Sunday, January 30, 2011

Being the Bigger Person

A recent email newsletter from my congresswoman, Mary Bono Mack (R), noted that she was standing with her fellow Republicans in opposition to any climate change legislation.

It is often assumed that opposition to CO2 emissions regulations comes mostly from the large oil and gas interests who are out to protect their bottom line more than anything else.  I think this is no doubt true as far as it goes.  I'm reminded of a critique I heard of the Koch brothers financing anti-regulatory campaigns - that they were doing so because they stood to lose on investments they held, were regulations to go forward.

While that may be true, I also think it does great disservice to the serious threat their principles present. Were it only the case that those in opposition to regulation were only in it for the money. That's at least a case of simple logic, and can be argued against with an appeal to integrity and human decency.

But a principled case against government regulation is a much more complicated beast, and one that in and of itself is entirely consistent with ethical behavior. The problem is - form the pro-regulation point of view - is that a moral harm is occurring, and that the case goes from a simple appeal to righteousness, to larger themes of liberalism, tragedy of commons, etc.

Now, I do think there is a glaring inconsistency in the contemporary right's anti-climate change stance. The science is not a complex, nuanced political philosophy but hard data from very real and distinguished authorities. I think this is a case where an appeal to human decency and integrity needs to be made. Yet not on the merits of regulation in general, but in having the integrity to acknowledge when you have lost an argument.

Only the most insane libertarian believes in no regulation at all. So the debate becomes about the evidence of harm. We need to get these people to accept that continuing to pump the atmosphere full of CO2 - even if currently legal - is just as immoral as dumping 500 gallons of toxic sludge on to your neighbor's lawn. They've gone from denial of the process, to denial of the human element, to denial of the damage, to denial of our ability to end it. At his point it seems merely a matter of intellectual honesty and ideological integrity. You can be opposed to unnecessary regulation, and be for necessary regulation. Therefore, you can be for reduction in CO2 emissions.

Of course, the dodge will be "but the reduction is unnecessary". Well, then return to the science. I think many are afraid to really do this right because they (probably unconsciously) fear it will require a compromise in their ideology. But that's what being a "bigger person" is about. The left at one point had to give up on communism, despite how much they hated the thought of having to accept the many cruelties of the capitalist system. Yet one can still be against those cruelties - not having to relent in criticism, while still acknowledging the facts. This is how ideology evolves. And hopefully something better emerges. The left has probably given up much in its neoliberalism, but it has also gained much legitimacy, not least of which is its demonstrated ability to be serious. Conservatism used to have more of that levity within its grasp. Hopefully it will emerge sooner rather than later.

Who Should Fight for What

Rick Santorum recently expressed the somewhat outrageous view that Obama should stand in solidarity with the antiabortion position because he is black.
"The question is -- and this is what Barack Obama didn't want to answer: Is that human life a person under the Constitution? And Barack Obama says no," Santorum says in the interview, which was first picked up by CBN's David Brody. "Well if that person, human life is not a person, then, I find it almost remarkable for a black man to say, 'We are going to decide who are people and who are not people.'"
Ta-Nehisi Coates points to Santorum's Italian ancestry and make this point:
I think it would be deeply wrong of me to say, "As a member of ethnic group that's suffered bigotry, Rick Santorum should be for gay marriage." The wrong would not simply extend to Santorum, it would extend to other Italian-Americans--gay or straight. I regret that I missed that. Whatever the flaws of the actual analogy, it's always wrong to treat individuals as a "collection of others." Full stop. 
Isn’t the question really about one’s personal sacrifice for a cause? What makes one person stand up and fight for something, and another sit quietly – even if they both feel the same? My guess is that they don’t actually feel the same. True solidarity requires the imagination of compassion. If any of us were more mindful of the suffering in the world, and the direct impact we can have on that suffering, we would no doubt feel more solidarity and take more action.

It seems the basic claim is that the traditionally oppressed have more capacity for empathy with the currently oppressed, as the “schema” already exist in them for the mental projection. And thus any inaction on their part must be explained as a sort of psychological disorder, or character flaw. For instance, one can be generally excused for not taking action against suffering in a foreign land, as the suffering is reasonably removed from schematic association. Yet, if one just returned from a trip to that land, and witnessed the suffering first-hand, a lack of action might need to be explained in terms of personal deficit.

Yet simply being black is not the same as returning from a village in Darfur. And what is more, being black (as opposed to white) would, on average, imply a disadvantage in social and/or human capital, in the sense that a legacy of discrimination has created a racial disparity in the area of socio-cultural engagement in American civic life. It would be reasonable that the extent that each of us be held morally accountable for responding to oppression anywhere be tied directly to the proportion of social and human capital we have been privileged to receive. Thus, he who has received very little in life ought not be as accountable for active social remediation as he who has received a great deal; agency ought to be matched with agency.

Yet a paradox develops in which the disadvantaged have the greatest facility for compassionate imagination – as they bore personal witness, while those most privileged have the least capacity, sheltered as they likely were from the manifestations of oppression. I think this is a serious structural problem in society that we must deal with. As one increases in privilege, the further one is removed from the consciousness of that privilege. Here I always think of that final scenes in the film Schindler’s List in which Schindler realizes that, with just a ring on his finger, he could have saved one more – so powerfully was he exposed to the realities of suffering. Yet the crux of the story is how someone in his position should not have had the ability to express such sympathy, and yet in the course of the story he grew this capacity, and thus grew in moral character.

As a liberal Democrat, this has been one of my greatest critiques of conservative Republicans: their worldview seems largely an expression of a privileged class, without the requisite schematics to properly empathize and express solidarity with the oppressed underclass. So when crucial yet abstract social service funding is cut, instead of marginally raising taxes, the suffering will likely happen beyond the purview of the voter and it will be up to the media to bring that reality to their attention. As someone who has worked in social services most of my life, I’m reminded of the saying, “there are no atheists in foxholes”. Well, there are few conservatives at mental health facilities, teen pregnancy centers, poor schools, rehab clinics, etc.

In the end, teasing out just who should and should not be able to express the proper quantity of solidarity is impossible. It seems reasonable that the case be simply made that the oppression must stop, and that all parties involved ought do their part. And to the extent that there are those who lack the schematics, the capacity for empathetic response, we do our part to share with them our moral imagination.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Unending Trauma

Mark Kleiman wonders if there isn't an inconsistency in abortion opponents, having defined their opposition to abortion in terms of "protecting the unborn", allowing exclusions for rape.  Unless of course their opposition involves a secret wish to punish women for sex.
The “rape exception” to anti-abortion laws makes either no sense or the wrong kind of sense. If bans on abortion reflect the inalienable human rights of the fertilized egg, then surely those rights can’t be diminished by the conditions of conception. The “except for rape” rule would be justified only if the point of the law is to punish women for having sex. (That is the point, of course, which is why the “pro-life” lobby is strongly anti-contraception and anti-sex education. But it wouldn’t do to say so.)
I think that's true as far as it goes.  Although I think many are simply operating out of a desire for compromise.  This would explain why
the gross (in both senses of the term) injustice of forcing a woman to bear her rapist’s child means that absolute bans on abortion have very little support among the voters. And the right-to-lifers have generally been satisfied with something that, according to the logic of their own position, shouldn’t satisfy them at all.
I think it's all silly.  A newly fertilized egg becomes in many ways a kind of parasite. It begins sending chemical signals into the mother’s bloodstream that alter her physical and mental state. It then latches on to the wall of her uterus, driving out tiny tendrils deep into her flesh and eventually establishing a permanent mainline into her veins.

