America’s Overtested Students: Government Finally Pays a Little Attention


October 25, 2015; New York Times

In a rare display of bipartisan agreement, the president and congressional leaders finally have come to believe that elementary school students spend too much preparing for and filing out standardized tests. The public got there years ago, of course. According to a Phi Delta Kappa International/Gallup poll released this past summer of about 4,500 adults, 64 percent believe there is “too much emphasis on standardized testing” while only 19 percent said there is “about the right amount.” A report by the Council of the Great City Schools (CGCS) found that eighth-grade students spent an average of 2.3 percent of their total classroom time, or 25 hours, taking 112 different standardized tests. Moreover, this figure does not include the time spent administering and preparing to take these tests.

On Saturday, October 24th, President Obama released a ten-page proposalacknowledging the administration’s role in the current over-testing quagmire and calling for schools to limit the amount of time students spend taking standardized tests. The message appearing on Facebook called for capping the time students spend taking standardized tests to two percent of classroom time. It also called for new flexibility in the use of standardized tests to evaluate teacher performance, a requirement that has historically led to anger and frustration by teachers and their unions. Additionally, President Obama promised resources and technical support to school districts and states that explore other assessment tools and more traditional indicators to assess teacher and school performance.

Currently, the nation’s schools are fixated on using standardized tests in an attempt to measure what and how much students are learning. Among other findings from CGCS, the average student takes an average of 112.3 tests between pre-K and 12th grade, taking up more than 250 hours of school time. And since governments, district administrators, and parents place such high emphasis on the test results, students spend many, many additional hours preparing and learning how to take the tests.

School administrators across the country struggle to choose which and how many standardized tests they should administer. In the 2014-5 academic year, students in the 66 largest school districts in the country took 401 “unique” tests. Many of them are “not well aligned” with each other, do not align with college or career-ready standards, and rarely assess students’ understanding of specific content. Additionally, the majority of tests are unable to provide timely recommendations, since teachers can wait as long as four months for results—for example, reporting spring assessment results the following fall. Finally, CGCS found “no correlation” between the amount of mandated testing time and the reading and math scores fourth and eighth graders received on federally required National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests.

The origins of the nation’s testing frenzy date to 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). ESEA lead to a new focus by the federal government on the equality and quality of elementary schools across the country. Although the law was meant to be updated every few years, it did not receive a full overhaul until 2001, when President George W. Bush recreated it into No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Under NCLB, the federal government served as watchdog over the nation’s schools, adding resources and the requirement of testing and accountability. Schools whose students failed to successfully achieve, as measured by standardized test scores, would be “fixed” or closed.

No Child Left Behind was set to expire in 2007, but without new legislation, the federal requirements included in it remain in effect. Currently, Congressional leaders agree Bush’s “tough guy” approach to fix poor functioning schools was not successful, but what the next steps should be remains unclear. Separate models passed the Senate and House, and efforts are underway to develop a comprehensive version that can pass both chambers.

President Obama is not calling for the alteration or elimination of the federal requirement to test students in third through eighth grades annually (and again between the 10th and 12th grades). Additionally, Obama’s call to limit the amount of time students spend being tested will not help school administrators decipher which ones to continue using.

NPQ would love to hear from organizers working in the field of education regarding their approaches to the limiting of overtesting and their positions on that issue.

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Homelessness in Hawaii Deemed “State of Emergency”


October 20, 2015; The Guardian

According to the Economic Policy Institute, seventy percent of the American workforce’s adjusted hourly wage is lower today than it was in 2007. As wages decrease, more Americans live paycheck-to-paycheck, unable to save. Without a financial cushion, an unexpected expense can spiral quickly, leading to homelessness. As the number of homeless people grows, more and more cities are struggling to provide services.

Last week, Hawaii’s Governor Ige declared a state of emergency, but it wasn’t due to any natural disaster. Instead the disaster stemmed from the state’s growing homeless population. From mid-2014 to mid-2015, the number of homeless individuals in Hawaii increased by 23 percent and the number of homeless families almost doubled. Today,465 people per every 100,000 in Hawaii are homeless.

Honolulu’s Kakaako district once contained one of the largest homeless encampments in the country. Slightly fewer than three hundred people slept in tents and other semi-permanent structures overlooking one of the state’s most famous beaches and tourist areas. City officials cleared the camp in a little over a month, dismantling shelters and throwing out residents’ possessions. The ACLU unsuccessfully filed a class action lawsuit to block the sweeps. During that month, social service agents attempted to find residents shelter and other resources.

Over the next nine months, the state is dedicating $1.3 million to build new housing, including temporary shelters made of shipping containers for 1000 individuals.

