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Rethink the News

Perspective matters.

Reducing news to hard lines and side-taking leaves a lot of the story untold. Progress comes from challenging what we hear and considering different views.

2017
July
20
Thursday

Why argue with a rise in good grades?

We learned this week that nearly half of US high-schoolers are graduating with not just an A here or there, but A averages. A new study finds that in 1998, some 38.9 percent of graduates hit that mark. In 2016, the figure rose to 47 percent.

But over the same period, SAT scores slipped. While not a perfect counterpoint, it suggests that something more than improved study habits is going on.

We’ve long known about grade inflation and its suggested culprits: the self-esteem movement, helicopter parents, entitled kids, lenient teachers, college pressures, even the Vietnam War (think draft deferments).

What may be less apparent are the costs. You’ll find a lot more of those A's in communities that are affluent and whiter, according to the study. Since GPAs still matter, that means low-income students and students of color may be at a disadvantage – widening the inequality divide.

But there’s another issue: When the brass ring becomes a quotidian credential, it diminishes genuine achievement and the requisite hard work. And as Gilbert and Sullivan put it in “The Gondoliers”: “When everyone is somebody, then no one’s anybody!”

1. Presidential persuasion: So far, the art eludes Trump

"Trump: The Art of the Deal" was the story of Donald Trump throughout the 1980s and '90s. But the president has struggled to carry it into the Washington context. 

Amelia
 

The 30 Sec. ReadOne of the most important powers of the US presidency is its power to persuade. But so far President Trump is far from becoming America’s persuader in chief. Take the Senate health-care bill: Mr. Trump did little to push for the legislation until it teetered on the edge of extinction. He’s seemed uninterested in its details, to the discouragement of some of the bill’s senatorial supporters. In recent days he’s thrown himself into lobbying for a health-care “win,” but his message has veered in a number of directions, and hasn’t appeared to take into account the cross-pressures senators are feeling from their particular constituencies. And then Trump gave The New York Times an explosive interview that sucked attention away from the bill at a critical point. The irony is that the image Trump has long sold – the guy who gets everybody in the room to “yes” – might be somebody America could really use at the moment. But instead Trump seems more like a late second-term president, says one expert – lurching along while the clock ticks down for his legislative agenda.

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1. Presidential persuasion: So far, the art eludes Trump

One of the most important powers of the US presidency is its power to persuade. But after six months in office, President Trump is far from becoming America’s Persuader-in-Chief.

That’s one of the lessons – so far – of the Senate’s struggle to pass health-care legislation. Until this week Mr. Trump has been largely uninvolved in twisting arms and bending ears in an effort to win passage of the bill. He’s seemed uninterested in or unaware of its details, to the discouragement of some of the effort’s senatorial supporters.

In recent days Trump has thrown himself into lobbying for a health-care “win,” but his message has at times contradicted itself, while the bill teeters on the edge of extinction. He’s publicly tweaked some GOP lawmakers without appearing to acknowledge the cross-pressures they’re feeling from their particular constituencies. Oh, and he’s given The New York Times a long interview that’s producing major headlines, and major distraction.

The irony is that the image Trump has long sold – the dealmaker, the negotiator, and the guy who gets everybody in the room to “yes” – might be somebody America could really use at the moment. Past presidents, even recent ones, have been effective at the personal touches that bring bipartisan deals together. Some president could do that again, says one presidential expert.

“I think it is doable even in today’s polarized environment,” says Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.

Lawmakers frustrated with Trump’s approach

To a certain extent, Trump never really became involved in the health-care effort until recently. Health care, as the president has famously admitted, is complicated. The details may be boring, but they matter.

In the House, many members thought Trump didn’t fully understand the bill that squeaked through the chamber. They didn’t appreciate him calling the legislation “mean” in a meeting with senators at the White House dealing with how their effort on the subject might unfold.

“I never felt that the president has been very engaged on the details of the health-care bill. I think that makes it harder for him to affect the outcome,” says Rep. Charlie Dent (R) of Pennsylvania, co-chair of the moderate Tuesday Group of Republicans, who voted against the health-care bill when it was in the House.

Trump was caught off guard earlier this week when Sen. Mike Lee (R) of Utah and Sen. Jerry Moran (R) of Kansas came out against the legislation, killing it in its current form.

As Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky struggled to find a way forward, Trump threw himself fully into the fray, inviting all GOP senators to the White House and insisting that they just lock themselves in a room and work out a deal between the conservatives and moderates who are blocking the bill, each for their own reasons.

Many in the caucus endorsed Trump’s engagement. It was “very forceful and just exactly what the chief executive needs to do if you’re going to get this bill passed,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R) of Iowa on Thursday in a brief interview as he rounded a corner and headed for lunch.

But some lawmakers felt Trump continued to just insist on the necessity of passing the bill as a personal win, without even acknowledging that some senators, such as Sen. Dean Heller (R) of Nevada, are facing reelection in states where it is very unpopular.

His continued lack of understanding of the bill’s details is a problem – in speaking to senators, Trump wildly overestimated the projected effect of allowing the sale of health insurance across state lines, for instance.

