The Promising Launch of Community-Oriented Charter Schools in New Orleans

Image by Jared eberhardt via Flickr CC

Few cities have adopted charter schools more rapidly than New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Although the Orleans Parish School Board still operates a few traditional public schools as well as its own charter schools, the Recovery School District run by the state has just become the first district in the country to have only charter schools. Many scholars regard New Orleans as an important site for studying many kinds of educational reforms, and we have done our own study of two community-oriented charter schools that opened in 2010 and 2013.

Although many existing New Orleans charter schools have been run by local or national non-profit organizations that emphasize the delivery of college preparatory instruction to mostly poor, non-white students, the two schools we studied were founded by parents and community members who are intensely engaged and have strong visions about the role of their schools in the community. These parents and community members have endeavored to build schools that foster cross-group friendships, serve as hubs for the surrounding neighborhood, and combine strong academics with a broad curriculum. This approach differs from the usual tendency of urban charter schools to define success narrowly in terms of student achievement on tests. Our study of these two grassroots charter schools offers important lessons for reformers well beyond New Orleans who believe in a more community-based approach to school improvement. (more…)

Does Public Education Improve When Urban Districts Manage a “Portfolio” of Schools?

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In recent years, many large urban districts in the United States have dramatically changed the way they manage the schools they supervise. For decades, most of the public schools in cities were run by central district offices, and every school in the district used many of the same basic materials and ideas to teach their students. Now many central districts are overseeing schools run by others, using what is often called a “portfolio model” or a “portfolio management model.” These terms are meant to indicate that such districts are carefully selecting schools to include or remove from their offerings – so that good schools are kept and weak ones are closed down.

In theory, portfolio management has an appealing logic: If central offices lay out clear expectations and give charter school groups and other organizations that run particular schools a lot of freedom in figuring out how to meet the overall goals, then some especially strong schools can be expected to emerge. The most effective schools can be given the opportunity to expand.

In practice, however, research suggests that portfolio management does not have a clear, predictable influence on school quality. The impact seems to depend on organizational design as well as on the social characteristics and resources of particular communities. (more…)

Schools Adopting Digital Tools Without Evidence that they Boost Student Achievement

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At all levels from kindergarten to twelfth grade, American schools are making huge investments in digital education – with proponents often touting digital tools as a way to close achievement gaps and improve learning opportunities for economically and academically disadvantaged students. Digital instruction – using computers, netbooks, or handheld devices – is rapidly spreading in classrooms and supplemental areas of instruction. Big money is in play: One estimate values the U.S. school market for education software and digital content at nearly $8 billion. Advances in technology allow digital tools to offer the promise of broad access at low cost, competing with face-to-face methods of instruction for shrinking funds. But with schools inundated with new digital tools, little attention has been paid to whether teachers, parents, and students are putting them to effective use. (more…)

Learning about Commonalities Can Improve Student-Teacher Relationships and Boost Achievement

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Relationships to teachers are fundamental to the educational success of middle and high school students. Compared to those with more strained social connections, adolescents who have positive relationships with their instructors feel better about school, behave better in class, and achieve more in their studies. But improving teacher-student relationships poses a substantial challenge. Teens often lack the motivation to develop close personal ties with their teachers – and teachers often find themselves preoccupied with conveying the Common Core curriculum, prepping their charges for standardized tests, and administrative duties at school. (more…)

Targeting Muslim Americans in the Name of National Security

A Muslim American woman watches her child play soccer in Kapolei, Hawaii. Photo by Keoni Cabral via Flickr CC. Click for original.

Years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the daily lives of American Muslims continue to be affected by the anxieties and policies those attacks unleashed. Because so many of their fellow citizens see them as both physically threatening and culturally inferior, Muslim-Americans endure regular expressions of hostility at their jobs and in public spaces. They are also the target of government policies aimed at securing the country from another terrorist attack.

