Program to Relieve Student Debt Proves Unforgiving

When Bonnie Svitavsky first heard about the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, she thought she had finally found a way out of the large debt she had taken on to become a public librarian.

Congress created the program in 2007 with people like her in mind. The goal was to lure people into professions like teaching, nursing or public-interest law, where pricey degrees are the ticket of entry but wages typically aren’t high enough to pay them off.

More than a decade later, now that the first borrowers are eligible, the program is in disarray. More than 73,000 people have applied for debt forgiveness as of March 31 of this year, according to Education Department data, but just 864 have had their loans erased.

Ms. Svitavsky completed two master’s programs, creative writing and library sciences, which along with her bachelor’s degree left her with more than $97,000 in loans by the time she began her job at the Puyallup Public Library just outside Tacoma, Wash., in 2008. She consolidated those loans, per the program’s requirements, and began following the steps toward debt forgiveness.

Or she thought she had.

“It’s deeply frustrating, because you know you’re done, and you’ve jumped through all these hoops,” Ms. Svitavsky said. “It feels like a broken promise.”

A mix of factors combined to derail the program, including poorly written legislation, neglect by multiple administrations, mismanagement by servicer’s contracted to carry it out and antipathy from conservatives—particularly in the Trump administration—who would prefer the program had never been created.G

“The department’s goal of pursuing its conservative agenda is made easier by the fact that the law itself is a mess,” said Terry Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council on Education, a Washington trade group representing colleges and universities.

To qualify for forgiveness, borrowers must work for a government entity or nonprofit, hold a certain type of loan, enroll in one of several specific repayment plans and make 120 full and on-time monthly payments, or 10 years’ worth. Falling short on almost any of these requirements can mean disqualification.

Related video: Student Debt in America and the Hope of Affordable Education01:2405:20Student debt in America and the hope of affordable education

Education Department data show the rejections are prompted by a wide range of issues: 16% of denials were because borrowers had the wrong type of loan, making them permanently ineligible. Twenty-five percent were turned away due to missing information in applications, a potentially fixable error. And 53% were denied for not making enough payments, which could have been due to a simple counting error or being enrolled in an ineligible repayment plan for years.

The program’s congressional backers created one obstacle from the get-go. They required that applicants hold loans made directly from the federal government. Most student loans offered at the time were federally guaranteed but privately owned, making them much more expensive to manage.

That requirement predictably tripped up initial borrowers. Law schools around the country advertised the program to their students, but many offered only private loans in their financial-aid packages.

Congress went on to eliminate federally guaranteed private loans entirely in 2010, making all future loans eligible for public-service discharge, but private loans taken out before that time remained ineligible.

At that point, with the first borrowers not eligible for forgiveness for seven years, the Obama administration put off specific steps that would have helped the program run smoothly. Officials didn’t advertise the program or establish a platform to guide borrowers through its requirements. They didn’t draw up clear guidance on which employers should qualify as public-service organizations—now a subject of litigation. A government investigation last year found that officials didn’t even produce a guidebook for the servicing company they hired, Fed Loan, to implement the program.

“We had a lot else going on at the time, and this had not really appeared on our radar as a major problem that needed attention,” said Spiros Protopsaltis, a senior education policy adviser in the Obama administration. “We did some things, but clearly it wasn’t enough.”

Borrowers, meanwhile, also accused several of the companies charged with handling their loans with allowing them to enroll in ineligible repayment plans, though they had mentioned an interest in public-service loan forgiveness. Others made payments that were slightly too small—sometimes off by cents—that disqualified them from the minimum payment count. Still others were initially told their employers qualified, only to be told by the Education Department later that the servicing company had made an error.

Ms. Svitavsky hit her first snag in 2013, when she submitted a form to ensure her employer qualified her for loan forgiveness. It did, but that step revealed another problem: For the prior 23 months, her servicer, like with so many other borrowers, had her on a plan known as extended repayment, which charges standard monthly payments over 25 years. Those payments were now all ineligible toward her payment count.

The improper payment plan issue raised particular concern in Washington, where members of Congress, led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.), in 2018 created a temporary fund of $700 million to reimburse borrowers who had mistakenly enrolled in ineligible repayment plans but otherwise qualified. The program has so far granted loan relief to 442 additional people.

The Trump administration, for its part, has done little more than the law requires to set up clearer processes for borrowers or the companies serving them. In its last three budget recommendations, the administration has proposed ending the program entirely.

In a hearing last month, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos criticized the program for, as she put it, elevating certain professions over others. “We don’t think that one type of a job, one type of role should be incentivized over another,” she said.

Critics on the right and the left bring up a broader contention: As more people work their way through the program’s labyrinthine requirements, some wealthier borrowers could stand to save big sums. That is because the government’s definition of public service extends to higher-paid professors at nonprofit universities and doctors at nonprofit hospitals.

“If Congress was totally honest with taxpayers about what they’re doing, which is creating a loan forgiveness program for people with master’s degrees who are fully employed.…I don’t think Congress could get away with doing that,” said Jason Delisle, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

As for Ms. Svitavsky, who now earns $72,000 a year, the establishment of the congressional reimbursement fund last year means her 23 ineligible payments now count. In August 2018, she filed for forgiveness of her remaining roughly $80,000 in loans.

She was rejected.

The problem: Three different servicing companies had handled Ms. Svitavsky’s loan, and each time her account was transferred, her automatic payments hadn’t been made, which she didn’t notice.

She made three additional payments and tried again in November.

Again, her application was rejected.

This time, Ms. Svitavsky couldn’t find the flaw. She counted 121 qualifying payments. A review of her documents by The Wall Street Journal and two independent higher-education analysts confirmed her count.

A customer-service official with Fed Loan agreed with Ms. Svitavsky’s contention and appealed her case.

She is still waiting.

Jun 2019



How Family Background Influences Student Achievement

ednext_XVI_2_egalite_img01On the weekend before the Fourth of July 1966, the U.S. Office of Education quietly released a 737-page report that summarized one of the most comprehensive studies of American education ever conducted. Encompassing some 3,000 schools, nearly 600,000 students, and thousands of teachers, and produced by a team led by Johns Hopkins University sociologist James S. Coleman, “Equality of Educational Opportunity” was met with a palpable silence. Indeed, the timing of the release relied on one of the oldest tricks in the public relations playbook—announcing unfavorable results on a major holiday, when neither the American public nor the news media are paying much attention.

To the dismay of federal officials, the Coleman Report had concluded that “schools are remarkably similar in the effect they have on the achievement of their pupils when the socio-economic background of the students is taken into account.” Or, as one sociologist supposedly put it to the scholar-politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “Have you heard what Coleman is finding? It’s all family.”

