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Unconventional Wisdom: Asking What Works - and If It's Worth the Money

Paradigm-changing work by TC faculty members

Asking What Works – and If It’s Worth the Money
TC’s Henry Levin and colleagues have created a new science of calculating education’s return on investment BY NANETTE MAXIM


Social and emotional learning (SEL), also called cognitive-behavioral development and mindfulness, is being widely touted as a tool for helping young people cope with stress, manage aggression, pay attention, become more compassionate and in general improve executive functioning — essential life skills that schools, in theory, should be helping to inculcate. Yet little research exists to support the effectiveness of SEL programs for children or, in an era of budget tightening, to determine whether the impact of instituting SEL programs in schools justifies the cost.

Enter TC’s Center for Benefit-Cost Studies of Education (CBCSE), which evaluates initiatives ranging from SEL and preschool enhancement to dropout prevention and online learning.

Founded at TC in 2007, CBCSE is led by Henry Levin, TC’s William Heard Kilpatrick Professor of Economics and Education, and Clive Belfield, Associate Professor of Economics at Queens College. During the 1970s, Levin was tapped by a congressional committee to quantify the financial toll of the nation’s high school dropout crisis. In 2005, Levin, Belfield and other researchers projected $45 billion in annual savings if the high school dropout rate were cut in half. They estimated that scaling up a number of proven approaches could save $127,000 for each new graduate added.

Levin’s signature contribution, now employed by CBCSE, is his “ingredients method,” which measures not only direct program costs and shadow costs such as teachers’ salaries or the value of a student tutor’s time, but also the impact of interventions on tax revenues, public assistance programs and the criminal justice system. The ingredients method is cited in thousands of books and articles and used by leading centers such as MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab and the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences. Recently, CBCSE created a tool kit to assist researchers, policymakers and administrators in using the technique.  

Studies by CBCSE have produced dramatic findings. For example, among programs that are comparably effective in improving dropout prevention or high school completion, CBCSE found a six-to-one difference in cost per graduate between the most and least costly programs. A little-known, federally funded Initiative called Talent Search, which provides information on financial literacy and careers to low-income, at-risk students, proved to be particularly cost-effective.

Similarly, CBCSE has found that MOOCs (massive open online courses) have yet to fulfill their promise as an antidote to spiraling education costs and as a means to educate vast new audiences. Most MOOCs remain “a significant drain on time and money” for colleges and universities; assert Associate Director Fiona Hollands (Ph.D. ’03) and researcher Devayani Tirthali (Ed.D. ’13, Ed.M. ’12), while their “actual impact on educational outcomes has not been documented in any rigorous fashion.”

And then there is the Center’s work on SEL, which thus far suggests that some SEL programs do, indeed, have benefits that substantially exceed their costs.

“There is not much consensus in the literature as to what constitutes ‘social and emotional learning’ and how to measure it,” says doctoral student Rob Shand. “We’re looking at a wide range of outcomes, from reduced violence to qualities such as ‘grit’ or ‘locus of control,’ and trying to estimate how much society values them in monetary terms.”

Whether SEL programs can improve academic outcomes is another question, but perhaps not the most important one.
 
Social and emotional learning has always been a goal of schooling,” Levin adds. “Learning how to get along with others, how to persist in planning and completing tasks, how to harness emotions in a productive way are all goals of SEL, even if they do not affect student achievement. There are many high achievers who are social misfits, so the two are not necessarily allied. Healthy child development is an end in itself.


Teaching about the Wider World
By: Joe Levine


We’re all implicated in the world,” says William Gaudelli, Associate Professor of Social Studies and Education. “Yet teachers rarely have systematic preparation in their knowledge of the world, how the world works in an interdependent, global age, and how to understand this country as an actor in it.”

In September, Teachers College, World Savvy and the Asia Society launched a new 15-month Global Competence Certificate (GCC) program that provides in-service teachers with the tools to help their students understand the United States in the context of the wider world. The inaugural cohort of 23 in-service teachers will complete 10 high touch online courses designed and taught by Gaudelli, Sandra Schmidt, Assistant Professor of Social Studies and Education, Olga Hubard, Associate Professor of Art Education and other TC faculty. The group will also spend three weeks at TC-affiliated sites in Bangladesh, Tanzania, Colombia, and Uganda and La Push, Washington State.

