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Dick Rylander

Why schools can’t teach character

What isn’t genetic you pick up from your peers. Teachers – and parents – have irritatingly little to do with it

I participated in a lively discussion about character education at Policy Exchange earlier this week. For those of you who don’t follow every twist of the education debate, the idea that ‘character’ should be taught in schools has gained a lot of traction in recent years. And support for it doesn’t divide along party lines: both Tristram Hunt and Nicky Morgan are advocates of character education.

By ‘character’, the supporters of this idea have various desirable traits in mind, such as tenacity, reliance and self-control. There’s plenty of evidence that a child’s possession of these qualities is a strong predictor of later success. To give just one example, children who perform well in the marshmallow test, whereby they are given a choice between eating one now or two later, do better at school, are more likely to go to university and less likely to go to prison. According to believers in ‘character education’, it follows that we should teach children qualities like self-control, particularly in primary school.

I’m a detractor, although not completely dogmatic about it. I have no objection to teaching character outside the classroom. But I draw the line at devoting valuable curriculum time to it. Why? Because character traits are inherited, not taught.

I’m not talking about moral qualities, such as honesty, compassion and altruism. It may be that these can be cultivated. I mean performance-enhancing virtues, like stick-to-it-ness and the ability to bounce back from defeat, what exponents of character education call ‘grit’. There’s a growing body of evidence that these traits are largely hereditable, that is, encoded in our DNA. If you exhibit any of these qualities, it’s overwhelmingly likely that your parents did, too. And insofar as a child’s upbringing has any impact on the emergence of these qualities, it’s the peers they associate with during adolescence that matter, not their teachers.

This was the finding of the American psychologist Judith Rich Harris, who spent years researching the subject and published her conclusions in a book called The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do. Her hypothesis — that nature not nurture is the main determinant of character — has been corroborated by other numerous research studies, not least a 2005 paper by John Paul Wright and Kevin Beaver entitled ‘Do Parents Matter in Creating Self-Control in Their Children?’ By studying sets of twins separated at birth, Wright and Beaver show that when it comes to qualities we associate with a lack of self-control, such as impulsiveness, ADHD and hyperactivity, the impact of a child’s upbringing is negligible. Children’s defining character traits are evident by the time they’re 19 months old, with parents and teachers having little impact on their development.

This flies in the face of the teachings of child psychologists and suggests there’s little we can do when it comes to correcting children’s character defects. You can see why people resist it, particularly conservatives, since it lets negligent parents and irresponsible teachers off the hook. It even calls into question the idea that prisoners can be rehabilitated. But we cannot ignore the facts just because they’re unpalatable. If desirable character traits cannot be taught, we shouldn’t waste time trying to teach them.

As with so many educational fads, the problem is the opportunity cost — the time you’re wasting on gobbledegook that could be devoted to teaching children genuinely useful things, such as the history of the British Isles. Numerous research studies have shown that the best predictor of academic attainment is how much knowledge children possess at an early age.

For traditionalists like me, that’s reassuring, as was the recent report by the Sutton Trust which found that the most effective teaching method is not ‘discovery learning’ or ‘group work’ but direct instruction. Unfortunately, educational theorists are rarely led by the evidence, even when the brand of snake oil they’re peddling includes teaching virtues like honesty and truthfulness. One of the conclusions of a piece of research I read recently is that a strong predictor of academic success are fine motor skills. In short, if you want to maximise children’s life chances, particularly children from chaotic family backgrounds, you’d be better off teaching them handwriting than wasting time on character education.

Teaching Kids ‘Grit’ is All the Rage. Here’s What’s Wrong With It

The problem with KIPP’s character-education model

Imagine attending a high school where your teachers grade you on how well you handle disappointments and failures; respond to the feelings of your peers; and adapt to different social situations. Imagine, too, that the results are tabulated in a document called a “character growth card” and sent home to your parents along with your report card.

