My Panel Discussion at the Clinton Global Initiative University

Last weekend, I spoke on a panel on higher education at the Clinton Global Initiative University meeting, which was held at Arizona State University.

Secretary Hillary Clinton gave some opening remarks. I was joined by Bunker Roy, Founder and Director of the Barefoot College; Reeta Roy, President and Chief Executive Officer of the MasterCard Foundation; and Austin Obasohan, Duplin County Schools Superintendent.

Here’s the video of our conversation:

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MSNBC Appearance on Student Loan Debt Crisis

On Saturday, I appeared on MSNBC to discuss the student loan debt crisis and why I’m not immediately going to college. Thanks for watching.

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The Nation Magazine: Why I Opted Out of APPR

This piece originally appeared in The Nation Magazine: Why I Opted Out of APPR

In February 2012, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, after a lengthy feud with the state teachers’ union, came to an agreement over a comprehensive teacher evaluation system for the state. The arrangement was made so that New York State would be eligible to receive $700 million of Race to the Top funds, a national sweepstakes spearheaded by President Obama that allocated monies to states that adopted his education policies.

Under the new system known as the Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR), 40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation would be based on standardized test scores, while the remaining 60 percent would be based on subjective measurements, like classroom observations and student surveys. Then, teachers would be sorted into four categories: ineffective, developing, effective or highly effective.

However, there’s one catch. In the bill, it states: “The new rating system would prohibit a teacher or principal who is rated ineffective in the objective measures of student growth from receiving a developing score overall.” In other words, if a teacher is unable to raise their students’ test scores for two consecutive years, even if he or she is deemed highly effective on the subjective measures, the teacher could be fired.

I recently graduated from Syosset High School. My district’s APPR plan was approved at the beginning of this school year. A month later, the Student Learning Objective (SLO) exams were unleashed on all the students in my school in every subject, including art, music, and physical education. Yes, in gym class, multiple choice exams with colorful green Scantrons were doled out. I wish I were kidding.

Teachers would administer the same exam at the beginning and at the end of the year. By means of value-added measurements and an obtuse formula, the teachers’ effectiveness would be determined. Moreover, in New York general state aid for schools is now tied to teacher evaluation, which puts further strain on the most impoverished communities in our state.

I cannot begin to describe some of the conversations I’ve had with educators, many of whom are veterans with decades of experience in this profession, who are feeling humiliated, demoralized and beaten down by this process.

I didn’t want anything to do with the tests, so I opted out of every single SLO exam. Each time, I put my name on the test booklet and Scantron and then handed the blank items back to my teacher. There were no consequences.

At the same time, a groundswell of opposition was growing. Two principals, Sean Feeney of the Wheatley School and Carol Burrris of South Side High School, took the lead and drafted a letter protesting the evaluation system. As of January 2013, 1,535 principals as well as 6,500 parents, educators, and students have signed onto the document.

If there’s one thing that is absolutely clear to me, it’s that Governor Andrew Cuomo has ignored the voices of students, teachers, principals, and parents who have grave concerns about the evaluations. He is frankly telling millions of students and teachers that their value is no more than a number in a spreadsheet.

What he’s forgotten is that evaluation is best done when the purpose is not to punish and reward teachers but to lend them support, to foster collaboration, to encourage self-evaluation, and to allow for rich and lengthy observations by principals and fellow colleagues.

So Governor Cuomo, tell it how it is. You can fire my teachers. You can close down my school. You can break up my community. You can kill the love of learning in children. But don’t tell me that it’s because you want the best for me. I’m not a stupid little kid. Do you hear me?


GOOD Education: Students Need More Than Michelle Rhee’s Education Reforms

This originally appeared on GOOD Education: Students Need More Than Michelle Rhee’s Education Reforms.

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“Principals were scared to death. If their test scores did not go up, they would be fired.” 

That was perhaps one of the most disturbing lines of Frontline’s “The Education of Michelle Rhee,” which aired Tuesday night on PBS. As chancellor of D.C. public schools, Rhee created an environment that to put it mildly, was hostile towards hundreds of educators. In the search for innovative ways to reform public education, America’s students need more than what Rhee is offering.