Life is a devilishly ingenious device. But all this hocus pocus about it being some sort of cosmic entity with a “soul” is really quite silly. We’ve evolved to give meaning to our children and love them. There are plenty of practical and prima fascie reasons for doing so. But there is little reason to ascribe such meaning to unborn children. If you want to love your zygote, by all means. But that’s your trip.

Friday, January 28, 2011

It's Not the Dang Teachers...

Obama's mention of education in the state of the union has been generating discussion.  Now Glenn Loury hops aboard the teacher bashing bandwagon:

"The lack of respect - to the extent that it's there - to my mind has a lot to do with the lack of..."

Me: Come on, Glenn, say it, say "...NCLB's laser-like focus on the achievement gap and the New Reform movement's subsequent placement of blame for it at the foot of teachers in general, not on long-standing social problems and lack of resources for sufficient intervention into poor schools.

"... lack of outstanding and impressive performance by the range of people going into the profession, which has a lot to do with the rewards that are available... but certainly not because we, as Americans have just chosen out of pique to allocate less esteem to teaching as a profession."

Oh, Glenn. Does he really think that if the achievement gap were closed, that we would even be having this discussion? Yet, what about all the teachers you never hear about, who make roughly the same money, go to similar colleges, have unions, etc. yet who teach at more affluent schools, and therefor appear to be doing an amazing job? Is there some special secret that they have? Oh, that's right, they have different students.

The public is angry at teachers because NCLB shoved the moral issue of low performance at poor schools in everyone's faces, and then offered a promise to fix it by focusing almost solely on teacher performance. Now all teachers are labeled as bad because of the really hard job teachers at poor schools have. Yet no one is willing to take personal responsibility for the problem, because it is so much easier - and common sense - to expect teachers to "do their job".

Yet the job is something most people haven't a clue about. The chattering class largely went to fairly nice schools, in nice neighborhoods, and don't understand how hard it is to teach at a poor school. They then see these almost Potemkin charters set up with stunning results, not realizing that a lot of very special things went on behind the scenes to create that, and that they aren't a model that is scalable. Or they watch movies about supposedly masterful teachers who can turn classrooms around by pure force of will, and they expect everyone to be able to do that. Not realizing of course that A) these people usually don't have lives and B) you can find a handful of Michael Jordans or John Rambos in any field, but to structure policy around everyone being like them is not just stupid, but unfair to the poor students who "didn't get superman".

Can I make the military analogy again? What if Glenn said that crap about the Iraq or Afghanistan war? That we didn't need better support, we just needed more outstanding soldiers. He wouldn't hear the end of it. Or how about police units in bad parts of town. Who is expecting them to make the streets safe, then collecting data on them and threatening to publish it online? No - we realize they have a job to do, face enormous odds, and bust their asses off for God and country.

I mean, as Hank Hill might say, "Well that just tears it!"

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Like Crud off a Heel

Megan McCardle and Dana Goldstein discuss the state of education at Bloggingheads.  I'm kind of proud of myself.  I made it an entire eleven minutes before I couldn't stand it any longer....

"I'm not really worried about whether the Scarsdale schools are doing a good job evaluating their teachers or not - they seem to be doing OK."

Alright, this is where my hair finally ripped out.  Megan, how could you be so right, and yet so wrong-headed?!!!!  At the beginning of the podcast, you lamented that we are stuck in the same old debate over how much we can expect from teachers and schools, and where people keep arguing it's the kids (poverty, etc.) and that those factors are out of teachers' control - but that this is the real world and "we can't wait until 100% of the world in under your control before we start evaluating you".

Why not?  Because what teachers are saying is simply this: it is unfair to expect the same outcomes out of completely different situations.  If you want the outcomes to be fair, then you need to either change the situation, or change your expectation for outcomes.  Of course, no one wants to lower their expectations for outcomes - this is the achievement gap.  But the real dillema is that one side (which by now includes most of the liberal establishment, including the Obama administration, and the entire right) wants to essentially get a free reduction in the outcome gap, while the other wants more support given to the side that is gertting the raw end of the deal.

Because what we are doing right now is comparing inner city schools with the Scarsdales, and then figuring out how we can make those inner city teachers better (Maybe they weren't top of their class?  Maybe they don't have the right training?  Maybe they need pay-for-performance?  Maybe they need to lose their tenure?  Maybe they need to lose their unions so they can give up prep periods and work longer hours for less pay?  Maybe they need just the perfect kind of curriculum?). 

This is absurd.  If you approached most other industries this way, you'd be laughed out of town.  Yet in education, because the market consists of a belief in human equality and common good, we get to say, "Well, the teachers just need to buck up and sacrifice more." Well, teaching any population is a sacrifice.  But at poor schools, the job is so much harder, for countless reasons, and yet the support teachers get is just about exactly the same as at a Scarsdale.  Minus the extra fundraising.  Minus the parent volunteers and involvement.

When we send troops to Italy, we understand that their job is a lot easier than it is in Afghanistan.  So we spend billions of dollars making sure that in combat zones, they get the support they need, or at least as much of it as possible.  Yet in education, we say to teachers, we're going to give you about the same support, yet expect you to do 2-3x the job.  No, literally.  Poor students often come in to school 2-3 years behind their peers.  And that's just academic skills, not even counting all the behavioral problems and social drama unfolding in their lives.

So for Megan to sit there and scold the teachers of the poor for only being out for their own interests, while they're out there everyday cleaning up the social decay of a society that won't even recognize and hold itself accountable for the dysfunction of a mass low-wage working sector and a legacy of discrimination and poverty. It makes me sick, really.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Obama Follows Herd

In his 2011 State of the Union address this evening, President Obama came out with his New Reform credentials displayed proudly on his chest.  After making passing comments about the need for proper parenting, he tore right into what he considers the the main problem: bad schools and bad teachers!
Our schools share this responsibility. When a child walks into a classroom, it should be a place of high expectations and high performance. But too many schools don't meet this test. That's why instead of just pouring money into a system that's not working, we launched a competition called Race to the Top. To all fifty states, we said, "If you show us the most innovative plans to improve teacher quality and student achievement, we'll show you the money."
Notice he didn't say that the biggest problem in American schools is concentrated around family socio-economic status.  He didn't say that poor schools are struggling against overwhelming odds, trying their best to salve the wounds of communities in crisis: the stress of multiple jobs, single-parent families, low educational attainment, non-academic culture, and plenty of abuse and neglect to go around.  He didn't mention that any of this is driving the achievement gap, and that educating the poor in America is a herculean task, especially when given roughly the same resources as are targeted to more affluent schools.  He didn't mention that "turning around" a school isn't a simple thing, and that is often something being asked to do with - certainly in these economic times - much less than adequate resources.

No, he blamed the schools.  He championed Race to the Top:
For less than one percent of what we spend on education each year, it has led over 40 states to raise their standards for teaching and learning.
Really?  Higher standards?  I'm not quite sure what he means by standards.  I don't think he means educational content.  Because that isn't the problem.  Does he mean holding teachers accountable?   So you stick them in a classroom full of 40 poor kids who come from disadvantaged homes and whose parents don't prepare them, they hate school, and you expect them to not only keep them making adequate progress but - as is often needed - bring them up multiple grade levels?  All without extra funding to pay for extra support for tutoring, longer hours, smaller class sizes or longer days, of course. Doe she mean standards as in "expectations"?  Oh, we expect a lot from poor students.  We expect them to pay attention in class, take notes, do their homework, work hard.  And when they don't, they go to summer school, fail and eventually drop out.  In elementary school you can hold them back once - but kids grow, you know.  I honestly don't know what he's talking about.
You see, we know what's possible for our children when reform isn't just a top-down mandate, but the work of local teachers and principals; school boards and communities.
This is especially rich.  RTT is not a top-down mandate - the work of teachers and principles.  I understand that he may have felt these words sounded good.  But so does "I am relaxing on the beach in the Bahamas".  But I don't get to say them.  Especially not on national television.