The state of Hawaii is not the first municipal division to declare a state of emergency due to a surge in homelessness. Last month, the Los Angeles City Council made a similar declaration. In the past two years, the homeless population in L.A. has grown 12 percent. Officials propose to focus $100 million on the crisis.—Gayle Nelson

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University of Miami to Develop Gender-Inclusive Housing


September 11, 2015; Miami New Times

Currently, there are 197 colleges and universities with gender-inclusive housing. Last week, the University of Miami announced a plan to join them. Gender-inclusive housing is one of the top items LGBTQ students look for in a perspective college or university. Although the number of schools providing these dorms is growing, many states still do not have any secondary institutions providing living options that support these students’ needs.

The University of Miami, located in Coral Gables, Florida, boasts eleven schools serving more than 16,000 students. It was established in 1925 and currently advances over $330 million in research projects and programs, mainly in medicine, marine science, engineering, education, and psychology. In the 2015 U.S. News & World Report “Best College” listings, the university was ranked one of the top 51 universities in the country.  But in the Campus Pride Index, the university ranked last compared to its peers in the top 50 schools when it comes to creating an environment that welcomes LGBTQ students.

For seven years, Campus Pride, a nonprofit providing services and leadership development for gender-nonconforming students, has researched and published a voluntary ranking of colleges and universities. Each year, the number of schools participating has grown, as have the number of LGBTQ students on campuses.According to a 2013 Pew Research Center study, the median age an individual first feels they may not be heterosexual is now 12; they know “for sure” at age 17, and the median age they come out is 20. According to Campus Pride’s research, LGBTQ-inclusive housing and gender-neutral bathrooms are among the top ten features LGBTQ students look for in a welcoming campus.

The University of Miami’s new college president, Dr. Julio Frenk, is determined to lift the school’s Campus Pride Index ranking. In his first town hall meeting, he introduced a plan to develop gender-neutral university housing. “Gender-inclusive” housing, or “housing tailored to the needs of LGBTQ students” is defined as living opportunities allowing students to have a roommate of any gender. The University of Miami already allows students who choose each other to live together regardless of their gender. Once the dorms open, the university will join four other Florida institutions: University of Central Florida, New College, University of Southern Florida, and University of Northern Florida in offering dorms supporting LGBTQ students.

The announcement follows an open letter written to the new president by University of Miami alumnus Ryan Aquilina. In his letter, Aquilina calls on the university to create a more friendly campus for all students, including LGBTQ ones. In the university’s own survey completed last year, three out of ten LGBTQ students reported not feeling safe on campus. The school also lacks comprehensive LGBTQ nondiscriminatory policies. Additionally, it is one of only five of the top 50 universities without a resource center or any dedicated professional resources for LGBTQ students and one of only 15 without gender-neutral housing.

Further, a report by the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, published by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, outlines the hurdles many transgender college students face. Eleven percent reported being rejected for or the inability to receive financial aid or scholarships due to their gender identity or expression. Almost one in five study participants reported colleges refusing to provide housing tailored to their needs. And once the student begins college, the challenges continue, including an inability to access health insurance or change their names on university records.

Campus Pride’s cofounder and executive director, Shane Windmeyer, believes thatuniversities and colleges want to be welcoming and supportive of LGBTQ students but they often lack knowledge of their needs. Less than five years ago, Elmhurst College in Illinois became the first college or university to add questions about sexual orientation to their college admission materials.

While many universities and colleges are developing policies welcoming to all students, the University of North Carolina system banned gender-neutral housing in 2013. The policy blocks students of opposite genders from living in the same dorm suite or apartment. It stemmed from a proposed 32-space pilot program at the Chapel Hill campus.

Most universities offering policies and campuses welcoming and creating a safer environment for all students are located in urban or progressive areas of the country. But just as LGBTQ students live across the country, all universities must offer environments of learning that are open to all.

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Ohio Manufacturers Put Individuals with Criminal Records to Work


According to the latest report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, over 637,000 people were released from U.S. prisons in 2012. Sadly, two-thirds will reoffend within three years, and three-quarters within five years from release. Finding employment expands an individual’s connections, thereby increasing his or her chances of successfully reentering society. As the economy continues to rebound and the unemployment rate decreases, more employers are hiring workers with a criminal record, creating true second chances for these individuals and their families.

The country’s unemployment rate dropped in August to 5.1 percent, slightly more than half of the rate at the height of the Great Recession. The labor market in the state of Ohio continues to outpace that of the nation. In Central Ohio, the unemployment rate in August was 4.2 percent, and the Columbus area saw the state’s lowest unemployment rate, 3.8 percent.

One of the issues many employers in the region face is finding skilled workers. The executive director of OH! Manufacturing, John Watson, clearly sees the effects of the tight labor market. “When it comes to [the size of the] workforce, it is an area of concern for the entire country,” Watson said. “This is a conversation I have with plant managers and owners all over central Ohio. It has gone from challenging to where it is now stunting growth.”

