get out of their seats every 15 minutes and take a Warrior Pose or Lion’s Breath, and then I could get 15 more minutes of work out of them.” This kind of movement, she said, also gives children space to develop self-awareness and self-regulation, to get to know themselves as thinking individuals by connecting with the body.

Play-based preschools and progressive schools (often with open room plans, mixed-age groups, and an emphasis on creativity and independence) are seeing increased popularity. Enrichment programs engaging children in movement with intention (yoga, meditation, martial arts) are also gaining traction.

These kinds of methods seek to give children back some of the agency their young minds and bodies crave, as less play and mobility lead to an uptick in anxiety in ever-younger students and even, according to Durand, a growing number of cases of children who need to see occupational therapists. Mindfulness practices such as guided breath and yoga can help mitigate the core symptoms of ADHD in children, (an increasingly common diagnosis), while the arts encourage self-expression and motor-skill development.

Emily Cross, a professor in the School of Psychology at the United Kingdom’s Bangor University, explains the impact of movement on memory and learning: New neuroscience research, she said in an email, shows that active learning—“where the learner is doing, moving, acting, and interacting”—can change the way the brain works and can accelerate kids’ learning process. While passive learning may be easier to administer, she added, it doesn’t favor brain activity. Cross, whose research focuses on pre-teens and young adults, said she’s found “very clear evidence that when learners are actively engaged with moving their own bodies to music, in time with avatars on the screen, their performance is vastly superior to when they’re asked to engage in passive learning … [There are] striking changes in brain activity when we combine dance and music in the learning context.” In other words, people absorb a newly acquired skill-set better while doing, engaging their bodies rather than simply observing.

These research findings echo the observations and methodologies of educators who promote active learning. As Sara Gannon, the director and teacher at Bethesda Nursery School, a highly regarded play-based preschool in New Haven, Connecticut, that favors experiential learning over direct instruction, in an email notes: “Unfortunately, there has been so much focus on forcing the academics, and young children are being asked to do what they are just not ready to do … Of course, we do teach letters and sounds, numbers and quantities—but through experiences and within a context.  That means, hands-on: counting the number of acorns a child found on the playground, building with unit blocks, sounding out a child’s name as they learn to write it, looking at traffic signs on a walk.” Yet while such developmentally oriented programs may benefit children, for now they’re unlikely to become widespread given the current focus on assessment and school readiness, particularly in underserved communities.

As my girls continued creating their own activity stations and imaginary worlds, the contrast between how children operate versus what is often expected of them was apparent. It would be unwise and impractical to pretend that children do not need any structure, or that academic skills are unimportant in school. Yet it is necessary to recognize that the early-childhood classroom has been significantly altered by increasingly rigorous academic standards in ways that rarely align with how young children learn.

The Challenge of Educational Inequality

Two years into a demanding new era for the American education system, its defining 21st century challenge is coming into sharper focus.

That new era began in September 2014, when for the first time, kids of color constituted a majority of America’s K-12 public school students nationwide. That tilt will only deepen: The National Center for Education Statistics projects that by 2025, whites will shrink to 46 percent of public school students. Because this shift is most advanced among the youngest children (kids from minority groups already constitute a majority of Americans younger than five), most high school graduates are still white. But the NCES projects that by 2024 minority kids will represent a majority of high school graduates as well.

This demographic transformation frames the education system’s key coming test: extending the opportunity it already provides to kids from the best neighborhoods to those trying to climb from the most troubled communities. Asian American students now equal (or exceed) whites on most key achievement measures. But African Americans and Hispanics, who comprise the vast bulk of the new non-white student majority, still face troubling gaps.

Though long implicitly tolerated, that imbalance has grown unsustainable because those young people constitute an increasing share of our future workers and taxpayers. Unless the U.S. can equip more black and brown young people to succeed, it will face widening inequality, a skills shortage, and growing pressure on Social Security and Medicare as fewer workers earn the middle-class wages that sustain the payroll taxes underpinning those programs. Only boosting the young people already best positioned to scale the ladder won’t meet the economy’s needs anymore.

Recent trends offer some reason for optimism. Since 2000, with little notice, the gap between both African American and Hispanic students and whites has narrowed in the 4th and 8th grade tests in math and the 4th grade reading test conducted for the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the nation’s common yardstick of student performance. On 8th grade math, the gap since has narrowed for Hispanic but not black students. That’s a significant improvement from the 1990s when African Americans and Hispanics failed to gain ground on most of those tests. Similarly, after changing little from the 1970s through 2000, high school graduation rates for Hispanic and African American students have climbed steadily since 2002 to the highest levels ever recorded.

These results suggest the U.S. may have too quickly abandoned the No Child Left Behind legislation that President Bush signed in 2001 (and President Obama modified with a waiver system that allowed states to trade more flexibility for greater accountability). That law faced opposition from teachers and some parents over its requirements for annual student tests and mandated intervention in struggling schools. But it also required schools to publicly report test results for each racial group and prescribed clear penalties if they failed to improve performance for all students. The test and graduation trends for minority students suggest that pressure had a positive (if often resented) effect.

Under its replacement, the Every Student Succeeds Act that Obama signed last year, schools still must test annually and report the results by racial group. But now districts will decide how to intervene in under-performing schools. The law will succeed only if communities feel as much urgency about lifting all of their students without the pressure of federal penalties if they don’t.

Even with undeniable gains since 2000, the racial disparities in educational outcomes remain imposing. While 87 percent of white students, for instance, graduate from high school on time, that number falls to 76 percent for Hispanics, and 73 percent among African Americans. And although white, African American and Hispanic students are now about equally likely to start college immediately after completing high school, black and brown students remain much less likely to complete a BA within six years. That disparity hints at the large enduring difference in the quality of the K-12 preparation many minority students are receiving.