He then pointed to Bruce Randolph School in Denver, CO:
Three years ago, it was rated one of the worst schools in Colorado; located on turf between two rival gangs. But last May, 97% of the seniors received their diploma. Most will be the first in their family to go to college.
Oh, boy.  I could only have imagined.  The school was indeed a high-poverty, poor performing school, and then underwent a remarkable turn-around.  Not only are almost all the student graduating, but 87% are apparently going to college.  OK.  I was wrong.  You don't need to "pour money into schools".  All you need to do is get rid of the union, get rid of the bad teachers, and ummm... give up some union and district rules.  That's it!  Hurray!

Wait a second.  That's it?  All you have to do is fire all the bad teachers and, like fantasy phoenixes, poor schools simply soar into paradise?  Arghhh... those terrible teachers and unions - ruining everything!

But, why hasn't this happened more often?  Plenty of schools without unions are struggling.  Southern schools certainly have their share of problems, but union strength isn't one of them - many lack representation entirely.  In fact, the results are very mixed as to whether union vs. non-union schools perform very differently at all.  A more interesting question might be just to ask what was happening at Randolph that impacted student achievement so much.

Unfortunately, I haven't been able to come up with much.  These two articles, both from the Denver Post, and by the same writer, don't offer many clues.  After a shake-up, most of the staff did indeed leave - only 4 out of 40 chose to remain.  Vague references are made to the school's decision to opt out of regular district and union rules.
The high-poverty school was the first to petition for and be granted innovation status — an agreement by union teachers to waive certain district and union the school flexibility with its budget, hiring decisions, time, calendar and incentives..... They gave struggling pupils Saturday and after-school tutoring and eventually offered Advanced Placement courses..... The idea was to give teachers more time, money and other resources to work with struggling students. The school has been climbing in achievement over the years.
Hmmm.  Something that also stands out in the articles is a sense from staff and students that the staff and new administration seemed to really care.  One of the elements of a quality school that often goes unmentioned, and is almost impossible to quantify, is the degree to which a school's culture emphasizes kindness and respect towards students.  This is the stuff that is most rare and difficult to nurture in poor schools, as the environment is already filled with enough stress, frustration and apprehensiveness.  But it makes all the difference.

So, one wonders where they got the funding to provide extra tutoring and Saturday classes.  But aside from that, there doesn't seem to have been much more going on than a shift in momentum at the school.  And while we can wish them all the best, these sorts of examples of high performance at poor schools can be sadly short-lived.  Given the extent to which the students - and thus teachers - at poor schools are at a disadvantage when it comes to success, should we be placing all of our faith in finding the perfect teachers, those with the higher-than-average ability to deal with what are generally the most difficult and stressful teaching environments?  And in doing so, should we punish the vast majority of teachers who deserve their tenure and union representation?

The president continues to add his voice to the chorus of well-meaning but misguided and naive New reformers who, in the process of trying to create a better system, are making things worse.  For every Bruce Randolph, there are hundreds more who are crumbling under the weight of meager resources, broken communities, and ever-more top-down mandates and scrutinized protocols designed to assess and promote achievement, but which are killing the soul of education.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Mc Education

Recently, I had a very interesting conversation with a colleague at the continuation high school I teach at.  In her reflections on the changes that have occurred over her 20 year career with the program, there are interesting insights into the transformation the larger educational landscape has undergone.  As we have moved towards a more business-like, corporate model of education, we have sacrificed much of the nuance and personal connection between teachers and students.

She began teaching in 1990, and spent the first 9 years working at a small store-front satellite of the continuation program.  Working with one other teacher, she served a class of 20 students in a largely impoverished, yet growing community.  At that point in time the community did not have its own high school, and so children would take the bus to the main campus.  Speaking to a teacher at the high school during that time, she recalled being told that “80% of our problem students come from that community”.  And so when many of them were inevitably expelled for drugs, fighting, or academic failure, they were sent to her continuation classroom.

Because there were two teachers, the students were able to have many of their needs well met.  There was little administrative interference, and thus planning was based on what the teachers thought best. They were given 2 hours of preparation time each day.  This allowed them the freedom not only to plan excellent content, but the time to make connections with the community.  They would make numerous daily phone calls home, as well as actual visits to their students’ homes.  

As anyone who has worked with at-risk populations knows, this kind of holistic approach is vital to getting at the root cause of the child’s lack of success.  In speaking with the parents, visiting the home, not only hearing about but seeing the challenges the student is facing, allows the teacher to better understand and therefor communicate effectively with the child.  In the traditional education model, there is simply not enough time in the day to make these types of connections.  With a functioning population, this is not a big problem.  But in communities devastated by drugs, gangs and violence, as well as lack of education, the ordinary classroom environment and its expectations for proper academic and social behavior are too difficult for many students to navigate.  

After nine years, my colleague returned to the main continuation campus, where she has been teaching ever since.  With the passage of NCLB, the steady drum beat of “data collection” and other business-like approaches to education grew ever louder.  The emphasis on treating each child holistically lessened, and more and more time was given to processing new evaluative, “accountability” systems.  An endless procession of old ideas were dressed up as new, in the always elusive quest for a sort of “killer app” that would radically transform dismal student performance, and close the achievement gap once and for all. 
A key feature of NCLB is the concept of placing low-performing schools under “program improvement” status.  What this amounts to is a specific number of hours mandated for staff-development training, the content of which is chosen not by the principle but by school administration.  Not necessarily poor quality in and of itself, the practical effect of these trainings is that all of a school’s collaboration time is suddenly taken up by so-called intervention strategies that are designed by people who are rarely involved at the site level.  Often times, development “packages” – whether seminars or software – are bought in bulk by the district, and each school is expected to utilize them.

This can be an enormous waste of time, money, and ultimately, student performance.  Because of the top-down way in which these “program improvement tools” are foisted upon teachers, with no input from them (aside from hopefully some intervention by the union who might negotiate specific requirements for pay or development time), there is no way teachers can give quality feedback as to a program’s efficacy.  A dysfunctional feedback loop is created in which the teachers are expected to follow a program or lose their job, and the administrators have little interest in whether the program is useful, caring only that the protocols are being followed.  This is a classic pitfall of the corporate world, wherein employees are expected to doggedly follow some or another procedure cooked up by someone at multiple levels of removal from the actual production floor, and there are no communication channels established by which production staff can honestly and openly provide effective feedback.  One of the maybe counter-intuitive benefits to the company of worker organization is that a sort of democracy is established, and workers are liberated to take an active role in challenging what can be inefficient or unhealthy policies.  When it comes to education, the teacher is the last line of defense from these types of out-of-touch, wrongheaded decisions.  Yet there has been a slow but steady march towards a corporate model, with NCLB laying the groundwork. And it is no surprise that some of the same problems that plague the corporate world have also come to plague education.