Every single day in U.S. airports, for example, Muslim Americans are treated as dangerous. Quite a few men have been told they are on a No-Fly List when they attempt to check in for flights; and women who wear the hijab or other religious clothing are often stopped and searched by Transportation and Security Administration agents. Such government actions are not only a problem for the people affected; they also convey the broader message that Muslims are a threat to national security and require careful monitoring and surveillance. (more…)

How New Digital Technologies Make It Possible To Privatize Censorship and Manipulate Citizen-Users

Photo by Phillong.Me.UK via Flickr CC. Click for original.

For most Americans, protecting free expression means countering threats from government. Private corporations are not usually seen as threatening free speech. But as private technology companies increasingly mediate access to information and services, the distinction between governmental and private censorship becomes less clear. Concepts of free speech and freedom of expression may need to be revised and enlarged to take account of new threats in the age of digital communications—and policies to protect freedom of expression may need to counter threats, often subtle, from the private sector as well as government. (more…)

How U.S. Higher Education Promotes Inequality—And What Can Be Done To Broaden Access and Graduation

Degrees of Inequality

A few decades ago, going to college seemed to be the surest route to the American dream, a path to greater opportunity for most young people. Yet today the U.S. system of higher education is evolving into a caste system with separate and unequal tiers. To be sure, more students from all backgrounds attend college and graduate with valuable degrees. But far too many from low-income and middle-class families depart early with no degrees and crippling levels of student debt. U.S. higher education as a whole is increasingly reinforcing rather than reducing class differences—and federal and state government policies need to change course. (more…)

Are Americans Really Anti-Intellectual?

Inventing the Egghead cover

Media coverage often implies that Americans are ill-informed or hate intellectuals. Politicians are known to make fun of the highly educated—as Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown did when he sneeringly tried to slight his 2012 election opponent, Elizabeth Warren, as “the professor.” Or media features may play up the supposed popularity of ignorance, as in the spoofs of Sarah Palin’s 2008 vice-presidential campaign and television coverage of grammatical errors in signs at Tea Party rallies. In such instances current news events are sometimes said to reflect a long history of American “anti-intellectualism.” So frequently does that term get bandied about in the mainstream media that it almost seems obvious that Americans really do revel in ignorance and mockery of the best-educated.

But in fact, positing anti-intellectualism as typical for America is a relatively recent phenomenon. The term “anti-intellectual” has appeared in the New York Times over 650 times since 1870, and more than three-quarters of the times happened after historian Richard Hofstadter published his 1964 book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. For nearly 100 years, in short, Americans were rarely described as anti-intellectual. Only over the most recent half century, has “anti-intellectualism” become a recurrent interpretive lens to make sense of society and politics. It is worth looking more closely, as I have done in my work, to better understand the concept and the realities. (more…)

Helping the Growing Ranks of Poor Immigrants Living in America’s Suburbs

Image from 秘密 via Flickr Creative Commons

Ask Americans to draw a mental map of who lives where, and they will likely say that immigrants and the poor live in large cities such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, while middle-class whites make their homes in the surrounding suburbs. But these mental maps are often inaccurate. Today, more poor people live in suburbs than in central cities, and more than half of all metropolitan-area immigrants reside in suburbs. Immigration, job growth, and residential choices are making our nation’s suburbs more economically and culturally diverse. (more…)

The Roots of Multicultural Diversity in Revolutionary America

Image from Mark Rain via Flickr Creative Commons

Opinions vary about whether multiculturalism and ethnic and racial diversity are divisive or beneficial to contemporary American society – but most of those discussing the issue presume that these are relatively recent trends, especially characteristic of the late-twentieth and early twenty-first century United States. The Immigration Act of 1965 is often cited as a watershed moment, a major policy change that opened the door to unusually diverse streams of immigrants, giving rise both to new ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups – and also sparking nativist reactions based on worries about a fraying national community. But a look back across U.S. history reveals that ethnic diversity and multiculturalism are hardly modern innovations.

Indeed, multicultural realities and ideals were present from the U.S. founding. Subsequent eras have brought new waves of arrivals, adding more cultures, religions, and languages into the mix, but not changing America’s core identity so much as adding to it. Only one major time period – the era between the 1920s Quota Acts and the 1965 Immigration Act – brought a temporary partial delay in the U.S. march toward greater cultural diversity. (more…)