The Coleman Report’s conclusions concerning the influences of home and family were at odds with the paradigm of the day. The politically inconvenient conclusion that family background explained more about a child’s achievement than did school resources ran contrary to contemporary priorities, which were focused on improving educational inputs such as school expenditure levels, class size, and teacher quality. Indeed, less than a year before the Coleman Report’s release, President Lyndon Johnson had signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act into law, dedicating federal funds to disadvantaged students through a Title 1 program that still remains the single largest investment in K–12 education, currently reaching approximately 21 million students at an annual cost of about $14.4 billion.

So what exactly had Coleman uncovered? Differences among schools in their facilities and staffing “are so little related to achievement levels of students that, with few exceptions, their effect fails to appear even in a survey of this magnitude,” the authors concluded.

Zeroing In on Family Background

Family income may have a direct or indirect impact on children’s academic outcomes.

Family income may have a direct or indirect impact on children’s academic outcomes.

Coleman’s advisory panel refused to sign off on the report, citing “methodological concerns” that continue to reverberate. Subsequent research has corroborated the finding that family background is strongly correlated with student performance in school. A correlation between family background and educational and economic success, however, does not tell us whether the relationship between the two is independent of any school impacts. The associations between home life and school performance that Coleman documented may actually be driven by disparities in school or neighborhood quality rather than family influences. Often, families choose their children’s schools by selecting their community or neighborhood, and children whose parents select good schools may benefit as a consequence. In the elusive quest to uncover the determinants of students’ academic success, therefore, it is important to rely on experimental or quasi-experimental research that identifies effects of family background that operate separately and apart from any school effects.

In this essay I look at four family variables that may influence student achievement: family education, family income, parents’ criminal activity, and family structure. I then consider the ways in which schools can offset the effects of these factors.

Parental Education. Better-educated parents are more likely to consider the quality of the local schools when selecting a neighborhood in which to live. Once their children enter a school, educated parents are also more likely to pay attention to the quality of their children’s teachers and may attempt to ensure that their children are adequately served. By participating in parent-teacher conferences and volunteering at school, they may encourage staff to attend to their children’s individual needs.

In addition, highly educated parents are more likely than their less-educated counterparts to read to their children. Educated parents enhance their children’s development and human capital by drawing on their own advanced language skills in communicating with their children. They are more likely to pose questions instead of directives and employ a broader and more complex vocabulary. Estimates suggest that, by age 3, children whose parents receive public assistance hear less than a third of the words encountered by their higher-income peers. As a result, the children of highly educated parents are capable of more complex speech and have more extensive vocabularies before they even start school.

Highly educated parents can also use their social capital to promote their children’s development. A cohesive social network of well-educated individuals socializes children to expect that they too will attain high levels of academic success. It can also transmit cultural capital by teaching children the specific behaviors, patterns of speech, and cultural references that are valued by the educational and professional elite.

In most studies, parental education has been identified as the single strongest correlate of children’s success in school, the number of years they attend school, and their success later in life. Because parental education influences children’s learning both directly and through the choice of a school, we do not know how much of the correlation can be attributed to direct impact and how much to school-related factors. Teasing out the distinct causal impact of parental education is tricky, but given the strong association between parental education and student achievement in every industrialized society, the direct impact is undoubtedly substantial. Furthermore, quasi-experimental strategies have found positive effects of parental education on children’s outcomes. For instance, one study of Korean children adopted into American families shows that the adoptive mother’s education level is significantly associated with the child’s educational attainment.

Even small differences in access to the activities and experiences that are known to promote brain development can accumulate.

Even small differences in access to the activities and experiences that are known to promote brain development can accumulate.

Family Income. As with parental education, family income may have a direct impact on a child’s academic outcomes, or variations in achievement could simply be a function of the school the child attends: parents with greater financial resources can identify communities with higher-quality schools and choose more-expensive neighborhoods—the very places where good schools are likely to be. More-affluent parents can also use their resources to ensure that their children have access to a full range of extracurricular activities at school and in the community.

But it’s not hard to imagine direct effects of income on student achievement. Parents who are struggling economically simply don’t have the time or the wherewithal to check homework, drive children to summer camp, organize museum trips, or help their kids plan for college. Working multiple jobs or inconvenient shifts makes it hard to dedicate time for family dinners, enforce a consistent bedtime, read to infants and toddlers, or invest in music lessons or sports clubs. Even small differences in access to the activities and experiences that are known to promote brain development can accumulate, resulting in a sizable gap between two groups of children defined by family circumstances.

It is challenging to find rigorous experimental or quasi-experimental evidence to disentangle the direct effects of home life from the effects of the school a family selects. While Coleman claimed that family and peers had an effect on student achievement that was distinct from the influence of schools or neighborhoods, his research design was inadequate to support this conclusion. All he was able to show was that family characteristics had a strong correlation with student achievement.

Separating out the independent effects of family education and family income is also difficult. We do not know if low income and financial instability alone can adversely affect children’s behavior, emotional stability, and educational outcomes. Evidence from the negative-income-tax experiments carried out by the federal government between 1968 and 1982 showed only mixed effects of income on children’s outcomes, and subsequent work by the University of Chicago’s Susan Mayer cast doubt on any causal relationship between parental income and child well-being. However, a recent study by Gordon Dahl and Lance Lochner, exploiting quasi-experimental variation in the Earned Income Tax Credit, provides convincing evidence that increases in family income can lift the achievement levels of students raised in low-income working families, even holding other factors constant.

Two percent of U.S. children have a parent in federal or state prison.

Two percent of U.S. children have a parent in federal or state prison.

Parental Incarceration. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that 2.3 percent of U.S. children have a parent in federal or state prison. Black children are 7.5 times more likely and Hispanic children 2.5 times more likely than white children to have an incarcerated parent. Incarceration removes a wage earner from the home, lowering household income. One estimate suggests that two-thirds of incarcerated fathers had provided the primary source of family income before their imprisonment. As a result, children with a parent in prison are at greater risk of homelessness, which in turn can have grave consequences: the receipt of social and medical services and assignment to a traditional public school all require a stable home address. The emotional strain of a parent’s incarceration can also take its toll on a child’s achievement in school.

Quantifying the causal effects of parental incarceration has proven challenging, however. While correlational research finds that the odds of finishing high school are 50 percent lower for children with an incarcerated parent, parents who are in prison may have less education, lower income, more limited access to quality schools, and other attributes that adversely affect their children’s success in school. A recent review of 22 studies of the effect of parental incarceration on child well-being concludes that, to date, no research in this area has been able to leverage a natural experiment to produce quasi-experimental estimates. Just how large a causal impact parental incarceration has on children remains an important but largely uncharted topic for future research.

