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An Educational Surprise from Down East: Maine Maritime Academy

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Eastport, Maine, which Deb and Jim Fallows have been profiling recently in their American Futures posts – and which Jim is writing an article about for the January issue of the magazine (subscribe here!) – is a tiny town of 1300 people in Washington county, which wraps around Maine’s farthest “down East” stretches.

Washington County calls itself the “Sunrise County” because it’s the easternmost county in the U.S, where the sun first rises on the 48 contiguous states. But it doesn’t boast about being the poorest county in Maine, which it is. Many of the small seaside communities dotting the county’s eastern border survive on small-scale fishing operations, while much of the rest of the county’s economy depends on wild blueberries. This is hardscrabble-life territory. That’s why towns like Eastport are working so strenuously to innovate and find paths to a more prosperous future.

It’s also why a college education leading to a solid career is perhaps even more prized here than in much of the rest of the U.S – why families celebrate when their kids get admitted to their chosen college.

There’s nothing unusual about celebrating your kid’s admission to a preferred college with a party.  But for many families in Maine, that party has a name – a “lottery party,” as in “our kid just won the lottery.” I’m told this is what lots of folks in Maine call such a celebration that follows admission to the Maine Maritime Academy (MMA), graduation from which, they believe, virtually guarantees lifetime earnings equal to a big lottery win.

Deb and Jim Fallows told me they heard people in Eastport sing the praises of MMA, which is several hours southwest of Eastport, in Castine.  Not knowing anything about MMA, I decided to look into it. One of the people in Eastport who championed the MMA as attention-worthy is Captain Bob Peacock (USNR-Ret.), the Eastport harbor pilot Deb mentions here. Peacock is a 1971 graduate of MMA and, it turns out, chairman of its board of trustees. When he heard I was going to Castine to check out MMA, he said he’d meet me there, arrange for me to meet with the president, Bill Brennan, as well as faculty and students – and also give me a personal tour.

What a revelation.

Not least, the place is beautiful. Castine (population 1,366) is one of the oldest towns in Maine. White clapboard houses surround an appealing campus that sits on a hill near Penobscot Bay, overlooking Castine Harbor. (Town and campus in photo above.) Much of the town doesn’t look too different from how it must have looked in 1779, when Paul Revere and other Americans on the Penobscot Expedition were routed by the British here.

But it’s not the charm of the place that is the principal attraction to students who apply here; the career preparation is. And the waterside, small-town tranquility that envelops MMA belies the institution’s high-tech underpinnings, which I’ll touch on below.

This is a college whose student body is largely self-selected. As one professor told me, “dabblers don’t come here.” Highly directed students who know what they want to do are the kind of people who matriculate at MMA. Application numbers are atall-time highs for admission to this public four-year college. This year’s tuition ranges from $9,080 for in-state students to $19,900 for out-of-state students, with students from some other New England states paying $13,620. Financial aidis, of course, available. And as an indicator of the success MMA’s students typically enjoy, Bill Brennan told me, “The default rate on the loans we issue is around 1.5 percent — as opposed to 12 or 13 percent at most institutions.”  Undergraduate enrollment has climbed to nearly 1,000.  According to President Brennan, the place is “bursting at the seams” with students eager for the education obtainable here. “Enrollment is slipping in lots of colleges around the country, but we’re beyond capacity here.”

They come to study to be navigation officers (ultimately, captains and pilots) of huge ocean-going vessels as well as smaller ships. (Did you see Captain Phillips? If so, then you’ve seen the kinds of jobs some of these students train for.) Some come to major in engineering – learning to design, install and operate power-generation, hydraulic, electrical, and other systems on vessels and in shore-based utilities. Still others come to the business school to study global logistics and business operations in international trade.

Increasing numbers of MMA students come to study marine science and marine biology, many doing a dual-degree option in small-vessel operations, which prepares them to work in various fields of ocean science where they may also need the capability to operate small research craft (“small” here means vessels not over 200 gross tons).  That particular combination is very popular and, one professor told me, “golden” in its career prospects.

And that’s the point. Whatever their course of study, young people enroll here because they know their education will prepare them for a career, typically a quite lucrative one. MMA understandably boasts that each year it places more than 90 percent of its graduating class in professional employment or graduate studies within 90 days of graduation, many of those with starting salaries over $100,000. At a recent career fair on campus, 80 companies showed up to recruit MMA students, many of whom already have firm job offers well before they’re seniors.

When you walk around the MMA campus, you see many students in the khaki or blue uniforms of midshipmen. Approximately 60 percent of MMA students are in the “regiment of midshipmen,” mostly those seeking an unlimited license in the U.S. Merchant Marine. But regimental training – with its uniforms, leadership training, discipline, and additional duties (though no military obligation after graduation) – is open to all students.  The regimented and “traditional” students attend the same classes, participate in the same clubs, Division-III athletic teams, and other activities.

What struck me at MMA was how much hands-on experience these students get. (Video here.) Everybody gets cooperative-learning experience, appropriate to their educational and career goals, either aboard vessels or with companies involved in industrial manufacturing, logistics, engineering, oceanographic research, or marine biology.

And the on-campus training is enriched by impressive high-tech facilities, as I mentioned above.  For example, I was awed by the state-of-the-art, computerizednavigation simulator (seen in photo below), used to train deck officers.  It’s in the campus Center for Advanced Technology, in a large room set up like a ship’s bridge. A semicircle of 55-inch flat-screen monitors provides students with real-life simulations of port approaches and harbors anywhere in the world. The day I was there, the harbor on the simulator’s screens was New York. It was so authentic that I might as well have been looking from the Staten Island Ferry – and so realistic that people have gotten seasick in the room.

The instructor can call up simulations of full darkness, heavy fog, and various untoward incidents (approaching vessel, collision, man overboard, etc.) to challenge student navigators in all sorts of situations.  This simulator also includes controls for Dynamic Positioning (DP) systems, a technology that enables precise maneuverability for offshore oil rigs, tugs, and large passenger ships, thus allowing  students to get training necessary to handle the newest, most advanced marine vessels out there.

Students in certain programs are required to take two training cruises of at least 60 days – one each at the end of their first and third years. These cruises, aboard theState of Maine (large ship pictured below) orient students to a ship’s deck and engineering areas, and provide specific hands-on experience in the students’ areas of major.  And in the summer after the sophomore year, students in some majors are assigned to merchant vessels for several months of additional shipboard experience. Others, like students studying business and logistics, must get a co-operative work experience with a company, lasting a minimum of twelve 40-hour work weeks, at the end of the third year.

So, a large part of the extraordinary success MMA graduates have in getting good jobs right after graduation has to do with the experiential training they get at the academy. As Bob Peacock put it, “these students learn how to do things. We teachhow to make it happen.”

