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Hedge-fund manager Whitney Tilson stands at a Harvard club podium in midtown Manhattan, facing a room full of investors eating eggs and bacon, and eager to learn more about charter schools. The walls of the wood-paneled room are lined with the portraits of Tilson's Harvard forefathers. Above the podium where Tilson stands hangs an ornamental gold ship, swaying. In the corner of the room is a large screen, on which the logos of the day's sponsors, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Sam Walton Foundation, float like guardian angels. Two large stone fireplaces dominate the west end of the room. Their exaggerated mantelpieces are each decorated with two empty crests and a laurel—symbols of power drained of any purpose.
Tilson begins an enormous PowerPoint presentation, speaking of the inequities black and Latino children face in the public school system. "Your entire prison population is in these red bars," he explains, showing red bars indicating the high percentage of poor black and Latino children who could not read at a fourth-grade level. No such children, nor their parents, seemed to have been invited to this presentation.
Despite the role poverty plays in determining whose kids gets stuck in those red bars, Tilson declares to the room of Ivy League investors, "This is not rocket science. Notice on my list there's no #5, no Spend More Money. You get new facilities and smaller classrooms but nothing changes. Nobody believes anymore that if you give us more money we'll solve all the problems."
An army of teachers wielding Nook tablets and backed by investors including Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg is on a mission to bring inexpensive, private education to millions of the world's poorest children.
In rural Kenya, 6-year-old Sharon Ndunge, sitting in a rough-built classroom with chicken-coop wire for windows, a tin roof and wooden benches, is among 126,000 students enrolled at the more than 400 Bridge International Academies that have sprung up across the country since the company was founded in 2009.
Bridge's founders are challenging the long-held assumption that governments rather than companies should lead mass education programs. The company's goal is to eventually educate 10 million children and make money by expanding its standardized, Internet-based education model across Africa and Asia.
The Internet and Barnes & Noble Inc. Nook tablets are used to deliver lesson plans, which are then used by teachers. The tablets also are used to collect test results from students scattered across hundreds of towns and villages and serve as a means of monitoring their progress.
"It's like running Starbucks," said Greg Mauro, a partner at California-based venture-capital firm Learn Capital LLC, the largest shareholder in Bridge with a 15% stake, likening it to the coffee chain with standardized systems and procedures that can be replicated across new locations. If all goes to plan, the American-run, Nairobi-based education startup will seek a stock-market listing in New York in 2017, according to Mr. Mauro.
Mr. Mauro has invested alongside Microsoft co-founder Mr. Gates, e-Bay Inc. founder Pierre Omidyar's Omidyar Network, textbook publisher Pearson PLC and others who already have put more than $100 million into the company, of which about 90% is equity investments, according to Bridge. Facebook Inc. co-founder Mr. Zuckerberg this month invested $10 million in the company, according to Bridge. The investment comes as the social-network company expands into emerging markets to potentially reach billions of new customers.
Several years ago, Doug Lemov began studying videos of excellent teachers. He focused not on their big strategies but on their microgestures: How long they waited before calling on students to answer a question (to give the less confident students time to get their hands up); when they paced about the classroom and when they stood still (while issuing instructions, to emphasize the importance of what's being said); how they moved around the room toward a student whose mind might be wandering.
In an excellent piece on Lemov for The Guardian, Ian Leslie emphasizes that these subtle skills are often not recognized or even discussed by those who talk about education policy, or even by those who evaluate teachers.
Leslie notes that the Los Angeles school system tabulated the performance of roughly 6,000 teachers, using measures of student achievement. The best performing teacher in the whole system was a woman named Zenaida Tan. Up until that report, she was completely unheralded. The skills she possessed were invisible. Meanwhile, less important traits were measured on her evaluations (three times she was late to pick up students from recess).
In part, Lemov is talking about the skill of herding cats. The master of cat herding senses when attention is about to wander, knows how fast to move a diverse group, senses the rhythm between lecturing and class participation, varies the emotional tone. This is a performance skill that surely is relevant beyond education.
For example, in today's loosely networked world, people with social courage have amazing value. Everyone goes to conferences and meets people, but some people invite six people to lunch afterward and follow up with four carefully tended friendships forevermore. Then they spend their lives connecting people across networks.
