Why Historically Black Colleges and Universities Remain Vital in U.S. Higher Education

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Many observers, including journalists, have sounded the alarm that historically black colleges and universities in the United States are in danger of losing their identity. “Historically Black Colleges are Becoming More White,” blares one headline; and another asks “White Students at Black Colleges: What Does It Mean for HBCUs?” Questions are being raised about the future of these longstanding institutions. That’s the great news. But the problem is that claims about what is happening in historically black colleges and universities are largely false and feed popular misunderstandings of their continuing nature and contributions.

The data are clear: although a small handful of these institutions have experienced a slight increase in non-black enrollment over the last decade, most did not. Race and economic class matter more than ever in the early twenty-first century United States, and students of color often report chilly racial climates at predominantly white universities. As a result, historically black colleges and universities remain very important for black Americans as stepping stones to opportunity and as safe places for black intellectual and personal development. (more…)

The Harm Done by Media Coverage of Political Disputes about Public Health Measures

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Media stories about measles outbreaks in California and Arizona have featured prominent politicians weighing in with conflicting messages. Should vaccination be required for all children with few exceptions? Are vaccines safe? Should parents have a choice – when refusing vaccines can put their own and other people’s children at grave risk? The stories are dramatic, but scholars and public officials warn that it is dangerous to turn vaccination into a political football. Other widely publicized controversies reveal that the insertion of politics into media coverage can be hard to reverse, as it may undermine public trust in doctors and public health officials.

Political Controversy Sticks

Our research examines two recent politically charged health controversies – the 2009 dust-up over mammography screening guidelines and the 2006-2007 debate over whether middle schools should require girls to get vaccinated against infections by the human papillomavirus (“HPV” for short). Specifically, we found that local and national media coverage did not start with a focus on political controversy. But once news stories started to highlight partisan arguments among political leaders, political controversies became the focus of subsequent coverage. (more…)

Financial Reforms Alone Cannot Reduce Household Debts for Americans Facing Low Wages and Insecure Jobs

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From 1980 until the start of the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008, U.S. households accumulated debt at an unprecedented pace. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, the ratio of total debt to disposable income – a measure that reveals households’ ability to service their debts out of current income – hovered around 70 percent. Thereafter it rose, increasing to 90 percent by 1995 and peaking at 135 percent in 2007, before declining to 110 percent in 2013.

The financial meltdown brought new attention to the debt loads facing American households, in part because many analysts fingered defaults on subprime mortgages as a chief cause of the crisis. But policy responses have focused too narrowly on financial market reforms. Certainly it makes sense to curb the unfair and fraudulent lending practices that have proliferated over the past few decades, yet new financial regulation alone won’t make most working families more economically secure. For that, we must understand and address the intertwined social, political and economic trends that have created insecure labor markets and heightened debt risks. (more…)

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

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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

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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…)