March 2018
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Abolishing the Department of Education

Photo Source:

By Jen Okwudili

The good news is that early in this presidential campaign season education is once again a part of the conversation. The bad news is that the majority of the conversation is focused not on innovativion and reform, but rather plans to greatly reduce the power of the federal government to take leadership in improving America’s schools. The dialogue, led by the contenders in the GOP primary field, is focused on each candidate’s plan to abolish the Department of Education.

The current Department of Education was founded in 1980 after its split from the former Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Its history dates back to 1867, including many political fights about its legitimacy that have led to its demotion to an Office and Bureau in the past. For years Republicans have argued that as the Constitution does not specifically mention “education,” the right to regulate it should be left to the states. However over the years the federal government has played an increasing role in education. Much of the Federal presence began with the desegregation efforts of the 1960s, and the Federal government’s obligation to maintain equal protection under the law. Lately, the role has been more focused on testing and accountability as a means of promoting academic excellence in the name of global competitiveness. The Federal government has established itself firmly as leader in the realm of education through the Department of Education, and has created numerous programs, regulations and funding measures that the states are now dependent on for survival.

However, despite the many benefits of having a federal Department of Education, most of the Republican frontrunner candidates for president have publically stated that should they win the office next November, they would do away with the entire Department. Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul, at one time Mitt Romney and (somewhat infamously) Rick Perry have all stated that they would abolish the Department of Education. Of the remaining frontrunners, Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman, and Rick Santorum have all severely criticized the Department and have outlined plans to greatly restructure and reduce the role and powers of the Department.

It’s always a good thing to have the topic of education on the national agenda. The more people that are paying attention, the more opportunity there is for others to join the conversation, contribute resources, and support the essential movement of bettering America’s schools. The 2012 election is an excellent platform for the candidates to share their own visions of great education in America. Disappointingly, the conversation has been stuck on one implausible remedy that would potentially cause more harm than good. Hopefully in the course of the remaining election season a voice of reason will emerge, and steer the conversation back to where it belongs: on realistic goals for improving America’s schools.

Candidates’ positions on the Dept. of Ed found here:

How reality TV can educate American citizens

By Iman Azzi

If one were watching the current Republican primary race in hopes of buffing up on their civic education, their notes would look something like this:

  1. The Supreme Court has eight judges.
  2. The Revolutionary War began in Concord, New Hampshire.
  3. The US still has a diplomatic presence in Iran.

Lest charges of partisan bias obscure this blog’s thesis, it’s important to note that errors in American history happen on both sides of the aisle. Remember when President Obama let slip he had visited 57 states?

The point is not that in a 24-hour media world it’s becoming easier to find prominent politicians misspeaking. The point is that it’s becoming harder to find an average American citizen with a basic understanding of our nation’s government. According to the Philadelphia-based Annenberg Public Policy Center, only a third of Americans can name all three branches of government while another third can’t name a single one.

On the eve of the upcoming election year, I’ve come across two ideas, employing modern technology that hopes to combat this collective spiral of ignorance. While one can be found online, and is the brainchild of former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the other exists in the mind of a high school senior but should be strongly considered as a way to engage his peers.

Since retiring in 2006, O’Connor, the first female appointed to the US Supreme Court, has actively campaigned for greater civic education in America. She began with a lessons packet on the judicial system, call Our Courts, but by 2010 had expanded the project into iCivics, after realizing that a more general knowledge of the US government was needed.

O’Connor’s iCivics website offers free lesson, competitions and interactive videogames for middle and high school students. She is gaining recognition across states and in classrooms and I’m sure countless teachers are grateful for the creative and cohesive lesson plans.

My favorite proposal I stumbled across this month comes from Tripp Peters, a high school senior in Pennsylvania. Reacting to the depressing success of “16 & Pregnant,” Tripp proposes a show called “18 & Voting,”[1] in hopes of making voting cool and learning about the government trendy, with the help of an MTV-designed soundtrack and the latest fashion trends I assume.

Video games and reality shows, often accused of helping America return to ignorance, should now be hailed as ways to get us out of our civic slump. Peters’ TV show would follow a diverse cast through the election season, encouraged by what the Founding Fathers believed in from the start – that power starts with the people – combined with the experiences of Aaron Sorkin – that a little drama never hurt. In this unpredictable election year, it would be just another twist of plot if a reality show was created to fill the gaps of knowledge left by those running for national office.