Family Structure. While most American children still live with both of their biological or adoptive parents, family structures have become more diverse in recent years, and living arrangements have grown increasingly complex. In particular, the two-parent family is vanishing among the poor.

ednext_XVI_2_egalite_fig01-smallApproximately two-fifths of U.S. children experience dissolution in their parents’ union by age 15, and two-thirds of this group will see their mother form a new union within six years. Many parents today choose cohabitation over marriage, but the instability of such partnerships is even higher. In the case of nonmarital births, estimates say that 56 percent of fathers will be living away from their child by his or her third birthday. These patterns can have serious implications for a child’s well-being and school success (see Figure 1). Single parents have less time for the enriching activities that Robert Putnam, Harvard professor of public policy, has called “Goodnight Moon” time, after the celebrated bedtime storybook by Margaret Wise Brown. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that 1- to 2-year-olds who live with two married parents are read to, on average, 8.5 times per week. The corresponding statistic for their peers living with a single parent is 5.7 times. And it’s likely that dual-parent families in general have many other attributes that affect their children’s educational attainment, mental health, labor market performance, and family formation. More-rigorous quasi-experimental evidence also documents significant negative effects of a father’s absence on children’s educational attainment and social and emotional development, leading to increases in antisocial behavior. These effects are largest for boys.

Recent research by MIT economist David Autor and colleagues generates quasi-experimental estimates of family background by simultaneously accounting for the impact of neighborhood environment and school quality to investigate why boys fare worse than girls in disadvantaged families. Comparing boys to their sisters in a data set that includes more than 1 million children born in Florida between 1992 and 2002, the authors demonstrate a persistent gender gap in graduation and truancy rates, incidence of behavioral and cognitive disabilities, and standardized test scores.

Policies to Counter Family Disadvantage

Policymakers who are weighing competing approaches to countering the influence of family disadvantage face a tough choice: Should they try to improve schools (to overcome the effects of family background) or directly address the effects of family background?

One- to 2-year-olds who live with two married parents are read to, on average, 8.5 times per week.

One- to 2-year-olds who live with two married parents are read to, on average, 8.5 times per week.

The question is critical. If family background is decisive regardless of the quality of the school, then the road to equal opportunity will be long and hard. Increasing the level of parental education is a multigenerational challenge, while reducing the rising disparities in family income would require massive changes in public policy, and reversing the growth in the prevalence of single-parent families would also prove challenging. And, while efforts to reduce incarceration rates are afoot, U.S. crime rates remain among the highest in the world. Given these obstacles, if schools themselves can offset differences in family background, the chances of achieving a more egalitarian society greatly improve.

For these reasons, scholars need to continue to tackle the causality question raised by Coleman’s pathbreaking study. Although the obstacles to causal inference are steep, education researchers should focus on quasi-experimental approaches relying on sibling comparisons, changes in state laws over time, or policy quirks—such as policy implementation timelines that vary across municipalities—that facilitate research opportunities.

Given what is currently known, a holistic approach that simultaneously attempts to strengthen both home and school influences in disadvantaged communities is worthy of further exploration. A number of contemporary and past initiatives point to the potential of this comprehensive approach.

Promise Neighborhoods

“Promise Neighborhoods,” which are funded by a grant program of the U.S. Department of Education, serve distressed communities by delivering a continuum of services through multiple government agencies, nonprofit organizations, churches, and agencies of civil society. These neighborhood initiatives use “wraparound” programs that take a holistic approach to improving the educational achievement of low-income students. The template for the approach is the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), a 97-block neighborhood in New York City that combines charter schooling with a full package of social, medical, and community support services. The programs and resources are available to the families at no cost.

Services available in the HCZ include a Baby College, where expectant parents can learn about child development and gain parenting skills; two charter schools and a college success office, which provides individualized counseling and guidance to graduates on university campuses across the country; free legal services, tax preparation, and financial counseling; employment workshops and job fairs; a 50,000-square-foot facility that offers recreational and nutrition classes; and a food services team that provides breakfast, lunch, and a snack every school day to more than 2,000 students.

Research by Will Dobbie and Roland Fryer demonstrates that the impact of attending an HCZ charter middle school on students’ test scores is comparable to the impressive effects seen at  high-performing charter schools such as the Knowledge Is Power Program (known as KIPP schools). Students who win admission by lottery and attend an HCZ school also have higher on-time graduation rates than their peers and are less likely to become teen parents or land in prison. Although some community services are available to HCZ residents only, results show that students who live outside the HCZ experience similar benefits simply from attending the Promise Academy. That is, Dobbie and Fryer do not find any additional benefits associated with the resident-only supplementary services that distinguish the Promise Neighborhoods approach.   (In many instances, the mean scores for children who live within the zone are higher than those for nonresidents, but these differences are not statistically significant.)

There are two caveats to keep in mind in regard to this finding that support the case for continued experimentation with and evaluation of Promise Neighborhoods. First, many of the wraparound services offered in the HCZ are provided through the school and are thus available to HCZ residents and nonresidents alike. For instance, all Promise Academy students receive free nutritious meals; medical, dental, and mental health services; and food baskets for their parents. The services that nonresidents cannot access are things such as tax preparation and financial advising, parenting classes through the Baby College, and job fairs. It may be that both groups of students are accessing the most beneficial supplementary services.

The second caveat is that the HCZ is a “pipeline” model that aims to transform an entire community by targeting services across many different domains. Therefore, we may have to wait until a cohort of students has progressed through that pipeline before we can get a full picture of how these comprehensive services have benefited them. The first cohort to complete the entire HCZ program is expected to graduate from high school in 2020.

The main drawback of the Promise Neighborhoods model is its high cost. To cover the expenses of running the Promise Academy Charter School and the afterschool and wraparound programs, the HCZ spends about $19,272 per pupil. While this price tag is about $3,100 higher than the median per-pupil cost in New York State, it is still about $14,000 lower than what is spent by a district at the 95th percentile. If future research can demonstrate that the HCZ positively influences longer-term outcomes such as college graduation rates, income, and mortality, the model will hold tremendous potential that may well justify its costs.

HCZ is a “pipeline” model that aims to transform an entire community by targeting services across many different domains.

HCZ is a “pipeline” model that aims to transform an entire community by targeting services across many different domains.

Early Childhood Education

Early childhood programs can provide a source of enrichment for needy children, ensuring them a solid start in a world where those with inadequate education are increasingly marginalized. Neuroscientists estimate that about 90 percent of the brain develops between birth and age 5, supporting the case for expanded access to early childhood programs. While the United States spends abundantly on elementary and secondary schoolchildren ($12,401 per student per year in 2013–14 dollars), it devotes dramatically less than other wealthy countries to children in their first few years of life.

