Category Archives: Education

Teachers Unions

Seventeen years and a host of education reforms separate public declarations by its highest-ranking officials that the nation’s largest labor union should become a leader of education reform. Children who were just entering the public school system when National Education Association (NEA) president Bob Chase addressed the National Press Club in 1997 are adults now, perhaps with children of their own. NEA executive director John Stocks issued the same call to arms in 2014.

The teachers unions now face an environment in which their traditional enemies are emboldened, their traditional allies are deserting, and some of their most devoted activists are questioning the leadership of their own officers.

The events of the last five years have led the two national teachers unions to what normally is referred to as “the moment of truth.” But truth is tricky to define when perceptions are an integral part of the unions’ influence. Even weakened, together the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) constitute the single most powerful force in American education policy. Nothing moves forward without an answer to one question: What will the union do?

Will the NEA and the AFT continue to exert veto power over education reform? Are their recent setbacks the beginning of an irreversible decline? Will they become more militant or less as the years go on?

Predicting the future is a hazardous business, but if what’s past is prologue, we can at least make a reasonable estimation that assumes no unprecedented, revolutionary change in direction. Considering the quotes above, that seems to be a safe assumption.

A Nation at Risk may have jolted the education world, but it had no effect on the growth and power of teachers unions. They enjoyed substantial boosts in membership each year, as the hiring of teachers and education support employees grew at historic rates. There were periodic national efforts at education reform, such as Goals 2000, but the unions weathered these storms, and the winds eventually died down.

President George W. Bush signs the No Child Left Behind Act into law, with Representative George Miller and Senator Edward Kennedy behind him (from left)

The first sign that the world was changing around them was the passage of the No Child Behind Act (NCLB) in 2001. Staunch union allies such as Representative George Miller of California and Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts co-authored the bill, and it passed Congress by wide margins, with more Democratic votes than Republican ones.

The accountability provisions of the law bedevil the unions to this day, but the large increase in federal education spending ended up helping the unions’ bottom line, as still more teachers and support workers were hired.

The situation was further complicated by Obama’s embrace of education reforms the NEA found anathema. He gave moderate praise to performance pay. As a U.S. senator, he was the only Democrat to introduce an NCLB-related bill that the union opposed. The NEA analysis of the proposed legislation claimed it favored “1) establishing a teacher evaluation system using gains in student test scores; 2) allowing ‘community stakeholders’ to have a role in designing teacher evaluation systems; and 3) providing merit pay for teachers based upon gains in student test scores.”

As a result, the NEA did not get around to endorsing Obama until after he had clinched the nomination. They worked hard to help elect him in 2008, but it was clear that he felt no special obligation to the unions when he named Arne Duncan as U.S. secretary of education, instead of union favorite Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford.

Duncan has since become the bête noire of the teachers unions, but his selection and subsequent actions signified a clear continuity in education policy from Obama the candidate to Obama the president. Coupled with the growing influence of Democrats for Education Reform, it was now OK to be a Democrat without kowtowing to the unions on every education issue.

But let’s not go crazy. When the recession hit, the Obama administration’s first instinct was to protect the jobs of educators. Secretary Duncan claimed the stimulus package of 2009 funded more than 300,000 education jobs. Follow-on legislation, the so-called “edujobs” bill of 2010, was purported to save 160,000 more.

President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan visit a school in Chicago in December 2008, just after Duncan’s nomination

As mammoth as the spending was, these were short-term fixes. Education hiring actually grew 2.3 percent during the recession, but then fell off a cliff when the money ran out. Educators experienced the Great Recession about two years after everyone else.

Reductions in force meant fewer teachers-union members, which meant reduced revenue for the unions. Budgetary concerns also provided the impetus for Republicans seeking to curb the power of teachers unions, the primary example being the passage in 2011 of Act 10 in Wisconsin, which greatly restricted the bargaining power of NEA and AFT affiliates in the state, and ultimately reduced their dues-paying membership by more than one-third.

Right-to-work legislation followed in Indiana and Michigan, and in places where teachers unions were already struggling—like Arizona, Idaho, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Tennessee—membership fell by 20 percent or more. The 3,000-member University of Hawaii Professional Assembly left the NEA and became independent.

Today, the NEA’s membership is down more than 9 percent over the last four years. The AFT claims its membership is steady, though it has maintained it by affiliating unions outside the field of education, and not by recruiting a horde of new teachers. The percentage of teachers who are union members has dropped (see Figure 1).

The question dogging both national unions and their affiliates is how to turn this state of affairs around. There seem to be two alternatives, roughly analogous to a choice between war and diplomacy.

One faction, existing in both unions, wants to man the barricades, fight over every inch of territory, and take no prisoners. It sees education reformers outside of the union sphere as either corporate privatizers seeking to grasp some of the $640 billion this country spends annually on public schools, or their tools.

The most identifiable leaders of this militant faction are Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, Alex Caputo-Pearl of United Teachers Los Angeles, Bob Peterson of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, and Barbara Madeloni of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

union officers address an audience of union activists, the world is described in Manichaean terms. Standardized testing is not just misused, it is “toxic.” Opponents are not just opponents, they are adversaries “who want to destroy our democracy and our public schools”—for money. These enemies are identified by name: the Koch Brothers, the Cato Institute, Americans for Prosperity, Pearson, Inc., Democrats for Education Reform, Michelle Rhee, and Arne Duncan.