People with social courage are extroverted in issuing invitations but introverted in conversation — willing to listen 70 percent of the time. They build not just contacts but actual friendships by engaging people on multiple levels. If you're interested in a new field, they can reel off the names of 10 people you should know. They develop large informal networks of contacts that transcend their organization and give them an independent power base. They are discriminating in their personal recommendations since character judgment is their primary currency.
After years of debate among academics and politicians over how to raise teacher standards, the problem is being solved by the practitioners. And it has become apparent that the noisy argument over "bad teachers" was drowning out a much better question: how do you turn a bad teacher into a good one?
And what makes a good teacher good?
In 2010, the Los Angeles Times triggered a minor earthquake in a city familiar with such events. The Los Angeles school district – the second largest in the United States – had collected detailed data on the performance of its roughly 6,000 teachers, that it had not released. The newspaper used a freedom of information request to get its hands on this database, and after conducting an analysis, published a list of all the teachers in Los Angeles, ranked by effectiveness. It turned out that the very best teachers were getting results that were not only much better than low-ranked teachers, but twice as good as good teachers. At the very top of the list was a woman called Zenaida Tan.
Tan taught at Morningside Elementary, a decent if unremarkable school with an intake of mainly poor students, many of whom struggled with English. Year after year, students were entering Tan's class with below-average ability in maths and English, and leaving it with above-average scores. You might imagine that before the Los Angeles Times published its rankings, Tan would have already been celebrated for her ability by her peers – that her brilliance would be well-known to fellow teachers eager to learn her secrets. You would be wrong on all counts.
When the Los Angeles Times sent a correspondent to interview Tan, they found her quietly carrying out her work, unheralded except by those who had taken her class and knew what a difference it had made to their lives. "Nobody tells me that I'm a strong teacher," Tan told the reporter. She guessed that her colleagues thought her "strict, even mean". On a recent evaluation, her headmaster noted she had been late to pick up her students from recess three times. It was as if Lionel Messi's teammates considered him a useful midfielder who needed to work on his tackling.
There is entrenched resistance, in the education establishment, to singling out individuals, even to praise or emulate them. The only options for Tan's evaluation were "meets standard performance" and "below standard performance". But if Tan and others like her go unnoticed it is also because they do not look the part. Ask someone to describe a great teacher, and they are likely to conjure up someone like Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society: eccentric, flamboyant, prone to leaping on to desks. When we see a teacher effortlessly commanding her class's attention, our instinct is to put it down to some quality of their personality – great teachers, it is said, just have something. They are possessed of an innate ability to inspire.
Sam Freedman, the head of research at Teach First, which places high-achieving graduates into schools with disadvantaged intakes, said that even among teachers, there is hostility to the notion that what they do can be analysed and replicated: "The idea of learning heuristics seems bad because you're not discovering your inner teacher." But the myth of the magical teacher subtly undermines the status of teaching, by obscuring the extraordinary skill required to perform the job to a high level. It also implies that great teaching cannot be taught.
At training college, budding teachers learn theories of child development and are told about the importance of concepts such as "feedback" and "high expectations". But they get surprisingly little help with actual teaching. Imagine being told you need to show high expectations of your students. "It's like telling a kid to get better GCSEs," Jenny Thompson, a teacher at Dixons Trinity Academy in Bradford, told me. The reason teachers respond so enthusiastically to Doug Lemov's ideas is that he is right there with them at the front of the class.
Tall and wide-chested, Lemov is built like an American football player. In fact, his favourite sport is soccer, which he played at college in upstate New York. His coaches there did not spend much time discussing the game in the abstract. Instead, they told him to "narrow the angle" or "close the space". In his books and workshops, Lemov talks about what pace to move around the classroom, what language to use when praising a student, how to adjust the angle of your head to let students know you're looking at them. Teaching, he says, is "a performance profession".
Sports coaches know that what looks effortlessly achieved, like the way Roger Federer hits a backhand, is in fact the product of countless hours of practice and analysis. Faced with a problem – a weakness in their game – they break it down into parts and work on the execution of each one before putting it all back together. Successful sportspeople have what the psychologist Carol Dweck calls a "growth mindset" – the belief that talent is intelligently applied effort in disguise. The ones who understand this principle best are those born without the supreme talent of a Federer – the ones who have had to strive for every millimetre of improvement.
The best teachers do not necessarily understand how teaching works, because their own technique is invisible to them; sports psychologists call this "expert-induced amnesia". When the Los Angeles Times asked some of the teachers who topped their list what made them so effective, one replied that great teachers simply love their students and love their job: "You can't bottle that, and you can't teach it."