Then there’s Trump’s New York Times interview, released Thursday, in which he harshly criticized his own attorney general and deputy attorney general and continued to rail against ongoing investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

“I don’t even pay any attention to what is going on with the administration because I don’t care. They’re a distraction. The family is a distraction, the president is a distraction,” Rep. Mike Simpson (R) of Idaho said to Politico on Wednesday.

The bully pulpit

To some extent, Trump is thus ceding a big part of one of his important powers: persuasion.

Presidential scholar Richard Neustadt, in his famous book “Presidential Power,” argued that the power to persuade is one of the chief executive’s greatest strengths. It is the bully pulpit, the ability to speak directly to lawmakers, the voters, the media, and foreign leaders.

In Trump’s case, so far that’s not working, says Barbara Perry of the Miller Center.

“At the six-month mark, I don’t see he even comprehends in the least his formal powers, as well as how to persuade,” she says.

With Congress, presidential persuasion can be a lengthy process where effort needs to be sustained.

Think of Lyndon B. Johnson, who worked the phones constantly, checking in with his allies on the Hill to see how the Civil Rights Act was progressing, then moving to woo such difficult-to-move lawmakers as Sen. Richard Russell, a conservative Democrat from Georgia and LBJ mentor, and Sen. Everett Dirksen, a prominent GOP moderate from Illinois.

Recent presidents have been good with the human touch, too, notes Professor Perry.

George W. Bush had Sen. Ted Kennedy and his family to the White House to see a newly released film about the Cuban Missile Crisis, “Thirteen Days.” Sen. Kennedy responded with a note that thanked the president for inviting him, and added that he hoped to return for “bill signings.”

The two did work closely to advance the “No Child Left Behind” education reform act.

George H. W. Bush was similarly deft as president. Bill Clinton was, too. There’s no partisan reason that couldn’t happen again, says Perry.

And with the legislative balance in Congress so close, particularly in the Senate, even one vote changed could make a difference.

That said, with health care looking doomed, it is becoming less and less likely that the Trump administration will be able to get anything resembling a broad legislative agenda through Congress, says Jeffrey Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Presidential time runs down quickly, he points out. History shows that the first year is the best to pass big bills, and that the ability to persuade anyone declines quickly thereafter, as first mid-term elections, then presidential reelection bids, loom.

For Trump, the first-term window is closing.

“He’s starting to look more and more like we expect a second-term president to look ... lurching from crisis to crisis [with little legislative progress]” says Engel.

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Overlooked

Stories you may have missed

2. For Arab regimes, Western spyware a tool to curb dissent

While everyone has been focused on Russian hacking, a lesser-noticed digital battle has been under way in the Middle East.

Amelia
 

The 30 Sec. ReadDoes rapid advancement of technology aid freedom, or suppress it? Seven years after the Arab Spring, activists are finding it’s a double-edged sword. Regimes across the Middle East are buying Western-made spyware to take down those who dare to demand democracy and human rights, often by infiltrating the same technologies that activists used to take down dictatorial regimes. In June, BBC Arabic revealed that Britain-based defense giant BAE used a Danish subsidiary to sell its Evident surveillance systems to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, Morocco, and Algeria. Evident allows users to decrypt messaging software previously thought to be impervious to such snooping. “People who are not publicly against the government, but who are silently supporting the cause are almost always the target,” says Bill Marczak of Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, which provides technical support for beleaguered activists. “The key is for people to be aware for how this happens and look for the signs.” Human rights activists have also pressured Western firms not to sell surveillance technology to autocratic regimes, but with little success so far.

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2. For Arab regimes, Western spyware a tool to curb dissent

For veteran observers in the Middle East, the revelation that the UAE may have hacked Qatar’s news agency, precipitating a diplomatic crisis, reads like the rejected plot for a spy novel. Yet for democracy and human rights activists across the Arab world, the scenario is all too familiar – and all too real.

Since the so-called Arab Spring erupted seven years ago, Arab governments and intelligence agencies have spent millions on spyware, malware, and hacking services, experts and analysts say, waging a digital battle against their own citizens.

Regimes are using spyware from Western companies to take down those who dare to demand democracy and human rights, often by infiltrating the same technologies that activists used to take down dictatorial regimes – such as Facebook and Skype. 

Arab activists in the Gulf and North Africa tell of receiving urgent text messages and emails from colleagues asking for information or setting up meetings – messages that their colleagues never typed – setting traps that would lead to meetings being busted, protests averted, and activists arrested.

The hacking industry … has become a very big, billion-dollar business, and these governments are doing what they have always done, using technology to keep track of their citizens,” says Fred Kaplan, author of “Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War.”

“On the one hand activists can talk to each other more and amass crowds like we saw in the Arab Spring,” he says. “But once communications are open, they are open both ways.” 

Response to protests

As protests erupted across the Arab world in 2011, several Arab governments opened million-dollar contracts with Western companies to provide surveillance and hacking solutions, according to experts and releases by WikiLeaks.

