L.A. Schools Superintendent to Step Down Early

The state's largest school district, Los Angeles Unified, is once again under pressure to find a new leader. The interim superintendent Ramon Cortines surprised many people last week when he announced that he's making an early exit.

Oakland Teachers and Parents Rally for New Contract, Better Pay

Parents and teachers from Oakland Unified School District held a march on Tuesday demanding an increase in teacher pay and a reduction in class size. During the contract negotiations, some teachers have adopted a labor tactic known as "work-to-rule": working only the hours stipulated in their contract, and nothing more. We'll discuss the ongoing dispute and the impact of the "work-to-rule" practice on classrooms.

PBS NewsHour

How Obama reversed course on federal college ratings

The Department of Education . Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

The Department of Education . Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama dearly wanted to get the government in the business of rating colleges and universities based on value and affordability, promising a new system by 2015. Now that goal is shriveling under the weight of a concerted opposition from universities, lawmakers and bureaucrats in Obama’s own administration.

Nearly two years after the president, standing before a crowd of 7,000 at the University at Buffalo, unveiled the bold proposal as a way to curb soaring college costs, his administration has quietly but drastically scaled back the initiative. No longer does the federal government intend to use a formula to score schools based on factors like price, average student debt and graduation rates, as Obama had envisioned.

Instead, the new tool will allow prospective students to decide which factors are important to them, then draw their own conclusions from the statistics. But officials couldn’t point to any new statistics the tool will offer that aren’t already available through existing government websites.

Abandoning the original plan marked the latest in a series of stumbles for Obama’s education priorities. In his 2013 State of the Union address, Obama called for expanding access to pre-kindergarten to all American children, and in his 2015 address, he pushed a $60 billion plan to offer two years of free community college. Neither proposal has gained any traction.

The Education Department said it’s still determining what the revised college tool will look like, but that it’s still on track to roll it out by the start of the 2015-2016 academic year, roughly two months from now.

“It is anything but a retreat,” Education Department Undersecretary Ted Mitchell said in an interview. “It’s a retooling and, we think, an advance on the original concept.”

Yet Obama’s goal, as he described when he announced the plan in August 2013, was to create an alternative to private rankings like U.S. News and World Report whose formulas incentivize schools to “game the numbers” and even raise costs. Instead, Obama sought a system that prioritized whether schools are enrolling and graduating poorer students and whether their graduates succeed in the workforce.

“I think we should rate colleges based on opportunity — are they helping students from all kinds of backgrounds succeed — and on outcomes, on their value to students and parents,” Obama said. He took it a step further by proposing that Congress eventually tie a school’s eligibility for federal financial aid to its score in the new ratings system.

Resistance to Obama’s plan was swift, vehement and nearly universal.

Associations representing colleges with traditionally conflicting interests — such as community colleges and private universities — all lined up in opposition, warning the project was too complex, too subjective and too dependent on shoddy data to ever work fairly. As the Education Department mounted an extensive, lengthy listening tour across the country, college presidents warned of dire unintended consequences and implored the government to reconsider.

On Capitol Hill, the proposal drew pushback not only from the president’s traditional Republican foes, but also some Democrats. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., a former education secretary and chair of the Senate’s education panel, took to the Senate floor to threaten an amendment blocking the ratings system. And in the House, Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia and Democratic Rep. Michael Capuano of Massachusetts — two states with large numbers of colleges — joined forces to sponsor a resolution opposing Obama’s plan.

“Do I think they would have continued if no one had pushed back? Of course I do,” Capuano said.

Declining graduation rates, skyrocketing student debt and a paltry job market for graduates has many in the education community looking for new ideas to restart America’s colleges and universities. Join PBS NewsHour Weekend anchor Hari Sreenivasan as he explores innovative approaches that are changing the way higher education works around the nation.

But for nearly two years, the administration stuck to the original plan. In a blog post in December 2014, the Education Department said it was considering rating schools as high-performing, medium-performing or low-performing and outlined a few potential metrics, but disappointed many by failing to flesh out the formula it would use to assign ratings.

Driving the decision to stick with a ratings system was Obama, who was dead-set on carrying out his original vision for the project, according to interviews with nearly a dozen congressional aides, administration officials and college association leaders. Many of them spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid criticizing the president publicly.

From the start, career bureaucrats and data experts at the Education Department said the idea wasn’t feasible, but met continued White House resistance, those officials said. Technical experts in the education industry that the administration consulted offered similar warnings. Eventually, higher-level Education Department officials grew convinced the plan was unworkable, and persuaded the White House to allow a scaled-back approach devoid of hard-and-fast ratings.