Doug Lemov is on a mission to prove that talented teacher wrong.
Doug Lemov believes great teachers are made, not born – and his ideas are transforming education
Wednesday 11 March 2015 06.00 GMT
[The UFT] opened its own charter school in the East New York section of Brooklyn. Randi Weingarten, who led the U.F.T. at the time – and who now leads the American Federation of Teachers – upped the ante by predicting that the school would "show real, quantifiable student achievement and with those results, finally dispel the misguided and simplistic notion that the union contract is an impediment to success."
That's not how things have worked out. The school struggled almost from the start. The State University of New York came close to revoking its charter in 2013 – and probably should have done so. This past year, just 11 percent of its third-through eighth-grade students scored as proficient or better on the state reading tests, compared with 29 percent in the city as a whole.
The union admitted defeat last week, saying that it would close the kindergarten-through-eighth-grade portion of the school because of low test scores. The current U.F. T. president, Michael Mulgrew, blamed state test score requirements for the school's problems.
But the record shows that the union failed the children in this school at just about every level. When the school's charter came up for renewal in 2013, the SUNY panel cited all kinds of problems including: excessive principal turnover; poor instructional skills and teacher coaching; and deficiencies in the way the school handled English language learners and special education students.
What's striking is that the school was managed poorly even after the union staked its reputation on the project. This suggests that the union either did not take the charter project seriously – or that it knows less about running schools than it thinks.
"There are more black men in jail than in college."
Ivory A. Toldson — Howard University professor, senior research analyst for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, and deputy director of the White House Initiative on HBCUs — called this, in a 2013 column for the Root, "the most frequently quoted statistic about black men in the United States."
It's also dead wrong.
There are two critical things to know about community colleges.
The first is that they could be the nation's most powerful tools to improve the opportunities of less privileged Americans, giving them a shot at harnessing a fast-changing job market and building a more equitable, inclusive society for all of us. The second is that, at this job, they have largely failed.
When President Obama stood at Pellissippi Community College in Knoxville, Tenn., last month and offered every committed student two years' worth of community college at the government's expense, he focused on the first point.
With open enrollment and an average price tag of $3,800 a year for full-time students, community colleges are pretty much the only shot at a higher education for those who don't have the cash or the high school record to go to a four-year university. And that's a lot of people: 45 percent of the undergraduate students in the country.
They are "essential pathways to the middle class," Mr. Obama said. They work for parents and full-time workers, for veterans re-entering civilian life, and for those who "don't have the capacity to just suddenly go study for four years and not work."
What the president chose not to emphasize is that precious few of the students at community colleges are likely to fulfill the promise and complete their education. Of all the students who enroll full time at Pellissippi, for example, only 22 percent graduate from a two-year program within three years. Just 8 percent transfer to a four-year college.
And that's hardly the bottom of the barrel. There are many community colleges with much worse records.
The president's offer of a free ride should increase enrollment: White House officials estimate that the program, if approved by Congress, would lift enrollment by 1.6 million by 2026, bringing the total to nine million students from about seven million today. But that's the easy bit.
Whether his plan ultimately delivers on its promise, however, will depend less on how many students enter than how many successfully navigate their way out. Today, only 35 percent of a given entry cohort attain a degree within six years, according to government statistics.
At public four-year colleges, 57 percent of the students graduate within six years.
And it's getting worse. Community college graduation rates have been declining over the last decade.
It's past time we paid attention. Community colleges have been consistently ignored by policy makers who equate higher education with a bachelor's degree — mostly ignoring the fact that a very large group of young Americans are not prepared, either financially, cognitively or socially for that kind of education.
Meanwhile, American higher education has become a preserve of the elite. Only one in 20 Americans ages 25 to 34 whose parents didn't finish high school has a college degree. The average across 20 advanced industrial nations assessed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is almost one in four.
For-profit colleges that burden students with crippling debt — often while giving them useless credentials in return — are luring veterans who receive G.I. Bill benefits to take advantage of a loophole in federal law. On the merits, a proposal in President Obama's 2016 budget that would close this destructive loophole deserves unanimous support in Congress. But because the for-profit industry has considerable power in Washington, veterans may be let down.