Sound far-fetched? Well, keeping tabs on a student’s character development is at the leading edge of the “new character education.” Paul Tough’s bestselling 2012 book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character, is the closest thing the new character education has to a manifesto; and it has helped to convince thousands of school administrators, teachers, and parents that “performance character” qualities such as perseverance, discipline, and self-control trump IQ when it comes to determining academic success.

I was one of thousands of educators from all over the world who signed up for an online class taught by one of the leading figures in this movement: Dave Levin, the charismatic co-founder of the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) network of charter schools and the inventor of the character growth card. When the class went live, I had a few outstanding concerns, but I still expected the KIPP method would have a lot to offer. By the end of the month-long course, my enthusiasm had waned, while my misgivings had multiplied. Here’s why.

Inspired by the field of positive psychology, character education at KIPP focuses on seven character strengths—grit, zest, self-control, optimism, gratitude, social intelligence, and curiosity. These seven strengths are presented as positive predictors of success in “college and life.” Grit, for example—a term Angela Duckworth used to mean “perseverance and passion for long-term goals”—has been shown to correlate with grade point averages and graduation rates. Levin envisions that character education will be woven into “the DNA” of KIPP’s classrooms and schools, especially via “dual purpose” instruction that is intended to explicitly teach both academic and character aims.

There are three major problems with the new character education. The first is that we do not know how to teach character. The second is that character-based education is untethered from any conception of morality. And lastly, this mode of education drastically constricts the overall purpose of education.

There may be an increasingly cogent “science of character,” as Levin says in the introductory video to his online class, but there is no science of teaching character. “Do we even know for sure that you can teach it?” Duckworth asks about grit in the same online video. Her answer: “No, we don’t.” We may discover that the most “desirable” character traits are largely inherited; stubbornly resistant to educational interventions; or both. We already know that grit is strongly correlated with “conscientiousness,” one of the Big Five personality traits that psychologists view as stable and hereditary. A recent report emphasizes that simply “knowing that noncognitive factors matter is not the same as knowing how to develop them in students.” The report concludes that “clear, actionable strategies for classroom practice” are few and far between. Consider the fact that the world’s “grittiest” students, including Chinese students who log some of the longest hours on their homework, have never been exposed to a formal curriculum that teaches perseverance.

If “dual-purpose” instruction is one pillar of the KIPP approach to teaching character, the other is the character growth card. Originally called the character report card, it’s perhaps the most provocative element of character education at KIPP. Students rate themselves on character strengths, responding to prompts such as “kept working hard even when s/he felt like quitting” for grit; “remembered and followed directions” for self-control; and “showed enthusiasm” for zest. All of a student’s teachers in turn rate the student, resulting in an “Average Teacher Score.” The overall goal is to use the card as a catalyst for “growth-oriented conversations” during parent-teacher conferences with the student present.

Levin claims that the character growth card is not meant to “evaluate, diagnose or compare” students. This assertion is either disingenuous or naïve. When Levin first hit on the idea of a character report card in 2007, he envisioned that students would eventually graduate with both a GPA and a CPA, or character point average. In Levin’s conception, the CPA would be a valuable tool for admissions officers and corporate human resources managers who would be delighted to know which applicants had scored highest on items such as grit, optimism, and zest. Even if Levin no longer believes the CPA is a wise idea, human beings have never devised an empirical performance measure that has not become fodder for making comparisons. Prepare to hear questions like “hey, what did you get on social intelligence?” in school hallways.

Levin claims that KIPP’s character education program is inspired by James Baldwin’s observation that “children have never been very good at listening to their elders but have never failed to imitate them.” It’s strange, then, that KIPP places such a strong emphasis on “labeling and talking about the character strengths” through conversations facilitated by adults. In footage from a seventh-grade math class featured in Levin’s online class, for instance, the teacher praises her students for working so hard, underscores the importance of “not giving up,” and then has the whole class say “grit” on the count of three.

