Things I Know 249 of 365: Student loans should be a little easier

It should be a little easier. Just a little easier.

– Matt Kelley (played by John Connolly in The West Wing)

At the other side of this whole grad school experience, I’ll have a substantial pile of student loans awaiting me. Sometimes, late at night, as I drift off to sleep, I hear what I imagine to be scribbling in the ledger of my account.

This isn’t one of those posts where someone who made an informed decision complains about that same decision and vilifies some “other” in the face of having to deal with the consequences of that choice.

It is a post to say, it should be a little bit easier for anyone entering public service attending any school.

From state schools to private, on the other side of the diploma, the jobs we want those who have been trained up public service taking are not the jobs that will ensure a timely repayment of their loans or the development of disposable income that can be used to drive a more diverse sampling of the economy.

In the end, that’s what we want them to do.

Eight days ago, the financial aid office sent me sent out an e-mail blast for those student who will be taking on student loads for the next academic cycle regarding the passage of the Budget Control Act of 2011. Two provisions of the law were flagged as being of particular interest:

Elimination of the subsidy on Direct loans made to graduate students

Direct loans to graduate students beginning with the 2012-13 academic year will no longer be subsidized.  While the total amount that students can borrow will remain $20,500 per year, the full amount will be unsubsidized, meaning interest will accrue from the time the loan disburses.

Elimination of the upfront fee rebate on Direct Unsubsidized and Grad PLUS loans beginning with the 2012-13 academic year

Loans borrowed prior to 2012-13 had an origination fee of 1% for Direct loans and 4% for Grad PLUS loans. However, .5% of the Direct fee and 1.5% of the Grad PLUS fee were suspended and were waived if a borrower made their first 12 monthly payments on time.  Beginning with loans for the 2012-13 academic year, these upfront rebates have been eliminated.

I’m not in favor of lump-sum forgiveness of student loan debt. This post from the Freakanomics Blog explains why better than I ever could.

I am in favor of making it a little easier. It should be easier to attract folks to public service, to keep them there, and to help them live the kind of life suitable to someone who dedicates their time to serving others and the society.

Yesterday, President Obama announced a plan to help relieve student loan debt. It is a step in the right direction – a small step. We’ve a bit more of a walk ahead of us.

If you haven’t already and you’re heading to college or sending someone to college, pick up Anya’s Generation Debt.

Things I Know 228 of 365: I’m developing new work and life flows

The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.

– Igor Stravinsky

The last 48 hours have been a reminder of the future in which we live.

Yesterday, when completing an assignment for one of my classes, I needed only to open a google doc to see the notes for the readings I hadn’t done.

Through e-mail, my reading group and I divided the readings for the week. I suggested we use a 3-2-1 reading strategy to capture the most important information. We added a section for “key words and phrase” and it was done.

Another member of my group e-mailed a draft Word document of what we’d decided on. I took the doc, fed it to Google Docs and shared it to the rest of the group.

Over 72 hours, the notes came rolling in – synchronously, across all of our computer screens, with no files or iterations of files to keep track of.

Where I had questions or comments, I got to add them in and my group members added their as well.

This morning, I created a Google Collection for all the files for the course. I created a file for next week’s readings and dropped my assignments so far in there as well. Collaboration, right?

This morning, I paid for my coffee and bagel with my phone – and I wasn’t at Starbucks.

Paying attention to my surroundings, I saw a decal on the window of my local coffee shop advertising LevelUp. A download later and I was outfitted with my own QR Code for paying at local businesses. Not unlike other apps designed to get patrons to visit businesses, LevelUp has a built-in savings plan and daily deals. The piece that sold me, no receipt. It gets emailed to me and sent to my phone. Later today, I’ll be setting up an inbox filter that channels my receipts out of my inbox and into a designated folder.

Speaking of designations, I got around to something I’ve been meaning to do for month –

Now, more than any other time in my life, tracking my spending and keeping a budget are key constructs. In undergrad, my job at the paper supplemented my income and insured me a paycheck would be on the other end of each fortnight.

Though I’ve some contract work and a newly added research assistantship, I need some help making sure my finances are under tight control.

Shifting from a productive member of society to a straight-up consumer of goods, services and knowledge calls for a shift in thinking as well.

Mint is there to help. In about 10 minutes, I’d created a profile linked to my bank and credit card accounts as well as my student loans. Replete with budgets, savings analyses and comparisons of financial services, Mint is a financial advisor for those of us who can’t afford financial advisors. If I were a parent sending my kid to college, mint would be a requirement before I let the kid out the door.

