Texas Adopts Controversial Textbooks!

Dear Commons Community,

Yesterday, a Texas panel approved 89 history and social studies textbooks for use in its classrooms across the state. The Republican-controlled State Board of Education voted along party lines 10-5, sanctioning most proposed books and electronic lessons. It defeated six books, however, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt withdrew a high school government textbook. Because Texas’ market is so large, textbooks published to meet its standards can affect those sold in other states. As reported in the Associated Press:

“Texas’ school board approved new history textbooks …capping months of outcry over lessons some academics say exaggerate the influence of Moses in American democracy and negatively portray Muslims.

The State Board of Education sanctioned 89 books and classroom software packages that more than 5 million public school students will begin using next fall. But it took hours of sometimes testy discussion and left publishers scrambling to make hundreds of last-minute edits, some to no avail. A proposal to delay the vote to allow the board and general public to better check those changes was defeated.

“I’m comfortable enough that these books have been reviewed by many, many people,” said Thomas Ratliff, a Republican and the board’s vice chairman. “They are not perfect, they never will be.”

The history, social studies and government textbooks were submitted for approval this summer, and since then, academics and activists on the right and left have criticized many of them. Some worry they are too sympathetic to Islam or downplay the achievements of President Ronald Reagan. Others say they overstate the importance of Moses on America’s Founding Fathers or trumpet the free-market system too much.

Bitter ideological disputes over what gets taught in Texas classrooms have for years attracted national attention. The new books follow the state academic curriculum adopted in 2010, when board Republicans approved standards including conservative-championed topics, like Moses and his influence on systems of law. They said those would counter what they saw as liberal biases in classrooms.

Friday’s 10-5 vote, with all Republicans supporting the books and Democrats opposing them, was the first of its kind since 2002. The books will be used for at least a decade.

Mavis Knight, a Dallas Democrat, said she couldn’t support books adhering to the 2010 academic standards.

“I think it’s a disservice to the students when we have a particular bent in which we present things to them,” said Knight, who is retiring and attended her last board meeting.”

The politics of public school curriculum is not a new issue.   John Stuart Mill, in 1869, in his major work, On Liberty, commented:   “A general State education is a mere contrivance for molding people to be exactly like one another; and as the mold in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government…it establishes a despotism of the mind.”

We congratulate the Texas School Board for verifying Mill’s observation.



Amid Student Protests – University of California to Raise Tuition 27.6%

California Tuition Hike

Dear Commons Community,

Over the protests of hundreds of angry and chanting students, a panel of the University of California Board of Regents gave preliminary approval yesterday to a plan to raise tuition 27.6 percent over five years, turning aside a last-ditch effort by Gov. Jerry Brown to block it. As reported in The New York Times:

The day unfolded as a showdown between Mr. Brown, who holds himself out as a force for fiscal restraint, and Janet Napolitano, the president of the university system, who has insisted that only more money from the state can head off the tuition increase. Mr. Brown has countered that if the regents went ahead with the increase, they would get less from Sacramento, not more, and he bolstered his position by appointing two allies this week to vacant seats on the board.

But even as sign-waving protesters tried to block entrances to the building, which led to shoving and jostling as officials tried to make their way in, Ms. Napolitano got her way: Under the plan, undergraduate tuition and fees for California residents would rise from $12,192 a year to as much as $15,560 in 2019-20.”

Versions of California’s higher education battles have been playing out in states across the country in recent years. State governments slashed support for public universities during the recession, driving big tuition increases and drawing criticism from political leaders. In several states, university administrators have frozen tuition, while protesting that they are still underfunded by their states.



Fewer Teacher Candidates Pass New York State Certification Exams!

Dear Commons Community,

New York State saw a significant drop in the number of candidates who passed teacher certification tests last year as tougher exams were introduced, state officials said yesterday, portraying the results as a long-needed move to raise the level of teaching and the performance of teacher preparation schools.   As reported in the New York Times:

“In the 2013-14 school year, 11,843 teachers earned their certification in New York, a drop of about 20 percent from the previous two years.

Candidates without certification cannot teach in public schools, and education schools with high failure rates may eventually lose their accreditation.

The fall in certifications resembles, in some respects, the state’s experience with the Common Core, a set of more rigorous learning standards for students that has been adopted by New York and most other states. New tests aligned with the Common Core have led to large drops in scores and criticism from parents, teachers and some governors.

State officials and some education advocates say the new standards will help bring the supply of teachers more in line with demand.

“New York is producing too many teachers, and for me that is the biggest takeaway,” said Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality. “If we really want to solve much of what ails the teaching profession, we need to be more selective.”


In New York, some education schools say the new teaching tests are hurting minority candidates the most. While many education experts celebrated New York’s result as an important step in enhancing teacher quality, state officials conceded that the new standards were likely to have a disproportionate impact on minority applicants. They described that situation as an extension of an achievement gap that begins in elementary school and continues throughout much of postsecondary education.

