Recently, a broad coalition of groups sent a letter to President Obama urging him to require the Attorney General to “review and reconsider” a “flawed” Office of Legal Counsel memo—issued in 2007 (i.e., during the Bush Administration)—that argued that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act provided the basis for exempting faith-based organizations that contracted with the government from legal requirements that forbid taking religion into account in certain hiring decisions. The letter asserts that the memo relies on “flawed legal analysis” and offers a “broad and erroneous,” indeed “dangerous,” “interpretation of RFRA,” “permitting the grantee to discriminate in hiring with taxpayer funds without regard to the government’s compelling interest in prohibiting such discrimination.”
This is just the latest skirmish in a long-running battle. Here’s a snippet of something I wrote about it ten years ago:
One of the central bones of legislative contention, evident once again in the recent House debate over the Workforce Investment Act, is connected with Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Acts, which exempts faith-based organizations from legal strictures against religious discrimination. Churches and other faith-based organizations are, in other words, permitted to take religion into account when they hire employees, a provision upheld unanimously by the Supreme Court in the 1987 case Corporation of the Presiding Bishop v. Amos.
Opponents of the [Bush Administration’s] faith-based initiative cry foul when this legal exemption is explicitly extended to government contractors, as it was in the original  charitable choice legislation, and as it has been proposed in several recent pieces of legislation. They want no part, they say, of government-funded religious discrimination, regardless of what religious groups are permitted to do on their own dimes.
The arguments, or rather slogans, of those opposed to the religious hiring rights of faith-based government contractors haven’t really changed. Taking religion into account is, they insist, discrimination, made worse by the fact that those engaging in it are taking government dollars.
The current version of the dispute involves the way in which the OLC memo deploys the Religious Freedom Restoration Act on behalf—of all things—the religious liberty of government contractors. RFRA—passed overwhelmingly during the Clinton Administration but recently by and large abandoned by those on the political Left—requires that laws and regulations that limit religious freedom be justified by a compelling state interest and represent the least restrictive means to attain that interest. It is supposed to provide individuals and organizations a basis for claiming an exemption on generally applicable laws that burden their religious liberty. Most frequently such claims would be made in court and weighed by a judge. The OLC memo represents an administrative, rather than a judicial, determination that even laws that explicitly prohibit government contractors from hiring in accordance with religious criteria—not discriminating against people, but hiring those who support the mission of the organization (a right, by the way, that would seem uncontroversial in almost any other setting)—have to accommodate the religious freedom of the contractors.
You might ask how an Administration could defy the express will of Congress if it passes a law that forbids taking religion into account when hiring for participation in a particular government-funded program. The answer to this question begins with the following consideration: unless the law explicitly repudiates RFRA, the executive is charged with enforcing both laws and reading them in a way that renders them, so far as possible, consistent with one another. So the executive must first ask, in accordance with RFRA, whether the burden on religious freedom represented by the hiring prohibition represents a compelling state interest. The most obvious answer is that, since there are plenty of laws that actually acknowledge the religious hiring rights of government contractors, denying those rights in this instance can’t be a compelling state interest. In other words, RFRA trumps the prohibition in the law.
What’s more, I think that this conclusion is not only good law, but also good policy. Let me summarize the argument I made at greater length ten years ago. A diverse country is best served, not by a uniform, monolithic, and homogeneous social service sector, but by an array of organizations that represent genuinely different approaches to addressing our social problems. A healthy civil society is a diverse civil society. Government should respect and foster that diversity rather than diminish it. The demand that “government not fund discrimination”—usually connected with a demand that government expand its programs for the needy—is for all intents and purposes a demand that government secularize society, that nongovernmental organizations be simple extensions of their government sponsors. This isn’t good for the needy or for the society at large.
Let’s hope that the Obama Administration continues to ignore the importuning of those whose crabbed view of religious liberty would increasingly diminish the role of religion in society.
A week ago today the city of Baltimore was set ablaze by its own citizens. The media storm following the protests and riots is the latest in a string of events that continue to orient our attention as a society to the lack of economic and social opportunity in America
David Brooks, an Op-Ed columnist for the New York Times, wrote an excellent piece on “The Nature of Poverty” a week ago. Brooks draws attention to the importance of the social dynamics that undercut attempts to improve the conditions of urban poor through increased spending and policy solutions.
What Brooks notes in his article, and many others recognize, is that when dealing with poverty, one must deal with the causes of poverty and the psychological and developmental effects of poverty. One-size-fits-all programs fail to do justice to the ways in which individual circumstances vary. Some people have short-term needs – such as gas to get to work – while others need more structured and long-term oriented assistance – such as acquiring the skills necessary to compete in a very competitive job market. This requires panoply of social programs specifically targeted to lift people out of poverty for good.