Truly leveling the playing field will require difficult changes in the education system, such as greater efforts to ensure that more of the best teachers are assigned to the schools facing the most obstacles rather than those enjoying the most advantages. But it also requires a realistic acknowledgement that schools alone cannot overcome all of the headwinds confronting minority and low-income students.

The gaps in educational opportunity for kids are inextricably linked to shortfalls in economic opportunity for adults. Today about three-fourths of both African American and Hispanic students attend schools where a majority of their classmates qualify as poor or low-income. (For whites, the proportion is only about one-third.) As the Stanford University education professor Sean Reardon reported in a path-breaking recent study of test results from every school district, “Of the 1,000 poorest districts in the U.S., only 68 (6.8%) have mean test scores at or above the national average.” Reardon’s powerful findings show that school reforms “might be necessary but … they are not sufficient” to close the achievement gaps, as Southern Education Foundation President Kent McGuire told me at an Atlantic forum on education this week.

Without strategies (from affordable housing initiatives to school-assignment policies) that also combat the economic isolation of so many African American and Hispanic students, the U.S. is unlikely to ever entirely close the racial and income gap in its educational performance. In an information-based global economy—where jobs and opportunity flow to the nations nurturing innovation and skills—all Americans would pay a mounting price for that failure.

The Power of Friendship in Education

AUSTIN, Tex.—Most of the people who grow up in Roma, Texas—a small ranching town on the Mexican border—don’t go to an elite four-year college. The ones who do must move at least six hours from everything they know. They are usually the first in their families to attend such schools. They arrive knowing almost nothing about life in a big city or at a major state university.

“It was overwhelming,” Jesús “Nacho” Aguilar, 23, told me as we sat at a table in the basement of the University of Texas-Austin with a group of Roma High School graduates who now live in Austin and San Antonio. “It was also liberating.”

I first met Jesús when he was a seventh grader at Roma Middle School, in a town where nearly every family was Mexican American and where I taught English for two years as a Teach For America corps member. When I attended the high-school graduation for Jesús’s class, 88 of my 131 former students picked up a diploma. Of those, many have earned two-year degrees or are working on vocational certifications. Facebook tells me another is a pilot. There is more than one definition of success.

The Hechinger Report

But, against the odds, Jesús and a small number of his classmates pursued and earned degrees at world-class universities. I wanted to know how they did it.

Jesús met up with me at his alma mater sporting running shorts and an acid wit. His friend, and fellow UT-Austin graduate, Tomás González, 23, is tall, thin, and thoughtful. He’s now in medical school. Perla de la O, 22, the only one of the four I taught directly, loves Harry Potter, musicals, and any sort of free festival she can find in Austin. She teaches at a Montessori preschool. And Eduardo Rios, 20, is still in school, studying business. He has a way of catching you off guard with thoughtful ideas you wouldn’t have given such a young man credit for understanding.

“It was a huge culture shock,” said Tomás of moving from Roma to Austin, where Latinos “are 20 percent at most. That’s the first thing I noticed.”

Statistically, there was a depressingly small chance that any of these kids, English-language learners from low-income families living in a rural town, would make it to and through college, let alone a college as prestigious as UT-Austin. Only 51 percent of low-income high-school graduates even enrolled in a two- or four-year-college in 2012, according to the Pew Research Center. There’s an ongoing discussion as to how many low-income students graduate, since the government’s first crack at calculating that number last year was way off, but the figure is estimated at between 24 and 68 percent, depending on the institution and whether students take four, five, or six years to complete their programs.

When you ask the young people from Roma what got them through, their answer is unequivocal: friends. And these friends are very serious about being friends. They even named their group “La Raza.” Literally, “la raza” translates to “the race,” but for most Latinos, the meaning is deeper.

“It’s like, ‘our people,’” Tomás said.

“Our gang,” added Perla. Though not a criminal gang, they hastened to explain, giggling a little.

“We just call it ‘the group,’” said Eduardo.

The group holds potlucks featuring food from home. They get each other jobs. They help the newest Roma-grads-cum-UT-freshmen find housing, the laundromat, and free food on campus. They share textbooks and help each other with homework. They carpool home for the holidays. They ask each other: How do you sign up for health insurance? Can you explain this financial-aid form? Where is the registrar’s office? When someone is sick, they cook him dinner. When someone is lonely, they talk. When someone is struggling, they encourage her to reach out to resources on campus they know can help. When they join other groups—fraternities, the Hispanic Business Association—they go to the first meetings with another La Raza member.

“We help each other with anything,” Perla said.

“You think you’re the only one struggling,” Jesús said. “But no. Everyone is in the same boat.”

Seeing each other struggle, knowing you’re not the only one crying in the shower that first desperately hard semester—that’s what gets you through, Tomás said. “We are missing a really important power,” he said of arriving on campus as first-generation students from a small town no one’s ever heard of. “Networking.”

Eduardo, the business student, nods. “We have to start our own networks from scratch. That’s what La Raza is.”

At The Hechinger Report, which produced this story in partnership with The Atlantic, we’ve written about dozens of attempts to get kids like my former students to and through college: microgrants, college counselors, programs to help students graduate in four years, community-college guaranteed-transfer programs, pushy moms, and investing in individual students like they’re a promising stock option, to name a few. But one of the biggest factors in whether a student graduates from college is almost entirely out of college leaders’ and nonprofit do-gooders’ control: the students’ peer groups.

“We know peer groups are either a key positive motivating force or a key negative force,” said Victor Saenz, an education professor at UT-Austin who studies the effect of peer groups on male students of color. (Saenz, incidentally, grew up in Starr County, Texas, a few towns over from Roma.)

And yet, getting young people to decide to hang out with “the right crowd” is a feat of social engineering few adults have mastered. Campus clubs, intramural sports, and theme-based residence halls are long-standing collegiate traditions, all aimed at helping college freshmen find “their people.” And programs meant to bring students from similarly disadvantaged backgrounds together aren’t new either, though the urgency around them is growing.

