On Topic

Why are all the black kids still sitting together in the school cafeteria?

Visit just about any racially mixed school and you will see black, white, Asian and Latino kids clustered in their own groups. Is this self-segregation a problem to address or a coping strategy?
Beverly Daniel Tatum, an authority on the psychology of racism, says straight talk about our racial identities is essential if we are serious about communicating across racial and ethnic divides.
Tatum first addressed the question in her landmark 1997 book, Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In The Cafeteria? Now, 20 years later, with the national conversation about race becoming increasingly acrimonious, Tatum is back with a fully revised edition.
The update reflects the rapid demographic transformation that has reshaped our country, as well as the election of Barack Obama, the rise of Black Lives Matter and the early days of the Trump presidency.


What was the impetus for updating the book?

While I was serving as president of Spelman College I had the opportunity to travel and talk to people and think about some of the things I had written about in the book. I felt that 20 years later some of it needed to be updated.
When I retired as president in 2015, it seemed like the perfect post-presidential project to work on.

So much has happened in 20 years, but then you could also say that so much has happened since you wrote the prologue to this book in March.

Yes. This book goes a little bit past the inauguration of our current president. And there’s a lot that’s happened since then, of course—Charlottesville in particular. But I was happy that I was able to include information about the events leading up to the election and certainly the 60 days after the election.
Certainly the tenor of what’s happening in our country, I think, can be traced back to that 20-year period if not before.

You cite the statistic that every day the size of the U.S. population increases by more than 8,000 people, and nearly 90 percent of that growth consists of people of color—not just African-American but Asian, Middle Eastern, Latino and so on.

Certainly one of the things that I wanted to do was to expand the discussion of identity issues for populations of color that have grown significantly since that first book. 2014 was the first year that the U.S. population of school-age children was 50 percent children of color. And, as you’ve pointed out, that’s not just black kids.
When I’m using that phrase children of color I’m including the Latino population, which is the largest population of color today in the United States—close to 18 percent now. And the black population is about 13 percent. The Asian-American population—which includes people from China, South Asia, India and so on—is about 6 percent.
Every race and ethnicity in this country has a sense of identity, but you say that’s often lacking in the white population.

You describe a white girl who, when asked about her identity, replied, “I’m just normal.” Is that part of the problem?

It is a lack of awareness. But I want to say that the lack of awareness that white people often have around racial identity is similar to the lack of awareness that anyone in a dominant group is likely to have. When you are on the margin, you are more aware of that identity because people bring it to your attention.
So for white people, most of whom are still living in majority white communities and working in largely white settings, it’s no surprise that that dimension of identity goes unnoticed. If you are the only white person in a largely black environment, you’re going to be paying attention to it. One of the strongest tools is teaching by example.

You describe one effort—the Atlanta Friendship Initiative—to bring people of different races together. How does that work?

It was the brainchild of a white man in Atlanta named Bill Nordmark, and he sought out a relationship with a black man he knew only casually, John Grant. But he explained his idea to John and asked John if he would be willing to work with him on it, and John was very enthusiastic in his reply.
They set out to identify pairs of people who would be willing to make a commitment to get to know each other across lines of difference. Today there are more than 200 people participating, but the list is growing all the time.
The people who are asked to participate basically agree to do two things. One is to meet with your partner four times a year, once a quarter. And then have some gathering of your family and that person’s family at least once a year.
So really it is about developing friendships, but friendships with people you probably wouldn’t know otherwise and who are different from you in some significant way.
And as the Friendship Initiative has gotten more visibility, people from other communities have been contacting the founders to say, “We really like this idea and we’d like to try it in our town, how would we do that?”

Can something like that take place in a K12 environment?

Well, the idea behind it is that when you bring people together there’s a basic social/psychological principle operating. Bringing people together on equal footing and asking them to engage in a cooperative activity that is sponsored or sanctioned by authorities tends to improve inter-group relations.
Sports teams are the classic example of that. Everyone on the team is there because they know how to play. So in that sense they’re all equal. They’re asked to do something cooperatively.
I always think of former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley, who really had a good understanding of racial relations. He often attributed that understanding to his experience playing professional basketball, because he got to know black players and got to see the way in which they were treated differently than he was.
That opened his eyes to the issues of racism.
This is to say that it is certainly possible in a school setting to bring children together and ask them to work cooperatively toward a common goal in ways that can encourage better understanding and improve group relations.
Part of the challenge that we have in schools is that children are not being brought together on equal terms. They’re being separated, with some groups being labeled as smarter than other groups. And we know that there’s a high correlation between racial group membership and where you get placed.
There are things that schools can do structurally that certainly can help young people get to know each other and have positive relations. And when schools do those things you are much less likely to see the kind of rigid separations in cafeterias that we were talking about at the beginning.

You end the book hopeful but, again, that was before the administration rescinded DACA, threatened the Dream Act and instituted a travel ban. Is your hope still as strong?

Well, it does worry me, because progress is rarely linear. It’s usually two steps forward, one step back—you make progress, then there’s resistance to that progress and a backlash against it.
We can lift up the example of the election of President Obama in 2008—whether you liked him or not—as symbolically significant that the United States elected the first African-American president.
That said, immediately following his election there was the backlash of growth in white supremacist hate groups and also concerted efforts at voter suppression. We see two steps forward and sometimes a step or a step-and-a-half backwards before we move forward again.
I think there’s widespread agreement that we’re now in a backward moment. I do believe it’s possible to move forward again. But that’s not going to happen without a concerted effort. If there’s a message to the reader, it is that we all have to take responsibility for that forward motion if we want to see it happen.

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Let’s talk about sex

If there’s one thing clear from Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power and Consent on Campus (2017 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), it is that what you think you know about sex on campus is probably wrong.
Vanessa Grigoriadis embedded herself in the campus environment, speaking candidly with students and administrators to find that the definition of sexual assault itself is anything but clear-cut. And therein lies the problem.
She says there is no consensus about what constitutes sexual assault on campus, how common it is or how it should be prevented. The book is a sometimes brutally frank examination of the world of campus sexual activity and how the idea of consent has changed and continues to change.
Grigoriadis, a contributing editor at The New York Times Magazine and Vanity Fair, profiles not only victims of assault but also those whose lives have been turned upside down by false accusations.

You wrote, “Society has morphed and sex is different than it used to be.” How so?
Hooking up on college campuses has been around in a real way since the 1990s. The way that sex happens now is divorced from not only dinner-and-a-date, but sometimes also from real emotional yearning.
This is also the situation for a lot of Gen Xers and Boomers—it’s coming from the precepts of online dating, of social media that requires that you broadcast your sexual availability if you’re single.
Our 18-year-olds may not be prepared for college, but they’re pretty good at flirting over text message. They know what they’re doing.

You say we’re redefining what sexual assault is. There are many things—a comment, a perceived inappropriate touch—that can now be considered sexual assault.
One of the key takeaways from my research was that a physically violent rape that leaves bruises and blood and evidence is not the exception on college campuses, but it’s definitely not the rule.
On the other hand, a story like Rolling Stone’s University of Virginia story, which was proven to be false, is also an exception to the rule.
What I learned in my research is that most of the time the two partners agree on what happened in the bedroom—the kind of distinct actions and sexual behaviors that occurred. What they don’t agree on is whether that was sexual assault or not.
The other thing I should definitely mention is that residential college campuses certainly have a problem with rapes that happen when one partner is blackout drunk or passed out or maybe very drunk.
Colleges are interested in reducing liability, so they have broadened the definition of “incapacitation”—which is supposed to mean you’re totally passed out or unable to consent—to include very drunk students.
I don’t want that to be lost in my description of moral relativity.
The research shows this is a serious problem at residential colleges. There are a lot of guys who go out at night with the intent of having sex, and not really caring if the girl can’t speak English as long as he can get her to follow him out of the frat house.