Milan-based Hacking Team has signed two different contracts in Egypt, three in Saudi Arabia, and one each in Bahrain, the UAE, and Oman, according to experts and WikiLeaks. 

In June, BBC Arabic revealed that UK-based defense giant BAE used a Danish subsidiary to sell its Evident surveillance systems to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Oman, Morocco, and Algeria. Evident allows users to monitor and track users at a national level and decrypt messaging software previously thought to be impervious to such snooping. 

Activists and experts say Arab regimes often go after high-profile opposition leaders, human rights activists, and lawyers. But they are not the intended target of such surveillance.

Arab intelligence services likely already have detailed files on such figures, compiled through traditional intelligence-gathering methods. What they are truly after, say experts, are activists’ personal contacts, chat history, and anything else that leads to lower-profile sympathizers. 

“People who are not publicly against the government, but who are silently supporting the cause, are almost always the target,” says Bill Marczak, senior research fellow at Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, which tracks governments’ cyberwarfare and provides technical support for beleaguered activists across the world.

“They can be tracked through personal email contacts, phone contacts, chats – that is the goal.”

‘Guns for hire’

As Arab governments’ technological capabilities are still nascent, they rely almost exclusively on spyware, phishing, and hacking services from Western companies described by tech experts as “guns for hire,” which are able to take advantage of legal loopholes to sell to authoritarian governments.

A sampling of cases from the past seven years reveals how vital Western firms’ tools have been to autocratic regimes – and how little success human rights activists have had in pressuring those firms not to sell their technology for such uses. 

Bahrain, which is embroiled in a bloody crackdown against its Shiite population and dissidents, has used spyware known as FinFisher. Targets would be sent emails with politically charged subject lines, and attachments purporting to contain information about the status of an arrested activist, or on the opposition, but in fact containing malicious spyware that would access activists’ devices and take all their contacts and data. Activists analyzing WikiLeaks-released conversations between Bahrain and Anglo-German firm Gamma Group, which sells FinFisher, matched the targets’ IP addresses with Bahraini activists in Britain.

The UAE used Israeli spyware to infect the iPhone of Emirati dissident Ahmed Mansoor, experts who tested his phone say, believing that the information gathered from his phone likely led to his rearrest by Emirati authorities this April. The spyware, sold by NSO Group, transmits all communications and location of the targeted iPhone, including communications on WhatsApp, Telegram, and Skype – encrypted messaging services favored by activists – along with iMessage, Gmail, Viber, and Facebook.

Egypt entered a 1 million euro ($1.16 million) contract with Milan-based Hacking Team for its Remote Controlled System, according to the UK-based civil liberties advocate Privacy International. Egypt has reportedly used RCS to monitor and hack not only Apple computers and iPhones, but pirated copies of Microsoft Windows – favored by an estimated 90 percent of computer users in Egypt.

According to Citizen Lab, a recent phishing campaign allegedly led by Egyptian authorities has targeted seven NGOs and several Egyptian lawyers, journalists and independent activists – all of whom have been named and implicated in the Case 173, the legal case brought by the Egyptian government against NGOs over foreign funding. 

Arab security officials from two different countries, who declined to be quoted, defended the purchase of surveillance system as an “essential tool in the fight against terrorism.” In order to bust sleeper cells and foil IS-inspired terror plots, they claim they need mass surveillance – a claim they reportedly use to justify the use of such tools to their Western allies. 

Human rights groups have tried to hold Western firms accountable. In 2014, Privacy International, acting on behalf of Bahraini activists residing in Britain, sent a criminal complaint against Gamma to the National Cyber Crime Unit of the British National Crime Agency.

However, to date no legal action has been taken against the firm, and despite pressure from human rights groups, experts claim companies such as Gamma and Hacking Team continue to sell their products to governments while distancing themselves from how their products are being used.

How activists have changed their methods

Egyptian activists say they now meet behind closed doors, leaving their mobiles and laptops behind. In the Gulf, human rights activists – who refused to allow their names or locations to be revealed due to security concerns – are forced to use “key words” and code to discuss any issue in the country.

Although they are unlikely to gain a technical edge over Western spyware for hire, experts say human rights activists recognize that the tactic behind all the diverse attacks: social engineering that makes the ultimate “click-bait.” And that is something that can be guarded against, to some extent.

“These messages are crafted to appeal to a person’s emotions and curiosity; they create a sense of urgency and tell users, ‘Click the link soon or there will be consequences,’” says Mr. Marczak.

“The key is for people to be aware for how this happens and look for the signs.”

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3. A shift in who’s getting summer jobs, and why it matters

A summer job in, say, a pizza joint doesn't strike a lot of high-schoolers as a path to a brighter future. But the lessons such work can teach are being rediscovered – even as the kids who need it the most struggle to find options.