The Data Analysis Worksheet, or DAW, has become a prominent feature of education reform in California.  The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.  The idea is that by having teachers of similar subjects collaborate on a regular basis, creating a common, objective measure of student performance in their class, they can then use the data to improve instruction.  A standard is chosen, and then students are given pre and post assessments.  Students are placed into intervention groups, and teachers brainstorm ways to improve targeted instructional strategies.  Most “program improvement” schools are required to follow the program.  What this means is that at least 4-5 hours a month becomes requisitioned for the DAW process.  In practical terms, this top-down, rigid and centralized planning methodology takes the place of time that formerly could have been used for bottom-up collaboration between teachers, driven not by what some “suit” thinks is best practice and is not tailored to the specific site’s needs, but by what the actual teachers see as a priority for the students.  The DAW can very quickly become cumbersome, of little use because of difficulties applying it to varied instructional environments.
What has essentially occurred is a massive shift in power away from teachers and principals, and towards administrators and legislators who are many levels of remove from the classroom.  But what has driven this transformation?  In large part, it originated in recognition that the nation was failing millions of poor students, and a subsequent judgment that this was due to inadequacies in teaching practice, not structural disadvantages that can only be reliably remedied by addressing the individual needs of low-SES students. In an effort to drive a stake through the heart of the achievement gap, power has been almost spitefully yanked away from those in daily contact with students.  

In my colleague’s case, this has meant not only sharp cutbacks in her ability to reach out to and support her students, but what amounts to an hour of her preparation time each week spent laboring on a sort of educational kabuki.  Because, you see, the DAW is worthless in a continuation environment.  Because of the transiency, wide variance in ability and preparedness, as well as general mental health, any good data we can collect and share with colleagues is buried within terrible data – the continuation environment is largely designed for students to work independently, and at their own pace.  Direct instruction generally takes the form of one-on-one interactions between teacher and student.  In many cases, the student is doing no work at all, yet receiving a form of “therapy” from their teacher, in that a concerned adult is trying daily to help get them back on track – even if that means getting them to make the most minimal, yet invaluable behavioral changes.  Sometimes it takes a student weeks or even months to develop the motivation to begin doing his or her work, but within that time, the teacher has been making calls home, asking questions and trying to do whatever he can to get that kid “back on the wagon” so to speak.

The continuation environment isn’t a microcosm of the larger high-school.  It is basically filled with only the most at-risk kids.  But their story isn’t so far removed from so many other low-SES, low-performing students.  The majority of them are from the lowest-SES populations overall.  The problems they face are complex, and there are many structural impediments to their finding success.  But the same can be said for low-SES students in general.  And instead of placing our faith in the thousands of teachers out there who work with these populations every day, who likely became teachers because they were willing to make the emotional and physical sacrifices necessary to help these students succeed, we have demonized them as sub-par failures, protected by corrupt unions.  We have decided to look toward the corporate model of success in which orders are handed down from above, with little input required from below.  That may work in some industries (although frankly, I’m skeptical), but it certainly isn’t going to work in education.

My colleague is reaching the end of her career, one in which she has watched the pendulum swinging in one general direction, and to poor effect – measured by her ability to meet the needs of her students.  As I look towards the future of my own career, I can only hope to be a part of a reversal of that pendulum, one in which control is localized, teachers are empowered, and resources are targeted toward those in society who truly need them most.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Perils of Rigidity

The recent discovery of Dr. Kermitt Gosnell's malpractice has been fanning flames in the abortion debate.  I think one of the biggest problems in this debate - is a lack of nuance.  This is really tricky ethical/moral stuff.  There is a lot on the line for people, and the issue is in many ways a sort of Rorschach test. 

For instance, I don't believe there is a God or creator, or that any of us has any soul, or "meaning" in the grandest sense.  I believe we are simply a highly evolved set of molecules placed in a specific sequence, that the original "life" was able to assemble a series of amino acids and self-replicate trillions of times over, covering the Earth with all manner of life we now see around us.  In this way my ear cells, when placed in a petri dish are just as "alive" as anything or anyone.  Yet I not only believe but know that life has meaning in a smaller sense - actually quite literally as a manifestation of my ability to sense and "make sense" of the world.  Thus, I feel emotion and am able to empathize with fellow creatures. 

Yet any meaning I assign to life is well, not arbitrary, but relative to my world view, my culture, my reasoning, etc.  This is how I believe, for instance, that it is wrong to cause animals to suffer.  But I realize that this is a meaning that I have created in my mind, at least in so far as it is something I have thought about and come to a conclusion on.  Yet I realize that others may have different, yet reasonable views.  I think they are wrong, but they won't think so, because their meaning is different than mine.  And their views are likely entirely consistent with their worldview.  They don't view animals the same way as I do, and so don't empathize the way that I do. 

When Rick Santorum brought his dead child's fetal body home to sleep with, he had given it a much different meaning than I would have.  When my wife had a miscarriage, I couldn't have cared less.  The baby didn't feel pain, we didn't know it, and I had no reason to empathize with it - no more than I would my sperm or my wife's unfertilized eggs.  There's nothing especially significant to me about the fertilization process.  At a certain point, a the baby begins to feel, or at least develop the capacity to suffer.  Although even then, suffering doesn't come into it so much - I no doubt suffered considerably when I was circumsized. 

In any event, there must come a point at which infanticide is wrong, either within or without the uterus.  We certainly can't have people killing their children.  So how does one find that line?  The sort of strict, black & white approach would be to draw a line in the sand at a definition of "life".  But isn't that a sort of tautological, semantic device?  As I mentioned previously, biologically, I don't believe anyone is really a "life" any more than any cell anywhere is.  This is where we each simply create meaning.  For me, "life", or human life at least, is experiential - in the sense that it is something that emerges from the uterus, and immediately takes on special significance to the immediate relations, and to a lesser extent larger society.  The baby has feelings and needs, and the community has an interest in giving it great significance. 

Do I have a perfect line I can draw that says after this moment the baby takes on enough meaning for its life to be spared?  Certainly not.  "Meaning" is almost unquantifiable by definition.  When do cookies become "good"?  When is a song "beautiful"?  Yet we obviously have to make rules as a society, even if they must in a sense be very arbitrary.  Rules often are.  What should the sentence for theft be?  How do you quantify the wrong that was done?  It seems that if any debate demands nuance, it is abortion.  Yet as is often the case in controversies where one's worldview is at stake, rigidity seems so much the more powerful and "righteous" - one might even say easy, stance. 

Some will think me a murderer.  Some will say my nuance leaves the door open for a slippery slide into the evils of moral relativism.  I see no reason for that to be the case.  Just because I know a 70 mph speed limit is somewhat arbitrary, I know that speeding is dangerous.  So too do I know that killing people is wrong.  I just don't know exactly when one becomes that sort of "human".  In standing up for nuance, and rejecting the safe, firm chains of rigidity, one goes out on a limb.  Yet there is a great faith there.  It is a faith in the reasonableness of humanity.  Sure we can be brutal and inhumane.  But we can also be incredibly wise and reflective.  The irony of nuance may be that the greatest evils have come not from nuance, but rigidity itself.  Because with rigidity comes a closing of the mind.  That may be a good thing if the cause is good.  But what if the cause is bad?  And once rigidity has set in, how would one know?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Gold Rush

Ann Althouse gives what I think may the most creative apology yet for how extreme conservative rhetoric is not creating a dangerous climate.

I will commend her for at least acknowledging that it exists. But I still find her argument unconvincing in that it ignores how comprehensive is the (formerly) fringe right-wing narrative on government illigitimacy, and how it has left considerable wreckage in its wake.

In the 1990'sRuby Ridge and Waco were highly politicized by the right and used to continue fabricating the paranoid narrative of impending tyranny. As was the Elian Gonzalez stand-off, I might add. This was the same right wing that at the time was talking about the New World Order, UN, and forming up militias all over.

The government was never close to posing any such threat, yet to hear the fringe pundits at the time, the response to Ruby and Waco were perfect such evidence. So the connection from these events to Oklahoma only existed because the groundwork had already been laying for decades.

Imagine if the left continued its delegitimizing of the government and business the way it had in the 60's, hewing to that radicalism more in line with Jeremiah Wright. (It hasn't - that sort of discourse is still very fringe on the left. It's an empirical question and demonstrably false.) But if it had, and the mainstream left seriously talked about the government in terms of impending tyranny or oppression, they would be completely on the hook for any sort of anti-government/business violent protest that occurs.

