Education Archive

15 July 2009 1:00 PM


Investing in Community Colleges

Chris Beam:

Community colleges don't get a lot of respect. Except, as of this week, from President Obama. In a speech Tuesday in Warren, Mich., he proposed sinking nearly $12 billion into revamping the country's community-college system. The plan would provide $9 billion in grant money to boost academic programs and raise graduation rates, plus another $2.5 billion to upgrade school facilities. It would also fund open-source online courses so that schools don't have to build more classrooms to admit more students.


The point isn't to turn Harvard on the Highway into actual Harvard. Even if the government gave all $12 billion to one community college, it wouldn't be as rich as the World's Greatest University. Nor is the purpose merely to improve the image of community colleges. And it's not to encourage enrollment: With the economy tanking and tuitions at four-year colleges and universities exploding, community colleges are in the rare position of having to turn people away. "We're bursting at the seams," says Gail Mellow, president of LaGuardia Community College in New York City, which saw a 25 percent increase in students over last year.


Rather, the plan is designed to correct decades of federal neglect. "Too often, community colleges are treated like an afterthought--if they're thought of at all," Obama said in his speech. Right now, somewhere between one-third and one-half of American undergrads are at community colleges, depending how you count. Yet community colleges receive only 20 percent of federal funding.

14 July 2009 10:30 AM


Suddenly My Own Education Feels Lacking...

Alan Jacobs asks for help educating his kid:

As some of you know, my wife and I teach our son Wes at home, mostly, which means that each summer we have to spend a good deal of time planning what we're going to do in the coming year. He's headed into the eleventh grade, and while his education so far has given him a sound overview of Western cultural history, we're concerned that he hasn't had enough experience digging deeply into particular issues, doing wide-ranging research and coming up with sophisticated theses based on what he has learned. So we've decided to organize the coming school year around particular topics with interdisciplinary facets to them, starting in each case with one or two books that will in different ways orient him to the issues. Our focus will be on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the West, though any non-Western topics could reach back farther.

So, for instance, one topic will start with Voltaire's Candide and, probably, Nicholas Shrady's book on the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755, The Last Day, and will involve philosophical optimism, the "problem of evil" for Christians and other religious believers, and associated topics.

Another unit will involve sanitation and social class in Victorian England. Wes will start by reading Dickens's Bleak House and Stephen Johnson's The Ghost Map, and will expand his research from there.

On this side of the Atlantic, we might have Wes read Ellis's Founding Brothers and Garry Wills's Cincinnatus -- he has already read the Federalist Papers, so it would be interesting to have that in the background.

Or -- and? -- Uncle Tom's Cabin coupled with Ann Douglas's The Feminization of American Culture. Slavery, early feminism -- lots of good stuff there.

Ranging further abroad, I am thinking about Simon Winchester's The Man Who Loved China as an accessible way into both Chinese history and the history of technology, maybe following that up with something on the history of printing and printmaking in China.

All this to say: any thoughts? Recommendations?

13 July 2009 4:45 PM


Teachers Unions: Where Ideas for Education Reform Die

The Citizens Commission on Civil Rights:

On many issues of policy the record of national teachers' unions has been clear. They have a long and honorable history of supporting an end to discrimination in education, they have argued for an end to segregation, for measures to provide equal treatment for women and girls and for assistance to students with disabilities.
But in one major area - public school reform - the record of unions is far less clear. At times, union leaders have treated the measures advocated by others to close the gaps between disadvantaged students and their more affluent peers as inimical to the interests of teachers.

While union efforts are not the only obstacle to implementing sensible education reform with broad political support, they have been an important part of the active resistance to efforts they once supported.
Much of the criticism of teachers' unions has come from the political right. However, more telling, instructive, and powerful are the criticisms of the NEA and the AFT that have come from within. As early as 1994, Billy Boyton and John Lloyd, former top officers respectively of the Nebraska and Kansas NEA affiliates spoke out: "The NEA has been the single biggest obstacle to education reform in this country. We know because we worked for the NEA."
Not to mention:

...teachers' unions profess to put students first - but often act in ways that subordinate their interests. While the unions state agreement with the goals, they work to oppose specific reform in the political process and the classroom. According to David Kilpatrick, who spent more than a dozen years as a top officer and staffer of affiliates of the NEA and the AFT,
"The unions do everything possible to maintain [the status quo]...They invariably call for variations of the status quo, more of the same, rather than reforms that mean real changes. Not coincidentally they also almost uniformly call for the spending of more money and the creation of more teaching positions which, of course, result in an increase in union membership, union income and union power."
If nothing else, everyone should take from this that the interests of teachers unions and the interests of American students are not the same.

13 July 2009 2:45 PM


Teaching Kids With Computer Games

Chris Wilson:

Logo is the most memorable in a lineage of games that have tried to make programming fun and intuitive. I was reminded of it recently when I saw a demonstration of Kodu, a newly released video game from Microsoft aimed at the 9-and-over crowd. Kodu is light years beyond Logo, with modern 3-D graphics, a world players can landscape to their liking, and a cast of characters that isn't limited to the Terrapene genus. But the mission is pretty much the same: to place kids in an open-ended environment and arm them with a simple language that lets them build things. At the risk of blaspheming my youth, I dare say that Kodu is more fun than Logo. It's also a reminder that the mission of games like these is not actually to teach kids how to write code. It's to teach them how to think like programmers.