The only force standing in their way is the teachers union—“the champions of equity,” who “define solutions that drive excellence and success for all students,” as described by former NEA president Dennis Van Roekel in his keynote address to the Representative Assembly in July 2014. Union activists, in the words of John Stocks, spoken two years earlier, are “social justice patriots” who “put the power of our soul to work to defend democracy, to fight for equal opportunity, and to create a more just society.”

That plays well with the troops, whose enthusiasm and commitment are needed to advance the agenda. Unfortunately for the teachers unions, the wider world is not an echo chamber of their beliefs. To the general public, many of whom have little idea what the NEA and the AFT actually do, it sounds more than a little hyperbolic and self-congratulatory.

The external message cannot be so bellicose. Both the NEA and the AFT need allies, including those who might not sign on to the totality of the unions’ vision for public education and American politics. Even with their opponents, they cannot escalate every confrontation to Armageddon. Compromises occur.

Union officers are also aware that it is detrimental to their cause to be constantly saying “no” to so many proposals for school reform. Thus the external message is devoted to depicting an organization that is forward-thinking and innovative when it comes to operating the nation’s schools.

The problem for the unions’ establishment wing is that the internal message leads their devotees to believe that such compromises, collaborations, and accommodations are selling out the movement. They are not always wrong about that.

While both national unions decry the corporate influence on education, they have partnerships with large corporations on many levels: sponsorships of union events, discount arrangements and credit cards as part of member benefits packages, funding for joint projects, etc. The NEA even went so far as to team up with Walden Media on a book-buying initiative for needy children. Walden Media produced Waiting for Superman, a documentary about families trying to get their kids into charter schools. It was especially critical of teachers unions.

Union activists often depict the Gates Foundation as the mastermind behind corporate education reform. But in 2009, when the foundation announced it would award $335 million to a number of school districts and charter schools to promote teacher effectiveness, the union response was a far cry from the anticorporate rhetoric it regularly delivers to its internal audience.

“These districts, working with their unions and parents, were willing to think out of the box, and were awarded millions of dollars to create transparent, fair, and sustainable teacher effectiveness models,” said AFT president Randi Weingarten.

“Collaboration and multilevel integration are important when it comes to transforming the teaching profession,” said then NEA president Van Roekel. “These grants will go far in providing resources to help raise student achievement and improve teacher effectiveness.”

The NEA’s own foundation received $550,000 from the Gates Foundation to “improve labor-management collaboration.” The AFT accrued more than $10 million from the Gates Foundation, until internal pressures forced the union to end some of the grants. And of course, the Gates Foundation helped bankroll the development of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), which both unions continue to officially support (see “Teachers Unions and the Common Core,” features, Winter 2015).

The militant wing is mostly hostile to CCSS, seeing the standards as part and parcel of the corporate education-reform agenda. The establishment wing has been forced to triangulate by defending the standards but attacking the way they have been implemented.

The split between the two factions was illustrated at the 2014 AFT Convention. The delegation from Chicago introduced a resolution to place the AFT in full opposition to CCSS, but it was handily defeated in committee, a committee dominated by New York City’s United Federation of Teachers, the backbone of the AFT’s establishment wing.

Instead, AFT delegates passed a resolution stating the union would “continue to support the promise of CCSS, provided that a set of essential conditions, structures and resources are in place.”

The future of high school education

Class Families Choose Charters

Extraordinary about this December morning gathering of about 40 middle-school parents in the multipurpose room at BASIS San Antonio North charter school. The topic: a “charters 101” presentation about Texas charter-school politics.

Then came the pitch: Are you willing to write a letter to state officials asking permission for BASIS to open up K–5 schools to feed into their existing middle schools? Sure, many of the parents answered.

Parents lobbying on behalf of charter schools is nothing new. Who doesn’t remember the massive march in New York City—thousands of children and parents trudging across the Brooklyn Bridge wearing T-shirts with slogans such as “My Child, My Choice,” all to protest the crackdown on charters by New York’s new mayor?

But there’s more to this story. The two BASIS charter schools in San Antonio, along with a Great Hearts Academies charter, are part of an effort to lure top charter schools into the city, and not just into the low-income neighborhoods where charters are traditionally found. San Antonio and the surrounding Bexar County are served by 17 independent school districts,

he rise in middle-class students attending charter schools is largely masked by the overall growth of charter schools: over the last five years, the number of charter schools has grown nationally from 4,690 to just over 6,000. There are now 43 communities where at least 20 percent of the students attend charters, reports the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Most of that growth is found in low-income, high-minority neighborhoods such as those in Los Angeles. Between 2005 and 2010, the percentage of suburban charters actually fell from 25 to 21 percent of the total. Thus, what’s happening in San Antonio, Washington, D.C., Denver, and cities across the country remains hidden.

There are some compelling reasons why growth in charters that appeal to middle-class parents is likely to continue. As researchers have documented (see “U.S. Students from Educated Families Lag in International Tests,” features, Fall 2014), even middle-class and suburban parents have reason to find fault with their schools. And while most still trust their local schools, those who don’t are enough to fill schools such as BASIS and Great Hearts.

