Category Archives: Education / Youth

Time for a New GI Bill

I’ve been thinking.

There are a number of policy changes that would make a big difference in the lives of poor Americans. There is no doubt in my mind that we need to raise the minimum wage. We also need stronger banking regulations, better and lower-cost day care availability, and improved public education in our poorer neighborhoods, just for starters. These and many other measures would help narrow the wide gap between rich and poor.

But I want to suggest a more sweeping—and admittedly somewhat audacious—policy. I want to advocate for a new GI Bill.

Here’s my proposal: upon graduation from high school, students would enroll in a one-year program of civic service and civic education. Upon completion of that year, the government would pay for two years of college. The program would be open to everyone, but marketed heavily to the poor and disadvantaged.

Here’s my justification: we have massive amounts of research confirming that most Americans—rich or poor—know embarrassingly little about the economic and governmental structures within which they live. This civics deficit is far more pronounced in poor communities, where civics instruction (as with other educational resources) is scarce. Because civic knowledge is a predictor of civic participation, one result is that poor folks don’t vote in percentages equal to those of middle-class and wealthy Americans.

Of course, when people don’t vote, their interests aren’t represented.

As I’ve previously noted, Ferguson, Missouri, a town that is two-thirds African-American and has a virtually all-white power structure, reported a twelve percent voter turnout in its most recent municipal election.

Poverty explains more of this than race.

Poverty is a reliable predictor of low political participation and efficacy. Giving students from disadvantaged backgrounds an opportunity to go to college—an opportunity they may not have otherwise—and conditioning that opportunity on a year of civic learning and civic service—would do two extremely important things: it would give those students the civic skills they need in order to have a meaningful voice in the democratic process; and it would reduce the nation’s currently unconscionable level of student loan debt.

The need to borrow money in order to afford college keeps many young people from getting the education they need. It keeps others from taking lower-paying jobs with nonprofits and humanitarian organizations after they graduate. Our high level of student loan debt has been identified as a substantial drag on the economy, because payment on those loans is preventing many recent graduates from setting up households, buying homes and appliances and even starting families–all activities that keep the economy humming.

As with so many other aspects of contemporary American life, the burdens fall most heavily on those who can least afford them.

A new GI Bill along these lines would enable informed civic participation and give voice to the currently voiceless; and it would simultaneously addresses our horrific levels of student loan debt.

What’s not to like?

 

The Devil in the Details…..

Charter schools have become the flavor of the day for education reformers, and they clearly have some virtues. Unlike voucher programs that divert public school resources to private and parochial schools, charters are public schools, although operating under more flexible guidelines than their more traditional counterparts.

Philosophically, I have no quarrel with charter schools. (I have big problems with vouchers.) But I do have real issues with the very American tendency to prescribe one-size-fits-all solutions to complicated problems, and too many people have decided that charters are that quick and easy solution.

Charters were initially designed to be experimental–to try new approaches, to innovate in the classroom–and to offer parents a wider array of choices of educational philosophy. So far, so good. But as charters have proliferated without much in the way of accountability or evaluation, some of the reasons we need to tread with caution have emerged.  When Indianapolis’ Project School was closed for failure to perform, for example, parents who had chosen the school and were invested in its approach were furious and their children were uprooted. Ball State University, which had chartered some 20 schools, abruptly closed seven of them, with equally disruptive results.

And then there’s this…

While public schools must provide due process to students when making decisions about suspensions or expulsions, most states exempt charter schools from school district discipline policies. This lack of protection may have enabled some charter schools to suspend and expel students at much higher rates than their public counterparts. In San Diego, Green and his coauthors report, the city’s 37 charter schools have a suspension rate twice that of the public schools, while in Newark, the suspension rate in charter schools is 10 percent, compared to 3 percent for the city’s public schools….

It’s not just discipline, though; charter schools may be exempt from constitutional protections in areas like search and seizure and the exercise of religion. It’s obviously one thing for a Catholic school to require religion classes, but does the same logic apply to a charter school like Arizona’s Heritage Academy, which last month was criticized by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State for requiring 12th graders to read books claiming that God inspired the drafting of the Constitution.

So often, it isn’t what we choose to do. It’s how we choose to do it.

Charter schools–properly conceived, prudently financed and carefully monitored–can be part of the solution to our education woes. But they are not–and cannot be– a substitute for the hard work of fixing our public school systems.

 

 

About Those “Liberal” Professors

One of my graduate students pointed me to an interesting article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, highlighting a study into the persistent accusation that “liberal” professors are guilty of politically indoctrinating their students.

Dodson’s analysis of the data shows that students who get engaged academically are likely to increase their time talking about political issues and becoming engaged in civic life.

With regard to political views, academic engagement promoted moderation. “[T]he results indicate — in contrast to the concerns of many conservative commentators — that academic involvement generally moderates attitudes,” Dodson writes. “While conservative students do become more liberal as a result of academic involvement, liberals become more conservative as a result of their academic involvement. Indeed it appears that a critical engagement with a diverse set of ideas — a hallmark of the college experience — challenges students to re-evaluate the strength of their political convictions.”