Four years before James Coleman released his report, a group of underprivileged, at-risk toddlers at the Perry Preschool in Ypsilanti, Michigan, were randomly selected for a preschool intervention that consisted of daily coaching from highly trained teachers as well as visits to their homes. After just one year, those in the experimental treatment group were registering IQ scores 10 points higher than their peers in the control group. The test-score effects had disappeared by age 10, but follow-up analyses of the Perry Preschool treatment group revealed impressive longer-term outcomes that included a significant increase in their high-school graduation rate and the probability of earning at least $20,000 a year as adults, as well as a 19 percent decrease in their probability of being arrested five or more times. Similar small-scale, “hothouse” preschool experiments in Chicago, upstate New York, and North Carolina have all shown comparable benefits.

Preschoolers at the Harlem Children’s Zone

Preschoolers at the Harlem Children’s Zone

Unfortunately, attempts to scale up such programs have proved challenging. Studies of the Head Start program, for instance, have uncovered mixed evidence of its effectiveness. Modest impacts on students’ cognitive skills mostly fade out by the end of 1st grade. Such results have led many to question whether quality can be consistently maintained when a program such as Head Start is implemented broadly. Indeed, recent research has revealed considerable differences in Head Start’s effectiveness from site to site. Variation in inputs and practices among Head Start centers explains about a third of these differences, a finding that may offer clues as to the contextual factors that influence the program’s varying levels of success.

Although the policymaker’s challenge is to figure out how to expand access to such programs  while preserving quality, evidence suggests that investment in early childhood education has the potential to significantly address disparities that arise from family disadvantage.

Small Schools of Choice 

Traditional public schools assign a child to a given school based exclusively on his family’s place of residence. As Coleman pointed out, residential assignment promotes stratification between schools by family background, because it creates incentives for families of means to move to the “good” school districts. Under this system, schools cannot serve as the equal-opportunity engines of our society. Instead, residential assignment often replicates within the school system the same family advantages and disadvantages that exist in the community.

The most promising social policy for combating the effects of family background, then, could well be the expansion of programs that  allow families to choose schools without regard to their neighborhood of residence.  An analysis of more than 100 small schools of choice in New York City between 2002 and 2008 revealed a 9.5 percent increase in the graduation rate of a group of educationally and economically disadvantaged students, at no extra cost to the city. Positive results have also been observed with respect to student test scores for charter schools in New York City, Boston, Los Angeles, and New Orleans.

Small schools of choice might also build the social capital that Coleman considered crucial for student success. First, small schools are well positioned to build a strong sense of community through the development of robust student-teacher, parent-teacher, and student-student relationships. Helping students to cultivate dense networks of social relationships better equips them to handle life’s challenges and is particularly vital given the disintegration of many social structures today. While schools may not be able to compensate fully for the disruptive effects of a dysfunctional or unstable family, a robust school culture can transform the “social ecology” of a disadvantaged child.

A small school of choice also engenders a voluntary community that comes together over strong ties and shared values. Typically, schools of choice feature a clearly defined mission and set of core values, which may derive from religious traditions and beliefs. The Notre Dame ACE Academy schools, for instance, strive for the twin goals of preparing students for college and for heaven. By explicitly defining their mission, schools can appeal to families who share their values and are eager to contribute to the growth of the community. A focused mission also helps school administrators attract like-minded teachers and thus promotes staff collegiality. A warm and cohesive teaching staff can be particularly beneficial for children from unstable homes, whose parents may not regularly express emotional closeness or who fail to communicate effectively. Exposure to well-functioning adult role models at school might compensate for such deficits, promoting well-being and positive emotional development.

Implications for Policy

Determining the causal relationships between family background and child well-being has posed a daunting challenge. Family characteristics are often tightly correlated with features of the neighborhood environment, making it difficult to determine the independent influences of each. But getting a solid understanding of causality is critical to the debate over whether to intervene inside or outside of school.

The results of quasi-experimental research, as well as common sense, tell us that children who grow up in stable, well-resourced families have significant advantages over their peers who do not—including access to better schools and other educational services. Policies that place schools at center stage have the potential to disrupt the cycle of economic disadvantage to ensure that children born into poverty aren’t excluded from the American dream.

In opening our eyes to the role of family background in the creation of inequality, Coleman wasn’t suggesting that we shrug our shoulders and learn to live with it. But in attacking the achievement gap, as his research would imply, we need to mobilize not only our schools but also other institutions. Promise Neighborhoods offer cradle-to-career supports to help children successfully navigate the challenges of growing up. Early childhood programs provide intervention at a critical time, when children’s brains take huge leaps in development. Finally, small schools of choice can help to build a strong sense of community, which could particularly benefit inner-city neighborhoods where traditional institutions have been disintegrating.

Schools alone can’t level the vast inequalities that students bring to the schoolhouse door, but a combination of school programs, social services, community organizations, and civil society could make a major difference. Ensuring that all kids, regardless of family background, have a decent chance of doing better than their parents is an important societal and policy goal. Innovative approaches such as those outlined here could help us achieve it.

Anna J. Egalite is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership, Policy, and Human Development at the College of Education, North Carolina State University. 

How to Develop a School Culture That Helps Curb Bullying


After years of dealing with school bullying through traditional punishments, Carolyne Quintana, the principal of Bronxdale High School in New York City, introduced restorative justice approaches at her school because she wanted students to feel trusted and cared for.

“It wasn’t just about bullying incidents, it was about the whole school culture,” she said.

To build community and handle “instances of harm” among the students, teachers bring the kids together to talk in “restorative circles,” where everyone has an opportunity to listen and be heard. Bronxdale uses circles for most of its group communications, including parent meetings and ninth-grade orientation. The circles are a natural outgrowth of the Socratic method teachers use in class, Quintana said.

What’s crucial in building the right culture is the twice-weekly advisory sessions—“the hub for restorative circles,” Quintana said—and the distributed guidance system at Bronxdale, which calls on all adults to look out for the social and emotional well-being of the students.

Bronxdale doesn’t track bullying rates, but Quintana said that students are now more conscious of the forms bullying takes, and are more apt to express concern for their peers and to sign agreements with one another. Some students who didn’t like to come to school because of bullying now do, she said. Further, students who misbehave are still held accountable.

“Restorative practices don’t get rid of discipline,” Quintana added. Rather, they supplement other discipline, so that kids who are suspended, for example, learn what they did wrong and why it matters. “It’s the restorative practices that will prepare kids for the world beyond high school,” she said.

Treating bullying as a hurtful act that violates shared values, rather than as a character defect, encourages kids to understand why their behavior was wrong, and to apologize and make amends, according to James Dillon, a retired school principal and author of Reframing Bullying Prevention to Build Stronger School Communities.