A safety net in good working order is crucial to a healthy economy, but poor families don’t just need help – they need the right kind of help. Giving people money really does make them better off. Yes, it’s better to have more money to buy groceries and other basic necessities, but improving inequality through handouts has no consistent correlation with upward mobility.
Baltimore is the perfect example of the fact that getting more money from the government doesn’t really make you less poor, and a testament to the fact that poverty is enabled to linger through the impoverishment of our social relations.
Click here to read Brooks’ article.
Image Credit: Carol M. Highsmith’s America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Row Houses, Baltimore, Maryland.
This article is the first in a series of posts that will address key issues impacting college and career readiness in Georgia, as discussed in the overview report, Fortifying Pathways: Themes to Guide College and Career Readiness in Georgia.
By Aundrea Gregg and Eric Wearne
For each student in Georgia, education is a personal experience that will ultimately impact his or her life’s circumstances and opportunities as an adult. Students who matriculate from high school on to college graduation and careers greatly increase their earning potential as adults and are less likely to experience family breakdown, need government assistance, and become entangled in the legal system than those who fall through the cracks.
In Georgia, however, the number of students who do not advance beyond K-12 remains astronomically high. Over 1 in 5 young adults in Georgia are not attending school, not working, and have no degree beyond high school. Additionally, almost 1 out of every 3 Georgians does not graduate from high school in four years, placing Georgia 48th in the country.
For students who do graduate high school, many still leave inadequately prepared for the demands of universities and Georgia’s industries. In 2011, Complete College America reported that 18% of freshman entering 4-year universities in Georgia required remediation in at least one subject area. Another 37% of freshmen entering 2-year colleges required remediation as well. The need for remediation not only significantly lowers the likelihood of completing a degree program; it also comes at an annual cost of millions to the state.
As educational attainment in K-12 and college sets the stage for placement in the workforce, reports have noted the discord between high school and college graduates’ preparedness and employers’ expectations for new hires.
Whether in search of applicants with rudimentary skills, such as the ability to arrive on time every day, or applicants in possession of the skills to fill advanced technical positions, approximately 5,000 jobs in Georgia remain unfilled in 2015 due in part to a “skills gap.” A study in Michigan found that businesses across the state spend about $222 million each year correcting the shortcomings of their employees who leave high school without the basic skills needed for their job. Given the exorbitant cost, it is understandable why employers in Georgia would not want to spend time training employees for skills they should already possess.
Something More Than Academics
Providing access to quality education from the start of kindergarten all the way through high school and beyond is of course necessary for Georgia’s citizens to thrive and prosper.
To narrow the gaps, major reforms have focused almost exclusively on improving student achievement by employing more rigorous academic standards in schools, as measured by reading and math scores. Though academic achievement is certainly vital to success, this narrowed paradigm for student advancement has done little to change the status quo regarding outcomes.
A Gray Area
Grade Point Averages (GPA), scores on the SAT, and completion of state exit exams are all black and white expectations on the pathway to college and a career. Probably more important, however, are the challenges students face in terms of cultivating themselves as individuals, of forming the habits that support personal growth, and of fashioning an early idea of what their purpose in life will be.
With a wider and more abstract understanding of readiness, motivation, responsibility, planning and decision-making, Georgia can begin to define a current gray area of learning needs that have been underdeveloped in K-12 schools.
Not “Soft Skills” – Necessary Noncognitive Factors
The term “soft skills” has long been used to describe non-academic learning factors that aid students’ ability to grasp content knowledge. There is, however, nothing soft about the personal traits such as perseverance and self-control; skills such as time management and goal setting; and interventions such as attachment to community and access to support systems that shape a student’s mindset for learning, both positively and negatively.
This wide package of traits and tools comprise what have been commonly referred to in a large body of research as noncognitive factors. While noncognitive factors have been given credence as important components of student success, there are very few programs and policies that encourage their development in students, schools, and communities.
This post seeks to explain the importance of these skills and propose recommendations that support their development in K-12 settings in Georgia.
The Value of Developing Noncognitive Factors
Preparing students to succeed in school and life requires the development of two sets of skills: cognitive abilities that constitute what is often referred to as hard knowledge, as well as noncognitive factors that help individuals apply that knowledge. Whereas cognitive functions include processes such as thinking, reasoning, and remembering, noncognitive factors include a person’s aptitude for planning, emotional maturity, interpersonal interactions, and communication skills – both verbal and nonverbal.
