More tests? How about more History?

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If you were ever unsure about the importance of history and civics in our curriculum, you can turn to the undemocratic behavior of the last four years culminating in an unlawful breach of the capitol that required evacuation of Congress on January 6th. The protestors didn’t seem aware that Vice President Pence did not have the power to overturn the democratic election results of November 3rd. Furthermore, their “Fuhrer” President Trump has spent four years seeming to not understand that the President of the United States is not an elected king with authoritarian powers. The president is in fact a servant of the people. We could unpack the rise of Trump which is a disturbing path in itself, but now is yet another moment that reflects the failure of our civics education. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean the teachers, for the most part. But the policy makers push for testing which centered on math and English pushed social studies to the far back of the curriculum and in some schools, history was largely non-existent.

Let’s start with a little history. In 2002 the Elementary and Secondary Schools Act was reauthorized under the name No Child Left Behind. No Child Left Behind (or NCLB) was designed with the intent to make schools responsible for student outcomes which would be measured on standardized tests. The provisions included:

  • Annual testing: schools were required to give annual math and reading tests to students in grades 3-8 and grades 10-12.
  • Adequate yearly progress: States were required to bring all students up to “proficient” levels on the tests. Targets were set to determine if annual yearly progress (AYP) was made. Schools that didn’t meet AYP were labeled as “needing improvement.”
  • Punishment: Failure to meet AYP led to several consequences such as state takeover of the school or even school closure.

The results of NCLB are likely to be felt for decades, but one key one is that the emphasis on math and reading tests de-emphasized the need for other subjects, specifically history. Research cites reduced time to teach social studies in elementary school and middle school classrooms, marginalization of social studies education, and as just some of the unintended consequences of NCLB. and a devaluing of social studies.

Social studies remains a marginalized subject. The Common Core Standards, a national set of curriculum standards which resulted from a 2010 governors’ initiative, were developed for English/Language Arts and mathematics. There are no standards for history. Although most states include state standards for what is included in social studies, the curriculum is still open to interpretation. Teachers might include the African-American perspective of US history from the New York Times Magazine 1619 Project while others might be prone to listen to the ideas of the 1776 Commission (not to be confused with the 1776 Project) who are advocating for a “patriotic education.” (Remind you of any other authoritarian leaders’ re-invention of their education). Social studies is both marginalized and open for interpretation. While four years of English and three years of Math are common for college admissions’ requirements, most universities require only 2 years of the social sciences.

History has become the throw away subject that is included only when absolutely necessary. Yet, it is clear that now more than ever students need to know where we are and how we got here. Students need to be armed with the skills to evaluate disinformation which is pervasive in all aspects of our society. Students need to understand what their civic rights are, what a government can do for them, and how to demand action from their government. Students need to know that they have the power to change the world they are part of in a lawful way. Our future is dependent on knowing our past.

DeVos on Education: Her Greatest Hits

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Two weeks before the end of the Trump administration, Betsy DeVos, the highly unqualified billionaire Secretary of Education for the past 4 years, finally resigned. She cited recent violence at the Capitol and Trump’s role in it as the reason for her resignation. She also suggested that the president’s behavior was not a good role model for the children in America (If I had the chance, I would ask her about the previous 4 years, but I digress).

In her statement condemning the president’s behavior she remarked that: “we should be highlighting and celebrating your administration’s many accomplishments on behalf of the American people.” I reflected on her personal “accomplishments.” Here are just some of her greatest hits:

  1. She eased restrictions on for-profit colleges who are known predators.
  2. She was fined $100,000 in 2019 for violating a judge’s order to stop debt collection efforts of bankrupt for-profit college Corinthian.
  3. She officially declared that the Department of Education would not investigate complaints from transgender students about access to bathrooms and harassment complaints.
  4. She attempted to expand school vouchers for students to attend private schools.
  5. She gave public money to charter schools that were to be founded and run by people with no experience in education.
  6. DeVos responded to a school shooting in Parkland, Florida that left 17 people dead not with a focus on gun violence or reducing access to guns but instead on curbing policy that would reduce the suspension and expulsion of minority students.
  7. Notably, DeVos is the most sued Secretary of Education, having been sued 455 times during her tenure.
  8. During much of her tenure as Secretary of Education, DeVos touted virtual learning and online schools. She has a long history of it. As Politico pointed out: “DeVos also touted “high-quality virtual charter schools” as “valuable” option during her confirmation process.” So, when schools were forced to go virtual at the beginning of the pandemic, DeVos was one of the first to shout hurrah. By summer she was singing a different tune. She called for schools to reopen at all costs, yet the administration did nothing to support such a statement.

DeVos’ early resignation is four years too late. She is just one more representative of the community of people (Zuckerberg, Gates, Reed to name a few) who have no experience in education but think they know everything. May DeVos ride off on her broom never to be heard from again.

For more on DeVos’ exit, check out curmudgucation’s latest post – biting as always.

The wrong answer to the right question.

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For decades there has been a large push to add diversity to STEM careers, specifically to push girls into STEM (and when policymakers talk about STEM, they really just mean E for engineering). STEM fields and specifically engineering and computer science are largely dominated by men. According to the report Women in STEM Workforce Industries, women make up approximately 25% of the STEM workforce in the United States. They represent 16% of engineering jobs. Furthermore, women who do enter engineering often leave. Researchers estimate that 40% of the women who graduate with engineering degrees leave or never enter the profession.

Researchers, educators, and community members wonder why girls are less likely to enter STEM fields than boys. Is it because they are not capable? The research responded to that with a resounding no. Experts largely agree that girls and boys are equally prepared to take on the difficult math and sciences regarded to enter STEM fields but that gender stereotypes often produce math anxiety in girls which can long term hinder their performance and perception. But even if we look at the girls who do enter STEM majors, researchers find that they don’t stay. Sometimes it is because there is poor cultural fit with their colleagues. They encounter gender stereotypes in this male-dominated field. Furthermore, they have few role models.

While I agree that every field should be available to individuals regardless of gender, race, religion, sexual orientation or social class, those who are trying to make girls like STEM fields OR change the culture of STEM fields to be more welcoming to women are, at their core, tilting at windmills. These are both ambitious goals, but they would be moot if other professions, many of which are dominated by women, paid at similar levels to engineering. Engineering and computer science are some of the few fields that pay well for a bachelor’s degree level of education. Of the top 25 paying jobs that only require a bachelor’s degree, the majority of them are in math or science and those that are not tend to be managerial jobs that take years of experience. According to glassdoor.com, a starting entry level engineer in Silicon Valley makes $69k-120K a year. A starting teacher earns $43k – 73k per year. A senior software engineer at Netflix with 10 years experience might earn $554,000 per year plus stock bonuses. After 10 years teaching at San Jose Unified, a teacher has an annual salary of $77,622. A software engineer earns more than 7 times what a teacher makes (and the teacher probably has an additional year of school to become certified). So, yes, engineering pays well and so it is a good profession. But the problem is not that engineering pays well, it is that the disparity between careers is vast.

The way to improve equity is not to push any one group into a profession which may or may not be a good fit. In more equitable countries such as Sweden, the pay gap isn’t nearly so large. Thus, individuals are likely to end up in careers that are a better fit because there aren’t so few jobs that are well-paid. The question is: how can we ensure that women have access to well-paid jobs? The answer is not push them into STEM. The answer is to value fields outside of technology and pay the individuals in those fields equitably.

$2 Billion Too Late

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Last week Governor Newsom announced a $2 billion plan to return elementary students to in-person instruction beginning in mid-February of 2021. His plan includes extensive testing requirements for students and teachers and state approved safety plans. He argued that the money is consistent with his administration’s plan that began last July which has allowed waivers for schools in the purple tier. Most of the waivers granted to date have been for private schools, which furthered the inequity in education that already existed. Wealthy, white children returned to in-person learning at a much higher rate than low-income, minority children.