Rhee created an uncanny obsession over test scores, and thus massive cheating and manipulation emerged. Campbell’s Law, a statement created by the notable social scientist Donald T. Campbell, fits well here: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures, and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”

In one class, according to USA Today, statisticians said that the “odds are better for winning the Powerball grand prize than having that many erasures by chance.” Plenty of cases of teachers erasing and correcting test booklets after school hours were reported, but, not surprisingly,never actually investigated

In her first year alone, Rhee closed 23 schools. A recent report found that these careless actions cost the city $40 million alone. Let’s fix schools, not close them. Instead of making education some kind of competition like Race to the Top has done, schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods—often the ones who are labeled “failing”—ought to be provided with extra funds to hire the best and brightest teachers or implement breakfast programs. Are we forgetting about Title I? 

In her three and a half year tenure, Rhee also fired roughly 1,000 educators, because many of them faired poorly in the IMPACT teacher evaluation system. There is an massive body of evidence that demonstrates that these value-added measures are inaccurate and misleading. One commentator wrote that “the odds of this system are more akin to flipping a coin.” It’s time to acknowledge that test scores are not a correct indicator in determining quality teachers. If students are producing work that is worth time and effort and has lasting value to their lives, then he or she is a great teacher. 

As Daniel Stufflebeam says, “The purpose of evaluation is to improve, not to prove.” Of course, every profession has their fair share of bad apples. Instead of threatening teachers, we should be giving more professional development and assistance to those struggling. If it comes to a point where the teacher simply cannot teach or is not willing to do so, then it would be sensible to fire him or her. But again, these are very rare circumstances.

School closings and teacher layoffs have had a tremendous effect on the lives of students across the nation. For many students in these communities, school is their only safe and secure place for a few hours each day. Dislocating them from their neighborhood schools into charters and privately managed ones not hurts them, but also derails the foundation of public education. 

What Rhee and so many policymakers don’t understand is that the goal of education is not to garner high test scores, but to cultivate lifelong learners and active citizens in our democracy. As a high school student and author, I want to be taught how to think and create and explore. I’m not a number in a spreadsheet; I’m a creative and motivated human being. I want my teachers to be paid well, given autonomy, and treated like professionals. I want my school to be adequately funded. Is that too much to ask? 

Let’s not forget to mention that Rhee’s ethical behavior and style of governing is a serious sign for concern. When she was working in Baltimore as part of Teach for America, she revealed that she once taped the mouths of her students shut because they were acting rowdy. As a result, according to Rhee, skin was peeling off of their lips. They were bleeding. And thirty-five children were crying. Are you serious? Any sane human being would agree that that incident is grounds for dismissal. 

Similarly, in her reign as chancellor, Rhee figuratively duct-taped the mouths of students and teachers shut. The last thing policymakers can do is ignore the stakeholders—the people who are in the classroom day in and day out: students and teachers. Once you purposely avoid and fail to value their input, you become a Machiavellian-like figure. Rhee fits that description with ease. When John Merrow called people for sources, he said “the number of people who said ‘no comment’ or hung up…was unbelievable”—a record number for his career.  

Currently, Rhee is running StudentsFirst, or as some like to say “StudentsLast,” because there don’t seem to be any K-12 students involved in the decision making process. By leaving her position as chancellor and not facing up to the cheating allegations, Rhee floated above the fray and walked away taller. I ask: Where’s the public outrage? Any journalist who lets Rhee slide without addressing this scandal is contributing to this high-stakes testing epidemic. 

Our students deserve more than this. I say call out her bluff and don’t drink the corporate reform Kool-Aid.


GOOD Education: Best of 2012: The Five Most Extraordinary Things to Happen in Education

This piece originally appeared on GOOD: Best of 2012: The Five Most Extraordinary Things to Happen in Education

eoynikhilIt’s been quite an incredible year in the education space. While we’ve witnessed a surge in the number of politicians with no education experience make decisions on how schools should run and a wider adoption of nonsensical ideas like the “flipped classroom” and value-added teacher evaluations, there have been some memorable, equation-changing events and initiatives that have emerged.