“Words, words, words have become a cheap substitute for sound methods of character training,” education scholar Milo L. Whittaker sniffed in 1934, and it seems apt today. I have no doubt that many KIPPsters can rattle off the seven character strengths. The real question is whether learning to speak KIPP’s character language actually translates into substantive cognitive and behavioral changes. I am afraid that for most of the students, most of the time, the character lessons at KIPP will become indistinguishable from the kind of repetitive teacher-directed talk that only registers as so much background noise.

The second problem with the new character education is that it unwittingly promotes an amoral and careerist “looking out for number one” point-of-view. Never before has character education been so completely untethered from morals, values, and ethics. From the inception of our public school system in the 1840s and 1850s, character education has revolved around religious and civic virtues. Steeped in Protestantism and republicanism, the key virtues taught during the nineteenth-century were piety, industry, kindness, honesty, thrift, and patriotism. During the Progressive era, character education concentrated on the twin ideas of citizenship and the “common good.” As an influential 1918 report on “moral values” put it, character education “makes for a better America by helping its pupils to make themselves better persons.” In the 1960s and 1970s, meanwhile, character education focused on justice and working through thorny moral dilemmas.

Today’s grit and self-control are basically industry and temperance in the guise of psychological constructs rather than moral imperatives. Why is this distinction important? While it takes grit and self-control to be a successful heart surgeon, the same could be said about a suicide bomber. When your character education scheme fails to distinguish between doctors and terrorists, heroes and villains, it would appear to have a basic flaw. Following the KIPP growth card protocol, Bernie Madoff’s character point average, for instance, would be stellar. He was, by most accounts, an extremely hard working, charming, wildly optimistic man.

This underscores how genuinely innovative performance-based character education is with respect to eschewing values, especially religiously and civically inspired values such as honesty and service. Kindness is spotlighted in the KIPP motto (“Work Hard, Be Nice”), but it is conspicuously absent from KIPP’s official list of seven character strengths. It is not an accident that KIPP’s list of character strengths does not include items with clear moral overtones. As Levin told Tough: “The thing that I think is great about the character-strength approach is that it is fundamentally devoid of value judgment. The inevitable problem with the values-and-ethics approach is that you get into, well, whose values? Whose ethics?”

The decision to avoid overt references to values was no doubt intended to avoid the potential minefields of the “culture wars.” The trouble is that values have a way of intruding on territory that is meant to be value-free. What happens when your list of character strengths excludes empathy, justice, and service? The basic principle of individual achievement rushes to the forefront, as if filling a vacuum. This is “tiger mother” territory here—a place where the “vulgar sense” of success prevails. Life is narrowed into an endless competition for money, status, and the next merit badge.

The third and final problem with the new character education is that it limits the purposes of education to preparation for college and career. KIPP’s central mission is to help students from “educationally underserved communities,” 95 percent of whom are African American or Latino, get “into and through” college. This is an admirable mission, given the fact that for far too long, black and Hispanic students, especially those living in poverty, have not been perceived as “college material.” African American students in particular, of course, were excluded by law and by custom from attending most of the country’s colleges and universities for well over a century. So KIPP’s college-bound mission is both noteworthy and laudable. Whether it is wise is a different question for a different day and one that engages the contentious college-for-all debate. It is worth noting, however, that those educators who have embraced performance character seem to live in a world where their students are more likely to win a Nobel Prize than earn a living as a beautician, electrician, or police officer.

While KIPP’s college-for-all orientation ultimately aims to expand opportunity, it has undeniably narrowed the scope of its character education program. KIPP and other so-called “no excuses” charter schools have latched onto the new character education as a means of eliminating the “achievement gap.” Character is treated as a kind of fuel that will help propel students through school and up the career ladder. The fact that teachers are the only people who rate students on their character growth cards is indicative of how closely character is tied to academic achievement and cognitive skills. But can we really display more than a narrow range of our character strengths in a classroom context? I can’t tell you how many of my high school friends were listless in math class but “gritty” and “zesty” on the basketball court or the football field. 