OH! Manufacturing supports manufacturers throughout central Ohio by providing technical assistance that “enhance[s] product development and commercialization, and improve[s] manufacturing efficiency and effectiveness.” The organization’s expertise stems from their connections throughout the community and to their own staff. The latest blog post from OH! offers suggestions for expanding employers’ reach, such as reaching out to younger workers via social media and providing incentives for current employees to refer their friends and colleagues. They also suggest that employers explore creating a work environment that is more open to restored or returning citizens, women, and veterans.

Oh! Manufacturing is partnering with the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation & Corrections to develop the Training, Assessment, and Placement Project (TAPP). TAPP provides employment training for individuals convicted of nonviolent offenses as they finish their sentences. Once an individual is released, he or she is connected to employers looking for workers with their skills. The program was introduced in August and has already attracted interested employers.

TAPP is a collaboration between OH! Manufacturing and Vickie Miller, a program director for VM Consulting. She developed the training and other resources to successfully incorporate reentering individuals with their new opportunities. Since Miller has previous experience as a teacher in a corrections system, she understands the challenges individuals with criminal records face.

Before the labor market tightened, many employers immediately disqualified a worker once the employer became aware of the past criminal history. To encourage employers to give returning citizens a second chance, eighteen states and many cities have “banned the box,” requiring employers to remove questions regarding criminal histories from employment applications and other initial employment screening stages. In 2013, Ohio took an additional step, passing a law allowing some returning citizens to seal their records.

Through her work, Miller has identified lawyers, engineers, computer programmers, and others with essential skills in prison. But, many states disqualify individuals with criminal records from holding many licenses or practicing certain occupations, regardless of the circumstances or the type of crimes committed. Additionally, Ohio requires a criminal background check for any resident applying for insurance. These checks and limitations on professional licenses are often justified in the name of protecting public safety. In cases of teachers and others who work in schools, these limitations may be justified, but it is unclear how this justification applies to barber or cosmetology licenses, for example.

OH! Manufacturing also encourages manufacturers to recruit more women and veterans. The organization cites the trend of manufacturing moving away from jobs requiring physical strength to positions using education and intelligence. This new environment creates an opportunity for more women to excel. Women currently account for less than one quarter of the manufacturing labor force compared to half overall. (According to a recent study by the Manufacturing Institute, 65 percent of 600 women in the manufacturing industry state that the company they work for does not actively recruit women, 73 percent believe women are underrepresented in the leadership team, and 77 percent believe women are held to higher performance standards than their male counterparts.) Veterans’ service provides them with skills and a work ethic that are particularly valuable to employers. To succeed in the military, many learn to adapt to difficult situations. These experiences are particularly useful in the private-employer work environment, as well.

As these programs continue to provide resources to employers, more skilled and loyal workers will reenter the workforce, increasing efficiencies and industrial competiveness, leading to continued economic growth.

Original Cite:

Using Technology to Improve Healthcare in Rural Maine



September 23, 2015; Portland Press Herald

Rural Washington County is located on the Maine coastline. The county contains some of the most majestic landscape as well as the highest childhood poverty rate in the state. Close to 60 percent of school children in the county are eligible for free or reduced lunch. As a whole, Maine has more residents over the age of 65 than any other state, and Washington County has the second-oldest Maine county. Not surprisingly, this population has substantial health needs.

Recently, the Nonprofit Quarterly examined the issues people living in rural areas experience particularly in their ability to access to healthcare. And these issues are growing to crisis levels: 57 rural hospitals have closed in the last year. Only ten percent of America’s doctors practice in the rural areas where one quarter of the country’s population lives. This lack of access to medical care leads to a disproportionately high rate of deaths from things like unintentional injuries and motor vehicle accidents among rural residents compared to those living in urban areas.

Harrington Family Health Center is at the center of the health crisis in Maine. Patients depend on the nonprofit to provide medical, dental, and mental health services. Many of the patients served at the Center suffer from multiple conditions requiring a complex medical regimen. According to its CEO, Lee Umphrey, its patients have the highest instances of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer in the state. In 2014, the Center provided over 14,000 medical visits treating about 3,500 patients.

Brock Slabach, senior vice president of member services for the National Rural Health Association (based in Kansas), describes helping patients manage chronic conditions as “imperative” as the number and types of medical services baby boomers require continues to grow. Better management means fewer hospital stays and less expensive treatment in the patient’s home community.

As nonprofits providing these services struggle to serve, a new pilot program offers medical staff technology to bridge the gap between resources and need. In July, the Harrington Center’s healthcare providers began utilizing tablets loaded with medical apps to deliver more effective services as part of a pilot project. The tablets were developed in Haiti by Health eVillages, a collaboration between Physicians Interactive and the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights. They are used in some of the “most challenging clinical environments around the world.”