Changing the Game in San Antonio

BASIS Schools and Great Hearts Academies were the obvious choices, and they quickly set up San Antonio operations (BASIS in 2013 and Great Hearts in 2014) that they plan to expand. Their schools couldn’t be more different. BASIS, which offers students a chance to pursue world-class academics at their own pace, also grants its students (and teachers) world-class freedoms. Wear what your mood that morning dictates and express yourself loudly in the hallways and cafeteria seem to be the rules. Considering the heavy homework load at these schools, the trade-off seems fair.At Great Hearts Monte Vista, also in San Antonio, students wear uniforms, file quietly through the halls, and study the Great Books.

By contrast, Great Hearts students wear uniforms, file quietly through the halls, and study the Great Books. Found on each classroom wall are the Great Hearts nine “core virtues”: humility, integrity, friendship, perseverance, wisdom, courage, responsibility, honesty, and citizenship.

At Great Hearts, prospective teachers are first reviewed for their character. At BASIS, teachers are first reviewed for their content knowledge; PhDs are not uncommon (see “High Scores at BASIS Charter Schools,” features, Winter 2014). But while the schools have radically different feels, what I found interesting was the number of parents with one child in BASIS and another in Great Hearts. To them, what mattered most were the highly rigorous academics. After that, choosing a school was more about the personal style of the child.

As I discovered in my interviewing, there’s an unexpected sweet spot for charters: middle-class parents who are desperate for a curriculum that will challenge their bored sons and daughters but who are unable or unwilling to pay private school tuitions (see “The Right Choice” sidebar below). For those parents, schools such as BASIS may lack lush soccer fields, but the academics equal or surpass those of many private schools, all at the right price: free.

Anyone expecting these schools to be white enclaves will be surprised. At the two BASIS schools, 36 percent of the students are white, 33 percent Hispanic, and 24 percent Asian/Pacific Islander. The schools appear to be especially appealing to South Asian families. At Great Hearts, about half the students are white; few are Asian. This school attracts a great many middle-class Hispanics, including families who want their children to be part of the next-generation San Antonio leadership. The metropolitan area is about 55 percent Hispanic.

Intentionally Diverse Schools

That diversity was achieved by building a regional coalition that includes two suburban communities, Lincoln and Cumberland, and two urban, Central Falls and Pawtucket. A lottery pulls equal numbers from all four, but the lottery is also weighted toward low-income students.

Blackstone is an ideal school for answering a key question: do charters that serve a socioeconomic mix of students look and feel different from charters that target only low-income students? In short, yes. Leslie Royal, a BVP parent who works as dean of operations at a Blackstone elementary school, previously worked at an urban “no excuses” charter school. That strict culture was appropriate for the students there, she said, but not necessarily for her son. “Many middle-class parents who are relatively successful in their fields know how to prep their kids to start kindergarten and what experiences they need to expose them to for their kids to be well-rounded, and eventually get to college (for example, trips to museums and zoos). In my experience at an urban no-excuses school, the rigid discipline and structures we put in place allowed us to focus on the urgent academic intervention that our students there desperately needed. Our focus was closing the achievement gap, which meant that academics were the most important thing.” Royal had no hesitations about enrolling her son at Blackstone.

Unlike Blackstone, E. L. Haynes Public Charter School is subject to the same lottery used by all charters in Washington, D.C., which forbids weighting that would allow them to favor some students over others. That said, from its beginnings in 2004, Haynes founder Jennifer Niles was determined to both educate underserved students and preserve racial and socioeconomic diversity. “She didn’t think we should be working toward having a community that was racially and socioeconomically segregated,” said Rich Pohlman, acting head of school. (In December 2014, Niles was appointed D.C.’s deputy mayor for education.)

Leaders at Haynes, however, are not giving up on boosting diversity in the upper grades. “This is the first year for our senior class,” said Pohlman. “It’s the first year where we’ll have proof points about where kids go to college. After a few years of that, I anticipate having the demographics become more stable.”

School Reform

Changes in Support for School Reform

In retrospect it looks as if 2014, an election year that swept Republicans into power in Congress and many state capitals, propelled school reform to a high-water mark that has proven difficult to sustain. For three years in a row now, we have asked either identical or quite similar questions on several issues. On a surprising number of them, support for policy changes has slipped in 2015 from peaks attained in 2014, though sometimes the fall is to a level that remains above the one reached in 2013. None of the changes are large, and some of the shifts fall short of statistical significance, leaving it unclear as to whether a true change has taken place. But consider the overall pattern of responses across major parts of the school reform agenda (see Figure 4):

· Charter schools. Support for charter schools has dipped from a high of 54% in 2014 to 51% in 2015, the same level as in 2013. However, the percentage supporting charters remains twice that of the 27% expressing opposition.

· Tax credits for scholarships for low-income students. Support for a tax credit for businesses and individuals who contribute to private-school scholarships for low-income families has also fallen, to 55% from 60% in 2014. (This question was not asked in 2013.)

· Vouchers for low-income students. Backing for the use of “government funds to pay the tuition of low-income students who choose to attend private schools” has fallen steadily—from 41% to 37% between 2013 and 2014, with a further (though not statistically significant) drop to just 34% in 2015.

· Universal vouchers. Public enthusiasm for universal vouchers without regard to income has slipped from 50% in 2014 to 46% in 2015, just a bit higher than the 44% level reported in 2013. (However, these changes are not statistically significant and the comparison is not exact, as the question in 2015 for the first time included the word “all,” clearly presenting vouchers as a universal benefit for every family.)