Administrators said they were starting to see some evidence of this at places like Lehman College in the Bronx, where passing rates for each of the new certification tests were lower than the statewide averages last year.

“We are largely serving what I would call minority populations not only because of the color of their skin,” said Harriet R. Fayne, the dean of the Lehman School of Education. “We serve recent immigrants. We serve individuals who have had interrupted formal education. We serve individuals whose first language might not be English.”

Ms. Fayne compared the first year of the new certification exams to the first year of testing under the Common Core, when test scores fell across much of the state. She said Lehman was working on several fronts to improve its passing rate in the coming years. “The issue is really one of time,” she said.”

Harriet Fayne makes a most significant point for those teacher education programs that serve largely minority and immigrant student populations.




On Renaming Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall!

Dear Commons Community,

One of New York City’s venerable institutions, Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall, the home of the New York Philharmonic, will have a new name soon. The announcement last week was that the Fisher family has agreed to relinquish the name so the Philharmonic and Lincoln Center can lure a large donor with the promise of rechristening the building. As reported in the New York Times:

“The unusual agreement, announced on Thursday, is a significant turnaround from 12 years ago, when the family of Avery Fisher, the music philanthropist who gave $10 million in 1973 to support the building, threatened legal action if the concert hall was rebuilt or renovated under a new name.

Lincoln Center is essentially paying the family $15 million for permission to drop the name and has included several other inducements, like a promise to feature prominent tributes to Mr. Fisher in the new lobby of the concert hall.

While the ability to raise money through naming opportunities has become a staple tool for arts organizations, perhaps no event speaks louder to its utility as a fund-raising mechanism than Lincoln Center’s willingness to pay the family of a veteran donor to step away so it can court a new benefactor…

Organizations like the Philharmonic and Lincoln Center cannot hope to raise the sums required for ambitious reconstructions or expansions without being able to dangle the carrot of a donor’s name emblazoned over the door.

“This unties the Gordian knot,” Katherine G. Farley, Lincoln Center’s chairwoman, said of the agreement. She said it was too early in the process to discuss whose name might replace Mr. Fisher’s on the building or what the price tag for such a high-profile philanthropic mantle might be.

The New York State Theater at Lincoln Center became the David H. Koch Theater in 2008, when Mr. Koch, the oil-and-gas billionaire, contributed $100 million toward its renovation. That same year, the New York Public Library’s flagship on Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street was named for Stephen A. Schwarzman, a Wall Street financier who donated $100 million toward that building’s expansion.

The Fisher agreement, which came together over the last three months, was made with the three children of Mr. Fisher, who died in 1994: Nancy Fisher, Charles Avery Fisher and Barbara Fisher Snow.”

Unfortunately the cost of major renovations have forced Lincoln Center to make these kinds of decisions but it seems crass to me that we are selling the names of New York City’s cultural jewels to the highest bidder. There are many New Yorkers, for instance, who resent the fact that the New York State Theater now bears the name of David Koch who has become a poster child for the corrupting impact of unrestrained and undisclosed money in American politics.



Child Homelessness Surges in the United States!

Homeless Children

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Dear Commons Community,

Child homelessness increased by 8 percent nationally from 2012 to 2013, according to the report, America’s Youngest Outcasts, issued  by the National Center on Family Homelessness. The report also warns of potentially devastating effects on children’s educational, emotional and social development, as well as on their parents’ health, employment prospects and parenting abilities.  The report included a composite index ranking the states (see above) on the extent of child homelessness, efforts to combat it, and the overall level of child well-being. States with the best scores were Minnesota, Nebraska and Massachusetts. At the bottom were Alabama, Mississippi and California.

As reported in The Huffington Post:

“The number of homeless children in the U.S. has surged in recent years to an all-time high, amounting to one child in every 30, according to a comprehensive state-by-state report that blames the nation’s high poverty rate, the lack of affordable housing and the impacts of pervasive domestic violence.

Titled “America’s Youngest Outcasts,” the report being issued Monday by the National Center on Family Homelessness calculates that nearly 2.5 million American children were homeless at some point in 2013. The number is based on the Department of Education’s latest count of 1.3 million homeless children in public schools, supplemented by estimates of homeless pre-school children not counted by the DOE.

The problem is particularly severe in California, which has one-eighth of the U.S. population but accounts for more than one-fifth of the homeless children with a tally of nearly 527,000.

Carmela DeCandia, director of the national center and a co-author of the report, noted that the federal government has made progress in reducing homelessness among veterans and chronically homeless adults.

“The same level of attention and resources has not been targeted to help families and children,” she said. “As a society, we’re going to pay a high price, in human and economic terms.”

It is a travesty that we allow this to happen in our country.  A couple of weeks ago we spent hundreds of millions of dollars on electioneering yet we struggle to provide assistance to homeless children.


International Student Numbers Continue Record-Breaking Growth in American Higher Education!

