Rachel M. Cohen

Rachel M. Cohen is The American Prospect's senior writing fellow. 

Recent Articles

Making Student Homelessness a Visible Issue

Saturday, July 22 marks the 30-year anniversary of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, the federal government’s first major legislative response to homelessness. One important—and controversial—section of the law requires states to remove educational barriers experienced by homeless children and youth, out of recognition that many homeless children cannot enroll in school for a host of bureaucratic and logistical reasons.

Three decades later, there are 1.3 million homeless students in U.S. schools, an increase of 160 percent since 1987. And there are hundreds of thousands more homeless children who have already dropped out, or are still too young to be enrolled in school.

A new policy brief published by Liz Cohen of the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness and Barbara Duffield, of the SchoolHouse Connection, looks at where progress has been made at addressing the intersections of homelessness and education, and where work—lots of it—remains to be done.

The authors give the McKinney-Vento Act real credit, not only for providing financial resources to school districts to help homeless students, but also for the “statistical insights mandated by the Act.” They acknowledge that many homeless students would have never enrolled in any school without the law’s protections.

They also note, however, that many students are never properly identified as homeless, so there may be large numbers of children who never have access to services they are entitled to.

In an interview with the Prospect, Cohen expressed frustration that homeless students have not been treated as a distinct subgroup of underserved, vulnerable students.

“The majority of the education reform movement has focused on low-income kids, minority kids, children with disabilities or English-language learners, but homeless children have never really been recognized as anything but low-income students,” she says. “Obviously homeless students are low-income, but there are some important differences in educational outcomes and experiences for children who are currently or formerly experiencing housing instability than for poor students who haven’t.”

Though there’s a great deal of work to do, Cohen says she’s optimistic about the future—pointing to the Every Students Succeeds Act which passed in 2015. This new federal education law requires—for the first time—that schools specifically report the graduation rates of homeless students. Prior to the law’s passage only five states reported the graduation rates for homeless students.

As Cohen and Duffield write at the conclusion of their report:

We can’t say whether we will have ended family and youth homelessness in the next thirty years. Sadly, the rights and services provided by the McKinney-Vento Act may well still be needed at that time. But the wisdom we’ve gleaned from the past thirty years could propel us to make much more progress in the decades to come. What we can and must achieve, however, is to put homeless students on the map. … Our nation and communities must provide adequate resources to boost academic achievement, as well as for mental and physical health needs. Homeless students must know that they are safe in school, and have adults who can and will advocate for them. Their hopes and dreams must guide us, with urgency, as we learn from the past and step into the future.

Q&A: Drug Addiction Is a Learning Disorder

And treating it punitively, Maia Szalavitz argues, is rooted in racism—not in science

Dmytro Zinkevych/Shutterstock
Dmytro Zinkevych/Shutterstock For the past 30 years, Maia Szalavitz has researched and reported on science, drug policy, and health. Before that, in her early twenties, she herself became addicted to cocaine and heroin, sometimes injecting the drugs several times a day. Even after overdosing, after being suspended from Columbia University, and after getting arrested for dealing—facing a 15-years-to-life sentence under New York’s now-repealed Rockefeller drug laws—Szalavitz struggled to quit. In her latest book, Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction , Szalavitz explores why getting off drugs is so difficult. She challenges the public to see addiction as a neurological learning disorder—much more like autism and ADHD than a moral failing, or a chronic illness. This conversation has been edited and condensed. R achel Cohen: Your book takes aim at some of the nation’s central narratives around drug addiction. Can you start by describing some of these, and why...

‘Parents Involved,’ A Decade Later

Contrary to reports, the fight for school integration was not derailed.

(Photo: Shutterstock)
(Photo: Shutterstock) W ednesday marks the ten-year anniversary of legal conservatives’ last great effort to kill school integration in the Supreme Court. That effort failed—though few understood that at the time. To this day, misconceptions abound about whether voluntary school desegregation is constitutionally permitted in the United States. The legal showdown came in a landmark decision called Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 . Five Supreme Court justices rejected voluntary desegregation plans in Seattle and Louisville , finding it unconstitutional for school districts to rely on the race of individual students when making student assignment decisions. But, it turned out, it was the opinion of just one of those justices that really mattered. Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. wrote a plurality opinion, co-signed by Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, concluding that the districts’ race-based desegregation plans were...

School Suspensions, Test Scores, and Lead Poisoning

Economists find new evidence that kids with higher exposure to lead are more likely to misbehave in school and do worse academically.

AP Photo/Kalamazoo Gazette-MLive Media Group, Mark Bugnaski
AP Photo/Kalamazoo Gazette-MLive Media Group, Mark Bugnaski This 110-year-old home in Kalamazoo, Michigan, was the subject of a $115,000 settlement with the city after homeowner Brandi Crawford-Johnson discovered the house's lead-based paint was responsible for her child's elevated lead levels in 2013. O ver the past several years, education advocates and civil rights groups have been sounding the alarm on the harms of exclusionary school discipline policies. Critics say these punishments—suspensions, expulsions, and school-based arrests—are increasingly doled out for minor infractions, and disproportionately given to students of color. A National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) working paper published in May adds a new wrinkle to the debate on disparities in school discipline: Economists found causal evidence linking young children with higher exposures to lead in their bloodstream with an increased probability of getting suspended from school and placed in juvenile detention...

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