 In a “Think” portion of the GCC curriculum, Gaudelli guides teachers in developing global profiles of their own schools. “We look at where their students come from, what languages they speak, where energy is sourced, where waste goes.”

GCC “Learn” courses focus on organizations such as the International Monetary Fund transnational corporations, the origin and development of global human rights and the meaning of sustainable living.

In a “Do” section, teachers are provided with online resources, project based assignments and classroom activities.

The field visits help teachers prepare students to “work in a world that’s not like a classroom,” Gaudelli says, and to understand how global issues are addressed locally. “As a high school social studies teacher, I went with my students to St. Petersburg in 1992, when Russia was in a shambles economically. Teachers need those rich, disorienting cultural experiences to bring back to the classroom.”

World Savvy was co-founded post-9/11 to prepare leaders as responsible global citizens. Since 1956, the Asia Society has promoted mutual understanding and partnerships between Asian nations and the United States.
 
The GCC courses use platforms provided by Blackboard and other online education companies. Some classes are synchronous, allowing students to interact directly with each other.

Eleanor Drago-Severson, TC Professor of Education, is developing a version of the program for people working in the nonprofit sector. Within TC the effort could eventually expand to become a full-fledged degree program.

“I have a great sense of urgency about this work,” Gaudelli says. “There are conflicts breaking out regularly and a host of problems that are not bordered but require a concerted, global response. Global interdependence creates a growing need to get our act together in a timely way to address significant problems.”


TCs Grant Getting: Kids To College
By: Johnathan Sapers
 

Christopher Emdin uses hip hop and rap to bring a sense of play to the teaching of physics, but he delivered a message of life-and-death urgency to high school educators and their college partners in June.

 “If science and mathematics are the classes where kids are less likely to succeed, then they are the classes they are most likely to cut,” Emdin, Associate Professor of Science Education, told representatives from over 55 high schools, school districts and colleges at a professional development institute in New Jersey. “Leaving classes is the first step towards being entangled in our criminal justice system. So we who teach STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] are most responsible.”

The meeting launched the STEM Early College Expansion Project, led by TC’s National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools and Teaching (NCREST), which aims to increase access and achievement in the STEM subjects for 22,000 high-need middle and high school students in Michigan and Connecticut. The work is supported by a five-year, $12 million Investing in Innovation Fund (i-3) grant, the largest single federal grant TC has ever received. TC’s partners are the Middle College National Consortium (MCNC) and Jobs for the Future (JFF), which serves low-income youth and adults in 25 states.

The effort provides teachers with professional development guided by TC faculty members Emdin, Erica Walker, an expert on helping teachers teach higher-level math, and Ellen Meier, an authority on project-based learning that harnesses education technology. Through the widely admired Early College model, high school students will take college courses to prime them for college success.

“Ideally, by the time this coming year’s eighth graders graduate from high school, they’re going into college feeling really prepared,” says Elisabeth Barnett, Associate Director of NCREST, who serves as the partnership’s director.

The mantra is “by any means necessary.” In his June keynote, for example, Emdin described his use of the cipher, in which participants “spit” raps while moving together rhythmically. When students discuss science in their own vernacular, he said, they move toward speaking “the language of college professors.”

The STEM Early College Expansion Project furthers years of collaboration between the organizations involved. TC alumna Cecilia Cunningham was the founding principal of the first high school to use the Early College model and is now MCNC’s Executive Director. NCREST has been MCNC’s research partner for a decade, providing data support and helping to assess students’ success. JFF works with the Gates Foundation to scale up early colleges nationwide.

“The early college model has been validated through random controlled studies,” says Jacqueline Ancess, Co-Director of NCREST. “The students are kids from underserved communities who wouldn’t otherwise go to college. Yet they go, pass college-level courses and stay in college in greater numbers than their peers.


Helping African Immigrant in Schools
By: Joe Levine  


How can U.S. high schools best help newly arrived immigrant students from Africa learn “academic literacies” so they can succeed and go to college?

That question underlies “Collaborative Culturally Grounded Inquiry: Examining Literacy Practices with/ for African Immigrant Girls,” a new study by Associate Professor of Education Michelle Knight of work by Sauti Yetu, a community organization that helps teenage girls from Nigeria, Senegal, Mali, Gambia, Mauritania, Sierra Leone, Tanzania and Liberia at several of New York City’s International High Schools.