There are a variety of anti-sexual assault campaigns on campus, but you say most of these programs don’t work. What does work?
Well, physical self-defense on its own hasn’t been proven to stem assault. It has to be part of this complex buffet of offerings called “empowerment self-defense,” and this is teaching girls in particular—but boys also—how to physically resist an assaulter, but also how to remove themselves from a situation before an assault occurs.
Identify the dangerous situation and don’t put yourself in it, because we know that girls have a very hard time saying no, and sometimes they’ll just give in.
But putting a bunch of posters on a campus that say, “Consent. Please get it,” and telling your kids to click boxes on a webinar to say, “Okay, I understand. I won’t have sex without consent”—it’s just not really going to do it.

We’ve heard, at least anecdotally, that some schools underreport sexual assault incidents.
Right. That’s partly because we can’t even agree on terms. The topic of sexual assault on campus is complicated and there’s so much misinformation out there, and each of us brings our own biases about what sexual assault is.
If we can’t agree on what sexual assault is then how can we agree on how to stop it? How can we agree on how to prevent it? How can we agree on how to punish it?
To me, the question of what the universities are doing and how well they’re doing it is unanswerable, partly because of FERPA.
No university is allowed to talk about individual cases publicly, so when a normal consumer reads an article about a university abrogating its Title IX responsibilities in a specific case, the university is never going to be able to defend itself publicly over that.
But when you’re dealing with a prestigious private or state university that has had a ton of bad PR around this issue, you know they’re going to be trying their best right now. A university would have to have a death wish not to at least be trying.

Secretary DeVos recently reversed the Obama administration’s “Dear Colleague” letter. I get the sense from your writing that schools are looking at that with wary eyes.
Sexual assault is one of the top 10 issues as we move further into the Trump era. As long as we have that progressive platform of kids on campus who are interested in the anti-Trump movement and Black Lives Matter and combating xenophobia and combating sexual assault, it will continue to be.
They will continue to talk about sexual assault openly, not be ashamed if it happens to them, share it with their friends, and try to change the social norms around it. And, to your point, of course we know that most universities just spent millions of dollars and a lot of manpower to rewrite their rules to be in line with Obama’s directives.
They may be looking at this, again, partially from an ethics and safety standpoint, but also from a pragmatic standpoint thinking, “Okay, well, we’ve got three more years of this Trump administration, and we don’t know what is going to happen after that. The ball could bounce right back to where it was under Obama. Are we really going to undo what we’ve just done?”
There definitely will be a legal challenge to DeVos, too, so we don’t even know where this is going to end up. I haven’t spoken to anyone who has said, “Great. We love what she said. Can’t wait to change everything tomorrow.”

You suggest some proactive strategies that schools can take to minimize sexual assault. For example, you said you would like to see an end to the current Greek society.
Yes. I think we’re well past the time where a single-sex-oriented Greek system that cements gender norms should have a Title IX exemption on campus.
I want to be really clear here that I’m not saying that most fraternity members are assaulters. But the universities, in their haste to get drinking off campus, have pushed it into unsupervised basements of fraternity houses. These houses are run by men, the drinks are poured by men, and how stiff they are is determined by men.
There are a lot of unsavory characters hanging out at those parties.
The most typical scenario that I heard from freshman girls—and the majority are freshmen—who were sexually assaulted at a frat party is, they meet a guy at the party who says, “Oh, the beer’s all out. Come to my apartment. I live just a few blocks away in an off-campus apartment.”
And the girl, who is drunk or maybe has little experience being drunk, thinks the guy is somebody to be trusted, even though if such a person approached her in a Starbucks and said, “Come to my house,” she would never follow him. But here, she thinks, “Oh, this is a fellow classmate. This is safe.”
The risk is not on campus in the dark, the risk is the indoor lit places, like an off-campus apartment, and alcohol is connected to sexual assault. We need clarity on that. Universities are going to have to address the fundamental structure of the campus and the way that drinking happens on a campus.  

Toward more responsive campus mental health care

SoodEight years ago this month, Seung-Hui Cho, a senior at Virginia Tech, shot and killed 32 people and wounded 17 others on campus before committing suicide.
In the aftermath, Aradhana Bela Sood, senior professor for child mental health policy and professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, was named to an independent panel to recommend policy changes that might prevent future tragedies.
Sood’s new book, The Virginia Tech Massacre: Strategies and Challenges for Improving Mental Health Policy on Campus and Beyond (Oxford University Press, 2015), highlights what can be done to better treat people who are struggling emotionally.
“Overall, the telltale signs of a mind unraveling were observed by students and faculty,” Sood says, “but there was no coherent action from the institution to provide to Seung-Hui much-needed psychiatric attention.”

Your book includes a remarkable chart of Seung-Hui Cho’s behavioral red flags and various people at Virginia Tech who were aware of individual incidents. Yet the connections were never made.
Here we have a situation where there were so many things that were said and done by the young man, as well as picked up by his professors. Some people did sit up and pay attention, but the ones who could have done something with this information did not respond to it.
So these are opportunities for us to look at a system failure. We have to be more aware when these red flags occur and develop a better strategy of addressing them.

Cho had written dark poetry and stories about death and murder. Young people often have a fascination with dark subjects. How do you distinguish art from illness?
That’s a major issue. We certainly don’t want to stifle creativity.
I see these kids even in my practice, where a teenager might come in and be very preoccupied by Goth stuff or they might be really dark in what they are writing about, which concerns parents. Sometimes it’s just an outside veneer and there’s nothing going on that is of concern.
But I think that also needs evaluation and assessment. What does this mean in context of the person’s life?

What is the role of faculty here?
Two of Cho’s English professors were concerned enough that they weren’t really just viewing it as creative expression. They were also concerned about his ancillary behavior.
He accused classmates of being “low-life barbarians” and “despicable human beings.” He took covert photos of other students with his cell phone, among other things, which the professors were picking up correctly. One of the professors had him removed from her class.
But the role of the faculty has always been confused by the fact that educators think their job is limited to education, and that even if they identify problems, they don’t know what the university does in response to it. The information goes into a black hole and they are left wondering, “What do I do? How much should I push this with the student or the behavior?”

How do we rectify that situation?
One of the strongest outcomes of the Virginia Tech massacre has been alerting universities about threat assessment and how they can handle these issues. Virginia Commonwealth University, where I am a professor, did the same thing. I was one of the consultants to the university. We came up with multiple strategies.
One approach was to set up a code of conduct for everyone—students, faculty and staff—of what is expected behavior on a university campus. If there are aberrant behaviors occurring, there should be a mechanism wherein that is picked up and the dean of student affairs is alerted.
That student should be evaluated. It can vary from a threat assessment situation, to counseling, to seeing a psychiatrist, to seeing a substance abuse counselor—something gets done when that behavior is noticed. This way, when faculty bring up an issue, they can be assured it doesn’t go into a black hole where they have no idea what is happening.
They don’t need to know the granular details of what is happening with the student, but they should know and feel comfortable that the dean of students is responding.
We are not making the faculty counselors or therapists or interventionists. We are merely making them aware of the expected behavior. We are setting up the structure so that when these things are identified there is an appropriate intervention plan for them. That takes faculty out of the equation of making a judgment call for which they don’t feel qualified.
Of course, anyone can recognize aberrant and weird behavior. But they may think it is a private matter in which they can’t intervene.

There’s a lot of confusion over FERPA and HIPAA privacy laws.
Clearly, one of the things that is misunderstood when it comes to FERPA and HIPAA rules is that anything that is observed—that is, not written down on paper—can be communicated with peers, or with others in faculty and the administration.
You are not prohibited from doing that. Anytime there is an issue where you are worried about safety, you can immediately communicate that to anyone without danger of reprisal.

Cho’s parents were not notified that he had been hospitalized earlier for making suicidal threats.
I interviewed his folks. They took him for therapy weekly because they were concerned about him. That was one of the reasons, given his problems, he had been doing relatively well to that point.
So, there is no reason to think that, had they been told he was hospitalized or was expressing these behaviors, they wouldn’t have removed him from school. They clearly understood the need for mental health treatment.

