Duly noted: Nov 23 – Nov 29, 2009

  • President Obama announced an initiative to promote and encourage math, science, and technology education, and asked corporations and non-profit organizations to help.  He also annouced an annual science fair at the White House.
  • Officials in Oregon said that teachers in Oregon are likely to win the right to wear religious clothing, such as yarmulkes, head scarves, and crosses in school when the legislature convene in February.  A 1923 law in Oregon currently prohibits teachers from expressing their religious beliefs in school.
  • Lincoln University, a historically black college in Chester County, Pennsylvania, believes that BMI is as important as GPA.  To graduate, students with a Body Mass Index of over 30 — the measurement for obesity — must take a class called “Fitness for Life” before they may graduate.  The policy, enacted in 2006, will keep two dozen students from graduating this spring.  Student reaction to the new policy has not been positive.
  • A guest column on the Quick and the Ed explains why student protests against the University of California tuition hike, though unlikely to be effective, are still desirable because they attract national media attention to the contentious issue and to student discontent.

Giving thanks for public education

Our public education system has been criticized for many things, but today, I want to pause to think about what a remarkable system it is.

This year, a record number of 49.8 million students will be attending about 99,000 public elementary and secondary schools.  Altogether, our public school systems employ 3.3 million teachers and spend $543 billion annually.  We have a teacher to student ration of 15.2 to 1, down from 16:1 from 10 years ago, and we are expected to spend $10,844 per student this year, up from $9,683 from two years ago.

Education is not the only business of the schools.  Students must be transported somehow from their homes to schools. In 2005-2006, 55.1% of students were transported at public expense, to the tune of $18.87 billion.  Students must eat lunch in school.  The National School Lunch Program, run by the Department of Agriculture, feeds more than 30.5 million children each school day with a total expenditure of $9.3 billion in 2008.

To be sure, the quality of our education system lags behind that of other developed nations.  Our schools suffer from grave problems of inequality and inefficiency.  Only 72% of our students in our public education system are deemed “on track” academically for their age and grade level.  Only 98% of our adults are literate, compared to 100% in other developed nations.

Nonetheless, we have come a long way.  The scale and complexity of our education system is breathtaking when you consider how young our nation is, and how differently we conceived of education merely two centuries ago.  At the founding of our nation, access to education was by and large only open to the wealthy and the nobility.  When Thomas Paine advocated free universal education, his idea was considered radical and unattainable.  Neither the U.S. Constitution nor the Amendments mention school or education, and the power to regulate education was reserved for the states via the Tenth Amendment.

But sometime around mid-1800s, the idea took hold that the state should take responsibility in educating its citizenry.  By 1918, 150 short years after Paine advocated his “radical” idea, mandatory school attendance laws existed in all states.  By 1919, all states have laws providing for the transportation of children to schools.

Massachusetts bears special mentioning as a constant champion of public education. When it was still a colony, it established the first grammar school, and was also the first one among colonies to require every town that has at least 50 families to establish schools.  In 1827, it became the first state to require the establishment of a public high school open to all students in every town.  In 1852, it was the first state to enact laws that required school attendance.

The idea of public education is not a new one.  Plato’s Republic advocated compulsory education for all children in the polis so they could learn virtue and the state could sort them into different classes and professions.  The Aztecs, too, established mandatory schools for their male children where they received religious instructions and learned how to read and write.  Protestant clergymen advocated compulsory education to enable their congregation to read the Bible themselves.

But there is something new in the magnitude of the project that we have undertaken.  What is also new is our reasoning for why people should be educated.  Plato, the Aztecs, and Protestant clergymen wanted universal education because they saw education as a tool for the state or the church to instill desirable values into its students.  Their conception of education sometimes smacked disturbingly of brainwashing.  It is no surprise that communist countries were also zealous in establishing free and universal education for their children.

But we in a free and democratic society have no such narrow requirements for our students and no such strictly-defined goals of what schools ought to teach.  As a society, we provide this service to our children, not only because we believe that it would make them better citizens and more useful for our country.

We provide it because education and the chance to succeed should not be restricted to those with means to enjoy it, but be open for all who have the desire and the capacity.  We believe in a basic equality and the human potential to excel.  And yes, we also believe that when all children are given this opportunity, we will be a better society as a result.

Let us give thanks to our public schools.  Let us give thanks to our idea of public education.

The God problem with the Pledge of Allegiance

Freely choosing to pledge?

Ten-year-old Will Phillips refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance on the ground that we as a country still discriminate against gays and lesbians, and therefore do not have “freedom and justice for all.”  (See his adorable CNN interview here.)  Phillips did not mention this, but another portion of the Pledge of Allegiance seems far more problematic to me.  It is the portion that declares that the United States is “one nation, under God.”