For every student a journal, for every class.

By Iman Azzi

Last month, I wrote about the challenge of combating international illiteracy. This week I read about a technique one Connecticut school is doing in hopes of improving literacy, and overall performance, throughout the school.  The answer is amazingly simple, does not demand millions from the federal government, can be implemented even if parents are not attentive partners in their child’s education and does not require any of the latest technology. It requires a journal, for every student, in every subject.

This fall, James Hillhouse High School began a nonfiction assignment in every class requirement. The policy asks teachers to dedicate at least ten minutes of their class to a writing exercise, that in some way relates to the lesson, be it history or math. The idea was inspired by a school in Brockton, MA, that took up journaling and saw the percentage of students failing English drop from 44 percent to five percent over a 12-year period.

This method strikes me as a good way to increase writing stamina and can introduce students to a diversity of writing styles and uses. I once had several students protest when, in history class, I reminded them that proper grammar, complete sentences and essay style would count for their final grade. “But why,” one whined. “This isn’t English class. We should only be graded on our thoughts on history, not how we spell them.” My department, eventually, made this an official policy and declared that ten percent of all assignments should be marked for spelling and style.

But I like the journal idea even better in that it does not make writing only about better grades and it allows students to practice writing from many perspectives and encourages creativity. Every entry is not graded (a relief to both teachers and students). If you read the FAQs, it goes out of its way to assure teachers that the journal a day assignment will not impose hours of grading upon the instructor. At least one assignment a week will be graded while the others are left as practice for the student.

If I were doing this journaling, I would take it a step farther and ask some students to read excerpts out loud – that would help with public speaking and give students a chance to comment on their peer’s work. While I like the simplicity of the plan and its end goal, I’m not sold on its rigidity. I think writing should infiltrate every subject but that the form it takes could, and should, change. I also think this might scare off some of the students weaker in languages – those who feel comforted by numbers – and hope that the school has in place teachers who are better trained to combat writing challenges or students who are not as able to translate thoughts into words. Still, in a world where many are looking for outside funding or greater technology to aid their classrooms, it’s positive to see the journal making such a strong, and positive, comeback.



The Finnish Model






Photo source: Ignacio Ricci


By Jen Okwudili

Finland has long been heralded as a leading model for American schools to emulate. Ranking consistently near the top on international tests on math, reading, and science, the country’s education system is one most other countries, including the United States, much admire. “Finlandophilia”, as some in the education circles have called it, involves reading extensively about the Finnish model of schooling, inviting top Finnish educators and authors to give lectures in America, and attending seminars held at the Finnish embassy with titles such as “Why Are Finnish Kids So Smart?”

But two important questions come to mind in light of all the attention Finland is receiving. One is, to what extent is this a Finnish success and a U.S. failure? That is to say, are the rankings truly showing that Finland is achieving more with their students than we are because of something they are doing right and we are doing wrong? My initial hypothesis is yes. There are certain structural characteristics of the Finnish education model that lend themselves to student success. For example, in their system the profession of teaching is much more highly regarded. Teachers are required to get a masters degree (which is fully subsidized by the government), and competition to get into teacher education programs is tougher than medicine or law. Students are not required to take standardized tests until age 16 (perhaps freeing teachers to focus on curriculum and learning instead of teaching to the test) and formal education does not begin until age 7 (perhaps allowing children more time to mature and grow before entering the schooling system).

But a second essential question is how much could this success be replicated in the U.S.? Finland is obviously not America. The country has a population of about 5.5 million (compared to about 300 million in the U.S.) and only about 600,000 children in their school system. They have a low poverty rate, a homogenous population and a mostly trilingual population; each of these factors may play a significant, although not always acknowledged, role in the success of their students as well.

Realistically, these are not characteristics the United States will ever be able to emulate. It is important to keep in mind when choosing which education models to admire the things you hope to duplicate and the things you have no control over.


Communication, Collaboration, and Commitment

By Sasha Panaram

At the beginning of December 2011, Adam Bryant of the New York Times conducted an interview with president of Brown University, Dr. Ruth J. Simmons. “I Was Impossible, but Then I Saw How to Lead” is a revealing discussion in which Simmons advocates amiable leadership approaches.

Simmons tells Bryant that as a child she was impossible. Though she was the youngest of twelve siblings this had no bearing on her authoritative and headstrong disposition. She claims that her mother promoted independence in her household when telling her children regularly, “Never think of yourself as being better than anybody else. Always think for yourself. Don’t follow the crowd.”