If you click on the video at the top of the “Character” page on the KIPP website, you can watch a poignant clip of a parent describing how she wants her kids “to succeed” and to “have a better life.” KIPP and other similar schools are betting that the new character education will help students succeed academically and professionally. It is a risky bet, given how little we know about teaching character. It is also a bet without precedent, as there has never been a character education program so relentlessly focused on individual achievement and “objective accomplishments.” Gone are any traditional concerns with good and evil or citizenship and the commonweal. Gone, too, the impetus to bring youngsters into the fold of a community that is larger than themselves—a hopelessly outdated sentiment, according to the new character education evangelists. Virtue is no longer its own reward.

Study: Computer Use in School Doesn’t Help Test Scores

Study: Computer Use in School Doesn’t Help Test Scores

In top-performing nations, teachers — not students — use technology.

Computer use in schools may not have the desired impact on test scores.

By Sept. 22, 2015, at 8:30 a.m. + More


For those of us who worry that Google might be making us stupid, and that, perhaps, technology and education don’t mix well, here’s a new study to confirm that anxiety.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development looked at computer use among 15-year-olds across 31 nations and regions, and found that students who used computers more at school had both lower reading and lower math scores, as measured by PISA or Program for International Student Assessment. The study, published Sept. 15, 2015, was actually conducted back in 2012, when the average student across the world, for example, was using the Internet once a week, doing software drills once a month, and emailing once a month. But the highest-performing students were using computers in the classroom less than that.

[READ: Educators Work to Better Integrate Technology Into the Classroom]

“Those that use the Internet every day do the worst,” said Andreas Schleicher, OECD Director for Education and Skills, and author of “Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection,” the OECD’s first report to look at the digital skills of students around the world. The study controlled for income and race; between two similar students, the one who used computers more, generally scored worse. *

Home computer use, by contrast, wasn’t as harmful to academic achievement. Many students in many high performing nations reported spending between one to two hours a day on a computer outside of school. Across the 31 nations and regions, the average 15-year-old spent more than two hours a day on the computer. (Compare your country here.)

Back in the classroom, however, school systems with more computers tended to be improving less, the study found. Those with fewer computers were seeing larger educational gains, as measured by PISA test score changes between 2009 and 2012.

[READ: Can You Beat a 15-Year-Old on the PISA Financial Literacy Exam?]

“That’s pretty sobering for us,” said Schleicher in a press briefing. “We all hope that integrating more and more technology is going to help us enhance learning environments, make learning more interactive, introduce more experiential learning, and give students access to more advanced knowledge. But it doesn’t seem to be working like this.”

Schleicher openly worried that if students end up “cutting and pasting information from Google” into worksheets with “prefabricated” questions, “then they’re not going to learn a lot.”

“There are countless examples of where the appropriate use of technology has had and is having a positive impact on achievement,” said Bruce Friend, the chief operating officer of iNACOL, a U.S.-based advocacy group for increasing the use of technology in education. “We shouldn’t use this report to think that technology doesn’t have a place.”

Friend urges schools in the U.S. and elsewhere to train teachers more in how to use technology, especially in how to analyze real-time performance data from students so that instruction can be modified and tailored to each student.

“Lots of technological investments are not translating into immediate achievement increases. If raising student achievement was as easy as giving every student a device, we would have this solved. It’s not easy,” Friend added.

[READ: Privacy Concerns Don’t Curb Use of Classroom Apps]

In a press briefing on the report, Schleicher noted that many of the top 10 scoring countries and regions on the PISA test, such as Singapore and Shanghai, China, are cautious about giving computers to students during the school day. But they have sharply increased computer use among teachers.

Teachers in Shanghai, Schleicher explained, are expected to upload lesson plans to a database and they are partly evaluated by how much they contribute. In other Asian countries, it is common for teachers to collaborate electronically in writing lessons. And technology is used for video observations of classrooms and feedback. “Maybe that’s something we can learn from,” said Schleicher.