“For first-generation students, it’s difficult to know what they don’t know,” Saenz said. “We need to do a better job demystifying the process.”

It can seem to adults immersed in the system—professors and administrators—that basic good habits like attending professors’ office hours when students have concerns about class should be obvious. Middle-class students, though they may be in the know, are no better as potential mentors than these adults. It certainly would never have occurred to me at 19 that a classmate didn’t have health insurance or know how to sign up for it. Frankly, it wouldn’t have occurred to me that her parents weren’t handling that for her, as mine were.

Moreover, first-generation students, used to being top students back home, can be afraid to ask questions that make them feel dumb. They’re already well aware they don’t fit in and many are struggling to keep up. Asking for help can feel like an admission of failure.

And there’s enough of that in the first year already. The members of La Raza told me that upon starting college classes they’d quickly realized most of their high-school teachers hadn’t been fully prepared to teach courses like AP Calculus, even though many AP courses were offered at Roma High School. On his first college test, Jesús, a star student at home, earned a 50 percent.

“It was a slap in the face,” he said. “We just don’t want to let anyone down. When I experienced failure, it wasn’t just my own failure.”

The pressure to succeed that kids like Jesús bring to college can be immense. They are blazing the way into the middle class for their families; families who care deeply, but who are not familiar with the higher-education system. Tomás’s parents, for instance, aren’t sure why he has to spend another four years in school to become a doctor when he just spent four years in school to earn his bachelor’s. That’s not how things worked in their native Mexico. At the same time, Tomás credits his parents and their support for his drive to push harder and higher.

“When you factor in the family piece, the pressures and the guilt, that’s a whole other level than a typical college student deals with,” Saenz said.

When I went away to college and left my Massachusetts suburb behind, I felt no guilt. But leaving Roma is harder.

Seeing friends who have stayed in the area, gone to the local community college, and who live with family doesn’t make Eduardo feel superior. “It makes me kind of jealous,” he said.

“It’s not like we don’t want to be back home,” Perla said.

“We have everyone complaining that ‘We have brains leaving Roma and not coming back,’” said Tomás. “But we can’t come back.”

When I lived in Roma, I imagined the solution to the town’s woes would be for the best and the brightest kids to return and fill the teaching positions held by out-of-towners like me. If only the students here had more teachers from the area, teachers they could look up to, teachers who understood the culture, I thought, they’d be better off. The young local teachers were by far the most popular ones on campus.

But here in the student union, 300 miles north of Roma, the students say the best jobs in their hometown are hard to get if you aren’t chummy with the right people. None of the current teachers are likely to leave what are considered plum jobs, and besides, none of the group members have chosen to become teachers through Teach For America or another alternative certification program. And, they remind me, there are very few other legitimate jobs in Roma for people like them: people with college degrees.

I have written about the complex role of Teach For America in towns like Roma; there are benefits and downsides. But these students, the ones who wanted to go that next mile, to tread the path less taken, say they enjoyed having Teach For America teachers, or “TFAs,” as they called us. We were interesting because we were from elsewhere. We’d left our normal lives for a broader experience of the world, just as they yearned to do. We’d also majored in the subjects we were teaching, so we could better satiate their intellectual curiosity. And they were generous enough to appreciate our fumbling efforts to help. They appreciate the help they’ve had at UT-Austin as well.

The group ran through every helpful program they’ve found here: Freshman Interest Groups, which are now mandatory; Summer Bridge, a program that helps low-income students get used to campus before the first day of school; the Valley Longhorns, a student association for kids from their region; TIP Scholars, a program of the College of Natural Sciences, and so on. They keep going. There are special scholarships, offices full of mentors, friendly professors, and former Roma TFAs who live in Austin and host welcome dinners for freshmen.

“Don’t be afraid to reach out to your college,” Tomás said he tells younger students now. “There are resources, though they may not do a good job of putting their name out there.”

“Don’t be afraid to join organizations,” Perla added. “Freshman year, everyone needs help.”

“There are people looking out for people like us,” Eduardo said. “But we have to find them.

Saenz hopes that schools and professors can start doing a better job of reaching out to students like Eduardo and his friends, so they aren’t left to find everything themselves. “We have to step up,” Saenz said. “We have jobs because they’re here.”

But the young people I spoke with don’t expect others to step up for them. In fact, their big idea for what could be done better for kids like them is that they—the members of La Razashould establish a more formal mentoring program for high-school kids in Roma who want to go away to college.

And though the group is happy to share credit for their success with everyone who ever lent them a hand, it seems clear to me that they did the hardest work themselves. It’s incredible, I told them, that they had independently formed the best possible organization to get them through college.

They smile, shrug.

“I thought we were unique,” Eduardo said, “but then I met a lot of people from El Paso.”

Turns out, there are El Paso parties, El Paso potlucks and an El Paso Facebook group. There are more students from that much bigger border town and they have different accents, but as far as looking out for each other, Eduardo said: “They are just like us.”

This post appears courtesy of The Hechinger Report.

Being Black at America’s Elite Public High Schools

On Martin Luther King Day in January—a day set aside to honor a man who fought against racial injustice—two black students at Boston Latin School (BLS) launched a social-media campaign to expose the racially hostile school climate they say exists at America’s first and oldest existing public school. #BlackatBLS soon cast a spotlight on a string of shocking alleged incidents: from verbal slights that disparaged black students’ intelligence and identity, to classmates posting racial slurs on Twitter and Facebook and “saying nigger without fear of being reprimanded,” according to a YouTube video posted by two members of Boston Latin School’s Black Leaders Aspiring for Change and Knowledge.