A perfect example of this is eco-terrorism and animal rights radicals. They feel that certain industries are illegitimate, and therefore real targets. To the extent that there is extreme rhetoric over these issues, it should be held accountable for contributing to a climate of violence. I've never heard anything like that on the radio, but it must exist! On the right, this would be the anti-abortion terrorism, and the extreme rhetoric that fuels it.

I don't see how hard it is to make the connection. Extreme rhetoric from Islamists contributes to terrorism because it legitimizes the entirety of the West, and thus violent acts occur. Once one's opponent is no longer simply a democratic sparring partner and loses their legitimacy entirely, they become much easier to think of as an "enemy" to be removed with force. The right has allowed such discourse of "illegitimacy" into its mainstream, it is a common occurrence for them to use extreme and violent rhetoric, and therefor it is perfectly justified for people - the left, whoever - to become concerned that the climate has become dangerous.

I think the right is really struggling right now because it has in a sense hoisted itself on its own petard, captured perfectly in the phrase "keep your government off my Medicare". It has embraced a sort of big-tent conservatism that wraps around and eats its own tail. The crazy originalist libertarians who want to gut the federal government and go back to the nightwatchman state are at one end, while the reasonable folks who view some government as important and good are at the other. All of the sound and fury comes from the former, who can make grandiose claims and invoke the enormity of the gap between the present and their ideal, making it seem as if the US government really is one step from Socialism. Yet the same originalism, if followed logically (as many libertarian zealots do, in their defense), would do away with enormous parts of what the latter holds dear.

Thus, in their extremist rhetoric they've gotten all the passionate narrative they've asked for, yet it is one quite out of step with reality. So you have the Althouses of the world having to do these elaborate rhetorical gymnastics just to get this cancerous genie back in the bottle. "Oh, it's all in good fun. They don't really mean it. It's just their style of speaking." Well, sorry dear, but while that may be true for someone as brilliantly smarmy as Limbaugh, his listeners - as well as proteges such as Beck et all - actually believe it! Let's just hope they wise up and tone it down a notch before we really do get someone shouting "Goooooooooooooold!" as they ignite a truck of fertilizer.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Naming the Problem, Part III: On My Own

On My Own

When I finished school, my wife and I moved to Reading, PA, where I got hired as a sub.  Nothing could have prepared me for what I would see there.  Reading was a small industrial city that took a dive when manufacturing up and left.  When I arrived the inner-portions of town were largely populated by the poor and immigrants.  There were shootings almost nightly.  The median family income was around $25k, half the state average.  The crime rate was twice the national average.

I'll never forget what I - even now - consider the worst assignment I have ever been given.  It was a second grade classroom, at a school located smack in the middle of one of Reading's most violent neighborhoods.  Granted, this was still my first year, and I no doubt made many rookie mistakes.  But I simply could not control the class.  They refused to listen to me.  No matter how many students I gave warnings to, or sent to the office, no one was interested in listening.  When one disruptive student put his head down to sleep on his desk I simply allowed him, thankfully that he was no longer making any noise.  At lunch, I learned that already that year they had had 2 teachers quit.  They were on their 3rd and she was out with laryngitis.

What was going on?  I began to notice a profound contrast between schools based solely on the socioeconomic make-up of the demographic.  In more affluent parts of the city (what few there were), the students were much better behaved and seemed more eager to learn.  

next time: Other Coast, Same Story.  I return to my native California, and find a similar pattern.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Illegitimacy and Violence

I've written this before, but these are the two questions I have in the debate over violent political rhetoric:
A) Is the large quantity of extreme rhetoric dangerous?
B) Is there more of it coming from the right?
I return to them because they still do not seem to have been answered very well.  Yet some clarity is needed in sorting out just where violent rhetoric comes from.  We know that it has historically been responsible for violence, and so we must think seriously about what is being said.

I'm not sure we can be certain about the first question. But it seems perfectly reasonable to assume so, especially considering the acts of violence we have seen that were specifically political, the worst of course being the Oklahoma City bombing.

I think we can be very certain about the second question. While extreme or violent rhetoric can also be found on the left, it doesn't exist in anywhere near the volume it does on the right. I think the main reason for this is that the violent language always seems to come from a sense of deep mistrust of an institution's legitimacy. In the 60's this was the government for the left. For eco-terrorists, this would be logging companies. For animal rights groups, research labs. But for the most part, the left has become quite centrist, favoring a strong balance of government and free markets.

The right however, is still in many forms preaching the illegitimacy of the government. Very high-profile figures on the right have expressed this view in clear language. It is no wonder then, that the instances of obviously violent rhetoric were based on this assumption, that our very existence as a nation is imperiled by an oppressive, illegitimate government.

There are many drivers of this view. And every paranoid conspiracy promoted on the right has been rooted in the question of legitimacy: FEMA camps, birthers, socialism, death panels, federal reserve, NAFTA highway, gun confiscation. These are all part of a narrative that the government is somehow on the verge of radical transformation, an imminent threat to our most basic liberties. Even without the crazy conspiracies, a modest form of this narrative is driving at least a majority of the current conservative movement.

So when people point to specific statements and argue over whether it was or was not a "call for violence", I think they are missing the larger point. An ecosystem which views the government not just as wrong yet functioning democratically, but wrong and functioning undemocratically, is defining that government as illegitimate. This is the definition of tyranny. And, as many on the right have pointed out, extra-governmental problems require extra-governmental solutions.

This is actually a popular debate happening on the right right now. At what point are we justified in violent revolt against an illegitimate government? It is a question that our founders obviously grappled with, and the tea party is a literal reflection of that sentiment. Whether you agree or not, the right is very concerned that we are reaching that point. Thus the talk of 2nd amendment rights/remedies, secession, and the "shredding of the constitution".

The left is simply not there. We were, decades ago. But not today. The reason you don't hear the same kind of rhetoric on the left is that there is no narrative for it, like there is on the right. Is the rhetoric dangerous? I think so. I think it comes from the exact place that the Oklahoma City bombing came from, along with countless militia groups and weapon stock-pilers. Most of this is just lazy thinking. And I'm not so worried that there will be any kind of armed revolt. But it is a climate in which weirdos can thrive. If serious thinkers are calling the government illegitimate, then it stands to reason that unserious thinkers are going to take the next step and blow up a building.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Two Sides of the Fence

 I recently came across the blog of Conor Williams, a PhD candidate at Georgetown, author at the liberal think-tank Center for American Progress, and a columnist for the Washinton Post.  Interestingly, he taught first grade for two years at a Title I school in Brooklyn as a Teach for America member.

After reading some of his posts on education, I realized I had found in Conor an interesting adversary.  He essentially takes the standard Education Reform position: that bad teaching is to blame for the achievement gap, that poverty is being used as an "excuse" for schools' continued poor performance, and that by eliminating teacher tenure and removing, or side-stepping, union resistance we will be able to close the gap.

I responded to a post of his in which he agonized over whether to send his own child to a DC school, knowing that so many of them are performing so poorly.  He wrote:
“So while my wife and I are proud District residents, we’ve hesitated over buying property in the city. When we have kids, and when those kids are ready for their first day of kindergarten, we need to be confident that the local public schools will give them their best chance to get “the knowledge to go to college.” We’re hoping for proof that the District’s schools are on a stable upward path.”
 I began by pointing to the fact that SES effects child development, and different students have different needs that aren't being addressed by current reform models.  I then took on his specific comments:
Your statement illustrates this seeming disconnect. You mention hesitating over sending your kids to a DC school, worrying whether it would prepare your child for success, that it would be on an upward trajectory. But aren’t you really talking about the student population? Aren’t you more worried about your child (the sire of upwardly mobile, college educated parents) being dragged down by the under-prepared, ignorant lower-class children? Isn’t this exactly what we are talking about when we are talking about school “choice” – the idea that no one should have to send their kids to one of these schools?

