Is Free College Really a Good Thing?

Last week, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, joined by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, announced a plan to provide “free” college to all New Yorkers with a family income under $125,000. This isn’t the first time politicians have announced plans for free college, and it likely won’t be the last.

In making the announcement, Governor Cuomo noted that postsecondary education is a necessity in the current global, information economy and that many NYers graduate with “$30,000” in debt to secure a degree. “That is not fair. That is not right,” the New York Post quoted the Empire State governor as saying.

Yes, Cuomo is absolutely right that a postsecondary education is a must for all these days. And while we can get into the discussion on whether such programs end up throwing shade on community colleges and lead more individuals to pursue four-year degrees that don’t open many doors in that information economy, I’ll leave the fight over what “postsecondary education” means for a future post.

Instead, dear ol’ Eduflack wants to take issue with the notion that it isn’t right or fair that individuals take on student debt obtaining a four-year degree. According to the Institute for College Access and Success, the average graduate of a four-year college (excluding the for-profits) leaves school with $30,100 in debt.  That works out to student loan payments of about $300 a month for the average college graduate.

That’s less than the monthly payment on an average car loan the recent graduate is likely paying. It is likely less than the average rent. And unlike the car and the rent, it is an asset that the graduate will carry with them throughout his or her life.

We can often forget that when we make things “free,” particularly things that one used to pay for, we reduce the perceived value of the item. When it is free, we don’t see to care as much about what we received. It was free, after all, so it is no biggie if we lose it, forget about it, or fail to use it.

When we pay for something, we see value. With a college education, we are forced to make choices. What postsecondary path is of most interest to us. What areas do we have the most skill. Where do we see potential careers. Are we willing to do the work necessary to turn our investment into a tangible product (our degree)?

When we take out loans, take on jobs, or even have families who can pay the tuition, we are less likely to seek that degree in underwater basketweaving and instead choose paths that are aligned with our interests, talents, and future goals. And that is a good thing.

Instead of free college, why not instead focus on college affordability? Why not ask if so many of those universities need the ever-growing endowments they have? Why not ask how colleges and universities are reducing costs to their students, and not just their operating costs? Why not ask when a two-year degree may make far more sense than a four-year degree? Why not ask whether it makes sense for that “free” college to essentially go to pay for remediation? Why not ask how we ensure it takes students four years, and not six or seven, to earn a four-year degree? Why not ask how we ensure college focuses on the student, and not the institution? Why not ask how we ensure a college education is about what is learned, and not just what is taught? Why not?

After World War II, about 5 percent of Americans held a college degree. Today, we are up to about 40 percent. Are those millions and millions of Americans chumps for personally sacrificing, taking on debt, and gaining college degrees when they could have just waited around for someone to give it to them for free?

I don’t mean to be the skunk at the garden party, but if we think free college is the answer to all that ails us, we are going to be severely disappointed. Not only does free college diminish the value of a postsecondary degree, but it also begins to draw further distinctions between where one earned that degree. How long before employers begin asking whether that free degree from the state college is as valuable as the paid-for degree from the private college up on the hill?

Efforts to bring equity to postsecondary education through free college could end up bringing a whole new era of inequity to the discussion.

 

The Quest for More Engaging History Instruction

Ultimately, fostering each student’s curiosity and sense of agency leads to habits of mind that support lifelong learning and civic engagement—and it is never a bad outcome when mastering required curriculum is exciting and fun. Teachers are also happily about the ease with which games can be tied into curriculum and standards and used to enliven content delivery and assessments while maintaining academic rigor. They are also committed to taking the lesson back to their colleagues—teachers teaching teachers, to make learning more dynamic throughout their schools.

– The Woodrow Wilson Foundation’s Stephanie J. Hull, writing about the importance of gaming in social studies instruction in The “Great Game” of Teaching History for GettingSmart.

A Family Engagement Advocate for EdSec!

Last week, Education Week published an interesting look ahead at what could be when a new Education Secretary is selected. In her piece, the always terrific Alyson Klein asks what might be if Hillary Clinton bucked tradition and selected, as her next U.S. secretary of education, an individual coming from the higher education side of the realm.

Historically, we are used to EdSecs coming from the K-12 perspective. That’s definitely true of the past four, with Rod Paige, Margaret Spellings, Arne Duncan, and the current EdSec John King all cutting their teeth on the mean streets of K-12. Before that, we had governors like Dick Riley and Lamar Alexander, who brought a policy perspective but whose educational lens — due to the nature of a state chief exec — was far more primary/secondary ed than higher education.