“Bullying shouldn’t ever be acceptable, and students should be held accountable—but also learn how and why what they did is wrong, and not just suffer the pain of consequences,” Dillon says.

This restorative justice model, where kids are coaxed to accept responsibility, figure out ways to remedy the harm and restore the damaged relationship, helps them learn from their actions and internalize a moral code.

“Punishment makes things worse,” said danah boyd, author of It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. “Schools have to start from a place of empathy. Why is a student doing something harmful to other students?” she added. Zero-tolerance policies toward student misbehavior have been shown to have the opposite effect of what was intended by their adoption: A task force set up by the American Psychological Association to study the issue found that zero-tolerance policies in schools worsened school climates, provoked more student misbehavior and led to higher expulsion and suspension rates for minorities. And no-questions-asked penalties against kids who mistreat their peers stunts the growth of personal conscience; the punished child will instead fixate on his “unfair” penalty rather than the harm he committed.

And when it comes to social media, ugly exchanges among kids can feel like a scourge to school administrators. But the customary ways schools have responded, including some variation of assemblies, lectures, and disciplinary action, seem to have had little effect.

“The current rules and punishment-based approach that schools are using is not working to address the concerns of bullying in school,” says Nancy Willard, director of Embrace Civility in the Digital Age. “And it certainly will not be effective in addressing hurtful acts via social media, because schools are not making the rules for social media.”

What can schools do to reduce bullying among students on school grounds and online?

Drawing from social science research and experience in schools, some experts on bullying, learning and social media have fresh ways of thinking about and responding to the problem.

Build the right culture. “It is easier to think that the problem is because of character flaws in a few students or to blame parents for not doing a better job of raising their kids,” says Dillon.

In fact, to reduce aggression among kids, school leaders need to start with the climate within the building. Schools with an authoritarian and hierarchical ethos teach kids that obeying rules as decreed by the grown-ups in power is what counts; this only exacerbates jockeying for status among the students, which inspires bullying. A better approach would have school officials and teachers talk with students about what matters and then rally around the collective values and beliefs on which they agree. When adults try to influence rather than control kids, the grown-ups are more likely to be heard. “Real accountability should be toward those commonly held and articulated values of the school community,” Dillon said.

Encourage influential kids to take the lead in changing the culture.In an ambitious yearlong study of 24,191 middle school students during 2012 and 2013, social scientists Betsy Levy Paluck, Hana Shepherd and Peter Aronow found that kids with abundant social connections were effective in changing school norms. Anti-bullying messages created and propagated by these influential students reduced conflict in school by a statistically significant margin. Notably, the student body, rather than the teachers, identified the well-connected kids.

Introduce social and emotional learning for students and teachers.“What’s been missing from school is the affective dimension of learning,” says Janice Toben, who heads up the Institute for Social and Emotional Learning in Menlo Park, California. For 27 years, Toben taught elementary and middle school children how to self-regulate and handle conflict, and now educates teachers on best practices for social and emotional learning.

“We challenge teachers to engage in the social and emotional dynamic of their students, because learning is social and emotional,” she said.

Schools could make space for more face-to-face interactions among students, and encourage all teachers to ask reflective questions and focus on students’ personal or social insights. Sharing responses like these builds empathy and develops emotional skills in children; they learn how to construct an emotional vocabulary, communicate honestly and directly, and resist online retaliation.

One method she designed is called “Open Session,” where adolescents share their worries and challenges with one another; in return, they receive support and real-life wisdom from their peers, and clarify for themselves the real source of worry. Regular meetings like this, along with mindfulness practices and even improvisation, can give kids the tools to understand themselves better, react less impulsively, and show more compassion for others. Teachers, too, need social and emotional support, Toben adds, and would benefit from Open Sessions with their colleagues. What’s essential to making this kind of learning work? “Time,” Toben said.

Work with the majority of kids who don’t bully and don’t approve of it. Fellow students are well-situated to deflate a bully’s barbs, but few kids intervene when they see abusive behavior directed at their peers. Student witnesses to bullying are more likely to stand up for peers in schools with caring and inclusive climates because bullying violates school norms. But how can school leaders get those kids to step up? First, don’t alienate them with language that seems to blame them for a behavior — bullying —t hat they didn’t commit. Instead, tell them how important they are in building a stronger school; they are leaders and allies in constructing a better school environment, and should be told so repeatedly. “The most important belief driving positive change and reframing bullying prevention,” Dillon writes, “is that students are the solution to the problem not the cause of it.”

Ensure that teachers, coaches and school administrators aren’t modeling bullying. When kids see adults at school mistreat one another, they can’t help but conclude that such conduct is actually OK, regardless of what they’re told. Of even greater harm is when teachers and coaches oppress the kids they’re instructing; screaming at athletes for making mistakes, for example, or humiliating kids in the classroom, underscores a message that harsh interpersonal behavior is the way of the world.

Isle Firm Accuses Oculus of Stealing VR Tech

Orlovsky and Oculus Rift by Sergey Galyonkin on Flickr

by · May 23, 2015

A Hawaii-based company this week accused Oculus Rift and its founder Palmer Luckey of building its virtual reality hardware company with information stolen from its own research and development.

The lawsuit, filed on Wednesday, says that Ron Igra and Thomas Seidl partnered to form Total Recall Development in Hawaii in 2010, with the aim of “developing immersive 3D technology, including cameras and head mounted displays.” The pair says they met Luckey in December of that year, and by the summer of 2011, engaged him to build a prototype for them.

Luckey delivered the prototype hardware to Total Recall Development in August 2011, having agreed to a “nondisclosure, exclusivity and payments agreement,” according to the suit. But in 2012, they said, “Luckey took the information he learned from the partnership, as well as the prototype that he built for the TRT using design features and other confidential information and materials supplied by the partnership, and passed it off to others as his own.”

Specifically, Luckey launched a Kickstarter campaign to crowdfund a “highly immersive, wide field of view, stereoscopic headmounted display at an affordable price,” which he called Ocolus Rift.

As the tech world knows, that Kickstarter campaign raised over $2.4 million from 9,522 backers, nearly ten times its goal. The startup only got as far as releasing advance versions of its hardware for developers before being acquired by Facebook for $2 billion.

This lawsuit comes two weeks after Oculus finally announced the release date of its consumer hardware. Total Recall Development isn’t the first to accuse Oculus of stealing ideas: Texas-based Zenimax filed suit last May. Interestingly, the Zenimax lawsuit covers the period between Luckey’s alleged work with the Hawaii partnership and the launch of the Kickstarter campaign.

“In April 2012, Carmack began corresponding with Palmer Luckey, a college-agedvideo game enthusiast living in southern California,” reads the Zenimax filing. “Luckey was working on a primitive virtualreality headset that he called the ‘Rift’ […] a crude prototype that lacked a head mount, virtualreality-specific software, integrated motion sensors, and other critical features and capabilities needed to create a viable product.”