While high school graduation rates for many minority student populations have been increasing, graduation rates for English language learners (ELLs) have dipped. One reason for that disturbing trend: a 141 percent increase in African immigration to major U.S. cities over the past 20 years and an accompanying influx of students who speak Fulani, Igbo, Wolof, Amharic and other languages not supported by bilingual programs. Immigrant-led community organizations have sprung up to help, but even schools that engage them often understand little about their methods or about African cultures.

“Many young girls from African countries are already married in high school,” says Knight. “People think that means they’re not interested in education. And textbooks tend to portray Africa in general in a primitive light, when in fact it has a richly literate history that has found expression through Kanga cloths and other materials as much as it has in books.”

Knight’s study, designed with Sauti Yetu program director Ramatu Bangura and conducted with two TC doctoral students, Crystal Chen and Karishma Desai, awards high marks for the program’s use of culturally relevant works such as So Long a Letter, a Senegalese novel about the condition of women in West African societies. A coaching/mentorship program that pairs Sauti Yetu girls with women who work in business or at the United Nations or at NGOs, and a four-week critical social action project in which students discuss the personal relevance of issues such as early marriage, female circumcision, girls’ education, “good hijab/bad hijab” and feminism, were also judged effective.

At the same time, the study finds that schools need to integrate culturally relevant texts on a much broader scale and identify students’ intellectual strengths and areas of need in different subject areas.

“For many of the girls we studied, English is a fourth or fifth language,” says Knight, who was recently appointed to the board of the New York City Partnership, which supports the linguistic and academic development of English language learners. “That’s an enormous strength, but schools tend to treat it like a deficit.”

Knight’s study was funded by the American Educational Research Association and will soon be posted on the organization’s website.

Beyond Belief: In a new book by TC’s Melanie Brewster, atheists speak in their own voices

Stephen mills’ parents took the news that he was gay with surprising equanimity. “There were tears, of course, and then my mother admitted she thought I was going to say I was an atheist.”

Mills’ recollection, published last spring in Melanie Brewster’s Atheists in
America (Columbia University Press), makes it clear: in the United States, godlessness
is the ultimate taboo. Consider that:

  • 84 percent of those surveyed believe the country isn’t ready for an atheist president.
  • Seven states bar atheists from public office. Arkansas prohibits atheists from testifying as witnesses in court trials.
  • Among historically oppressed minorities, atheists are regarded as “more troubling” than Jewish, Muslim, African-American and LGBTQ people


Brewster, Assistant Professor of Psychology and Education, is known for her work on gender, sexuality and race, but her broader interest is in the psychological impact of identifying as a minority of any kind.

“The prejudice and social stress associated with openly being atheist may pose a serious threat to an individual’s well-being,” she writes. “Therefore, the hesitancy to include people who identify as atheist in the broader multicultural and social justice discourse is puzzling and disturbing.”

In rendering the voices of atheists themselves, and in the breadth of American life it represents, Atheists in America recalls Studs Terkel’s Working and Becky Thompson’s more recent Names We Call Home, on race, which Brewster cites as a model. The contributors include:

Lynette, a Midwesterner who attended Bible school until realizing “I was sick of being valued less as a woman because of God’s mysterious ways.”

James Mouritsen, a Utahan whose tongue-in-cheek Mormon Quick Start Guide for ‘a Sincere Heart’ includes the warning that if divine inspiration fails to materialize, “it is likely that ‘Sincere Heart’ is corrupt.”

Adrienne Filargo Fagan, who, in Born Secular, writes that the knowledge that with “no Pearly Gates…we have one opportunity to make the right decisions for ourselves, our families and our communities” is “what gives meaning to my life.”

And perhaps most moving, the elderly Elizabeth Malm Clemens, who describes caring for a husband sinking into dementia: “I am attempting to work with residential administrators to develop better options for the aged...Having lost faith in earlier refrains…I choose this one to end my time on this fascinating planet.”

Brewster, who thanks her parents for “their undying love, even when I officially went over to the dark side,” describes the demographics and politics of American atheism. While the 9/11 terrorist attacks helped engender the stridently anti-religious New Atheists, led by firebrands such as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, other perspectives hold that women and minorities may feel excluded from atheism because its most visible faces are those of white men.