“We are right where the president wanted us to be in terms of making progress toward his vision,” said James Kvaal, deputy director of the White House’s Domestic Policy Council.

University associations that had fought the proposal praised the Obama administration for taking their concerns seriously and eventually agreeing to abandon the initial plan, calling it a rare example of the government acknowledging its own missteps.

“They really did listen on this,” said Sarah Flanagan, the top lobbyist for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. “The more they looked into it, they realized it wasn’t doable.”

The post How Obama reversed course on federal college ratings appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

Teachers tap into brain science to boost learning


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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next: neuroscience and education.

Thousands of teachers around the country are learning about an alternative teaching program that aims to use scientific discoveries about the brain to improve the way children learn in the classroom.

Special correspondent John Tulenko of Learning Matters reports from Philadelphia.

JASSELLE CIRINO, Teacher, Francis Scott Key Elementary: When I say class, you…

CLASS: You stop what you’re doing. Look at the teacher.

JOHN TULENKO: Today is Wacky Wednesday in Jasselle Cirino’s third grade classroom, which explains the blue wig.

JASSELLE CIRINO: So I want you to teach your neighbor.

JOHN TULENKO: But the rest of what you’re about to see is what her classroom looks like every day.

JASSELLE CIRINO: I want giant gestures.

JOHN TULENKO: She uses a set of techniques some call whole brain teaching.

JASSELLE CIRINO: A lot of times in traditional teaching, you’re just lecturing, and you’re talking and talking. And what we like to say, whole brainers, we like to say that the more you talk, the more students you lose. And so we use different methods to engage multiple parts of the brain. And that way, you get 100 percent engagement.

JOHN TULENKO: These days, scientists can look further into the brain than ever, pinpointing the neurons and circuits that control how we think and act. All that’s sparking a movement that’s changing the way some teachers teach.

Are there parts of the brain that you’re aiming at?

JASSELLE CIRINO: Yes, the hippocampus, the motor cortex, the prefrontal cortex, which is the brain’s boss, so something like class, it turns on the prefrontal cortex, which makes the brain’s decisions.

So it says, hey, pay attention. I’m about to tell you something. So, once I have their attention, I teach the material usually through mirrors.

This deals with the mirror neurons in your brain. And so what I say, they repeat. To learn anything, you have to repeat something. You have to repeat something that’s modeled to you. That’s where it starts.

JOHN TULENKO: A lot of times in your class, I saw you gesture, and then you asked your students to gesture.

JASSELLE CIRINO: Right. That’s for engaging their motor cortex. When you act things out while you’re reading, you comprehend more. And we use brainees. These are gestures that are tied to writing skills.

JOHN TULENKO: Can you give me some examples?

JASSELLE CIRINO: Sure. For example is an example. But or however. If, then, so more of like a cause and effect. Adjective. A noun is a person, place or thing, compare, contrast, simile, metaphor, I mean, the list goes on and on.

JOHN TULENKO: I saw you a bunch of times where you would stop, and then you would say to the group, teach.


JOHN TULENKO: What’s going on there?

JASSELLE CIRINO: So I have taught them the lesson, but now they need to teach that main point to each other. They’re getting another repetition of the material, but, this time, a lot of times it’s in their own words. And they’re learning how to put things in their own words.

You’re writing while you’re doing it. You’re gesturing, so you’re remembering it in different parts of the brain. You’re not just listening. You’re also speaking. You need to be doing all of these things at once in order to engage the whole brain.

JOHN TULENKO: We wanted to know if science actually backed up any of this. So we brought a video of Jasselle’s class to Daphna Shohamy, a neuroscientist at Columbia University.

DAPHNA SHOHAMY, Columbia University: I buy it. It makes great sense to me.

I mean, the brain is really in many ways wired for actions. Right? It’s — it’s really not wired to sit passively and absorb any information. But I think where — you know, where I wouldn’t fully agree is the idea that more activity is always good. More brain activity in more places doesn’t equal more learning or a better memory.

JOHN TULENKO: OK. How can children learn better?

DAPHNA SHOHAMY: Right, right. Yes, it’s the million-dollar question. I think we have some answers.

The brain learns when things are surprising and interesting.

JASSELLE CIRINO: What is going on here?

DAPHNA SHOHAMY: So if I give you a $20 bill, now, all of a sudden, you will sort of have a burst of activity in your dopamine neurons. They fire.