Amelia
Hannah Waring (l.), a student at Loudoun Valley High School, and Abby McDonough, a student at Liberty University, work their summer jobs in the strawberry stand at Wegmeyer Farms in Hamilton, Va. Summer jobs are vanishing as US teens spend more time in school and face competition for entry-level positions from older workers.
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Carolyn Kaster/AP
 

The 30 Sec. ReadDespite a booming economy, summer jobs are in surprisingly short supply. The unemployment rate for teens is three times the national average. And where a majority of teens used to have summer work, now it’s only about 3 in 10 – partly because of alternative ways to burnish college résumés. But for disadvantaged teens, summer jobs can hold enormous benefits. New high school graduate Sherley Muscade found that working last summer at the Boston Planning and Development Agency helped pave the way for college. She describes being “treated as a co-worker rather than a lowly intern.” Researchers have linked summer jobs to better school attendance, reduced crime, and improved interpersonal skills for low-income high-schoolers, who also gain links to adults who can provide mentoring or job leads. “There’s nothing quite like being paid to work for someone,” says Neil Sullivan at Boston’s jobs program for low-income youths. He likens the decline in summer work to a labor-market earthquake, in which “teens fell through and nobody noticed.”

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3. A shift in who’s getting summer jobs, and why it matters

After her parents were deported to Haiti when she was eight, Sherley Muscade lived with a family friend in the United States and, eventually, her aunt. She shifted schools often. She babysat during the summers. And then last year, she had her best summer ever: a job at the  Boston Planning and Development Agency.

“I was absolutely meant to be there,” says Ms. Muscade, now a high school graduate. “I learned so much. At meetings, I was treated as a coworker rather than a lowly intern.”

She loved it so much she went back to work at the redevelopment agency this summer. And she's been accepted to enter Georgetown University this fall.

Muscade's experience is increasingly rare, however. At a time when most teens are busy burnishing their college résumés with unpaid internships, summer courses, and volunteer gigs, the onetime rite of passage – the summer job – has lost much of its luster. Two generations ago, a majority of teens worked in the summer; now it’s only about 3 in 10.

But for teens who need them, summer jobs are more important than ever even as they've become all too scarce. Recent research finds the work opportunities reduce crime and offer disadvantaged youths the experience and job connections that can help them in later years. 

“There's nothing quite like being paid to work for someone; I call it the habits of paid work,” says Neil Sullivan, executive director of the Boston Private Industry Council, which coordinates the city’s summer jobs program for disadvantaged youths. The decline in summer jobs, he says, represents "the collapse of America's workforce training system for teenagers…. It’s like an earthquake in the labor market, and teens fell through and nobody noticed.” 

The effect of a generation of twenty-somethings entering the workforce with little or no previous work experience is not yet known. Will they quickly pick up those basic job habits – being on time, dressing appropriately, treating customers with courtesy – that their parents learned early on waiting tables and manning shop counters?

“I worry most about the noncollege-bound kids,” says Alicia Sasser Modestino, a Northeastern University professor who has studied Boston’s summer employment program. “They're growing up in neighborhoods where there’s a lack of job opportunities.”

Despite a booming economy, summer jobs are in surprisingly short supply. The unemployment rate for 16- to 19-year-olds stood at 13.3 percent in June, three times the rate for the population as a whole.  

Sherley Muscade works at her summer job at the Boston Planning & Development Authority (BPDA) office at Boston City Hall last summer. She's doing the same work this summer, and wrote about her work in her successful application to attend Georgetown University in Washington.
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Courtesy of the Boston Bar Association

The problem is especially acute among teens from low-income families, according to the Center for Labor Markets and Policy at Drexel University in Philadelphia. Only 20 percent of teens from families earning less than $20,000 a year are likely to have summer jobs, compared with about 40 percent from families earning more than $100,000. 

Those disadvantaged young people who do get jobs – often through the help of big-city youth programs – can reap rewards that aren’t always obvious. There’s the income, of course. There's learning vital work habits and skills.

A summer job also provides a tangible pathway where teens can envision a future of employment, as well as links to adults who can provide guidance and job recommendations, professor Modestino says. Her surveys ask teens before and after their summer job whether they have a role model. “We find big improvements over the summer, especially for the males and particularly for the black and Hispanic males,” she says.

There are other benefits. Older high schoolers with poor attendance also spend more time in class after their summer jobs, according to a 2014 study of New York City’s program.

Summer jobs lower the crime rate – and not because they keep kids off the street. A 2014 study of disadvantaged high schoolers in Chicago found that a summer jobs program reduced violent crime arrests (among those who had the jobs) by 43 percent over 16 months. Most of the drop occurred after – not during – the eight-week jobs program. 

Modestino found a similar crime-reducing effect in Boston. One clue as to why: When asked what they had learned from the summer jobs program, more than 40 percent of the Boston youths “agreed strongly” that they had learned how to manage their emotions and temper, how to ask for help, and how to resolve peer conflicts constructively.

There are many factors behind the decline in teen jobs. Part of it involves losses of middle-class jobs, which have forced many adults to take the entry-level sales and service positions that teenagers used to hold. Seniors also are increasingly taking part-time jobs as a supplement to retirement income. Additionally, a major provider of those entry level positions is shrinking: department store jobs are down 28 percent from their peak in 2001.