Well, aren’t we forgetting something really important about poverty and class in the United States? Property has value and neighborhoods become segregated by means and income. Families with human and social capital pay for property among their own, while families with little capital pay for property among their own. It’s the dirty little secret that educated, privileged white guys like us like to pretend isn’t entirely responsible for why we are where we are.
I then went on to discuss a Super Vidoqo perennial favorite site:, and how perfectly it illustrates the real problem facing our schools.

Conor responded by acknowledging that our theoretical differences were indeed great.  He then offered his own insight based on his experience teaching at a high poverty charter school:
My school shared a building with other neighborhood schools. Our student population was identical, but our teacher population was not. In my charter school, school culture was built around high expectations for teachers and their at-will contracts. We taught 11 months of the year, and had students in school for 9 hours a day. Classes pushed, and sometimes exceeded the 30 student mark.

Meanwhile, down the hall, policies were approximately the exact opposite: smaller classes, shorter days, shorter school year, teacher tenure, etc. There was no appreciable difference in funding between the schools. Our school, in Crown Heights, became one of the highest-scoring 3rd/4th grade schools in NYC, while the other schools in our building stagnated. The first year I taught, my students made an average of nearly 2.5 years of reading growth. Though only 1/3 of my students came to first grade on grade level, 100% left on or above it. The second year, all of my students were at or above grade level, but we made an average of 1.8 years of reading growth.
My response is as follows: 

I didn’t go into alternative prescriptions as I wanted to make the point that kids from different backgrounds need different levels of support. I think it is awesome that you were able to see such remarkable results with your students. And there are a few questions I would ask.

But first, you wrote:
“There are plenty who believe that poverty is the best factor to address for improving our schools, and there are plenty of others who believe that teachers and schools are the best factor to address for improving our schools. ”
This isn’t how I’d frame my position. Did you have a chance to look at the mapping website I linked to? Schools with high APIs are by far the ones located in affluent neighborhoods, where high levels of social capital, and thus human capital exist. I’ll assume you aren’t denying that there is a huge “environmental gap” in where students are coming from.

Your side is saying that this gap can be erased by more effective teaching methods (better teachers), not more support, or smaller classes. (You did mention that your school had longer hours, which I am in complete support of, although asking teachers to do this without extra pay seems unreasonable. If the union demanded extra pay for these hours would they be “standing in the way of reform”?).

My side is saying that the gap won’t be erased this way. And so far, the evidence bears this out. To date, charters aren’t really showing much better results. There are many more factors that go into successful schools than merely “high expectations” and fire-at-will policies. I spent three years teaching kindergarten at a low-income charter with no union and it was pretty horrible. The administration had a top-down approach that stifled teacher input and an oppressive climate of fear developed after numerous seemingly capricious firings. Good teachers (in my view) were fired, and often replaced by those no better. Expectations were high in all of our classes, but as we struggled to maintain enrollment, we couldn’t afford to expel students for non-compliance . (A K-12 school, many of our students had left district schools because of behavior, and acted no different with us.) So when assignments weren’t completed, or attendance was abysmal, there was no option but to push on.

The main question I had when I read your response, and this is a big criticism of charters in general, was what role selection might have played at your school. Could you afford to hold parents and students accountable by expulsion for non-compliance, and if so, would this have had an effect on your student population? Obviously, all poor families are not alike. Many, if not most would be capable of following rigid expectations for accountability. But many cannot – for any number factors associated with low-SES, such as drug abuse, violence, low-priorities for education, etc. These are the families that pull entire classrooms and schools down. These are families who produce students with severe emotional and behavioral problems, who hate school, and make learning difficult for everyone. These are the families parents are avoiding when they seek school “choice”. These are families that can’t handle “high expectations”. I taught high school science my last year at the charter (long story), and 3/4 of my students were consistently failing. They would literally just not do the work. Assigning homework was a joke. I practically did somersaults trying to make my lessons as engaging as possible, but they simply hated school. I currently teach at a continuation high school and this is my entire student population. They come in after two years of high school transcripts are seas of “F”s. Their lives are filled with drugs and violence, and school feels more like a prison than anything else – which is where many will end up.

My solution – to the extent that I have one – is built around these families. They are the ones responsible for the achievement gap, and they are heavily concentrated in poor urban areas. They are the ones who really need extra support. They need smaller class sizes, longer hours, school psychologists, and social workers. You can get rid of teacher tenure and unions, implement pay-for-performance, but these families will still not be getting their needs met. To the extent that these families are not being addressed by current reform models – it’s all the teachers/schools – they will continue to be left behind, pulling many down with them. This is what teachers in regular schools know, and what is behind the unions’ advocacy for not unfairly penalizing those of us, with a class of 30 kids and little extra support, faced with an impossible challenge day in and day out, who are doing our best in a bad situation.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Unseen Among Us

California's newly elected governor Jerry Brown has proposed a budget that outlines serious cuts on social services.  It is a conservative proposal, yet one that in many ways Californians deserve.  Michael O'Hare describes the approach thusly:
Brown is saying, and pretty clearly, “this is the government you seem to be willing to pay for.  You’ve been getting a lot of stuff for ‘free’, by borrowing and cooking the books, but we’re out of tricks and that table is no longer taking bets. If you want some of the stuff that’s going away, you will have to agree to give up some things you’ve been buying on your own.”
As voters have indeed refused to pay for these services, I see no real option other than to give them what they request.  What I worry however, is that many of the social service cuts will neither directly impact, nor even be noticed by the majority of voting, taxpaying Californians.  So when they see the budget returning to balance, much of the wreckage will have gone unnoticed.

Just one case: there is a program at my school site that provides high school education to teen mothers. They spend 5 periods a day in special classes, and one period a day in the daycare rooms, where they – along with other mothers and staff – see to the needs of 10-20 infants. I recently spoke with the program director and she expressed great concern that the cuts they were already receiving would continue, having severe effects on the quality of services they were able to provide.

I’m willing to bet most people have no idea that programs like these exist. I’m OK with that. One of the nice things about civilization is that every citizen doesn’t need to micromanage every aspect of public life. We have a set of core beliefs, and then elect representatives who will hopefully be advocates for our general worldview. We can then entrust them to listen to interest groups and policy specialists. So for instance, I don’t know a lot about how to organize a fire department, but I trust my elected official will take a deliberate approach to policy suggestions from those who make fire response their business.

I’ve spent considerable time working in various areas of social service, a largely publicly funded sector that always seems to be strapped for cash. I have spoken with conservatives who had been mostly unaware of the services being provided, and yet when I tell them of my experiences and the importance of the work, they seemed to become more sympathetic, and acknowledged that there was a real moral need which demanded funding.

The liberal worldview assumes that social problems are going to require social services. One does not need to be aware of every single program out there, but that a sufficiently liberal representative will make it his or her priority to address these needs via state spending. Even if one does not live in a ghetto, half-way house, or mental health center, the idea is that these problems exist, and require a level of equal access to services that only the state can provide, either directly or by purchasing private contracts. Interestingly, to the degree to which the media is liberal, it portrays stories of these parts of society which are in need. Because those in the stories are generally only receiving help because of public funding, a sort of feedback loop is created in which liberalism provides answers to problems, then is reported on by liberal media to a liberal audience.