So, let’s highlight five of the most extraordinary things that happened in education in 2012:

1. The Students Speak Out: Students around the nation have seized the national microphone and have begun articulating their voices in education. With hundreds of student protests documented, young people are no longer willing to sit idly on the sidelines. In September, I published my first book on revolutionizing education from a student’s perspective. Earlier this month, Stephanie Rivera and few other college students launched Students United for Public Education in an effort to stop the takeover of public education in America. The group even had a protest.

And this past summer, Zak Malamed founded the StuVoice movement, corralling student leaders onto one platform, giving spotlight to their voices, and making some dents in education policy. For one, Malamed, Matthew Resnick, Joshua Lafazan, myself, and a few other students signed a letter to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo demanding that students be added onto the New York State Education Reform Commission. With the power of social media, we will not stop petitioning, marching, protesting, and rallying until our voices are heard and represented. As educator Diane Ravitch once said, “When the students awaken, the national conversation will change.”

2. Alternatives to Higher Education: One in two college graduates are unemployed or underemployed. Student loan debt has sprinted past one trillion dollars. As of 2010, nearly one in five American households have student loan debt of over $26,000. As former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich told the Class of 2012, “You’re f**ked.” I predict that over the next decade, a majority of parents will finally get some sense knocked into them in standing with the axiom that not every child should go to college.

As someone who constantly questions the ivory tower of higher education, there are alternatives to the four-year college degree springing up left and right. For example, 2012 was the second year of the Thiel Fellowship, a two-year program that offers $100,000 to 20 people under 20 years of age (Full disclosure: I was a semi-finalist last year). The catch? Fellows have to stop out of school for two years. Applications for the 2013 class are due shortly.

In addition, a few months ago, I wrote about a new nonprofit called E[nstitute]. It is a tuition-free—including housing—two-year apprenticeship program that “provides an alternative path to traditional post-secondary education.” The 15 fellows have been working under entrepreneurs for the past few months. The application period for next year’s class is now open. Apprenticeship opportunities have expanded to digital media and advertising companies as well as nonprofit and social good organizations.

3. Caine’s Arcade: You’ve probably heard of this 9-year-old boy from Los Angeles, Caine Monroy. Over his summer vacation in 2011, with his bubbling and bursting imagination, he created a makeshift arcade in his father’s auto-parts shop over summer vacation. His father, George Monroy, gave him all the cardboard, tape, markers, and scissors a boy could ever need or dream of. Remember, this was summer vacation. Unlike most kids, Caine didn’t have sleep-away camp, music lessons, tutors, or any kind of “acceleration” activities. His father gave him the best gift of all — unstructured free time. After 280 hours and a professional video documenting his efforts, Caine Monroy has transformed into a viral sensation, with millions of YouTube hits. And he did it without listening to lectures, reading textbooks, or filling in Scantrons.

Would you look at that?

Forbes magazine believes Caine will be a billionaire in the next 30 years. I wouldn’t bet a dime against him. Albert Einstein’s saying is fitting: “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.”

4. Chicago Teachers Strike: In September, the world witnessed thousands of Chicago teachers taking to the picket lines for the first time in a quarter of a century. The point of the strike was to stop the corporate reform takeover—mayoral, not local control, closing schools and turning them over to charter corporations, evaluation of students and teachers with test scores, and weakening teachers unions. Teacher bashing is a popular campaign around the country. But the blame game must end.

I was reminded of the struggle in the aftermath of the tragic Sandy Hook elementary school shootings where the media lauded the teachers as heroes. I read a tweet that went like this: “Those who bash teachers, remember they are the ones who will literally take a bullet for your child.” I’m looking at you Mayor Emanuel, Eli Broad, Michelle Rhee, and Michael Bloomberg. How dare you disrespect our “nation builders?”