International Students

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Dear Commons Community,

American colleges and universities are attracting more international students than any other time in their history. In 2013-14, colleges in the United States enrolled a record 886,052 foreign students, an increase of 8 percent over the previous year, according to the latest “Open Doors” report from the Institute of International Education. As reported by The Chronicle of Higher Education:

“American campuses have never been more international.

While the boom in students from abroad is longstanding and well known, dig deeper into the data and you’ll find several trends that have implications for how colleges recruit overseas and create opportunities for American students to study abroad.

China remains the dynamo of global-student mobility, at times driving up international enrollments all by itself. In 2013-14, Chinese students accounted for almost 60 percent of the foreign-student growth at American colleges. Think about it this way: One of every three international students in the United States holds a Chinese passport…

The fast-growing group of student-visa holders aren’t seeking bachelor’s degrees or Ph.D.’s. They aren’t learning to speak in English. In fact, they aren’t actually studying at all.

They are part of a program known as Optional Practical Training, a designation that allows international students to temporarily stay and work in the United States after graduation.

More than one in 10 international students is on OPT, as the program is known, up 12 percent, the fourth consecutive annual increase.

Part of the growth is simply a result of the boom in international students, says Rajika Bhandari, deputy vice president for research and evaluation at the Institute of International Education. OPT is popular with foreign graduates whose employment options are limited during their studies and seize the opportunity to gain work experience for the job market when they return home.

The program is popular with some employers as well, particularly in Silicon Valley.

Having fallen short in efforts to change visa rules to make it easier for foreign graduates to stay in the United States, the Obama administration has extended the time that students in high-demand science and technology fields can remain in the country on OPT, from 12 to 29 months.”

This is an important trend that one, validates the quality of American higher education and two, provides an important cultural dynamic for those colleges that have a sizeable international student population.




Privacy Concerns for ClassDojo and Other Behavior-Tracking Apps for Schoolchildren!

Dear Commons Community,

The New York Times has an article today that raises important questions about a student behavior-tracking program, ClassDojo, that is used in many school districts throughout the country. As reported in the article:

“ClassDojo is used by at least one teacher in roughly one out of three schools in the United States, according to its developer. The app is among the innovations to emerge from the estimated $7.9 billion education software market aimed at students from prekindergarten through high school.

Many teachers say the app helps them automate the task of recording classroom conduct, as well as allowing them to communicate directly with parents.

But some parents, teachers and privacy law scholars say ClassDojo, along with other unproven technologies that record sensitive information about students, is being adopted without sufficiently considering the ramifications for data privacy and fairness, like where and how the data might eventually be used.

These critics also say that the carrot-and-stick method of classroom discipline is outmoded, and that behavior apps themselves are too subjective, enabling teachers to reward or penalize students for amorphous acts like “disrespect.” They contend that behavior databases could potentially harm students’ reputations by unfairly some with “a problem child” label that could stick with them for years.”

ClassDojo may mean well in assisting teachers dealing with behavior issues but the risk of this data falling into the wrong hands is too great.  School districts would be wise to adopt policies that establish its proper use and with the consent of parents.



Seven Out of Ten College Grads Carried Some Form of Student Debt in 2013!

Student Debt States 2013

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Dear Commons Community,

For the class of 2013, seven out of 10 college students nationwide carried some form of education debt when they graduated, according to the ninth annual Project on Student Debt report from the Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS), a nonprofit organization. The average graduate was $28,400 in the red, the report says. In six states, students graduated with an average of more than $30,000 in education debt, and only New Mexico grads came in below the $20K mark, with an average of $18,656 in school debt. As reported in The Huffington Post:

New Hampshire, Delaware and Pennsylvania had the highest average student debt loads at $32,795, $32,571 and $32,528, respectively. Pennsylvania and New Hampshire also have the most expensive public colleges in the country, according to Department of Education figures.

California had the second-lowest average student debt behind New Mexico, with the average Golden State grad owing $20,340, according to Thursday’s report.

“As more students borrow, and borrow more,” the report states, “concerns about the effects of student loan debt — for individuals and the broader economy — have risen.”

“High student loan debt, risky private loans, and even low debt when paired with low earnings, can hold borrowers back from starting a family, buying a home, saving for retirement, starting a business, or saving for their own children’s education,” the report continues.

For-profit colleges were not included in the analysis because out of the 595 proprietary, four-year degree institutions queried for the study, only eight agreed to report debt figures for their 2013 graduates. The report says that of the public and nonprofit private bachelor’s degree-granting colleges the researchers contacted, 57 percent agreed to provide data for the analysis.

Private student loans currently account for about $150 billion of the outstanding $1.2 trillion in student loan debt nationwide, or about 12 percent of overall education debt. However, nearly 20 percent of the class of 2013 had private student loans, the Project on Student Debt found — suggesting that the prevalence of such loans could be on the rise.

The private student debt load is important to look at, the report says, because those loans often have higher interest rates and offer little if any recourse for borrowers who struggle with high payments. Unlike government loans, private student loans come with no options for income-based repayment or loan forgiveness.”