Sunday, April 29, 2012

Polishing the Bell Curve

Maybe it was the release of Charles Murray's latest book - which is not about race!  Or the recent firing of John Derbyshire.  Or the continued failure of NCLB to show much progress at all.  Or maybe just that we have a black president.  But paleo-conservativism seems to be getting bullish on the political incorrect notions of genetic and racial explanations of social inequality.

As I have written before, there is an enormous degree of correlation between the acceptance of right wing assumptions and the acceptance of genetic explanations for race and socioeconomics.  Because of the unconscious nature of how racism tends to operate, it is therefore appropriate to ask how much right wing assumptions are actually facilitating acceptance of racist frameworks for socioeconomic analysis.

It is easy to see why.  The right wing framing generally sees social class as meritocratic and fair.  Yet the continued disproportionate representation of blacks among the lower-SES strata presents a problem that needs to be explained.   The three general categories of answer are 1) genetic, 2) environmental, and 3) personal choice.  Because of our history of racism, civil society shies away from genetic explanations.  The left wing, comfortable with subverting traditional power structures and state intervention in social environments, tends toward environmental explanations. 

The right, to the degree that it opposes social redistribution or state intervention, is challenged to propose its own solutions.  Generally, it adopts the personal choice model; even though it accepts some of the environmental explanations (who could deny so much research?), as a practical matter - to the degree that we value justice -  it argues for the metaphysical existence of an individual's power to transcend environmental limitations.  This isn't actually supported by social research, but it apparently has great intuitive and rhetorical power.

Another choice, one favored by right-leaning individuals, is to be "politically incorrect", and adopt the genetic explanation.  The IQ-SES framing adopts the genetic explanation, with higher IQs in positions of power, and lower IQs in position of subordinance.  While intuitively "icky", this explanation at least removes the burden of having to explain stubborn patterns of racial and socioeconomic inequality in environmental or personal choice terms.

Of course, as with right wing claims about personal choice and the effects of environment on development, claims about the existence of a genetic meritocracy aren't supported by the research.  Sure, you can always find research that agrees with you.  But like evolution or global warming, the research is poorly designed and rejected by a large consensus of experts in the relevant fields.

Yet given the troubling persistence of unscientific views on the right (far more representative of majority opinion than unscientific views on the left), one wonders whether genetic explanations of socioeconomics and race will begin to become more acceptable in conservative circles, and among the base of the Republican party? 

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Compensation & Ideals

In the capitalist system, labor is generally payed for out of the difference between profit from the consumer and compensation to the employer.  In other words, if a businessman can spend $1 on materials and sell a widget for $5, he has $4 with which to pay the worker and himself.  Just as there is a larger competitive market within he must sell his widget, so to is there a larger competitive market within which he must hire his workers.  If the going rate for assembling widgets is $10 an hour, he must work within some rough margin of that number.

The market for wages can often seem highly unfair.  Backbreaking labor is often rewarded very poorly, while relatively comfortable labor is rewarded highly.  By what mechanisms does this occur?

This is a question that has always perplexed me: To what degree is compensation related to skill (investment in training), value, sheer difficulty, and then of course, social rank?

The really creepy thing in this equation is the degree to which one's position is socially determined, having to do with privilege of human and societal capital.  The free marketeer would argue the market is an objective arbiter of what is fair.  Yet a more sophisticated mind would acknowledge the multiple ways in which the market merely enforces inherited privileges reinforced through institutional norms.

Regarding acquisition of skill via college vs. trade, the bias towards social rank has no doubt something to do with how we perceive the value-added component of college.  In other words, the attainment of knowledge outside a specific skill-set is thought of as worth something to society apart from labor value.  In this way, does college's conferral of social rank represent an enforcement of enlightenment as a social norm, rewarding those who pursue this value so as to uphold its continued social aspiration? 

Or is this a story we, the college-educated elite tell ourselves?  I for one admit my bias - I consider my time in college as foundational to how I have learned to think about the world.  I have been exposed to the highest traditions of civilized thought.  I can't help but imagine that had I not gone to college, I would be a lesser man for it.  How can I not be biased then against those who have not gone to college, at least in terms of a general lack of contextual knowledge and or critical thinking skills.  Let me put it to you this way: one is a better man for having read Plato and Marx, and engaged in its critical analysis.  There may be no direct correlation to a specific workplace skill, but there is no doubt that one's mind is at least marginally better at understanding the world and better contributing to it.