08 July 2009 8:20 AM


What Makes a Successful Teacher?

The head of Teach for America has a theory:

We've done a lot of research on the characteristics of our teachers who are the most successful. The most predictive trait is still past demonstrated achievement, and all selection research basically points to that. But then there is a set of personal characteristics. And the No. 1 most predictive trait is perseverance, or what we would call internal locus of control. People who in the context of a challenge -- you can't see it unless you're in the context of a challenge -- have the instinct to figure out what they can control, and to own it, rather than to blame everyone else in the system.

In this case, there are so many people who could be blamed -- kids, kids' families, the system. And yet you'll go into schools and you'll see people teaching in the same hallway, and some have that mentality of, "It's not possible to succeed here," and others who are just prevailing against it all. And it's so much about that mind-set and the instinct to remain optimistic in the face of a challenge.
Sounds like the same quality that makes for a good free safety.

Jim Murray

07 July 2009 1:36 PM


Meet the New Boss

Megan McArdle says job retraining programs are usually a bad idea:

Students are overoptimistic.  Schools encourage them in their folly while collecting checks.  And employers demand real-world experience that training can't give.  It works best on people near entry-level, and those with complementary skills.  But that rarely describes the people most in need of retraining, like displaced autoworkers who have spent decades at semi-skilled labor no longer in demand.
Read about her own experiences here.

Flickr user Eileansiar

06 July 2009 9:00 AM

Ideas 2009

Are "Aptocrats" Running America?

Walter Kirn attacks the SAT and those who make it their lodestar:

I call this group of contemporary strivers -- a group that has largely supplanted the moneyed gentry as our country's governing class -- the "Aptocrats," after the primary trait that we were tested for and which we sought to develop in ourselves as a means of passing those tests. As defined by the institutions responsible for spotting and training America's brightest youth, this "aptitude" is a curious quality. It doesn't reflect the knowledge in your head, let alone the wisdom in your soul, but some quotient of promise and raw mental agility thought to be crucial to academic success and, by extension, success in general. All of this makes for a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more aptitude that a young person displays, the more likely it is that she or he will have a chance to win the golden tickets -- fine diplomas, elite appointments and so on -- that permit you to lead the aptocratic establishment and set the terms by which it operates.
The SAT is a significant factor in admissions to the most selective colleges in America. But the author assumes something more -- that one's score on the SAT determines success not only in college admissions, but in life. Is this true? What would one find upon surveying America's political, business and cultural leaders? Are they the same folks who scored highest on the SATs, or does admission to a highly selective college actually matter less to future success than Mr. Kirn seems to assume?

I suspect that a high score on the SAT isn't a self-fulfilling prophecy of success -- it seems to me that many high scorers would've been fine regardless of what college they attended, and that plenty of highly successful folks didn't care that much about the SAT or the uber-selectivity of their college. Certain fields privilege this sort of pedigree, but they seem to me the exception rather than the rule.

This isn't to say that we shouldn't do a better job recognizing promising aptitudes other than those measured by the SAT, but it isn't as though there's a good test for the knowledge in your head or the wisdom in your soul. Should a reliable way to measure those things arise, I'm sure that metric will be used too.

02 July 2009 3:42 PM


ASPEN PANEL: A Game of Catch-Up

01 July 2009 9:25 AM


Worth the Debt?

The New York Times hosts a symposium about whether a master's degree is a good buy. 

30 June 2009 4:17 PM

Festival Panels

For the Children

18 June 2009 12:37 PM


The East, The West, and The Ivy League

As a Californian who moved to the East Coast for graduate school, I've long thought that the Red/Blue lens so often used to look at the United States elides significant differences between folks referred to under the common banner of "coastal elites." There is an undeniable tendency among those from one coast to move to the other, rather than settling in the places disparagingly referred to as "flyover country."

Our experience is, nevertheless, one of moving between cultures. This is hardly a new insight--The Great Gatsby's narrator, Nick Caraway, mused on The East as an outsider, as did Joan Didion. She is particularly insightful here: Read More

17 June 2009 4:01 PM


Don't Kill Summer Vacation

Thinking Big is pleased to announce its first blogger on blogger argument, and against a worthy adversary: The Atlantic's Conor Clarke. Let me assure you that he is an intelligent and friendly sort, even if he does want to rob school children of summer break. If he gets his way, I propose that the following example be added to SAT prep books: "Grinch is to Christmas as ______ is to summer vacation." It's an illustration that won't leave any child behind.

Mr. Clarke initially argued for year long school here. His position: All the reasons we initially adopted summer vacation don't apply any longer. American kids score lower on standardized tests than kids from countries where everyone attends school more days each year. Even within the United States, summer vacation exacerbates the inequitable outcomes between rich kinds and poor kids, because the former enjoy edifying summer experiences, while the latter do not. Thus, we should say goodbye to summer vacation.

In the name of countless children nationwide -- and adopting this as my theme song -- I attacked his anti-summer jeremiad here, and sent reinforcements at his flank here. My campaign employed several weapons as arguments:  Read More