Part of the joy of being a student that’s satisfying the curious portion of my brain has been developing new work and living flows. I’ve been working to leverage what’s free and available to me so the things I stress about are the things I care about.

Things I Know 146 of 365: It’s our sights, not our size, that matters

Thanks to farm subsidies, the fine collaboration between agribusiness and Congress, soy, corn and cattle became king. And chicken soon joined them on the throne. It was during this period that the cycle of dietary and planetary destruction began, the thing we’re only realizing just now.

Mark Bittman

According to 2009 U.S. Census data, the student population of the ten largest school districts in the United States was 3,939,071.

That same census data put the U.S. population at 307,006,550.

In 2009, ten school districts were responsible for the education of roughly 1.2 percent of the nation’s population.

As Sam Chaltain once said to me, American schools are the only public institutions to directly interact with 90 percent of the population.

America’s public schools are too big to fail.

A recent NPR report on talks currently taking place between the School District of Philadelphia and the City Commission regarding financial support from the city referred to the district as a “perpetually hungry child.”

I can see the comparison. Schools are hungry. They’ve always been hungry.

In dealing with a $629 million shortfall this year, I’d say the district is turning to the commission as a soup kitchen, not a buffet.

What’s clear beyond that admission is difficult to tell.

The $48.6 billion channeled to education through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act created change, but seemingly thoughtless change. The states and districts rushing to claim money for their coffers were as varied as Augustus Gloop and that starving child my mother always told me was waiting for whatever I didn’t eat at dinner.

If your state or district received any portion of the $48.6 billion, I’m willing to guess few people can point to where it was spent. If they can, I’ll go double or nothing the majority of recipients can’t give you a clear answer of how ARRA improved the lives of the students we serve.

I say lives because improving learning requires more than improving tests and textbooks. School lunch, transportation, socio-emotional counseling and a slew of other supports are all part of the web of public education. To think otherwise is to think too small and miss seeing the whole board.

In a 2009 Leaning Point and Mission Measurement brief on assessing the effectiveness of the stimulus, reported one interviewee saying, “States need to think of this as an inheritance and do something they wouldn’t normally do. They should be thinking about putting in a high-efficiency heating system and not just paying the mortgage.”

While some recipients did just that, others made investments equivalent to hiring a gardener.

The thinking was too small, the guidelines too restrictive.

I used to work at a magnet school that recruited only the lowest achieving students in the district. (No easy sell.)

Each time I would approach my principal with a new and oftentimes strange idea for instruction, he would approve it.

One day, I asked him why.

“We know that doing everything as usual doesn’t work with these kids,” he told me, “So, we need to try new things.”

The country understands half of the advice, but is missing the critical point.

If the encouragement is to buy the educational equivalent of high-efficiency heading systems, the caveat is those systems need to be fueled by the same coal that’s always been coming down the chute.

Nothing in the Education Department’s four assurances required for the receipt of further ARRA funds suggests a holistic or even humanist approach to education. Initially part of the 2007 America Competes Act the four requirements are:

  • Making progress toward rigorous college- and career-ready standards and high-quality assessments that are valid and reliable for all students, including English language learners and students with disabilities;
  • Establishing pre-K-to college and career data systems that track progress and foster continuous improvement;
  • Making improvements in teacher effectiveness and in the equitable distribution of qualified teachers for all students, particularly students who are most in need;
  • Providing intensive support and effective interventions for the lowest-performing schools.

The systems built on and fueled by such requirements inspire compliance, not creativity. The classrooms made manifest by such systems inspire the same.

Our primary worry should not be that America’s public schools are too big to fail, but that its students will be too compliant to succeed.

Things I Know 46 of 365: Education should never be our country’s Third World

If we take these steps — if we raise expectations for every child, and give them the best possible chance at an education, from the day they are born until the last job they take — we will reach the goal that I set two years ago: By the end of the decade, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. (Applause.)

– President Obama, 2011 State of the Union

I’ve been in trouble with the charity mob lately. They’ve called my phone. They’ve e-mailed friends and co-workers. They’ve faxed my principal.

Donors Choose is looking for me.

More specifically, they’re looking for my Thank You Packet. I’ve been horrible at thank you notes since I was little. Always loved the idea, but been horrible in its execution.

Rather than feel guilty, I’ve become resentful.

Not resentful toward Donors Choose – they’re just doing how they do.

Resentful there’s a need for Donors Choose to do how they do.

According to, Donors Choose spent almost $17 million on program expenses for the 2009 fiscal year. That’s $17 million that school districts couldn’t get to their teachers, classrooms and students to make the learning happen.