The conservative worldview does not assume a need for social services. It largely views these problems as needing to be met by individuals, families or church organizations. Yet these groups are generally not up to the task, and certainly not capable of providing equal access. One town might have a strong church outreach program that meets a certain level of need, yet another town might not, and thus a serious need goes unmet. This was basically the situation before the progressive era, where a smattering of charity organizations did their best to take on as many social services as they could. Society has changed considerably in size and complexity in the last 100 years. Trying to imagine what a return to an era of such limited state involvement would look like is a difficult counter-factual to conceive of. (This irony may exist: has the rise of the government social service sector actually lessened the burden on religious organizations, in turn taking them “off the hook”, and driving their entire spiritual outlook away from their traditional emphasis on serving the poor and needy? In this case, cuts on government program funding would leave not only a literal vacuum in the rendering of service, but a spiritual one as well.) If even the current level of neglect towards the needy is any indication, the resulting abandonment would seem to be horrifically unjust and immoral. The teenage mothers I visited, for instance, would essentially be put out to fend for themselves, and any chance of a diploma would be basically lost.

So when the conservative does not assume a need for social services exists, is unaware of the need because he does not encounter the need in his daily life, and does not encounter the liberal reporting that communicates such need, what will be his response to the need? One is tempted to ask the proverbial question: does tree in the forest makes a sound, if no one is there to hear it? One of the ways the social need comes to broader social consciousness is directly through the providers of services, as well as those involved in crafting policy responses and communicating needs to public officials. But when services are no longer being offered, there are that many fewer providers, and the need itself becomes lost. The teen mothers will have gone home, sans diploma and invisible to wider society. The suffering still exists, yet increases, and does so with even greater silence.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Naming the Problem, Part II: The Reality

The Reality

I soon found out just how seriously many schools were struggling.  I began to see the realities that poor children faced.  I was assigned to do student teaching for a year at an elementary school in an impoverished, immigrant community in east Portland, OR.  At one point that year, a wizened old 3rd grade teacher pulled me aside and pointed out some of the differences in experience that students at the school lived in comparison to their more affluent peers.  "These kids don't take family vacations to other countries," he said, "Many haven't even seen the ocean even though it is 3 hours away.  Their parents don't read books to them."  He then went on to give me the first lesson in classroom management dynamics: disruptive students grow exponentially.   One student pulls three or four other students down around him.  Those students in turn affect others.  A cascade effect can build and spread through the entire class.  "At some schools," he explained, "you might have one or two such students in your class.  Families with means move out of these neighborhoods.  Those without get left behind.  Schools like this essentially get packed with struggling students.  You might get 5 or 6 disruptive students in a class.  What do you think that does to instruction?"
Two students I remember well from that year were Ryan and Shaniqua.  Ryan a white boy, Shaniqua a black girl, both 5th graders, struggled enormously with reading, writing and math.  The classroom teacher was an old pro.  She had the classroom running like a clock.  Disobedience was not tolerated, and problems were nipped in the bud, but the atmosphere still managed to feel relaxed and pleasant.  Each student was treated with respect and lessons were well-planned, focused, and carried out with precision.  Yet Ryan and Shaniqua still struggled.

I soon began to see why.  Ryan would go absent for days at a time.  He would come to school tired, clothes unkempt.  I found out that his family was homeless and lived day to day.  Shaniqua had temper problems, and would put her head in her hands during lessons.  After 20 minutes of work, I'd come over and she would have had nothing completed.  One day after school I asked her to hang back.  She broke into tears as she told me how she was dyslexic and had struggled for years.  There were problems at home, and I began to see how the stress was tearing her up.  The teacher did her best to give these two as much individualized attention as she could.  But as she lamented to me, "there's only so much time in the day."  This from a woman who arrived early and left late every day, and still found time for her family.   With nearly 30 students to attend to, it simply isn't possible to give every student the kind of attention necessary.  In poor neighborhoods, where the ratio of disadvantage is much higher, that many more students are forced to go without.  Shaniqua did receive special instruction for a couple hours a week.  But it was clearly not enough.  When we could, we put together homework packets for Ryan.  But we were rarely given prior notice.


Next time, On My Own.  I move to Reading, PA and find out that things can get much worse.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Naming the Problem, Part I: Something Missing

Something Missing

One of the things that I think struck me the most in the early years of my professional teaching life was the stark contrast between my graduate school education curriculum, and my experience in the real world of public school teaching.  As an undergraduate social science major, I was more than familiar with the history of inequality and the ways - race, class, gender - in which its legacy is woven into the fabric of our lives today.  One of the reasons I went into education was that I felt it was a career in which I could apply my talents while effecting change.  Because I had received so much privilege, while so many others did not, I felt a moral mandate to do something good for the world, to allow my privilege to benefit others.

Yet, once I entered the teaching program I noticed right away how little emphasis was being placed on the traditional discussions of inequality I was used to engaging in.  No matter, I assumed.  We were merely receiving the skills that we would use to set children free.  Knowledge is power!  I would learn about classroom management, theories of mind, efficient and effective lesson planning, special education, English language learners and reading interventions.  The change I would be effecting would be in the classroom, no need for fancy theories on structural inequality. 

Next time, The Reality.  I find out what it's really like in the classroom.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Political Rhetoric and Violence

Apparently, the Sarah Palin's staff is now claiming that the infamous "cross-hairs" campaign poster, pointed to by many as evidence of the kind of overheated right-wing rhetoric that may have led to the Rep. Giffords shooting, was really intended to be a "surveyors" symbol all along.  Mark Kleiman points to the broader context and the right-wing pattern of using the language of violence.

The political debate over the degree to which rhetoric played a role in the shooting, if any at all, has been polarized as usual.  The refrain on the right is defensive, and points to evidence of extreme rhetoric on the left during the Bush years.  But this seems pretty wrong to me. I'd pose a couple of questions.

First, is it true that there is a lot of extreme, dishonest and dangerous rhetoric coming from the right? And second, is there an equivalent amount coming from the left – either now, or in the past 10-20 years?

I used to listen to a lot of AM radio in the 90′s – Michael Savage in SF. When Oklahoma City happened it seemed to fit right into the paranoid narrative: the government is illegitimate, conspiracy theories and the endless likening of liberalism to creeping communism. This was all over the airwaves. The callers would frequently start talking about violent revolution, the hosts muting them with a wink. If anything, the rhetoric seems to have gotten worse, with FOX news turning up the volume to eleven.

I don’t ever remember things getting this bad on the left, even during the worst days of the Bush administration, from the left’s perspective. I think there are numerous reasons for this, the largest being the left’s disinterest in guns and violence in general, as a cultural matter. What I don’t understand though, is the right’s seeming willingness to be entertained by so many obviously immoral media personalities. And I mean immoral in the sense that they are routinely meanspirited and dishonest. They revel in ad hominem attacks, and traffic endlessly in overgeneralizations and transparent falsehoods. The left just has never had this. AM radio is completely dominated by the right. MSNBC is giving FOX a run for their money, but their audience pales in comparison.

