The Third-Person Singular “They” is Here to Stay

Word "focus" in a dictionary

Since English isn’t a gendered language, use of the word “they” has caught on.
Image: Unsplash.com

For some traditional English teachers, the use of the word “they” as a singular third-person pronoun might be upsetting, but according to the American Dialect Society, that usage is here to stay. In fact it’s so valuable, they made it their Word of the Year for 2015.

Many Americans have been using it in speech for years, effectively as a gender-neutral pronoun, something that English lacks. This may be because English, unlike most other languages, is not gendered, and although there are some nouns with specific gender connotations (largely professions, like actor and actress), those nouns do not a gendered language make.

Traditionally, English speakers were supposed to use “his or her” to indicate nonspecific gender for a subject or object in a sentence. This is, as everyone who has ever tried to use it knows, incredibly awkward and can utterly ruin the feel of a sentence.

But using “they” as the third-person singular has become ubiquitous, to the chagrin of some grammatically-inclined people. But those people need to remember something that far too many people forget: Languages evolve, especially living languages like English.

And it’s not just a silly fad, either. Not only does it make English ever so slightly easier, it also serves an inclusive role. Many people, especially trans, gender fluid, or agender people, don’t like to use he or she to refer to themselves. Since, again, there wasn’t a gender neutral pronoun in English, they didn’t have anywhere to turn, short of adopting more appropriate pronouns from other languages or making them up–habits which generally don’t stick. Language is essential to expressing identity, and it can also be essential to oppressing that identity, which is something that everyone, but especially teachers, should be avoiding.

Children’s Book with “Happy” Slaves Dropped

Cover of A Birthday Cake for George Washington

“A Birthday Cake for George Washingon” is being removed from circulation for its inaccurate portrayal of slavery.
Image: Amazon.com

A children’s book from the Scholastic Corporation that portrayed George Washington’s slaves as happy is being pulled from shelves following consumer outrage. A Birthday Cake for George Washington tells the story of Hercules, a chef slave, and his daughter as they prepare such a cake for the president’s birthday. The book received harsh criticism for its portrayal of Washington’s relationship with his slaves and their attitude about the work they did.

The story follows the two characters as they work with other slaves to find an alternative to sugar. Though the story is intended to be a loving relationship between father and daughter, the story ends with Washington congratulating Hercules on the cake, to which Hercules replies, “An honor and a privilege, sir.” People criticized the book for its depiction of the characters and their relationship to the president.

After an outpouring of criticism and anger, Scholastic has decided to pull the book. “Without more historical background on the evils of slavery than this book for younger children can provide, the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves and therefore should be withdrawn,” the company said in a press release. “We do not believe this title meets the standards of appropriate presentation of information to younger children, despite the positive intentions and beliefs of the author, editor, and illustrator.”

Andrea Davis Pinkney, Scholastic’s vice president and executive director, wrote a blog earlier this month in defense of A Birthday Cake for George Washington’s intentions. She wrote that Hercules was well-known, respected, and admired in Philadelphia, and that the book discusses a holiday that often comes up in classroom settings.

Davis Pinkney also addresses the art, done by illustrator Vanessa Newton: “Vanessa also took great care in her research, which revealed that Hercules and the other servants in George Washington’s kitchen took great pride in their ability to cook for a man of such stature. This why Vanessa chose to portray them as happy people. They were not happy about being enslaved, but there was joy in what they created through their intelligence and culinary talent.”

However, despite Newton’s artistic intent, the book is a troubling retelling of history that is too simplified, even for the young reader who would not yet understand the gravity of what she is reading.

Hercules eventually escaped from Washington’s plantation, but his daughter Delia remained a slave for the rest of her life.

Social Networks Impact Academic Performance

College students studying outside

The people students spent their time with can affect academic performance.
Image: Shutterstock

Sociologists in Russia have found that students’ social networks can influence their grades. While sociologists have long recognized a number of factors in how students perform in schools, social networks have long been underestimated. This is partly due to the difficulty of performing studies on the issue, but more importantly due to poorly constructed investigative models for those studies. Two significant problems have plagued this area of research for some time: viewing a random group as a given student’s social network, and assuming that their place within their social network is static.