I remember the excitement I felt when I first learned about Donors Choose. I was immediately enamored of the idea I’d never have to negotiate the funding tug-of-war within my district when my students needed new books. I remember telling a science teacher friend about DC and watching her face light up as she realized she now had an avenue for procuring the new lab supplies her students desperately needed.

If we are true to our commitment to making America a STEM powerhouse, a creative force to be reckoned with and a leader in social development, we must acknowledge the irony of an education that forces teachers to outsource the purchase of Romeo and Juliet or scientific calculators.

For every dollar brought in by DC, an administrator wasn’t reminded of the needs facing his or her school. As those dollars piled up, administrators didn’t see as much need in telling their bosses or there bosses’ bosses their schools needed money for books, for computers, for field trips, for art supplies.

According to Donors Choose, “Since 200, 182,386 projects have been brought to life.” That’s 182,386 reminders of the needs to better fund our classrooms that never made it past their online proposals.

I love Donors Choose, but I wish I shouldn’t need to remember it exists.

When I was teaching in Florida, one of the heads of the district came by to speak at our faculty meeting. It was part of an initiative to talk to talk up new programs in the district. They were great programs – really designed to help kids.

Our guest asked if there were any questions or concerns he could address.

I raised my hand.

“Can we get pencils?”

“I’m sorry.”

“Can we get pencils. These programs all sound excellent. I know they’re going to help students learn. It’s just that, they never have pencils, and it holds up the learning in the classroom. If we could just get some pencils, I know it would make a huge difference tomorrow and take a load of stress off my day.”

Our guest chuckled.

“I’ll see what I can do.”

I got a bit of a talking to from my principal after the meeting.

“Hey, he asked,” I said.

Stern stare and I was excused.

The next Monday, a package arrived via district mail – 1 gross of packages of 12 pencils.

I’ve never seen so many pencils.

What I said in the meeting certainly broke from protocol, but it also delievered the message that literacy specialists were going to be more effective had the children the tools with which to show their literacy.

In the age of Donors Choose, I worry those messages aren’t being delivered frequently enough.

Instead we’ve a sort of education Kiva doling out school supplies with repayment of teachers and students thanking donors for the tools of learning their schools and districts should have provided in the first place.

While I certainly support the work of both organizations, I cannot help resenting the systems which continue to make both of them necessary.

Things I Know 45 of 365: The difference between an allowance and birthday money

He that is of the opinion money will do everything may well be suspected of doing everything for money.

– Benjamin Franklin

When I was a kid and up through my first job, money came to me by two means.

One was my allowance and eventually paycheck. As explained to me by my mother, my allowance was what I got as a member of our family. I had chores and the like, which I was expected to do as my part of keeping the family running. I contributed to the betterment of the family and benefited from the success of the family.

I used my allowance for the general upkeep of me and the upkeep of my adolescent operations. Snacks at lunch, movies with friends – looking back now, I can’t quite remember what I did with my allowance. Largely, I remember squirreling it away for nothing in particular.

The other means by which kid me acquired money was the act of being alive each year – birthday money. Brithday money was something altogether different from allowance and the eventual paychecks that accompanied my first job.

Brithday money wasn’t squirred away at all. It was spent on those things I would have spent my allowance or paycheck on were it not for the costs of being me which eventually included car insurance and gas money.

CDs, books, hats (I wore a lot of hats) – these were the big expenditures on which birthday money was spent. Nothing recurring like increased insurance coverage or a new car and the accompanying payments.

I understood birthday money came once a year and the amount was always uncertain. It was to be appreciated, but never expected.

I’ve been getting the feeling lately that the School District of Philadelphia doesn’t quite know the difference between allowance money and birthday money.

Birthday money is when the federal government gives your state about $4 billion for education initiatives as part of a one-time stimulus package. See, they even call it a package so you know it’s birthday money.

Allowance money is when the federal, state and local governments chip in to your annual budget to take care of the general upkeep of your schools and the upkeep of educational operations. It’s what you get for doing your part in keeping the bigger family running.

See. They’re different.

Even without birthday money, it was important for me to keep track of my allowance and first job spending. Spend too much on something new and shiny and I’d have trouble keeping up with my basic expenses.

I’ve been getting the feeling that the School District of Philadelphia has misunderstood the idea of managing an allowance as well.

They’ve maybe focused on the new (if not so shiny) and it’s going to mean having trouble keeping up with the basic expenses.

Of course, if I misspent my allowance or paychecks from my first job, it meant not being able to drive my car. As much of a bummer as that was, it’s paling in comparison to watching my friends and colleagues fear for their jobs.