Zenimax said it saw the ‘Rift’ as something that might work with Doom, a video game developed by its parent company, id Software. So, its employees “literally transformed the Rift by adding physical hardware components and developing specialized software for its operation.”

It would be interesting to compare the prototype Total Recall Development says Luckey built for them and the prototype Zenimax said he showed them.

I couldn’t find an entry for Total Recall Development in the state business registration system, but the pair do have a pretty compelling piece of evidence in a 2013 patent filing. Seidl and Ron, listed as being based in Haiku on Maui, were ultimately granted patent 9,007,430 for a “System and method for creating a navigable, three-dimensional virtual reality environment having ultra-wide field of view.”

There has been virtual reality research and development taking place in Hawaii for some time. In 2009, I visited the Virtual Reality Center, which helped people cope with anxiety with a combination of traditional therapy and virtual environments.

And the technology has its local fans, for sure. Last year brought the Hawaii Virtual Reality Club, and founder Ka’i Ka’u has since launched VRCHIVE, a startup focused on hosting VR content.

Photo: Orlovsky and Oculus Rift by Sergey Galyonkin/Flickr.

What New Role Does 21st Century Learning Create For Parents? – Part 1

submitted by Nicky Mohan

Parents have a major role to play in their child’s education and a child’s success in school depends largely on how much his parents are involved with his learning and how they contribute in it. Parent involvement can be interpreted in many different ways.

Traditionally, it meant to attend every meeting, conference, function, etc., parents were invited to at school. Parent involvement in the 21st century means a great deal more than that. Parents today need to understand that they have a much more participative role in their children’s education. Parents are increasingly taking leadership roles in the school environment. They are forming groups and organized advisory councils to identify systemic issues in their children’s schools and are providing ideas and suggestions to solve those issues.


This is first of the 3 article series discussing about the new role that 21st century learning creates for parents. If parents today are asked to think of the classrooms where they spent their formative years, they would mainly envision a teacher instructing a class of passive students. The present day classrooms are no longer the same and have parents playing their part by taking on new roles. Schools are now making the shift to 21st century learning. Today students are required to learn a new set of skills that will prepare them for the challenges and changes ahead. Students can be fully ready for college and careers if along with academic knowledge, they also know about how to collaborate, think critically and creatively, and use technology tools to communicate. Rote learning and memorization won’t help students become the actively involved and creative thinkers who can work well with others. To embrace 21st century learning, there is a need to create opportunities for students to practice these critical skills through technology-rich experiences.

Learning in the Past

A major difference between 21st century education and education that went before it is the embedding of the 21st century skills in the curriculum. Earlier, skills like problem-solving or decision-making weren’t seen as important because when people left school, they went to work where they were told what to do and if they faced a problem or if a decision had to be made, they just took it to someone higher up rather than making it themselves. But in the modern world, there is more scope for autonomy and decision making at every level, we are all expected to be self-directed and responsible for our own work and autonomy. The 21st century competencies were not covered in yesterday’s schools. Academic rigor was defined by the 3 R’s (Reading, Writing and Arithmetic) and the coverage of a large amount of content and knowing the content was more important than understanding it.

Learning in the Present

As we know, that information is changing rapidly, so content doesn’t hold as much importance now and hence today’s students need the competencies to be able to apply previous experience to new situations and they need the ability to be lifelong learners because they will need to keep learning as the situations they find themselves in change.

Students should be engaged in more inquiry and project-based learning. Teachers, parents and guides need to be encouraging students to develop higher-order thinking skills.  They need to be guiding students as they direct their own learning.

Without a doubt technology can be used effectively to promote the building of 21st Century competencies. But just giving the student a new piece of technology for learning is not automatically going to bring about the changes in learning that we need. We need to rethink how students learn and we need to rethink what they are learning.  By ensuring that 21st Century competencies are embedded into all curriculum areas, all teaching, all assessments, and into the professional development teachers receive, children will be best prepared for their future careers.

The Reformed Role – From Parent as Supporter to Parent as Participant

In a special report entitled, A Vision for 21st Century Education by the Premier’s Technology Council (PTC) it has been emphasized that the new model of learning in the 21st century will be more collaborative and inclusive, changing the roles of the student, the teacher and parent.

According to it, the increased role of the parent has to be acknowledged. With greater information availability, parents can be more involved with their child’s education progress, overcoming challenges, and supporting learning outcomes. They now have the opportunities to learn more quickly and more intimately what their child is doing at school and can help guide decisions and respond to challenges more rapidly.

Technology allows far more access to the student’s progress than the periodic report cards and parent teacher interviews of today. Now, parents can expect and they do even receive greater feedback than in the past. With all this, it is also important for parents to recognize their educational role outside the classroom since the learning of a student outside of the school is critical. “Students only spend 14% of their time at school. Indeed, learning is an inherent part of everyday life: each new experience, at home, at work, or during leisure time, may throw up a challenge, a problem to be solved, or a possibility of an improved future state.”

While a stronger role for parents is envisioned, it has to be considered that not all students have the family support structures that will allow such involvement. The system must be structured in such a way that those who face societal barriers such as being single or immigrant parents are also able to participate while the system incorporates the support structures necessary to ensure the students get the support they need.

More about the new role of parents in 21st century learning is discussed in the next part of the series.

Nicky Mohan
Director, The InfoSavvy Group
Mobile:+01 (604) 368 6619
Skype: mnmohan70 (Auckland)

10 Must-Watch Videos for Flipped Learning

“Meris Stansbury has compiled an offering of 10 great videos for fostering flipped learning, in the following eSchool News article. Is Pluto a real planet? How vast and uncharted is the world inside a drop of water? What do we really know about Vatican City? What if the Death Star actually existed? These burning questions and more are answered in the videos below.”

via eSchool News

From STEM videos to history lessons, YouTube can be a one-stop shop for flipped learning

If must-implement educational trends were narrowed down to a small group, flipped learning would be among the top contenders. But flipped learning doesn’t have to consist of videos of a hand on a whiteboard, and it doesn’t have to discuss how to multiply fractions in monotone—after all, there’s a whole YouTube world out there.

Part of the fun of flipped learning is introducing brief questions on relevant curriculum topics that students can discuss or use to create projects during class. For instance, based on historical definitions, should Pluto be a planet? If some products in the U.S. are identified through numbers, could replication of those numbers be made illegal? In other words, could a number itself be illegal?

It’s these types of short videos, based in research and made for education (with interesting animations and vivid explanations), that can be a solid foundation for inquiry-based learning. They also can provide real-world examples of what’s being taught in schools.