The other part of MMA graduates’ success comes from the fact that they’ve been training for careers where there’s extraordinary demand for employees. The international cargo shipping industry is growing so fast that it’s hard for American flagships to find qualified navigators and engineers. International businesses need people skilled in the kind of sophisticated logistics contemporary world trade demands. And as people around the world look to the oceans as a growing source of food and natural resources, those trained in marine biology and marine science are in high demand.

Here’s what’s important and interesting about all this. The kind of education provided at MMA and America’s six other maritime academies is not familiar to most Americans. Most of us, I would wager, have only the slightest idea what goes on at these institutions. That’s too bad, because what’s going on is some of the most compelling education to be found anywhere.

And in an era when angst about whether the benefits of a college education are outweighed by the staggering costs – and when many critics of American higher education bemoan the banality and uselessness of what happens on college campuses – the Maine Maritime Academy provides an arresting antidote to those negative narratives and to the notion that we’re headed downhill.  This is the kind of place that makes America work. And succeed.

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This post originally appeared at TheAtlantic.com

 


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What Would an Ideal College Curriculum Look Like? A Lot Like This

If you’ve been attentive to the growing series of posts here under the banner of the American Futures project, you know that Deb and Jim Fallows have been examining  small, resilient American cities that are home to intriguing innovations and entrepreneurship. A few days ago, as part of the project’s recent focus on Burlington, Vermont, I took a look at two of the three great colleges there.  Now let’s look in on the third, Champlain College. You’ll see why this one fits the project’s ongoing “American ingenuity” theme.

If you could design your ideal college from scratch, what would it look like? Mine would look something like the following. Students would acquire training that makes them immediately employable. They’d take courses in the liberal arts that would sharpen their skills in writing, analysis, and reasoning. And they’d graduate with some real-life knowledge, such as how to interview for a job. There’d be no tenure for faculty, but instructors would be made to feel they’re valued members of the enterprise. And administrators would constantly ask themselves “how can we prepare students for what the world needs of them?”

While you’re busy designing your version of the ideal, I can take a nap or go fishing, because somebody has already built mine: Champlain College. It is doing everything I’ve described and, in the process, is gaining the attention of the higher-ed world. The words I’ve heard used to describe Champlain include innovative, nimble, adaptable. A professor from nearby St. Michael’s College told me, with unabashed admiration, “Champlain is always asking itself What works?”

Founded in 1878 and long known as the Burlington Business College, Champlain assumed its current name in 1958, when it had only 60 students in various associate’s degree programs.  Starting bachelor’s degree programs in 1991, the college now enrolls 2000 undergraduates – an enrollment cap it committed to several years ago in an agreement with the student-rich city of Burlington.  When it launched its bachelor’s programs, this college long known for training secretaries and accountants, began to reinvent itself, earning respect for its enterprising spirit.

The dominant ethos of Champlain – that “what works?” mentality – intensified when David Finney arrived from NYU in 2005 to become president.  Finney quickly instituted what he calls a “three-dimensional education” program, an undergraduate curriculum consisting of interdisciplinary liberal-arts courses, a life-skills program, and training for a career.

Though it’s a career-focused college, Champlain requires its students to take a core curriculum of liberal-arts courses over four years to enhance intellectual discipline and critical thinking. Believing that “American higher education has really lost its way with general-education courses,” Finney told me that when he arrived in his new job, he decided to spend all of his “honeymoon capital” as new president to replace the “hodge-podge of courses” that formed the liberal-arts core. He assembled a faculty task force to design a revised core aiming to build habits of mind students will need “not just as they’re leaving here,” Finney says, “but over their lifetime.“

A painstaking process of reinvention led to new core courses designed to help students develop global awareness and strengthen their analytical and reasoning abilities, critical reading skills, and writing proficiency. These courses have no tests. The work is heavily oriented toward writing. Classes consist mainly of discussion and project teamwork rather than lectures. Students and faculty are active learners together.

A second component of Champlain’s undergraduate education comes through its required “Life Experience and Action Dimension” program, which has two parts: (1) some real-world education, emphasizing financial literacy and sophistication (developing a budget, making sense of credit cards, understanding how employee benefits work and why they’re important, etc.) and job skills (marketing oneself, negotiating business contracts, and developing skills in interviewing, networking, etc.); and (2) a community-service element that puts students to work helping Burlington’s needy and simultaneously broadening cultural awareness and a sense of engaged citizenship.

The third element of a Champlain education, and the part for which the college is probably best known, is its career-oriented training. At Champlain, “professional education” doesn’t just mean traditional majors like marketing or accounting, but an array of innovative concentrations such as computer and digital forensics, computer networking and cybersecurity, computer-game art design and animation, digital and streaming media.

Moreover, Champlain inaugurated an inventive “upside-down curriculum,”allowing first-year students to take up to six classes in their major. Consequently, students get hands-on-learning experiences right off the bat, with theory saved for later. This helps students get internships and early job offers. According to an article in Seven Days – the successful print newspaper in Burlington that Jim profiled last month – Champlain students in majors like cybersecurity (recentlyrecognized as the top such program in the country) “are now so highly sought after that many are being recruited while still in their junior year, and sometimes even earlier.”

Champlain wants to be an economic engine for Vermont and tries to stay in front of the curve, especially on tech-driven career training. Finney explained one of the ways the college does that: “Most of our programs have affiliated advisory boards with people from Vermont businesses. We ask these people ‘what are you going to need?’ Not ‘what do you need now,’ but ‘what are you going to need in the future?’ And we try to meet those needs. So people in companies here have the sense that Champlain is their partner. And we’re very future-oriented.” Little wonder, then, that Champlain has become, as one reporter put it, “a training ground for Vermont software development firms and other high-tech employers” [like the ones Jim described here and here].

Internally, the college seems healthy, too. There’s palpable energy and enthusiasm on this campus. You might expect the faculty to be angry or resentful about the no-tenure policy. They’re not. Several people, including Finney, told me the absence of tenure “has never been an issue,” a claim the Faculty Senate’s President, Laurel Bongiorno, affirms.  Faculty members work under individual, multi-year contracts – a good arrangement most American workers would love to have.

As I walked around campus, talking with students, I was struck by a common theme: many spoke of Champlain’s congeniality, its spirit of collaborative learning, and the absence of barriers separating students from faculty. Addressing that theme, Finney told me, “Yes, our DNA is very unusual. The vast majority of our faculty prefer that students address them by their first name. People see themselves as part of learning teams. It’s an intensely personal place.”