A record number of college students are struggling with depression and anxiety. Do we know why?
I can list multiple reasons. Number one is the stigma around mental health. I see this all the time—when you are losing your seat of reason, which is the brain, it is very scary. That’s a tough place to be for young adults. Sadly, people don’t realize that these are eminently treatable conditions.
Second is that young men and women who transition to college are suddenly taken from highly sheltered environments and put into campus life. It’s very different from the highly supervised arena they had in high school.
They have to think for themselves and be responsible for their own well-being. Stress and insomnia are major problems. There is substance abuse, which is rife within college campuses. You have the first precipitation of psychotic illness, which occurs in late adolescence.
The third thing is access. Even when these problems are identified, there are often very few providers to help a person in crisis. These kids are on waiting lists and they can’t get in to see anyone.
If they do get in to see someone, it is often a student counselor who may not be as well trained and may not be very helpful.

After a tragedy like Virginia Tech, the response is often reactive—more guards, more guns—rather than proactive.
Yes, and that doesn’t make any sense. Wouldn’t you want to know what is making these people unhappy? Unhappiness is not something that can be totally obliterated, but you can begin to look at the foundations of where it’s coming from.
You can help those people by asking, “Why is this happening? What could we do to reduce the stress so people don’t end up with these kinds of events?”

Where does that job begin at the university?
It is very important to involve key leadership. They have to empower the people below them. They have to initiate open, progressive policies around mental health. If the president or the provost doesn’t see a value in it, it’s not going to go very far.
Another problem is that many counseling centers are good at things like adjustment problems, but they often will have little experience with severe mental illness, such as schizophrenia and major depression. Counseling centers need to be able to access care for these students.
Statistically, one in five people have some sort of mental health issue that requires intervention. It’s not an uncommon thing. We need to embrace that.
Schools have generally done a very good job at the threat assessment piece, because that is low-hanging fruit. It’s the least aggressive approach when someone is exhibiting weird behavior. But the mental health piece of it still has a lot of room for improvement.
Change starts small, but you have to keep pounding away at it, just like cancer. Mental health is where cancer was 50 years ago. The more we talk openly about it the more we will remove that stigma, but we have to start that conversation.

Confronting a low-income crisis in U.S. schools

ssuitts2The number of U.S. students who come from low-income families has long been the metaphorical elephant in the room when it comes to education funding. But, according to a new report by the Atlanta-based Southern Education Foundation, it’s a problem that can no longer be ignored.
For the first time in at least 50 years, a majority of our public school students fall into that low-income category. For Steve Suitts, vice president of the foundation, the alarming trend is that the increase of low-income students is now occurring in regions where it had not been before.
“While found in large proportions throughout the United States, the numbers of low-income students attending public schools in the South and in the West are extraordinarily high,” Suitts wrote in the report. “Thirteen of the 21 states with a majority of low-income students in 2013 were located in the South, and six of the other 21 states were in the West.

Let’s begin with a definition of low-income. That doesn’t necessarily mean poverty does it?
That’s right. We found that 51 percent of students in 2013 were receiving free and reduced lunch. Now, the reduced lunch part of that means that the folks are eligible up to 185 percent of the poverty level. Those who receive free lunch are about 135 percent of the poverty level.
So, we say that these are students in and near poverty. That’s the most accurate way of expressing who these low-income students are.

The economy has improved since the 2008 recession. Are you surprised your numbers show an increase in low-income students?
The slow improvements in the economy haven’t slowed this growth. So far it doesn’t seem to have had a great deal of impact. That’s probably understandable given the fact that we’ve seen little growth or a decline in growth in lower-income job and wage earnings.

Do you expect it to get better, worse or remain stagnant?
Until we see a major increase in the wages or the other income of families and households in the bottom quartile of the economy, I don’t think we are going to see these numbers change. And there has been no real change in those numbers either from the Department of Labor or from the Census Bureau’s reports so far.
So I think this is a reflection of the economy, and also a reflection of the particular households that are in that lower quartile of the economy. These are increasingly single-parent households. They are increasingly households that are with children of color. And these are households whose incomes are just stagnant, if not declining.
That’s where it compounds the problem, generally speaking, that the students with the greatest need, these low-income students, are the ones that are provided the least resources.

When it comes to school funding, there’s a growing influence from the so-called school choice movement, but your report indicates that school choice doesn’t seem to play a role in closing learning gaps.
It really is a stunning fact in many ways. Most proposals for adopting public funding of private schools argue that it’s going to give low-income students a chance to get a better education by moving them out of “failing public schools” to successful private schools.
The best current data we have in the country—the NAEP report on student achievement—just doesn’t show that private schools do any better job at closing the gap than public schools are doing. It’s a big challenge for all schools.
So simply giving a low-income student a choice to go to private school is not going to improve their performance in relationship to higher-income students.
School choice is not about low-income students performing at higher levels. It’s about someone who wants to reshape and redefine education. School choice proponents operate on the theory that private entities can provide better education than public entities. That’s a philosophical doctrine position, not a point of evidence.

Are there any states or regions where the numbers of low-income students have grown dramatically?
In most cases it’s pretty much a steady march. What surprises me from our analysis of our earlier report is how widespread this trend is in all parts of every state.
Clearly, low-income students are more concentrated in the central cities. But if you look at our data from 2011, you also see that 40 percent of the students in the suburbs are low-income and 52 percent in the smaller towns.
What I think is pretty evident is that this whole problem within states cannot be simply dismissed as a big city problem or an isolated rural problem. Those are places where it often is the most striking. But when you have two out of five of your students in suburban schools who are low-income, you have a problem which is everybody’s problem.
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, one could have said that the problem was something that only parts of different states—and the school districts in those areas—would have to deal with. But if you look at the numbers in Georgia, for example, we now have two-thirds of the schools across the state with a majority of low-income students.
That pretty well means that it’s an issue that every part of the education community and every community in a state is going to have to address if it wants to be successful.

What does this mean for our economy and how we compete globally?
We can no longer look at low-income students as being a part of our student body whose performance is unfortunate for them, but is also not a major factor in where this nation will go in coming years and in future generations.
When a majority of your students are low income, and when low-income students are performing at the lower levels by almost all indicators, then what you have is a situation where a majority of the students will not perform at higher levels until low-income students become a great focus of education.
The nation is simply not going to have a well-educated citizenry for performing the kind of work that a high tech, high education economy requires. And we’re not going to have the quality of life that we want, that we want our children to have. And we’re not going to have an improvement in the standards of living either.
Unless Americans are willing to compete on the basis of cheap labor— uneducated cheap labor—then the United States has to figure out how low-income students can perform at higher levels for the national interest.

Are you optimistic about how candidates might address this in the 2016 election?
Education gets a lot of lip service but not a lot of focused attention in the electoral process at the federal and the state levels. The kind of positions that are taken and the kind of questions that are asked of candidates about education simply are uninformative in terms of the problems that schools face.
Our political system simply hasn’t yet focused on how important this issue is for the future of the country. Until it does, I don’t know that we’re going to get the kind of policies that we need.

Do you see a way that this trend can reverse?
There are two ways we can deal with this situation if we are willing to—and they probably need to be done in combination.
One is we can figure out ways in which parents can earn more money and provide their kids the kind of educational experiences in and out of school that we know that higher-income families provide for their children. Those kids are doing very well in public schools in the United States—those upper-middle-class kids.
We need to find ways to improve the income of low-income families so that they can begin to provide those kind of resources to their children’s education.
And we can try to have schools and communities provide low-income kids the kind of educational experiences that upper- middle-class kids receive. We know the advantages of early childhood education. We know that exposure to books and language—and to the kind of early learning experiences that parents and communities can provide—will help low-income kids not be so far behind.
And I think we can find ways in which to provide that to low-income kids—if we have the policies and national commitment to do so.