The original Pledge did not include the phrase “under God.”  That phrase was officially added in 1954 by Congress and approved by Eisenhower after intense lobbying by the Knights of Columbus and several prominent clergymen.  Although the Supreme Court had ruled in 1943 in the case of West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette that public school children could not be compelled to say the Pledge of Allegiance, the Court rested its ruling on the freedom of expression prong of the First Amendment (after all, the phrase “under God” was not yet incorporated into the Pledge in 1943).  The Barnette opinion also did not prohibit the Pledge from being said in public schools.  Therefore, the Pledge, even after the inclusion of the phrase “under God,” remained an “optional” part of most school children’s morning ritual.

As might be expected, the phrase has been the subject of much controversy, protest, and litigation.  In 2004, the Supreme Court heard a suit brought by Michael Newdow, an atheist and attorney who objected on behalf of his daughter to the inclusion of the phrase in the Pledge.  The 9th Circuit sided with Newdow and ruled that the phrase endorsed religion and therefore violated the Establishment Clause, but the Supreme Court dodged the issue by dismissing the case on a procedural ground.  Newdow, it found, had no standing to bring the suit because he was not a custodial parent of his daughter.

A new round of lawsuit is being brought in California, this time by three families who are represented by Newdow and who presumably do not have the standing problem.  A district court in California has ruled that the Pledge does violate the Constitution.  The case, styled Newdow v. Carey, was argued before the 9th Circuit in 2007 and is awaiting judgment.  (Hear the recording of the oral arguments here.)  Whatever the judgment, it is certain that the case will petition for certiorari.

Conservative members of Congress are concerned enough about the possibility that the Supreme Court would side with Newdow that a bill passed the House in 2005 that would strip the Supreme Court and most federal courts of jurisdiction to consider the issue.  The bill died when the Senate declined to take up the issue.

The supporters of the Pledge are in a curious position.  On the one hand, they argue that the voluntary recitation of the Pledge does not violate the Establishment Clause because the recitation is mainly a “patriotic exercise,” and that any mention of God is merely incidental and only raised for historical reasons.  (The attorney for the government, for example, argued at one point during oral argument that God is not a religious figure, to the puzzlement of Judge Reinhardt.)

But the ardent refusal by the school district to take the phrase out of the Pledge, and the anger and disdain expressed against Newdow and his supporters during the lawsuit (Newdow received quite a few death threats), belie the argument that any mention of God in the Pledge is merely incidental.  Most proponents of the inclusion of the phrase, unsurprisingly, take the belief that we are a nation “under God” quite seriously.

Finally, does the voluntariness of the recitation of the Pledge save its constitutionality? I think the reaction of some of Phillips’s classmates in the past week counters that argument quite nicely.  Is it coercive to begin each day by asking impressionable young children to stand up in a roomful of other children and declare their loyalty to the flag while also affirming that the nation is, in fact, “under God?”  How many times does Phillips have to be called ugly names to prove that, yes, it is?

Duly Noted: Nov 16 – Nov 22, 2009

  • University of Nebraska toyed with the idea of becoming the first university to impose stricter guidelines on stem cell research than federal guidelines allow.  On Friday, the resolution to restrict such research failed after the Board of Regent cast a 4-4 tie vote, disappointing the hopes of conservative activists groups on campus who have been pushing for such limits.
  • The Gates and Melinda Foundation is donating $290 million to three school districts and five charter school groups, the largest donation the foundation has made to education in a decade.  $100 million will go to the school district in Hillsborough County, Fla., schools; $90 million will go to the Memphis schools; $40 million will go to the Pittsburgh public schools.  In addition, $60 million will go to five charter schools in Los Angeles.

California vs. Nebraska: two models of university governance

Protesters against the California tuition hike.

Two important education news items today both have to do with public universities. They invite interesting comparisons of the types of governance structure in our public universities.

First, the University of California is set to increase undergraduate tuition by 32%.  The increase is meant to make up for large cuts in state funding.

Second, the University of Nebraska is considering regulations to restrict stem cell research more severely than federal regulations.  If the regulation passes, it would be the first time that a university implements higher limits for stem cell research than either state or federal laws.

Both measures are meeting oppositions from the public.  In California, the tuition hike is being protested by thousands of students across the state.  In Nebraska, the medical research community has spoken out against the possible restrictions, arguing that a policy like this would have extremely negative effects on Nebraska’s ability to attract research funding and scholars.

Which leads to the question: how much control does the public have over the decisions and the decision-making processes at these two universities?

The answer: probably much more so at Nebraska than at California.  Though the decisions at both universities were made by the board of regents, the two boards have very different appointment processes.

In California, the state constitution mandates the appointment process for the board of regents.  There are 26 members on the board.  18 members are appointed by the governor and serve 12 year terms, 7 members are ex officio members which include the governor, lieutenant governor, speaker of the state assembly, and various officers of the alumni association that serve one-year terms. There is also a student member appointed by the board, who serves a one-year term.

The University of Nebraska board of regents, on the other hand, is almost entirely elected by the general public.  The board has 8 voting members serving 6-year-terms, all of which are elected by the public in the 8 districts within the state, and 4 non-voting members serving 1-year terms, who are student body presidents from each of the four campuses.

The selection process for the board of regents and the terms of service ensure that, relatively speaking, the public exerts a more direct control on the University of Nebraska.   In contrast, despite the tradition of grass-root democracy and the notorious state-wide referendum process in California, the public control over major decisions in its university system is surprisingly meager and indirect.