I got one small indicator of Champlain’s specialness when visiting in mid-September.  I went into the beautiful library (photo above) on consecutive afternoons, a Thursday and Friday. If you’re familiar with contemporary college life, you know that on many campuses, students typically treat these like weekend days. Not at Champlain. I was astonished (and I don’t use that word lightly here) to see nearly every seat filled, students working. When I told Finney about this, he chuckled knowingly. “I’ve noticed the same thing. Encouraging, isn’t it?”

Finney’s right about Champlain’s unusual DNA. American higher education would be better off if more colleges tried to replicate what’s going on here.

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This article originally appeared at TheAtlantic.com



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Sioux Falls: It’s Been a Boom Town Before

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Sioux Falls, South Dakota, has been in the spotlight recently as America’s latest “boom town.” Touting the city’s consistently low unemployment rate – currently at 3.3 percent – the National Journal reported, with a headline that used the “boom town” theme, that the city’s “multiple thriving industries” (banking, healthcare, agriculture) made Sioux Falls the envy of other urban areas. And Forbes again listed Sioux Falls in first place on its annual list of The Best Small Places for Business and Careers. So, more and more people go to Sioux Falls.

Talking with National Journal reporter Amy Sullivan, Sioux Falls mayor Mike Huether explained what the city’s booming success looks like on the ground:

We do have between 3,000 and 4,000 people moving here each year . . .. This year, we will blow away the record for construction in a single year. We’re already 150 percent of where we were last year, and last year was the second-highest construction year in our city’s history.

. . .

We had 30 businesses in downtown Sioux Falls that either opened or expanded last year. There is no vacancy right now for people who want to live in downtown Sioux Falls.

Sounds like a boom to you? Oh, please. You don’t know the meaning of “boom.”

If you really want to know what Sioux Falls looks like when it’s booming, you have to look back 125 years to the period right around the arrival of the railroad there in 1878. Fortunately, we have a fascinating record of what that booming period looked like, compiled by Gary Olson, a now-retired professor of history at Augustana College in Sioux Falls and an expert on the city’s history. Olson sifted through census data, newspaper accounts, and archival materials to provide an illuminating “snapshot” of Sioux Falls in the late 1870s. The city’s extraordinary growth was a thing to behold:

In March 1878 the Sioux Falls Pantagraph reported that . . . every day brought large numbers of new arrivals. The hotels, the Pantagraph observed, ‘are crowded to their utmost capacity; the boarding houses have eager customers for all their hash;. . . [and] the lumber dealers are up to their eyes in business.’ . . . In April the Pantagraph announced that new arrivals were increasing, averaging about forty-five per day, ‘coming by stage, by livery, by freighters’ wagons and on foot.’ . . . Naturally, the population pressure had an impact on real estate prices. In June 1878 a visitor from the Sioux City Journal reported that houses and buildings were scarce – ‘remarkably so’ – resulting in real estate prices doubling during the previous three years. The Pantagraph confessed in June that Sioux Falls had been overwhelmed by being ‘the vortex of a whirlpool of immigration for months.’

1908. Panoramic photographic of the main street of Sioux Falls, SD. Library of Congress

In April of 1878, the U.S. Land Office in Sioux Falls handed over nearly 200,000 acres of land, a 50 percent increase over the previous month. The office was processing an average of more than seventy claims a day. On one Monday in May, 1878, the office handled 134 claims, “a disposal of 160 acres every three minutes.” Olson writes: “This is how the term ‘doing a land-office business’ gained its meaning.”

In late July 1878 a correspondent for the Sioux City Journal visited Sioux Falls and reported that . . . houses, additions to hotels, livery stables, and business buildings were ‘springing up in every direction …’ A reprinted article from the Bodhead (WI) Independent reported that Sioux Falls had eleven dry-goods stores, fourteen groceries, six hardware stores, and an equal number of lumberyards plus several each of the usual tailors, shoemakers, harness makers, and so on. There were ten blacksmith shops, two newspapers, six doctors, seven or eight saloons, fifty or more lawyers . . . .

Let’s pause for a moment to consider one of those details: two newspapers!

[JF note: the Sioux Falls Argus Leader is now the town’s main paper. By the standards of today’s beleaguered newspaper industry, it is still editorially ambitious and in less-dire-than-most business shape. It has launched some ambitious reporting projects, for instance tracing the ties among the area’s recent refugee population and their homelands in Sudan and elsewhere. It also runs a civic-issues discussion series called “100 Eyes,” a charming homage to its name.]

Here’s what’s amazing about the growth described so far: it was all in anticipation of the railroad’s arrival. When the railroad finally was completed into town on July 30, 1878, the Sioux Falls boom accelerated still more. According to one reporter, in the following months, new stores were opening up “as fast as the buildings can be got ready for them, which is from three to four a week.”

A writer from the St. Paul Press, visiting in November of 1878, observed that what was happening in Sioux Falls was “one of the most marked instances of sudden growth and success” he had ever seen. And he reported that it was destined to become “a city of ten thousand inhabitants in ten years.” The reporter was prescient. The population of Sioux Falls exploded, growing from about 600 residents in 1876 to a little more than 10,000 in 1890.

1908. Panoramic photograph of the Sioux Falls business center, looking west. Library of Congress.

Sioux Falls had some advantages and important economic resources that other growing towns on the Plains did not have – most notably, the cascading falls of the Big Sioux River and, as we’ve seen, the acquisition of early rail connections to settled areas to the east and south.  The other important way in which Sioux Falls proved atypical, as Olson notes, is that “it did not boom and bust but continued to grow and prosper long after many other boomtowns of the ‘Great Dakota Boom’ had stagnated or even disappeared.”

It’s true: the history of Sioux Falls is one of almost uninterrupted growth and economic vitality. What’s remarkable is how strong its economy has remained throughout its history — with the exception, of course, of the Great Depression, when South Dakota was especially hard hit. But even then, Sioux Falls fared better than the rest of the state. And during the two most recent severe recessions – in the early 1980s and from 2008 to 2010 – Sioux Falls had very low unemployment during both periods.

The question is: what’s the secret to the city’s extraordinarily long-lived success? I understand that Jim will offer another hypothesis, about its role as “fringe city,” in the next installment.

Below, part of the city’s still-in-process riverfront-revitalization projects.

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This post originally appeared at TheAtlantic.com


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High-School Rankings Are Meaningless — And Harmful

Over the past month or so, in newspapers and local-news websites all around the country, public high schools and school districts have been trumpeting reports about how they’ve done on various national rankings of high schools. For instance, here’s Bill Runey, principal of Attleboro High School in Massachusetts. “We’re really proud of this,” he said in a press release put out by the school district. He was referring to the fact that Attleboro had been ranked 1,947th in the nation on the Washington Post‘s annual ranking of “America’s Most Challenging High Schools.”