So again, is the added compensation for a college degree to some extent enforcing this broad social value of the expansive mind? 

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Watching People Talk

Keith Humphreys proposes that great Hollywood dialogue has been in decline for a long time.  He mentions Sorkin and the Coen brothers as exceptions.

Sorkin's dialogue has always irritated me.  I've never been quite able to put my finger on it, and I'm not dextrous enough with my understanding of writing to properly critique it.  There are many styles of dialogue, and I suppose you could define a spectrum with realism on one end and - here my ignorance limits me - a sort of heavily laden, poetic,  - I'll just call it the "expository style", in which the character is as much a sort of avatar for larger expression.  I don't mean to demean it as a reduction to exposition in the classic sense, but rather as a style that is exposing some idea, or emotion, or otherwise narrative that would not be conveyed by mere realism.  I'm not opposed to this.  In great hands it is sublime, if demanding of the audience.  Many of Shakespeare's character's I imagine represent the ultimate form of this sort of character-as-vessel style. 

At the other end, realism allows for an intimacy and immediacy that can transcend its limitations and capture as much if not more poetry and truth.  As a style it also seems to work so much better on film, as close-ups and environmental realism allow us to develop so much more intimacy and transported experience.  A Shakespearean or Sorkin soliloquy isn't ever going to reach places that the audience can be taken to through the sensory richness and purely subjective experience of something like getting the gesture of a hand just right as it nervously taps out a cigarette, or the protagonist's solemn commute in the front seat of a deteriorating station wagon.  Dialogue in such settings needs to not get in the way of what is being conveyed elsewhere in the film - the set, the light, the costume, the acting, etc.

In the end, I may just prefer realism more than the "exposition style".  But this may owe more to it being done well less often.  And I think when it fails it does so miserably.  It comes off as forced and clunky, or, worst of all, clumsily representative of the writer's own pedantic narcissism, baldly scoring points through the characters' showy demonstration of wit, audacity, brilliance, or some other superlative skill carefully slaved over line by line, yet flowing from the actor as if the most natural thing in the world.  I felt this way about Juno, and about The West Wing.  The former in the character's precocious rebellion, the latter in wonk after wonks' wankery.

If ambitious dialogue has been in decline, I wonder why?  Have we - our tastes - changed?  Has the medium's change contributed.  Plenty out there would have much more interesting to say than I.  It's a fascinating question.

Is McDonalds the Opiate of the Poor?

Apparently "food deserts" - neighborhoods lacking in access to quality groceries - don't have as much to do with obesity as some thought.  Kevin Drum has an interesting piece up trying to disentangle the results from some recent studies on the issue.  One study finds that "Access to different kinds of stores didn't have any impact on weight gain among elementary-school-aged children".  From another, "Obesity rates among supermarket shoppers closely tracked both food prices and incomes," he found, but not the kinds of food available. Shoppers at Albertson's, a low-cost chain, were far more obese than shoppers at Whole Foods, even though both provided plenty of access to fresh fruits and vegetables."  Another study of 13,000 California kids found "no relationship between what type of food students said they ate, what they weighed, and the type of food within a mile and a half of their homes…Living close to supermarkets or grocers did not make students thin and living close to fast food outlets did not make them fat."

The Mother Jones comments to the piece are illustrative of what I think is an interesting picture of how liberals tend to perceive poverty.  On the one hand, you have people dismissing the findings, claiming that it all comes down to price: that poor people simply can't afford quality foods, even when offered.  This assumes that there is a nutritional consciousness, but that it is overcome by economic realities.  On the other hand, you have people saying that there is no nutritional consciousness, that the problem is due to a lack of the requisite knowledge to discern healthy from unhealthy diets. 

Between these competing narratives, you have a tension between not wanting to blame poor people and assuming that their choices are rational, and trying to explain poor choices in the context of lack of education.

It is a fascinating discussion, and there aren't any easy answers.  Poor people clearly tend to make more poor choices.  But to what extent are these choices unavoidable, and to what extent do they represent a lack of education?  The term consciousness is interesting, because it encompasses both what might be a lack of education, or world-knowledge, as well as lack of self-knowledge.  For instance, one might know that food A is better for you (world-knowledge), but feel compelled to choose food B, a less healthier, yet more immediately satisfying choice.  The degree to which one gives in to temptation is partly due to an understanding of one's good vs. bad habits (self-knowledge). 