The resulting social-media storm touched off a range of responses. Mayor Marty Walsh promised to investigate the allegations. Boston schools superintendent Tommy Chang called for systemwide professional development to train school officials to respond to and handle complaints of racism. “In recent months, BLS has taken steps to improve cultural proficiency at the school,” said a spokesperson for Boston Public Schools in an email. “This has included providing educational opportunities for students, faculty, and families to engage in dialogues around issues of race, diversity, and social justice in safe spaces; improving procedures to report bias-based incidents; and mandatory professional development on cultural proficiency among other efforts.” And the U.S. attorney’s office in Boston announced an independent probe into possible civil-rights violations at Boston Latin School. Meanwhile as the events in Boston unleashed a series of difficult conversations on racism and campus climate, the national dialogue on black and Latino students in highly selective high schools remains centered on access and admissions.

In March, New York City’s Department of Education released the demographic breakdown for next year’s freshman class at its eight “elite” public high schools, where admission is based exclusively on test scores, and the numbers continued a dismal trend. Black and Latino students comprised a tiny fraction—according to Politico New York, just over 3 and 5 percent respectively—of the students admitted, in a school system where black and Latino children are 70 percent of all enrolled students. An unscientific analysis by Slate found similar patterns in other districts, such as New Orleans and Fairfax County, Virginia. Black and Latino youngsters were vastly underrepresented in selective high schools as compared to their numbers districtwide, and Asian students were significantly overrepresented—underscoring the complexities among student-of-color groups. Yet as educational-rights activists and elected leaders focus on diversifying enrollment in highly competitive schools, scant attention is being paid to the racial and cultural atmosphere in these institutions, and how welcome black and Latino students are made to feel once admitted to some of the country’s most elite public schools.

The Cutthroat World of Elite Public Schools

Omekongo Dibinga graduated from Boston Latin in 1995, and said up until the 10th grade he felt invisible. “I barely had any black teachers. The only time I seemed to get attention was if I was getting in trouble.” He moved from year to year “unnoticed and unacknowledged” until his sophomore year when he got more involved in student leadership. By senior year, Dibinga was the president of the student council and recounts his last few years at BLS as “unapologetically black.”

However, when he ran for senior class president, things took an alarming turn. As he wrote in a January blog post, on election day some of his white classmates allegedly put white sheets on their heads—distinctive attire worn by the white-supremacist Ku Klux Klan—to protest his candidacy. “A typical day at Boston Latin for me does indeed dovetail with what I read from current students,” he said, including the complacency and inaction of school administrators following incidents of racism like he experienced.

Earlier this year, similar accusations were leveled by black students at New York’s Brooklyn Technical High School—a highly ranked selective public high school—who charged the principal and faculty with minimizing acts of racism at their school. In the aftermath of #BlackatBLS, headmaster Lynne Mooney Teta apologized for her “lack of urgency in addressing racial tensions” and reaffirmed her commitment to providing a safe and discrimination-free school environment.

loss of affirmative action because of a court ruling in the late ’90s. Since then, the percentage of black enrollment has plummeted: of the nearly 2,400 students enrolled at Boston Latin, 9 percent are black and 12 percent are Latino; blacks and Latinos represent 76 percent of students in Boston public schools overall. “The more of us there are, the more impact we have,” said Martin, a 1997 BLS grad. “There will always be enough white kids. Most of them will never experience what it’s like being the only one.”

Balancing the underrepresentation of his culture inside school with cultural pride outside school is something that Matthew Mata, a Latino senior at Chicago’s Walter Payton College Preparatory High School, navigates daily. Throughout his high-school years he says he’s witnessed the equivalent of what was reported at Boston Latin. “The fact that only a few Latinos get the opportunity to receive a fully resourced education [which means] extracting me from my culture … and people who I can easily identify with” only accelerates racial tensions, said Mata, who travels from an “artistic Mexican neighborhood” to attend one of the most selective schools in the city.

To better meet the needs of its students of color, Payton hired a director of student engagement and formed a club—Payton People of Color—as a place to talk through racial and social issues affecting students. Mata sees it as an attempt to be more inclusive, but believes a club can only reap limited benefits: “There shouldn’t need to be a club so students feel safe [but instead] classroom environments where they feel safe.” He added that what elite schools like his need are opportunities for school staff to grow in their racial and cultural consciousness, through student testimonials and mandatory teach-ins on racism. “I believe that in order to confront an oppressive system, you must at times confront [administrators and teachers] with uncomfortable conversations to hopefully get your message across.”

On the heels of the controversy at Boston Latin, faculty at Boston University’s School of Education initiated a series of dialogues to jumpstart exactly what Mata advocates. Sherell McArthur, an assistant professor at BU, said the timing was auspicious. As she and her colleagues contemplated how to engage the BU community in critical conversations on racial justice, the group learned of the racial tensions at Boston Latin.

“Schools of education must do a better job of ensuring that issues of equity, diversity, inclusion, and social justice are values of their teacher education programs,” said McArthur, noting that they otherwise run the risk of producing teachers who ignore, or don’t know how to tackle, racial discrimination and bias. “We have the language to discuss bullying, except for when race is involved,” she said. When white students use the n-word in the classroom, hallway, or cafeteria, and it is heard by educators or brought to their attention and disregarded, McArthur said it “makes those educators complicit in the verbal, psychological, and emotional assault on [black] students.”

One of McArthur’s partners in the project was Christopher Martell, a clinical assistant professor, who said BU’s education school has refocused its courses and student teaching to specifically prepare teachers for urban and multicultural contexts. As a white teacher educator, Martell sees it as part of his mission to prepare beginning teachers to be allies for students of color. “It means helping teachers learn to listen to their students and their parents … and think of ways they should address issues of inequity. It is making this a main theme in our teacher preparation courses, instead of an add-on.”

Dibinga, the Boston Latin graduate, now works as a diversity and inclusion consultant, leveraging his years as a black student in an elite public school into helping schools like his alma mater become more culturally competent. “As a student, I gave it all I had, but as an alumnus, I hope to provide guidance, leadership, and perspective to anyone I am able to reach. Principals and teachers need to realize that it’s not about creating safe spaces, but rather free spaces for their students.”