In addition to comparing computer use at schools with academic achievement, the report also released results from a 2012 computerized PISA test that assessed digital skills. U.S. students, it turns out, are much better at “digital reading” than they are at traditional print reading. The U.S. ranked among the group of top performing nations in this category. In math, the U.S. was near the worldwide average on the digital test, whereas it usually ranks below average on the print test.

The digital reading test assesses slightly different skills than the print test. For example, students are presented with a simulated website and asked to answer questions from it. Astonishingly, U.S. students are rather good at remaining on task, clicking strategically and getting back on track after an errant click. By contrast, students in many other nations were more prone to click around aimlessly.

Interestingly, there wasn’t a positive correlation between computer usage at school and performance on the digital tests. Some of the highest scoring nations on the digital tests don’t use computers very much at school.

In the end, 15-year-old students need good comprehension and analysis skills to do well in either the print or the digital worlds. This study leaves me thinking that technology holds a lot of promise, but that it’s hard to implement properly. Yes, maybe there are superstar teachers in Silicon Valley who never get rattled by computer viruses, inspire their students with thrilling lab simulations and connect their classroom with Nobel Prize-winning researchers. But is it realistic to expect the majority of teachers to do that? Is the typical teacher’s attempt to use technology in the classroom so riddled with problems that it’s taking away valuable instructional time that could otherwise be spent teaching how to write a well-structured essay?

[READ: Teachers Colleges Struggle to Blend Technology Into Teacher-Training Lesson Plans]

Perhaps, it’s best to invest the computer money, into hiring, paying and training good teachers.

* In reading, students who used the computer a little bit did score better than those who never used a computer. But then as computer use increased beyond that little bit, reading performance declined. In math, the highest performing students didn’t use computers at all.

‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ removed from Philadelphia-area school curriculum over student concerns about racial slurs

PHILADELPHIA  — A suburban Philadelphia school is removing “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” from its 11th grade curriculum, saying the language and portrayal of blacks makes students uncomfortable.


The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that Friends’ Central School decided the “community costs” of reading Mark Twain’s 1885 classic outweigh the literary benefits.

Art Hall, principal of the school in Wynnewood, says the book’s use of racial slurs was “challenging for some students, who felt the school was not being inclusive.”

The school is guided by a Quaker philosophy. The book will remain in the school’s library.

The book about manners, race and rebellion in pre-Civil War has inspired controversy since its release 130 years ago. In 2011, an Alabama publisher replaced the offending word with “slave.”

A Twain biographer has called book’s slur the “ultimate teachable moment in American literature.”

The successor to No Child Left Behind has, it turns out, big problems of its own

December 7

U.S. lawmakers always have reasons for what they do, so there must be one for why they didn’t make public the 1,059-page rewrite of the 2002 No Child Left Behind until a few days before Congress began voting on the compromise legislation last week. Could it be that they didn’t want critics to take too close a look?

The Every Student Succeeds Act is now expected to replace NCLB as the newest version of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, an overarching law that defines federal involvement in K-12 education. The House passed it last week and the Senate is expected to pass it this week, with President Obama promising to sign it.

Finally, the No Child Left Behind era — which in fact left many children behind — will be over, and its successor is being hailed by some in the worlds of education, business, and public policy as a big step toward increasing educational opportunities for the nation’s students.

But anybody expecting the Every Student Succeeds Act to be a fix-all will be disappointed.

There are major problems with this legislation; anybody who thinks federal dictates have disappeared are in for a surprise, and anybody who would like to see the federal government exercise its power to fix systemic school funding problems and seriously broaden the scope of reform are in for a letdown, too.

