Top 10 education news and trends of 2009

Greta’s Note: Thank you for your interest and support for law and education, and I hope to talk to you in the new year!

Goodbye, 2009!

10. New technological innovations such as e-textbooks, tutoring software, virtual schools and distance learning, and student performance-tracking programs are helping students learn better and changing the dynamics of the student-teacher relationship.  Their widespread use, however, still lie in the future.

9. “Merit pay” and “accountability” are the buzzwords once again as state legislatures rush to eliminate barriers to link student performance and teacher evaluation in order to comply with requirements for the Race to the Top funding.

8. Chicago and other school districts around the country begin to use socio-economic data instead of race in an effort to integrate their public schools after a 2007 Supreme Court ruling that prohibited schools from using race as a factor in school assignment.

7. Education schools came under criticism, including from Education Secretary Arne Duncan, for lack of standards and rigorous methodology.

6. In a year where the courts showed much judicial restraint and deferred to the school board on education issues, the Supreme Court decided in Safford v. Redding that the strip search of a 13-year-old girl on suspicion that she had prescription-strength ibuprofen violated the Fourth Amendment.

5. Hard-hit by the economy, states across the nation cut educational funding.  Universities respond by freezing salaries, implementing hiring caps, halting construction projects, cutting services, laying off staff, and raising tuition.

4. Congress considered reform to student loans but wavers on more decisive and drastic changes to the existing structure.

3. The economic downturn drive students away from 4-year private colleges in 2009 while community colleges experienced the highest enrollment in years.  Some become so crowded that administrators devise creative ways to accommodate students, such as 2 a.m. classes.

2. NAEP scores stagnate and disappoint educators, raising fears that the U.S. will not meet achievement goals set by President Bush and No Child Left Behind.  Racial achievement gap also appears to be firmly in place.

1. President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced Race to the Top program that will distribute a total of $4.35 billion to states with the best school reform proposals.  Educators hope that the program would help states shape and implement wide-ranging reform measures in their public schools.

Duly noted: Dec 21 – Dec 27, 2009

Happy holidays!  This is the last edition of Duly Noted this year.  Enjoy and see you in the new year!

  • Race to the Top is driving state policy action across the nation as state governors and legislatures look for ways to alleviate their budgetary woes.  The Department of Education estimates that competing for the funds will take a state on average 681 hours to prepare its grant proposal.
  • Texas’s proposed new social studies curriculum left many concerned that the state’s own history is overemphasized at the expense of knowledge about the nation and the world.  The state board of education will hold hearing on the proposed curricular changes in January.

Not quite post-racial at the Chicago public schools

Has Chicago, the city that gave us Obama, arrived at a post-racial era in its public school system?  Last week, the New York Times reported that the city’s public schools have decided to use student socio-economic profiles rather than race to assign students to schools.

Those who believe that race is merely a clumsy and inaccurate proxy for socio-economic status will surely welcome the change as long overdue.  For them, removing race as a factor would allow Chicago schools to deal directly with the true underlying concerns of school integration — combating the devastating effect poverty has on the education of our children.  It would be a welcomed first step toward moving beyond our fixation on race.  The result would be more equitable and accurate, as well.

The reality in Chicago, however, is far more complicated.  For one thing, the Times article makes it clear that the Chicago officials are implementing the reform reluctantly.  They are doing so only in response to the Supreme Court decision in 2007 that prohibited Seattle and Kentucky school districts from using race as a factor in school assignments.

More importantly, the objective of using these types of criteria to sort and assign students remain peculiarly fixated on race.  The goal that the school officials say they hope to achieve, and the standard by which they evaluate their success, is racial integration, not socio-economic parity.  As a result, socio-economic profiling is perceived and spoken of as a second-best solution, a crude proxy for race.

Unfortunately, if racial integration is the objective, then the Chicago policy is likely to fail.  San Francisco, which has been using socio-economic factors instead of race in school assignment for the past few years, has seen less racial integration in its schools since adopting the new policy.  Denver and Charlotte had reported similar trends.

Part of the problem may be technical.  Defining and measuring socio-economic status turns out to be a bit more elusive than defining race.  According to the New York Times, Chicago will be using a variety of factors that evaluates the student’s neighborhood — “income, education levels, single-parent households, owner-occupied homes and the use of language other than English as the primary tongue” — in placing students in selective-enrollment schools.

Using neighborhood characteristics as a proxy for socio-economic status may be just as inaccurate as using race as a proxy.  The system is also more easily gamed, since the calculus depends on assumptions about people’s living preferences and the fact that they are reporting their actual addresses.  San Francisco, which uses a similar system, is reevaluating the effectiveness of using those factors and considering using additional factors such as whether the student has attended pre-school.

In short, if Chicago’s true objective is more racial integration, it is likely to be sorely disappointed.  None of these criticisms, however, address the largest problems that both of these methods for school integration fails to address: a paucity of middle- or upper-middle class white students.  Students who attend urban, inner-city schools are overwhelmingly minorities and poor.  In Chicago, only 9% of students are white, while 45% are African-American and 41% Latino.  According to the school district website, 85% of the public school students are from a “low-income family.”