Teaching as it should be

OTrodriguezVanessa Rodriguez knew there was more to teaching than producing test-ready students. Feeling constricted by a system that evaluated teachers not on personal performance but on student outcomes, she had enough. In pursuing her doctoral degree, she wanted to know exactly what teaching is and how it relates to learning. The existing research, she found, was lacking. In The Teaching Brain: An Evolutionary Trait at the Heart of Education (The New Press, 2014), Rodriguez and co-author Michelle Fitzpatrick go to the intersection of education, neuroscience and daily experience to explore how the mind of a teacher works, and more important, how it can be made more effective. “No one has ever truly bothered to understand specifically how the teaching process and its corollary, the teaching brain, are separate and distinct from the learning process and the learning brain,” she says. “It’s time for that to change.”

You say commonly accepted definitions of teaching don’t match the actual practice of teaching.
Right. We’ve never actually studied it this way. I started the doctoral program thinking I’d learn the language of what teaching is. Instead, what I found is that we really haven’t explored teaching in the way we have learning.
We understand learning as a practice of cognitive development that we’re all born with. But we don’t actually understand teaching in that way. The literature on teaching is actually grounded in an understanding of learning. That means we’re actually considering teaching a tool for learning. On the surface, that seems to make sense—the whole purpose of teaching is to help someone learn. But where it falls short is that the tool that we’re using is a human being.
Unlike learning, teaching absolutely must be an interaction. When you study teaching like an interaction, it suddenly shifts everything we understand about it and have done research on.

We have all kinds of technology to help kids learn on their own, so why do we even need teachers?
Right now we are trying to replace the human model of teaching with computers. It’s not the first time that this has been attempted. B.F. Skinner came up with a teaching machine in the 1950s and argued that it helped students learn more efficiently. It used reward and punishment to influence behaviors and learning. There are many things that machines can do more efficiently than humans, but no machine to date is able understand the complexity of the mind. It is forever changing, and it’s different for every individual. Humans are best at understanding other humans. But the way that we’ve designed the school system is not to take that into account. If we shift how we define teaching, then we find there is a completely different way of understanding that process of development. We can design ways to better prepare teachers in a classroom to help learners—who are also human, That’s different from being effective at helping children score high on exams that we don’t even know matter in the end.

Give us an overview of what the teaching brain is.
It’s a way to understand other people and to interact more effectively in relationships. The teaching brain is something we all have, but it’s not something we’re born with, which is fascinating. We’re not born with the ability to understand that other people have different minds than our own. We are born believing that everyone knows exactly what we know.
Somewhere around the age of 1 or 2 we realize, “I think one thing, but the people around me have different knowledge bases.” That’s where we’re then able to begin teaching. It starts simply and then develops various other cognitive skills. But there is a point at which that natural development stops. That’s the shift into professional intentional teaching.

Much of your focus is on five “awarenesses”—awareness of context, of the learner, of yourself as teacher, interaction, and of teaching practice.
You may be doing some of these things, but if you aren’t aware you are doing them, you can’t really affect how you are changing. For example, an awareness of my learner means I understand that the learner has a cultural background that affects the way they learn. They have a certain capacity for memory. They have certain emotions and their own cognition, how they process information. All of that is how I understand that learner.
But if I’m not aware that I’m forming this theory about who my learner is, then I’m not going to recognize it as a theory. Instead, I’m going to teach as if that is who that child is. But we never know who a person is. We only have our perspective of who that person is. If I form the incorrect theory, then I’m continually teaching to a misguided notion of who my learner is.
That’s where you start to get frustrated and feel like the child is not trying. But then you realize, “I must have formed an incorrect theory of who this learner is. Let me reevaluate that theory and let me shift it until I find the one that works.”
To be able to do that, you need to have an awareness that you’ve even formed a theory of that learner. And you also need to have an awareness of yourself. Because in a sense, it’s your fault that you formed the theory in the first place. To illustrate, I always had trouble with shy students. One of my “ah-ha” moments was when a student told me, “I’m not shy. I’m actually very outgoing.” I thought, “Wow. In my definition she’s shy. But in her view of herself, she’s not.”

You studied a group of master teachers in your research, some of whom experienced revelations about themselves in the process. Can you give an example?
We did a specific type of interview. For instance, we asked them to talk about how important culture is to their process of teaching. Oftentimes they’d say, “It’s extremely important to understand where my children come from, what families they have.”
I’d remind them that the interview was about themselves, not about their students. I was trying to find out more about what was happening in the mind of teachers when they are teaching.
And they’d say, “My culture? That doesn’t matter.”
Later, when the study was over I’d ask them if they really thought their culture didn’t matter. They’d say, “It does. I just never had anyone ask me about myself when I’ve been asked to talk about teaching. They want me to talk about my learners, not about myself.”
That’s an interesting phenomenon that doesn’t happen in other professions. When you talk about how you do your work, you talk about yourself. But in teaching, we really have been trained that we don’t exist. You don’t bring who you are into the classroom. You don’t bring your politics or your culture into the classroom. You are just there to serve the learners.
We need to recognize that both the teacher and the student have perspective. And it’s the teacher’s responsibility to be thoughtful about how their perspective affects everything that occurs in the classroom.

What practical applications can an administrator draw from this? Does it impact the hiring process?
Yes. At the university level, we need to help prepare teachers to understand just as much about teaching development as they do learning development. At the school level, principals can begin to evaluate teachers on a scale that really is about teaching and not just about learning. A school administrator could work with teachers in breaking down where they are and where they need to be in these areas of awareness. Then a teacher would know what areas they need to work on.

Not to sound flippant, but can you teach an old dog new tricks? Many teachers are just concerned with keeping their jobs.
That’s a tough one. I had this conversation not long ago. Someone asked, “What do you do with teachers who just want to keep their job and wants to bring home their paycheck and is terrified to change?”
I said, “What’s unfortunate is that we’re talking about several decades of teachers being blamed for absolutely everything that’s wrong in education. That’s turned into real consequences where their paychecks are tied to measures that every researcher and most of the public understands are not a measure of teaching, but of the learner answering questions right.”
Inevitably, what we’ve done is threatened teachers by threatening their families, because once you tie it to a paycheck that means you’re tying it to whether I can feed my children at home, and whether I can keep paying my mortgage, and whether my children have shelter.
I think anyone would argue that while teachers are supposed to care about the learners in the classroom, their first priority is their children over your children.
So I am honestly not sure how to change that. I think that is a level of trust that just has been broken. Rebuilding trust takes a long time, and it has to be intentional.

Breaking away from higher ed’s herd mentality

William Deresiewicz

William Deresiewicz

In 2008, former Yale professor William Deresiewicz wrote a scathing essay titled “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education.” It quickly went viral, gaining more than 100,000 views in a matter of weeks (and many times that since).

“The system manufactures students who are smart and talented and driven,” he noted, “but also anxious, timid and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose, … great at what they‘re doing but with no idea why they are doing it.”

His book Excellent Sheep: Thinking for Yourself, Inventing Your Life, and Other Things the Ivy League Won’t Teach You (Simon & Schuster, 2014), continues that theme. The “excellent sheep” are the students who spend much of their young lives, often at the prodding of overbearing parents, polishing academic and extracurricular achievements—checking off every box on the form, he says—at the expense of individualism and independent thinking.

Excellent Sheep doesn’t pull punches. What has been the reaction?

It’s been mixed. There’s certainly been a lot of pushback, a lot of negative coverage. But I’ve also been hearing from people who are very happy about the book.

I recently did a tour of five of the eight Ivy League campuses. The rooms were always packed, especially with students. Sometimes there was an initial wariness, but they figured out pretty quickly that what I’m saying is not only valuable to them, but is expressing a lot of the concerns that they have.

The book gives voice to what many people have long suspected, yet schools won’t acknowledge.