On a local level, school rankings long have been the sort of thing city magazines thrive on, along with their “best of” issues that purport to tell readers where to buy the best burger in the city or get the best waxing. In a single metropolitan area (or even in a single state), rankings of public schools may have some utility if they are done thoughtfully, using sensible metrics. Parents might be able to use that information to find an affordable residence near good schools, while still leaving themselves within reasonable reach of their place of employment. It’s harder to fathom the logic for ranking high schools nationwide. Few are the families who will move out of state or across the country on the basis of claims about school quality.

Without taking away from whatever credit Runey and Attleboro High School deserve for their achievements, let’s call national rankings of high schools what they are: nonsense. There is no way to say, with any degree of accuracy at all, where any given high school ranks in relation to others in terms of how good it is or how challenging it is. And the claim that Attleboro High School, which was not even fully accredited as recently as seven years ago, is now in the top ten percent of America’s high schools — among the most challenging — seems improbable, at best.

And yet, every year since 1998, Jay Mathews, an education journalist at the Washington Post, has been putting together a ranking of what he calls “America’s Most Challenging Schools,” or the Challenge Index. For years, this national list was published by Newsweek, which was owned by the Washington Post Company. When the Post sold off Newsweek in 2010, it kept the Mathews index for itself. Newsweek then produced its own ranking, which has been continued by the Daily Beast. And, of course, US News & World Report, an organization famous for fueling Americans’ obsessions with rankings (colleges, law schools, hospitals, etc.) started its own high-school list, too.

All of these lists have flaws that stem from the inherent absurdity of presuming to rank schools around the country according to how good or challenging they are. And they all come in for criticism. Recently, Matthew Di Carlo, a senior research fellow at the Albert Shanker Institute, took a critical look at theNewsweek/Daily Beast and US News rankings, finding some good and some bad features in each of them.

But it’s the Mathews “Challenge Index” that has given rise to the sharpest criticism over time (see herehere, and here, for example) because of its methodology, which is reductionist in the extreme. It uses only one factor to calculate its rankings: It divides the number of Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), and Cambridge (AICE) exams taken at each school by the number of graduating seniors. Note that the numerator is not even the number of such exams passed, but merely the number taken. So, a given school can rise on the list by increasing the number of its students who take “advanced” classes.

Conversely, schools that are more discerning and thoughtful about which students ought to be taking AP classes end up suffering in the rankings. So, the list produces nonsensical anomalies such as high schools with very low graduation rates ranking much higher on the “Challenge Index” than excellent schools that don’t game the ranking system, or that, like Scarsdale High School, have joined the growing list of schools that have eliminated AP courses so that, as Bruce Hammond puts it, “students and teachers could rediscover their passion and creativity” once freed of what is too often a rigid and stultifying AP curriculum.

To their credit, US News and Newsweek/Daily Beast, which also use AP and IB courses as a measure, have made their rankings more sophisticated and reasonable by also adding other measures of a school’s quality, such as (in theDaily Beast‘s case) graduation rates and college-acceptance rates, and (in the case of US News) performance on state accountability tests and the proficiency rates of a school’s least advantaged students on those tests. For explanations of their methodologies, see here for the Daily Beast and here for US News.)

Despite steady criticism over the years, Mathews has retained and defended the simple formula he uses to calculate his Challenge Index, refusing to factor in other appropriate measures of school quality beyond the number of students taking advanced classes. (His only concession has been to add a separate list of schools, what he calls “The Catching Up Schools,” that takes into account how impoverished the student body is, as measured by the percentage of students who quality for federal lunch subsidies. He also now notes that information in a separate column on his main ranking, along with the percentage of graduates who passed at least one “college-level” test during their high school career, but does not factor those data into his rankings.) Because Mathews otherwise insists on only using AP and IB exams as his measure, the Challenge Index typically comes in for the sharpest criticism of all these rankings. The essential criticisms can be summarized as follows:

1) The inherent impossibility of measuring relative quality in schools. Quality is a very subjective matter, especially in something as intangible as education. And using a simple measure to rank thousands of schools certainly cannot capture the relative quality of schools or indicate which are better than others.

Mathews says his index doesn’t purport to identify or rank “the best” schools or otherwise measure quality. He says he’s merely identifying the “most challenging” schools, as indicated by the number of its students who take what he calls “college-level courses.” But when his ranking was published byNewsweek, it was actually billed as a list of “America’s Best High Schools.” Like most journalists, Mathews probably doesn’t write his own headlines, and he may have been as irritated by the use of the word “best” as many of his readers. But given how his bosses have billed his lists over time, the effect of the lists is reductive. As Valerie Strauss, a sharp critic of the Mathews ranking and a colleague of his at the Washington Postpoints out, Mathews “doesn’t use that word [‘best’] to describe his rankings, but what do you think people take away from them?”

2) Focusing only on AP and other “advanced” courses is silly. Aside from the obvious and already noted objection that looking only at such courses fails to take into account all the other indicators of school quality, some people (I include myself here) say that many of these courses simply aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, which makes their use as a proxy for quality even more ludicrous.

This isn’t the place to rehash the many criticisms one can lodge against AP courses. I did that last October in a piece here. But it’s worth noting that since then AP courses have come in for more celebrated blows, such as Dartmouth’sdecision in January to add itself to the list of schools refusing to give college credits for high scores on AP courses because of concerns that AP courses “are not as rigorous as college courses.”

Then, a few weeks later, Kenneth Bernstein, an award-winning high-school teacher (recently retired) and nationally known blogger (“teacherken”) garnered nationwide publicity and hundreds of thousands of readers for a letter he published, warning college professors that the current U.S. obsession with high-stakes testing is producing high-school graduates who don’t think as analytically or as broadly as they should. He devoted much of his attention in the piece to AP courses, calling them “responsible for some of the problems” professors will encounter with students headed their way.

Most importantly (and damningly), in April, Stanford University researchers released their careful review of more than 20 research studies on the AP experience, the results of which challenged four basic common assumptions about the AP program: (1) The AP program gives students several advantages in terms of college; (2) the AP program helps to narrow achievement gaps and promote educational equity for traditionally underserved students; (3) AP programs enrich students’ high school experiences; and (4) schools with AP programs are better than schools without AP programs. Denise Pope and her Stanford colleagues found problems with all these claims.

In the face of continuing evidence that the merits of many AP courses are exaggerated, it’s hard to understand why Mathews continues to make them the bedrock of his ranking system. He says that he’s just interested in bringing the benefit of more challenging coursework to larger groups of students. But even if he disagrees with specific criticisms of AP courses, one would think that the overall quantity of criticism at this point would be enough to moderate what he himself has called his “obsession” with the program. But obsessed he is: By my count, he has devoted his space in the Washington Post to some aspect of AP courses more than fifty times in the last four and a half years.