And Chicago is not unique.  70% of Denver’s students are Latino or African-American, and roughly the same percentage are low-income students eligible for the federal free lunch program.  In San Francisco’s school district, nearly 1/3 of the students are immigrant “English language learners”, and white students only make up 10% of the student population.  More than half of the students are eligible for the free lunch program.

Integration is only meaningful and sensible when there are diverse groups to integrate.  The Chicago officials themselves acknowledge the absurdities of trying to “integrate” a district where the vast majority of students are quite uniformly low-income and non-white.  Short of busing these students to wealthy suburbs, who are Chicago integrating these children with?

Rather than achieving the ideal of running schools where race does not matter, Chicago’s new policy shows us that race is still an issue that is very much front and center in people’s minds — and at the same time, it is an issue that is beside the point.

Duly noted: Dec 14 – Dec 20, 2009

  • In response to a 2007 Supreme Court ruling that prohibited school districts from using racial data to assign students, the Chicago public school system is using socio-economic profiles rather than race to increase diversity, raising fears that gains in racial diversity might be erased.
  • The New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority approved a “doomsday budget” for 2010.  The budget, if implemented, would end the free metro cards program for students.  417,243 students currently receive free Metrocards; another 167,912 receive half-fare cards.  Families of students would need to spend an extra $810 per year to cover currently free subway rides.  Some fear that the cut would increase student dropout rates.
  • Who owns students notes to a university lecture, students or professors?  Finalsclub.org, a website started by a Harvard graduate that allows students to trade class notes and outlines online, has generated controversy over intellectual property issues.  Some professors, such as Steven Pinker, has agreed to have notes from his class posted on the website.  Other professors have adamantly refused.
  • Enraged Detroit parents demand jail time for school officials after the release of NAEP test scores showing that Detroit’s fourth and eighth graders have the worst scores in the nation.
  • New studies on the developing brain in cognitive neuroscience are changing the way educators teach math.  It turns out that children can understand many more mathematical concepts than previously thought.  (I have the feeling that educators in China and India already know this.)

The California tuition protests: much ado about very little?

Anger over the tuition increase at the University of California erupted into several protests and resulted in numerous arrests last week.  Protesters used tactics that included throwing incendiary devices at police cars, vandalizing the home of the chancellor of University of California, and breaking in and barricading themselves inside university buildings.

Given that students are so angry, how much money do they actually have to spend more per year?  The University of California website “estimated” pre-increase 2009-2010 tuition to be $8,700 and uniform across all campuses, while the Yahoo Financial website reported that pre-increase 2008-2009 tuition and fee to be about $8,932 per year for Berkeley students.  (Both figures exclude costs of books and living expenses, which are not affected by the tuition increase.)

Post tuition-increase, in-state students will pay $10,302 per year, so the increase comes out to be about $2,500 – $2,700 per student.  Given that about 1/3 of the tuition hike is going towards financial aid, the actual costs for low-income students may be much lower.

Post-tuition-increase, University of California will be one of the more expensive public schools in the U.S., but not the most expensive  by a long stretch.  The tuition for the University of Vermont, for example, comes at a hefty $13,554 per year.  University of Pittsburgh, another one of the most expensive public universities in the U.S., charges in-state students $13,344 per year.  Pennsylvania State University (College Park) charge in-state students between $13,014 to $14,904 per year, depending on their year in school.  Indeed, many other public universities have already been more expensive than the current sticker price of the University of California for several years now.

The University of Vermont created a somewhat defensive but helpful chart that compares some university costs.  As you can see, pre-tuition-hike, University of California was one of the least expensive public universities.  Given its stature and reputation, not just among public universities but among all universities, the students in California was getting an incredible bargain.

Post-tuition-hike, the University of California is certainly less of a bargain than before, but it is still a good value compared to other public universities.  It is an extremely good value compared to private colleges and universities that cost three or four times as much.

The pre-tuition-hike University of California was so much of a bargain that Ian Ayres, professor of law and economics at Yale, wrote shortly after the increase that he believe that the UC tuition increase was a good thing.  The problem with public universities, wrote Professor Ayres, was not that they cost too much for the poor, but that they charge the rich too little.

In other words, the University of California was under-charging those who have no problem affording a more expensive education, and not using enough of its funds to subsidize those who cannot afford the education without a lot of financial aid.  If the goal was to provide education for all who is willing and deserving, it would make sense to the charge the rich more and use that increased tuition to simultaneously increase fianncial aid for low-income students.

Indeed, the agitation over $2,500 seems like a lot of sound and fury over very little.  But the anger reflects a legitimate concern as well.  After all, the tuition hike at the University of California reflected not a concern for equity but a darker trend — the floundering economy and the subsequent hefty budget cuts that must then be made up by increased tuition.  The president of UC-Berkeley noted that the UC system received only half as much funding per student as it did in 1990.  He also spoke of his fear, not at all unfounded, of a “exodus of faculty” from the cash-strapped school for greener pastures.