As she grew older, Simmons recognized that being impossible complicated her interactions with others and prevented them from working together to achieve maximum success. She came to understand that if she supported others’ goals, together they could achieve more.

Later in the interview, Simmons discusses her criteria for hiring professionals at the university level. First, Simmons talks of how she looks for keen listeners, supremely self-confident educators, and thoughtful communicators. Then she spends a significant amount of time discussing the importance of hiring individuals who are “profoundly interested in other people;” people who want others to succeed just as much as they hope to succeed.

On the whole, Simmons’ interview is nothing less than inspiring. Her remarks – both candid and constructive – reveal her powerhouse educational leadership style that evolved as she learned to embrace those around her.

In a time when educational reform is in full swing and innumerable leaders look for ways to fix a broken educational system perhaps Bryant’s interview with Simmons can be of some help. Though its original purpose is to honor and shed light on a transformational leader who will retire from her post effective at the end of this academic year, the interview also functions as a powerful reminder that people are dynamic, social beings who benefit from partnerships.

It sounds straightforward, doesn’t it? Sharing knowledge. Building connections. Learning together. And indeed it is. But that is one of the reasons many people – or at least I – sometimes forget that the simple act of collaborating has paved the way for some remarkable educational successes.

Take Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg. Had Levin not asked Ms. Harriett Ball’s permission to observe her class, he would never have been exposed to the different learning routines and discipline techniques she implemented in her classroom. Levin would not have used Ball’s guidance to shape his own classroom management and would not have introduced Feinberg to her. Without Ball’s mentorship and the help of others, like Rafe Esquith, it is unlikely that Levin and Feinberg would have founded the Knowledge is Power Program, which now has 109 public charter schools in 20 states.

In 1992, had Father Brad Schaeffer not solicited the help of Father John Foley and his team to help with the conception and construction of a new high school in Chicago, Cristo Rey Jesuit High School would not have come into existence in 1996. And if an attorney working with Foley and his team did not suggest finding corporations to pay student workers, it is unlikely that the Cristo Rey Network would have sustained and expanded to more than 20 high schools in the United States.

Working together has been and will continue to be a trademark of promoting academic innovation.

Simmons knows this. And before she gracefully bows out of her role as President of Brown University, she reminds people in all fields, not just education, to look to others at all stages of their lives.

Her message is timeless: We live to communicate. We excel when we collaborate. We inspire when we commit.




Treading Softly on Our Children's Dreams.

By Jocelyn Fong

On Saturday, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to three women, recognizing their “non-violent struggles against injustice, sexual violence and repression” in the context of the Arab Spring and democratic reform in Africa. As the chairman of the Nobel Committee noted, the women’s win should serve as a warning to those who resist peace, change, and freedom in the name of power and authority.

Such a victory for the peaceful change makers of the world also struck me as a victory for those who stand up for what they believe and resist a detrimental status quo. It seemed to be not only a story of empowered leaders who voice their visions in belting rallying cries, but also one of innovation and creativity.

Their stories of struggle reminded me of something education reformer Sir Ken Robinson has said: “Life is not linear, it’s organic. We create our lives symbiotically as we explore our talents in relation to the circumstances which they create for us.” In the midst of democratic revolutions and evolutions in two different regions, these Nobel Peace Prize winning women drew on their unique capabilities and contexts to realize their vision.

If these creative solution makers are the leaders of our world, it befuddles me how a standardized education can be generating tomorrow’s pioneers. How can school systems based on conformity be training our children for the world? Are our schools really building leaders of the next generation or merely manufacturing followers in somebody else’s ideal world?

As a system where there is only one right answer, I feel as though our education system has become a manufacturing plant of sorts, in which volume of information is prioritized over quality of information, the correct result over the process, and memorizing over thinking. If we can’t even challenge our students to think outside the box in their bubbles of a classroom, how can we expect them to challenge the status quo when more than a good grade is on the line? I worry that our societal focus on straight A’s and SAT 800’s has produced a culture that values perfection over process and conformity over change. For what type of world will we live in if our leaders of tomorrow are being taught to color within lines that they haven’t even questioned exist?