3) The Challenge Index has been partly responsible for fueling the tremendous growth in AP enrollments around the country over the past ten years.

Of course, many students take AP courses because they’re genuinely interested in challenging themselves with what can be a rigorous course of study and because they’re intellectually curious about the subject matter. Unfortunately, too many others take these courses because they’re feverishly trying to impress college admissions officers by stacking their record with large numbers of AP courses.

But many students who end up in AP courses are there because they are unwitting pawns of their principals, local school boards, or education bureaucrats, who are pushing more students to take AP classes to improve their schools’ ranking on the Challenge Index and other such lists. Remember that the Mathews index doesn’t take into account how students perform on the AP exams, just that they take them. The incentive to vacuum kids into these classes ends up packing AP courses with too many students who don’t belong there.

In short, by being partly responsible for the explosive growth in AP enrollment over the past decade, the Mathews ranking — and, to a lesser extent, the others — amplifies the absurdity that pervades contemporary public education in the United States, where cramming students’ heads with information and then subjecting those students to standardized tests seems to have supplanted helping students to learn as the preferred modus operandi of many education officials, and where the behavior of school officials is shaped more by perverse incentives than by educational common sense.

That’s the reason to care about this.

If it weren’t for the fact that these sorts of rankings actually shape school behavior, everyone would be perfectly justified in ignoring Mathews and the Washington Post as they spend time and other resources assembling his list. The ranking itself is meaningless. But the harm it and other lists of its kind do to public education and the role they play in driving the College Board’s revenues can’t be overlooked. These lists may sell papers and draw readers to websites, but for those of us outside of that business, we’ve a duty to push back against this kind of reductionism wherever we see it.

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This post originally appeared on TheAtlantic.com on May 28, 2013.


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The Coming Revolution in Public Education

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It’s always hard to tell for sure exactly when a revolution starts. Is it when a few discontented people gather in a room to discuss how the ruling regime might be opposed? Is it when first shots are fired? When a critical mass forms and the opposition acquires sufficient weight to have a chance of prevailing? I’m not an expert on revolutions, but even I can see that a new one is taking shape in American K-12 public education.

The dominant regime for the past decade or more has been what is sometimes called accountability-based reform or, by many of its critics, “corporate education reform.” The reforms consist of various initiatives aimed at (among other things): improving schools and educational outcomes by using standardized tests to measure what students are learning; holding schools and teachers accountable (through school closures and teacher pay cuts) when their students are “lagging” on those standardized assessments; controlling classroom instruction and increasing the rigor of school curricula by pushing all states to adopt the same challenging standards via a “Common Core;” and using market-like competitive pressures (through the spread of charter schools and educational voucher programs) to provide public schools with incentives to improve.

Critics of the contemporary reform regime argue that these initiatives, though seemingly sensible in their original framing, are motivated by interests other than educational improvement and are causing genuine harm to American students and public schools. Here are some of the criticisms: the reforms have self-interest and profit motives, not educational improvement, as their basis; corporate interests are reaping huge benefits from these reform  initiatives and spending millions of dollars lobbying to keep those benefits flowing; three big foundations (Gates, Broad, and Walton Family) are funding much of the backing for the corporate reforms and are spending billions to market and sell reforms that don’t work; ancillary goals of these reforms are to bust teacher unions, disempower educators, and reduce spending on public schools; standardized testing is enormously expensive in terms both of public expenditures and the diversion of instruction time to test prep; over a third of charter schools deliver “significantly worse” results for students than the traditional public schools from which they were diverted; and, finally, that these reforms have produced few benefits and have actually caused harm, especially to kids in disadvantaged areas and communities of color. (On that last overall point, see this scathing new report from the Economic Policy Institute.)

Fueled in part by growing evidence of the reforms’ ill effects and of the reformers’ self-interested motives, the counter-movement is rapidly expanding. Here are some reasons why I predict it will continue to gain strength and gradually lead to the undoing of these market-based education reforms.

  • It’s what history teaches us to expect. In this country, we lurch back and forth between efforts to professionalize and efforts to infantilize public-school teachers, and have been doing so since the beginning of public schools in America. Neither kind of effort accords teachers much respect. Because teachers are chiefly employed by local governments  (unlike doctors or lawyers who are typically employed in private enterprise), there has always been a tendency on the part of some groups of people to try to exert greater central control over teachers, not believing them to be professionals who can be left to do their jobs according to their own judgment. When those skeptics hold sway, the “solutions” they impose favor quantitative/metrics-based “accountability,” top-down management, limitations on teachers’ autonomy, and the substitution of external authority (outside measurers and evaluators) for the expertise of educators themselves. (See William J. Reese’s op-ed piece Sunday on the early history of the “testing wars” in America.)
  • Education policies based on standardization and uniformity tend to fail. The policy alchemists’ notion that a “Common Core” or standardized curriculum, along with standardized tests, are appropriate measures for “fixing” American education is uninformed by an understanding of history and practice. Twenty-five years ago, two of our wisest scholarly analysts of educational reform, Richard Elmore and Milbrey Wallin McLaughlin, observed, based on their study of education reforms over the decades: “Reforms succeed to the degree that they adapt to and capitalize upon variability [from school to school and classroom to classroom]. . . . Policies that aim to reduce variability by reducing teacher discretion not only preclude learning from situational adaptation to policy goals, they also can impede effective teaching.” Today’s corporate reformers are flying in the face of experience.
  • Policies based on distrust of teachers tend to fail. The current crop of reformers also roundly ignored another fundamental principle laid down years ago by Elmore and McLaughlin on the basis of their exhaustive research: policies and practices that are based on distrust of teachers and disrespect for them will fail. Why? “The fate of the reforms ultimately depends on those who are the object of distrust.” In other words, educational reforms need teachers’ buy-in, trust, and cooperation to succeed; “reforms” that kick teachers in the teeth are never going to succeed. Moreover, education policies crafted without teacher involvement are bound to be wrongheaded. When the architects of the Common Core largely excluded teachers from involvement in its development, they simultaneously guaranteed its untrustworthiness and its ultimate failure.
  • Judging teachers’ performance by students’ test scores is both substantively and procedurally flawed. A teacher’s instruction matters in student performance, but too many other things (a student’s socioeconomic background, upbringing, parental involvement, motivation) also matter for students’ test scores to be a reasonable indicator of a teacher’s merit. As The Nation magazine reported in 2011: “The research consensus has been clear and unchanging for more than a decade: at most, teaching accounts for about 15 percent of student achievement outcomes, while socioeconomic factors account for about 60 percent.”Moreover, using students’ test scores for such judgments is poor policy from a procedural standpoint. The news reports in recent weeks that teachers and administrators in various jurisdictions (Atlanta and Washington, DC, for example) have cheated by manipulating test scores carry a powerful message, but not the one many observers may first think. The message is not that educators are venal or mendacious, but that rewarding or punishing teachers based on students’ test scores is a fundamentally flawed process that fails to take into account Campbell’s Law, one of the best-known maxims in the literature on organizational behavior: if you impose external quantitative measurements to judge work performance that cannot be easily and clearly measured, all you will achieve is a displacement of goals — in this case, some teachers and administrators will be more concerned with maximizing scores (even through cheating) than with helping kids learn.
  • More people are realizing that many of the organizations involved in “corporate reform” seem to need reforming themselves. A great irony of the corporate reform agenda is that the mission to bring business-like accountability and efficiency to public education has been hampered in part by the colossal incompetence of some of the companies involved. A good example is Pearson, which calls itself “the world’s leading education company,” a slogan which, if true, should give all of us great pause. This big testing company, like its testing-industry competitors, has been screwing up over and over again for more than a decade now, with news of its most recent colossal mistake coming just this past week. Moreover, despite their screw-ups, these companies are enriching themselves and their executives from taxpayers’ dollars – Pearson’s pre-tax profits soaring by 72 percent in 2011. And in the you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up vein, we got the news in the last few days that Pearson is allowing embedded plugs for commercial products (LEGO and Mug Root Beer, anyone?) in the exams for which taxpayers are footing the bill. No wonder growing numbers of people are rebelling against the intrusion into public education of the sort of gross commercial greed and incompetence the testing-industry represents. (If you want to read a detailed and damning appraisal of the secretive and error-ridden testing business, read this 2003 report by Kathleen Rhoades and George Madaus of Boston College’s Lynch School of Education.)
  • People wonder why reformers themselves aren’t held accountable. Accountability is a central tenet of the market-based reforms. So people naturally find it disturbing when the architects and advocates of the reforms elude accountability for wrongdoing they knew about. To be more pointed, it’s fair to say that the behavior of Michelle Rhee, the former DC school commissioner who was once the darling of the reform movement, has done genuine harm to her cause by countenancing or ignoring the misbehavior on her watch. (See here and here.)