Now, this second aspect of consciousness - self-knowledge - is tricky.  It is very difficult to disentangle to what extent one's conscious perception is based on prior habits, and how much it is being directly influenced by environmental factors.  We all struggle at times to eat healthy.  Yet after a long, stressful day at work, the struggle becomes much more difficult.  This is especially true when one feels as though the unhealthy yet highly-craved choice is felt to be a sort of reward, as in, "My day was so hard - I deserve this."  In this sense, the choice becomes rationalized as a form of justice.  It isn't hard to imagine that the more one feels that their lot in life is unjust, that giving in to poor choices can seem justified. 

I'm reminded of an incredibly interesting study done on the behavior of rats and their seeming sense of justice and motivation.  Unfortunately, I've searched in vain for a link.  But from memory, apparently it was found that when rats were placed within viewing distance of other rats, their motivation decreased significantly when they observed inequity in reward.  Other research in non-humans has found similar evidence: inequity and unfairness tends to create anger and resentment.  It makes sense that this would at the very least create stress.  And there is much evidence that stress leads to compensatory, pleasure-inducing mechanisms of self-stimulation to recapture dopamine.  When all else fails, eat a candy bar.

This is a Marxist analysis, so it is only appropriate to paraphrase Marx in asking whether low-nutrition, high-pleasure foods are the opiates of the masses.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

An Ugly Marriage

"Race Map" from 1920
I recently came across the book Bad Students, Not Bad Schools by Robert Weissberg.

My interest piqued by the title, I was struck however by this bit from the synopsis on Amazon,
"Weissberg argues that most of America's educational woes would vanish
if indifferent, troublesome students were permitted to leave when they
had absorbed as much as they could learn; they would quickly be replaced
by learning-hungry students, including many new immigrants from other
I then noticed that this was followed by a favorable blurb from none other than John Derbyshire, the conservative columnist for the National Review who was recently fired after achieving infamy in a column in which he pretended (?) to give advice to his white child on how to avoid various threats black people might pose - a racist version of "the talk", the much publicized response amid furor over the George Zimmerman profiling case many black parents have felt necessary giving their children.  Here's a little taste:
...Thus, while always attentive to the particular qualities of individuals, on the many occasions where you have nothing to guide you but knowledge of those mean differences, use statistical common sense:

(10a) Avoid concentrations of blacks not all known to you personally.

(10b) Stay out of heavily black neighborhoods.

(10c) If planning a trip to a beach or amusement park at some date, find out whether it is likely to be swamped with blacks on that date (neglect of that one got me the closest I have ever gotten to death by gunshot)....
(11) The mean intelligence of blacks is much lower than for whites. The least intelligent ten percent of whites have IQs below 81; forty percent of blacks have IQs that low. Only one black in six is more intelligent than the average white; five whites out of six are more intelligent than the average black. These differences show in every test of general cognitive ability that anyone, of any race or nationality, has yet been able to devise. They are reflected in countless everyday situations. “Life is an IQ test.”
In my last podcast, I pointed to the fact that racists always seem to be conservative.  I argued that this is likely due at least in part to the substantive claims conservatism makes.  While its logic does not unavoidably lead to racism, its underlying assumptions do much of the logical heavy-lifting.  Taking a spin around the site that hosted Derbyshire's writing, the racism is as close to explicit as it gets.  And the list of contributors is paleo-conservative to the bone.  You can almost hear the brandy glasses clinking in the background as the phrenology calipers are adjusted.

One might dismiss these radical types as not representative of any larger conservative movement.  And to an extent that is no doubt true.  Yet while most prominent conservatives would have a hard time coming right out so bluntly, it isn't hard to see how such thinking represents a mere coherence of the nebulous, uncomfortability conservatism has with race and class in general.  In a tragic way, race acts as a kind of litmus test for the poisoned waters of "meritocracy", the sly fantasy the right-wing embraces as a means of perpetuating traditional power structures.  In a sea of undifferentiated masses, it is easier to pretend that the poor are merely choosing their own sorry destitution.  Yet when poverty remains so wedded to race and ethnicity, it becomes hard not to seek explanations either in social structures or genetics.  As embracing radical change in social hierarchies is anathema to conservatism, radical paleo-conservatives are merely being honest when they voice their preference to adopt genetic explanations.