5. Massively Open Online CoursesMOOCs: Journalists are calling MOOCS “a revolution.” I chuckle. How ignorant can someone be about education if they think hearing lectures from talking heads, taking quizzes and tests, and writing essays are a revolution? I’m not impressed. In an interview, educator Roger Schank calls MOOCS a “joke.” Moshe Y. Vardi writes, “If I had my wish, I would wave a wand and make MOOCs disappear.” Me too. One headline of a blog post is: “We can do better than lecture videos.”

Let’s bring learning back to the learners. Why are we disregarding the brilliant work of progressive educators like John Dewey, Maria Montessori, Jean Piaget, and Paulo Freire? We need to allow students to craft their own learning experiences through projects, apprenticeships, and hands-on engagement. In Anya Kamenetz’s book DIY U, she argues that the DIY thinking reverts us back to the “basics—the universitas (guild) and the collegium (community). People everywhere will have a greater ability to create their own learning communities and experiences within and outside institutions.” My advice: Let’s get over the fads and understand that learning is best done through doing, creating, and exploring.

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We’re at the cusp of a learning revolution. Seth Godin writes in his new book The Icarus Deception, “When those who love you speak of a life well lived, we’ll talk about the lines you managed to color outside of, the people you touched, and the ruckus you made. Most of all, we’ll remember how you took a chance and connected with us.” Those words should guide us as we travel into the new year—another opportunity to “put a ding in the universe.” Let’s go make some chaos in education.


Why Nate Silver Can Save Math Education in America | NPR MindShift

This piece originally appeared in NPR MindShift: Why Nate Silver Can Save Math Education in America

 
Call it “The Triumph of Nerds.” Poll statisticians have risen to rock star status. One of the most famous is New York Times’ wunderkind Nate Silver — or as Jon Stewart put it, “Lord and god of the algorithm.” He may be best known for predicting the 44th president, but Silver could be the one man who can save mathematics education in America.

Silver, who first gained notoriety for forecasting the performance of Major League Baseball players and for correctly predicted the winner of 49 of 50 states in the 2008 election, can save the tattered reputation of math subjects.

For students across the country, there’s clearly an engagement deficit in the subject. Paul Lockhart, a math teacher in New York, writes in A Mathematician’s Lament [PDF] that if he had to design a system for the express purpose of destroying a child’s natural curiosity and love of pattern-making, he couldn’t possible do a better job than is currently being done. He explains that he simply wouldn’t have the “imagination to come up with the kind of senseless, soul-crushing ideas that constitute contemporary mathematics education.” 

Across the land, kids hate math. You can hear it in their constant groans and see it in their deranged faces. They ask their teachers, “When am I ever going to use this in life?” On most occasions, they never will. Even President Obama agrees. He recently said on the Tonight Show, “The math stuff I was fine with until seventh grade. Malia is now a freshmen in high school and I’m pretty lost. It’s tough.” And no wonder — the system is suffering from a tragic case of nostalgia. The origins of the current curriculum draw back to 1892 when the Committee of Ten hashed out a standard curriculum, which would eventually be adopted almost unanimously by schools.

To read the rest of the piece, please follow the link.  

Photo courtesy of Ian Hill/Thinkstock/Penguin


The Globe and Mail: Schools need to create human beings and citizens who are empathetic

The piece originally appeared in The Globe and Mail: Schools need to create human beings and citizens who are empathetic

One of Adam Lanza’s high school friends said he was “probably a genius.” Another student recalled him as “a very bright kid.” And he was said to have corrected students’ Latin homework when he was 14 years old.

Concurrently, Mr. Lanza was a fish out of water, a misfit, an oddball. He had tremendous difficulty relating to his classmates, was labelled as stiff, shy and dysfunctional.

As investigators scramble to piece together a profile of the man who mowed down 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in the sleepy town of Newtown, Conn., and uncover the reasoning that led him to do it, many are wondering what could have been done to prevent him.

