Thank You, Enterprise Rent-A-Car!

Thursday, 13 August 2009 09:38 by Eli Savit

Recently, Enterprise Rent-A-Car's Michigan Group won the organization's Jack Taylor Founding Values Award for exemplifying the values of Enterprise founder Jack Taylor.  As part of the award, the Group received $10,000 to donate to ten Michigan employees' favorite philanthropic organizations, and The Generation Project was selected as one of the recipients!  Enterprise employee Michelle Wells, who nominated us for the award, presented us with the donation yesterday in Ann Arbor (as an added bonus, the check came in giant form, which we always enjoy). Thanks to Enterprise, the Michigan Group, and a big thanks to Michelle for her support!

 Enterprise employee Michelle Wells presents The Generation Project with the check
 
The Generation Project's co-founders with the giant check Smile 

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What's an Education Without a Newspaper?

Wednesday, 12 August 2009 09:16 by Eli Savit
On Sunday, the New York Times--a publication to which I still subscribe in the hard copy, by the way--published yet another article on the impending death of newspapers.  The story focuses on Philadelphia, where the city's two major newspapers are embroiled in acrimonious bankruptcy proceedings that could theoretically sink both. Entitled "What's a Big City Without a Newspaper," the story is framed in terms of "when," not "if," taking for granted the proposition that several major cities will soon be without a major daily newspaper. 

A sense of inevitable doom hangs over the print journalism industry. Subscriptions and advertising revenue have plummeted, and nobody can figure out how to leverage newspaper websites into a viable revenue stream.  Unless some visionary gamechanger (Rupert Murdoch?) can figure out how to turn pageviews into cash, newspapers will continue to shrink until they fold altogether. And while there are some promising models of for-profit news-gathering websites (on Monday, the Times ran a feature on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's resurgence as a website) most industry analysts predict that news-gathering will be severely curtailed, with many stories simply going uncovered for lack of resources. 

The impending death of newspapers presents a grave challenge for the next generation of Americans.   Inherent in our democratic system is an assumption that citizens can make somewhat informed political and electoral decisions.  But without an apparatus for news-gathering and fact-checking, citizens will either be misinformed or left in the dark on a number of issues--especially issues like local corruption.  As Thomas Jefferson once said: "Were it left for me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not heistate a moment to prefer the latter."   Tomorrow's children--who are likely to be raised in a world without substantial news reporting--are likely to be a generation of stunningly ill-informed voters.  

But newspapers have tremendous value for kids well before they reach legal voting age, as they often provide young people with an initial window to the outside world.  Many newspapers are written at a 3rd-8th grade reading level, so newspapers are texts that even struggling readers can pick up and understand.  And the stories in local newspapers tend to pique kids' interests.  When I was teaching eighth grade in the Bronx, many kids would pick up the New York Post on the way to school and read it during their downtime, drawn in by the intensely local focus, the tabloid-esque headlines, and the sensationalistic stories.  Of course, the Post is not my newspaper of choice, nor would I consider it a paradigm of great journalism.  But the Post get my students reading, and it got them reading actual news, thus allowing them to become better acquainted with the world around them.  (Plus, their familiarity with the Post made my lessons on yellow journalism so much easier for them to understand).  

In addition to giving students easily palatable, interesting texts on subjects that actually matter, students can learn a tremendous amount by writing and publishing their own school newspaper.  When students emulate the ideal of journalistic objectivity that newspapers (theoretically) embody, they are learning to distinguish fact from opinion and news from propaganda.  This is a distinction that is blurred by the blogosphere and TV news channels, but one that old-fashioned newspapers--with their "news" and "opinion" sections--still technically make explicitly.  Of course, the demise of for-profit newspapers does not necessarily make school newspapers obsolete.  But it seems ludicrous to think that future students and schools will be particularly motivated to emulate an anachronistic form of communication.  Telegraph club, anybody?

On a personal level, the demise of print journalism is quite painful for me to watch, as so many parts of my own childhood were intricately shaped by newspapers.  In elementary school, I had my own paper route for the Ann Arbor News, and I would look forward to the end of my route each day when I could read the extra paper that the newspaper provided its carriers.  Perhaps because I was already so familiar with journalism, my favorite class in middle school was a journalism course in which seventh and eighth graders wrote, edited and published a deliciously irreverant publication known as the Tappan Tabloid.  Having been instilled at an early age with a love for newspapers, I stayed involved with journalism throughout my educational career, becoming an editor on both my high school and college papers.  When I taught in the Bronx, not only did I integrate newspapers into my curriculum, I also started a school newspaper club.  (Mimicking larger societal trends, perhaps, the publication started as a printed newspaper entitled "CIS 339 School Post," but has since become a web-only publication called The 339 Hardline).