· Merit pay for teachers. People are not fully embracing policy reforms affecting teachers. Between 2014 and 2015, public support for merit pay has slid from 57% to 51%, about the same as in 2013, when merit pay garnered support from 49% of the population. Even so, just 34% of the population opposes merit pay, with the remainder taking a neutral position.

·Tenure. Between 2014 and 2015, public opposition to teacher tenure has also slipped, from 57% to 51%, just above the 47% level attained in 2013. Nonetheless, current public support for teacher tenure is just 29%, a little more than half the size of the opposition.

One hesitates to read too much into shifts in opinion that are only modestly larger than what a statistical aberration might account for—and in some cases, not even that big. Perhaps the higher levels of support we observed in 2014 reflected temporary shocks to public opinion stemming from events such as Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s recall election and the landmark Vergara v. California decision that struck down California’s teacher evaluation and tenure laws, both of which took place while our survey was in the field. But school reformers might take the 2015 findings as a red light on the dashboard, a warning that efforts to alter the public’s thinking on education policy may be faltering.

Expenditures and Salaries

In its 2016 budget, the Obama administration has proposed a new billion-dollar federal program, Teaching for Tomorrow, which requests an additional $1 billion in federal funding for services to children from low-income families. It also calls for more money for English language acquisition programs, civil rights enforcement, and special education services. Reporters nonetheless have pronounced the budget “dead on arrival,” as Congress is reluctant to increase spending at a time when the country is running a large fiscal deficit. Consistent with these reports, the House of Representatives has passed a budget resolution that calls for a more than 8% cut in federal spending.

Missing from virtually all the media coverage of these developments are answers to a few basic questions: How much do we currently spend per pupil? How much does the federal government contribute to the total expenditure? And does the public think spending should be increased? To gauge people’s knowledge and views on these matters, we asked our respondents a series of questions concerning school spending.

Americans greatly underestimate the amount of money spent on schools. According to the federal government’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the school districts in which our survey respondents resided spent an average of $12,440 per pupil in 2012 (the most recent data available). But when we ask respondents to estimate per-pupil expenditures in their local school district, they guess, on average, just $6,307, a little more than half actual spending levels.

Our survey found that people are often willing to alter their thinking when given additional information. Before asking our respondents if they thought spending in their districts should be increased, we told half of them what the current spending levels were. The other half were left uninformed. Among those not informed, 58% favor increases in spending. That support drops to 42% when people are told the actual level of expenditures (after having provided their own estimate).

Respondents who most seriously underestimate spending levels are the ones most likely to change their minds when told the facts. When those who underestimate school expenditures by $5,000 or less are told real spending levels, their support for increased spending drops by 12 percentage points. Among those who underestimate expenditures by more than $5,000, the downward opinion shift, upon being informed of real levels, is 20 percentage points. On the other hand, those who overestimate expenditures barely budge in their opinions when told their districts spend less than they thought.


The Rise of AltSchool

As of yet, there is no common definition that covers all these schools, which vary not only by size and cost but also in their education philosophies and operating models. Think one-room schoolhouse meets blended learning and home schooling meets private schooling.

As Matt Candler, founder of 4.0 Schools, writes, “What makes a modern micro-school different from a 19th century, one-room schoolhouse is that old school schools only had a few ways to teach — certainly no software, no tutors, and probably less structure around student to student learning. In a modern micro-school, there are ways to get good data from each of these venues. And the great micro-school of the future will lean on well-designed software to help adults evaluate where each kid is learning.”

Several factors are driving their emergence. Micro-schools are gaining traction among families who are dissatisfied with the quality of public schooling options and cannot afford or do not want to pay for a traditional private-school education. These families want an option other than home schooling that will personalize instruction for their child’s needs. A school in which students attend a couple days a week or a small school with like-minded parents can fit the bill.

Acton Academy

At roughly the same time as QuantumCamp’s founding, in Austin, Texas, Jeff Sandefer, founder of the nationally acclaimed Acton School of Business, and his wife Laura, who has a master’s degree in education, launched Acton Academy. In creating the five-day-a-week, all-day school, the couple sought to ensure that their own children wouldn’t be “talked at all day long” in a traditional classroom. The Acton Academy’s mission is “to inspire each child and parent who enters [its] doors to find a calling that will change the world.” The school promises that students will embark on a “hero’s journey” to discover the unique contributions that they can make toward living a life of meaning and purpose.

Acton compresses students’ core learning into a two-and-a-half-hour personalized-learning period each day during which students learn mostly online. This affords time for three two-hour project-based learning blocks each week, a Socratic seminar each day, game play on Fridays, ample art and physical education offerings, and many social experiences. The Socratic discussions teach students to talk, listen, and challenge ideas in a face-to-face circle of peers and guides.

Early results appear impressive, as the first group of students gained 2.5 grade levels of learning in their first 10 months. Now the school is spreading. There are currently eight Acton Academies operating—seven of them in the United States. Twenty-five are slated to be open by 2015. The Sandefers are not operating them, however; they provide communities that want to open an Acton clone a do-it-yourself kit plus limited consulting and access to wiki discussion groups. They are developing a game-based learning tool to help prepare Acton Academy owners and the learning guides in the schools. Tuition at the academies ranges from $4,000 per year to $9,900.