Increasingly, too, teens are showing more interest in preparing for college than holding a job. They’re pursuing unpaid internships, doing volunteer work that might attract the attention of admissions officers, or studying during the summer. In 1985, 10 percent of teens were enrolled in school in July, the BLS found. Last year, the share had risen to 42 percent.

“It's become two separate worlds,” says Paul Harrington, director of the Center for Labor Markets and Policy at Drexel University in Philadelphia. “You have more kids who have never worked. They've never worked!... They don't know how to function in a job market.”

Then there’s Muscade, the high school graduate who worked at the Boston redevelopment agency. “I do think it helped,” she says of her work experience. “Now, my boss is my cheerleader.”

For her college application to Georgetown, she wrote about her work experience. “My aspiration,” she adds, “is to be an immigration lawyer.”

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4. Where high-schoolers need ‘a plan,’ or get no diploma

As we noted above, teens often struggle to see a path forward. But if they can get more help, the outcomes might be different – a hypothesis Chicago is about to test.

Amelia
 

The 30 Sec. ReadStarting in 2020, graduating seniors in Chicago will need evidence of a post-high-school plan – a job offer or acceptance to college, the military, a trade apprenticeship, a job program, or a gap year program – in order to receive a diploma. The approach, the first of its kind in a large district, is championed by Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Supporters say it is designed as a solution to low college enrollment and employment rates for recent graduates, and is in keeping with the city’s recent leadership on college and career initiatives. By requiring each student to have a plan in place, city officials say, the policy will raise the standard for students who may not find such motivation outside of school. But critics question whether Chicago Public Schools, a district afflicted with financial woes, has the resources to implement the new plan in a way that is truly beneficial. “I’m afraid that on paper, CPS is going to look good,” says Victor Ochoa, a high school guidance counselor. “But in the trenches, we’re going to know that we could have done so much better.”

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4. Where high-schoolers need ‘a plan,’ or get no diploma

As a guidance counselor at Chicago's Carl Schurz High School, Victor Ochoa wears many hats. 

Between sorting classes, tracking attendance, overseeing testing, and other assorted tasks, it can be difficult to find time to give each of the 400 students assigned to him the individual attention they deserve, Mr. Ochoa says. Now, as the city prepares to implement a controversial new graduation policy, he worries that some of his most vulnerable students may be even more likely to slip through the cracks. 

Starting in 2020, graduating seniors will need evidence of a postsecondary plan – whether a job offer or acceptance to college, the military, a trade apprenticeship, a job program, or a gap year program – in order to receive a diploma. The plan, the first of its kind in a large district, is being offered as a solution to low college enrollment and employment rates for recent graduates. By requiring each student to have a plan in place, city officials say, the policy will raise the standard for students who may not find such motivation outside of school.

But critics question whether Chicago Public Schools (CPS), a district afflicted with financial woes, has the resources to implement the new plan in a way that is truly beneficial. Ultimately, some argue, the requirements could end up being more harmful than helpful. 

"I’m afraid that on paper, CPS is going to look good," Ochoa says. "But in the trenches, we’re going to know that we could have done so much better."

A 'pre-K to college model' 

The new initiative, known as "Learn. Plan. Succeed," is part of a broader effort by the city to hold schools accountable for what students do post-graduation, according to Mayor Rahm Emanuel. 

"A K-12 model was relevant 10, 15, 20 years ago," said Mayor Emanuel at a press conference in April, when the plan was proposed. "The city of Chicago is moving towards a pre-K to college model." 

Over the past 10 years or so, the district has been a "national leader" in establishing college- and career-oriented initiatives, says Jenny Nagaoka, deputy director of the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research. Recent efforts include providing a data system to counselors to track students' progress in completing college applications and administering a senior exit survey asking about students' postsecondary plans. 

In other words, Dr. Nagaoka says, "while the graduation requirement may seem radical from the outside, it is building off of efforts the district has been doing to support and track students through the transition to post-high school for over a decade." 

Chicago's move toward a pre-K to college model reflects a growing school of thought nationwide that just getting kids across the graduation finish line isn't enough, observers say. As of 2015, 29 states and the District of Columbia had policies mandating Individual Learning Plans – personalized programs with the goal of preparing students for life after high school – or similar initiatives.

The trend has been driven both by "the realization that economic mobility is predicated on some postsecondary credential" and "widespread statistics showing low-income students ... not succeeding in postsecondary pathways," says Mandy Savitz-Romer, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Mass. 

"Today, we’ve arrived at a shared responsibility that [K-12 and postsecondary institutions] both need to do a better job," she says. "How schools go about doing that varies quite a lot." 

One more hurdle for struggling students?

Critics of Chicago's new initiative aren't optimistic that the graduation requirements will bring desired results. To truly level the playing field, they say, the district must address early roots of inequality, such as a lack of funding for early childhood education.  