There are more reasons why there is a growing rebellion against the reigning reform agenda. But you get the picture: the reforms are ill-conceived, and their implementation is leading to growing distrust and dissatisfaction.

Even if all this is correct, you may ask, where are these signs of growing rebellion?  Here are but a few: teachers in various cities (Seattle, for example) have refused to administer standardized tests, and support for their stance has spread; many parents are choosing not to let their kids take the standardized tests, preferring to “opt out,” and those whose kids go ahead with the tests are complaining vociferously about them; legislators in various states (even Texas!) are reconsidering standardized tests and expressing concerns about Pearson and the testing industry; corporate-reform proposals (vouchers and state-not-local authorization of charter schools) got stopped last week in the legislature of Tennessee, a state that previously was friendly to the agenda.

And here’s one more: When Gerald “Jerry” Conti decided a month ago to go public with his reasons for deciding to retire from his teaching career after 27 years at Westhill High School in New York, he leveled blistering and impassioned criticisms against the corporate reforms that, he says, are harming our educational system. Conti’s cri de coeur went viral on the Web,  embraced by a massive audience of teachers and parents, who found in it a clear and moving expression of their own dissatisfactions. Others are joining the chorus. See, for example, this recent plea by David Patten to “let teachers teach.”

What, then, do the critics of the corporate reform agenda propose? Surely they can’t be defending the status quo, content with the current state of schools. No. Without being too unfair to the diversity of views on this, the key consensus is that the most important step we could take to deal with our education problems would be to address poverty in the United States. We don’t have an “education problem.” The notion that we are “a nation at risk” from underachieving public schools is, as David Berliner asserts, errant “nonsense” and a pack of lies.

Rather, we have a poverty problem. The fact is that kids in resource-rich public school systems perform near the top on international measures. However, as David Sirota has reported, “The reason America’s overall scores on such tests are far lower is because high poverty schools produce far worse results — and as the most economically unequal society in the industrialized world, we have far more poverty than our competitors, bringing down our overall scores accordingly.” Addressing poverty and inequality are the keys to serving America’s educational needs.

For a broader summary of an alternative agenda, let’s turn to Diane Ravitch, the eminent educational policy analyst and most notable of those who once supported the accountability reforms and now ardently oppose them. This is an excerpt from a statement on Ravitch’s website, in which she lays out the rationale for a plea that people “take action now” to push back against the corporate reforms:

What we need to improve education in this country is a strong, highly respected education profession; a rich curriculum in the arts and sciences, available in every school for every child; assessments that gauge what students know and can do, instead of mindless test prepping for bubble tests. And a government that is prepared to change the economic and social conditions that interfere with children’s readiness to learn. We need high-quality early childhood education. We need parent education programs. We need social workers and guidance counselors in the school. Children need physical education every day. And schools should have classes small enough for students to get the attention they need when they need it.

We cannot improve education by quick fixes. We will not fix education by turning public schools over to entrepreneurs. We will not improve it by driving out experienced professionals and replacing them with enthusiastic amateurs. We will not make our schools better by closing them and firing teachers and entire staffs. No high-performing nation in the world follows such strategies. We cannot be satisfied with the status quo, which is not good enough for our children, nor can we satisfied with the Bush-Obama-Duncan “reforms” that have never been proven to work anywhere.

If I am correct that a new educational revolution is under way, it will need its own Thomas Paine, speaking “Common Sense” and urging action. Diane Ravitch is one voice advocating  that kind of action: at the bottom of her website, Ravitch provides suggestions about specific steps parents and teachers who think that corporate reforms are misguided, wrong, and harmful can take to “push back” against the corporate reformers. Anyone who agrees with her view can look there — or to their local school board and state legislators — for ways to carry the message forward.

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This piece first appeared at TheAtlantic.com on April 25, 2013.


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Male Teachers in All-Girls Schools

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Let’s all pause for a silent moment of compassion for young male teachers in all-girls high schools. Theirs is a difficult job.

Riiiiiight, some of you young men may be thinking. I’ll sign up for that work.

But that sense of the young male teacher’s plight is one clear impression I’ve gained from a decidedly unscientific survey I recently completed of fifty of my former students, girls I taught when they were juniors or seniors at a private, all-girls high school outside Boston, from which I recently retired. I contacted these young women, all of them now college students or recent college graduates, to get a sense of how they perceived their male and female teachers in high school.

I asked each of my former students if she would tell me how she regarded her male and female teachers (not individually, by name, but as genders). I wrote to each of them:

Recognizing that these things vary by individuals, both teachers and students, is there anything we can say about how male vs. female teachers treat female students? And is there anything we can say about how female students treat their male vs. female teachers? I’m not talking here about any difference in the quality of teaching by male or female teachers, but how students treat them, and how, in turn, students are treated by teachers of different gender.