Noncognitive factors largely shape a person’s behavior and greatly influence their ability to function in educational settings. For students with a strong base of noncognitive factors, such as strong study habits, eagerness to ask questions, positive self-image, and determination to reach goals, just to name a few, the ability to bridge knowledge gained in the classroom with actual success increases substantially.
Further, research led by the Center for the Economics of Education concluded that noncognitive factors can be a strong predictor of compatible occupations, wage potential, and the likelihood of risky behavior as an adult.
Noncognitive Factors Chart
||Realistic Self- Appraisal
||Planning & Decision Making
||Constructive Time Management
||Connection to Strong Support Person
||Caring School Environment
Noncognitive Factors and College and Career Readiness
Noncognitive factors are becoming more prominent considerations in college admissions and hiring processes across the country. This is largely due to institutions of higher learning and employers desiring candidates that possess abilities that extend beyond mastery of math and English.
Research led by Dr. William Sedlacek, a foremost expert on noncognitive variables and Professor Emeritus of Education at the University of Maryland, highlights that assessing noncognitive abilities in admissions processes is an important basis for colleges and employers to discern intelligences beyond those tested on standardized exams such as the SAT.
One practical example of this is the applicant assessment board for the Gates Millennium Scholarship. This project has focused entirely on evaluating noncognitive factors to discover students’ experiential intelligence – the ability to interpret information in a changing context or be creative – and contextual intelligence – the ability to adapt to changing environments and negotiate within a system. While neither of these intelligences is tested on the SAT, which only examines knowledge learned in a fixed context, the Gates’ board has had some success selecting students ready to perform in rigorous academic settings at institutions of higher learning. It should also be noted that Gates Scholars include demographics with statically lower chances of reaching college graduation such as first-generation college goers, low-income, and minority students.
As the consideration of noncognitive factors has allowed institutions to rethink admissions, hiring, and retention strategies, their recognized importance as a critical component of college and career readiness has increased for all students.
Opportunity: Building Strong Relationships between Schools and Students
As a means to develop noncognitive abilities, students require access to small-scale connections. Dr. Sedlacek, in his list of noncognitive variables, emphasizes strong support systems – specifically “a strong support person” that students can turn to to provide guidance on common child-to-adult transition situations. Emphasizing this point, Ruby K. Payne, Ph.D notes in her acclaimed book A Framework for Understanding Poverty, “support systems are simply networks of relationships.”
Why Relationships Matter
Fostering personal, strong relationships between teachers and students and even schools and families is important for many reasons. On the most basic level, establishing trust, communication, and understanding – all commonly accepted components of a healthy relationship – are prerequisite to creating environments in schools where students will thrive and parents participate.
Teachers who know their students personally are better equipped to tailor lesson plans and speak directly to specific needs. For historically disadvantaged groups such as young men of color and first generation college students, accessing mentors at school where familiarity with the college process is limited at home is key to closing persistent educational gaps.
Barriers to Opportunity
Noncognitive traits develop most prominently during early childhood, and parents play an important role in developing the noncognitive abilities of their children. Though noncognitive factors are more malleable, even during later stages in life, home life matters greatly and students may miss development of these skills due to issues such as family breakdown or poor socio-economic circumstances (as education levels of parents also factor into development).
While active parental involvement and a stable home environment are foundational to the noncognitive skills training that should take place in school, unfortunately, not all children in Georgia find the role models they need at home.
Though it only takes the support of one invested adult to guide a child, studies find that the representation of two parents in the home can greatly increase a child’s educational attainment. One study found in examining a sample of children who completed eighth grade that high school graduation rates were 90 percent for those in two-married-biological-parent families, 75 percent for those in single-mother-divorced families, and 69 percent for those in single-mother-never-married families. Similarly, when it comes to college attendance, 71 percent of children who live with two married, biological parents went on to college, while only half of children living with only their mothers took this route.
Increasing parental involvement in early childhood development, as well as maintaining positive relationships between parents and between parents and their children remains a paramount barrier to improving outcomes for students in K-12 and in adulthood.
Academic Attainment Rules
As it currently stands within many schools and school systems, the focus on noncognitive factors is embedded haphazardly through character education hours or small discussions about the need to build study habits. In fact, many of the habits and skills colleges and employers deem most valuable, are often addressed as periphery learning needs and go underdeveloped through curricula.
The University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research notes, “teachers would play a vital role in helping students move from being passive recipients of academic content to active learners” who wield noncognitive abilities to progress through elevated academic challenges and, more importantly, demonstrate understanding in real world situations. To do this, focused development of noncognitive factors must parallel instruction on hard content in schools.