"Chicagoans aren't asking for new graduation requirements," writes Ronnie Reese, spokesman for the Chicago Teachers Union, in an email. "They are asking for fully funded schools, an elected school board, transparent leadership and safe, well-resourced neighborhoods." 

Others express concern that the requirements could be not merely ineffective, but harmful. By requiring students to produce evidence of a college acceptance or job offer, some posit, the district is creating one more hurdle for students who already struggle to earn a diploma. Roughly 80 percent of CPS students come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. 

"There’s the question of: Will this have a disproportionate impact on vulnerable students?" says Sherman Dorn, director of the Division of Educational Leadership and Innovation at Arizona State University's Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. Most likely to be affected, he notes, are "students who do not have access to ... friends or neighbors or community mentors who say, 'This is how you apply to college,' or 'Here, I’ll help you apply to a job.' " 

A sense of discouragement could lead such students to drop out of high school or to commit to the military or other career programs out of desperation, other observers worry. 

Supporters of the plan, approved by the Board of Education in May, dispute this notion. Every Chicago Public Schools graduate is guaranteed admission to the City Colleges of Chicago community college system – a policy that could take some pressure off students who cannot produce a job offer or other college acceptance in time – though the new rules don't require accepted students to actually enroll. 

"The idea that you are going to actually have a post-high school educational plan and all of a sudden we're putting a burden on our kids' backs – I guarantee you the kids in Chicago will be better prepared for the future than any other child," said Emanuel during a National Press Club event in June. "Every other school system today leaves it to chance." 

Concern about resources

CPS has a graduation rate of 73 percent, a number that's risen steadily over the past five years in correlation with national trends, but still lags below the national average of 83 percent. Of those graduates, more than half have postsecondary plans.

"[Learn. Plan. Succeed.] is an initiative centered on equity," says CPS chief education officer Janice K. Jackson in a statement provided to the Monitor. "Nearly 60 percent of our seniors already graduate with a plan – but it should be universal."

An estimated 18 percent of ninth-graders in the district go on to earn a bachelor's degree within 10 years of starting high school, according to a recent study by the University of Chicago's Consortium on School Research. 

If all goes well, the new policy could encourage counselors and teachers to "work more extensively" with students to "build a college-going culture," Dr. Nagaoka suggests. 

But others argue that school employees, already spread thin by recent district-wide layoffs, won't have the time or resources to make that outcome a reality.

Across the state, guidance counselors especially are in short supply. Illinois has a student-to-counselor ratio of 701-to-1, one of the highest in the country and a far cry from the American School Counselor Association's recommended 250-to-1. 

Ochoa, one of several guidance counselors serving more than 2,000 Schurz High School students, doesn't write off the new graduation model as inherently flawed. Perhaps in better-funded schools, he suggests, it could work.

However, he says, for the plan to benefit all students in the CPS district will require counselors and other staff to contribute a significantly greater amount of time and energy – resources that are already scarce in Chicago schools. 

"It’s just a matter of making resources match the plan," he says. "We’ll do what it takes, but there’s a lot of gaps." 

[Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct Sherman Dorn's comments.]

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On Film

5. In ‘Dunkirk,’ a directorial departure tilts war-movie genre

Americans have an almost insatiable appetite for accounts of World War II, perhaps because the conflict seemed like such a clear battle between good and evil. Our film critic, Peter Rainier, has a mixed review on the latest epic take on an epic battle in 1940. 

Amelia
Soldiers amass before a beach-landing attempt in a scene from "Dunkirk," by director Christopher Nolan.
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Warner Bros. Pictures/AP
 

The 30 Sec. ReadExcept for its scale and tricky narrative structure, “Dunkirk” is almost nothing like Christopher Nolan’s other movies. It’s also not much like other war movies. Nolan, who wrote and directed the film, has stripped away most of the genre clichés and focused instead on the minute-to-minute struggles for survival. Nolan filmed mostly in IMAX and 65 mm, and from the first scene, the experience is totally immersive. But Nolan has never been inclined to take a deep dive into the human psyche. And what he may not recognize is that all those war movie clichés he disdains – about family and sweethearts and the life back home – actually contribute to why we care about the warriors. “Dunkirk,” with its scaled-to-be-a-masterpiece visual grandiosity, offer a series of riveting tableaux, but the human center is lacking.

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5. In ‘Dunkirk,’ a directorial departure tilts war-movie genre

Christopher Nolan started out making enigmatic little indie films but quickly found his calling with the pitch-black “Dark Knight” trilogy and such grand-scale metaphysical behemoths as “Inception” and “Interstellar.” (Nolan never met a black hole he didn’t like.) And so his latest film, “Dunkirk,” comes as something of a surprise. With a brisk running time of 106 minutes, it’s about the rescue of Allied troops from the beaches of Dunkirk in northern France beginning in May of 1940 after they were hemmed in by German enemy fire. Except for its scale and tricky narrative structure, it’s almost nothing like his other movies. 

It’s also not much like other war movies. Nolan, who both wrote and directed, has stripped away most of the usual genre clichés and focused instead, with highly variable results, on the minute-to-minute struggles for survival. 