Among the concerns that have been raised:

  • Use of federal funds for “Pay for Success” programs allow wealthy investors to make profits from education investments, an issue that has concerned some special education advocates.
  • States will be required to fund “equitable services” for children in private and religious schools who are deemed eligible, and they must appoint an “ombudsman” to make sure the schools get their money.
  • Provisions in the legislation for the establishment of teacher preparation academies are written to primarily support non-traditional, non-university programs such as those funded by venture philanthropists, and they lower standards for teacher education programs that prepare teachers for high-poverty schools.
  • The federal government still will have a say in some areas, such as mandating standardized tests and requiring states to intercede in schools where student test scores are in the lowest 5 percent and then approving the state plans for academic progress.

The ESSA is a compromise bill among Republicans and Democrats who were intent on ending not just No Child Left Behind, the chief education initiative of former president George W. Bush, but also the Obama administration’s micro-managing of education policymaking. Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, made that evident when he said, as quoted by my colleague Lyndsey Layton:

“Now, let me be clear: This is not a perfect bill. To make progress, you find common ground. But make no mistake: We compromised on the details, and we did not compromise our principles.”

Local education decisions traditionally have been the provenance of states and local districts, but Bush led the way for more federal involvement — requiring students in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school to take standardized tests for school “accountability” purposes.  The tests were only in math and reading, leading schools to focus on those subjects and giving short shrift to history, science, physical education and the arts.

Many Obama supporters thought he would de-emphasize test scores, but instead his administration made them even more important for “accountability” purposes, and teachers found themselves in the crosshairs of unreasonable evaluation systems, sometimes being assessed by the scores of students they didn’t have and/or subjects they didn’t teach. (Really.)

Obama’s Education Department used its federal power to coerce states to adopt the Common Core State Standards, expand charter schools and use student test scores to evaluate teachers, an assessment method that experts warned against.  The department was accused of being a “national school board,” and, finally, eight years after NCLB was supposed to be rewritten, it has been — with some of it a direct rebuke to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, as seen in legislative language such as this:

The new legislation was crafted over months through efforts led by Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, as well as Kline. A chief concern among the negotiators was to walk a line between those constituencies that wanted to continue a federal mandate on standardized testing for “accountability” purposes and those that didn’t want any federal involvement in local education decisions.

Indeed, some people involved in the negotiations said that a key reason the compromise legislation wasn’t made public until shortly before the House voted was to appease conservatives in the House who might have staged a revolt over continued federal involvement and persuaded some moderates to go along with them in a bid to torpedo the new law. The idea was to keep the bill from being finalized until the very end so that all legislators could feel that they had been heard.

The tactic worked, and new House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin, claimed a victory with the vote last week. But as more folks now get a look at the details, big concerns are emerging on various fronts.

The new law is more expansive than NCLB, providing for broader curriculum and early childhood education, for example, though the Preschool Development Grants program would reside not in the Education Department but in the Department of Health and Human Services. It also renders moot a series of controversial waivers from the most burdensome parts of NCLB awarded by the U.S. Education Department to states that promised to enact specific reforms favored by the administration.

And it sends back to the states and local districts major policy-making authority on issues such as standards and teacher evaluation. This has been hailed as a major achievement of the new legislation, but, as education activist Jeff Bryant noted: “It’s a sign of dysfunction, rather than a triumph of bipartisanship, to see officials in Washington, D.C. celebrating legislation that significantly curtails the influence of officials in Washington, D.C.”

But all federal power is not gone in education policy-making. The new legislation maintains the NCLB mandate that standardized tests in math and reading be given annually in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, and, in an effort to make other subjects as important, science tests three times between grades 3 and 12. Now, though, the states — not the federal government — can decide what to do with schools that consistently have the lowest scores. The data on test scores, by subgroup, still must be turned over to the federal government.

The legislation also, as Layton reported, “require states to intervene with ‘evidence-based’ programs in schools where student test scores are in the lowest 5 percent, where achievement gaps are greatest, and in high schools where fewer than two-thirds of students graduate on time.” States would determine which actions to take in those struggling schools but the U.S. Education Department would have to approve the plans.