Key to the development of the AltSchool model is a proprietary, integrated software backbone that will handle everything from student learning in its schools to the operations of a network of private micro-schools. As at Acton Academy, students are grouped only loosely by age. Students spend about half their time on core subjects and work through personalized playlists built around third-party curricular materials. The rest of the day is spent on longer-term projects that can span as many as six weeks, according to a profile of the school in Fast Company.

Four AltSchools are open in San Francisco, with a combined 150 students enrolled, and more locations are coming, including schools in Palo Alto and Brooklyn Heights, New York, in the fall of 2015. Tuition ranges from $20,875 for elementary school in San Francisco to $28,250 for the Brooklyn middle school. For additional fees, each individual AltSchool will bring in specialists outside of the core school day to teach extracurricular classes based on the interests of the school’s families. AltSchool plans to drop its price tag significantly in the years ahead as the software improves, the school network scales, and it can bring down the internal cost each year.

Will it work? We’ll see, but notably, Ventilla told Fast Company that the traditional randomized-control trial approach to research is meaningless in a “personalization first” context. “You’re not thinking about the global population as one unit that gets this experience or that experience,” he told the magazine. “Something that’s better for 70% of the kids and worse for 30% of the kids—that’s an unacceptable outcome for us. AltSchool isn’t a particular approach.”

Competency-Based Education

Federal policymakers are increasingly talking about “competency-based learning” as the way of the future. In a competency-based system, students advance upon mastery. This model marks a sharp departure from the school system’s traditional metric:  hours spent in the classroom studying a specific subject.

At the turn of the 20th century, in an effort to standardize high school curricula and college admissions, a committee at the National Education Association determined that a satisfactory year’s work in a given high-school subject would require no fewer than 120 one-hour instructional periods. In 1909, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching codified this standard as the Carnegie unit, or credit unit. Since then, the education system has measured student progress in terms of instructional hours, not student learning. So long as a student logs the necessary hours and receives a passing grade, he can move on to the next course, regardless of gaps in his understanding. And a passing grade may be based in part on non-academic factors like attendance, extra credit, and good behavior, rather than demonstration of mastery.

Today, the Carnegie unit is showing its age, as more educators recognize that the time-based measure leaves students susceptible to moving on to material before they are ready, or remaining mired in a subject that they have already mastered. In addition to introducing flexible pacing, competency-based education attempts to import newfound rigor to the concept of “mastery.” In this new system, “competencies” describe what students should know,as well as what they should be able to do. Competency-based assessments aim to test students’ ability to demonstrate what they can do in real-world applications and across a variety of contexts.

Policies that allow institutions to measure student progress in terms of mastery rather than credit hours are beginning to take hold in K–12 and higher education. The U.S. Department of Education recently committed a wave of Experimental Sites Initiative funding to supporting competency-based approaches in postsecondary education, and more than 300 institutions are lining up to be among the approved experimenters. In K–12 education, states are following suit: 42 states have granted schools the flexibility to incorporate competency approaches in some form or fashion. Among states promoting K–12 efforts, New Hampshire has been a trailblazer.

The state’s move has enabled many innovative schools to transform the schooling experience for students. But spreading competency-based practice has also proven challenging in a state with a strong tradition of local control. One superintendent captured the wider sentiment when he said in an interview last year, “Frankly, a lot of superintendents don’t like the state telling them what to do in their districts.”

The state has struggled to balance a culture of autonomy with furnishing school districts with supports and guidance to move away from time-based practices. “The state is supportive in theory,” a New Hampshire school leader said. “They like the idea of competencies. I don’t think they’ve really thought through what has to happen for those things to be viable.” The challenge of providing meaningful supports is made more acute by the fact that the field at large is still attempting to research and understand exactly what is required—logistically, pedagogically, and culturally—to transition to a fully competency-based system. As a result, the state has found itself tasked not only with providing what districts say they need, but also with identifying still-emerging best practices in how to transition from time- to competency-based systems and structures.

Detroit’s Broken School System

Detroit is a classic story of a once-thriving city that has lost its employment base, its upper and middle classes, and much of its hope for the future. The city has been on a long, slow decline for decades. It’s difficult to convey the postapocalyptic nature of Detroit. Miles upon miles of abandoned houses are in piles of rot and ashes. Unemployment, violent crime, and decades of underinvestment have led to a near-complete breakdown of civic infrastructure: the roads are terrible, the police are understaffed, and there is a deeply insufficient social safety net.

There are new federal funds and private investment being directed to Detroit’s renewal. Bankruptcy proceedings are finally under way, and a new mayor wants to make a fresh start. But it’s hard to see how a renaissance can occur without making headway on the public schools. Detroit parents still have very few high-quality options, despite a number of different reform interventions, including putting a state-appointed emergency manager in charge of the district, pulling the lowest-performing schools into a statewide turnaround district, and allowing a significant number of charter schools to operate.