The action, segmented into episodes variously drawn from a day, a week, and an hour of the battle, is registered primarily through the experiences of Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a raw recruit who teams up with two other soldiers (played by Aneurin Barnard and pop star Harry Styles) to flee the beach; a civilian sailor, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), and his teenage son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney); and a Royal Air Force ace, played by Tom Hardy, who, as in Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises,” is once again masked for virtually the entire movie. (Is it too late for him to play the Phantom of the Opera?)

Nolan filmed mostly in IMAX and 65mm, and from the first scene, with Tommy fleeing on foot from German fire, the experience is totally immersive. (It’s like 3-D but without the glasses.) The visuals may be scaled big, but the narrative is very much human-sized – except that Nolan doesn’t provide much back story for anybody. We know that Tommy is green and very scared; Dawson is low-key and stalwart; the aviator is relentless. We don’t learn about their families, their sweethearts, their politics, their prejudices. These people have a generic gloss, as if they were stand-ins for all the others like them. 

Nolan intends this lack of specificity to scour the film of cant and cliché, but in some ways, it has the opposite effect: We can’t help but see these protagonists as the iconic standard-bearers of the famous “Dunkirk Spirit.” It was that spirit, on full display here, that probably saved England from capitulation to Germany. The military disaster that was Dunkirk has been mythologized, rightly so, as a triumph: The shallow waters made it impossible for British destroyers to land on the beach, so hundreds of private small boat owners across the English Channel came to the rescue, in constant danger from Luftwaffe bombardments. The military was hoping to evacuate around 40,000 troops. The final total was more than 338,000.

The fact that the Dunkirk saga, momentous as it is, remains relatively unknown to movie audiences outside England gives the film a cachet. But Nolan isn’t interested in the dynamics of the battle itself. There are few scenes with officers plotting strategy, no discussion of Hitler’s decision, still debated among historians, to purposely withhold the final blow to the Allied forces. Amazingly, there’s very little blood, and we never even see the enemy up close.

What Nolan may not recognize is that all those war movie clichés he disdains about family and sweethearts and the life back home actually contribute to why we care about the warriors. I’m not arguing for a lot of corn in “Dunkirk,” but maybe just a little bit?

Nolan has never been a deep diver into the human psyche, and it’s possible that his antipathy for the usual war movie tropes is based on nothing more than his inability to pull them off. When he does make the attempt, as in the scenes with the boat skipper, or with Kenneth Branagh as a naval commander tearing up at thoughts of “home,” the results are as bland as in any conventional war movie. 

“Dunkirk,” with its scaled-to-be-a-masterpiece visual grandiosity, aims to be an epic of the spirit, but there is something weirdly underpowered about it. It’s a series of riveting tableaux, but the human center is lacking. When “Dunkirk” was over, I felt as if I had been through something, but it wasn’t a war, exactly. For all its painstaking realism, the movie resembles a great big impressionist abstraction. Maybe it’s not so different from Nolan’s other movies after all. Grade: B- (Rated PG-13 for intense war experience and some language.)

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The Monitor's View

Curiosity as a cure for income inequality

 

The 30 Sec. ReadMost companies try to increase the quality and quantity of their workers’ output, or what is called the productivity rate. But companies can fall behind competitors if they lag in their flexibility to change and their openness to new technologies or fresh ideas in workplace management. The traits of highly productive firms require that staff have boundless motivation to learn and adapt. In short, people must keep asking questions. Companies and workers looking to raise their productivity – by boosting curiosity – may be helped by a new book, “Why?: What Makes Us Curious,” by famed astrophysicist Mario Livio. Curiosity and the intelligence it brings is also essential for innovation in business. And now we are learning that it can also be one of the many ways to help reduce economic inequality. 

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Curiosity as a cure for income inequality

The closer that economists look at the rise in income inequality, the more they find one cause may be the rise of another inequality: The least productive firms are falling further behind the most productive firms. The Kmarts of the business world aren’t keeping up with the Googles. And one reason is a widening gap in innovation, creativity, and, more fundamentally, a curiosity to discover and embrace new ideas.

This point was made in a recent study spanning 16 countries by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. It found the “productivity gap” between firms in the top 10 percent by productivity and those in the bottom 10 percent rose by about 14 percent from 2001 to 2012.

“The corporate landscape has become increasingly unequal,” the three authors of the study write in a Harvard Business Review article. “This matters not just for economic growth but also for [pay] inequality.”

Most companies try to increase the quality and quantity of their workers’ output, or what is called the productivity rate. As Janet Yellen, chair of the Federal Reserve, often tells Congress and others, productivity growth “is what really determines in the long run the pace of [economic] growth.”

But individual companies can fall behind competitors if they lag in their flexibility to change and their openness to new technologies or fresh ideas in workplace management. The traits of highly productive firms require that staff have boundless motivation to learn and adapt. In short, people must keep asking questions.