More rigorous academic standards remains the exclusive focus of schools because educational institutions are incentivized to worry about themselves as institutions, or on policy as an abstract, and not on students as individuals. In other words, policymaking has become too big in education and it incentivizes the wrong things. Schools worry about test scores. Much like colleges and universities worry about enrollment and sometimes retention, these are all measures that point back on the institutions, but say nothing about how well-prepared their students are to move on to college or a career. There remains an opportunity to better prepare Georgia’s students for college and careers by shifting more of the focus in schools from increasing academic standards to cultivating noncognitive factors.
Recommendations: What is Working
Continue Research on Strengthening Families and Communities
The importance of a stable home life cannot be stated enough in the process of cultivating noncognitive factors for Georgia’s children, although the impact of family breakdown and what to be done about this problem remain outside of the scope of this paper. Below are recommendations from Georgia Center for Opportunity’s College & Career Pathways Working Group regarding what is being done and what might be replicated within existing structures.
Intrusive Advising at All Levels of Schooling
Paul Tough highlights in his recent New York Times article, “Who Gets to Graduate?” the powerful feelings of stress that at-risk students can feel without the assistance of parents and mentors to mitigate minor bumps in the road. The point is made how quickly a first failing mark or trouble with a roommate can lead to feelings of inadequacy, and premature dropping out.
Educational institutions such as Georgia Gwinnett College (GGC) and Paine College in Augusta, GA have begun to employ new advising strategies that combine personal relationship building with “tough love” to ensure at-risk students understand challenges that are common in college, reprogram bad habits, and overcome obstacles to stay on track for graduation.
Model: Georgia Gwinnett College
As an institution with an access mission, GGC’s students enroll with varying levels of preparedness for college. For instance, 30-40% of CCG’s incoming students enroll in at least one remedial class, meaning a large cross-section of students is off track to graduate from the start. To safeguard the large at-risk population, GGC’s administration has made it a point to increase access to teachers and administration. The school boasts no office hours, students may arrange meetings at any time, and students are given the (school issued) mobile number of every professor.
Additionally, through GGC’s intrusive advising programs, students who have already been placed on academic probation or worse receive a second chance to reach graduation. Under the watchful eyes of counselors, teachers, and peer coaches, students receive intense, regular engagement, mandatory tutoring and workshops, as well as student success classes.
While tactics such as intrusive advising remain largely isolated in the higher education realm and for at-risk students, these strategies could greatly influence college and career strategies for all students in K-12. At GGC, these “high engagement, individual focused efforts” created to serve a substantially high-need population have shown some success in student retention and graduation.
Parallel to the development of vital traits and skills at home, schools and communities are equally important places where students hone the necessary skills they will need for adulthood. Ideally parents, schools, and communities should work together to develop these noncognitive factors on all fronts. Schools and institutions would be well-served by taking these developmental gaps into account and addressing them formally.
Strong, healthy relationships between teachers and students, schools and families can be the x-factor that allows students to reach success. Interventions must extend beyond rigorous academic standards. Cultivating noncognitive factors through K-12 provides a more holistic approach to college and career readiness.
Meeting people “where they are” is foundational to Georgia Center for Opportunity’s (GCO) mission to serve the community and remove barriers to opportunity. As part of this mission, GCO team members recently participated in a unique weekend retreat at City of Refuge (COR), one of Atlanta’s largest homeless shelters for women and children. While this experience was an excellent platform for team bonding, the team also gained life-changing lessons from the residents of COR.
Linda Newton holds new friend at City of Refuge. Courtesy, @GAOpportunity
While many programs provide meals and clothing to the homeless, very few provide the opportunity to connect deeply with those being served. GCO’s retreat was graciously hosted by one such organization, Restoration ATL (RATL), a non-profit dedicated to creating urban ministry environments that foster healing. RATL’s director and weekend guide, Pastor Jim Ellison, emphasized with great passion that volunteers were there to simply “be with” the ladies and children to get to know them better.
Assimilating into life at the shelter was eased immediately by the children. Delivery Manager, Linda Newton, reflects on her initial moments at COR:
My first experience that weekend was with a 3-year old girl. She blind-sided me, running up to me from behind and immediately holding her arms up to me as if we were long-lost friends. I picked her up and she wrapped her arms and legs around me tight. She was absolutely a love, and we became fast friends.