While most of American is jostling over issues like gun control, improving mental health care, and reducing violence in media, we’re missing an indispensable element – why schools need to create human beings and citizens who are empathetic. Empathy is the ability to identify and understand the feelings and conditions of another person. Or as Jeremy Rifkin, author of The Empathic Civilization, puts it, “Empathy is the social glue that allows increasingly individualized and diverse populations to forge bonds of solidarity across broader domains so that society can cohere as a whole. To empathize is to civilize.”

In his book The Age of Empathy, primatologist Frans de Waal argues that empathy has three layers. The first is emotional contagion, where people are hit by a flood of emotions during a climactic event. The second layer is feeling for others. We do this through “body-mapping” – trying to “recreate what we have seen others do.” And the third layer is “targeted helping” – where people attempt to ease their emotions through altruism.

Today, there is a dearth of empathy in young people. After analyzing data among almost 14,000 college students over the last 30 years, a University of Michigan study two years ago concluded that college students are 40 per cent less empathetic than their counterparts in 1979. Indeed, the most significant drop has been in the past decade. What’s more, cases of bullying and suicides are climbing at an alarming pace. That means empathy education is needed more than ever before. There is a growing consensus among neuroscientists, psychologists and educators that bullying and other kinds of violence can be reduced by encouraging empathy at an early age.

Primarily, children need to learn how to control and understand their feelings and emotions. We need to place children in capacities to practice and model empathy for themselves. Learning how to step into someone else’s shoes is hard, but without the personal immersion in the process, the experience will be a complete waste.

One program that is devoting itself to this is Roots of Empathy, started by Canadian educator Mary Gordon that has now reached more than 325,000 children in 10 countries in their 16-year legacy. A baby and its mother or father visit a school classroom 27 times during the course of the year. The curriculum is divided into nine themes, with three visits supporting each theme (a pre-family visit, family visit, and post-family visit). Students are asked to carefully observe the interactions that occur between the child and parent as well as their mood, and over time slowly become attached to them. In the process, they are learning emotional literacy, a term Ms. Gordon defines as “the ability to find our humanity in one another.” Later, the students express what they have learned in other subjects.

It’s remarkable to see how babies remake these kids. In a wonderful piece for the New York Times, after observing Roots of Empathy classrooms, David Bornstein writes, “Around babies, tough kids smile, disruptive kids focus, shy kids open up.” After conducting controlled studies specifically pinpointing “proactive aggressive students” – your playground bullies – Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia, found that 88 per cent of these children decreased this form of behaviour over the school year compared with the control group where only 9 per cent did.

Roots of Empathy is typically for schoolchildren from kindergarten to eighth grade. I can’t see a reason why this program can’t be implemented in high schools around the world. Even the most bruised and battered students will succumb to the power of a baby.

Ms. Gordon often says, “Empathy can’t be taught, but it can be caught.”

Could a program like Roots of Empathy have ultimately prevented Adam Lanza from mowing down innocent children and adults on a December morning? We will never know. But what we do know is that if we spawn an empathetic society, if we lend our hearts and souls to those who are hurting inside, and if we bring lonely and ignored people into our circles of friendship, then the number of families who lose a loved one from an act of violence or bullying will be largely extinguished.


USA TODAY: More students thinking twice about the value of college degrees

Today, I was quoted heavily in a USA TODAY column: More students thinking twice about the value of college degrees. It also features the work of Michael Ellsberg and Dale Stephens.

It outlines my thoughts on college and the underlying problem in public education fairly well:

Nikhil Goyal, a 17-year-old high school student, speaker and author of One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student’s Assessment of School, argues that while doctors, lawyers and engineers should go to college, those with a desire to major in the liberal arts should think twice about attending. Seminars, online communities and classes, forums and freelancing could replace it.

“I don’t believe there’s anything in a liberal arts course that you can’t find in the library or on the Internet, except for the discussion aspect,” Goyal said. “However, there are seminars and online groups, very cheap and accessible, by which you can fill that discussion facet.”

If students have the opportunity to go to Ivy League schools, however, they should still attend for the opportunities that being associated with that brand name will reap, Goyal argues.