This might be seen as good news for those who worry that some states will — based on their history — do nothing to create meaningful accountability systems to raise the performance of minorities.

Other concerns that have been raised include:

  • The legislation provides for the use of federal funds by states and districts for a program known as “Pay for Success” in which investors put money into programs and make profits when a specific goal is reached. Special education activist Beverely Holden Johns says this could be disastrous for the special education community given the track record of Pay for Success programs. For example, she cites a Pay for Success program in Utah funded by Goldman Sachs. The global investment banking makes a profit for every student who goes through an early childhood program who is not — repeat not — referred for special education. According to the New York Times: “Goldman said its investment had helped almost 99 percent of the Utah children it was tracking avoid special education in kindergarten. The bank received a payment for each of those children.”  But the Times said that a number of early childhood education experts who reviewed the program questioned its metrics.
  • Kenneth Zeichner, a professor of teacher education at the University of Washington at Seattle, wrote in this post arguing that provisions in the legislation for the establishment of teacher preparation academies are written primarily to support non-traditional, non-university programs such as those funded by venture philanthropists. He also wrote that the legislation “oversteps the authority of the federal government” in several ways, including by declaring that “the completion of a program in an academy run by an organization other than a university results in a certificate of completion that may be recognized by states as ‘at least the equivalent of a master’s degree in education for the purpose of hiring, retention, compensation, and promotion in the state.’” He also wrote that the new education act seeks to mandate definitions of the content of teacher education programs and methods of program approval that are state responsibilities. It ends up, he wrote, lowering “standards for teacher education programs that prepare teachers for high-poverty schools … by exempting teacher preparation academies from what are referred to as ‘unnecessary restrictions on the methods of the academy.’ ”
  • States will now be required to fund “equitable services” for children in private and religious schools who are deemed eligible, and they must must appoint an “ombudsman” to make sure the schools get their money in “a timely manner.” In many places states don’t adequately fund services to eligible students in public schools — and now they will have to spend public money on students in private and religious schools.

NCLB supporters argue that the law had its virtues: Its insistence on looking at how all subgroups of students performed on standardized tests forced schools to pay attention to minorities and other groups of students traditionally ignored. And some credit NCLB with rising high school graduation rates.

What is missing from these arguments is that the scores of the tests that students were given were very narrow measures of what kids could do, and imbuing them with such importance is an insult to authentic assessment. As for rising graduation rates, school reform supporters, of course, credit NCLB and Obama’s initiatives, though an NRP investigation this year revealed that the current high school graduation rate of 81 percent — a historic high — “should be taken with a big grain of salt.” Why? “Some are mislabeling students or finding ways of moving them off the books,” and in some places, such as in Detroit and Camden, N.J., districts are making it easier to get a diploma at the very same time officials talk about making school more rigorous.

In high-poverty areas where progress has been made in closing achievement gaps, such as in Union City, N.J., and Clarke County, Ga., it wasn’t a focus on standardized testing that worked. It was a focus on kids’ actual needs, strong relationships among the teachers and administration and slow, high expectations and a realization that real progress is slow.

True educational equity comes from comprehensive school reform, which incorporates academic improvements along with health care, housing policy, funding changes, family support and other policies that allow students to go to class safely and actually focus on their work, and that provides teachers with a work environment and enough support to operate creatively, not like infantilized robots. The act does provide for community schools, which provide full services to students and their families, but not in a truly significant way.

Ultimately, the question is whether the Every Student Succeeds Act is an improvement over No Child Left Behind. (Where do they get these names?)  As Neal McCluskey, director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the libertarian Cato Institute, wrote:

“The Every Student Succeeds Act, the intended successor to the No Child Left Behind Act, is better than the law it would replace. That is what many analysts are saying as they hail the legislation as a good step in the right direction. But let’s be honest: you couldn’t set a bar much lower than NCLB.”


Roseville City School District Embraces Chromebooks, But At What Cost?