My interest in these questions came, at least in part, from comments I heard from female teachers over the years. Some of them, especially the older ones, felt invisible to their students or felt the girls simply liked the male teachers more than their female counterparts; the male teachers seemed to receive all the attention. According to such complaints, the girls were more likely to make male teachers the subjects of their comedy skits, for example, or cast male teachers in the videos they would make for all-school events. These were seen as evidence of students’ greater affection for the male faculty.

Having wondered over the years whether there was any substance to my female colleagues’ perceptions, I did a Web search that failed to produce much in the way of scholarly or journalistic information on this subject. So, I simply decided to go to the source—the girls themselves—and ask them about it. Forty-six of the 50 young women I contacted wrote back to me. Here’s some of what I learned, with more to come later.

Two principal themes emerged from the responses I received. The first is that, contrary to what some of my female teaching colleagues believed, the girls respected them more than they did their male teachers. More than half of my respondents made comments indicating that their female teachers commanded more student respect because they were stricter, more demanding, more focused in class, less likely to be nudged off topic, etc. One student wrote:

I’ve noticed that female teachers expect more of their female students than male teachers do. Maybe this is because the female teachers recognize a potential in a female student that they once saw in themselves. And perhaps the female students take their female teachers more seriously in response to the higher expectations.

Some of the students noted that the older female teachers were nurturing and “maternal” in the way they dealt with the girls; many found that comforting, others found it off-putting (“no one wants a second mom”).

If respect for female teachers was the leitmotif in most of the students’ comments, the constant refrain was that they felt more comfortable around the male teachers, who seemed less intimidating than most of the female teachers and brought far more humor into the classroom. This latter point was a constant in the commentary—the observation that the male teachers joked around with their students much more than the female teachers did and created an easy-going atmosphere in the classroom. One student, now a college sophomore, wrote:

As a general rule, I’d say our male teachers were more relaxed around us, and more willing to have fun with us. Granted, there were definitely awkward teachers or moments, but generally I think my male teachers were more interested in being friendly with us. Admittedly, we could get away with more with the male teachers. It was almost like our female teachers knew our game better and weren’t willing to play it. I would say generally our female teachers were more uptight and less friendly. They were more interested in getting the job done.

Another student wrote:

I think we tended to become more comfortable around the male teachers because they seemed more laid back than many of the female teachers. I think we also believed we could get away with more (extending deadlines, delaying a test) with the male teachers compared with the female teachers, who wouldn’t put up with it.

A different recurring observation in my former students’ commentaries made it clear that the age of their teachers often seemed to matter more than the gender. Young female teachers were prized because they are “easier to talk to and relate to,” some of them “willing to be a friend of sorts, asking about your personal life and sharing school gossip.”

A senior at a west-coast university observed:

I don’t think there’s generally a huge difference as far as gender is concerned. The teacher’s personality matters more than gender. The big exception would be young male teachers. We gave them so much shit. Poor Smith and Jones [names changed to protect the victimized]. Senior year I would make intense eyes at Jones and toss my hair whenever I saw him just to watch him squirm. We didn’t take young male teachers seriously. We’d giggle loudly whenever they walked by the couches [the students’ lounge area]. The other exception is that male teachers usually totally freak out at the sight of tears or any mention of ‘women’s troubles,’ and I know some girls took advantage of that.

I know this was true about the way the students teased and harassed the younger male teachers. I observed it myself.

Probably the most horrific story I received along these lines actually involved these girls when they were still in the school’s lower grades (there’s a middle school, too, with grades five through eight). One of them, now at a university in the Boston area, reminded me of a story I had heard from multiple sources over the years:

The only time I think there was any difference [in the way we interacted with male vs. female teachers] was possibly in middle school when girls thought they could get away with things if they related them to “female problems” with the male teachers. One instance that comes to mind is when a student threw pads and tampons around the room to make a male teacher feel uncomfortable and then asked if she could be excused.

That wouldn’t happen in a classroom with a female as the teacher, nor in a classroom headed by an older male. As I said at the start, when I think about the plight of inexperienced, young male teachers in an all-girls school, I feel compassion.

I should note, by way of conclusion, that perhaps I was oblivious to the truths around me, but I never felt I was at any advantage or disadvantage relative to the female teachers in dealing with my students. But maybe I should have. The best-known study on how a teacher’s gender matters, published in 2006 by Thomas Dee of Stanford University, found that middle-school boys learn more from men and middle-school girls learn more from women. Dee found that having a teacher of the opposite sex hurts a student’s academic progress. Though controversial, Dee’s findings raise serious questions that education researchers should explore.

And my informal inquiry suggests that, at least in an all-girls school, male teachers have to fight the desire to be liked and work on those behaviors that produce respect. And young male teachers in such settings apparently need to understand that they’re swimming with sharks.

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This post originally appeared on TheAtlantic.com on March 28, 2013.


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It’s Pope Francis, not Francis I

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Photo: Tony Gentile/Reuters

In the annals of insignificant matters, this item figures right up there near the top: Even so, it bugs me that so many journalists and other writers, even those writing for bigtime media outlets like this one, are calling the new pope “Francis I.” He’s not Pope Francis I. He’s Pope Francis. Even the Vatican says so.

Why not “The First”? Because there has yet to be a second. You can’t be the first of something until there has been another of the same later. In the United Kingdom, for example, Queen Victoria will never be QVI until there is a Queen Victoria II. The same rule concerning monarchical names holds true in Luxembourg and Norway.

People make this same sort of mistake when they plan an event. They’ll say, “Let’s call this ‘The First Annual Neighborhood Spaghetti Dinner.” But it’s wrong to call it that until there has, in fact, been a second one. What if the organizers the next year decide to serve eggplant instead? Or they all get hit by a meteorite and no dinner gets organized? If, in fact, there is another spaghetti dinner the following year, it would be correct to call it the Second Annual Neighborhood Spaghetti Dinner. And, with the second having occurred, it would then be okay to refer to the first one with that ordinal honorific.

Purists might argue that this rule regarding ordinals is not universal when it comes to monarchies, or even papacies. And that seems to be true, as the Wikipedia article on Monarchical Ordinals points out (yes, I know: I need to get a life). Contrary to the practice in places like the United Kingdom, “Other monarchies assign ordinals to monarchs even if they are the only ones of their name. This is a more recent invention and appears to have been done for the first time when King Francis I of France issued testoons (silver coins) bearing the legend FRANCISCVS I DE. GR. FRANCORV. REX.” It’s the practice in Belgium and Spain, and has been used in Brazil, Italy, Mexico, and Montenegro – and also, I guess we should note, by the Papacy under Pope John Paul I.

