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.


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.

Why learning should be less fun

In his speech addressing the nation today, President Obama mentioned, once again, the well-known fact that that the math and science scores of U.S. students lag behind the students of many other industrialized countries, including China, Finland, and Singapore.  The weak scores have long been the worry for American educators.  They are partly what the Race to the Top funding is supposed to address.

So far, many prominent voices in education have assumed that the reason for the lag is some essential problem with American schools. Some, such as the Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, point to the lack of “good math and science teachers” and calls for higher teacher salaries to attract more and better teachers in those areas.  Others, like Paul Peterson at Education Next , believe that technological innovation “is our best and final hope for saving high-quality math and science education.”  Peterson hopes that online education could compete with traditional models of teaching and educate better students.

But few people seem to be asking a rather obvious question: if U.S. students are lagging behind other countries, how do these other countries teach their children?  Do China, Finland, Estonia, Sinagpore, Japan, etc. have more talented teachers?  Do they have more effective teaching methods arrived at via a more decentralized teaching market?

In future posts, I would like to explore the school systems of these other countries. But this post will be a more personal one.  Having experienced one of these other education systems first-hand, I can tell you that neither of those propositions was true.

I went to an elementary school on the outskirts of Beijing that was considered very mediocre.  Some of my teachers were compassionate and interesting.  Most failed to make an impression on me.  A couple were downright horrible.  Corporal punishment was normal behavior.  So was verbal denigration of students.

School was not fun.  Hours were long — in elementary school we arrived in class around 8:30 am and usually stayed until 6 or 7 pm (with a 1.5 hour break for lunch in between).  High school hours were even longer. We went to school 6 days a week, and usually had a couple of hours of homework each day, which mostly consisted of math and verbal drills and problem sets. I did not like school very much.

And yet… I learned.  Lots and lots of math and science.  By 7th grade my classmates and I were solving complex quadratic equations with multiple variables.  By 7th grade, we were learning biology, chemistry, and physics, all in the same year.  All 3 science courses were mandatory courses to be taken concurrently for the six years of middle and high school.

So imagine my surprise when I came to the States and discovered that children in 7th grade were still reviewing how to add and subtract fractions.  Imagine my surprise to learn that students only enrolled in one science class each grade, alternating among biology, physics, and chemistry, that school let out at 2:30, that homework was nearly nonexistent.

Needless to say, for the next three or four year or so, I sailed through my math and science classes with excellent grades.  My Chinese education, as much as I disliked it at the time, gave someone like me, by no means a math or science genius, a huge boost.  This is something that many immigrant children I know experienced.

Why did the Chinese school teach me so much more?  Did I learn because I loved school, because my teachers were fascinating, because I had tools unavailable to my American peers?  No, no, and no.  I learned because of the excruciatingly long hours, the constant drills, the obviously high expectations, the pressures from the teachers and from my own parents.

School in China was not expected to be fun, and no one pretended that it was.  Learning certain subjects, especially math and science, was work.  Work that was sometimes grueling.  Work that required discipline, just like learning a musical instrument or becoming good at a sport.

Some children find such discipline easy.  Those children are often high achievers from a very young age.  But for most, including me, discipline was difficult and required external motivation.  It sometimes required fear, including fear of being punished.  As a whole, my Chinese school, for all its shortcomings, was very effective at instilling this discipline.

Even for someone as young as me, it was clear that the emphasis of my American public schools was not on discipline.  It was on something like “creativity,” or “individuality.”  Much of it was focused on “fun.”  This was reflected in the short hours of school, in the light volume of homework, on the long summers, on the gentle and easy-going way in which teacher treated us, on such filler classes such as “study hall.”

No doubt, certain students thrive in the more fluid and flexible American system, which allows for those at the top to develop their talent more spectacularly than the stratified Chinese system could ever allow.  Time spent outside of school could be used to accomplish some amazing things, just take a look at the spectacular entries each year for the Westinghouse competition.  But as a society, our concerns are not merely with the success of the top students, but also the average students whose lagging scores trouble us so much.