But if I do that regularly, like every five minutes, I give you $20, your dopamine neurons will stop firing. So what these neurons are doing is they’re signaling how unexpected an event was in the world. They’re not signaling how good or bad it was. They’re signaling how unexpectedly good or unexpectedly bad it was.

So keeping things a little bit noisy and a little bit different is actually really beneficial for learning in many different ways.

JASSELLE CIRINO: Hold your horses.

JOHN TULENKO: Neuroscience says there’s something else important going on here.

JASSELLE CIRINO: When you’re learning things, just even in life, you connect it with a type of feeling. And so the main emotion we want you to feel in a whole brain classroom is fun.


DAPHNA SHOHAMY: Our brain was evolved to survive. We need to remember things that were of emotional and social significance. That’s probably much more important than remembering any bit of information that was communicated to us within a lecture.

JASSELLE CIRINO: We’re done being blah. It’s time to get fuzzy.

CLASS: Fuzzy!

JOHN TULENKO: Here are a few other things neuroscientists think the rest of us ought to know about the brain, that stress damages neurons and impairs learning. Brain training games claim to be effective, but, in fact, the jury’s still out.

What does help is regular physical exercise. Staying active keeps the brain developing and delays cognitive decline as we get older.

In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, I’m John Tulenko reporting for the NewsHour.

JUDY WOODRUFF: As for results, a study on the effect of whole brain teaching in one California elementary school found test scores in math and language arts rose by an average of 11 percent.

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Why the government let many trade schools become diploma mills

The Department of Education . Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

There are more than a dozen for-profit colleges being investigated by state and federal regulators for fraud or deceptive business practices. Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — How did trade schools go from being mom-and-pop shops that trained mechanics and hair stylists to making billions on Wall Street? And if the industry is as predatory as the Education Department and many lawmakers suggest, why didn’t they stop it?

In 1990, there wasn’t a single publicly traded college. Now, there are more than a dozen with most of them being investigated by state and federal regulators for fraud or deceptive business practices. Among the allegations is that many of these schools enrolled unqualified students, taught bogus coursework, and encouraged prospective students to lie on financial aid forms so they could access federal dollars.

Several consumer advocates interviewed by The Associated Press point to 2002 as the beginning of a dangerous rise of for-profit colleges. That’s when an Education Department memo written under President George W. Bush suggested colleges wouldn’t be severely penalized if they compensated college recruiters for getting students in the door. The memo became a tacit endorsement for the kinds of high-pressured sales tactics that emerged.

The next big change, they say, came in 2006, when Congress passed legislation backed by the Bush administration that erased a requirement that colleges deliver at least half their courses on a campus.

The top regulator on higher education at the Education Department during this time was Sally Stroup, now general counsel for the for-profit’s chief lobbying arm, the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities.

In 1990, there wasn’t a single publicly traded college. Now, there are more than a dozen with most of them being investigated by state and federal regulators. “That’s when these guys took off,” said Tom Harkin, a former Democratic senator from Iowa who led a 2012 investigation into the for-profit industry. He said moving everything online made it easier for private investors to snap up failing schools and hide from regulators. Meanwhile, the schools invested heavily in lobbyists and making political connections that guaranteed access to federal student aid would be protected, he said.

“These schools went out and ran wild with government money,” Harkin said.

Consumer advocates also blame fear of litigation and a culture at the Education Department that views itself as a partner with schools, rather than a regulator working on behalf of students. In a statement provided to the AP, Education Secretary Arne Duncan denies this, saying the administration “put students first in everything we do.”

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to reform, however, has been Congress, which has been lobbied heavily by the industry to leave it alone. House and Senate Republicans are pushing legislation that would block the latest regulatory plan by the Education Department.

Republican Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, who chairs the House appropriations subcommittee that oversees education spending, says the administration’s new rules will make it “much more difficult for institutions to serve their students” and “is likely to cause programs to cease operations, preventing students from benefiting from the valuable job training.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to replace the photo. Earlier we used a photo of the University of Phoenix, which is not implicated in the Department of Education’s fraud investigation.

The post Why the government let many trade schools become diploma mills appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

How churches are trying to raise the college graduation rate

James Brooks, director of marketing at Mount Zion Baptist Church, Camy Sorge, Degrees Matter! associate director, and
         Pastor Odell Cleveland work together to encourage members of the congregation to return to school. Photo by Kayleigh Skinner/The
         Hechinger Report.

James Brooks, director of marketing at Mount Zion Baptist Church, Camy Sorge, Degrees Matter! associate director, and Pastor Odell Cleveland work together to encourage members of the congregation to return to school. Photo by Kayleigh Skinner/The Hechinger Report.