The data on student activities demonstrate the opposite impact: The more involved that liberal students get, the more liberal they become, while the more involved conservative students get, the more conservative they become.”This finding suggests that students seek out and engage with familiar social environments — a choice that leads to the strengthening of their political beliefs.”

This research is consistent with a study I saw a few years ago: when people who were moderately inclined to believe X were placed in a discussion group with others who all believed X, they emerged from the experience much more invested in X. People who participated in more diverse discussions–who were placed in groups representing a range of positions on X–developed more nuanced (and less dogmatic) opinions about X.

It all comes back to what academics call motivated reasoning… the willingness of people invested in a particular worldview to choose the news and select the information environments that reinforce their pre-existing beliefs.

A good teacher provides students with a wide range of relevant information, at least some  of which will inevitably challenge their worldviews. As I tell my students, it’s my job to confuse you. I’ll know I’ve succeeded if, after taking my class, students use two phrases more frequently: “it depends,” and “it’s more complicated than that.”

Because, really–it is more complicated than that.

 

 

 

Ignoring Civics at DOE

The U.S. Department of Education has published draft priorities for discretionary grant programs for next year and has invited public comment.

The current draft includes 15 priorities–none of which is civic education.

To read the department’s priorities you can go here   and scroll down the page. On the upper-right-hand corner of the page you will see the words “Comment Now.” I hope everyone reading this will enter a comment. The deadline is July 24. Tell the Department of Education to include civic education as a priority.

National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) findings confirm that most of our students are not receiving a remotely adequate grounding in civics and government. Those findings are consistent with a massive amount of research documenting a widespread lack of knowledge about America’s political structure and government, and the omission of civic education from the draft priorities is inconceivable to me.

Basic civic knowledge operates like a common language–it allows us to communicate with each other. It is the foundation upon which so much else depends.

Please tell DOE that civics is essential, and that its omission is unacceptable!

 

It Isn’t Only Science That’s Getting Distorted

The other day, I shared a study that found over 300 publicly-funded religious schools teaching creationism while denigrating and misrepresenting science.

Today, let me share what Salon reporter–and former history teacher– Katie Halper found when she looked to see what those same schools were teaching as history. (These “lessons” are from A Beka Book, used in an estimated 9,000 religious schools, but other materials widely-used by religious schools are consistent.)

  • The Great Depression was “an imaginary crisis” invented to “move the country toward socialism.” The Grapes of Wrath was propaganda.
  • Hitler was a socialist who combined Marxist thought with Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.
  • When the death penalty was suspended in 1972, crime began to increase; when the Court handed down Roe v. Wade the following year, it led to “an increase in white-collar crime [and] the legalization of gambling.” Worse still, in the wake of that decision, “many psychologists began advocating the teachings of Sigmund Freud.”
  • Free speech is dangerous and encourages ungodly behaviors. “Pornographic films and books have been legalized under the guise of ‘freedom of speech.’”

There’s much, much more, but you get the drift.

Not long ago, federal courts struck down the voucher program in Bobby Jindal’s Louisiana, after schools participating in that program were found to be teaching similar materials. As I wrote at that time,

A report from Louisiana Progress, a good-government business group, is instructive. The group petitioned the Board of Education to set at least minimal standards for schools receiving vouchers–evidence that the schools have adequate physical facilities, that they not dramatically increase either tuition or enrollment in order to benefit financially from the program, etc. Calling the program “poorly thought out and poorly implemented,” the report noted that schools selected to participate were not chosen on the basis of educational quality. Most were religious, and many of those quite fundamentalist: the New Living Word School had been approved to increase its enrollment from 122 to 315 students, despite lacking physical facilities for that number; increased its tuition from 200/month to 8500/year, and has a basketball team but no library. Students “spend most of the day watching TV. ..Each lesson consists of an instructional DVD that intersperses bible verses with subjects like chemistry or composition.”

Another voucher school, the Upperroom Bible Church Academy, operates in “a bunker-like building with no windows or playground.”

There are 120 private schools authorized to receive vouchers in Louisiana. A significant percentage are “Bible-based” institutions with what have been characterized as “extreme anti-science and anti-history curriculums” that champion creationism. (One is run by a former state legislator who refers to himself as a “prophet or apostle.” Wouldn’t that encourage you to enroll your child??) A number use textbooks produced by Bob Jones University.

Mother Jones has a list of 14 favorite lessons being taught by Louisiana’s voucher schools. Among them: dinosaurs and people hung out together; gays have no more claims to ‘special rights’ than child molesters and rapists.

Whatever the theory behind vouchers, the reality is that all too often they are diverting money from substandard public schools (making it much more difficult for those schools to improve), and redirecting that money to fundamentalist religious schools that make a mockery of the term “education.”

And this makes sense how? And to whom?