The Tricky Pursuit of Diversity at the U.S. Air Force Academy

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo.—Lieutenant General Michelle Johnson stood at the window of her office and surveyed one of the most orderly college campuses in America. Despite the mild spring weather, there were no students lounging on the grass or blasting music outside the dorms at the U.S. Air Force Academy just north of this mountain town. In fact, it was quiet, save for the low whir of tow planes pulling gliders across the blue April sky.

“We’re like an aluminum fortress,” she said, gesturing toward the pointed spires of the academy’s iconic chapel and the low-slung buildings that anchor this 19,000-acre school. “We’ve got to be open and secure.”

Johnson, who became the first woman to serve as superintendent of the academy in 2013, was speaking literally. (The Air Force has conducted airstrikes against ISIS and the campus has become a target of the group.) But she might as well have been referring to her strategy for running the operation responsible for educating the next generation of Air Force officers who will be tasked with defending the United States against foreign threats.

Although she’s only been at the helm for three years, they are years that span a tumultuous time for both higher education and the military broadly. Educators and military officials are grappling with shifting demographics, where the people in leadership roles look less and less like the people they are charged with serving. At colleges across the country, the overwhelming whiteness of those in power has prompted Black Lives Matter activists to call for more diversity. At the Pentagon, the Defense Department is looking for creative ways to fight an enemy that is less predictable and more amorphous. Both tasks require a delicate balance of preservation and evolution, of security and openness. As the leader of both an elite institution of higher learning and a key piece of the military pipeline, Johnson sits at the nexus. “We’re trying to deliver this traditional mission in a relevant way to this generation and to the profession of arms,” she said.

Lieutenant General Michelle Johnson (Brennan Linsley / AP)

At the academy, that has meant bringing sometimes-uncomfortable conversations about race into the open. The dialogue is structured in a way that both adheres to the military’s strict guidelines around acceptable conduct and recognizes that the 4,000 cadets that call the academy home each year are not cogs in a machine, but young American adults with opinions and values and connections to the world around them. The student protests that erupted at schools like the University of Missouri after the black teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a white police officer in Ferguson, didn’t materialize at the academy. Such activities could, after all, be considered a violation of the Defense Department’s rules against making political statements in uniform. But Johnson acknowledged that the absence of overt unrest does not mean the absence of discontent. “Same concerns. Same gene pool. Same generation, so we try to tend to those,” she said.

After West Point, the Army’s service academy, said it would not punish 16 black female cadets who were photographed in early May with their arms raised in what many saw as a political statement, the Air Force Academy suggested it would behave similarly if confronted with such a demonstration.

“The Air Force’s Academy is a training institution, teaching cadets how to appropriately raise concerns, understand perceptions and balance personal freedom with effective leadership,” Lieutenant Colonel Brus Vidal, the academy’s director of public affairs, wrote in an email. “Cadets will continue to navigate through situations and circumstances where judgment is an important aspect of leadership on active duty. This is the ideal environment to explore those leadership issues with open and transparent conversations.”

In a way, it’s been easier for Johnson and her colleagues than for university presidents to “tend to” students’ concerns because they’ve been building the scaffolding to do so for years. Where the University of Missouri only hired a chief diversity officer this year in response to protests, the academy created that position in 2010, and Johnson made sure it reports directly to the superintendent so that concerns can’t be filtered before they reach her. Where some schools have tried to contain conversations about policing and race (just 40 percent of university presidents in a recent survey said that dialogue has increased across their campuses in the wake of Black Lives Matter events), Johnson’s staff put together a forum on Ferguson for cadets with guidance from the Knapsack Institute, which helps schools and businesses navigate tricky conversations. “People have concerns but our faculty engaged,” she said. “We try to broach it on a real human level and draw out what their concerns are … We’re not immune, being in uniform.”

The focus on diversity is “embedded in many of the courses we teach,” said Brigadier General Andrew Armacost, the dean of faculty at the academy. New hires go through an orientation the summer before they start teaching to learn how to lead classes in a way that makes people feel like they belong. During the year, faculty gather occasionally during lunch to talk about books on belonging. Up recently were Beverly Daniel Tatum’s Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria: And Other Conversations About Race and Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do.

Cadet Colonel Tarina Crook (Emily DeRuy / The Atlantic)

Cadet Colonel Tarina Crook, an African American student, attended the Ferguson forum. “We just had the most respectful conversation I thought imaginable,” she said. Cadet Colonel Kristov George, another cadet, echoed Crook. “We see all these opportunities as academic discussions,” he said. “We don’t protest.” Raised in a small town outside of Dallas by a mother from Trinidad and Tobago, the black 6’1’’ mechanical-engineering major was recruited to play football and this year serves as the cadet wing commander, the school’s highest-ranked student. “You’re not going to see black cadets marching around this campus saying, ‘black lives matter,’ or saying, ‘down with the white system putting us down,’” he said. “We’re not going to do that. What we’re going to do is we’re going to talk about it … We try to remove emotions from these conversations here because we know that it only leads to trouble, so we try to use logic in most of these circumstances.”

Putting aside the question of whether suppressing emotions is the healthiest way to engage in such conversations, the fact that the conversations are happening at an institution many have regarded for decades as less-than-accepting of differences is noteworthy. So is the fact that they’ve been going on for years, well before many liberal-arts universities found themselves scrambling last year to react to student demands. “Rightly so, in military service we’re expected to hold higher standards,” Johnson said. “It’s what our nation expects of us, so the scrutiny is strong and we need to be at the leading edge of things.”

“We are trying to develop them into leaders,” Brigadier General Stephen Williams, the commandant of cadets (the dean of students, in civilian terms) added. “They’re going to lead a diverse group. You can’t lead a diverse group unless you learn how to work and integrate within a diverse group. So, really, everything we’re trying to teach them is how to manipulate their world in that environment so they can lead.”

