Category Archives: Media

How College Contributes to Inequality

Check out my Atlantic interview with political scientist Suzanne Mettler, who is doing some of the best thinking on exploding college tuition, student debt, and for-profit colleges. 

Should we pay attention to those studies about how little money liberal arts grads earn in their first year out of college?

With the liberal arts, there’s long-term payoff. By the time you are 40, you are doing much better. As a college professor, I could ruminate on that. There’s been a reframing of higher education in the media in the last few years. The media looks at higher unemployment among college grads and says, ‘Maybe a college degree is not worth it.’ That’s wrong. You’re always better off to try and get more four-year college degree recipients. But then of course, we have to look at what sector of education are people attending? Is it a valuable degree?

Your book suggests that in many cases, people are better off not going to college at all than attending a for-profit college. 13 percent of college students are now enrolled at for-profits, yet they make up nearly 50 percent of student loan defaults. The industry says this is because they take a risk on less well-prepared students. They blame the students themselves when they drop out or fail to get decent jobs. What did your research turn up?

No. That’s an inadequate explanation. To the contrary, there are various scholars who’ve looked at this. As I show in my book, students who grow up high income and have low test scores are about as likely as students who are low income with high test scores to graduate college. What I’m trying to emphasize is the financial part of it. The major reason why students drop out and don’t complete college has to do with finances and with their varied ability to stay enrolled and afford it. That’s true across the board, whatever kind of institution the student is attending.

At the for-profits, the graduation rates are 22 percent. We know schools with more low-income students are going to have lower graduation rates. Studies control for that factor and still find particularly low graduation rates at the for-profits. They don’t have student support services and they don’t emphasize learning. They charge very high tuition. You could get the same kind of degree at a community college or four-year public for a much lower cost.

Read the whole thing

New Work and Media Appearances

My latest article, "Don't Help Your Kids With Their Homework," is featured on the cover of the April Atlantic.

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Yep — the headline is clickbait. But this is also a data-driven piece reporting on a 30-year study of American parenting partices, which can help us figure out which parental interventions do and don't help children succeed in school. My article is about the fascinating work of Keith Robinson and Angel Harris, sociologists and authors of The Broken Compass.  

To learn more, check out my radio segments on the Brian Lehrer Show/WNYCTo The Point/PRI, and Slate's Mom and Dad are Fighting.

At Google, Tim Armstrong Was Sued for Demoting and Firing Employee Pregnant with Quadruplets

When CEO Tim Armstrong blamed “distressed babies” for proposed benefit cuts at AOL, here’s what he didn’t mention: While a sales executive at Google in 2005, he was the subject of a lawsuit by a former employee, Christina Elwell, who alleged he demoted and fired her because she could not travel during her high-risk pregnancy with quadruplets.

Elwell went to work for Google’s sales force in 2000, and in 2003 was promoted to national sales director, a position in which she managed the North American sales force. She worked from the company’s New York office. Her boss was Armstrong, then Google’s vice president for national sales. According to Elwell’s complaint, before her pregnancy, he praised her in a meeting as having made a “significant contribution” to Google’s preparations for its initial public offering.

In April 2004, four months before that IPO, Elwell told Armstrong she was pregnant with quadruplets and would not be able to travel by plane due to complications. He was concerned, but she reassured him she was eager to resume travel after giving birth. In May, Elwell miscarried two of her four fetuses. A few weeks later, Armstrong allegedly called her into his office and showed her an organizational chart in which her position would be eliminated and she would be demoted to the operations department, with no management responsibilities. He allegedly told colleagues he was moving Elwell because she could not travel.

Elwell proposed that she instead take a position as East Coast sales director, in which she would be able to travel by train and car. Armstrong rejected that idea and filled the job with a male employee whom Elwell had recently hired. Then, on June 4, 2004, Armstrong allegedly called Elwell into his office and told her she was a “HR nightmare” because she had talked with colleagues about her concerns regarding her pregnancy and employment status at Google. The following day, he called her at home and fired her, saying he had “a gut feeling” it was the right thing to do, in part because she had “spoken to others” about the situation. (Remember when Armstrong impulsively fired a guy in the midst of a conference call last year, with 1,000 employees listening in?)

Google determined Elwell had been improperly fired and rehired her in a low-level operations position, in which she claims she was given work comparable to that of a summer intern. She filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She subsequently lost a third quadruplet and delivered one baby. After her maternity leave, Elwell went back to Google in January 2005, but when she learned she would not be able to return to her former position on the sales force, she left the company.

It all sort of puts into perspective Sheryl Sandberg’s cheery anecdote about lobbying Google for “pregnancy parking” at its California headquarters, doesn’t it?