Ms. Gordon (not her real name) is a lifelong Detroit resident. Her 11-year-old son will enter middle school in the fall of 2014, and she is anxious about how to find and choose his next school. He has not had an easy time in elementary school; he struggled academically and was often in trouble for his behavior. Over the years, she has tried to talk to the principal and her son’s teachers, but it always felt as though no one was listening to her concerns or willing to work with her to address them. Now, as she’s looking for a middle school, she wants her son to have a fresh start and a chance to get the academic and social support that he needs. A friend suggested she look at the charter school that her daughter attends. The school sounded interesting, but Ms. Gordon decided it was too far away for her son to travel there safely on his own. Even if she could find a safe route, she was disappointed to read in a parent guide [published by Excellent Schools Detroit] that the kids at the charter school weren’t doing any better than those at the low-performing neighborhood middle school. In fact, few schools looked like good options, even though there were many to choose from. As she faced spring enrollment decisions at the time we talked to her, she felt she was no closer to finding a school that would be a good fit for her son. She expressed frustration and despair, recounting her efforts: “It just feels like you have to fight for your kids every day in this city, because no one else will.” 

Detroit Needs a Plan 

Detroit is a powerful illustration of what happens when no one takes responsibility for the entire system of publicly supported schools in a city. Parents struggle to navigate their many, mostly low-performing options, and providers face at best weak incentives to improve academic quality. As a result, large numbers of failing district and charter schools continue to operate.

That plan will have to address negligent charter authorizers and persistently low-performing charter schools, and identify novel ways to build and attract high-quality school-management organizations. It will also have to come up with strategies for restructuring or replacing most of the schools run by the school district and the state-run EAA.

We heard from many thoughtful advocates and civic leaders in Detroit who are trying to develop creative solutions for renewing Detroit’s schools. Their ideas tended to coalesce around five strategies:

1. Develop a strong core of high-quality schools in the charter sector by working with the best charter authorizers to develop quality benchmarks and close low-performing charters in a targeted set of neighborhoods. Local leaders also told us that they believe the governor is the only official who has the needed credibility and authority to weigh in on negligent charter authorizers.

2. Leverage change from the bottom up by helping parents and communities to push authorizers and the district to increase performance accountability. Community groups such as the Detroit Parent Network, Excellent Schools Detroit, and the Skillman Foundation are leading efforts to inform parents about their options and how to identify a high-quality school.

3. Double down on recruiting talented school leaders and teachers to Detroit. There have been some investments in Teach for America and other talent-recruitment strategies, but many observers believe they need an even stronger focus on human capital to bolster nascent high-quality local school providers. While through 2011, Detroit’s school spending was on a par with similar  cities (see Figure 3), charter schools in the city and statewide have received considerably less funding per pupil than district schools. Equalized, student-based funding, many say, would help to attract high-quality charter providers. DPS is also challenged to attract talent thanks to a 10 percent salary concession the emergency manager has put in place as a result of the district’s extreme financial deficit.


4. Engage Detroit city leaders, like the mayor and local developers, in addressing safety, transit, and social-service support to help families and schools develop a strong choice infrastructure. These efforts should be leveraged along with other urban-renewal strategies in the city.

5. Recognize that DPS is at risk for financial collapse and develop a plan to replace DPS with a community “portfolio manager” board and superintendent who will see their role as overseeing a citywide system of high-quality schools rather than operating schools directly. This would likely mean sharing district facilities and special education services with charter schools, and coordinated information and enrollment systems.

Given that there seems to be little appetite from the state legislature and governor for legislative action on these fronts, much of these efforts have to be driven by local leaders. One strategy is for a group of charter authorizers, district leaders, and school and school association leaders to come together to take a stand for quality to build on the existing success stories in Detroit. A public statement followed by a series of activities to promote more high-quality schools could drive improvement from the ground up if state leaders continue to fail to act. The group could form a powerful lobby to rally needed state and federal investment and regulations.

Another solution is to create a Detroit-based nonprofit organization that has sufficient funding and authority to be the citywide coordinating body for all public school buildings, special services for families, transportation, enrollment, and parent information systems. The mayor and foundation leaders could help tremendously by investing in citywide safe transit routes for students and new solutions for choice-based special education and mental health services, as well as counselors and consultants to help families navigate the choice process.

There are no simple solutions for Detroit, but it is clear that no progress will be made until state and local leaders stop trying to defend their turf and start solving the very real problems that parents face. As one Detroit community leader opined,

Detroit parents made it clear to us that they don’t care whether their child’s school is called a charter school, district, EAA, or private school. What they want and need is for some one to take responsibility for making sure that when their child heads to school each day, he or she will be safe, cared for, and well educated so that Detroit can rise again.

Personalization Be the Future of Learning

Personalized learning theory is built on the twin pillars of 1) differentiated learning pathways for students and 2) feedback that enables students to make informed judgments about what they’ve learned, how well they’ve learned it, and what to learn next. The importance of these two pillars for effective education is well established, yet traditional schools struggle mightily with both, mostly because there are only 24 hours in a day and educators are human.

Built on these two pillars, personalized learning has the potential to fulfill some of the most basic hopes families have for their children: “I just want my child to get what they need, when they need it.” “I want my child to grow and develop from where she is today.” “I want my child to experience success and grow in confidence as a learner.”

Differentiated learning paths honor student variation in both background knowledge and ability. Effective teachers assign work to students that is “appropriate to their current levels of competence.” But most teachers’ ability to manage multiple learning paths in multiple subjects is limited, at best. Arbitrary, age-based academic standards and fixed pacing guides only exacerbate the problem.

Substantially reorganizing school to honor the variation in student readiness is an option that educators only infrequently employ. At my children’s elementary school, the entire student body learns math at the same time, and students across the school are regrouped based on their needs, not their grade or age. I’m not arguing that this practice is the only answer to our problems, but it is clearly much easier to say “we differentiate for every child” than to actually put differentiation into practice.