Unfortunately, this plan was one that Newsom should have unveiled last June when it was clear that the state had chosen not to eradicate the virus. Students could have been back in school safely in the Fall. Instead, Newsom made sure that restaurants opened instead of schools. He didn’t get testing set up for schools then. He didn’t even provide comprehensive guidelines for schools until the start of the new school year in several districts. Now that a vaccine is slowly rolling out, he has proposed a plan which is likely to be little more than lip service.

First, if he vaccinated all the teachers by February 15, it would be much safer for everyone to return to school. Second, if he looked at the science related to school openings, he would know that schools could reopen safely. According to a recent report, schools do spread the virus but rarely are superspreaders. Furthermore, that data is based on no one being vaccinated. We can’t know what will happen until schools open. Third, the risk of the virus is to the elderly, not children. For children, COVID-19 is less risky than the flu. So, students may be able to go back to school either way once the at-risk population (i.e. elderly) are vaccinated.

So, here we are with needless proposals that are 8 months too late. Instead, the state should take that $2 billion to address long-term education issues. To name a few:

  1. Teacher shortages (California has a widespread and ongoing teacher shortage with no real solution)
  2. Teacher pay
  3. Universal preschool
  4. Addressing the child poverty rate of 24%
  5. College tuition (or ending it in public education as was originally the plan)
  6. Expanding the public university system for a growing population
  7. Reducing needless waste on standardized testing
  8. Addressing charter fraud and embezzlement
  9. Increasing student funding (California is 41st in the United States yet one of the wealthiest states)
  10. Fixing long overdue infrastructure in schools including air systems

In short, Newsom continues to show us that he understands little about what needs to be done to support our students. The $2 billion is too late.

Charter schools: the IRB Unapproved Government Paid for Experiment

The infamous Stanford prison experiment which was conducted in 1971 to gain insight into the psychology of prison life would never be approved by IRB (Institutional Review Board) today. Nor would electric shock treatments to cure schizophrenia. . The IRB exists to apply research ethics to ongoing research whether it is for a vaccine or a psychology experiment.

Charter schools are one giant experiment on our most valuable resource: our children (i.e. our future). Furthermore, they are government sanctioned and funded experiments. Charter schools are public schools without the same rules as public schools. Charter schools, unlike public schools, can be run as for-profit institutions. Teachers may or may not be part of a union. Teachers are required to be credentialed, but those credentials can be emergency credentials. They can be in person or online. According to the California Department of Education website, in California approximately twenty-six percent of charter schools are non-classroom based (i.e. online or independent study). The founders of charter schools may or may not be necessarily trained professionals in education. For example, the for-profit charter school chain Basis was founded by two economists. They can be founded by parents, educators, or businessmen. They are approved by school boards which often consist of community members who again may or may not have a background in education. In some states state boards can override decisions by local school boards to approve a charter school. Even at the national level, outgoing Education Secretary Betsy DeVos approved $1.2 million for a professional soccer club to run a charter school. Some charter schools outperform traditional neighborhood public schools; some do not.

The purpose of charter schools in their original form in part was to free schools from some of the constraints of traditional public schools to try out innovation in teaching methods, improve student learning, increase learning opportunities and expand learning experiences, particularly for students identified as low achieving. Furthermore, they were meant to be lab schools which would learn how to improve student outcomes. These lessons were meant to be translated into public schools.

