Arne Duncan and U.S. Department of Education to Renew Student Loan Contract with Sallie Mae Despite Allegations of Wrongdoing!

Dear Commons Community,

Student loan giant Sallie Mae is currently under fire from lawmakers, federal regulators, consumer groups and student advocates for allegedly violating numerous consumer protection laws. The company is facing accusations that it cheats soldiers on active duty, engages in discriminatory lending, pushes borrowers into delinquency by improperly processing their monthly payments, and doesn’t provide enough aid to borrowers in distress. Regardless, as reported in The Huffington Post:

“…to the Department of Education, Sallie Mae remains a trusted partner. In a previously unreported Oct. 25 letter, the contents of which were described to The Huffington Post and confirmed by the Education Department and by Sallie Mae, the agency said that it is moving to renew the student loan servicer’s federal contract, which is currently set to expire in June.

The new contract, which would run through June 2019, is potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Last year, Sallie Mae recorded $84 million in revenue from its Education Department contracts.

News that a company under investigation for harming student borrowers soon will be rewarded with more taxpayer-provided business comes at a particularly fraught time for the Education Department, which is battling accusations from lawmakers, consumer groups and student advocates that it has coddled and refused to punish a company with a history of alleged transgressions.

The agency has yet to respond to a Sept. 19 letter from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) criticizing it for its apparent inability to hold Sallie Mae accountable, despite what Warren described as a “pattern of breaking the rules and ignoring its contractual obligations.”

If Sallie Mae’s past actions have not warranted an end to its federal contracts, Warren asked Education Secretary Arne Duncan, under what circumstances would the department terminate a contract with a law-breaking company?”

The U.S. Department of Education under Arne Duncan continues to dumbfound those who follow higher education policy in this country.  Earlier this year, Congress scolded the Department for reaping billions of dollars from student financial aid programs and now it is getting ready to renew a contract with a company  fraught with problems if not scandal.



Charles Blow: Life is a Hill!

Dear Commons Community,

Charles Blow, in his New York Times column today, describes life as a hill meant to be climbed.   He addresses particularly:

“Any of us in the country who were born poor, or minority, or female, or otherwise different — particularly in terms of gender or sexual identity…

Misogyny and sexism, racism, income inequality, patriarchy, and homophobia and heteronormative ideals course through the culture like a pathogen in the blood, infecting the whole of the being beneath the surface.

So it is to the people with challenges that I would like to speak today.”

His advice:

“Trying hard and working hard is its own reward. It feeds the soul. It affirms your will and your power. And it radiates from you, lighting the way for all those who see you…

For some folks, life is a hill. You can either climb or stay at the bottom.

It’s not fair. It’s not right. But it is so. Some folks are born halfway up the hill and others on the top. The rest of us are not. Life doles out favors in differing measures, often as a result of historical injustice and systematic bias. That’s a hurtful fact, one that must be changed. We should all work toward that change.

In the meantime, until that change is real, what to do if life gives you the hill?

You can curse it. You can work hard to erode it. You can try to find a way around it. Those are all understandable endeavors. Staying at the bottom is not.

You may be born at the bottom, but the bottom was not born in you. You have it within you to be better than you were, to make more of your life than was given to you by life.

This is not to say that we can always correct life’s inequities, but simply that we honor ourselves in the trying.

History is cluttered with instances of the downtrodden lifting themselves up. The spirit and endurance that it requires is not a historical artifact but a living thing that abides in each of us, part of the bloodline, written in the tracks of tears and the sweat of toil.

If life for you is a hill, be a world-class climber.”



Timothy Egan: GOP, Mitch McConnell, Koch Brothers – Rooting for Failure!

Dear Commons Community,

Timothy Egan, New York Times Pulitzer Prize winning reporter and columnist, comes out swinging at the Republican Party today for hoping for failure with respect to the Affordable Care Act. He comments:

“The failure movement is active and very well funded. You probably know about the creepy Uncle Sam character in ads financed by the Koch brothers. Sicko Sam is seen leering over a woman on her back in a hospital exam room, her legs in stirrups. This same guy is now showing up on college campuses, trying to get young people to opt out of health care. On some campuses, he plies students with free booze and pizza — swee-eeet!