Milton Friedman, in his 1980 miniseries Free to Choose
I'm fascinated by the politics of education reform, and the lenses that it gets viewed through.  I do agree that the problem is the students, and demographics - you can't argue with facts.  But where I differ is that I see this not as a problem of racial or ethnic inferiority, but as one perpetuated by our economic and social system, where human and societal capital are distributed according to privilege.

I see current reform efforts ultimately as a clever alliance between this kind of paleo-conservative racial & class exclusion and neo-liberal naivete that wants to believe that poor kids' only enemy is bad teaching.  Vouchers have been replaced by charter schools, which promise to give both groups what they think they want.

Unfortunately, the problem - for those of us neither right-wing racialists, nor pie-in-the-sky teacher demagogues - is about equality of opportunity.   If we really want to give kids an equal education, we need to invest in levels of service appropriate to the necessary intervention.  That, we have not yet begun.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

But What Kind of Collaboration?

A recent article in the Atlantic emphasizes the need for more collaboration among teachers in schools. 

I'm not sure collaboration is always a good thing in every situation (people have different personal styles of working), but it is definitely important.  Yet, NCLB has introduced insane levels of micromanaged collaboration, where teachers at "troubled schools" are forced to spend hours upon hours on scripted "data analysis" programs that are often so poorly written and designed that you spend half your time just trying to figure out what they want you to do.  It feels punitive, out-of-touch, and limiting.  Teachers are professionals, and need to be allowed to drive their own collaboration in ways that are appropriate to their specific site, their kids, their instruction, and in general, how they would best go about building their practice with colleagues. 

If an administrator is worried this isn't happening, they shouldn't be relying on a process they they themselves don't understand, in order to enforce professionalism.  They should be actively engaging their staff and working with them to see and hear their ideas, and hopefully help facilitate a teacher-led process.  Currently, administrators are actually incentivized to be concerned only with whether the right boxes are being checked, and forms filled out correctly (leaving an administrator inclined toward unprofessionalism himself free to dodge his responsibility toward a deeper level of engagement with staff).  This depersonalizes the process, making their job even less productive, as they are forced to focus on what is often an arbitrary rubric instead of real teaching and collaboration.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

A Difference in Framing

Non-reformer writes: "Because we know that poorly educated parents and poverty are the root causes of poor achievement."

Reformer responds: "We don't know that at all. In fact, all historical and global evidence would completely contradict that hypothesis. What we know is that poor children in the U.S. are not educated well within the U.S. public education system."

Non-reformer  responds: "Of course it is not poverty itself that affects learning but the EFFECTS of poverty ...."
Curiously, if one could sum up the education Reform mindset, it might come down to this difference in framing.  Reformers tend to want to diminish the effects of SES, and emphasize teacher efficacy.  The response from Non-reformers is generally to push back and emphasize SES.  The Reformer often calls this "making excuses", famously "the soft bigotry of low expectations".  The term reform itself has become loaded as it sets up one particular framework as being reform, and anything else as, well, non-reform.  And when everyone agrees the education system is broken, the non-reformer becomes defined by an implication that they support the system as it stands.

However, most Non-reformers I know (which also happens to be most teachers and non-teachers), actually want even greater reforms to education.  They don't see teachers as the problem, but larger social problems.  They point to all the things the Non-refomer referred to - the EFFECTS - of poverty as being what we need to reform.

Now, part of the difference in frameworks might have to do with a broader sort of political temperament.  Reformers have been so successful because they have built a coalition of conservatives and neo-liberals.  As a group, a common feature is a tendency away from radical, progressivism.  Yet this is exactly what non-reformers would champion. 

The reality is of course, that the public is in no mood for radical progressivism.  There is simply no political momentum toward an agenda of going after the EFFECTS (as Linda so succinctly put it) of poverty, which would require massive (OK, *cough* I use this term relatively!  "Imagine if they had to have a bake sale...") state spending. 

So the neo-liberal model, biased as it is towards the political *possible*, essentially has thrown in the towel on looking at SES as the real reform and emphasizing instead the marginal benefits of squeezing more achievement out of teachers.  Unfortunately, the result has been so good.  I realize my bias as a non-reformer, but there just doesn't seem to be much evidence that union-busting, charters, performance-pay, punitive testing, etc. has really done much at all.