Sure, the governor is theoretically accountable to the public for both his policy choices about the university system and his regent appointments, but I doubt that those issues are the most salient ones on the minds of voters during any election. Thus, depending on which side of the fence you are on, you can either call the Nebraska system “more accountable to the public” or say that the University of California “enjoys a greater degree of autonomy.”

Given the more direct public control, we can expect that the decisions made by the University of Nebraska will likely reflect the mood and ideologies of its constituency more accurately than California.  The regents of the University of California, on the other hand, will more likely make controversial or unpopular decisions, because there are minimal consequences to themselves.

The drastic tuition hike that the regents of the University of California approved today once again spurred criticism that major public research universities are becoming more and more indistinguishable from private universities.  But long before its tuition begins to resemble that of a private university, the governing body of the University of California system already resembled an quasi-autonomous institution.

The inevitable question is, of course, which system is better?  More public control, or more autonomy?  That, of course, depends on what type of school you think a public university should be.

10 things you should know about Race to the Top

The biggest story in education last week was the release of the final application for the $4.35 billion “Race to the Top” funding that the federal government has made available for states. But what is the fund?  What are its objectives?  How do states actually receive the money?  Here are 10 things you should know about the fund.

1). It is a lot of money, but it is a small percentage of the annual education budget.

Qualifying states could receive as much as $700 million, which sounds like a lot.  But the $4.35 billion fund actually represents a small fraction of the annual U.S. spending in K-12 education, which was estimated to be about $667 billion in the 2008-2009 school year.  Cash-strapped states in this recession year will of course be more than happy to receive this funding. 

2). The fund is designed to encourage education reform and reward the best proposals by the states.

States must submit applications that explain in detail how they plan to reform their education system and to implement a comprehensive data collection and evaluation system to measure whether they have met these goals. 

3). The state applications are evaluated based on a 500-point scale.

A detailed summary and explanation of the scoring system and the scale can be found here.

4). There are two phases in the application process.

The funding application process is divided into two phases.  States that are ready now can apply in Phase I, which has a deadline on January 19, 2010.  Those that need more time can apply during Phase II, which has a deadline of June 1, 2010.  States that received grants in Phase I cannot reapply during Phase II, but states that did not receive grants are invited to reapply in Phase II.

5). The fund encourages linking teacher evaluation to student performance.

States are not eligible to receive the funds unless they do away with statutory or regulatory barriers to link student test scores and performance to teacher evaluation. Many states currently have this barrier, and several state legislatures have already moved to pass legislation that abolish these prohibitions in order to be eligible for the funding.

6). The fund encourages charter schools.

Both President Obama and Secretary Arne Duncan have been outspoken supporters of charter schools.  Race to the Top encourages states to create more charter schools.  Ten state legislatures have already responded by raising or repealing caps on the number of charter schools within the state.

7). “Common standards” and “data” are key words in the application process. 

This mean (mostly) student test scores.  The states are encouraged to develop and adopt “standardized assessment” of student performance, implementing data systems to track and evaluate the performance over time, and score teachers and principals based on performance data.  

Altogether, tho parts of the application that deal with standard and data-collection are worth 175 points.  Moreover, “demonstrating progress” (30 points), demonstrating the turnaround of low-performance schools (40 points), and the effective implementation of other measures all rely on common standards and the development of a comprehensive data collection and evaluation system.

8). The biggest opposition has (and will continue to) come from teacher’s unions.

Unsurprisingly, the emphasis on using student standardized test scores to evaluate teachers, and the move towards “merit pay” in some states, have already met with fierce criticism from teacher’s unions and educational associations.

9). There is not enough focus on implementation.

Some are troubled by how little emphasis has been put on for making sure that states actually implement the wonderful plans that they create once they receive the funding.  One commentator put it very well:

I expect the plans to be truly impressive with the level of investment that Gates is making in helping states develop the plans. But education is full of well written plans that then become shelf art. I have written some of that wonderful shelf art myself. But, putting in place mechanisms to ensure that a state and its school districts live up to the plan that they have written does not seem to get much attention in this process.

10). Public reaction to the application has been largely positive but cautious.

Many questions remain, including how strictly the Department of Education will be enforcing the stated criteria and how high it would set the bar, and how much money would be left if the four biggest states (New York, California, Texas, Florida) decide to apply in Phase I.  We will be able to learn much more after April 2010, when the winners for Phase I are announced.

Duly noted: Nov 9 – Nov 15, 2009

  • duly notedDepartment of Education officially opened the competition for the “Race to the Top” Funds, where states can apply and compete for a piece of the $4.35 billion to create “innovative” programs that can be replicated throughout the country.  
  • Justice Anthony Kennedy, “one of the court’s most vigilant defenders of First Amendment values,” insisted on pre-approving a student newspaper article about a talk he gave in a Manhattan private school.
  • 25 Chicago middle school students, aged 11 to 15, were arrested after participating in a food fight in the school cafeteria.