Last month, the Ann Arbor News folded, leaving my hometown without a daily newspaper and dozens of little paperboys without an after-school job or an extra newspaper to read.  There's no easy way to fill the voids created by local papers. Some aspects of these publications were simply irreplacable, and our democracy is going to suffer until their news-gathering function, at least, can be rescued.  Insofar as newspaper affect eductation, it's ultimately up to the schools--and us as philanthropists--to ensure that at least some of the fundamental lessons that newspapers have provided do not fall by the wayside.

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Weekly News Update: August 7

Friday, 7 August 2009 14:02 by Brendan Campbell

Editor's Note: Please welcome back the weekly news update from its summer sabbatical!  For those of you who don't know, this is our weekly news roundup of education-related events nationwide and in our launch regions, compiled by one of our amazing interns. 

National:
+ In program giving cash, more pass AP tests (NY Times)
+ Reaching out to students through their teachers (Washington Post)
+ GI Bill helps veterans pursue higher education debt-free (NPR)
+ Incoming college students watching expenses (Washington Post)
+ Early education makes all the difference (NPR)
+ The pros and cons of teaching history with Hollywood (EducationWeek)
+ Indiana auto workers go back to school (NPR)

Chicago:
+ Elite Chicago public school admissions probed (NPR)

DC Metro:
+ DC high schools to offer free STD testing to students (Washington Post)
+ Public elementary school outperforms charter school (
NPR)
+ Summer school is still in session (
Washington Post)
+ 13 district schools offer specialty programs (
Washington Post)

New York:
+ Gains on tests in NYPS doesn't silence critics (NY Times)
+ Mayoral control is back (
Gotham Schools)
+ The battle for NYC schools (
NY Times)
+ Why does NYC do better in some subjects than others (
Gotham Schools)
+ Council of Urban Professionals program to pay for high AP grades praised (
NY Daily News)

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Students Respond To Monetary Incentives. Economists: "Duh."

Wednesday, 5 August 2009 10:03 by Eli Savit

The New York Times reports today that a program offering students up to $1000 for performance on Advanced Placement (AP) tests is showing signs of success.  Students in the program take the tests more frequently, are passing the tests at a higher rate, and are availing themselves of optional Saturday tutoring sessions geared towards AP subjects.   The results only cover the 2008-2009 school year and the program is relatively small (31 mostly minority schools participate) so the sample size is obviously limited.  Still, the results are a positive sign for those who think that student achievement can be raised through tangible and/or monetary incentives.

The notion that "people respond to incentives" is a basic principle of economics, but, as this blog has discussed previously, it is a relatively controversial proposition when the "people" involved are K-12 students.  But I think these criticisms will largely fall by the wayside if we start seeing more broadly-based success stories.  For all the money that is spent on motivating students to achieve in certain scholastic areas, offering kids incentives is probably one of the most cost-effective ways to realize whatever vision one might have for education.  After all, kids tend to have less money than adults, so a $1000 incentive is likely to mean a lot to a child.

Indeed, directly incentivizing student achievement allows individual donors to foment widescale educational change.  Last spring, we highlighted one of our donors who had an entire school competing to win $250 in prize money by writing the best essay on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.   Many of our donors have since pledged gifts that incentivize things like college preparedness, social entrepreneurship, social studies achievement, career planning, or (as we highlighed in a blog post about our Chicago launch event) recognizing the importance of passing the basketball.  (Sign up or login to view these gifts).  

Part of our mission is for individuals at all income levels to change the face of the educational philanthropic landscape. My guess is that direct incentives to students will play a large role in the fulfillment of that mission, and will play an outsize role in the future of charitable giving.

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On Teaching To The Test

Tuesday, 4 August 2009 21:42 by Eli Savit

DISCLAIMER:The cartoon below does not represent the organizational views of The Generation Project.  It just, you know, relates to the topic of this blog post.  Also we thought the beanie was funny.

Today, The New York Times published a comprehensive statistical analysis of New York City students' standardized test performance under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The results are a mixed bag. On the one hand, city students' scores on the New York statewide tests have risen at a faster rate than the scores in New York state as a whole. On the other hand, city students' scores have not risen at all on the federal National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is generally considered a more accurate measurement of student achievement. (Under No Child Left Behind, states' federal school funding is tied to performance on state tests, so states arguably have an incentive to make those tests easier.  The federal government, presumably, has no such incentives). 