Meanwhile younger writers like Brewster herself may be building a broader acceptance. At Book Expo America in New York City, Brewster was approached by an elderly Muslim man.

“He handed me a Koran to keep. Then he smiled nervously and said, ‘I hope that was okay.”


Don’t Segregate the Gifted
In my vision of gifted education, there would be no gifted programs and no gifted students.

Let me be clear: I believe, very strongly, that many high-ability students suffer from benign neglect in our schools. But the century-old approach of segregating these students via “pull-out” classes or full-time Gifted & Talented programs is fraught with problems.

For starters, racial, ethnic and socioeconomic inequities are rampant. In New York City, for example, Caucasian and Asian-American students make up only about one-third of the school population, yet they constitute roughly three fourths of all students in G&T classes. Nationwide, students from families in the top socioeconomic quarter account for nearly one-half of enrollment in gifted education classes.  No wonder some critics charge that gifted education is being used to re-segregate public schools in order to retain middle-class families.

Another problem is that the most common approach to gifted education- part-time pull-out enrichment programs- is of questionable educational value.  Under this model, students identified as gifted leave their regular mixed-ability classes for, say, half a day per week to participate in what is usually a hodge-podge of enrichment activities that too often follow no rational scope and sequence and lack academic rigor. Even the rare effective pull-out program provides its students with appropriate education for about 10 percent of the school week.

What is the alternative? Let’s start by remembering that gifted education was created to appropriately challenge capable students who, in a typical classroom, spend their time pretending (or not bothering to pretend) to learn things they already know.

Like their supposedly non-gifted peers, these students are not a monolithic group with a uniform set of educational needs. They, too, need differentiated instruction in the core subjects that leads to true learning, not boredom.

So instead of finding and segregating “gifted students,” let us shift our focus to differentiating curriculum and instruction to meet the needs of diverse learners in every grade and every subject. Admittedly, this is easier said than done.  The process would likely take years to complete- and meanwhile, traditional gifted education classes are probably better for high achievers than nothing at all. But settling for business as usual is untenable, from both an educational and an ethical perspective. We need to look for a better way.

Published Friday, Jan. 23, 2015

Unconventional Wisdom: Asking What Works - and If It's Worth the Money

Asking What Works – and If It’s Worth the Money
TC’s Henry Levin and colleagues have created a new science of calculating education’s return on investment BY NANETTE MAXIM


Social and emotional learning (SEL), also called cognitive-behavioral development and mindfulness, is being widely touted as a tool for helping young people cope with stress, manage aggression, pay attention, become more compassionate and in general improve executive functioning — essential life skills that schools, in theory, should be helping to inculcate. Yet little research exists to support the effectiveness of SEL programs for children or, in an era of budget tightening, to determine whether the impact of instituting SEL programs in schools justifies the cost.

Enter TC’s Center for Benefit-Cost Studies of Education (CBCSE), which evaluates initiatives ranging from SEL and preschool enhancement to dropout prevention and online learning.

Founded at TC in 2007, CBCSE is led by Henry Levin, TC’s William Heard Kilpatrick Professor of Economics and Education, and Clive Belfield, Associate Professor of Economics at Queens College. During the 1970s, Levin was tapped by a congressional committee to quantify the financial toll of the nation’s high school dropout crisis. In 2005, Levin, Belfield and other researchers projected $45 billion in annual savings if the high school dropout rate were cut in half. They estimated that scaling up a number of proven approaches could save $127,000 for each new graduate added.

Levin’s signature contribution, now employed by CBCSE, is his “ingredients method,” which measures not only direct program costs and shadow costs such as teachers’ salaries or the value of a student tutor’s time, but also the impact of interventions on tax revenues, public assistance programs and the criminal justice system. The ingredients method is cited in thousands of books and articles and used by leading centers such as MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab and the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences. Recently, CBCSE created a tool kit to assist researchers, policymakers and administrators in using the technique.  

Studies by CBCSE have produced dramatic findings. For example, among programs that are comparably effective in improving dropout prevention or high school completion, CBCSE found a six-to-one difference in cost per graduate between the most and least costly programs. A little-known, federally funded Initiative called Talent Search, which provides information on financial literacy and careers to low-income, at-risk students, proved to be particularly cost-effective.