Feedback has a powerful impact on student achievement, and providing it is entirely within the school’s control. In traditional classrooms, teachers are the bottleneck in giving student feedback unless there are other feedback loops students can access directly. In personalized learning environments, students theoretically have access to ample, frequent, and actionable feedback from multiple sources, including content, peers, and teachers. Teachers can focus their energies on 1) providing the feedback that only they can provide and 2) making sense of the feedback generated by other sources.

Together, differentiated learning paths and feedback create the basic conditions for personalized learning to occur. In addition, students need to own their learning. Every student should have the opportunity to go to college, where students are primarily responsible for their learning. This lies in stark contrast to K–12, where teachers are primarily responsible for student learning. Ensuring college readiness requires improving executive function and ramping up background knowledge, neither of which are core competencies in today’s schools. It is unrealistic to assume that in a traditional school, students will receive a seven-step lesson for every chunk of background knowledge they’ll need to succeed beyond the 4th grade. We need to organize our schools in such a way that students acquire background knowledge, accrue expertise, and develop independent learning skills.

Among the issues frequently raised by skeptics are that the research base for student-driven learning is abysmal. Individualized instruction has shown particularly weak effects on student achievement as have other methods that put the teacher in the role of facilitator. I suspect insufficient attention to background knowledge is the Achilles heel of those who believe teachers should be the “guide on the side.” I remain optimistic nonetheless, for two reasons. First, now that I have a deeper appreciation for what it takes to develop stable personalized-learning environments, I’m skeptical that prior efforts had the resources, capacity, or technology necessary for those initiatives to succeed. Second, the new wave of personalized learning draws on a set of instructional strategies that have shown particularly large effects on student achievement: feedback, peer tutoring, mastery learning, goal setting, and even direct instruction.

A second contention is that students are incapable of making good decisions about their learning. I agree that many students, without any structures, supports, or feedback, will make poor decisions about their education. But schools that move to student-driven environments create supports so students can function well. These include increased coaching, goal setting, feedback on progress, tiered supports, peer tutoring, small-group instruction, and other resources that together enable a greater percentage of students to manage their own learning effectively. For example, the first thing most schools do is put in a “minimum pace” to help address the “slow velocity” problem.

Opponents argue that students will avoid hard thinking in personalized environments without teachers. I generally agree that teachers are best positioned to lead cognitively challenging activities like Socratic seminars, deep reading, and math talk. Personalized learning environments are better suited to teach basic skills and background knowledge than to teach critical thinking. That said, students with significant background knowledge are capable of hard thinking when they take more ownership of their learning, and we need to honor those capabilities.

Similarly, opponents assert that personalized learning precludes great pedagogy like argument, discussion, and debateThis is a false choice. Students can engage in personalized learning for a portion of the day and spend the rest of their time in rich learning activities that only teachers can provide. The bet here is that if students can drive their development of basic skills and background knowledge, teachers can “trade up” and focus their energies on challenging tasks and compelling experiences. Teachers should be in the business of creating “aha” moments for children, not figuring out seven different math lessons for 25 different students.

Ben Riley argues that one of the important roles of the teacher is to “pick what to study next,” and Dan Willingham acknowledges that “craft knowledge trumps science” when it comes to differentiation. But clinical diagnoses have extraordinarily high error rates. In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman cites a study in which experienced radiologists contradicted themselves 20 percent of the time when they saw the same chest x-ray on separate occasions. A recent Johns Hopkins study found that 28 percent of ICU patients had at least one missed diagnosis when they died. It is not unreasonable to believe that error rates are higher in education because of the lack of reliable heuristics and a relatively thin research base. This is not teacher bashing. If education is anything like other professions that rely on clinical judgment, it is likely that one in four education diagnoses (probably more) is incorrect. Students are best served when they have access to both expert judgment and the types of algorithmic supports possible in personalized learning environments.

Prepare for a masters in management

Figure out what you want from a MIM degree—is there a management specialty that interests you?  Have you researched MIM programs?  Does your undergraduate degree match the prerequisites for acceptance?  Do you need to take a prep course or other short-term course to fill in any gaps for the entrance requirement? Do you need to take exams, like the GMAT before you can apply? Make sure you have the right qualifications for the program of your choice before starting the application process.

This is particularly important if you are considering overseas MIM programs. Apart from academic qualifications, you’ll need to assess your language skills. Is the course taught in your native language or another?  If you need to brush up on language skills, now is the time.

Consider your academic starting point, too.  Make sure you take a diagnostic and figure out where you are academically before you start.  Knowing where your strengths—and your weaknesses—are will show you where you need to focus and where you need to improve.

This is the time to fill in those gaps.  Need some help?  Contact the admissions office for the various MIM programs you’ve selected.  Someone there will steer you in the right direction. Or check out this handy tool that helps you compare and choose the right school.

Gain Work Experience

Unlike the MBA, work experience is not critical to a MIM.  However, it certainly doesn’t hurt.  Between one and three years can increase your chances of getting into a program of your choice.  Don’t underestimate the power of the internship, either.  Strong internship experiences, obtained during or after your undergraduate studies, can be just as impressive as a year or two of work under your belt.