Non-reformers would say, of course, "See.  I told you so."  And the system has been really screwed up.  Teachers feel completely demoralized, their jobs as un-meaningful as ever, expectations higher than ever yet their tasks only more daunting, humanity removed from the profession and countless punitive professional development sessions and administrators forced by their bosses into a bizarro world that fundamentally misunderstands the classroom.

Personally, I think all this "reform", based as much of it has been on an attempt to find consensus and work within political realities has not only made the system worse, but has moved the debate away from where it really should be.  To use an analogy, it would be as a bus were speeding towards you and instead of jumping out of the way, you start running in the opposite direction, hoping it won't catch up.  Well, I think it's finally caught up. 

Reformers talk about making "excuses".  However, I would argue it is they who are the real excuse-makers.  By constantly shifting the blame away from larger, more serious social problems, they excuse them.  The reality is that the achievement gap is based on a fundamental reality: SES means human and societal capital.  The advantaged have a lot more of it than the disadvantaged.  Reformers would have us believe that this inequality can be overcome simply by "better teaching".  They would have us believe that teachers in a poor community should be expected to work twice as hard - be twice as good - as teachers in affluent communities. 

Yet in the end, what this tells poor communities is that, despite your lower levels of human and societal capital, we're not going to give you any more support.  We're going to force to to rely on the same teaching pool as everyone else, even though your needs are so much more profound.   Imagine if we did this with police departments.  What if every neighborhood only got a limited number of service calls, then we blamed the police for the rise in crime rates?

That isn't reform.  It's perpetuation of social inequality by a privileged class who doesn't want to sacrifice for those less fortunate.  It's also a betrayal of what public education has always been about.

Monday, April 9, 2012

A Model for True Reform

 (cross-posted from Solutions for Educators)

As this is my first guest post here at Solutions for Schools, let me start by introducing myself.  I currently teach science at a continuation high school, but I also have experience teaching kindergarten, as well as a number of years spent as a substitute in a number of districts around the country.  Before I was a teacher, I worked in various areas of social services.  I have a profound commitment to social justice and equality of opportunity for all citizens.  I originally went into education because I felt that it was where I could do the most good in this regard.  Unfortunately, the reality of what I have seen has disabused me of much of my former naivete.  In community after community, I have seen a severity of developmental problems being dealt with heroically by local schools.  Yet under-resourced and trapped in larger policy framework that fails to grasp the reality of the situation, they cannot help but fail in their mission of closing the achievement gap and guaranteeing every child an equal education.

Where I teach, the students are basically the "worst of the worst", in terms of academic, behavioral and emotional problems.  Primarily juniors and seniors, their profiles are colored by severe truancy, substance abuse, mental illness (mainly depression), defiance and poor impulse control, broken homes, teen pregnancy and poor academic skills.  They are incredibly diverse in life experience, with common denominators generally being poverty and low-parent income and education.  At this point in their education, they are more in need of triage than anything else.  Because they are credit deficient, and so fragile emotionally and behaviorally, they are given condensed curriculum packets that they can quickly finish and move on from.  Even this however, proves too much for many of them too handle, and many disappear to never return, or spend days, weeks - even months - staring at their (admittedly) boring work and never completing any of it.  Direct instruction is, as you might imagine, neither effective nor practical with this population.  (As a non-tenured teacher, I was actually recently asked not to return by an administrator who insisted on direct instruction and was thus penalized when my students failed to be "properly engaged".  There was likely an element of caprice involved as well, but suffice it to say that what I was doing was no different than any other teacher in the building, who all agreed that direct instruction was inappropriate, and whose students displayed equal levels of disengagement.)

So, let us now look at why these students are so difficult to engage.  Two ideas in education have powerful explanatory power here: Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs and Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development.  The former essentially states that there is a hierarchy of human needs, and that lower levels must be satisfied before higher levels can be achieved.  For instance, a lower level need like hunger will have a profoundly negative effect on higher order needs such as the acquisition of critical thinking or moral integrity.  Vygotsky’s theory refers to “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers” (Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes, 1978).  This concept is of central importance to foundational pedagogical ideas such as differentiation, scaffolding, and constructivism.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs Pyramid
Since Maslow's writing half a century ago, there has been considerable support for his theory, especially in brain sciences.  The areas of the brain responsible for higher-order thinking and complex problem-solving are secondary to the more primitive areas of the brain which are responsible for regulating basic physiological processes.  An example of this we can all relate to would be to try to imagine studying for a test while a jackhammer is blasting just outside the window.  A more psychodynamic extension of this problem would be not a jackhammer but a negative emotional state plaguing the conscious mind with disruptive ideations.  The primitive brain is thus being constantly stimulated, and essentially re-routing brain power towards the regulation of first-order needs.  As we age and develop, we hopefully acquire compensatory skills that allow us to better regulate primitive brain responses.  But there will still always be a limit to our regulatory capacity.  This is especially true for children, especially children coming from environments of profound neglect, or ones that actively contribute to negative stimulus response - for example, an angry, stressed-out parent or daily peer bullying.