Let’s underscore that last point. I was recently talking on the air with a public radio host in Baltimore. He said, “Off the record, a lot of professors have said many of the same things.” And I said, “Yes, off the record.” People sometimes are just afraid to speak up.

You argue that higher education often does a disservice to students because companies want so-called soft skills over hard skills.

I’m not pointing a finger at colleges and universities, although I certainly think they could do a better job communicating. I’m really talking about the choices that students make and that families help them make or force them to make. And, quite frankly, the kind of propaganda that you hear in public.

There’s a lot of talk in public about higher-ed, and most of it comes from people who don’t really know what they’re talking about. It’s journalists with their preconceptions, and their cliches about English majors, or politicians like Barack Obama talking about how you shouldn’t be an art history major.

That’s not what employers say when you ask them what they are looking for. They don’t say “art history majors,” of course, but they also don’t say “economics majors.” Instead they say, “We’re looking for certain skills and we’re not necessarily getting them.”

I saw a poll recently that noted 97 percent of academic administrators think students are being prepared adequately for the job market. But among employers the number is closer to 30 percent. That’s a huge discrepancy. In that sense, the universities are culpable.

Surely the schools must know this.

I’m not sure they do know it. I think there is a huge disconnect. Obviously each school is going to be different, but it seems to me that you’ve got students and families at one end, employers at the other end, and universities in the middle. And there doesn’t seem to be a lot of communication going on in any of those junctures.

Everyone just assumes if you want to be well employed you need to take certain kinds of courses. Or universities might say, “We give our students a good education and they’ll do fine on the job market.”

And employers are troubled too, because some of them hire on the degree or the name of the institution. Sometimes it’s just safer to hire from more prestigious institutions because you can’t be blamed if the person fails.

Historically, getting into elite schools had to do with legacy, and then along came the admissions office.

The admissions office was actually created to enforce the old aristocracy. Admission had been based on exams that covered subjects like Greek and Latin—not generally available in public schools, so the majority of high school grads were automatically excluded.

When the Jewish kids from the New York City high schools started doing well on those tests, that’s when they created the admissions office, along with criteria such as interviews, photographs, character and extracurriculars. It was designed to screen out the Jews and to keep the prep school boys in.

But you are right. Historically, we went through a change like this before. We changed from the aristocracy from the prep school feeder-school system to meritocracy.

The big change came in the criteria they applied. We went to scores and grades. It was supposed to be about sifting pure academic talent, but it never was pure. The legacy system persisted, because the elite schools wanted to keep the old customers happy.

The problem is that now even that meritocratic system has become something that affluent families can really tilt in their favor.

How can we change the admissions process to not favor one group over another?

One way would be to drop this “fetish” for extracurriculars along with these notions of “service” and “leadership” that have become a big part of the process. It has all become a set of rituals—sports, music, and foreign travels—and they cost a lot of money.

I do have a few policy prescriptions—all of which are stolen from other people. We should be looking for things like intellectual curiosity, willingness to take risks, resilience, independence of spirit, willingness to fail—instead of what we’re getting, which are these beautiful, affluent conformists.

Yeah, they are very good at what they are doing, but why do we value what they are doing? It just lets them check off every box on the form. Sure, they are very energetic and ambitious, but in an unfocused way. They are very competitive, sleep-deprived, anxiety-ridden, and sometimes-robotic high achievers. That’s what we’re getting.

What about rising tuition costs? That isn’t the so-called customers’ fault.

We stopped paying taxes. It’s really simple. The taxpayer’s share of public universities is half of what it once was. It’s half of a state’s spending per dollar of income.

So, the share borne by families and students is double. Tuitions, at the very least, should be half of what they are. A huge amount of the trillion-plus dollar student debt load is from money that should never have had to been borrowed in the first place.

The truth is, schools are partly responsible for the huge increase in costs because they’ve been spending on the wrong things, like fancy dorms, sports stadiums and athletic facilities—everything except teaching. The one spending category that’s grown the least in recent years is instructional spending.

But a big part of the reason they’ve had to do that is precisely because of the withdrawal of public funding. So, they’re competing for the students. They are treating students as customers, and competing for their tuition dollars instead of getting state support.

Is there a way to turn it around?

What I see is individuals, whether they are students or parents, making different choices. They choose to opt out of this crazy, insane admissions arms race-system. A lot of people are really fed up with the system, even within the colleges.

Will things change? Perhaps, if pressure is applied. But the elite universities are sitting pretty right now. Their balance sheets look good. The people who work there make a lot of money and have very comfortable lives. The schools are becoming global brands. All around the world, people want to send their kids to them.

So if universities are going to change, leverage needs to be applied nationally by students and families—the customers.

Like the “occupy” movement that has emerged in the last few years?

Exactly. If we want to talk about funding public higher education, it will require large political movements of the kind we’re seeing now with minimum wage and unionization in low-wage industries like food service.

I’d like to see free public higher ed be put on the agenda along with raising minimum wage and resurrecting unionism in the service sector.

Political change can happen quickly and can come from nowhere when pressures build up in an unseen way and then suddenly find a form of expression.

We saw that with the Arab Spring. In some ways we saw it with the Tea Party. These things can come out of nowhere. So we’ll see.

Schools must compete in a knowledge economy

Scott McLeod

Scott McLeod

A photo on Scott McLeod’s popular “Dangerously Irrelevant” blog carries the caption, “We’re so busy doing 20th century teaching, we don’t have time to initiate 21st century learning.”

That, in a nutshell, is McLeod’s driving concern about K12 education. A country that doesn’t embrace technology and innovation in its education system cannot hope to compete in an increasingly knowledge-based economy.

“Job growth in America, in terms of numbers, is around non-routine cognitive work—the stuff that requires sophisticated mental thinking, creative work, problem-solving, collaboration—and we aren’t doing a good job preparing students for that,” he says.

McLeod is the founding director of the University Council for Education Administration’s Center for the Advanced Study of Technology Leadership in Education (CASTLE), “the nation’s only academic center dedicated to the technology needs of school administrators.”

You’ve written that administrative restraints have rendered much of school technology useless.

Yes, that’s based on something writer Tim Cushing said. Everyone is trying to get more technology into their schools for kids to use, but then we add so many restrictions, barriers, blocks and filters. It’s like we’re trying hard to get the tech in there but also trying as hard as we can to keep kids from using it. It’s great that we have these devices, but we’ve got to embed them within environments of empowerment, not restriction.

Keith Krueger from CoSN noted that the problem is leading with technology rather than pedagogy. Would you agree?

Yes, absolutely. Most of the time the focus is on getting the tools and the infrastructure and not on what kind of learning experiences we are trying to enable. So we see a lot of replicative technology use where we are doing the same things we did before.

Still lots of note-taking. Still lots of low-level PowerPoint presentations. They look up stuff on the web. And that’s pretty much all they’ve got in a lot of these districts. They are proud because they are 1-to-1, but they are not really using it to best effect.

Is it that teachers are unfamiliar with the technology?

The problem lies in the predominant views around learning and teaching that are still recall and regurgitation. Until we’re ready to rethink learning and teaching, how we use these devices isn’t going to change.

If you are vetted in a regurgitative model of schooling, then this idea of student empowerment, and project-based learning, and inquiry, doesn’t fit into that model very well. So you are going to use devices in low-level ways because that’s what your model of teaching and learning looks like.

Schools are primarily about repetitive, low-level routine cognitive work. That’s exactly the wrong emphasis in our society today, from an economic standpoint.

The factory model of schooling isn’t compatible with a knowledge economy?

Right. The factory model prepares compliant workers to do repetitive, routine work. We have a convergence of globalization fostered by rapid growth and technology in the internet, and this has moved all that work elsewhere.

Our schools haven’t yet adapted to the new economic realities of a technology-suffused knowledge economy.

You speak to educators all the time. They must see the problem too, right?