But all this is quibbling. As noted above, the Vatican made it clear that the new pope is Francis. Not Francis I. So, that’s what he should be called.

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This piece originally appeared on TheAtlantic.com on March 21, 2013.


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What ‘Ferris Bueller’ Got Right about School

Let’s do a mental exercise. I’m going to ask you to picture a series of school classrooms full of students and their teachers. First, imagine a class of second graders. Got it? Now fifth graders. Now ninth graders. And finally, picture a classroom of high school seniors.

If you’re like many people I’ve spoken with, your image of the elementary school classroom is of happy, engaged, enthusiastic kids, perhaps with hands raised, clamoring for the teacher to call on them to answer a question. Perhaps something like this:

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And your image of the high-school seniors in class probably isn’t much different from this iconic, devastatingly funny scene from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the 1986 hit film by John Hughes:

Even if your mental images aren’t quite at these polar extremes, you probably sense that there’s a big difference between the early years and the later ones when it comes to what’s called student engagement — essentially, how invested kids are in their learning, how much delight they take in their work, and how eager they are to participate.

Our impressions apparently are not just figments of our media-infused imaginations. New research from the Gallup organization indicates clearly that student engagement declines steadily and dramatically with each successive year in school from grade 5 through grade 12. This graph shows the dramatic drop in student engagement over time:

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In 2012, the Gallup Student Poll surveyed almost a half-million students in grades 5 through 12, drawn from more than 1700 public schools in 37 states. The poll measures three different constructs that have been deemed important predictors of student success: hope, engagement, and well being. It found that a strong majority of elementary students, nearly 8 in 10, are engaged. By middle school, that figure falls to about 6 in 10. And by high school, only 4 in 10 students qualify as engaged.

As executive director of Gallup Education Brandon Busteed comments in The Gallup Blog:

If we were doing right by our students and our future, these numbers would be the absolute opposite. For each year a student progresses in school, they should be more engaged, not less. … The drop in student engagement for each year students are in school is our monumental, collective national failure,. Imagine what our economy would look like today if nearly eight in 10 of our high school graduates were engaged — just as they were in elementary school.

Speculating about possible causes for the lack of student engagement, Busteed points to “our overzealousfocus on standardized testing and curricula [and] our lack of experiential and project-based learning pathways for students–not to mention the lack of pathways for students who will not and do not want to go on to college.”

Those seem like perfectly plausible, even likely, explanations. I certainly won’t gainsay them. But just as you would probably add some other items to that list, so would I, including the following:

  • An outdated and broken paradigm of assembly-line formal education. There may be something fundamentally wrong, especially in the secondary years, with the way we try to educate our kids (as Sir Ken Robinson has argued). How can our schools foster engagement when for so many kids they fail a basic relevance test?
  • Inadequate resources. Because of the inequities inherent in our method of financing public education and our failure as a society to take education seriously (spending far less on education than on, say, the war on drugs), our schools lack the resources necessary to be inviting, enlivening, and truly stimulating places for learning.
  • A cultural failure to value teachers. Surely there are boring teachers out there; actor Ben Stein didn’t invent his character for Ferris Bueller out of whole cloth. But most teachers work harder and are more skilled than the public believes. Even so, we certainly could do better in attracting to this profession people who might help spark students’ imagination and love of learning.
  • Student transition from childhood to adolescence. Finally, it seems disingenuous, when talking about the decline in student engagement, to neglect to mention developmental changes in kids as they move from childhood to adolescence. It’s not just constipated schools and boring teachers that lead many high-school students to cop the posture of being “too cool for school.”

Are you starting to get depressed as you read this? Starting to think you might click back to pieces about the debt-ceiling crisis, horrific air pollution in Beijing, or your computer’s vulnerability from having Java enabled in your browser? Let’s try a different mental exercise. Let’s imagine the Gallup folks didn’t get it right. Any chance of that? Possibly.

Gallup’s public announcement of the study through its blog leaves out any mention of the study’s methodological limitations. One has to go to the official report itself to find those. Here are a few of them: Schools participating in the study were not randomly selected; the participating schools did so voluntarily; participation rates varied by school; the overall data did not reflect responses from a nationally representative sample of students; and the overall data were not statistically weighted to reflect the U.S. student population. I’m no statistician, but these shortcomings seem considerable.

Moreover, one could ask whether the questions the pollsters used to measure students’ engagement were the best ones they could have devised for that purpose. While they correspond roughly to the questions Gallup uses to measure employee engagement in the workplace, one still can wonder about their appropriateness here.

In other words, if you were trying to ask your daughter some questions that probed her level of engagement at school — her investment in learning, her delight in doing her work, her eagerness to participate in class, etc. — the questions you’d come up with would probably be quite different from at least some of the ones Gallup asked (listed here):

8. I have a best friend at school.

9. I feel safe in this school.

10. My teachers make me feel my schoolwork is important.

11. At this school, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.

12. In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good schoolwork.

13. My school is committed to building the strengths of each student.

14. In the last month, I volunteered my time to help others.

So, it’s possible that the Gallup study didn’t get it quite right. (Thanks to Larry Ferlazzo on these points.) Perhaps the decline in student engagement is not as precipitous as the research suggests. Unfortunately, anyone who has spent much time in schools can verify that the general downtrend in student engagement from elementary through high school described by the Gallup data is real.

I don’t know how to solve this problem. But I repeat this assessment by Brandon Busteed because I think he’s correct: “The drop in student engagement for each year students are in school is our monumental, collective national failure.” In my view, education reformers are wasting a lot of time on things like the Common Core standards, when this decline in engagement may be our biggest educational problem.

What would you do about it?

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This piece originally appeared at TheAtlantic.com on January 17, 2013.


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The Monotony of Conformity

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I taught at an all-girls high school for the past ten years. Almost all the girls were in lockstep conformity with one another, especially their hairstyle — long, straight hair hanging on both sides of the face past the shoulders. I always found so refreshing those rare occasions when some intrepid girl would show up at school with a stylish short cut. You’d think that by the time most young people are away at college for a year or two they would have enough self-confidence to adopt their own personal style — that is, to step away from the crowd a bit in terms of hairstyle, clothing, etc. Apparently not. Here’s a photo (at left), taken from a friend’s Facebook feed, of a group of sorority girls at Wake Forest. (Click on the photo to bring up a larger version.) Notice the hairstyles. Amazing. I don’t understand it.

17zSUBKARLIE-articleLargeThen I saw this item from today’s New York Times about the ‘Karlie,’ the “cut of the moment” belonging to Karlie Kloss. Very nice. You’d think more young women would want to distinguish themselves from the crowd by having a distinctive cut. Guess not.

What does all this suggest? Nothing other than that I apparently have too much time on my hands.