That is the crux of why a school so regimented that failing to cut your hair or marching out of sync are still cause for disciplinary action is wading into such a gray zone: The military’s future depends on it. Why care about diversity, I asked Johnson. In a candid interview that spanned more than an hour, she offered a number of nuanced, thoughtful reasons. But the short answer, as she said, is this: “Cold hard facts? So that we can conduct our mission better. We really need each other.”

The U.S. Air Force Academy chapel (Emily Jan / The Atlantic)

While forums on Ferguson and faculty book clubs are important, the academy is digging in long-term on increasing the racial and gender diversity of its cadets, faculty, and staff, which it hopes will ultimately increase the diversity of the force’s officer corps. It’s a long, challenging slog. Women make up just 18 percent of military faculty, and minorities just 8 percent. The rates are higher for civilian faculty, 40 percent and 9 percent respectively, but not reflective of the broader population. The academy is behind on the Air Force’s goal to raise the number of women in the cadet applicant pool to a relatively modest 30 percent, too. Fewer than 27 percent of the young people who applied to be in the class of 2020 are racial minorities, despite the fact that children of color now make up more than half of all K-12 students nationwide.

Raising those figures is complicated by the fact that the academy is stuck adhering to federal regulations that say it cannot specifically recruit young women or people of color. In other words, it wants them, but it has to go about asking for them in a roundabout way. So about four years ago, the academy stepped up its outreach to what it calls “underrepresented congressional districts.” It’s worth pausing briefly here to explain how a student goes about applying in the first place and why those congressional districts matter so much.

A kid who wants to go to the academy doesn’t just go online and submit an application directly to the school. She has to apply for a nomination, generally from her Congressional representative, senators, or from the vice president. Each member of Congress is allowed to have five cadets enrolled at the academy at one time. When a spot opens up, a member can nominate up to 10 people for admission, known at the academy as “appointment.” Not everyone who gets a nomination gets in, but securing a nomination is a critical first step. So how does one get a coveted nomination? The answer varies widely because each congressional office has its own process, and they don’t have to disclose who they select or why. (Calls to several congressional offices requesting information about how nominees are selected were not returned.)

A 2014 USA Today examination of the process found that lawmakers sometimes nominate the children of friends and political donors with little oversight. “While congressional nominations help ensure geographic diversity,” the authors wrote, “they’re less effective in providing for other kinds of diversity. For decades, many Southern lawmakers refused to nominate black candidates.” And sometimes students of color don’t reach out and apply for a nomination. A spokeswoman for Representative Hakeem Jeffries, a Democrat who represents a largely African American section of Brooklyn and Queens, told the paper he hadn’t received any applicants the prior year.

It’s in that framework that the academy must operate. So Colonel Carolyn Benyshek, the director of admissions, has her staff look at which districts have four or fewer cadets, reaches out to congressional staffers in those districts, and works with them to find qualified students. While that doesn’t necessarily foster racial diversity in theory, it actually has in some places because underrepresented districts are often comprised of constituents who are underrepresented minorities. That’s partially because people of color are often less familiar with or open to the idea of attending the academy, and partially because of pushback from some of the lawmakers themselves. Benyshek recalled a conversation with one congresswoman who hadn’t been nominating students. The woman, an older person of color who Benyshek declined to identify, allegedly told her, “I don’t believe in this. I don’t believe in the military because these are the things that happened to my race during this time period and I don’t want my children to have to deal with that.”

more people feel comfortable coming forward), particularly in the athletic department, in a way that previous leaders had not.

On campus, Stewart, the acting diversity officer, spends his days dealing with all of these issues, stressing to different departments the importance of not just paying lip service to diversity in its various forms, but of fostering actual inclusion. That task will likely become easier as the faculty itself diversifies, but Armacost says that process is made more challenging by the fact that positions don’t open often on the civilian side, and on the military side, by the fact that the Air Force is occasionally reluctant to send some of its top women and people of color to teach at the academy. “‘Yes, we understand your needs for diversity but the Air Force has needs for diversity as well.’ That’s the response sometimes,” Armacost said.

In the meantime, the academy has taken a few stabs at modernity—efforts that would seem laughable to most college students, but are welcome news for cadets and in part an attempt to draw in young people unfamiliar with military standards. Dorms are now co-ed. Dating is allowed, with the exception of a ban on first-years dating upperclassmen that’s intended to prevent an imbalance of power. “In this day and age, we can’t cloister ‘em like 1802 in Westpoint. And that didn’t work out that well anyway,” Johnson said, chuckling. “I’m a military commander, but it’s college.” Seniors in good standing can leave campus in the evenings as long as they’re back by 6:45 a.m. the following morning, where they were required to be back by the end of the night just several years ago. Cadets are permitted to spend time with ROTC units on regular campuses around the country to get a taste of college life. There’s talk of giving students more choice over which classes they take and even moving to a block schedule that would give students time during the day to informally grab coffee with their peers. (Don’t laugh; this is a novel idea at the academy.)

There has also been an attempt in recent years to embrace religious and, to some extent, sexual diversity. Attendance at chapel is no longer required (it was until the 1970s), and there are spaces for cadets of all faiths to worship. The academy faced allegations before Johnson’s tenure that non-Christian cadets were subject to unwanted proselytizing. Freedom of religion and religious tolerance came up frequently during my visit, with academy leaders going out of their way to show that the academy welcomes cadets of all faiths, including through an hour-long private tour of the chapel and other worship spaces. The academy, which has about 30 Muslim cadets, including four women, has one of three Muslim chaplains in the entire Air Force, and its only female rabbi. The school, like the Air Force more broadly, says it accommodates religious requests, such as the ability to wear a headscarf (a request a conservative military college in South Carolina recently denied a cadet), on a case-by-case basis, “unless a request would have an adverse effect on military readiness, mission accomplishment, unit cohesion, and good order and discipline.”