A lot of it has to do with time. It’s not that these awesome teachers are unwilling. It’s that they recognize that they don’t have the skills or knowledge and they don’t have the time or the leadership supports or system supports to make it happen. They often feel like they are left adrift on their own to figure it out. That can be very overwhelming.

And that can lead to stifling the tools that should be helping students learn?

Right. That’s more of a leadership thing. How do we think about devices? Do we think about them as essential to the core learning process or do we think of them as just nice to have? Do we think of them as behavioral control devices?

We would never say to a kid, “You’ve acted up in class. We’re going to take away your textbook.” But for some reason we have no problem saying, “We’re going to take away your laptop,” even though the laptop is a much more powerful learning mechanism for the students.

I think this just has to do with fear and a lack of knowledge and perhaps some odd administrative thinking about these tools. They are not seen as essential yet.

We used to hear about the so-called “Nintendo generation,” raised on technology. They would grow up to become tech-savvy teachers. It’s pretty clear that hasn’t happened. Why?

What we’re often seeing with our younger teachers is that they may be very fluent with, say, social technology—Facebook, texting, Twitter, and so on. But they may not be fluent at using technology for academic or job-productive work because they’ve never been given the experiences to actually do that. They may not be the digital natives that we think.

The other challenge with our younger folks is that even if they are comfortable with technology or might be willing to give it a go, they are embedded within systems that aren’t supportive. The work of W. Edwards Deming has told us for decades that if you take a good person and you embed them within a bad system, the bad system will win every time.

So the real key is getting the leadership support and community support.

Exactly. If we want systemic change to happen as opposed to pockets of isolated excellence, then we have to hit the people who are in charge of the systems.

That’s principals and superintendents. That’s school boards. That’s state and federal policy makers—the people who actually have control over things like time and money and resource allocation, professional learning, vision setting, and all those things.

You can be a wonderful classroom teacher. You can maybe even make an impact at the classroom level, but you are not going to impact the entire system. The people who are in charge of the system have to get on board, too.

You are a critic of standardized testing, noting a lack of evidence to support using student test scores to rank teachers. Why do we still do it?

The challenge with standardized testing to me is that those assessments are primarily focused on the lower end of Bloom’s taxonomy. It’s that easy, factual recall and procedural regurgitation stuff—the kind of thing you can look up on Google in a few seconds.

We have lots of evidence that around 80 to 85 percent of kids’ day-to-day work is that kind of learning. Our standardized testing scheme at the state and federal levels is really pushing even harder on those kinds of assessments. But they are at great odds with the needs of our economy right now—which is that we need graduates who can live up at the upper end of Bloom’s taxonomy, not the lower end.

If we really want critical thinkers and problem-solvers, people who can collaborate and create value in the world, you don’t capture any of that with a heavy emphasis on low-level bubble tests. Yet that’s exactly what we’re trying to do.

What could drive that to change?

I think we’re already seeing pushback, particularly as high-achieving, affluent suburban communities are hearing that their schools are labeled as failing. They look around and say, “Well that doesn’t make any sense.” So we’re starting to see some pushback at that level.

But it is going to be hard, because the kind of tests that we have now are absolutely the cheap ones. They are relatively easy to administer. They are relatively inexpensive. But a true performance assessment, judged by rubric or a panel of experts, is quite costly in terms of personnel and time.

There’s a quote at the top of your Twitter page—“If the leaders don’t get it, it’s not going to happen.”

That goes back to my emphasis on the leadership and systems change—that we’ve got to have the leaders onboard. When I originally started saying that, I was focused mostly on principals and superintendents. I would now broaden that to include board members and policymakers.

It’s worth noting that a lot of educators are trying really hard to move in these directions. But they encounter significant obstacles—from policy and legislation to the mindset of their communities.

What mindset is that?

The biggest barrier to making the shifts we need to make in schools is our mindset of what schools should look like. Everyone went to school. We each have our mental model of what school is and how it operates, based on experience.

But we’re talking about a really different approach here. It makes many people uncomfortable or fearful. That’s why it has been so difficult to get all this going.

Ending the one-sided conversation

John KuhnIn 1836, William B. Travis, leading Texan forces fighting at the Alamo, issued a plea for reinforcements, “To the People of Texas & All Americans in the World.” The defiant letter is often regarded by historians as important as the Declaration of Independence.
Travis’s sentiments were echoed 175 years later by John Kuhn, superintendent of the Perrin-Whitt CISD in Texas. His own “Alamo Letter” begins: “Gentlemen, I am besieged, by a hundred or more of the Legislators under Rick Perry. I have sustained a continual bombardment of increased high-stakes testing and accountability-related bureaucracy and a cannonade of gross underfunding for 10 years at least and have lost several good men and women. The ruling party has demanded another round of pay cuts and furloughs, while the schoolhouse be put to the sword and our children’s lunch money be taken to keep taxes low for big business. I am answering the demand with a (figurative) cannon shot … I shall never surrender the fight for the children of Perrin.”
Kuhn’s new book Fear and Learning in America: Bad Data, Good Teachers, and the Attack on Public Education (Teachers College Press, 2014), continues the fight with a call for sensible reform.

As the title of your book suggests, politicians and corporate interests have long used fear to influence public opinion, whether it’s for war, health care or education.
There’s a lot of marketing involved to try and get policies in place that you may want in place because of your ideology. One of the real quick and easy ways to try to get support for that is to scare people. I read “A Nation at Risk” and the report from Condoleezza Rice and Joel Klein that said, “The physical safety of America is at risk because of our public education system.” At some point you have to stop and say, “Is this exaggerated? Is this being blown out of proportion to advance some sort of cause?” I’ve come to the conclusion that, absolutely, there is a lot of hyperbole and a lot of fear mongering that goes on when it comes to education politics and, really, politics in general.

You wrote, “Public opinion about me and my occupation seems to have shifted for the worse”—highlighting teachers as takers. When did that begin?
The first time I noticed it was in 2006 when I watched a Jon Stossel report on ABC’s 20/20 show called “Stupid in America.” I still remember it vividly. I remember saying, “Wow, teachers are the bad guys. How did that happen?” It surprised me, because I had kind of this naïve idea that teachers are public servants and they serve the community, and they really don’t get paid a lot to do what they do. I grew up the son of a firefighter. I was always really proud of my dad and the self-sacrifice that goes with risking your life to serve the community. I never risked my life as a teacher, but I always felt like I gave more than I took, and I always felt that way about my colleagues and coworkers.
Resentment toward teachers and public education has always been there, to some extent, because of taxation that’s needed to pay salaries of those people. The question that’s more interesting to me is: When did it become a mainstream thought process, embraced by both parties? I would say that’s been a really recent development.

How recently? Are we talking about No Child Left Behind or earlier?
“A Nation at Risk” certainly laid the groundwork for it, but I think the education accountability movement—begun in Texas with Gov. George W. Bush and ushered onto the national stage as NCLB—definitely amped up the conversation. It started the conversation with this kind of assumption of deficiency.
The biggest concern I’ve always had is that accountability systems completely disregard the funding differences that schools face. You can be a low-funded school or you can be a high-funded school, but you still have to get your kids to score exactly the same on their standardized tests. You are setting up the low-funded schools for failure.

Teachers take the brunt of the blame for failure. Is there an objective measure to ensure that schools have the best teachers and can do their jobs?
I don’t think you’ll ever get a totally objective measure, but you can construct a fair and reasonable measure that gets at the quality of education. You can’t do it by obsessively looking at scores on a math and reading test, which is basically what we’ve done. It’s a relentless nitpicking of public schools—often to make partisan political points—about how we’re protecting the taxpayer and that sort of thing. In my mind, there’s a difference between protecting the taxpayer and political theater about protecting the taxpayer that really has detrimental impact on the actual public services that you say you are holding accountable.