I suppose you could chalk some of this up to the generally liberal, or at least centrist, slant of the mainstream media, which likely alienates many rural and conservative citizens. But how could you trade something like NPR for Rush Limbaugh? What am I missing? Why isn’t there at least an NPR equivalent on the right, something that attempts serious journalism, treats people with respect and isn’t more akin to the Jerry Springer show than intellectual engagement? Given the obviously large size of American conservatism, fact that there hasn’t been anything built up on the right that isn’t largely mean, dishonest or vapid would seem distressing. If all liberals seemed to be interested in was a sort of Air America-style format, I’d really worry about the seriousness of the left.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Discussing Ed Reform on Bloggingheads

My bloggingheads dialogue on education reform is up.  Here's the link.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Looking for Any Excuse

Brookside Mill workers in 1910, Knoxville, Tennessee, USA
An article in the New York Times describes the growing anger across the country directed at public service workers.  As state budgets face red ink, many are shifting their gaze towards one of the last seemingly stable sectors of the economy.  Unions are seen as shielding their members' exorbitant salaries, pensions and job stability itself.  As the economy continues to stumble, people are asking why they should continue to foot the bill for these seemingly recession-proof workers.  As the article puts it:

A new regime in state politics is venting frustration less at Goldman Sachs executives (Governor Christie vetoed a proposed “millionaire’s tax” this year) than at unions.
This is an interesting point.  There is a clear calculus being made here that unionized public sector workers are somehow less deserving of the need to sacrifice than millionaires.  This, despite the fact that most public workers clock in at the low end of the middle class pay scale.

The philosophical basis for this distinction is rooted in the conservative, meritocratic fallacy that millionaires not only deserve their wealth because of hard work, but are the active engines of economic growth.  Therefore, taxing their income would actually stifle growth.  The essential image of this picturesque fantasy is one of every millionaire out there starting new businesses or investing their money in growth-industries.  Of course, when speaking of tax breaks of $20-30K, none of these individuals is indulging in zero-sum consumption - in which their spending produces no net gain in growth; i.e. jewelry, fine leather goods or vacations in Aspen.  Of course not.

Yet what seems particularly more irksome than the notion that millionaires are magic growth machines, is the idea that lowly non-millionaires are of negligible worth to society.  Now, maybe I'm getting ahead of myself...  maybe these outraged Americans do actually value the public service workers who spend their days working for the very same "government" despised by those outraged, and who perform jobs they would just as soon not have them do at all.

But even supposing these workers are valued, why expend so much energy trying to cut back on their salaries and benefits while sparing the marginal rates of the very wealthy, unless you fundamentally don't believe those jobs are worth doing.  As the article notes, simply acting out of a sense of fairness would seem spiteful.
All of which sounds logical, except that, as Mr. Moriarty also acknowledges, such thinking also “leads to a race to the bottom.” That is, as businesses cut private sector benefits, pressure grows on government to cut pay and benefits for its employees.
An increasingly familiar complaint is that anyone should expect a pension at all.  On a recent episode of 60 minutes, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie flat out asked the question:
I think the general public thinks, 'I can't believe anybody gets a pension anymore. I've got a 401(k). It got killed in the stock market. I don't know what I'm gonna do for my retirement. I can't believe people get a pension anymore.'
Well, we know what Governor Christie thinks.  You know, maybe the minimum wage is a bad idea too.  And maybe costly workplace safety regulations.  Or overtime pay. 

I think we know where this is heading.  We've literally been there before, and conservatives are itching to take us right back.  And a recession is as good an excuse as any.

Invisible Radicals (cont.): Who Determines Equality?

I had originally written the majority of my previous post as a comment at the RBC.  I received two interesting responses:
“equity in achievement”? People DO differ in potential, the only way to achieve this sort of equity is to deliberately fail those who could do better than what the less gifted can achieve. Our goal, (After a learned workforce, of course.) should be to enable each individual student to achieve their own potential, even if it means they leave somebody else in the dust.

Your description of what it would take to get to [equity in achievement] paints the picture of a very intrusive set of interventions. Well-meaning and perhaps not individually burdensome, but still intrusive. I have family members who would no doubt qualify for these interventions, and have to say that some of them sound as if you want to take my relatives and turn them into your idea of acceptable parents.
By "equity in achievement" I don't mean that every single child performs exactly the same.  I mean that SES is limited in it's impact on educational outcomes, such that each individual student really does have an opportunity to achieve their own potential.  As it stands now, academic performance is strongly tied to SES.  But this has nothing to do with the individual student, and everything to do with the social capital they receive at home (educated parents, intact families, less stress, etc.).

Believe me, I would like as little government intervention as possible.  As you'll note though, a more means-tested system would allow for less government in many neighborhoods.  The ultimate goal is smarter government, so that we can get the kids the targeted services they need, when they need them, and not when they don't.

But you make an interesting point, and something I struggle with as a teacher in these populations.  It is an empirical fact that SES is tied to parenting.  This is not simply my idea of what is acceptable.  There are activities that you do with your child that produce better developmental outcomes.  Studies have been done in granular detail, looking at everything from environmental toxins to vocabulary to cognition to family structure.  Believe me, I've sat across from many parents who I knew were not providing their children the best home environment.  And as a white guy from a middle class background (both parents attended college, and statistically most teachers are from similar backgrounds), there's a definite sense of invasiveness to the class dynamic.  Who am I to be telling them how to raise their kids when I haven't had the struggles they've had?  (Short answer: I'm a teacher!)

But you know what - it all comes out in the wash.  Poor parents have every reason to parent exactly the way they do (statistically!).  They are doing the best they can - so what if it isn't the best?  This is what society is all about - helping each other out.  Every parent I've ever had cared deeply about their child.  They just may have lacked the proper skills (or circumstances) to offer them what they needed.  They didn't read to them at night, they never learned English, they never took them to the library, they scolded more than praised, they didn't engage in extended conversation - not because they didn't love their kids, but because they simply weren't aware of the effects this would have on their child's development.

But the reality is that we're just not going to be able to "retrain" parents.  And there are many areas of their lives that are beyond anyone's ability to reform.  For instance, if they are working two crappy jobs to pay the rent and are stressed because the boss is a prick, and can't spend enough time with their child as they'd like because Dad is either gone or in prison.  Or there's drugs.  Or abuse.  Etc.  But there are interventions that can help ease their burden, and in turn the burden on their child.  And there are specific interventions we can do to provide support directly to the child, whether for special field trips on weekends, after-school tutoring/camp, psychological services, radically smaller class sizes - 10:1 ratio, personal aids, etc.  Those are all things that parents don't have to worry about at all and honestly, most parents would welcome.

And at the end of the day it is all about outcomes.  An assessment regime would be tricky.  But as the child improves, the services would dial back accordingly, with the ultimate goal of removing the supports entirely.  This is generally the model for special education and english-language-learners.  The interesting thing is those "disabilities" appear values neutral, as they are not the "fault" of anyone.  But I would argue that no one's parenting style is the "fault" of anyone either.  We all have a set of skills from which we operate.  Those skills involve cognition, emotion, communication, knowledge of self, stress management, etc.

Obviously this is the black box of the mind and things get messy real quick.  But the central dogma is that we are developed creatures, and operate from learned behavior.  Depending on a mix of genes and environment, we apply what we know to the world.  This is why a poor 16 year old girl is likely to be a lousy mother.  It isn't her fault - she just doesn't have the proper skills.  I think most of us take all of this for granted and we buy into the mythology that every individual possesses the same abilities.

I think much of this comes out of a tension between those who might emphasize innate differences to explain behavioral outcomes, leaving "free will" to explain the rest (interestingly, the philosophical description of this is "metaphysical libertarianism" - the political philosophy seems largely to follow), while others emphasize the environment and learning.  The former view seems entirely commonsensical - I choose to get to work on time, I choose to take a bath.  Yet so does the latter - I've learned to manage my time, I've learned that proper hygiene is important.  The compatibilist (I believe) seeks to reconcile these two as: I've learned to do these things and so I am able to choose them.

To me, this provides for the most powerfully compassionate response to poverty.  Being neither condescending nor punitive, it simply acknowledges empirical fact, and supports our human desire to uphold our values of liberty and equality of opportunity.  How exactly we get there is certainly unclear.  But the moral directive is strong, and there are many promising avenues available.