Do you have a favorite video you show your students? Do you think flipped learning can help in inquiry-based or project-based learning? Let us know in the comment section below.


1. Life in a drop of water (Science): A drop of pond water viewed through a microscope; filmed and edited with a smart phone. Ask students to try and identify what they’re seeing in the drop.



2. What if the Death Star was real? (STEM): Using dimensions and design specs from the Star Wars website, imagine how the Death Star might impact Earth. A bit of fun with Professor Mike Merrifield from the University of Nottingham.



3. Illegal numbers (Civics/Math): Could some numbers be made illegal in the U.S.? This video features Dr. James Grime:


4. What if you were born in space? (Biology/Health): Delve into how gravity and other natural forces can affect the body once in space. Provides a look at current science research.


5. CrashCourse U.S. History Part 1 (History/World Culture): A very animated historian discusses the Native Americans who lived in what is now the U.S. prior to European contact. John Green also discusses early Spanish explorers, settlements, and what happened when they didn’t get along with the indigenous people. The story of their rocky relations has been called the Black Legend.


6. Vatican City explained (History/World Culture): Using drawings and historical photos, this historian simplifies world issues in a fun way, allowing for open discussion.



7. Super expensive metals (Science): Inside a Noble Metals factory, where even the dust on your shoes is too valuable to ignore! Make the Periodic Table of Elements come to life.



8. Grammaropolis noun song (English/Language Arts): Think of this as an updated Schoolhouse Rock.



9. Negative numbers introduction (Math): Khan Academy incorporates real world examples into a very basic math concept explanation.



10. Is Pluto a planet? (History/Science): Learn about how Pluto came to be called a planet based on historical definitions and scientific inventions, to its eventual fall from the planet category.







2013′s Complex Social Media Landscape in One Chart

I (Jeff Piontek) have used this before and it is amazing to get your point across and showcase how social media has changed the internet landscape and how we do business.

via Mashable

When Brian Solis introduced the first Conversation Prism in 2008, the world was a seemingly simpler place. There were 22 social media categories, each of which had just a handful of brands. (“Video agreggation” had only one brand: Magnify.)

Flash forward to 2013, and the latest Conversation Prism (click here for the high-res downloadable version) has four additional categories with at least six brands in each. Like other Conversation Prisms, the data visualization attempts to illustrate the array of social media choices available to marketers. Various channels are classified by their function to the end user (i.e. “photos,” “music” and “social curation.”

The net effect: While the 2008 chart looked like a flower, the latest one resembles a kaleidoscope. Solis, principal analyst at Altimeter Group and a prominent social media marketing expert, says redoing the chart this time around has been instructive. “Things are changing so fast,” he says. “We don’t even realize [the landscape] is shifting.”

The chart also points out that, for many, membership in the social media ecosystem is fleeting. While some brands like Xanga, Kyte and Utterz have disappeared, others that weren’t around five years ago — like Path and Banjo — are now among category leaders.

Images courtesy of Brian Solis, Jess3

2013 Version

Altimeter Group Principal Brian Solis says the “you” in this case represents a marketer. The inner wheels are goals for the brand that aren’t related to their position on the chart. (In other words “brand” doesn’t tie in to the “blog/microblogs” category.

First Conversation Prism

This data visualization, from 2008, shows a markedly simpler social media environment. A high-res version can be found here.

Second Version (2009)

For a high-res version, click here.

Third Version (2010)

Disney ‘Connected Learning’ Aims To Infuse Games with Learning

Via edSurge



When Disney rolls something out, there’s a fanfare of trumpets, a red carpet and sometimes even a glittering burst of fireworks.

By contrast, the launch of the Disney Connected Learning program has been as subtle as, oh, say a green screen.

Six years ago, Disney began exploring how use its considerable design, entertainment and financial muscle in the “learning” arena. It decided to try to create games that children would find genuinely entertaining that were nonetheless built on legitimate learning “goals.”

Over the past two years, it has quietly been refining eight games based on learning objectives in its wildly popular online site for kids, Club Penguin. Several of the games have been hits. “Pufflescape,” for instance, is the second most popular game in Club Penguin. More than 30 million children have played it over the past two years.

“No child should have to choose between a ‘learning’ game and ‘fun’ game,” says Starr Long, who is executive producer of Disney Connected Learning.

Whether the students are learning anything deeper than they do when they play the purely “entertaining” games in Club Penguin, however, is still anybody’s guess.

Disney, on the other hand, has learned a lot in the process. This has been a long project: After a slow two-year start, in 2009 it recruited top talent in the massively multiplayer online industry–Starr Long, who started his career as director of Ultima Online, now the longest-running MMO in history. It convened a team of more than a dozen well-regarded educators including Stanford’s Roy Pea and the University of Georgia’s John Olive and Linda Labbo. Together, they identified 2,500 learning goals, or targets–crucial concepts that students need to understand by the fifth grade. They worked through the ideas until they had learning concepts for students from preK through 5th grade. The goals could not contradict the Common Core standards, noted Long, but they also had to be relevant around the globe. “One woman even wrote a dissertation on this,” Starr says.

“No child should have to choose between a ‘learning’ game and ‘fun’ game,” says Starr Long, who is executive producer of Disney Connected Learning.

Over the next four years, Long’s team built a programming environment to support how to connect those learning goals to “events” or actions. They also built a developer’s platform, a parent-facing app, the digital plumbing to report children’s progress through the games to that app and so on. They evaluated between 20 and 40 game prototypes. Two years ago, they began beta testing their eight top game picks.

Currently three of the 26 or so games in Club Penguin incorporate these learning goals: Pufflescape, Jelly Bean Counter and Bits & Bolts. (Another five games are slated to go online in April.)

In Pufflescape, a creature (a Puffle) bounces and glides through an obstacle courses, collecting prize tokens and unlocking higher levels.

The Puffles interact with their environment according to the rules of Newtonian mechanics. Different levels of the game encode or represent different learning goals.

Meanwhile, about 30,000 parents of those Penguin-playing kids have download a Facebook app that creates a “profile” as the kid plays through the games, letting parents know what learning concepts their kids have played through. Play through a level and the app will share that you and your Puffle have experienced simple levers or more complex ones. “We want to empower the parents,” Long says. “There’s a real need for parents to connect with kids who are living a different life than we did.”

(Parents get other benefits from their Facebook app, too, such as learning “secret” codes that they can share with kids who get stuck on games.)

The three learning games currently in action in Club Penguin echo familiar game play themes that were pioneering in the likes of Donkey Kong and even Tetris.

But these are just the beginning.

Long says that Disney will soon be releasing five preschool titles for mobile platforms, created from scratch, that use Disney characters such as Cinderella, Toy Story, Ariel, Cars and Fairies–and are based on the scaffold of learning goals created by the team of educators. “We want to build content and long-term, want to work with other to build content” based on the Connected Learning platform, Long says. Disney has not yet worked out the specifics of its partner strategy.