“If you have an opportunity to go to those universities, you should,” he said. “While the likelihood that you will have real-world experiences and engage in meaningful work is slim, having that degree and that stamp of approval can make a significant difference later in life.”

“What I’ve noticed when I’ve spoken with employers is that their perceptions toward prestigious degrees and just college degrees in general are really declining in the sense that they are taking people who have real-world experience, who have apprenticeships and internships under their belt, who can actually solve problems and do real work versus somebody who just has a 4.0 GPA, who went to Harvard and got a degree,” Goyal said.

Goyal said the public education system has been indoctrinated with the idea that the purpose of school is to create obedient and submissive people, an idea brought to the United States with the birth of public education.

“We can’t treat children like factory workers and people who are just going to memorize and regurgitate information,” he said. “We have to shift that mindset to understanding that learning is messy, learning does not necessarily happen in an academic and formal setting.”

Cheers,

Nikhil


MSNBC: Where American Education Went Wrong

This piece originally appeared on MSNBC: Where American Education Went Wrong.

Historian Vincent Harding quoted a West African poet and said, “I am a citizen of a country that does not yet exist.” He went on to assert that this is a country that we still must create—a country “that cares about itself and about the world, that cares about what the earth needs as well as what individual people need.”

Harding hit the nail on the head.

Creating a country starts in our schools.
Our current learning culture is stale and reeking of industrialism. We educate children like they are blank slates and passive vessels. We pry out their talents and gifts until there are none left. And we cage them up like livestock for at least twelve years of their lives. And then we throw them into the scary and uncomfortable world of the unknown.

As a society, we aren’t realizing the true purpose of school—becoming lifelong learners and active, engaged citizens in democracy. Conformity and sticking in your shell is no longer the shortcut to success. What separates the best from the average in the world is grit, uniqueness, drive, and resilience.

Is it an accident that learning environments are contrary to the natural process of learning? Absolutely not.

One of the purposes for building a public school system a century ago was to ensure that millions of children weren’t roaming the streets and causing mayhem. School was there to civilize them into meek members of the population. It has worked perfectly, even to this date.

What’s more, the very dogmas that guide our schools go awry when stood up against the principles of basic cognition. Human beings learn best by doing and experience, not by ingesting and swallowing facts and figures. Look at young children: They laugh, they cry, they sing, they dance.

Suddenly, at age five, it’s as if they get arrested and thrown into an Alcatraz-like system called formal schooling. Most unstructured play vanishes. Days of freewheeling laughter, exploring, and creating get replaced by bubble filling content. What industrial-age institutions are engaging in is a crime, one that continues to cheat generations.

For all the chit-chat on education reform, very few are asking the question: What is the purpose of school? Ask yourself that. And then define what is “good” education. I suspect that far too many people will say that the end result should be high grades and test scores and prestigious college acceptance letters. That would confirm that in school, curiosity, happiness, and creativity are second-string and that America has lost its way. We need to recognize the fruits of American ingenuity.

That’s why we are desperately craving for a learning renaissance where the old order of education is shattered and institutions adapt and reinvent or go extinct. Public education may be the only institution that has largely remained the same as it was a century ago.

Imagine if we transformed schools into French salons of the 17th century, social engines, and public spaces for tinkering, hacking, and disrupting. Imagine if everyone in the community engaged with one another and the barriers that divide us came crashing down. Imagine if kids love going to school each and every day. A transformation on this scale entails setting people free to “unlock the code of their souls.”

Is this even possible? It is if we’re committed to shifting our industrial gears into a disruptive mindset and diverting trillions of dollars that we frivolously spend on standardized testing and “Race to the Top” circuses into making these radical changes a reality.

As Doug Thomas and John Seely Brown write in their book, A New Culture of Learning, “The goal is for each of us to take the world in and make it part of ourselves. In doing so, it turns out, we can re-create it.”

It takes a village to raise a lifelong learner. If we follow the lead of schools which treat children like artists, creators, and empathizers, then we are on the stepping stones to creating a truly United States of America.