Every new administration, on the state or federal level, wants to institute a new education system, something that will fix it once and for all.
In my experience as a teacher, even at the local level, I think it’s real tempting for educators and education policymakers to fall for fads in education. I think the reason for that is we’re all desperate to get good results. Kids’ futures depend on what kind of education they get, so we want to get results.
There’s no shortage of people out there, both at the local level and probably at the state and federal policymaker levels, of people promoting different products and approaches that they say will be the magic bullet. Unfortunately, I think sometimes we get suckered pretty easily in education and we want to believe that this latest approach will fix everything.

Does the Common Core fall into that category?
The promise of the Common Core and the promise of a lot of these education reforms is to provide kids in different areas of the United States with equitable curriculum and equitable teacher quality. That’s a noble thing to do, to say, “No matter where you live, we want you to have access to the same rigorous curriculum and the same quality of teacher.” Those are very good things to press for.
What troubles me is that the conversation stops right there. If we just fix the schools, everything will be hunky dory. But that has muted a broader conversation about a more expansive equity that we need to have in order to get actual academic results, especially in our most impoverished neighborhoods. When we mute that conversation, I think we do a huge disservice to our kids and to our teachers’ ability to be successful.

In this climate there’s little incentive for teachers to speak out without fear of retribution.
That’s why most of them don’t. Most teachers are wise not to stir up trouble and speak out politically. What’s really troubling to me is teachers don’t even really vote in large numbers. I think that’s problematic. At the same time, our policymakers should be eliciting teacher input in policy conversations and decisions.
I’m not saying we should listen only to teachers and students when it comes to education policy, but what we’ve done is essentially stopped listening to them.
My experience working with teachers is they are very conscientious people. Many of the teachers I’ve worked with really want to do a great job. And they do need help. And when they ask for help, I think it’s important that we hear them out.

One of the solutions you offer in your book is to enlist better gatekeepers in educator prep programs. Explain what you mean.
I’ve read quite a bit about the policies and practices that were enacted in Finland. We always hear about how great Finland’s education system is. We also know that Finland has much lower rates of child poverty than the United States does, so a lot of people will dismiss their good results by saying, “Well, it’s a different population of kids”—which is true.
At the same time, Finland made big improvements in the student test results on international test scores. They saw gains. They worked very hard to ensure equity. We’ve done a really terrible job of that in the United States when it comes to school funding. We don’t even attempt to fund our schools equitably. They also focused on the quality of their teaching staff and they made it tougher to become a teacher. I think that’s something that the United States could look at and learn from.

You say, “Reform should be done by educators, not to them.” How can we change to that attitude?
I think they are starting to do that. I see a silver lining to the so-called education reform wars. This noisy conversation that we’re having is actually paying off with some positive changes. The collaboration that is needed as a lot of these top-down reforms are implemented is happening because parents and teachers are starting to speak up. It is no longer a one-sided conversation where teachers and parents just take what they are given by politicians and business lobbyists.

Building ‘the perfect university’

Ben Nelson

Ben Nelson

What if you could create a new kind of university? What would it be like? For Ben Nelson, CEO of the Minerva Project, it would combine a redefined student body, a reinvented curriculum, rigorous academic standards, cutting-edge technology and an immersive global experience. Nelson launched Minerva in 2011 to provide an Ivy League-like education at a fraction of the cost. Although classes take place online, Nelson, who was previously the president of online photo service Snapfish, emphasizes that Minerva is not a MOOC in any way. “It’s not massive and it’s not open. The courses are online, but the experiences are residential.” The inaugural class of 70 students will attend tuition-free, but will pay room and board. Subsequent classes will pay just $10,000 tuition. “It’s the most selective undergraduate class in the history of American higher education,” Nelson says. “We initially thought we would have 15 or 19 students, but we got close to 2,500 applications. It’s pretty stunning.”

I saw a debate that you and Anant Agarwal of edX participated in over the issue of “more clicks, fewer bricks.” The audience was not on your side at first, but a post-debate poll showed that opinion had swung your way. What was the turning point?
That was clearly hostile territory. I think people’s conception of online education has been colored by all the coverage of MOOCs. But online education existed well before MOOCs, and takes many different forms: adaptive learning platforms, live seminars—technologies that connect two different locations around the world where you have gathering students. I think all Anant and I really needed to do was point that out.
The second thing going against us was the idea that online learning is unproven, that we just don’t know how effective it is. That’s probably the safest place for people who want to deny that there’s going to be technological progress to hide.

But evidence shows otherwise?
Yes. There is actually a lot of proof about what’s effective and what isn’t in higher education. The majority of the proof showed that what’s currently done is not effective—a 10 percent retention rate for lectures two years out, for example. You simply can’t get any worse.
And clearly, if you use technology, it must be able to get better, simply because you can iterate. You can say, “Hey, this works. This doesn’t. Let’s change. Let’s continue to make improvements.”

In announcing the Minerva Project you said you are “effectively building a perfect university.” That’s a bold statement.
Most institutions get built over time primarily by accident. Whether it’s a university, a charity, a business, a government—they have a founding principle. But, as they evolve, the goals of the founding principle often wind up being in conflict.
This is especially true in any kind of enterprise where money is involved. You are in a market and people pay you for services. The problem is that when you evolve around the profit rule, your original vision is compromised.
We are designing a university from the ground up and we are designing every aspect of it to fulfill one goal—to educate individuals who we believe have the real potential to be innovators and leaders in a variety of different fields from a global perspective. It’s not to educate the world’s best tax accountants or concert violinists or rural family doctors. Those are all noble, important professions, but Minerva is more focused on the people who are going to be creating or leading the major institutions of the world.
Everything about our institutional design is meant to, 1) create the environment and infrastructure to best deliver that training and 2) to create a mechanism that will self-heal. That means, if there is any temptation for us to do things that won’t promote that kind of outcome, we simply won’t do it institutionally.

A traditional university can’t do that?
The only time you can really create an institution like that is at the beginning. If universities today were to say, “We’d like to just do everything that Minerva does,” they would have to make some choices that would be almost impossible to make—they couldn’t, for example, do collegiate athletics. It doesn’t fit in our model.
If they say, “We want to make sure that we get this amazing global exposure like Minerva,” the problem is they’ve
got this enormous mutlibillion-dollar campus. What do they do with it?
It’s impossible to change the wholesale nature of an institution years later. You can do aspects of it, such as adopting a new curriculum. It’s not easy, but certainly more doable.
So there are aspects where, frankly, we hope that universities will wholesale change themselves all the time, but it’s more likely that they could only change parts as opposed to the whole thing.

So Minerva will have the ability to evolve and adapt as needed?
Correct. And that means you have very low fixed infrastructure, so you can evolve in many ways. We are designing our courses to be 15 to 19 students per class, but if it turns out the optimal number is 14 or 21, we’ll just change it.
Let’s say that a certain field of study doesn’t make any sense anymore. Our faculty is not tenured, so if there is no relevance to a field 20 or 30 years from now, well, we just change that particular department. It will be very easy for us to evolve.

You alluded to the fact that Minerva will be a global school. Explain.
We have these rotation programs around the world. Our first year is in Buenos Aires and Berlin. If Buenos Aires is no longer relevant for our students, we’ll just go to different cities. We don’t buy buildings in any of these locations. We lease or rent them.
Everything about the structure allows for flexibility. The value of being the world’s greatest university—and striving to that goal—is a larger incentive than any other possible short-term or medium-term gain. If somebody says, “I’ll donate $100 million to your university on the condition that you admit my idiot kid”—which happens at every elite university in the country—we can just say no. It’s just simply not worth it for us to tarnish our brand for a bribe.

