A school grows in Brooklyn

Principal Melissa Jarvis-Cedeño keeps an eye on her start-up school by working in the hall rather than in her office. Photo: Julienne Schaer

In This is how you start a school, Hechinger’s Sara Neufeld talks with the founding principal, a teacher and a parent at a new charter high school in the poor Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville.

Brooklyn Ascend High offers “a liberal arts curriculum that promotes critical thinking over exam prep,” writes Neufeld.  As an alternative to suspension, teachers use “reflective circles.”

Melissa Jarvis-Cedeño grew up not far from her new school. Her mother was an alcoholic. She survived abuse by relatives. “By age 18, she was pregnant with her second baby when she arrived upstate for college,” writes Neufeld. She married, earned two degrees and worked as an English teacher and school administrator.

Her older son, a high school dropout, is in prison on gun and drug charges. Her younger son is working on a master’s degree in public health.

In third grade at a “no excuses” charter, 8-year-old Jeremy Peña still gets more homework than his older brother, Jann. Photo: Julienne Schaer

In third grade at a “no excuses” charter school, Jeremy Peña still gets more homework than his older brother, Jann. Photo: Julienne Schaer

Jovanka Anderson, a Dominican immigrant, enrolled her younger son in a “no excuses” charter. He had more homework than his older brother, who attended a middle school magnet for gifted and talented students. Jann Peña won the lottery to attend Ascend, a one in seven shot.

As a ninth grader, Jann “tested at a sixth-grade reading level on the school placement exam in August and at midway through fifth grade in math.”

Jovanka Anderson and her husband, Emilio Peña, are high school dropouts. They want their children to go to college.

Like four of five Ascend teachers, Taylor Delhagen, 31, came “from a nearby charter where they had success producing high test scores among low-income students but felt stifled in what they see as a more vital task: developing human beings,” writes Neufeld.

Teaching math to math haters

Can liberal arts majors learn to love math — or not hate it so much? In The Atlantic, Jessica Lahey looks at a new curriculum called Discovering the Art of Mathematics: Mathematical Inquiry in the Liberal Arts (DAoM).

The goal is “to nurture healthy and informed perceptions of mathematics, mathematical ways of thinking, and the ongoing impact of mathematics not only on STEM fields but also on the liberal arts and humanities.”

Steven Strogatz, a Cornell professor of applied math, is trying it in a math class for non-majors.

Using an exercise from the DAoM book Games and Puzzles, Strogatz asked his students to figure out how to fold a piece of paper in such a way that they could then cut one straight line with scissors to create a scalene triangle (a triangle in which all three sides are different lengths). After working for a half an hour, only one student in the class was able to do it.

At the end of class, Strogatz asked the students if they wanted a hint, but they didn’t want any help.

“They were having a true mathematical moment,” he wrote Lahey in an e-mail. “They were feeling what anyone who loves math feels, the pleasure of thinking, the pleasure of wrestling with a problem that fascinates.” Students kept working on the problem on their own. “Over the weekend I started to get emails from some of them, expressing the excitement they felt when they solved it.”

The author’s son and husband take the scalene triangle challenge. (Jessica Lahey )


Inquiry-based learning can’t do it all, Strogatz told Lahey.

“I want my students to memorize and know basic facts, and I want them to understand what those facts mean, why they’re important, where they come up in the real world. I want it all and I think students want it all too.” He added:

If we only teach conceptual approaches to math without developing skill at actually solving math problems, students will feel weak. Their mathematical powers will be flimsy. And if they don’t memorize anything, if they don’t know the basic facts of addition and multiplication or, later, geometry or still later, calculus, it becomes impossible for them to be creative. It’s like in music. You need to have technique before you can create a composition of your own. But if all we do is teach technique, no one will want to play music at all.

Strogatz and DAoM creator Julian Fleron want students to “make math,” not just discuss it, writes Lahey.

My math-y husband loves doing geometric puzzles like the paper-folding exercise. I find this sort of thing frustrating and boring.

Scared STEM: Tough talk for arts majors

Obama disses art history

Speaking at a General Electric plant in Wisconsin, President Obama said skilled manufacturing or the trades pays as well as an art history degree.

It was “a cheap shot at the favorite punching bag of people who deride higher education in general and the liberal arts in particular, writes Virginia Postrel.

“Almost no one majors in art history,”  she points out. Those who do are tackling “an intellectually demanding” and “famously elitist” major.

In fact, the reason pundits instinctively pick on art history is that it is seems effete. It’s stereotypically a field for prep school graduates, especially women, with plenty of family wealth to fall back on. In fact, a New York Times analysis of Census data shows that art history majors are wildly overrepresented among those in the top 1 percent of incomes. Perhaps the causality runs from art history to high incomes, but I doubt it.