Nikhil Goyal is the author of “One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student’s Assessment of School.” Goyal, 17, is also a student at Syosset High School in New York.


GOOD Education: Kicker: New Media Startup Fights Back Against the Dumbing Down of America

This piece originally appeared on GOOD Education: Kicker: New Media Startup Fights Back Against the Dumbing Down of America.

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Who is Osama bin Laden? Is he famous? Is he in a band as well? And why should I care? These were all questions that teenagers tweeted in May 2011 on the night President Obama announced that U.S. special operations forces killed Osama Bin Laden. Data released by Yahoo! concluded that two thirds of the people who searched “Who is Osama bin Laden?” that night were teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17 years old.

I’ll give these kids a break—many of them were very young during the September 11th attacks. Still, you would think that at some point in their many years of schooling that somebody would have mentioned and discussed the most wanted man in the world, his background, and why thousands of American servicemen and women are stationed in Afghanistan. With such a heavy focus on what’s tested—math and English—our public schools simply aren’t teaching civics and current events.

As a result, a 2007 Harvard University study determined that a majority of teens are ignorant about current affairs and do not read the newspaper. Moreover, a Pew Research Center survey found that people age 18 to 34-years-old are consistently less knowledgeable about current events than their elders. On a current events quiz, young adults averaged 5.9 correct answers out of 12 questions, fewer than the averages for Americans ages 35 to 49 and above age 50. Many of these teenagers are or will be voters in a short time. I don’t think there’s anything more frightening than this. 

Fortunately, a former New York Times editor is trying to upend the astonishing rise of ignorant Americans with her new startup, Kicker. Intended for people who are “turned off by traditional news media and want to “make a difference” and “get in the know easily,” founder Holly Ojalvo, a Brooklyn-based entrepreneur, hopes to disrupt the way teenagers engage with the fourth estate.

“A lot of news products aimed at high school and college students are designed as curriculum supplement,” says Ojalvo. “Some are alright, but it shouldn’t be the only way to engage young people for current events.” For teenagers, Ojalvo explains that news is overwhelming, confusing, irrelevant, and hopeless. “We want kids to feel smart, not stupid,” she says.

What Kicker does is make the news accessible, engaging, and actionable. There are only few news stories a day, expressing the highlights of major stories and writers use info graphics, tweets, maps, and quotes—”whatever tells the story best,” says Ojalvo. Perhaps, the most significant in the trio of elements of Kicker is that each story has a way for the reader to take action.

For instance, a recent piece on global warming suggested that young people can get involved by signing the Climate Reality Pledge, joining a virtual march, or a local 350.org group. As Ojalvo puts it, “When someone’s telling you a story, the kicker is the gist, the takeaway, the zinger. The kicker to any story we tell you is that you can start taking action. Right now. And we’ll point you in the right direction.”

For the future of Kicker, Ojalvo plans on experimenting with a few new features and will be collaborating with a Columbia University class on a digital strategy for the company and Brooklyn Law School, who is providing legal assistance.

To hammer away at the civics crisis in America where three quarters of high school seniors are unable to identify a power granted to Congress by the Constitution among other embarrassments, we should be turning to sites like Kicker.

It isn’t just teens who need more civics and current affairs education, either. Do you recall the recent Saturday Night Live skit mocking “undecided voters?” Undecided voters were invited to ask questions about the election. Questions included, “When is the election? What were the names of the two people running? Who is the president right now? Is he or she running?” While the skit was undoubtedly exaggerated, it’s based in reality: Ojalvo says that adults in their 40s and 50s are secretly emailing her that they need Kicker to understand what’s going on, too.

So to every American who fails to identify the President of the United States, unable to pass the citizenship test, or just wants to comprehend the cluttered national conversation, it would do you very well to spend a minutes a day on Kicker. Let’s mark the words of Adlai Stevenson: “As citizens of this democracy, you are the rulers and the ruled, the law-givers and the law-abiding, the beginning and the end.”

Teen raising hand photo via Shutterstock


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