This is a reality that has not happened. The ongoing war between public and charter schools has spread nationwide. The Network for Public Education widely reports on this battle. The central problem with charter schools is that they are not delivering what they were set up to do and as a result they take away from students’ opportunities. The curriculum is not necessarily based on research or knowledge of what works and doesn’t work. In other words, we as a nation are allowing 3.1 million children to be experimented on every year. Make no mistake about it, these are not the children of the wealthy. Most charter school students are from low-income households: “Sixty-one percent of charter schools serve a student population where over 60 percent qualify for the federal Free or Reduced Lunch Program.” So, we as a society have said we don’t know how to improve student outcomes for low-income students, so let’s just let anyone try. Those individuals may or may not be qualified. And they may see charter schools as an opportunity grift money. The Network for Public Education has an entire page on its website devoted to Charter scandals which tell the tales of embezzlement and poor performance. There are countless stories from charter school teachers of the deplorable running of charter schools and abusive practices (see here and here and here).

The evidence is clear that many charter schools are state sanctioned experiments on our children. These experiments could be successful but are often unregulated and harmful. The charter movement would not meet IRB approval.

Life isn’t fair…but school should be.

Life isn’t fair. Not everyone is born into resourced households. Not every child is wanted. Not everyone has loving parents. Some kids have parents who are college professors and others’ parents are gardeners. While neither one is inherently better, the children of the college professors enter the world with more social capital (inherited) to navigate the education world. Annette Lareau has researched and written extensively about the differences between growing up in different social classes (I highly recommend Unequal Childhoods). And while we don’t start out on equal ground, education, to some extent, tries to make up for this inequity. Yet, colleges and universities, for all their pontification about providing equal opportunity to all, have becoming increasingly inequitable.

Ultra elite colleges and universities have few spots available. Institutions like Harvard and Stanford spout rhetoric about their work on DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion), but they remain exclusive. In her December 2020 New York Times article, Gina Bellafante sums the problem up well:

“It is hard to miss the paradox of an approach professing fidelity to the work of heightening access as it remains fundamentally wedded to the business of rejection. A school’s prestige is embedded in saying no. …In the world of higher education, the real work of diversity, equity and inclusion would demand a radical rethinking of admissions.”

While a 2019 study from Pew Research shows that most universities admit most applicants, there are limited spaces in the roughly top 50 colleges whose admissions rates can be as low as three or four percent. Many of the spaces are taken up by legacy admissions and sports. For example, 36% of Amherst students are athletes. Some colleges have as much as 25% of their freshman class admissions taken by legacy admission candidates. (You can pick up Jeff Selingo’s book Who Gets in and Why for a more in-depth look at this issue). Qualified students often miss out on spots because there simply are not enough spots for the growing population of students and because those spots are given away.

So not only are the odds stacked against most students before they were born, the testing required for admissions is undermined to the point that the tests don’t really tell anything. Both the SAT and ACT have been accused of gender and racial bias. Furthermore, even the College Board, who administers the SAT, acknowledges that test prep can improve scores. Parents from higher income households are more likely to have access to expensive test prep classes and tutors. So, using either test as a factor in admissions is likely to benefit economically advantaged students. Fortunately, many universities (including the University of California system) are beginning to make admissions test optional or eliminate these standardized tests altogether. (NOTE: The uneven access of tests during COVID-19 has prompted many universities to temporarily eliminate them as criteria. It will be interesting to see if the admitted class of 2021 looks different as a result; I doubt it will).

And to add insult to injury, the admissions college scandal (a.k.a. the Varsity Blues Scandal) shed light on the blatant pay for play that has occurred in college admissions. As if the rich didn’t already have every advantage, they bribed admissions officers and coaches and essentially bought test scores so that their children could get into top universities including Stanford, University of Southern California, and UC Berkeley. While we as a society inherently know that the world is unfair, we expect our institutions of higher education to act morally.

Sadly, our higher education institutions have been corrupted with money and power. The elite, in particular, are happy to keep members in and others out. They have created admissions requirements that favor the rich. And the problem is that life is already unfair. Education, and college in particular, provide an opportunity to level the playing field, just a bit. So, when higher education doesn’t invest in that opportunity in a genuine way, we, as a society, are all hurt.