In 2006 a federal judge moved Elwell’s suit into arbitration. Her attorney met with Google’s lawyers in 2007 to discuss a possible settlement, but the company’s lawyer allegedly responded, “These people are not settlers.”

Sources with knowledge of the case say the parties did eventually reach a settlement via arbitration, which was fairly financially advantageous to Elwell, and which the parties are barred from discussing publicly. AOL senior vice president for corporate communications Peter Land says, "We can’t comment on the lawsuit because it had nothing to do with us." The company points out that Working Mother Magazine has named it a top 100 company for working moms.

A woman who answered the phone at Elwell’s Manhattan home told me she was not in and took a message. Leah Schloss, director of marketing at Elwell’s law firm, Sullivan & Worcester LLP, says, “We are not able to discuss this case.” I have also reached out to Google. I will update this piece when and if I hear from additional sources.

Checking in on Bill de Blasio’s Universal Pre-K Ambitions

The signature proposal of Bill de Blasio's mayoral campaign was a promise to raise the wealthy's income taxes to fund universal, free, full-day pre-K for all the city's four-year olds. 

In the new issue of The Nation I report on the political prospects for this abitious plan, and also describe what a gold standard pre-K education looks like. 

Check it out!

Does Class Size Matter?

The latest episode of my Slate podcast, Schooled, tackles what the research really tells us about class sizes, and how teachers experience class size every day: 

Polls show that smaller class sizes are incredibly popular with parents and teachers. But when the Great Recession forced school budget cuts, class size once again became a matter of debate, with Education Secretary Arne Duncan, megaphilanthropist Bill Gates, and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg all suggesting that larger class sizes could be a good idea.

What do we really know about how class size affects student learning? Is there an ideal class size? In this episode, I talk to Larry Ferlazzo, a public school teacher and blogger, and Matthew Chingos, a class-size researcher at the Brookings Institution.

 Listen here!

Michelle Obama Has Always Leaned In

Michelle Cottle has written a Politico Magazine piece about Michelle Obama, called "Leaning Out: How Michelle Obama became a feminist nightmare." 

Cottle writes that Michelle has "always" prioritized the domestic sphere over the public, political one, thus enraging feminists. But that's not true. First, there are the basic facts of Michelle's biography, many left out of this piece. When Michelle and Barack met, she was his boss in the law firm where he was a summer associate. She worked full-time until her husband began his presidential run. She earned a lot of money. 

On the campaign trail in 2007 and 2008, she spoke movingly about how fear had led the United States into an ill-advised war in Iraq. Shortly after the inauguration, the first couple visited a Washington, D.C. public school. When Michelle asked the children what they wanted to be when they grew up–and one little girl cried out, "First lady!"–Michelle responded, "It doesn't pay much."

If that's not embracing the "Lean In" ethos, I don't know what is. A FLOTUS with a wry take on her transition from a $316,000 per year job to that of an unpaid figurehead? That's not the Michelle Obama we see in Cottle's portrait. Nor do we see the woman who went on a speaking tour to federal agencies to support the stimulus, and who pushed hard behind the scenes for health reform.

And to be fair, that's not the Michelle Obama that her husband's political advisors are most eager to show off. There has been a concerted push to portray Michelle as the "mom in chief." At times, it has rankled. 

But what's most problematic about the Politico piece is that although Cottle acknowledges race, she doesn't at all address what leading black writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Melissa Harris-Perry have been talking about for years: that Michelle Obama's focus on portraying herself as an exemplary mother is, in and of itself, somewhat radical, in a country in which the black family is openly pathologized as dysfunctional.

There's another, point, too. The supposedly "soft" issues Michelle has embraced, like healthy eating, exercise, and college-going, are ones that disproportionately affect the black community. Her partnership with Wal-Mart to address inner city food deserts didn't really take off, but at least Michelle helped put this problem on the national agenda.

The first lady role is infuriatingly fluffy, but that isn't Michelle Obama's fault. 

For more on these issues, check out this dialogue on black feminism between Melissa Harris-Perry and philosopher bell hooks.

Schooled Podcast: How to Choose a School

Check out the latest episdoe of my Slate podcast. This week: 

With more charter schools, magnet schools, and school choice than ever before, many parents face an intimidating set of options when enrolling their kids in kindergarten and beyond, especially in urban areas. What does the "good school" look like, in terms of teaching, curriculum, and student engagement? Why do one-third of all children struggle to learn to read? What should you do if your kid’s teacher is terrible? And are middle-class or affluent kids hurt academically when they attend schools with peers who come from less educationally privileged backgrounds? In this episode, I talk to Peg Tyre, author of The Good School, and Heather Harding, an education researcher at George Washington University. Both guests have enrolled their own children in urban public schools, in New York and Washington, D.C.

 Listen!