See, when I screwed up, it really only inconvenienced me. I wasn’t responsible for the livelihood of thousands of people. It’s a good thing too, I was only a kid. What did I know?

In those times of screw up with my money and they were at their wits’ end, my parents would tease me they were going to put me up for adoption.

I wonder if anyone will get grounded.

I wonder if anyone will be willing to adopt an entire school district.

One of the moments we talk about

The Gist:

  • The federal budget has eliminated direct funding for the National Writing Project.
  • Without the funding, it’s unlikely this national model of a successful networked collective of professional development can survive.
  • This is one of those moments when the network we talk about so frequently can make the difference we’re always claiming it can make.

The Whole Story:

If you haven’t written your congresspeople to support the National Writing Project, you need to.

My last post focused on the letter I’ve used to contact my congressmen. Thanks to Karl and Ben for reposting. Also, if you haven’t read Bud’s letter, you should.

I need to make clear, that, aside from being able to speak at NWP’s Digital is… conference in the fall, I’m not directly associated with the Project.

I simply realize it to be a good idea. A really good idea with a proven record, a tendency toward self-evaluation and networking hundreds of thousands of teachers together with a simple purpose.

It’s one of those few black and white moments in policy. The NWP works. It works better than any other national education program that comes to mind.

So, here’s the thing, this is one of those moments we talk about when we talk about the power of network, when we stand and tell rooms full of teachers about how being connected means our students have greater voice and greater power as citizens. It strikes me this is one of those moments we’re talking about.

Only, it’s not our students, it’s us. Yes, it’s about our students, as they are the ones the NWP is impacting. But the voices that should be raised first and loudest in this moment are the voices of teachers.

My voice right now is one of questions. Specifically, I’m with Bud in asking to see the reasoning behind cutting the funding and how that reasoning stands up to the substantial evidence that the NWP is doing exactly what it is meant to do and what no singular state-based program could accomplish. I hope to receive response soon.

Honestly, though, the likelihood of response is increased with each additional voice.

Speak up.

Ask your representative to sign Rep. George Miller’s Dear Colleague letter. Call your local NWP affiliate to see what you can do to help. Most importantly, make this a conversation where you live, in your virtual and real spaces.

Again, this isn’t national standards or RTTT or any of the myriad issues with equally numerous and complex perspectives.

NWP works.

Tell people.

Make sure one of them is your Representative.

Open letter on behalf of the NWP

The Gist:

  • The current draft of the federal budget cuts direct funding for the National Writing Project.
  • The NWP has been one of the few extremely successful examples of a nationally-networked effort to improve K-12 writing for 36 years.
  • We must communicate with Congress to change the budget.

The Whole Story:

Dear Rep. Fattah, Sen. Casey and Sen. Specter:

I write to you on behalf of the National Writing Project. More precisely, I write to you on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of students and teachers the program has transformed over its 36 years.

Under the budget proposed by President Obama, national funding for the NWP would be cut. In a Feb. 1 press release from the U.S. Department of Education, the NWP was lumped in with 5 other projects losing funding because the DOE claims they “duplicate local or state programs or have not had a significant measurable impact.”

As the NWP is unique as a networked writing instruction program with 200+ local sites serving all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, I am left to believe Sec. Duncan is claiming the NWP falls under the category of not having a “significant measurable impact.”

This too is untrue.

A 1987 longitudinal study on the effects of the NWP by Kathy Krendl and Julie Dodd found participating third through twelfth graders showed an increase “in interest in learning about writing, in their level of confidence, and in their association of self-esteen with good writing.

Not only that, the study also found a decrease “in students’ feelings of discomfort about completing writing assignments and in their feelings that they do not write well and that writing is difficult.”

In a 2007 study of the NWP’s Local Site Research Initiative, across nine localities students showed significant or non-significant favorable results in all seven categories.

This should not have been surprising considering the DOE’s own data listed the NWP as exceeding its performance targets in 2001. Indeed participants’ ratings across all categories ranged from 95-88 percent reporting positive impact at their follow-up assessment of the program. This went well above the program’s target of 75 percent in each category.

Were this simply an impassioned plea, I would have hesitated to write. The data speaks for itself, the National Writing Project has offered a significant return on investment in its 36 year history. Federal funding for the NWP must be maintained if we are to continue striving to meet the Project’s goal of “a future where every person is an accomplished writer, engaged learner, and active participant in a digital, interconnected world.”

I thank your for your time and attention to this matter. Please, let me know if I can be of any assistance.


Zachary Chase

English Teacher

Science Leadership Academy

Philadelphia, PA

(Note: See also Bud Hunt’s post on this topic.)