But will kids absorb mechanics or the rules of motion from their Puffles or whatever characters are in the game? Will they understand that the rules of physics will dictate how a creature will bounce or if it can catch a lever in motion at a certain moment? Or, skeptics will ask, couldn’t kids just go outside and throw a baseball at the roof of the house and watch it fall?

It’s too soon to tell what kids will learn from the games, Long says.

“We’re not making any claims about what they’re learning,” he observes. “We are just saying that the child is exposed to the concepts that are inherent in the game play.”

Many edu-game companies shy away from any efforts to do rigorous testing of how much learning might happen in their game. Long isn’t daunted by the problem; he believes that Disney needs more data–say, enough games that at least half the learning objectives were covered by games. So far, the games constructed cover less than 5% of the concepts, he says.

What he has learned is this: “You can make these games as compelling and exciting as one that don’t have learning concepts embedded in them.”

Can Student-Driven Learning Happen Under Common Core?

via Mindshift

Teachers use different strategies to help students learn. With the inevitable arrival of the Common Core State Standards, however, the big unknown is what will happen when the assessments are released and the states and the federal government develop policies to accommodate them. If the assessments fall back on the kinds of narrow questions we saw with No Child Left Behind, and if governments create the same kind of high-stakes accountability, teachers will be herded back towards lower levels of prescriptive learning that leave little room for student voice and ownership.

But if assessments mirror the broad principles and effective pedagogy that the CCSS authors have championed, there is hope that rote learning and teacher-driven classrooms will not be necessary in order for students to pass the test.


Most student-driven classrooms start with a question. It’s usually one that springs from a common place but allows for individualization by students based on their interests. It allows them to build questions and go about answering them, utilizing the skills and knowledge that the curriculum provides. The teacher facilitates this learning, to be sure, but also gives authority to the student to “own” their question. The student moves to center stage and the teacher assumes a supporting role.

Three of the eight mathematical practices that lie at the heart of all the Common Core’s K-12 math standards could be statements that describe a student-centered classroom.

For example, the capacities stated in the CCSS to “make sense of problems and persevere in solving them,” “reason abstractly and quantitatively,” and “construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others” are all integral to successful units where students ask and answer their own questions — and to a classroom where they see their viewpoint as valuable to the educational process.

The “tension” will come when the the goal of student-driven learning bumps up against the traditional teacher’s instinct to provide the context and the questions for students to use. Especially in the beginning years of CCSS implementation, this tension will be heightened as teachers learn what they are expected to teach (not just content but things like “sense-making, “reasoning,” and “constructing”) but have not yet figured out the places where they can turn the reins over to students.


A key CCSS principle (Math Practice MP1) is to “make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.” The alignment between student-driven learning and CCSS is very close here. Student-driven learning revolves around identifying problems that students believe are important to them and applicable to their real life, and then finding ways to solve them. The CCSS encourages teachers to help students “find the meaning of a problem and look for entry points…analyzing givens, constraints, relationships and goals.” If a teacher has already established (or begun to establish) the student-centered classroom, this will be familiar territory.

Through artful inquiry-based instruction, teachers can co-learn along with students by gently guiding and providing probing questions of their own. We have to be patient as our kids gain the ability to do this. Students who have spent years in NCLB classrooms will struggle to find how to make sense of problems. Why? Simply because they have seldom been presented with complex scenarios. The deeper student learning that can emerge from this style of teaching can’t be assessed with a multiple choice question. So we haven’t encouraged teachers to become skillful in this way, and we’ve raised a generation of rote learners.

Most student-driven classrooms start with a question. It’s usually one that springs from a common place but allows for individualization by students based on their interests.

Even so, our students can reconnect with their innate curiosity and excitement about learning. Over the past several years of shifting my practice, I have seen their natural curiosity return. When it does, persevering isn’t nearly so hard. Until it does, teachers will have to continually re-assure and support students in building deeper, higher level kinds of questions.


Within the first ELA strand, writing, the Common Core articulates steps for writing a good argument and defending it. Details about how these skills are going to build up from lower grades (with increasing amounts of sophistication) are not present in the standards. That will fall to the collective expertise of teachers working together to make this happen, and to curriculum writers at the district or state levels. We will have to work at understanding what kinds of vertical alignments are needed so we can craft lessons to be matched with our students’ needs at each level.

Common Core writing standards appear to emphasize “the ability to write logical arguments based on substantive claims…reasoning…and relevant evidence.” If students were able to demonstrate this ability in their writing, they would be able to describe and defend their ideas to others. And that empowering skill set is exactly what a student-driven classroom seeks to achieve.


More tension will arise for traditional teaching as educators are called upon to expand the student’s understanding of non-fiction and technical topics, like those associated with STEM subjects and social sciences. In recent years, students have been heavily focused on writing narrative and creative writing kinds of pieces. The expansion of real-world study topics called for in the Common Core should open up the student-driven classroom even more.

Writing’s partner is speaking and listening. In a student-driven classroom, there is much “argumentation, debate and discourse” as students wrestle with the questions. The best of those classrooms foster respect between students as they learn from each other. They have to develop the ability to hold their own during small group discussions as well as classroom discussions.

What should please teachers is the fact that the CCSS standards address the formal, stand-in-front-of-the-class presentation and the collegial discussions between students. When I read about “….informal discussions that take place as students collaborate to answer questions, build understanding and solve problems,” I see support of student choice. These words underscore the importance of students’ conversations about what they are learning and the interpersonal skills that are necessary for undertaking co-learning of ideas and content. Building understanding and solving problems are goals that demand we address the group dynamics involved in studying a real-world situation and brainstorming ideas back and forth.

Ultimately there is room in the Common Core’s vision and principles for advocates of student-driven learning to thrive. As teachers gain experience in the CCSS standards that apply to their grade level, they will identify places where there are opportunities to put student questions at the forefront of their lesson plans. Over time, as students build up their ability to read, write, speak and find solutions to increasingly more complex kinds of problems, they will be able to take more and more ownership of the learning process.

All this assumes, of course, that the large-scale assessment and accountability systems are designed to promote this potentially powerful marriage of the Common Core and student-driven learning. I’ve been teaching a long time. I know how big that assumption is. But at the classroom level, the best way I know to make it happen is to show what could happen. So I’m going to keep doing that.

Marsha Ratzel is a National Board-certified teacher in the Blue Valley School District in Kansas, where she teaches middle school math and science. Her book about shifting her science teaching practice to emphasize student-driven learning will be published this spring by Powerful Learning Press. A portion of this post originally appeared on Voices from the Learning Revolution.