As the children ushered in the team, dinner time provided opportunities to learn about the women of COR and the circumstances that led them to the shelter. While some women were more open than others, the stories and fellowship that flowed across the dinner table further broke the ice between volunteers and residents.
I had the pleasure of eating dinner with a woman named Liz. She shared with me that a house fire displaced her months earlier. This is a situation that could impact anyone! Throughout our encounter, Liz expressed great determination to rebuild her life and provide a future for her one month old son, who had actually been born during her time at City of Refuge. As I held Liz’s son and listened to her, I realized how much like a family member she was. This meaningful meal brought me a new perspective on what homelessness means in Atlanta.
Holding Liz’s son at dinner. Courtesy, @GAOpportunity
Stories of misfortune were common-place amongst the women, with job loss, mental illness, and domestic violence being just a few of the tragedies impacting their lives. Facing tough paths back to self-sufficiency, events such as the ice cream social–which followed dinner– served as small moments of enjoyment for the women and children alike.
Vice President of Operations, Chris Elder shares his thoughts on the ice cream social:
At the Friday night ice cream social, I had a difficult time discerning who was a resident and who was a volunteer. The women and the kids staying at City of Refuge looked just like the women and kids I see around Norcross. Some of the moms and older kids were even on their phones texting, checking Facebook, and playing games, a scene not unfamiliar in my house. The younger kids played hard and laughed like they were anywhere else but in a homeless shelter. I was left with a restored hope in the pure resiliency of children.
Saturday brought deeper connections with acquaintances made just the day before, as well as enlightenment about the spiritual and emotional needs of those restoring their lives. The women’s morning group incorporated lively discussions about God’s love and building community.
Events Specialist, Katherine Greene writes:
I realized that all of us need community no matter where we live. These women did not choose to be homeless but even in their homelessness there is a strong need for community. Words like love, hope, forgiveness, and togetherness came up as we described a healthy community. It was great discovering things that we had in common. This helped us to learn more about each other and to find a connection to help us bond even more.
Katherine Greene enjoys women’s morning group. Courtesy, Restoration ATL
Planting vegetables in the community garden later in the afternoon further drove home the importance of community and the harvest that can come from working together. Through expressing feelings and getting hands dirty, personal barriers dissolved into understanding and warm smiles.
GCO team members also participated in a morning full of activities such as kick-ball and arts-and-crafts with the children of the shelter. While fun in nature, free time also revealed some of the hard effects of living in a shelter and family breakdown.
Breakthrough Fellow Michael Schulte writes:
Interacting with the kids reinforced several important lessons for me: Children are eager for attention and affection, they are incredibly adaptable to their surroundings, and they are significantly shaped by those who raise them. While playing with the children brought me a lot of joy, it also carried the sober reminder that a number of these kids come from abusive backgrounds. I saw this in a 12-year-old boy who verbally threatened and intimidated his peers every time they made him angry. I am hopeful that City of Refuge will foster healing for a number of these kids and rebuild trust within relationships they have.
Michael Schulte leads recreational activities at City of Refuge. Courtesy Restoration ATL
Experiencing both highs and lows at City of Refuge, it was clear by the end of the second day that no one was quite the same as when they arrived. There was an overwhelming sense of honor for having shared time in the lives of so many dynamic, insightful, inspiring, and tough individuals. Team members also found themselves humbled.
It certainly put the trivialities of my life that I consider problems into perspective, and clearly illustrated how slippery the social mobility ladder can be for any of us.
I reflected back on some of my life’s most difficult circumstances and realized that these women were all teachers without even realizing it. They were teaching me (the student) how to listen to people and how to be grateful in everything.
Restoration ATL’s mission scripture. Courtesy, @GAOpportunity
The experience at City of Refuge and participation in Restoration ATL’s weekend retreat is one that will not soon be forgotten by the GCO team.
My last experience at City of Refuge was with a former resident who had come back to volunteer with RATL. She and I spoke quite a bit through the course of the weekend and I learned that she was a recovering drug addict and alcoholic, only about 3 years older than me. She had a great spirit and sense of humor and I really enjoyed talking with her. We have since communicated by text, and I hope to stay in touch with her. I fear that she will relapse, as she has many times in the past. I want to continue to encourage her and hope to be a positive influence in her life. I really want her to make it.
The residents of the shelter represent only a small group of Georgia’s 27,000 homeless men, women, and children. Taking the time to view Georgia’s homeless as the friends, loved ones, neighbors, employees, co-workers, and students that they are is vital to enacting meaningful interventions that will change lives.
For more information on City of Refuge, Restoration ATL, and Georgia Center for Opportunity‘s work, please follow the links.