In my classroom, students exist in the lower levels of the needs hierarchy.  Many of their affective behaviors can be seen as natural defense mechanisms, primarily the direct result of not having these needs met, and natural response mechanisms.  Students are actually highly aware of this, routinely speaking of being stressed out.  Unfortunately, their go-to responses tend to be highly dysfunctional: substance abuse, fighting, crime, or sex.  That so much of the music they listen to is essentially a glorification of these unhealthy responses is indicative of a wider pattern throughout their communities.  Many students, also, will speak openly of behaviors among family and friends - often adults - that are clearly unhealthy coping mechanisms. 

Of course, these behaviors are considered unhealthy because of the detrimental effect they have both personally and in the community.  It is therefore unsurprising that what goes on in the community will also go on in the classroom.  With my students, this is literally true as fights break out with relative frequency, and students routinely come to school high or intoxicated.  The janitor sometimes shows me the empty beer cans he retrieves from the bathroom. One student - a mother of a 2 year old - once came to my class late, reeking of alcohol.  I let her in, and handed her the worksheet we were using with a video.  During the lesson, she blurted out, "Mr. Rector, hurry up!  I'm falling asleep!"  Indeed, she passed out at her desk shortly thereafter. 

Of course, I could have sent her to the office so that she could be suspended on suspicion.  However this is something I rarely do, even when I have reason to suspect drug abuse is occurring.  My reasoning is that there would be little point.  Students are suspended right and left, and what this mainly means is that they get a short holiday from school.  Remember, these students have records a mile long.  The parents have long since lost control of them - and in many cases actively contribute to their dysfunction.  No, I generally believe that my classroom is a "safe harbor".  I would rather they be with me, safe, then anywhere else.  I talk to them about their issues.  I listen to their concerns and do my best to guide them to appropriate behavior.  Punishing them often has the effect of building up their defensive walls, instead allowing them to come down so that healing can begin.  Rebuilding trust is a critical step in the process of reintegration with positive social norms - as opposed to the negative norms of their peer group, or frequently that of their family.  Evidence of the efficacy of this approach I believe has earned me the honor of one of the "best-loved" teachers in the school, and students routinely open up to me with their problems and concerns.  What follows from this process of emotional growth is both an increased academic as well as behavioral classroom engagement.

This need for affirmation and rebuilding of trust is, I feel, the student's primary need.  After speaking with the counselors, it became clear to me that if I wasn't going to do it, then no one would.  The counselors had their hands full on procedural, academic matters, and never had the time to build the kind of student relationships required.  A grant was once written for a psychological counselor, but therapy limited to one hour a week was impractical for a variety of reasons, the most salient being that rapport was still difficult to establish, and truancy was often an issue for the students in greatest need of help.  As a teacher, I see the students one or two hours a day, and am able to build up enormous levels of trust and rapport.  This can only happen in a non-direct instruction setting, when there is the time and environment conducive for casual discussion.  A common technique of mine is to enter into a discussion between a group of students - non-schoolwork related, of course! - and through humor or genuine interest insinuate myself in the conversation.  After a certain point in the year, the students actually actively welcome my insights.  I tend to tell colorful stories, or try in some other way to creatively engage them so as to both respect their experiences and attitudes, but also to subtly guide them to more healthy modes of thought and behavior.  In a way, it is a sort of psychological jujitsu - using their - often negative - thoughts and experiences to expose them to a more positive world. 