Similarly, CBCSE has found that MOOCs (massive open online courses) have yet to fulfill their promise as an antidote to spiraling education costs and as a means to educate vast new audiences. Most MOOCs remain “a significant drain on time and money” for colleges and universities; assert Associate Director Fiona Hollands (Ph.D. ’03) and researcher Devayani Tirthali (Ed.D. ’13, Ed.M. ’12), while their “actual impact on educational outcomes has not been documented in any rigorous fashion.”

And then there is the Center’s work on SEL, which thus far suggests that some SEL programs do, indeed, have benefits that substantially exceed their costs.

“There is not much consensus in the literature as to what constitutes ‘social and emotional learning’ and how to measure it,” says doctoral student Rob Shand. “We’re looking at a wide range of outcomes, from reduced violence to qualities such as ‘grit’ or ‘locus of control,’ and trying to estimate how much society values them in monetary terms.”

Whether SEL programs can improve academic outcomes is another question, but perhaps not the most important one.
 
Social and emotional learning has always been a goal of schooling,” Levin adds. “Learning how to get along with others, how to persist in planning and completing tasks, how to harness emotions in a productive way are all goals of SEL, even if they do not affect student achievement. There are many high achievers who are social misfits, so the two are not necessarily allied. Healthy child development is an end in itself.


Teaching about the Wider World
By: Joe Levine


We’re all implicated in the world,” says William Gaudelli, Associate Professor of Social Studies and Education. “Yet teachers rarely have systematic preparation in their knowledge of the world, how the world works in an interdependent, global age, and how to understand this country as an actor in it.”

In September, Teachers College, World Savvy and the Asia Society launched a new 15-month Global Competence Certificate (GCC) program that provides in-service teachers with the tools to help their students understand the United States in the context of the wider world. The inaugural cohort of 23 in-service teachers will complete 10 high touch online courses designed and taught by Gaudelli, Sandra Schmidt, Assistant Professor of Social Studies and Education, Olga Hubard, Associate Professor of Art Education and other TC faculty. The group will also spend three weeks at TC-affiliated sites in Bangladesh, Tanzania, Colombia, and Uganda and La Push, Washington State.

 In a “Think” portion of the GCC curriculum, Gaudelli guides teachers in developing global profiles of their own schools. “We look at where their students come from, what languages they speak, where energy is sourced, where waste goes.”

GCC “Learn” courses focus on organizations such as the International Monetary Fund transnational corporations, the origin and development of global human rights and the meaning of sustainable living.

In a “Do” section, teachers are provided with online resources, project based assignments and classroom activities.

The field visits help teachers prepare students to “work in a world that’s not like a classroom,” Gaudelli says, and to understand how global issues are addressed locally. “As a high school social studies teacher, I went with my students to St. Petersburg in 1992, when Russia was in a shambles economically. Teachers need those rich, disorienting cultural experiences to bring back to the classroom.”

World Savvy was co-founded post-9/11 to prepare leaders as responsible global citizens. Since 1956, the Asia Society has promoted mutual understanding and partnerships between Asian nations and the United States.
 
The GCC courses use platforms provided by Blackboard and other online education companies. Some classes are synchronous, allowing students to interact directly with each other.

Eleanor Drago-Severson, TC Professor of Education, is developing a version of the program for people working in the nonprofit sector. Within TC the effort could eventually expand to become a full-fledged degree program.

“I have a great sense of urgency about this work,” Gaudelli says. “There are conflicts breaking out regularly and a host of problems that are not bordered but require a concerted, global response. Global interdependence creates a growing need to get our act together in a timely way to address significant problems.”


TCs Grant Getting: Kids To College
By: Johnathan Sapers
 

Christopher Emdin uses hip hop and rap to bring a sense of play to the teaching of physics, but he delivered a message of life-and-death urgency to high school educators and their college partners in June.

 “If science and mathematics are the classes where kids are less likely to succeed, then they are the classes they are most likely to cut,” Emdin, Associate Professor of Science Education, told representatives from over 55 high schools, school districts and colleges at a professional development institute in New Jersey. “Leaving classes is the first step towards being entangled in our criminal justice system. So we who teach STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] are most responsible.”