The Republican Party started a failure campaign earlier this year, but then the strategy got sidetracked in a coercive government shutdown that cost us all $24 billion or so. With the disastrous rollout of the federal exchange, Republicans now smell blood. A recent memo outlined a far-reaching, multilevel assault on the Affordable Care Act. Horror stories — people losing their lousy health insurance — will be highlighted, and computer snafus celebrated…

…This organized schadenfreude goes back to the dawn of Obama’s presidency, when Rush Limbaugh, later joined by Senator Mitch McConnell, said their No. 1 goal was for the president to fail. A CNN poll in 2010 found 61 percent of Republicans hoping Obama would fail (versus only 27 percent among all Americans).

Wish granted, mission accomplished. Obama has failed — that is, if you judge by his tanking poll numbers. But does this collapse in approval have to mean that the last best chance for expanding health care for millions of Americans must fail as well?

Does this mean we throw in the towel, and return to a status quo in which insurance companies routinely cancel policies, deny health care to people with pre-existing conditions and have their own death panel treatment for patients who reach a cap in medical benefits?

The Republican plan would do just that, because they have no plan but to crush the nation’s fledgling experiment.”

It is a sad commentary on the state of the American system of government that our political  parties cannot work with one another and  worse, actively involve themselves in rooting for failure.  We are becoming an example to the world of what is wrong with a democracy that has devolved as a nation “of the people… for the people” to a nation for special and moneyed interests.



MOOCs, Thrun, Gates, and Middlebrow Culture!

Dear Commons Community,

Having just spent last week at the Sloan Consortium’s Annual Conference on Online Learning which featured a number of major presentations by movers and shakers (Daphne Koller, Anant Agarwal) in the MOOC universe,   I did not think I would be posting so soon again about this technology.  However, Jonathan Freedman, a professor of English and American culture at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, has an article commenting that MOOCs are transforming into a “middlebrow” culture that will continue to evolve.

He starts by criticizing the technology and referencing the interview with Sabastian Thrun (Udacity) wherein he commented “he has thrown in the towel”:

“The problems endemic to MOOCs are well known: the high dropout rate, the variable quality of the offerings, evaluation methods that make educators roll their eyes, stale lectures, and tests that make you remember why high school was such a bad idea. And with their failures, the way in which they’ve been sold by credulous columnists like Thomas Friedman and the self-serving entrepreneurs whose arguments he parrots—that is, as a replacement for traditional brick-and-mortar universities—is looking increasingly tenuous. Always one step ahead of the curve, the godfather of the massive open online course, Sebastian Thrun (who notoriously proclaimed that in 50 years, there might be only 10 universities left in the world) has thrown in the towel. He’s announced that, following a disastrous trial run at San Jose State University and plagued by ridiculously low completion rates, his start-up, Udacity, would henceforth focus on vocational training.”

Freedman then takes a shot at Bill Gates, a major funder of instructional technology including MOOCs, and uses it as a segue to his main theme:

“Perhaps the greatest testimony to the aspirations and flaws of the MOOC movement is a comment by Bill Gates. In an interview, Gates was asked if, as a Harvard dropout, he’d consider returning to college:

“I don’t know. I take a lot of college courses. The online free stuff has gotten very good in these new MOOCs, where Harvard is doing edX and there’s Coursera, Udacity, the Learning Company DVDs. … Meteorology, biology, geology—I highly recommend. I just took oceanography last month. … It’s kind of ironic that I’m a dropout. I love college courses probably as much as anyone around.”

Gates’s shallowness is impressive: Hey! I took oceanography last month. Next week I’ll master phenomenology! But his words also suggest why MOOCs, for all their many and obvious failings, are with us to stay. They speak to the deeply ingrained American concept of learning as practical, manageable, bite-size (hence byte-size). Knowledge becomes a commodity you can buy rather than a product of a process that takes time, effort, and patience to master. Gates’s words speak to a view of cultural attainments that we call middlebrow.”

He goes on:

“MOOCs are just the latest incarnation of bringing watered-down versions of culture, knowledge, and learning to a mass audience. What we see as the courses’ flaws may well be their strengths, and they have the potential to carry those strengths to a broader audience than ever before. Problems arise only when we think of MOOCs as university courses rather than as learning for the masses.

Yes, the vulgarians who run Coursera and Udacity deserve to be swept into the dustbin of history, and the fact that they seem not to have figured out how to profit from their enterprises suggests that they’ll soon be hoist by their own capitalist petard. When they are, the real action can begin. As the history professor Jonathan Rees puts it, the fast-­approaching post-corporate-MOOC world “will almost certainly be a period of real pedagogical innovation conducted by people who are more interested in actual education than they are in becoming famous or just making a quick buck.”

That pedagogical innovation might well happen within the academy.”