Still, all the anger (and violence) seem completely misdirected.  The responsibility for the budget shortfall seems to lie more with the legislature and the governor, the decision makers who actually cut the funding, rather than the chancellor, who was merely one among the twenty trustees who voted for the tuition hike.  Perhaps, rather than occupying school buildings, disrupting class, and committing petty vandalism on private property, the protesters should direct their anger towards Sacramento and use that energy to engage with, and reform, the political process.

Duly noted: Dec 7 – Dec 13, 2009

  • Anger over the University of California tuition increase continues.  Students barricaded themselves into a San Francisco State University building.  26 were arrested.  In addition, 8 people were arrested at UC-Berkeley for breaking windows, lights, and planters outside the home of the chancellor of the University of California.  On Friday night, 40-70 protester threw incendiary devices at police cars and the Chancellor’s home.
  • The Sixth Circuit upheld the Memphis City School’s policy of paddling students as a form of corporal punishment.  Martin Nolan, a former student, sued the school, alleging that he was paddled by his basketball coaches for missing practices, poor grades, and missing shots during a basketball game.  The unanimous panel found that the jurors could have reasonably concluded that the punishment was not excessive and was motivated by legitimate disciplinary concerns.
  • Plans for national certification for school principals are underway.  The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards said this week that it is in the final stages of crafting specific standards for principals.  The announcement came at the 20-year-anniversary of the development of advanced teacher’s certification program.
  • study by an independent research group compares American-born Hispanics to first-generation immigrant Hispanics.  While U.S.-born Hispanics are less likely to drop out of school and live in poverty, they are more likely to have exposures to gangs and violence and more likely to end up in prison.
  • Citing “an altered financial landscape,” Harvard University slows expansion of its campus and suspended the construction of a state-of-the-arts science center that was to house stem-cell researchers.  The center was originally scheduled to be completed in 2011.

Idea of the day: using e-books to learn about learning

Amazon.com tells me that the Kindle is the hottest holiday gift this holiday season.  And not long ago, several law professors had a lively discussion of law e-textbooks on a prominent law blog.  It seems that, ready or not, widespread use of e-textbooks are just around the corner.

To be sure, traditional paper textbooks will not disappear immediately, but e-textbooks will surely gain more popularity as prices for e-readers fall, technologies become perfected, and more publishers make textbooks available electronically.

I must admit that I am not yet enamored by e-readers, and do not own one.  I prefer the texture, the weight, the craftsmanship of real books.  I love certain publishers just because I like the designs of their paperbacks, and a beautiful book cover always sends a little shiver of pleasure down my spine.  To think that a new generation of children will be weaned on a screen and never know the loveliness of paper makes me a bit sad.

Nonetheless, lately I have gotten more excited about the prospect of e-textbooks when I realized that e-readers might be used — indeed, is probably already being used — to track the reading habits of its readers and to generate data and trends.

To average adult readers reading for pleasure, the idea that their reading habits may be meticulously tracked by a machine might seem like an enormous invasion of privacy.  But collecting such data may be indispensable to educators who are trying to understand effective learning behavior.

Most of the data that we collect about education measures the output of the learning process.  We test student knowledge in standardized, nationwide or state-wide exams that are given periodically, and then analyze the test scores generated by these exams to determine how well the learning process has succeeded.  But e-readers and similar devices can generate enormous amount of data about the learning process itself.

What type of data might be collected?  The possibilities are virtually endless.  The e-device might track how much time a student spends per day reading, what he reads, the speed at which he reads, the amount of time he spends reading particular pages, etc.  If, as I believe would inevitably happen, such devices would come equipped with quizzes and problem sets and exams, students can also be tracked based on how long they spend doing a particular problems and, of course, their score.

There is a bonanza of information that researchers could use to study learning behavior.  But the tracking could be used not only for academic purposes, but also as a way for schools and teachers to ensure that students are completing their homework.  Many employers already do a form of this type of tracking by, for example, requiring their employees to take an on-line training program that consists of powerpoint slides with periodical questions to ensure that the content of the slides are being read and understood.

There are a few well-known problems in education that researchers have long puzzled over.  Take, for example, the problem of the racial achievement gap.  Why do children of different races perform differently in standardized exams even when one accounts for other factors, such as socio-economic background?  Elsewhere in this blog, I have argued that we have an unhealthy focus on race, and that other, even wider achievement gaps should trouble us more.  But it is undeniable that the racial achievement gaps exist.  Learning more about children’s learning habits might give us insights into this and other puzzles.

Of course, understanding how students learn is not the only or even the most important goal.  Through better understanding of how people learn, educators can figure out ways to improve the way students learn and the way teachers teach.

Does all of this sound Big Brother-esque?  Perhaps.  But like it or not, retailers, advertisers, and website developers already do very similar things in order to understand and track consumer behavior.  Information about the amount of time a shopper spends on a webpage, the types of links that he clicks, the search criteria that brought him there, are all meticulously tracked and then fed into sophisticated programs.  It is time that our educators take advantage of these tools, for the sake of our students.

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