The meeting launched the STEM Early College Expansion Project, led by TC’s National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools and Teaching (NCREST), which aims to increase access and achievement in the STEM subjects for 22,000 high-need middle and high school students in Michigan and Connecticut. The work is supported by a five-year, $12 million Investing in Innovation Fund (i-3) grant, the largest single federal grant TC has ever received. TC’s partners are the Middle College National Consortium (MCNC) and Jobs for the Future (JFF), which serves low-income youth and adults in 25 states.

The effort provides teachers with professional development guided by TC faculty members Emdin, Erica Walker, an expert on helping teachers teach higher-level math, and Ellen Meier, an authority on project-based learning that harnesses education technology. Through the widely admired Early College model, high school students will take college courses to prime them for college success.

“Ideally, by the time this coming year’s eighth graders graduate from high school, they’re going into college feeling really prepared,” says Elisabeth Barnett, Associate Director of NCREST, who serves as the partnership’s director.

The mantra is “by any means necessary.” In his June keynote, for example, Emdin described his use of the cipher, in which participants “spit” raps while moving together rhythmically. When students discuss science in their own vernacular, he said, they move toward speaking “the language of college professors.”

The STEM Early College Expansion Project furthers years of collaboration between the organizations involved. TC alumna Cecilia Cunningham was the founding principal of the first high school to use the Early College model and is now MCNC’s Executive Director. NCREST has been MCNC’s research partner for a decade, providing data support and helping to assess students’ success. JFF works with the Gates Foundation to scale up early colleges nationwide.

“The early college model has been validated through random controlled studies,” says Jacqueline Ancess, Co-Director of NCREST. “The students are kids from underserved communities who wouldn’t otherwise go to college. Yet they go, pass college-level courses and stay in college in greater numbers than their peers.


Helping African Immigrant in Schools
By: Joe Levine  


How can U.S. high schools best help newly arrived immigrant students from Africa learn “academic literacies” so they can succeed and go to college?

That question underlies “Collaborative Culturally Grounded Inquiry: Examining Literacy Practices with/ for African Immigrant Girls,” a new study by Associate Professor of Education Michelle Knight of work by Sauti Yetu, a community organization that helps teenage girls from Nigeria, Senegal, Mali, Gambia, Mauritania, Sierra Leone, Tanzania and Liberia at several of New York City’s International High Schools.

While high school graduation rates for many minority student populations have been increasing, graduation rates for English language learners (ELLs) have dipped. One reason for that disturbing trend: a 141 percent increase in African immigration to major U.S. cities over the past 20 years and an accompanying influx of students who speak Fulani, Igbo, Wolof, Amharic and other languages not supported by bilingual programs. Immigrant-led community organizations have sprung up to help, but even schools that engage them often understand little about their methods or about African cultures.

“Many young girls from African countries are already married in high school,” says Knight. “People think that means they’re not interested in education. And textbooks tend to portray Africa in general in a primitive light, when in fact it has a richly literate history that has found expression through Kanga cloths and other materials as much as it has in books.”

Knight’s study, designed with Sauti Yetu program director Ramatu Bangura and conducted with two TC doctoral students, Crystal Chen and Karishma Desai, awards high marks for the program’s use of culturally relevant works such as So Long a Letter, a Senegalese novel about the condition of women in West African societies. A coaching/mentorship program that pairs Sauti Yetu girls with women who work in business or at the United Nations or at NGOs, and a four-week critical social action project in which students discuss the personal relevance of issues such as early marriage, female circumcision, girls’ education, “good hijab/bad hijab” and feminism, were also judged effective.

At the same time, the study finds that schools need to integrate culturally relevant texts on a much broader scale and identify students’ intellectual strengths and areas of need in different subject areas.

“For many of the girls we studied, English is a fourth or fifth language,” says Knight, who was recently appointed to the board of the New York City Partnership, which supports the linguistic and academic development of English language learners. “That’s an enormous strength, but schools tend to treat it like a deficit.”

Knight’s study was funded by the American Educational Research Association and will soon be posted on the organization’s website.

Beyond Belief: In a new book by TC’s Melanie Brewster, atheists speak in their own voices

Stephen mills’ parents took the news that he was gay with surprising equanimity. “There were tears, of course, and then my mother admitted she thought I was going to say I was an atheist.”