Although the tablets were developed millions of miles away, the apps they are loaded with are tailored to the needs of rural Maine. The list begins with searchable medical encyclopedias, a dosage calculator, lists of dangerous drug combinations and interactions, and a pill identifier, as well as a symptom checker listing potential conditions after the provider enters a patient’s symptoms. The tablet’s apps supportdiabetes care, too.

The founder of Physicians Interactive, Donato Tramuto, created the pilot because he knows firsthand the challenges rural areas face. After all, rural Maine is the area he calls home. “You’d be surprised in our country how technology is behind the eight ball in terms of healthcare,” he said.

Funders are focused on using technology to bridge the gap in other countries. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is funding projects using apps loaded onto mobile devices to improve healthcare for people living in poverty in Africa. Among their interests areprojects in Nairobi to decrease the number of women dying in childbirth, fighting malaria in Mozambique, and supporting overall rural healthcare in Kenya.

One of the challenges is pinpointing the apps that best support medical care in the community from the thousands of apps available. Projects like the one in Harrington have the potential to begin to identify how medical providers can use these resources to better serve.

Fees and Inequality in the Kenyan School System



October 2, 2015; Quartz

Throughout the world, education is considered at least part of the lifeline to new opportunities, particularly for children living in poverty. In 2003, Kenya declared primary school education to be free and compulsory. In the decade that followed, foreign aid poured in, the number of schools increased, and today most children are enrolled. At the same time, school fees have multiplied, even for families living in the slums of Nairobi. Since most of the schools serving children in the capital’s poorest areas are unregistered, the quality of education they provide is difficult to measure. As a result, many wonder whether Western donations are well spent.

Kenya is located on the eastern coast of Africa. It is a country of 44 million people and boasts the biggest economy in east Africa. Twelve years ago, the government focused a significant portion of its resources on educating its children, and as a result nearly nine out of ten Kenyans under the age of 11 are now enrolled in school.

While the number of children in school is increasing, so have the school fees that families pay. Not surprisingly, wealthy children are sent to private schools with correspondingly high fees. At the same time, even less well off Kenyans question the quality of the public schools and opt instead for low-fee private primary schools. Between 2010 and 2014, the number of children in public schools dropped by over six percent. Even those families that do send their children to public schools are subject to some fees, including uniform and testing fees.

Kenyan families have reason to believe public schools are failing. According to a 2013 World Bank report, public school teachers were absent almost half of the time, leading to children receiving on average slightly more than two hours of instruction. A second study discovered that only one-third of teachers at these schools scored a minimum of 80 percent on exams of curriculum it was their job to teach.

Additionally, research completed by Concern Worldwide found that the schools located in the slums of Nairobi were suffering a cumulative shortage of 250 teachers. (Schools located outside of the slums are only short around seven teachers.) The shortage has led to more than eighty percent of classrooms in the slums exceeding the government-stipulated ratio of 1 teacher per 45 children; three of these schools have a ratio of over one hundred children per teacher.

The growth in private primary schools began in the 1980s as the population ballooned by almost four percent, one of the largest rises in such rates in the world. At that time, the Kenyan government encouraged education entrepreneurs to build schools to help keep up with demand. Outside funds increased as the schools and their leaders attracted the attention and support of foreign donors. From 2001 to 2009, the number of private schools doubled.

The Africa Population and Health Research Center, a leading research institute located in Nairobi, found more than 60 percent of Kenyan children, or 300,000, attend the low-fee schools. Families earning less than $1 US a day, barely able to put food on the table, still pay between $1500 and $3000 US to send their children to these low-fee schools. Those lucky enough to continue schooling at the secondary level attend schools with more modest fees, starting at $1200 in the poorer communities.

Sadly, while fees are rising, the quality may not be. Most of the low-fee private primary schools are not registered with the Department of Education, leaving the educational entrepreneurs running them with the opportunity to pocket the fees and foreign donations. Unregistered schools don’t get the same scrutiny as registered schools, and therefore the quality of education is unclear. Adding to the injustice, unregistered schools are not eligible for the public grants provided to registered schools, including those attended by the wealthy.

The winners are the children living outside of the city, attending registered schools and paying less in tuition. Enrollment at these schools has tripled from four percent in 2005 to twelve percent currently. Competition for children is fierce, and only stellar teachers are employed. According to research from the Brookings Institution, fees for these schools are two-thirds of what schools in the “free” public system charge.

Sadly, the injustice continues at the secondary level. The quota admissions process at these schools sets aside one of every four places for public feeder schools. Therefore, the children attending the low-fee schools in the nation’s capital compete with wealthy children attending high-performing private schools for the limited number of spots.

Fixing this dysfunction begins with the Kenya Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology. First, all schools need to be scrutinized and regulated. Second, governmenteducation grants must follow children, and if the schools they attend do not deserve the funds, the grants should be given directly to the families to subsidize fees and other educational expenses.