Sure, it is fun to throw out names and rank this state chief over that urban superintendent over this university president over that former governor or congressman, to talk about who the unions will give an approval to versus who some of the big money reform donors can live with. It can even be interesting to envision what an EdSec with a higher ed focus might bring to the bully pulpit when it comes to topics like student loans, for-profit education, and even the threatened reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

But what if maybe, just maybe, we went in a different direction? What if instead of looking at the two sides of the coin — P-12 and higher ed — we instead looked at the ridged edge that brings the heads and tails together? What if we took the cabinet search in a completely different direction, and instead looked for a parent voice, a family engagement advocate who could talk with some authority on the full continuum, from early childhood education through adult professional learning and all points in between?

Imagine a family engagement voice who could lead on the value of high-quality early childhood and the linkages between health and education …

Imagine a family engagement voice who could lead on K-12 issues well beyond “the test” and instead key in on what students should know and be able to do to succeed and how families can be a part of the learning process along with educators …

Imagine a family engagement voice who could lead on higher education issues, bringing real-life experiences to fights over student loans, free college, and gainful employment …

Imagine a family engagement voice who could lead on the role continuing education plays after finishing formal P-16 pathways, or about the importance of career and technical education, or about how education and labor can work together to address workforce readiness issues …

There is a reason groups like the National Assessment Governing Board insist of having specific parent voices on their boards. Parent and family advocates bring a particular focus to a range of education policy issues. They can be the link between practitioner and policymaker. And they can ensure the work focuses on both the inputs and the outcomes, with every action focused on how it impacts the learner.

Sure, we’ve had discreet projects like the Parent Information Resource Centers (PIRCs) that sought to give voice to such parents. And sure, a new EdSec could always appoint a special advisor for family engagement. But such an appointment can be empty. Without a formal voice, and without a formal budget, those special advisors can be hamstrung from bringing the best of ideas into practice.

So let’s forget this East Coast/West Coast style battle of K-12 and higher ed. Instead, let’s look to place the first honest-to-goodness parent advocate in the biggest chair on 400 Maryland Avenue. Let’s give the rostrum to a family voice who can work with teacher and policymaker alike, one who can see that P, K-12, and higher ed are deeply connected and should never be separated.

And if we can’t have such an EdSec, and we have to fall back on tradition, can that new EdSec at least create a new Assistant Secretary for Family Engagement position? Please? Pretty please?

 

We Need Your Help: Letters for Latino Students

Today, I am want to give a shout out to a new initiative that Eduflack has recently launched. As loyal readers know, I am incredibly proud of my family and the story of how we became a story. As chronicled in my award-winning book, Dadprovement, both of my kiddos were adopted from Guatemala. They are full birth siblings. And we are all incredibly proud of their heritage.

Next week, the entire family is headed out to Missouri as part of a national gathering of families who have adopted from Guatemala. MoGuat provides families like ours a sense of community and of belonging. And it helps our children, in particular, to see that they are not alone.

It’s no secret that now is not the ideal time to be young and brown in America. Talk of walls and sending families “back to their own countries” sends the wrong message to kids. It can also be very difficult for young people to understand, as they feel they aren’t wanted. That is why I launched Letters to Latino Students. I want to begin a national movement that shows what a bright future our young people have ahead of them. The first phase of this is seeking encouraging words from leaders across the country — Latino or not — on what is ahead. The call for these letters is below. I ask all Eduflack readers to please share this post with any and all who can contribute. All notes will be posted to the Letters to Latino Students website and will be shared as part of a broader effort.

Instead of walls, let’s build some bridges. We need those letters, folks.

You understand how important it is for children to have quality role models. But in the U.S. today, millions of Latino students hear far too often that they are part of the problem and that their dreams count less than those of many of their classmates. I am writing to you not seeking money but simply asking for your inspiration for those students who need to hear that they can be successful and that they are as important as their more privileged counterparts.

Through Letters to Latino Students, we are seeking motivational works for so many of today’s young people. So I write to ask you for a favor. Can you share with us some motivational words for today’s students? Can you offer a story from your own childhood that inspired you to finish school, go to college, or seek your passions? Can you share those quotes or movies or songs or books that gave you the inspiration to become the success you are now today?

Too much of today’s media communicates – intentionally or otherwise – that brown children are somehow at fault for many of our nation’s ails. They are told we need walls to keep them away and that they should “go back to where they came from.” And while they will soon represent the single largest group of students in our public schools, Hispanic students are too often made to feel inferior.

Let me be honest with you, this is a very personal subject to me. As the father of two Latino children, I have heard, seen, or experienced what can be said or done to kids that look like my beloved children. I know how brown students can be seen as a burden in the public schools, having heard from my own elected officials that we need to “do less” in our public schools to make them less attractive to “those families.” And while I know that my children can achieve anything, many others don’t share that view.