I agree with Freedman.  The evolution of MOOCs and online learning will be taken back by faculty and instructional designers whose aim is to improve instruction.  They will not be encumbered by return on investments and bottom lines.  It was faculty and instructional designers who were the leaders in  online learning from the early 1990s to the emergence of the MOOC providers in 2011.  However, I would not dismiss Coursera, edX, Udacity yet.  As I blogged last week, these companies have significant resources at their disposal and they will refine and develop online learning materials from which we all will likely be able to benefit.  I would surely look to evaluate what they do and to learn from their efforts.


New York – Only State Participating in Controversial inBloom National Student Database!

Dear Commons Community,

As reported in the Associated Press and The Huffington Post, New York is the only state still fully on board with inBloom’s plan to create statewide databases for every public school student’s grades, tests scores and attendance records.

Concerns from parents about who will have access to the information, how long it will be held and whether it will be used for marketing purposes have stalled the momentum of inBloom that promised to bring efficiency and cost savings to school record-keeping.  inBloom drew early interest from several states, but nearly all have pulled back.

New York’s Education Department is going forward with plans to send student information to inBloom sometime after Jan. 1. A group of New York City parents sued this month to block the release of that data.

Safe Travels this Thanksgiving Day Weekend!


Everyone Has a Solution for Higher Education!

Dear Commons Community,

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an article (subscription required)  today entitled, Everyone Has a Solution for Higher Education.  The title says it all and traces how various segments of our society (government, private industry, venture philanthropy, think tanks) are calling for “reform” and changes in higher education.  The article identifies major issues such as tuition, degree completion, and job availability.

The article makes an important point as to why this state of affairs:

“…the Internet’s level playing field, information from any source, presented in any way, can travel far. A comprehensive, carefully conducted research study and a hastily written brief can wind up getting the same amount of buzz.

However think tanks and other groups go about it, they hope to set the parameters for debate. If the public keeps hearing about the same issues, the proposed solutions can start to feel inevitable. And if the message repeatedly reaches policy makers, those solutions might even become reality.”

Higher education like many of America’s institutions needs to evolve and adjust to new circumstances.  However, educators need to take charge of their own futures.  They need to respond strongly to calls for reform on what needs to be done.  It would be easy simply to retaliate and criticize many of the agencies, pundits and other reformers such as those in the federal government, the profiteers in private enterprise, the pseudo think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute (a shill for right-wing interest groups), and the advocacy-first foundations such as Gates, Lumina, Walton and Koch.  Tuition has risen without a doubt but not as much as we have been led to believe.  A report by the College Board earlier this year showed that the net cost of tuition, fees, room and board has not changed that much over the past decade.  The lack of jobs for college graduates is as much a fault of a stagnant economy that can be alleviated if our government and private industry truly invested in jobs creation solutions and not just focused on keeping interest rates low.  Lastly, in terms of degree completion and quality, while any education ranking system has to be seen with a certain skepticism, American higher education is consistently ranked as the best in the world.

In response to the detractors, higher education needs to act like it is the best but it must also be willing to re-examine what it does, how it does it, and be willing to make changes if necessary.


A Truce on MOOCs at San Jose State!

Dear Commons Community,

Coming on the heels of the vote of San Jose State’s Academic Senate, citing a lack of administrative openness and “extremely low morale,” last week asked the chancellor of the California State University system to review governance at the university, The Chronicle of Higher Education has  an article today highlighting the divergent views of two professors who are able to disagree and agree on instructional technology.

On one side is:

“Peter J. Hadreas … a jazz pianist before he was a philosophy professor here, …

“To have somebody in front of you whom you really believe is going to try to find the truth of things even if it goes against the group—to see somebody like that is as powerful as learning what ad hominem and half-fallacies are,” he tells us. “I don’t think the screen can do that.”

He’s talking about online education, of course—a high-profile issue here at the San Jose State University, where Mr. Hadreas is chair of the philosophy department. He says the web is great for transmitting information, but that the most important exchanges occur among humans face to face. Teaching philosophy, for example, is not just about plunging a bunch of data into another person’s brain; it’s also about empathy, spontaneity, and the sense of embarking—together, and in good faith—on the mission of learning. The key, in other words, is trust.”

On the other side is:

“Khosrow Ghadiri, a part-time lecturer in electrical engineering…He believes the web can help hammer home the bedrock concepts at the foundation of his discipline. But he still sees his presence in the classroom as essential for students.

“They need authoritative figures, so that when they ask the question they believe you,” Mr. Ghadiri says.