Mills’ recollection, published last spring in Melanie Brewster’s Atheists in
America (Columbia University Press), makes it clear: in the United States, godlessness
is the ultimate taboo. Consider that:

  • 84 percent of those surveyed believe the country isn’t ready for an atheist president.
  • Seven states bar atheists from public office. Arkansas prohibits atheists from testifying as witnesses in court trials.
  • Among historically oppressed minorities, atheists are regarded as “more troubling” than Jewish, Muslim, African-American and LGBTQ people


Brewster, Assistant Professor of Psychology and Education, is known for her work on gender, sexuality and race, but her broader interest is in the psychological impact of identifying as a minority of any kind.

“The prejudice and social stress associated with openly being atheist may pose a serious threat to an individual’s well-being,” she writes. “Therefore, the hesitancy to include people who identify as atheist in the broader multicultural and social justice discourse is puzzling and disturbing.”

In rendering the voices of atheists themselves, and in the breadth of American life it represents, Atheists in America recalls Studs Terkel’s Working and Becky Thompson’s more recent Names We Call Home, on race, which Brewster cites as a model. The contributors include:

Lynette, a Midwesterner who attended Bible school until realizing “I was sick of being valued less as a woman because of God’s mysterious ways.”

James Mouritsen, a Utahan whose tongue-in-cheek Mormon Quick Start Guide for ‘a Sincere Heart’ includes the warning that if divine inspiration fails to materialize, “it is likely that ‘Sincere Heart’ is corrupt.”

Adrienne Filargo Fagan, who, in Born Secular, writes that the knowledge that with “no Pearly Gates…we have one opportunity to make the right decisions for ourselves, our families and our communities” is “what gives meaning to my life.”

And perhaps most moving, the elderly Elizabeth Malm Clemens, who describes caring for a husband sinking into dementia: “I am attempting to work with residential administrators to develop better options for the aged...Having lost faith in earlier refrains…I choose this one to end my time on this fascinating planet.”

Brewster, who thanks her parents for “their undying love, even when I officially went over to the dark side,” describes the demographics and politics of American atheism. While the 9/11 terrorist attacks helped engender the stridently anti-religious New Atheists, led by firebrands such as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, other perspectives hold that women and minorities may feel excluded from atheism because its most visible faces are those of white men.

Meanwhile younger writers like Brewster herself may be building a broader acceptance. At Book Expo America in New York City, Brewster was approached by an elderly Muslim man.

“He handed me a Koran to keep. Then he smiled nervously and said, ‘I hope that was okay.”


Don’t Segregate the Gifted
In my vision of gifted education, there would be no gifted programs and no gifted students.

Let me be clear: I believe, very strongly, that many high-ability students suffer from benign neglect in our schools. But the century-old approach of segregating these students via “pull-out” classes or full-time Gifted & Talented programs is fraught with problems.

For starters, racial, ethnic and socioeconomic inequities are rampant. In New York City, for example, Caucasian and Asian-American students make up only about one-third of the school population, yet they constitute roughly three fourths of all students in G&T classes. Nationwide, students from families in the top socioeconomic quarter account for nearly one-half of enrollment in gifted education classes.  No wonder some critics charge that gifted education is being used to re-segregate public schools in order to retain middle-class families.

Another problem is that the most common approach to gifted education- part-time pull-out enrichment programs- is of questionable educational value.  Under this model, students identified as gifted leave their regular mixed-ability classes for, say, half a day per week to participate in what is usually a hodge-podge of enrichment activities that too often follow no rational scope and sequence and lack academic rigor. Even the rare effective pull-out program provides its students with appropriate education for about 10 percent of the school week.

What is the alternative? Let’s start by remembering that gifted education was created to appropriately challenge capable students who, in a typical classroom, spend their time pretending (or not bothering to pretend) to learn things they already know.

Like their supposedly non-gifted peers, these students are not a monolithic group with a uniform set of educational needs. They, too, need differentiated instruction in the core subjects that leads to true learning, not boredom.

So instead of finding and segregating “gifted students,” let us shift our focus to differentiating curriculum and instruction to meet the needs of diverse learners in every grade and every subject. Admittedly, this is easier said than done.  The process would likely take years to complete- and meanwhile, traditional gifted education classes are probably better for high achievers than nothing at all. But settling for business as usual is untenable, from both an educational and an ethical perspective. We need to look for a better way.

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