Both are faulty assumptions that skew data. Social networks are constructed through conscious and dynamic choice as students decide who they want to spend time with. Those networks may be impacted by the randomness of which students are assigned to which classes, but this is not a significant factor.

Actually, the position of a student within a network can, and often does, change over time, depending on any number of outside factors. None of these should seem overly shocking to anyone familiar with the way humans form networks and interact with each other.

The researchers in question found that students who spent time with high-achievers generally did better in their classes over time, while students who were friends with under-achievers tended to suffer. Although academic success is rarely a conscious deciding fact in forming friendships for students, it was found that by the middle of the academic year, members of a peer group tended to perform at around the same level, which could be higher for some and lower for others.

Under-achievers tended to weigh down their fellows more than high-achievers pulled them up, but the later tended to form larger networks over time. They also found that the size of networks varied across gender lines, but that all study participants were more likely to be friends with people they knew before college, students of their own gender, and other members in their study groups.

A New Private School Opens for LGBT Students

Speaker and crowd in classroom

A new private school in Atlanta will promote a safe place for LGBT students and staff to learn.
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The first of its kind, a new private school in Georgia hopes to become a safe space for LGBT students to learn. The Pride School Atlanta will open this fall as a K-12 school. The school was founded by Christian Zsilavetz, a trans teacher, and will serve both LGBT and cis, straight students who feel out of place in public schools, where verbal and physical harassment are common. The new school will be a safe space for LGBT students and teachers alike.

As the nation seeks to create more space for LGBT people, including Ken Mehlman’s push for same-sex rights, more and more people are starting LGBT safe spaces and health centers to ensure marginalized people receive the help they need. Pride School Atlanta is working to make sure they receive the education they need, too. An astounding 74% of LGBT students around the country reported being verbally harassed because of their gender expression, and 30% said they had even missed at least one day of school in the last month because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable at school.

And it isn’t just students who feel unsafe. LGBT teachers also feel pressured to keep their orientation a secret, meaning that they sometimes cannot help students learn to be better to their LGBT peers. Zsilavetz said he never felt truly open or supported by any school’s administrations, and he wanted to create a space where both students and teachers can discuss LGBT realities comfortably, without fear.

“When LGBT kids can see you, when they know that they can come to you, they’re less likely to die or be suicidal,” Zsilavetz said.

Emma Grace, a young Georgia student, was excited to hear about the Pride School. She left high school to be homeschooled because of bullying at her public high school. After she contacted Zsilavetz about attending the new school, she said she is excited “about the prospect of going to the Pride School and being more open about exploring her gender.”

“I think it’s greatly needed for a school to have LGBT-affirming surroundings and environment,” Grace said. “It’s still very much a hidden issue. Not a lot of people talk about it because they’re afraid.”

Zsilavetz does not believe that students should have to leave their schools to be treated fairly or to have access to equal education, but until we live in a world where they don’t, the Pride School Atlanta will be there to help.

Detroit Teachers Protest School Conditions

Dilapidated orange lockers

Detroit teachers are striking to protest low pay and the state of their schools.
Image: Shanti Hesse / Shutterstock.com

Teachers in Detroit’s public schools have had enough with the poor school conditions they confront every day. Large groups of teachers are calling in sick to work in a protest against the schools’ “deplorable conditions,” which boast a number of health concerns, like mold and dead rodents. The protests, or “sickouts,” have been occurring since the January 11. Detroit Public Schools were closed Wednesday because there were not enough teachers coming in to work.

“We felt it was time to take a stand. No more, enough is enough,” says Marietta Elliott, who teaches special education at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy. “We need better working environments for our students to be educated in. We need supplies to be able to adequately educate them, and we want equitable pay.”

What Elliott is referring to are the rats, roaches, and dilapidated structures of the buildings they work in. Teachers say they don’t have any textbooks or other supplies necessary to run a classroom, and none of them have seen a pay raise in at least ten years.

But Detroit Public Schools is fighting to keep schools open: An attorney with the organization filed an emergency court motion for a restraining order and preliminary injunction that would force teachers to stop the sickout.

The teachers want schools to return to local control. DPS has been under the supervision of several different state emergency managers for the past several years, during which time the education system has accrued crippling debt—more than 500 million. The current emergency manager, Darnell Earley, was the Flint, Michigan emergency manager until last year. His actions in that position have drawn heavy criticism.