Do I believe that American schools should adopt all of the tactics of my Chinese school?  Not at all.  Even the Chinese schools themselves have reformed and eliminated many of the harsh authoritarian measures.  But I do believe that to improve the math and science scores, American schools do not necessarily need better teachers or more innovative methods.  It needs more of a culture of discipline.  It needs, for instance, longer school days, and more teacher authority.

Most of all, it needs the realization, from students, parents, teachers, and administrators, that mastering basic academic skills, just like athletic drills or music practice, is often not fun.  Perhaps we put too much emphasis on looking for ways to make it so.  Perhaps we should instead look for ways to effectively teach our students the discipline they need to learn.

Related post: Longer and more school days

Religious speech in school: religion or speech?

Thou shalt not preach.

My previous post discusses the tension between the Establishment Clause and the Free-Exercise Clause in the First Amendment.  In the school context, much of the tension centers on what public school educators can or cannot do.  But a couple of recent cases involving religious speech demonstrate that the tension exists for students as well.

Unlike with teachers, who are state employees, student religious speech normally does not trigger the Establishment Clause concern that the state is endorsing an official religion.  Nonetheless, in recent years, controversies and lawsuits have sprung up around the country concerning whether schools may prevent students from reciting prayers, singing religious hymns, or offering other expressions of religion at school-sponsored events.  In nearly all of these cases, courts have upheld the powers of the schools to regulate student conduct. 

Some of the cases seem almost comically petty.  A Wisconsin student who planned to sing a hymn at graduation was told, for example, that she would have to use “he,” “him,” or “his,” instead of “God” in the lyrics.  A New Jersey school district banned religious music entirely at the school holiday concert, a decision challenged by parents but upheld by the 3rd circuit.

A pair of cases about graduation speeches have received a lot of media attention, and both were recently denied cert by the Supreme Court.  In McComb v. Crehan, a Las Vegas high school valedictorian sought to use her valedictory speech to discuss how her christian faith helped her to succeed in school.  The school nixed portions of her draft speech as “proselytizing.”  Brittany McComb decided to deliver the speech anyway, and the school turned off her microphone at graduation.  McComb then brought suit against the school district, alleging a violation of her First Amendment rights.

A district court in Nevada denied the school’s motion to dismiss the case based on the pleadings, essentially ruling that McComb could go forward on her suit.  But the 9th Circuit reversed and upheld the school’s actions.

In a similar case, Colorado valedictorian Erica Corder also veered from her prepared text into proselytization of her Christian faith.  She actually succeeded in delivering the entire speech.  But the school principal refused to grant her diploma until she wrote a letter acknowledging that the speech was her personal view.  Corder’s suit against the school district, therefore, dealt not only with unlawfully censored speech but also unlawfully compelled speech.  The suit has been similarly dismissed by the 10th Circuit.

Although the two circuit courts reached the same results, they rested their reasoning on different grounds: one primarily on religion, and the other primarily on speech.  This highlights a problem with student religious speech in school — should it be analyzed under the Establishment Clause rubric, or the Free Speech Clause?

In the 9th Circuit, the issue was analyzed as one of religion, perhaps in part because there is clear caselaw that students have no right to proselytize in a school-sponsored event.  Neither party disputed that the school officials had the power to control and censor student speech in such a setting.  The main issues were factual: whether the student speech was in fact proselytizing and whether the school official retained primary control over the graduation speech.

The 10th Circuit, however, did not have such clear precedents, and instead rested its ruling on an analysis of prior Supreme Court student free-speech cases.  In doing so, the 10th Circuit ruling nearly completely ignores the “religion” aspect of the case and treats the student’s religious speech as any other types of speech.

Although the 10th Circuit arrives at the same conclusion as the 9th Circuit, such an approach has its risks. Student speech cases typically rely on a kind of in loco parentis authority that the school has to regulate behavior of the students in order to satisfy educational and disciplinary goals.  In its opinion, the 10th Circuit strained to explain what type of “educational” goals the school achieved by censoring religious speech.

The fact of the matter is, a school’s decision to censor religious speech is not the same as its decision to censor sexual, or lewd, or incendiary speech.  It should not rest on a discretionary judgment about the consequences of the speech, but should stem from a legitimate concern that such speech may be seen as endorsed by the school in violation of the Establishment Clause.