By their very desire to understand and cope with the world, humans ask questions. Computers, on the other hand, must be guided to do so and are given goals or limits. Companies certainly must tap artificial intelligence (AI) or machine-learning robots to raise productivity. Automation helps overcome human bias or limits. AI can perceive opportunities in “big data.” But it cannot replace human inquisitiveness, or the impulse to ask “why.”

Companies and workers looking to raise their productivity – by boosting curiosity – may be helped by a new book, “Why?: What Makes Us Curious,” by famed astrophysicist Mario Livio. He worked on the Hubble Space Telescope and the window it opened to the cosmos. This led him to become curious about curiosity, starting with humanity’s early spiritual quest for meaning.

His book explores the limited research on curiosity and dives into the lives of inventive people, such as Leonardo da Vinci. Dr. Livio found curiosity can be divided into two types: one that seeks to solve problems and the other that loves understanding just for the joy of it. In the first, curiosity is a cure for fear. The second opens even more questions and leads to new discoveries.

Sometimes the two combine. “Love of knowledge does create a reward for its own sake, but you want to feel results,” he writes. “

Curiosity is self-sustaining because it keeps unfolding ever-more truths. "Curiosity’s powers extend above and beyond its perceived potential contributions to usefulness or benefits. It has shown itself to be an unstoppable drive,” the book states.

Yet not all curiosity is welcomed. Parents must guard what children learn. We speak of morbid curiosity, such as gawking at a car accident. Or “curiosity killed the cat,” as in getting too close to danger. Under a dictatorship, leaders try to suppress the flow of ideas or demand conformity. In such countries, creativity and productivity can falter.

The constant desire to ask “why” is what distinguishes humans from animals and robots. Curiosity and the intelligence it brings is also essential for innovation in business. And now, because of the inquiring minds of academics, we know it can also be one of the many ways to help reduce economic inequality. 

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A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

A potential robbery avoided

 

One day when contributor Andrea McCormick was alone in her store, some young men came in behaving in the way that fitted a police profile of how a series of recent robberies had been carried out. In that moment, she decided not to focus on the frightening circumstances. Instead, she held to the idea that each of us is God’s loved creation. This calmed her fear. She realized that a desire to do wrong was not inherent in anyone’s nature as the child of God, divine Love. It came to her to talk in a friendly way with the men about a certain collection of items in the store. They listened, engrossed in the story, and then left peacefully without taking anything. It’s natural for everyone to do right, not wrong. We are all safe in God’s love.

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A potential robbery avoided

One day I was alone in the antique store I owned in New York City when five young men walked in. There had recently been a number of robberies in my neighborhood, and the police had advised local business owners on how to identify a potential robbery situation. The behavior of these men was just as the police had described. It seemed they were positioning themselves in my store for a theft.

I decided not to see this as a frightening situation. That might seem counterintuitive, but my basis for this choice was a spiritual conviction I have gained that turning one’s thought to God and our relation to Him can have a very practical impact in times of need.

In this case a familiar passage from the Bible came to me. Saint Paul said: “For in him we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). His words suggest to me that we are always safe because we are always enveloped in God, divine Love.

I also thought of the following idea from The Christian Science Monitor’s founder, Mary Baker Eddy: “Everything in God’s universe expresses Him” (“Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” p. 331). That “everything” includes each one of us, as God’s spiritual creations. What a comforting thought to know that in spiritual reality, everyone is an expression of the Almighty God – an all-loving God.

I saw that from this spiritual perspective, a desire to do wrong was not in keeping with the nature of these young men. I silently prayed that as children of God, honesty, love, intelligence, and kindness were inherent in their real nature. This prayer allowed me to listen for the wisdom of the divine Mind, God, which is immediately available to all of us. Over many years, I’ve found that acknowledging God’s presence helps overcome the fear that would keep us from discerning inspiration and ideas always coming to us from our divine source.

Then it came to me that these young men might be interested to learn about a 2,000-year-old Han Dynasty terra-cotta warrior I had in the store. So I went over to the man who seemed to be the leader and stood shoulder to shoulder with him. I asked with a big smile on my face, “Do you realize what you’re looking at?” Surprised, he asked me to tell him. He became so engrossed in my story that he called for the others to come listen, too.

When I was done, he thanked me and said they were leaving. I told them they were welcome to come back anytime to learn more about these wonderful pieces.

It seemed clear to me that a potential crisis had been averted, but more important, I understood more clearly that we are all created to do right, not wrong, and that we are safe in God’s love.

This article was adapted from the July 6, 2017, Christian Science Daily Lift podcast.

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Viewfinder

A growing opposition

Venezuelan opposition supporters used trees to build barricades on the street during a strike today called to protest Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s government in Caracas. The country’s political crisis is coming to a head as the poor embrace democratic rights and reject the ruling regime.
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Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( July 21st, 2017 )

That's a wrap for today. Join us again tomorrow, when we'll look at new threats to the progress that’s being made by the global community in meeting humanitarian needs. 

And a reading suggestion: We hope you'll take a look at this story from two years ago about why police in many countries don't pull their guns. It's particularly relevant after Justine Damond was fatally shot by a police officer last weekend in Minneapolis.

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