You’ll be in a different city each year. How will that work?
San Francisco is the first year. Every student comes to San Francisco. They go through the cornerstone curriculum their freshman year, the common freshman experience. And then they break into cohorts of 150 students. The cohorts then travel to different cities over the next six semesters. And when they show up in each city, they have the infrastructure for living in that city. The living component is just the residence hall, the residence life manager that manages the hall—there will be RAs that coordinate things, and there will be public safety, psychological surveys and, of course, health care in every city.
The academic component is delivered place-independent via our technology platform. The professor can be anywhere in the world. The co-curricular opportunities, the ones that integrate the students into the city, will be handled by residence life managers. They are the ones that arrange all of the experiential learning that occurs in the cities, exposing the students to everything that the city has to offer in really deep ways. That’s kind of the immersive component. The extracurriculars—when you are doing student newspapers, student government, what have you—actually take advantage of the fact that you have this global network of students. Imagine what a student newspaper would look like if it had 25 foreign bureaus. Pretty powerful stuff.

It sounds like a logistical nightmare.
Well, when you try to build what we’re trying to build, you don’t compromise. You don’t say, “We want to give you truly a global-immersive environment, but we might as well do it from Topeka because it’s cheap.” You could do that, but then you don’t really give the students that opportunity. What we’ll find at Minerva are difficult choices that are made simple by the mission.

So the students are together in a particular city, but the classes are delivered online?
Correct. Minerva takes the 16-person seminar and improves upon that model. We take an existing analog offline and make it better using technology. We have created a platform which is more effective than gathering 16 people around a table. And again, that is a decision where we could have said, “In every city you go to, we’re going to go and congregate in classrooms.” That’s easy. It’s familiar. It’s something the students understand.
The problem is it’s sub-optimal because we’re trying to deliver a scaffolded curriculum, a curriculum where every course builds on the courses that have come before it and provides students with choice. The technology enables the kinds of active learning that, offline, is difficult to impossible. We believe—and we have evidence—that our platform is superior to that experience.

Looking for reform in all the wrong places

Andrea Gabor

Andrea Gabor

As an expert on the life and work of W. Edwards Deming, whose quality control strategies revolutionized Japanese and American industry, Andrea Gabor believes American education can draw an important lesson from his legacy.
“The best companies today promote management cultures that are all about collaboration, creative problem solving, flat organizational structures and distributed processing,” she says. “But much of what we associate with education reform is top-down, hierarchical, command-and-control management.”
A journalism professor at Baruch College, Gabor has written extensively on the role of private enterprise in education reform. The focus of her forthcoming book about education (as yet untitled) concerns the applicability of business systems to schools—or more specifically, the lack of applicability of many of the business systems that have been proposed as solutions to the problems of education.

In a recent article, you questioned market-based reforms that “have been widely touted as the answer to America’s educational woes.” Let me play devil’s advocate here: What’s wrong with having people like Jeb Bush and Bill Gates install market-based reforms?

I’m not arguing that all market solutions are wrong. What I’m arguing is that educational reform is being driven by a very small number of very wealthy businesspeople who look at schools through a particular lens that is often inappropriate for schools. And in doing this, very often there’s a reductionism that takes place.
There is very little patience in our society and in our culture. So you end up having a barrage of top-down, half-baked, unsystematic, flavor-of-the-month solutions, market-based or not.
My favorite example is from a school superintendent in Leon County, Florida, who recently estimated that his district endured 21 changes in proficiency standards during the past six years. And just in the five or so years that I’ve been following New York City schools, there have been major changes in the standardized testing regime almost every year.
Schools and companies are both social systems. But schools have very different cultures from corporations which often drive change from the top-down. One of the things that my book argues is that we’re looking for education reform in all the wrong places. There are lessons that can be learned from the business world—in particular, the collaborative, non-heirarchical approach of systems thinkers, which informs both the open-source and the quality movements. This approach is much more suited to the culture of schools.
There is a lot of grassroots-driven change happening in schools and school districts all around the country, and much of it is under the radar and is not getting attention because it’s not driven by the big power brokers, like the Gates Foundation. It’s not necessarily charter- and choice-based. It’s not about lots of technology, bells and whistles. It is about doing the hard work on the ground.

Give me an example.
My favorite example of that is Brockton High, the largest high school in Massachusetts. Back in the 1990s, when the state mandated that students had to pass the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test, Brockton realized that the majority of its students might not graduate from high school. It’s a very poor community. A group of teachers got together and decided to put in place a literacy strategy. They said, “We are going to work on literacy in every part of the school. We’re going to work on literacy in English class, in history class, in math class and in physical education.” There was a literacy component to everything they did. They developed a strategy with almost no outside help and virtually no outside money.
They just kept working on literacy. It’s very unsexy. But, lo and behold, the vast majority of Brockton students now do well on the MCAS and go on to college. About a quarter of them end up with scholarships because this literacy strategy works. It was a grassroots effort.

How did Brockton fly under the radar?
I think all the stars were aligned. Things were really bad back in the ’90s and they were desperate. They were willing to try anything. They also had the same principal and superintendent for a number of years, so the school was somewhat protected from the usual churning that often adversely impacts schools. In the meantime they kept getting better and better and that protected them. Importantly, when the principal who started the program retired, her longtime assistant principal, who totally bought into the literacy strategy, became her successor. That’s another management lesson. One of the biggest challenges for any organization—school or corporation—is succession planning.

Speaking of management, you—literally—wrote the book on W. Edwards Deming and the techniques and strategies that he brought to the American auto industry. Which of those strategies can be applied to American public schools?
Well, everything, basically. In fact, it’s really interesting. I just came back from Texas, where one of the educators in the Leander School District outside Austin, watched the very same documentary about Deming that the Ford execs first saw years earlier. She said, “This would work for schools.”
So, the Leander district has actually been explicitly applying Deming’s ideas to trying to improve classroom teaching, instruction and culture, and so forth, for about 20 years.

For people who are unfamiliar with Deming, give us some background.
Deming was a statistician who brought a scientific approach to understanding processes and systems and how to improve them. At the root of that was the idea that you first have to be able to stabilize the system at whatever its capacity happens to be. And only once you’ve stabilized it can you figure out how to improve it.
Then, it’s the people who are closest to each process in the system who are best able to improve it, so it’s a very bottom-up approach. In the case of schools, that would mean teachers, parents and kids who understand how everything works, from instruction to classroom transitions to after-school programs. They understand both the probems and the opportunities for improvement and can suggest those to management teams.
The most famous example of this approach is the Toyota production system, where management is in charge of stabilizing the system, and they train people at all levels of the company to understand how to recognize opportunities for improvement and how to actually work on that improvement. It involves a lot of training, getting ideas from the people who are closest to the system, collaborative problem solving, and this idea of constant improvement. In other words, it’s not about just trying to improve your test scores. It’s about constantly trying to improve what you are doing and how you are doing it.

That’s counter to what often happens when teachers think, “I just better keep my head down and teach.”
Right. It goes back to the old industrial model of an antagonistic relationship between management and labor. Now, I do think teachers unions are going to have to figure out a different way of operating, because one of the things that the auto industry did under Deming, for example, was to recognize that they were going to have to change some of the work rules.

In a recent editorial about the coming increase of charter schools in New York, you asked, “Is there a point at which fostering charter schools undermines traditional public schools and the children they serve?” Can you expand on that?
It’s not so much that charter schools are the problem, because the original idea of the charter schools was to create sort of an innovation zone, if you will. But no one has addressed the issue of the tipping point, which is what the editorial is about.
At what point do you turn public schools into a defacto dumping ground for the most challenging children? The reality is that charter schools are virtually unregulated. They aggressively manage their enrollments. They have fewer poor kids, fewer kids with special needs, fewer kids with English language deficits by a large margin. That means that the kids with the most problems end up in public schools.
We should demand the same level of accountability from charter schools as we do from public schools. And they should be required to teach the same kinds of kids. We can’t afford to have a two-tier system.

It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If charter schools receive favorable treatment from the public and private sectors, and yet are allowed to turn away the neediest students, those children are doubly disadvantaged.
Absolutely. They are creating dumping schools. We saw it in New Orleans. We saw what happens when you create dumping schools. As that system got closer to 100 percent charter, you had a large number of kids who were falling between the cracks—suspended, expelled, dropping out of school and winding up out on the streets.