Thus, prohibiting this type of speech, at least in a school-sponsored event where schools retain primary control of the content, is not optional and a judgment call, it is constitutionally required.  Religious speech in school is not just speech, it is religion.

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.

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.

Religious schools and church-state relations

church and stateAs is well known, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides, among other things, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”. This is usually understood to mean, in Jefferson’s words, that there should be a “wall of separation” between the church and the state. Of course, Jefferson meant that the wall would only apply to the national government and not state government, who did have established religions (for example Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Maryland). However, the practice of having state established religions discontinued, and definitely died out with the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Today, however, it can’t be said that there is a “wall of separation” between religion and government.  The Supreme Court has allowed a few cracks in that wall. Here are just three examples. In Everson v. Board of Education, the Court held that reimbursements for transportation even to students of private religious schools do not violate the Establishment Clause. And in Simmons v. Zelman-Harris the Court ruled that disbursement of federal funds to local educational agencies which lent educational materials and equipment to public and private schools to implement secular, neutral and non-ideological programs, even though some of them are given to Catholic schools is constitutional as well.  Finally, in Agostini v. Felton, the Court held that public school teachers can instruct at religious schools so long as material is secular in nature.

In all these cases the Court has insisted that there be no excessive entanglement government and religion, and, as long as this condition was kept (along with other requirements), then the allocation of funds and resources to religious schools is constitutional. The flip side of this separation, of course,  is that government doesn’t have a say over the management of these schools.

Of course, this doesn’t have to be the case. One can ask the question why isn’t it the case that as long as federal (or state) funds are given to religious schools, government shouldn’t have more of a say in how these schools are run. If, as Greta suggested, education should be considered a basic right, perhaps we should be more inclined to increase state regulation on private religious schools. The problem here is that this type of involvement can create exactly the difficulties the Framers sought to avoid.

Consider this recent British Case. A 12 year old boy, son to a Jewish father and a Jewish convert mother, applied to the Jewish Free School. The school, like other parochial institutions, is partially funded by the British government. And yet, British law allows the school to decide on admissions based on criteria decided by a designated religious authority. Those criteria have denied the boy admission, since, per the school, the mother did not undergo an orthodox Jewish conversion, but a progressive one. Thus, per orthodox rules, the boy is not considered a Jew and thus was not admitted.

The parents sued, and though they lost, the appeals court reversed and held that the test of whether someone is Jewish — whether one’s mother is Jewish — was discriminatory, no matter what the rationale was. Further, the court held that the school did not use a religious distinction because its decision rested on the status of the child’s mother and hence it was an ethnic test, which is illegal. The court said that “The requirement that if a pupil is to qualify for admission his mother must be Jewish, whether by descent or conversion, is a test of ethnicity which contravenes the Race Relations Act”. It concluded by saying that the admissions criteria must depend not on family ties on “faith. However defined”.

The ruling, which has been appealed to the Supreme Court, has rattled the Jewish community in Britain. The case is problematic on many grounds. We can talk about the usual problem of judicial overreach, but more importantly, there is the problem of a secular authority attempting to determine something which is clearly the purview of religious doctrine. Of course, the rationale for intervening is the fact of public financing. If public monies are used, why shouldn’t the larger community have a say on who gets admitted?

The problem, I think, lies with this dichotomy, this either-or thinking that once there is some state involvement then everything is up for grabs and is fair game. To be sure, I don’t know what the appropriate balance is, though my sense is that, at least politically, it would have been better for the court not to intervene and let this vexing issue be resolved inside the Jewish community. Legally, it’s hard for me to see why this is an “ethnic” issue and not also, or mainly, a “religious” one.

Be that as it may, my point is that the U.S. model is not the only one available to us. At present, there is very little regulation over the management and content being taught at religious schools. But with the increased allocation of funds, more regulation might be expected. And that might lead us to grapple with far more complicated questions than books and busing. Increased regulation necessarily means, then, making decisions on religious dogma in the name of constitutional principles. Currently, this opens up more problems than it purports to solve.