Sometimes he’ll overhear his teaching assistant give a perfect answer to a student’s question, he adds. “But the students, they don’t believe him. They verify it with me…

he says he understands how philosophy is different from electrical engineering—that learning outcomes cannot be as easily measured, even at introductory levels. And he agrees unequivocally that professors should be in charge of what they let into their own classrooms.”

The Chronicle article goes on to review San Jose’s grand experiment with MOOCs and comes to the conclusion that:

“Nobody knows what MOOCs—and the new companies and technologies that have come with them—will mean to traditional universities and the professors who teach there.”

So let the experiments continue but the lesson is maybe we should let the faculty work out the issues.



Little Rock Central High School Moves On!

Dear Commons Community,

One of the more difficult chapters in the history of civil rights may be finally coming to a close.  In September 1957, the integration of Little Rock Central High School marked a turning point in this country when nine black children were admitted to the segregated school under federal court order.  Although they had to be protected from angry mobs and needed military escorts, most of these students persisted and were the first black children to graduate from the segregated school.  The New York Times editorial (see below) today comments:

“Last week, the state, three Little Rock-area school districts and two citizens groups agreed that it was time to phase out nearly $70 million a year in subsidies that have helped those districts achieve workable desegregation through methods like crosstown busing and the creation of magnet schools. The payments would end in 2018. A federal judge will hold a hearing in January on the fairness of the agreement.”

Little Rock is a much different place today than it was in 1957 and it is good to see that this chapter in its history will have closure.



New York Times Editorial – November 11, 2013

When the Supreme Court ordered an end to racial segregation in public schools in 1954, there was no foretelling what its mandate for integration “with all deliberate speed” would come to mean. In Little Rock, Ark., the site in 1957 of one of the most explosive desegregation struggles, it has come to mean decades of litigation that may now be nearing an end.

Last week, the state, three Little Rock-area school districts and two citizens groups agreed that it was time to phase out nearly $70 million a year in subsidies that have helped those districts achieve workable desegregation through methods like crosstown busing and the creation of magnet schools. The payments would end in 2018. A federal judge will hold a hearing in January on the fairness of the agreement.

Not everyone is satisfied with the quality of Little Rock’s schools, especially in high-poverty minority neighborhoods. But the agreement may bring an end to one chapter in the long fight for racial equality, one that began with the school board’s unanimous decision to enroll nine black students in Central High School and took a notorious turn when Gov. Orval Faubus decided to play to segregationist politics and mobilized the National Guard to block the students. Mob violence followed, persuading President Dwight Eisenhower to send federal troops to enforce the Supreme Court ruling and escort the students to class.

Ernest Green was the first black student to graduate from the high school — an event happily witnessed by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who had warned Mr. Eisenhower that any hesitation in Little Rock in the name of states’ rights would “set the process of integration back 50 years.” History grinds too slow on what “all deliberate speed” means, but the news from Little Rock provides hope that the nation can labor beyond its racist past.


Frank Bruni on the Common Core, Arne Duncan, White Suburban Mothers, and Coddling Children!

Dear Commons Community,

There has been much debate over the past several months about the new Common Core curriculum that is being implemented in over forty states.  New York Times columnist Frank Bruni while trying to be balanced came down strongly in favor of the Common Core mainly because he feels that as a country we are “coddling children” too much and that they need to work harder:

“…there’s the outcry, equally reflective of the times, from adults who assert that kids aren’t enjoying school as much; feel a level of stress that they shouldn’t have to; are being judged too narrowly; and doubt their own mettle.

Aren’t aspects of school supposed to be relatively mirthless? Isn’t stress an acceptable byproduct of reaching higher and digging deeper? Aren’t certain fixed judgments inevitable? And isn’t mettle established through hard work?”

What Bruni says is partially true but the “outcry” is not simply against the Common Core itself but against the rushed disastrous implementation.  While not as horrendous as the Affordable Care Act aka Obamacare, the implementation of the Common Core in many states and especially here in New York came pretty close.  Curriculum materials were not prepared and teachers were not trained to teach the Common Core yet all the testing for it was in place and conducted and essentially set children up for failure.   Without a doubt, this has left children, parents and teachers frustrated and angry.  The responsibility for this falls squarely on Arne Duncan – the U.S. Department of Education and to a degree on John King – the New York State Department of Education.  And then Arne Duncan throws oil on the fire by commenting that the Common Core’s most impassioned opponents are  “white suburban moms” who were suddenly learning that “their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good.”

Without a doubt, education policy in this country has and continues to need reform, however, the performance of Duncan and King leave a lot to be desired.  Parents are right  to be angry.