In the aftermath of the repeal of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, lesbian, gay, and bisexual cadets are free to be open about their identities, and the academy has held forums for cadets to talk about sexual identity. But at the same time the military still does not permit transgender people to serve openly, and academy leaders referred simply to “LGB” issues in conversation, leaving the standard T noticeably hanging. Young people, especially, may see that as frustratingly slow progress toward inclusion. And while the academy is trying to balance modernity and tradition, there is clearly still room to grow when it comes to preventing some cadets from leaving.

The attrition rate for the class of 2016 is 23 percent, meaning nearly one in four of the cadets who started out won’t graduate and be commissioned. It’s 25 percent for women and 39 percent for African Americans. A recent informal cadet survey found that some 60 percent of cadets don’t feel like they belong. There’s no quick fix, but Johnson and her colleagues say they are committed to engaging in the effort, and helping cadets navigate an increasingly heterogeneous Air Force after graduation. “What they understand from very early on is that we have a product at the back end and that’s going to be an officer of character leading our Air Force and our nation,” Benyshek said. “They understand that, ‘I’m going to go out and I’m going to have to lead people who don’t look like me or who didn’t grow up like I did.’”

Ultimately, cadets are beginning their military careers when they enroll at the academy, not when they graduate. Their professors and classmates are also their future bosses and colleagues. So the way they behave and the concerns they share are certainly filtered at times through that understanding. But the academy is taking steps to draw out their thinking in ways that could someday benefit the Air Force as a whole as it faces an enemy no longer marching in a straight line. “We’re a better force because of that diversity of thought,” Williams said. The effort is “not perfect,” nor complete, Johnson acknowledged, but, she said, “We think we’re going in the right direction.” The key is “not having a tin ear, being willing to listen,” and willing to ask: “What are we missing, what can we do better so that everyone has a sense of belonging?” she said. Part of the approach is upholding clear standards for everyone, from athletes to faculty members. And part of it is figuring out how to make previously restricted spaces accessible for young people who sometimes lack a roadmap for how to reach them. “You know how the philosophers say, ‘Don’t blame the apples if the barrel is bad?’” Johnson asked as our conversation wound down. “I want to have a great barrel.”

What’s the Point of College?

It’s a question my colleague Steve Clemons is planning to discuss with a panel of experts at The Atlantic’s Education Summit next week, so to get some fodder for the discussion, I posed the question to some of our core readers in TAD, a discussion group created a few months ago by members of TNC’s old Horde.

Here are two quick answers, first from Nick: “The best thing I got out of college was having my opinions tested, learning how to justify them if possible, or correct them if I couldn’t justify them.” Reader Jim looks on the social side:

I’d say the point of college, now—and certainly a part I benefited from—is the exposure to people from a variety of walks of life. Ideally, you learn about the differences in people and come to recognize them as people despite those differences.

This reader touches on both themes:

College was probably the best time in my life (so far). I would say the benefit was twofold: growing intellectually and growing socially. A job was not on my mind as I went through college (aside from my mom’s constant “Don’t you want to be a lawyer/doctor?”), so I was really focused on learning. As part of the honors program, I was given the opportunity to take small seminar classes where the students took a strong role in shaping and charting the discussion, and I undertook a serious research project clocking in at a whopping 117 pages. Will that knowledge of apocalyptic texts ever come in handy again? Probably not. But the skills gained along the way in critical thinking, writing, and discussion certainly made me a better citizen.

As far as my social life, I have never and will never be a party person. So that wasn’t my college experience. But I made some great friends from different backgrounds and formed friendships that I might not have otherwise. And my friends from college remain my closest friend circles today (sorry TADbros).

So I think viewing college as simply a means to an end is silly, although probably an unfortunate part of reality.

More on that reality from Katt:

The point of college is to put as many people into debt as possible so they have to settle for a life of mediocrity and being wage slaves to our capitalist overlords.

P.S. I am just bitter because I went to art school. Don’t send your kids to art school.

This reader would probably agree:

What’s the point of college? In the 21st century? Vocational training, credentialism, and resume-sorting disguised as “education.” Many jobs that in no way need a college education require one. It is a replacement for job training, which has been put to pasture by shareholder demand and the general libertarian attitude of employers towards employees. (See the work of Wharton management professor Peter Cappelli for how employers across the spectrum have cut training.)

Bourree interviewed Cappelli last year on the “danger of picking a major based on where the jobs are.” Cappelli told her in a subsequent piece: “There is a long literature in psychology showing that job performance and college grades are poorly related. It is remarkable how frequently companies rely on hiring criteria for which there is no evidence of it working.” Back to our reader:

Sent by another reader

[A college education] also provides cover from an otherwise swelling unemployment rate for young adults. Resume-sorting is not just accomplished by asking “does the applicant have a college degree or not,” but also sorting by major, GPA, institution, etc. Direct applicability of major is ever more important as actual job training vanishes. GPA is a lazy correlation of equating academic prowess (or strategic choice of easy classes) with professional aptitude.

Institutional sorting is how elite employers remain elite. (I’ve noted in perusing the CVs of The Atlantic’s staff that even attending something outside of the Top 15 or so colleges and universities in USNWR makes one something of an outlier. [CB:👋])

A college education is also a conduit for separating people from their money and/or money they borrow. Student loans are, at their basest form, a regressive taxation on socioeconomic mobility. How’s that for Kafkaesque?

In all of this, the classical purpose of college—to acquire deep knowledge, advanced analytical, rhetorical, and writing skills, and a deeper appreciation of the world around you—is antiquated and scorned.

This next reader relates to the “what’s the point?” question as a parent:

Funny you ask, since we are prepping our 18-year-old daughter for her freshman year this fall.