… One campus rape is one too many. But the severe new policies championed by the White House, the Department of Education, and members of Congress are responding to the idea that colleges are in the grips of an epidemic—and the studies suggesting this epidemic don't hold up to scrutiny. Bad policy is being made on the back of problematic research, and will continue to be unless we bring some healthy skepticism to the hard work of putting a number on the prevalence of campus rape.
… Government officials and campus administrators are paying more attention to what's going on between the sheets in dorm rooms than ever before. Despite all their newfound efforts to curtail sexual violence on campus, however, they're willfully ignoring the most important single factor running through accounts of such violence: alcohol.
…It is simply misleading to tell young women they have as great a chance of being sexually assaulted while in their dorm studying at 1 p.m. as they do at a drunken frat party at 1 a.m. There are patterns to victimization. The Campus Sexual Assault Study found the majority of victims were freshmen and sophomores, the most common time of year to be assaulted is when school begins in the fall, the most common days were Friday and Saturday, the most common time was after midnight. People who had been previously assaulted were at far greater risk of revictimization. Alcohol was overwhelmingly an element. The United Educators study of insurance payouts for sexual assault found that "Alcohol was a significant factor in nearly all of the claims studied."
For these kinds of men, the rise of female binge drinking has made campuses a prey-rich environment. I've spoken to three recent college graduates who were the victims of such assailants, and their stories are chilling.
Let's be totally clear: Perpetrators are the ones responsible for committing their crimes, and they should be brought to justice. But we are failing to let women know that when they render themselves defenseless, terrible things can be done to them. Young women are getting a distorted message that their right to match men drink for drink is a feminist issue. The real feminist message should be that when you lose the ability to be responsible for yourself, you drastically increase the chances that you will attract the kinds of people who, shall we say, don't have your best interest at heart. That's not blaming the victim; that's trying to prevent more victims.
Experts I spoke to who wanted young women to get this information said they were aware of how loaded it has become to give warnings to women about their behavior. "I'm always feeling defensive that my main advice is: 'Protect yourself. Don't make yourself vulnerable to the point of losing your cognitive faculties,' " says Anne Coughlin, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, who has written on rape and teaches feminist jurisprudence. She adds that by not telling them the truth—that they are responsible for keeping their wits about them—she worries that we are "infantilizing women."
The "Campus Sexual Assault Study" of 2007, undertaken for the Department of Justice, found that the popular belief that many young rape victims have been slipped "date rape" drugs is false. "Most sexual assaults occur after voluntary consumption of alcohol by the victim and assailant," the report states. But the researchers noted that this crucial point is not being articulated to young and naïve women: "Despite the link between substance abuse and sexual assault it appears that few sexual assault and/or risk reduction programs address the relationship between substance use and sexual assault." The report added, somewhat plaintively, "Students may also be unaware of the image of vulnerability projected by a visibly intoxicated individual."
"I'm not saying a woman is responsible for being sexually victimized," says Christopher Krebs, one of the authors of that study and others on campus sexual assault. "But when your judgment is compromised, your risk is elevated of having sexual violence perpetrated against you."
The night started, as so many college nights do, with a red cup pressed into a hand. Ubiquitous at tail gates and parties, those bright plastic cups are a harbinger of carnival, of unleashing. The hand around the cup was mine.
I remember many of the details only vaguely, but the cup shines through; I can still taste the sweet-sour drink inside it. No matter how much I sipped — and each sip made the next one easier — the cup remained filled, courtesy of a young man, a fellow college senior, attending to its contents. I liked him, a little; I found his focus — on me — impressive.
I drank from the red cup, and in the next scene from that evening that I can recall, I am on my bed, and he is on top of me. I am resisting, but he is heavy, so heavy, and my limbs so leaden. I am certain he thought he was, as we used to say back then, a totally decent guy. Even now, I can imagine him as someone's loyal husband, a maker of pancakes, his kids' soccer coach. But that night I said no, and still he lay there, massive, pleading, sloppy with beer, for what seemed to be hours (but surely was not), until I finally stopped holding him off. Too close to sleep to rouse myself to outrage, I settled for capitulation, then revulsion.
…In the days following that encounter, I avoided calls from the guy, who so clearly misunderstood the situation that he thought he was courting me; there may have been flowers, but not to apologize. I considered him someone between a brute and an oaf, my own experience falling somewhere between assault and just a bad night. I never felt I was a victim; looking back, I was an English major for whom language failed at a moment when I needed it most.