GREENSBORO, N.C. ─ Damita Rhodie was on her way to a bachelor’s degree when she fell in love, got married, had kids, divorced, and ended up with no bachelor’s degree and no time to get one.

It’s a story so common that policymakers struggle mightily to overcome it in their efforts to increase the proportion of Americans with degrees. Yet enrollment has been going down, not up.

Rhodie bucked that trend. A rare exception, she has now returned to college for a degree in social work. And her motivation came from a source as persuasive as it was unexpected: the pastor at her church.

“I don’t claim to know all the rules and regulations about re-entry into college, but where I can be helpful and functional on the team is to have access to the people who trust me enough to say, ‘Pastor Cleveland, I really want to come back and do this,’” said the pastor, Odell Cleveland, of the 4,000-member Mount Zion Baptist Church here.

The idea of using churches to help drive adults back into college started with Degrees Matter!, a nonprofit in Greensboro. If politicians, business leaders and schools couldn’t do it, the organization reasoned, maybe churches could.

“What we’re trying to do is move the needle to get as many people into education programs as possible,” said the organization’s associate director, Camy Sorge. “It’s really about, ‘How can we reach the most people?’”

Mount Zion is the only church that so far has teamed up with Degrees Matter! but Sorge said she hopes to enlist more.

Thirty-six percent of Greensboro residents aged 25 and older have bachelor’s degrees or higher, but Degrees Matter! shares the goal of the White House and other advocacy groups of raising that to 60 percent by 2025.

Related: Why are graduation rates at community colleges so low?

Mount Zion Baptist Church in Greenboro, North Carolina. Photo by Kayleigh Skinner/The Hechinger Report.

Mount Zion Baptist Church in Greensboro, North Carolina. Photo by Kayleigh Skinner/The Hechinger Report.

So far, this national effort is way behind schedule. With 10 years to go to that 60 percent target, the proportion of people with degrees nationwide is now 40 percent, up only about 2 percentage points since the goal was set in 2008, according to the Lumina Foundation, which tracks this. (The Lumina Foundation also gives money to Degrees Matter! and is a funder of PBS NewsHour and The Hechinger Report, which produced this story.) “Increasingly worrisome,” Lumina said, were rates of attainment of 28 percent for blacks and 20 percent for Hispanics.

One problem is that many adults like Rhodie enroll in college only to drop out when faced with the responsibilities of life, wasting their tuition and forgoing higher wages.

The average salary for a person 25 to 34 with a bachelor’s degree is $46,900 a year, versus $30,000 for people with just high school diplomas, the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics reports. Yet only 55 percent of first-time students who entered college in the fall 2008 had earned a degree six years later, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.

With help from the church and others, Degrees Matter! has helped 261 people enroll in or return to college over the past year, Sorge said.

Rhodie was speaking with Cleveland more than a year ago when she told him about her dream of earning a bachelor’s degree before her son graduated from high school, as a way of being a role model for him.

The pastor offered more than just a sympathetic ear.

“He said, ‘Let’s get you back in school. We want to help you.’ And from Day One that’s what they’ve been doing,” Rhodie said.

The church uses 10 percent of the tithings received to pay for day care, which Rhodie’s children attend, a book scholarship, and emergency assistance funds to help with tuition and other college costs. Degrees Matter! provides services including financial counseling and directs students to organizations that can cover some of what they can’t afford themselves.

“It’s amazing what little things can be done to encourage [people] to stay and get back in school,” Sorge said. “It can be as simple as finding an extra $400 for them to buy books, or it can be contacting United Way to get reliable sources of childcare for them or it could be possibly that they need money for a bus pass.”

Cleveland said his role in the partnership is to be a “cheerleader” by encouraging those in his congregation who want to return to school to get help from Degrees Matter! The church regularly hammers home this opportunity by word of mouth and through its Zion News Network (called ZNN by the congregation), a five-minute weekly “newscast” video shown before Sunday service.

Cleveland described the church as a “bridge” that helps inform people it’s possible to go back to school and puts them in touch with the staff at Degrees Matter! From there, the organization steps in to provide whatever services each student needs.

Rhodie is now finishing up general-studies courses on her way to that bachelor’s degree in social work. Her son is entering 11th grade in the fall and she said she wants to set a good example for each of her three children.

“I can push on them the importance of education,” she said. “But what does it mean if I didn’t finish my degree?”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about higher education.

PBS NewsHour coverage of higher education is supported by the Lumina Foundation and American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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