What Teachers Lose to Pension Debt

Are teachers losing out on thousands of dollars in potential extra pay because states are behind on maintaining pensions?

In a new study released by, Chad Aldeman relied on federal data to compare the wages and benefits of public-school teachers to those of other workers. He found that states and districts on average put 12 percent of teacher salaries toward the pension programs millions of school employees rely on for their retirement. That means more than $6,800 public dollars per teacher go toward supporting the pension funds states and districts promised to maintain.

In addition to that 12 percent, states and districts contribute on average 5 percent of teacher pay toward the pension benefits they’ll actually see come retirement—a rate that’s considered above average in the private sector. Without the $6,800 in “pension debt,” Aldeman contends public-school systems could spend that money on teacher salaries or other instructional material to improve student outcomes.

“I don’t think teachers fully recognize how much the retirement system is costing to essentially keep it afloat,” Aldeman said in an interview.

Pensions are complicated financial instruments that have a lot of moving parts, but broadly they are promises an employer makes to employees for how much money will be available as soon as they retire. That’s virtually the opposite of the more popular retirement instruments today—the 401(k) and similar tools—that place the onus on individuals to invest in a way that will yield the retirement money they think they’ll need. Sure, many employers help out with matching contributions to a worker’s retirement fund, but there’s no certainty the stock market will stay on pace to net the worker the desired nest egg. Pension managers, on the other hand, have to “figure out how much they’ll need to contribute today in order to have money to pay those benefits in the future,” explained Aldeman. “And it requires a lot more assumptions about how fast the money is going to grow, what the benefits will actually be worth, how long teachers will live in retirement, how much salary they’ll make in the future.”

Lately, teacher pension managers across the country have forecasted poorly. States are short nearly $500 billion in what they promised teachers. For every dollar governments pay toward teacher pension plans, only 30 cents go toward actual benefits for today’s workers, the report notes. The remaining 70 cents must be used to pay for the pension promises that weren’t paid for in prior years.

How to characterize state’s outstanding pension obligations is a matter of debate. Aldeman calls it debt. Others don’t like the term. “​​The unfunded liability is not debt,” said Teresa Ghilarducci, a professor on retirement security at The New School, in an email. Rather, the investments made for the pension fund have not yielded the amount needed to pay the retirement money to everyone, she said, pinning the blame on pension managers and state lawmakers for investing poorly or not putting enough money into the fund to keep it afloat.

For Aldeman and other pension skeptics, the high price to maintain these retirement promises wouldn’t be as much a problem if all teachers benefited from the pension programs. But as I’ve reported for The Atlantic, most state pension programs are backloaded to reward teachers who remain as educators in their states for 25 or more years. Only one-fifth of all teachers will receive the full amount for which they’re eligible, while each year thousands of retiring public-school educators won’t see a dime of that money. Forty percent of teachers aren’t eligible for Social Security either.

For many teachers, surrendering higher pay in the private sector for the opportunity to acquire ostensibly better benefits may not bear the desired outcomes, TeacherPensions has argued before. “We don’t recommend that states go after the pensions of existing retirees or people in the workforce now,” Aldeman said. “That doesn’t mean we can’t design a better system going forward for new workers. It’s not about dismantling; it’s preserving promises you’ve already made while moving to something better.”

Why Teachers Aren’t Getting Their Pensions

That “something better” is a bit nebulous. The report cites examples of using some version of 401(k) or programs similar to pensions called cash-balance plans that have low rates of return but are pretty safe—meaning a bad year in stocks won’t eviscerate decades of steady gains in one’s retirement account. Aldeman also spoke favorably of the federal government’s transition in the 1980s from a full pension for workers to a mix of pension, a 401(k)-type program for workers that was in part matched by the government, and Social Security.

Today, unions are typically critical of plans to shift away from pensions. A proposal in California to transition to 401(k)-type plans for public employees was defeated resoundingly this year, The Sacramento Bee reported.

Other organizations that are protective of pensions take issue with the premise that the retirement benefit is supposed to be evenly beneficial to all teachers. “What is the obligation to someone who comes to teach school for two or three years and then leaves?” asked Keith Brainard, the research director for the National Association of State Retirement Administrators, in a phone interview. He said that many school districts “have decided that it’s better to push more of the retirement benefit to teachers who are going to stay longer who provide a sense of longevity and loyalty to the profession and to the school district rather than to reward those who just leave after a few years.”

Beyond the philosophical underpinnings of who deserves a pension and why, plans like the 401(k) generate slightly worse returns than pensions, according to a study by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. Between 1990 and 2012, pensions outperformed such plans like 401(k)s by 0.7 percent annually. The 2015 study suggested the fees associated with managing 401(k)s contributed to the disparity.

“Switching to a 401(k) ​never help​s to get out of the pension math,” said Ghilarducci. “401(k)s are more expensive and less efficient, so you are either going to increase costs or substantially reduce teacher benefits. And research shows that, by and large, you get the quality of teachers you are willing to pay for.”

There are other disadvantages to teacher pension plans. Unlike Social Security benefits, they don’t always travel with the employee from job to job; teachers who accept jobs in a different state may have to deal with a whole new set of retirement rules and conditions. They can also lose out on the interest gains their pension plans have accumulated.

More than 3 million teachers educate the nation’s public-school students. They’re relatively accomplished academically: While roughly 40 percent of Americans have attained a bachelor’s or associate’s degree, virtually all teachers have a bachelor’s, and many have master’s—meaning they can be choosers in the labor force. Whether pensions are the better bet for public-school educators is unclear, but keeping them happy so that they continue their vital role of inspiring and guiding nearly 50 million students is essential—and so is figuring out a benefits scheme that works for them.

Or as Ghilarducci put it, “​Schools are expensive, good teachers are expensive, but pitting students against the teachers has never been a path to well-run school districts that advance learning.”