As the three powerhouse women have shown, it takes a determined spirit with a solidified vision to change our world. It takes imagination, creativity, and dreaming. And in schools, it takes an educational environment that encourages and fosters such innovation rather than hindering it. Near the end of his speech, Sir Robinson quoted a W.B. Yeats poem: “I have spread my dreams under your feet. Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.” As the wise reformer noted, “Everywhere, children [are] spread[ing] their dreams beneath our feet…we should tread softly for we [too] are treading on their dreams.”



Appreciating the Importance of Language

By Sarah Baran

Only recently have I started to realize how influential language truly is—not merely as a tool of communication but also as one of perception. After analyzing the style of several texts in my English modernity class, I started to examine how language creates a culture, one that is inherent to our native tongue and region, but also one that is more subjectively embedded into our personal ideologies. We hold a perception of reality that guides our thoughts, interactions and even our very conception of ourselves and our place among others in the world, but to what extent is this shaped by our language?

There was a study published in the New York Times about a year ago that explored this very question and its answer is best summarized in Roman Jakobson’s pithy maxim: “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” In other words, the alteration of expression and detail leads to a difference not in “what our language allows us to think but rather what it habitually obliges us to think about.” When comparing two languages, the slight variances in structure and vocabulary inevitably result in perceptual distinctions as they draw attention to different features. For example, a group of individuals whose mother tongue was French, German, or Spanish were all asked to attribute characteristics to several nouns. All three of these languages have nouns that retain distinct genders, and consequently each individual attributed “masculine” or “feminine” characteristics based on the corresponding gender. For example, in Spanish the word bridge is a masculine noun and so was described as strong. However, the noun is feminine in German, and so those who spoke German choose the word elegant, or even slender, to describe it (1).

The written structure of the language also has an impact. In languages such as Japanese and Chinese, where characters are used, texts can be read at a quicker pace because they are denser. One symbol can represent the equivalent of several English words. Our vocabulary also influences our thoughts in the way we perceive a whole array of topics ranging from colors to the weather or even our traditional customs.

The extent to which our language impacts us is undeniable, and so suddenly there is a larger disparity in elements as simple as the individual’s vocabulary. For example, in applying the issue to education and its prevailing inequality gap in the United States, one will discover that the problem begins even before the child enters school. The developing stages of early childhood are essential in laying the foundation for the child’s future success, and so one’s vocabulary becomes critical in regards to what later will become their literacy proficiency. Statistics show that even from the age three, “children from families with low incomes had 600 fewer words than their peers from families with higher income [and] by second grade, the gap in vocabulary had jumped to 4,000 words (2).”

Appreciating the importance of language left me with a realization of the magnitude of its impact: it does more than influence the little experiences—it lays the foundation for education.





Containing College Cost: Whose Responsibility?

By Vail Kohnert-Yount

There are a lot of startling things on the internet. But one of the most startling things I encountered recently was this graph, which depicts how student loan debt has exploded since 1990, the year many of today’s college students were born.
In part thanks to the Occupy movement, the problem of spiraling college costs has been thrust into the national spotlight. The Occupy protesters largely target big banks for their predatory lending practices and Congress for threatening to balance the budget on the backs of students by cutting federal financial aid. However, a crucial player is left out of the conversation: college themselves.

Exploding student debt in the United States is no doubt due in part to the skyrocketing sticker price of college tuition at both public and private institutions. While tuition at the University of California, Berkeley, was about $700 a year in the 1970s, today’s Berkeley students pay around $15,000 per year, a 2,000% increase that far outpaces inflation. This is still a bargain in comparison to private nonprofit universities, which charge on average $28,500 per year in tuition and fees, excluding room and board.

While the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations have all increased funding for student aid like Pell grants, the system is even less affordable. Today, Pell grants cover barely a third of the cost of a public four-year college in-state, when in the 1970s they covered more than 70%.
While protecting federal financial aid for students is important, universities themselves have a responsibility to consider way to contain costs and reduce student debt. On December 5, President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan convened a meeting of university presidents from a diverse range of schools to “think more creatively and with much greater urgency” about the issue.
Additional government financing for education will be even more scarce in coming years, making it crucial to improve affordability through enhanced efficiency and innovation. Cutting costs while minimally sacrificing the quality of the educational experience may require difficult and painful choices from university administration and communities. But if the alternative is an ever-expanding set of concentric circles like the graph above, then the trade-off will ultimately be worth it.

Perhaps cutting the salaries of football coaches is a start.