The rest of the test results present similarly a muddled picture: the gap between the percentages of black and white city students who pass the statewide tests has narrowed, but if the achievement gap is measured in raw scores, it has not narrowed as much.  Critics argue that this disparity shows that the state has simply set the  "passing" bar lower on these tests --i.e, a 60% on the statewide test in 2002 was a failure, but now that same 60% gets students a "pass."  On the SAT test, city students' scores dropped 2% between 2004 and 2008, although that drop might be attributed to a corresponding rise in the number of students who took the test.  And so forth.  For more ambiguous test results, hop on over to the New York Times website and read the article for yourself.  Accompanying the article on the Times website are 1) an awesome tool where you can track scores by subject, grade, school year, and individual school, and, 2) a less-awesome blog discussion featuring a host of critics who, surprisingly, disagree on what these test results "mean."  

The ol' talking (blogging?) heads don't have anything particulary novel to say about the New York test scores.  They more or less rehash of the same debates that have dominated education policy for years.  Defenders of testing say they're the best tool we have for measuring growth, that their scores are reliable, and that test gains correspond to real learning.  Test critics say that standardized tests ignore other important indicators of student growth, that they are almost invariably dumbed-down, and that any growth in test scores are simply a result of teachers "teaching to the test."

The "teaching to the test" criticism may be the hardest to measure--and thus, quite possibly the most difficult to rebut.  Not that defenders of testing regimes don't try: New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein, for one attempts to avoid the charge by implying that the tests are perfectly aligned with ideal educational outcomes.  As Klein says, "if...test prep is about teaching people to read and understand paragraphs, that’s what I think education is about."  

Arguments like Klein's remain unconvincing, though, for at least two reasons, both of which make me wish I knew a good link to a YouTube video of somebody beating the living crap out of a straw man:

  • 1) test critics do not think that "test prep is about teaching people to read and understand paragraphs," and thus dispute Klein's premise, and,
  • 2) if Klein's premise is correct and "test prep" equals 'teaching people to read and understand paragraphs," nobody's going to argue that's part of what education is about.  The issue is whether that is all education is about.

The reason that "teaching to the test" is such a potent criticism is that people intuitively gravitate towards a richer, more diverse vision of education.  Sure, education is about reading short paragraphs and dividing fractions, but, as various commentators on the Times blog point out, it's also about thinking critically, appreciating complex literature, teaching students to interact with others, and fomenting children's moral and psychological development.  Even if we do assume that tests are a 100% reliable and accurate measurement of things like "reading" and "math," I don't think many people would feel comfortable giving children an educational experience that consists entirely of preparation for those tests.  Make no mistake about it--schools' emphasis on test preparation often corresponds to schools' de-emphasis of other scholastic endeavors like, say, art.  

And the fact that a child can pass a test does not mean that child is somebody we can be proud of.  Elliot Schrefer, the author of "Hack the SAT," recently showed how easily one can ace the SAT essay test with a basic knowledge of spelling, grammar and syntax.  Schrefer achieved a near-perfect score on the test by writing an essay that praised the Nazis.  Schrefer's nearly "perfect" essay included phrases like "not everybody has the right to exist at all" and only by "safeguarding racial stratification and genetic superiority can true and ambitious progress be made."

None of this is to say that accountability isn't important, or that testing regimes themselves are fatally flawed.  But the essential argument behind "teaching to the test"--that students will ultimately benefit from a richer, more diverse educational experience than they are currently being offered--should be taken seriously.  Over the past few weeks, we've seen hundreds of people design and fund gifts that are based on their own individual passions right here at The Generation Project.org.  These gifts span an incredible range of subjects--from sports to arts to literature to gardening to math to chess to photography to theatre and so on.  Many of our donors, at least, seem to believe that education is more than reading and understanding paragraphs.  Indeed, many seem to believe that expanding students' opportunities (say, by exposing them to Harry PotterRoald Dahl, or modern poetry) will help them read and understand those paragraphs.   

I doubt "teaching to the test" is a particularly potent political issue.  Donors through The Generation Project are probably not a representative sample of the New York City polity, so Mssrs Bloomberg and Klein probably don't have too much to worry about on this front.  But to the degree that they have control over the state of public education, every one of our donors has put their money where their mouth is, so to speak, and empowered their own vision for the future of education.  So, here's the shameless plea for support (on behalf of the kids you'll help!): whether you agree or disagree with this post, why not sign up or login to The Generation Project's community site and generate your own ideas to empower education?

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