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Commentary

When “Fairness” is No Longer Fair

When a girl was denied admittance to her school’s gifted program because her family’s income was too high, it exposed the inherent unfairness of certain policies designed to redress economic inequality in public school.

In February 2010, Hannah Workman, a fifth grader and straight-A student in Florida’s Clay County School District, was denied entrance to her elementary school’s gifted program because she did not score high enough on the entrance exam. Remarkably, her mother later learned that Hannah would have scored high enough to enter the program if her family earned less. 

The standards on the entrance exam, she discovered, were based on income level and English proficiency. Students who qualified for free or reduced lunch or who spoke limited English only had to score in the 90s to qualify, while other children needed to score at least 130.

Though seemingly a minor footnote in the story of America’s public schools, the testing policy of this Florida school district cuts to the core of the philosophical debate over the role of education raging among educators and policy makers. It reveals much about the changing definition of “fairness” and the problem with using publicly-funded education to redress social inequality.

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Commentary Video

Changing Education Paradigms

In this talk, Sir. Ken Robinson lays out the link between three troubling trends: rising drop-out rates, schools’ dwindling stake in the arts, and ADHD. Robinson argues that we shouldn’t be anesthetizing/medicating our children to get them through school, we should be waking them up and stimulating their curiosity and creativity. An important, timely talk for parents and teachers.

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Reviews

The Road to Whatever

road-to-whateverIn The Road to Whatever: Middle-Class Culture and the Crisis of Adolescence, Elliot Currie diagnoses a growing crisis of youth in the American mainstream. Statistically and anecdotally, it seems that alienation, desperation, and violence have slowly crept into the one demographic that has always appeared safe. Currie argues that zero-tolerance policies, pressure to succeed, and lack of social services has exacerbated this crisis. In the decade since publication, however, the U.S. has seen a marked decrease in teen pregnancy, drug use (including alcohol and tobacco), and violence.

Anecdotal evidence is not enough to indicate a trend, let alone a crisis, but according to Currie, white youth are at measurably high levels of risk for suicide, traffic accidents, drug abuse, and binge drinking compared to youth in other racial and ethnic categories. “It is increasingly clear that being middle class and white does not provide reliable protection against even the worst perils of adolescence,” he argues. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), however, homicide rates among African-American males 10-24 years of age far exceed those of white males in the same age group (51.5 vs 2.9 per 100,000 in 2010).

Currie argues that denial, incomprehension, or demonization has characterized our response to this crisis. As evidenced by the media’s handling of the Columbine shootings, at-risk suburban youth are portrayed as “other-than”—somehow fundamentally different and separate from their peers. Parents, politicians, and pundits often blame factors like the erosion of discipline, growing leniency and indulgence, and weakened authority of parents and schools for this violence.

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Commentary

Toward a Medicaid Model of Public Education

Over the past several years, education reformers (as well as parents) have come to ask fundamental questions about the nature of our public school system. Why, for example, despite the ever-increasing amount of tax dollars spent per pupil in grades K-12, have increases in test scores virtually flat lined since the 1970s? Why has improvement in the quality of K-12 education not kept pace with technological and scientific development? Why have public schools failed to properly prepare so many students for entering the workplace?

One answer is that public schools lack any incentive to produce results, innovate, to be efficient, and to make the kinds of difficult changes that private schools operating in a competitive market must make to survive. If a private school is performing poorly, or they find the curriculum lacking, parents can enroll their children somewhere else. Currently, the high property taxes that fund public schools insure that many parents are not able to afford to have that choice.

Some have advocated a voucher system as a solution to this dilemma. Essentially, voucher advocates argue that tax dollars set aside for education should “follow the child” to the school of his or her parents’ choice. A check or coupon worth roughly the amount we currently spend per student in grades K-12 would be given to each child. That way, parents who want to send their children to private school, but could not afford to under the current system, would be able to use their voucher to pay for their child’s tuition.

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Commentary

Rethinking ‘School’

Few institutions in the United States create more cognitive dissonance than its public school system. Complaints about the cost and quality of American schools fill newspaper opinion pages, and the rhetoric of “improving education” is a staple of every political campaign. Missing from this debate, however, is the role each and every person plays in his or her own education. This responsibility is much more important in determining quality of education than how much money is spent. Even the poorest among us, by embracing a return to the fundamentals of school, can take advantage of all being an educated person has to offer.

The time is ripe for a new way of looking at school. A Wall Street Journal and NBC poll taken in September 2010 found that 58% of those surveyed think public schools need “major changes” and only 5% believe they “work pretty well.” The pessimism of these respondents is justified. In 2005, for example, a study called “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” led to a twofold increase in Federal funding for science education. A recent Congressional review of the results, however, found little improvement in U.S. elementary and secondary science education.

More public funding and more Federal interference in science classrooms had virtually no effect in raising test scores, because simply doing more of the same thing is not going to solve the problem. We not only need to challenge what it means to be “educated” in the U.S., we need to recognize the limits of publicly funded or government-controlled education.

Proponents of publicly funded education are correct in insisting that education empowers, but their arguments in favor of continued government intervention in schooling can only be sustained as long as “being educated” is defined by the state. Currently, a person who is educated in the eyes of the state is a person who has passed all required exams, meaning that he or she has memorized certain facts and is able to recite them with over 70% accuracy.

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Commentary Video

How to Escape Education’s Death Valley

Here’s another great TED talk on education by Sir. Ken Robinson. In this video, he outlines 3 principles crucial for the human mind to flourish — and how current education culture works against them. He highlights how the number of students disengaged from school is just as bad as the number who drop out of school, and how this lack of interest in education drags down our economy. By focusing on conformity and standardization, kids aren’t being engaged in their individual curiosity, interests, and talents.

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Reviews

Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids

freaks-geeks-and-cool-kidsIn Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids: American Teenagers, Schools, and the Culture of Consumption, Murray Milner, Jr. examines the relationships that lead to the formation of school cliques while, at the same time, attempting to tackle the problems of caste-like divisions and the increase in alcohol and drug use and casual sex among teens.

Milner argues that traditional explanations for teenage behavior, such as hormones, psychological development, parenting styles, and social background, are less important than the way adults have used schools to “organize young people’s daily activities” and the systems that teens have constructed in response to that organization. Milner also explores the role of consumerism in teen identity formation.

Generally, the formation of school cliques boils down to one concern: status. Why are teens in the United States so concerned with status? “It is because they have so little real economic or political power,” Milner explains. Teens have very little say over what happens in school or the subjects they study, so they concentrate on the one area where they do have power: the power to create their own status systems.

In order to maintain status, “insiders” must make it difficult to gain that status, so they frequently change and complicate the norms. That is, according to Milner, the source of teenage concern over possessing the latest fashions, music, and lingo. Businesses have spun this concern into a multi-billion dollar industry.