Creativity in the Classroom

By Jocelyn Fong

Whether we know it from The New York Times or Glee, by this point, it seems that most everybody knows the Sue Sylvester’s of the world are cutting the arts in our schools. Although this tightening of the belt seems to be a reasonable reaction to a globally strained economy, we have now reached a point where eliminating orchestras, ballet groups and ceramics classes is something so commonplace that it has become a running joke on Saturday Night Live.

Yet this crusade against the arts is hardly a new one. In fact, some argue, the world’s education system turned its back on creativity a while ago, funneling kids into jobs instead of fostering them into people. Replicating the assembly lines of the industrialized era, our education systems were created to delineate students according to ability, specifically their ability to work. As education reformer Sir Ken Robinson says, “As children grow up, we start to educate them progressively from the waist up.  And then we focus on their heads. And then slightly to one side.” But why?

Under this model, education’s goal seems solely to be to prepare students for jobs, to start them on paths to employment that will generate stability for the rest of their lives. While this is by no means an unworthy goal, is it the only one for education? It seems to me that education should be also preparing students for life, in all of its glories and imperfections. Schools should not only educate students’ minds, but also enlighten and engage their whole bodies and beings.

Sir Robinson tells the story of his friend, Gillian Lynne, who was believed to have a mental disability when she was a child. She was so fidgety in class that in today’s diagnosis-obsessed world, we would say that she had ADHD. But upon further assessment, the principal of Jillian’s primary school realized that Gillian’s supposed ‘sickness’ was really an innate proclivity for dancing. Luckily for her and Cats lovers around the world, while “somebody else might have put her on medication and told her to calm down,” Gillian’s principal noticed that she was a person “who had to move to think.”

Evidently, the arts shine a light on the creative soul, giving voice to a whole other world of human expression. But in addition to funding the arts programs that inspire the heart and enrich the soul, I think schools need to be re-designed to include creativity in the classroom, as well. Instead of memorizing the Periodic Table, students could be building boats to learn about buoyancy; instead of answering teacher-made essay questions, they could be writing their own. Creativity in the classroom can look like anything, as long as it encourages students to be inventive and use their imagination.

Picasso once said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” Our education system is currently battling this exact fight – the fight to stimulate creativity rather than stifle it. But as we think of creativity, it would behoove us to remember that creativity extends beyond the artistic masters of Van Gogh and Monet. It includes entrepreneurial geniuses like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and world leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. It includes anybody and everybody willing to think outside the box, take risks, and believe in their own unique vision.


Homogeneity in Culture or Funding?

By Sarah Baran

Since Finland first decided to participate in the TIMSS, a standardized test that compares educational achievement on an international level, the country has consecutively achieved incredibly high rankings for the past five years. Government and educational leaders around the world have been studying their system to understand how, why, and what they can apply to their own respective nations. One posited explanation attributes at least part of the nation’s success to the nature of the country’s homogeneous population, where very few students speak a language other than Finnish at home.

In light of these conditions, some critics have questioned the fairness in comparing a diverse nation such as the United States, the only nation that “collects survey data for the race/ethnicity of students in the study samples,” to tiny homogeneous countries like Finland. However, despite the difficulties that inevitably result from diversity, the question must also account for the enormous benefits which also result. For example, although entering the public school system without knowledge of English may initially present some complications, after the student learns the language and becomes bilingual, it gives him an advantage over his classmate.

The real benefit of Finland’s education is not the homogeneous nature of its ethnicity, culture, and language, but its homogeneous approach to school funding and curriculum. In this system, “all of Finland’s schools receive the same per-pupil funding” and have a national curriculum. This is a stark contrast to the United States where school funding is based upon a complex formula that is in part determined by location, which often results in inequality based on the socioeconomic homogeneity of the region.

Recently, the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and Achieve have been completing studies that compare states to other nations. These results have shown that students in Massachusetts, one of the highest performing states, are on par with students in Japan in math. Then in science, students in Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Wisconsin are equal to or ahead of students in the other 45 countries in the TIMSS.

In light of these results, perhaps what the United States should focus on are the benefits of the homogeneity of its funding, curriculum, or even the many other factors which have all contributed to Finland’s success such as the prestige and approach of their teachers, whom are all required to obtain their masters, their light homework loads or their early education preschool system, which emphasizes “self-reflection” and social skills and is attended by 96 to 97% of all the children. All of these options are additional possibilities regardless of the homogeneity of their population.