If the president had been serious about his message, he would have compared learning a skilled trade to majors that are actually popular, such as communications and psychology. It would have been much braver and more serious to take on the less-rigorous majors that attract lots of students. But it wouldn’t have gotten a laugh.

Obama is promoting “job-driven training,” which means training for jobs that exist. That does sound like a good idea.

Vice President Joe Biden will lead a review of the many federal job training programs. The Government Accountability Office reviewed federal job training programs in 2011, but perhaps more have been created since then.

Higher ed pays — for engineers, nurses

Higher education pays — for technical graduates, concludes a new study. However, “The S in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) is oversold,” the report found. Biology and chemistry majors can expect to earn as little as liberal arts majors.

College costs, job prospects worry parents

The rising cost of college is pushing students and parents to choose less-expensive options and to focus on developing job skills rather than studying liberal arts.

You can live in the basement without college debt

It’s better in to live in your mother’s basement, drink beer and play video games all day than to major in English or sociology, go into debt and then live in the basement, says Aaron Clarey, author of  Worthless: The Young Person’s Indispensable Guide to Choosing the Right Major.

Trendy vs. truth: Can the university survive?

If universities aren’t going to teach truth, beauty, knowledge or reasoning — and they can’t guarantee liberal arts graduates will earn enough to pay their debts — something’s got to give, writes Victor Davis Hanson on PJ Media.

A fourth of liberal arts courses are trendy time wasters, writes Hanson, a classics and military history fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and an emeritus classics professor at Fresno State. Students don’t learn a body of knowledge. They don’t master inductive reasoning and empirical objectivity. They don’t learn to write clearly.

(Trendy classes) tend to foster the two most regrettable traits in a young mind — ignorance of the uninformed combined with the arrogance of the zealot. All too often students in these courses become revved up over a particular writ — solar power, gay marriage, the war on women, multiculturalism — without the skills to present their views logically and persuasively in response to criticism. Heat, not light, is the objective of these classes.

. . .  college is intended as a sort of boot camp for the progressive army, where recruits are trained and do not question their commissars.

Vocational and technical colleges “are upfront about their nuts-and-bolts, get-a-job education,” he writes. They don’t pretend to teach humanities.

 Yes, I am worried that the University of Phoenix graduate has not read Dante, but more worried that the CSU Fresno graduate has not either, and the former is far more intellectually honest about that lapse than the latter.

Federal aid allows colleges to keep hiking tuition, leaving students deeper in debt. Professors complain that “grade-grubbing” students won’t take their esoteric courses. Why should they? Hanson asks.

. . .  does the computer programming major at DeVry take an elective like the Poetics of Masculinity to enrich his approach to programing? Does the two-year JC course on nursing include an enhanced class like “Constructing the Doctor: the hierarchies of male privilege”?

As a young professor, I used to believe in the value of a universal BA that would teach truth and beauty to the masses. I still do, but mostly as instruction apart from the university that now has very little to do with either beauty or truth.

Meanwhile, the economic value of a humanities degree is questionable. Most studies say a liberal arts bachelor’s degree is worth the investment, but how long will that be true? “I am reluctant to make the argument for the humanities on the basis of financial planning, but then the humanities are not quite the humanities of 50 years ago.”

Hansen suggests a national test in math and verbal skills and knowledge for a bachelor’s degree like the bar exams for law graduates. Someone who’d skipped college could take a longer version of the bachelor’s exam.

Most college students pick what they think are practical majors. Business administration is the most popular college major, according to the Princeton Review. Also in the top 10 are psychology, nursing, biology, education, English, economics, communications, political science and computer and information science.

What’s the big idea?

A liberal arts education puts fads in perspective, writes Diana Senechal in the new American Educator.  “Today’s biggest fad” is “bigness itself.”

Education reformers are especially susceptible to the “big idea,” which can get so big that it loses touch with the “particulars of subject matter, school and classroom,” writes Senechal.

Who killed the liberal arts?

    Who Killed the Liberal Arts?  Joseph Epstein blames his fellow professors in a Weekly Standard essay.

    (Professors) in their hunger for relevance and their penchant for self-indulgence, began teaching books for reasons external to their intrinsic beauty or importance, and attempted to explain history before discovering what actually happened. They politicized psychology and sociology, and allowed African-American studies an even higher standing than Greek and Roman classics. They decided that the multicultural was of greater import than Western culture. They put popular culture on the same intellectual footing as high culture (Conrad or graphic novels, three hours credit either way). And, finally, they determined that race, gender, and social class were at the heart of all humanities and most social science subjects. With that finishing touch, the game was up for the liberal arts.

    Epstein became a liberal arts major because he didn’t think he could pass accounting.

    He’s responding to Andrew Delbanco’s College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, which complains that most students enroll in college to earn job credentials, not to pursue an education.

    This cartoon says it all.