Protesting teachers want Earley gone, and they want current governor Rick Snyder ousted. They are also angry about the restraining orders filed against them. “It would be so much more productive to actually do something to fix Detroit schools rather than file restraining orders against those who expose the miserable conditions,” says Ivy Bailey, Detroit Federation Teachers Interim President. “If Mr. Earley—the same emergency manager responsible for the Flint water crisis—wants to come after teachers, we’re ready for a fight.”

It is likely that more schools will be closed this week and into next week, despite the restraining order. Teachers want former Detroit Federation of Teachers president Steve Conn restored to his position, but it remains to be seen if Conn will be reinstated.

New legislation to be introduced next week could help the schools’ problems by splitting schools into two different districts: One district would pay the debt and one would operate the schools. The two districts would be managed by a school board created by the governor and the mayor.

Local Contribution

Bus driving past water in Alaska

Based on a recent court case, Alaskan schools will no longer be receiving state aid.
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Last year, a circuit court in Alaska agreed with a lawsuit by the Ketchikan Getaway Borough that the state’s required local contribution in support of schools violates the Alaska State Constitution’s edict against earmarked funds. Local governments in Alaska pour an estimate $225 million a year into public schools, and the lawsuit’s filers predict that will rise by at least fifty percent in the next five years. An increase would would in turn reduce the state’s share in the responsibility of education funding.

On Friday, January 8, 2016, the Alaska Supreme Court partially reversed this ruling, making that increase all but inevitable.

Among the primary filers of the lawsuit was Dan Bockhorst, Borough Manager. “There is very little doubt that we are going to suffer very significantly increased property taxes or other taxes as a result of this decision,” he said in disappointment at the ruling.

Bockhurt cited a 2014 task force in the Alaska House of Representatives, which put forward that the state’s level of education funding was insufficient and unsustainable. That was when oil, the state’s primary taxed income, was over a hundred dollars a barrel. Less than a year later, oil is $35 a barrel, and local governments would have to raise taxes even higher to compensate for that loss, if required to make up the shortfall.

Justice Joel Bolger, who wrote the Supreme Court opinion, declared that the state constitution in its historical context intended that local communities and the State would share responsibility for schools, with no required portions in either direction.

The Borough is making no plans to challenge this decision, though it seems they would have the support of at least one Justice. The question of the constitutionality of the required contribution is still in doubt.

For-Profit Universities Experience Plummeting Stocks and Standards

University of Phoenix sign

The University of Phoenix, as well as other for-profit universities, are struggling financially–and with the law.
Image: Ken Wolter / Shutterstock.com

Apollo Education Group Inc., owner of the for-profit University of Phoenix, has announced it’s considering selling after years of lowered profits and declining enrollment.

For-profit institutions like the University of Phoenix and DeVry Education Group are probably losing financial status due to some serious concerns about their efficacy in education. Studies in 2010 showed extremely low graduation rates and poor job prospects for students at for-profit universities.

In addition, the US Department of Education has lowered the amount of federal tuition aid it provides, squashing a significant source of income for these schools.

And it’s not just a funding crisis for these schools, either. The US Department of Defense put the University of Phoenix on probation in October, which meant no federal money for tuition and no recruiting students on military bases. The FTC had already warned that the school’s marketing techniques “may have been deceptive.” In August, the California Attorney General’s office issued a subpoena to get more information on these schools’ marketing and their use of National Guard personnel and military logos.

Financially, however, these for-profit schools are still interesting to investors, even as their stock goes down. Apollo’s stock, once at $7.70, lost more than three quarters of its value within the last year. (At it’s highest, it was at $97.93—back in 2004). In November quarter, it missed its Wall Street estimates by far. Still, financial organizations are calling Apollo a “strong on high relative volume” stock, meaning it’s worth it for investors to keep an eye on it in order to ride the wave of the latest trends.

But is education the sort of place where investors’ interests should outrank basic competency in serving students? Is it more important to fill a wallet than to fill a student’s mind effectively?

Maybe these questions are a bit simplistic, but they have their place as it becomes more evident that for-profit institutions are not living up to their word—either in terms of preparing students or satisfying investors.