Letters to Latino Students seeks to share with all Hispanic students that anything is possible. It hopes to show today’s young people that there are generations before them that have succeeded, embracing and proud of where they come from and who they are. We hope to ensure that all Latino students can be inspired to persevere, regardless of the options placed before them.

I hope that you will take a few moments to write some inspirational words that can be shared with today’s Hispanic young people. All responses will be shared on our website, and all will be heavily promoted through social media. You can send your letters or thoughts to letters@letterstolatinostudents.org.

My kids, and the millions of children like them, look forward to your response.

Learning (and Winning) By Losing

Today, I write as a matter of personal privilege. Yes, this post isn’t like most of my others. But bear with me, I promise I’ll try to bring it back to the edu-thinking you come to expect.

About a year and a half ago, I took my first kickboxing class. To this day, I couldn’t quite tell you why I did it. But I did. I enjoyed it There was something about hitting a heavy bag that was so much more satisfying than driving a golf ball.

I quickly learned that my time on the mat was the one hour in a day when my mind was completely clear. For 60 minutes, I couldn’t think of work or family or the writer’s block my latest book had triggered. I could only focus on the task at hand. For someone who spent the first 42 years of his life engaged entirely in rhetorical sparring (and spent 40 of those years staying as far away from physical activity as possible), it was a big change.

About six months after I started, the edu-daughter decided to give it a go. This week, she earned her blue belt, inspiring her to now want to “be more serious” about it. Her older brother began earlier this year. And even the edu-wife is giving it a go.

This past weekend, I participated in the Challenge of Champions. Yes, participated as in competed. I strapped on my gloves, stepped onto the mat, and gave it my all. I even have the video to prove it.

Yes, I got hit. But I also landed some of my own. Yes, I got knocked down. But I got back up. Yes, I lost. But I hung in there the whole fight.

And yes, I was fighting an opponent who was about a foot taller and a good 30 pounds heavier than I was, but I didn’t use it as an excuse. Sure, it completely threw my gameplan out the window. But it also helped me see what I need to work on and how I need to improve.

Those who know Eduflack professionally will likely be quite surprised by the video. Surprised to know that I even think of doing such a thing in my limited free time. But what might be a surprise is an incredible learning experience as well.

Each day, I watch the very definition of personalized learning at its best. On the mat, Sensei Billings is able to teach a wide range of students with a wider range of skills and knowledge. Sensei is able to know, on a daily basis, which students need positive reinforcement and which need tough love. And he knows how to get the most out of each and every student.

On the mat, one sees knowing and being able to do and apply what you know are two very different things. It’s one thing to practice the repetition of a single move on a heavy bag. It is very different to throw combinations as a classmate is holding the pads. It is far different to put it all together and spar with your brothers in the school. And even more different to put it all together as you go against a complete stranger with the single goal of beating you on the mat.

As MMA is now a family affair, the experience also provided an ideal moment of teaching by doing. After watching my fights, my kids can no longer say that something is too hard for them to do. They know it would have been very easy for me not to show up this weekend, or to use an injured foot as an excuse, or to avoid engagement once I saw my opponent. I did none of that. Instead, I just brought it. And both the kiddos know that’s what I expect from them. I don’t care if they win or lose. I don’t care what grade they get. All I care about is whether they did their best and worked as hard as they could.

But the most surprising lesson I learned from all of this, and one I should have known from all my years of education advocacy, is the importance of family and community. I’m incredibly fortunate to train at Tiger Schulmann’s in Princeton. With all sincerity, I can say it isn’t a gym and it isn’t a school; it is a family. We are all of different races, ethnicities, and religions. We all come from different backgrounds and different career paths. But at TSMMA Princeton, we are all one family.

At the CoC, I was cheering as hard for classmates and their children as I would for my own wife and kiddos. And i received similar enthusiastic support and encouragement from my mates. Those I spar with are now my brothers and sisters, pushing me harder as I hopefully push them. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.

After my fights this weekend, I was originally down. I had lost. Watching the videos afterward, I felt a little better about the situation. I had hung in there and fought good fights. But it was my brothers and sisters at TSMMA in Princeton who truly helped me see all that I accomplished. And it is their words that already have me thinking of what I need to work on and how I need to strategize before I compete in the next CoC.

I get that MMA isn’t for everyone. But the lessons I have learned from Tiger Schulmann’s, particularly in my most recent defeat, are incredibly important to me. They are important not only to what I might do on the mat, but they are important to both my professional and my family lives. Osu!

 

I’m not playing around here. Using gaming to enhance classroom instruction can be an incredibly powerful tool.