Top-Up Your Extracurricular Activities

This is your chance to shine, at least on paper—and to give an admissions committee real insight into your character.  Perhaps just as critical, if not more so, your extracurricular activities count.  Why?  They reflect your interests and passions.  What you do outside of work and school matters.

Are you interested in sports?  Showcase your interests and abilities on your resume.  If you were involved in academic or university associations, list them—and make sure to note whether you held leadership roles in those organizations.  Volunteer work is also a fantastic extracurricular activity to showcase. Even hobbies, like stamp collecting, yoga or woodworking will make a positive impression on the admissions board.  The key is to make sure your extracurricular activities give a sense of your interests and abilities, but leave an admissions counselor at your selected MIM program wanting to know more about you.

Prepare for the Interview

This is the time and place to show who you really are and what you care about—and what you can bring to a MIM program.  What made you choose a MIM?  Why did you select this school?  How will the program help you reach your goals?  What have you learned from your internship experiences?  How about work?  How do you handle difficult situations?  How are you helpful to your classmates.

Here’s the most important one: do your homework and make sure you ask at least one thoughtful question of your interviewer about the program or the school.  One caveat – in this case there are stupid questions. The answer to your question shouldn’t be obvious from the program’s website or marketing mate

Take the GMAT

The GMAT will give you the competitive edge you want—and a high score can ensure that you will have a variety of options when it comes to choosing a MIM program.

What does the GMAT test?  Analytical writing, integrated reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and verbal reasoning.  There are over 600 test centers around the world, but remember that the GMAT is given only in English. Non-native speakers, take note: if you need to brush up on your English skills, do so before the exam (see #1), and study with some professional assistance.

So, why is the GMAT important? The Graduate Management Admission Council, or GMAC, completed in-depth curriculum research and surveys of business programs and highly respected professors from around the world. And their research identified a quantifiable set of skills and metrics. Skills that business schools deem most important for successful students. Scoring well on the GMAT can’t ensure that you will become a business big-shot, but it’s a good indicator as to whether you’re prepared for the rigors of a MIM program.

In fact, one of the ways the GMAT helps to identify strong MIM candidates is through the preparation process.  Preparing for the GMAT requires study skills, self-motivation and the ability to seek out and utilize resources, like prep courses and software, tutors and study guides.  Go for a combination of guided preparation by professional instructors, working on your own, and practice.  If you work best on your own, consider individual tutoring sessions, which you can do in-person or online.  If you enjoy group work, opt for a small, individualized course.

Finally, the GMAT is also a test of your ability to plan and manage your time.  You may have spent your undergraduate doing late-night cram sessions for exams, but the GMAT requires a time investment and dedicated study plan. How much time should you set aside?  Experts suggest putting aside 3-4 months of preparation time before taking the GMAT—and warn that a prep course by itself won’t prepare you enough. You can get an idea of what is in store by taking GMAT’s Mini Quiz.

Machine Learning

With the power of machine learning, says SAS, “it’s possible to quickly and automatically produce models that can analyze bigger, more complex data and deliver faster, more accurate results – even on a very large scale. And by building precise models, an organization has a better chance of identifying profitable opportunities – or avoiding unknown risks.” This leads to improved decision-making capabilities independent of human intervention with applications in a broad range of industries, including financial services, government, healthcare, marketing and sales, oil and gas, and transportation.

Machine learning is so promising, in fact, that Business Insider recently declared it to be “a revolution as big as the internet or personal computers.” With a track record of world-changing developments including everything from Amazon product recommendations to Google’s self-driving car, machine learning has already changed the world and how we live in it.

But that’s all just the beginning, according to experts like computer scientist and author of “The Master Algorithm: How the Quest for the Ultimate Learning Machine Will Remake our World” Pedro Domingos, who told BI, “There were two stages to the information age. One stage is where we had to program computers, and the second stage, which is now beginning, is where computers can program themselves by looking at data.”

Meanwhile, Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt forecasts that machine learning “will be the basis and fundamentals of every successful huge IPO win in five years.”

Machine learning is also lauded for its potential to improve customer care by automating certain tasks. Machines don’t always outperform humans — especially in matters of high-touch decision making — but in improving both efficiency and efficacy where technology prevails, machine learning can free people up to focus on what they do best.

And while we often think of machine learning as future terrain, it’s also happening all around us, including in the higher education space as a means of improving teaching and learning. Moving forward, it will support unprecedented personalized learning for use by everyone from students to advisors. In other words, with a background in machine learning, you can not only change the world, you can also apply what you know much closer to home

Of course, machine learning studies aren’t for everyone. But if you possess an interest in and aptitude for computer science fundamentals and programming; probability and statistics; data modeling and evaluation;  and software engineering and system design, you may be suited for an in-demand career in this red-hot field.

The reality is, however, that if you want to “future-proof” your career, these subjects may be the key.

Concludes The Atlantic on career planning for today’s college students, “Students who are embarking upon their college studies should embrace one of two possible career strategies. The first is to look for jobs that are likely to favor human capabilities over artificial intelligence—jobs that depend less on having great swathes of technical knowledge than on having creativity and strong interpersonal skills, such as the ability to empathize. The second career strategy is to aim to be directly involved in the development and delivery of these increasingly capable systems, for example as a systems engineer, a data scientist, an AI specialist, or a knowledge engineer. In short, students can plan to compete with machines or to build the machines.”