A Case Study of a California Father Fighting His Daughter’s School District Over Digital Privacy

Katherine W. was seven years old, in the third grade, when her teacher first issued Google Chromebooks to the class.

Katherine’s father, Jeff, was concerned. It wasn’t because he had a problem with technology. In fact, Jeff and his family are technology enthusiasts. “We bought a house in this area primarily because of the school district. And one of the things that excited us about the school was the use of technology,” Jeff explained during a recent interview with EFF.

That enthusiasm waned when the school retired its former laptops and brought in Chromebooks for the students instead, also assigning each third grader a profile in Google Apps for Education, Google’s cloud-based education suite. Chromebooks may have been cheaper, but Jeff feared they might come at the cost of his daughter’s privacy.

Roseville City School District, near Sacramento, is one of the many districts now issuing mobile digital devices to students. In fact, one study estimates that nearly a third of middle and high school students in the United States are using mobile devices like laptops and tablets issued by their schools.

When Jeff learned about the Chromebooks being offered to third graders, he acted quickly and was able to negotiate with his daughter’s teacher so she could use a different computer and not have to use a Google account. But as third grade came to a close, Roseville City School District made clear that there would be no exception made the next year.

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) is a federal law that protects students’ “educational records,” including personally identifiable information. The data that students often use to log into a Chromebook or Google Apps for Education—like name, student number, and birthday—is covered by FERPA. Under FERPA, this data generally can’t be shared with third parties—including Google—without written parental consent.

But Roseville City School District never sought written consent from Jeff or his wife. The district provided no details about the types of devices students would be required to use or the data that would be collected on students. Rather than allowing Jeff to sign his daughter up for the Chromebook program, the district consented on his behalf, making the device mandatory for Katherine—with no ability to opt out.

Many people—including Jeff—assumed that the law would prevent Google from collecting data on his daughter for advertising purposes. But the truth is more complicated. While Google is legally forbidden from creating a profile on Katherine when she’s using the school-sanctioned Google Apps for Education tools (which include email and document sharing), it can collect data as soon as she uses other Google services that aren’t part of the student-specific suite—including YouTube.

This means that Katherine is required by the school to use Google with a personalized Google Account, and Google can create a profile of her and use it for advertising purposes the moment she clicks away from the Google Apps for Education suite.

But it’s even worse. When schools issue Chromebooks, Google’s browser Chrome comes with Chrome Sync turned on by default. So instead of storing sensitive data—like browsing history—locally on the device, Chrome syncs that data to the cloud and allows Google to collect and indefinitely store sensitive data about students’ use of Chrome to browse the Web.

With EFF’s guidance, Jeff started a dialogue with the Roseville City School District over the summer to try to resolve the issue before his daughter started fourth grade. He emailed the district superintendent, the principal, and the technology director, outlining his concerns. Jeff even offered to buy a different laptop for his daughter, but the school refused. Finally, after several emails and a tense meeting later, the district agreed to provide Jeff’s daughter with a non-Google option for fourth grade—but once again declared that such an accommodation would not be possible for fifth grade.

That’s when EFF reached out to the district. Our legal team drafted a letter to the Roseville City School District to outline the privacy concerns associated with school-issued Chromebooks. The letter urged the district to permit “all students – if their parents so decide – to use alternative devices, software and websites, for the upcoming school year and every year.” The district refused to meet with us to discuss the issue.

For Jeff, the biggest concern isn’t just the data Google collects on students. It’s the long-term ramifications for children who are taught to hand over data to Google without question. It’s normalizing the next generation to a digital world that’s less private by default, and built on proprietary software.

As Jeff explained it, “In the end, Google is an advertising company. They sell ads, they track information on folks. And we’re not comfortable with our daughter getting forced into that at such an early age, when she doesn’t know any better.”

Learn more about the privacy problems of school-issued digital devices. Are you a parent, teacher, or school administrator concerned with the privacy risk of school-issued devices? Tell us about it.

Image courtesy Jeff W.