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Education Secretary Meddles in Middle East Studies

It’s Betsy’s world and scholars just live in it.




Betsy DeVos photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Your DeVosian/Paleozoic outrage of the week: In a move widely condemned as an assault on university academic freedom, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos last week threatened to withhold Title VI monies from Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill unless the schools redirect the “ideological priorities” of their Middle East studies program — which includes college recruitment courses aimed at students in Arab countries — from promoting “the positive aspects of Islam” to doing the same for Christianity and Judaism. The threat, made in an August 29 letter, ordered the Duke–UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies to revise its courses by September 22 or risk losing future funding from the National Resource Centers program, which provides grants “to establish, strengthen, and operate language and area or international studies centers.” UNC responded last Friday in a letter that disputed the bias accusations and defended the Middle East studies program, saying it has been a leader in Middle Eastern language studies for years.

Learning Curves” is a weekly roundup of news items, profiles and dish about the intersection of education and inequality. Send tips, feedback and announcements of upcoming events to, @BillRaden.

It’s the poverty, stupid. Ed researchers rarely talk about school-punishing performance accountability plans like the California Charter Schools Association’s School Performance Framework scheme without also raising two inconvenient truths about California’s highly class- and race-segregated schools: The first is how much it costs in the real world to give all California kids the kind of learning opportunities that the parents and grandparents of white Californians enjoyed in the 1960s and ‘70s; the second is the fact that Golden State achievement gaps between black, Hispanic and white students are “completely accounted for” by the poverty level of students in a school. A 2018 study by Stanford University and Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) calculated the state would need to raise K-12 spending by 38 percent — or $25.6 billion — to give kids the adequate resources and support needed to reach the academic goals set by the State Board of Education. And this week, a research team led by Stanford Graduate School of Education’s Sean Reardon published new findings, which reiterate that racial differences in school poverty and the way California concentrates black and brown students explain why richer schools are, on average, more effective than poorer schools. Reardon & Co.’s takeaway? The more segregated the school district, the more likely that white-concentrated schools will have more experienced teachers and more gifted and talented programs.

Ever since University of California President Janet Napolitano’s September 18 retirement announcement, state political leaders have lavished her leadership of the nation’s preeminent public research university system with valentines. Napolitano, of course, was an experienced public administrator who became the first woman to lead the system in its 150-year history. But to her many critics, she was also a non-academic whose tenure has hardly improved the UC’s finest hours when it comes to access, degree capacity and diversity, or to maintaining the UC as a democratizing force in the California economy. Which is why the week’s best Napolitano postmortem may be the cautionary post by UC Santa Barbara American studies professor Christopher Newfield on the Remaking the University blog he writes with UCLA history professor Michael Meranze. Coincidentally coming out on the day of Napolitano’s announcement, Newfield zeroes in on the president’s recent commitment to increase UC degree production by 200,000 additional diplomas by 2030 for a total of 1.2 million. But for a university that, under Napolitano, has already suffered undergraduate overcrowding, Newfield warns that promising a 20 percent degree increase without securing the attendant needed resources is a recipe for transforming the UC into a degree mill.

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