In my latest for Education World, I explore how gaming — in the hands of a great teacher — can make a huge difference in helping subjects like civics and history come alive for students. And they don’t even have to be electronic, technology-based games to be effective.

As I wrote:

Classroom instruction has evolved a tremendous amount in a relatively short period of time. Educators today clearly recognize that there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to educate 21st century kids. As we learn more and more about how the human brain processes information, we knew more and more that kids learn in different ways, and instruction has to be tailored to address the learner.

Game-based instruction can be a strong approach to such tailored instruction. While delivering content in new and interesting ways – ways that today’s learners can relate to – it also teaches those 21st century skills we know our kids need to develop.

Give it a read. And I’m not playing!

 

With Schools, It All Comes Down to Local Politics

When Eduflack moved to New Jersey, he promised himself that he would never, ever get involved in local edu-politics. After serving as CEO of a state-based education reform organization in Connecticut and as a school board chairman for one of the nation’s top K-12 districts in Virginia, I had had more than my fair share of politics as it relates to local schools.

Sure, a few times I slipped off the wagon. At the beginning of the year, I felt compelled to weigh in on our local battle, which made its way to The New York Times, on parents that were pushing for more tests and higher stakes in our community. And I just can’t resist wading into Facebook discussion with parents who completely bastardize Common Core and meaningful accountability measures as they try to bully other parents into joining the opt-out movement.

But today, I completely fell off the wagon. As I watch a contingent within our local community savage our schools superintendent, going after him for anything and everything. A few months ago, he was attacked because one of our high schools didn’t have enough toilet paper. Last week, it was because nine teachers (in a school district of 10,000 students) have announced they won’t be returning for the 2016-17 academic year. And then last night, the superintendent was gutted for issuing a thorough and responsive report on lead testing in all of our schools.

Following the issues in Flint, MI (and then in Newark, NJ), our local schools acted. Last night, the superintendent reported back to the community. You can see his message here. As a parent, I felt at ease and as a citizen I felt we had the right folks at the helm of this school district.

Then the hatred started coming, with the typical accusations being thrown out without having any meaning rooted in truth. The lead report was further proof the district was being run like a business. That we have 30 central office staff (in a district with 10k kids). That we constructed a new central office (so that must be wasteful, no?). That it is clearly the end of the world as we know it, and we shouldn’t feel fine about it.

So against my better judgment (and against the wishes of the edu-wife), I again strapped on the local edu-politics helmet, and waded into the social media morass. Following is my first post:

So you want better quality toilet paper for school bathrooms, and now you want to replace all the piping in our schools (even though most kids bring their own water bottles to class). Please let me know when we are going to focus on teaching and learning in our community. That’s what I care about. 

And BTW, schools are businesses, albeit non-profit ones. They have to balance their budgets, and need to do so when nearly 90 percent of their total budgets go to people costs (salaries, healthcare, retirement, etc.). As a former school board chairman, I can tell you it is easy to attack school spending when you don’t understand it. But try to address 30% increases in health insurance as you give all teachers a step increase to keep them from leaving from other districts, while ensuring no cuts affect the classroom.

These attacks on TP and lead are downright silly. We have great schools, exemplary teachers, and our kids get one of the best public educations around. Let’s not lose sight of what is most important – our kids and the teaching they receive and the learning they accumulate.

And then I needed to follow up with:

 I’m not sure what you ask when you ask would I allow. I think our supe should be praised for how he handled the lead issue, yes. He proactively (as there were no specific issues found in our schools) conducted a comprehensive investigation, then reported it back so we all know which faucets, by room number, may have had an off result. And we saw that there was no issue for concern.

If I were on the board, would I have supported a new central office? Yes to that too. For prospective educators in our district, that is the first building they see in our community. It should reflect our commitment to teaching and learning. And for a district offering a world-class education to all kids, we should have facilities for ALL employees that reflect that. In the long run, amortized over the years, that building will be a strong investment. Otherwise, we’d be making regular, ongoing repairs to old buildings that will never be up to snuff.

Investments in physical plant are always hard. You are spending taxpayer dollars to do so. Those decisions are made very carefully, and should never be made at the expense of the classroom. And I don’t believe they have.

I speak from experience. Serving on a school board is a tough, thankless job. Those who do it well do it for the right reasons. Constructive criticism is valuable, but misguided and unfounded attacks just aren’t. We have a great district, excellent teachers, and one of the top superintendents in the country. We need a board – and a community – that supports them all.

The edu-wife cringes. I’ve now wasted two hours of my life I’m not getting back. But hopefully, based on some of the responses, it is showing the silent majority of parents they are not alone in their thinking.