I admit this is highly unconventional, and not something one could easily be trained in, or even really explain to someone who would not at least grasp it in some intuitive way.  The technique doesn't always work, and my mistakes often haunt me.  For instance, coming on too strong can risk a defensive reaction and dismissal as an outsider undeserving of trust.  With such a fragile population, this can be disastrous.  Many students will literally only come to school for the sake of one or another teacher who they feel a connection with.  Breaking a fragile bond can literally mean the difference between dropping out and coming to school, or even something more serious, such as getting too high at a party or behaving too recklessly.  I've seen too many students be pulled away from the brink by the love they receive from school staff to question its centrality to their lives. It also helps that I possess a relatively intimate knowledge of their culture.  When students learn that I have my own rap album their jaws drop in disbelief!  (Unfortunately, because of the explicit nature of some of the lyrics I only play them short snippets - which likely only increases the mystique).

So, how does any of this relate to academics?  Do the students ever actually learn anything, or do they merely sit around and goof-off all day?  Not if I have anything to say about it.  Because of the instructional limitations I referred to previously, I have had to be very creative in developing from scratch a curriculum that is generalizable to a broad range of academic skill levels, is something that students will actually attempt to complete and not be put off by (a serious problem for many), is aligned with the standards, encourages higher-order thinking, and hopefully doesn't bore them to tears.  At any given moment in a classroom, I will have students working in any area of any one of 4 quarters of either Biology or Earth Science.   I spend my days facilitating their movement through the material, taking pre and post assessments, designing projects, and generally trying to keep them on-task, supplied with paper and pencils, etc.  Many of them will still refuse to do much work.  But it is my job to teach them, and every day I do my best to come up with ways of reaching them.  Ultimately, even if they aren't going to leave my classroom knowing the difference between convection and radiation, or the process of protein synthesis, at least they will have experienced my love and support, and my unconditional belief in them.  And in the end, this will no doubt help them more when dealing with the boss in a crappy service-wage position or - sad to say - pimp or prison guard.

Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal development tells us that learning is self-building, or, that new knowledge can only be integrated with the old.  This is generally thought of in education in terms of academic development.  A student with a reading level of 3 should not be reading a book at level 13.  It would make much more sense to have them read a range of levels, say 1-6, the lower levels for confidence, the higher levels for skill building.  As such, teachers must differentiate their instruction so as to target optimal levels of development and content integration.  This is always a difficult task, and made more so in disadvantaged communities, where the developmental range in any one classroom can be vast. 

But apart from academic skill, this model can be applied to different developmental domains.  Students diverge widely in skill such as cognitive processing (something like the ability to organize ideas, or contrast new ideas with the old), or emotional regulation (taking time to breath before responding to an insult), or cultural and behavioral norms.  We know from Hart andRisley that low-income children tend to come to school with vastly lower vocabularies.  But an often overlooked aspect to their landmark study is the nuance in parenting styles accompanying that language gap, and the degree to which cognition is stimulated at home.  For instance, in one home, a toddler who picks up an object and brings it to the mother might hear something like, "Be careful.  Put that back.  That isn't yours."  While in another household, the child might hear something like, "What is that you have?  Oh, it’s a stapler.  Mommy uses that for papers.  Yes, it's heavy.  Let's put it back where it goes.  Where is your ball?"  These two responses represent not merely different parenting styles, but different levels of the kinds of environmental stimulus that build dynamic neural pathways.  These compound for years and years, over thousands of hours, leading to widely divergent developmental skill-sets.  Annette Lareau wrote powerfully of this in her book Unequal Childhoods.

Public schools in America have never been properly designed to handle such differing needs among a diverse public.  For a number of larger socio-economic reasons, there exist profound developmental disparities across classes, and concentrated into different neighborhoods. The traditional model of one teacher and one classroom of 25-35 students drawn from the local community largely at random has been disastrous.  Current attempts at reform have done little to address the underlying problem of development and differentiation.  Excuses and exceptions have been found in an attempt to promote the notion that this model is sustainable.  They have largely centered around the notion that individual teachers have simply not been doing a good enough job. 

Yet this doesn't explain the overwhelming pattern of failure in poor schools, as the relative efficacy of teachers has been shown to be rather evenly distributed across affluent and poor schools alike.  It is certainly the case that a less-effective teacher is going to do more harm at a poor school than she would at an affluent school.  This would be true of any occupation.  It is just as true that an effective teacher is going to be less effective at a school in which the student population is developmentally disadvantaged.  Pretending that the solution is to find all the best teachers and send them to all the poor schools is not only highly unrealistic, but a bizarre way of looking at the problem.  It would be as if our solution to a troubled war zone was not to invest in more resources or different tactics, but to blame ordinary troops and instead send in super-soldiers.  I call this the "Rambo Escalante" model, based as it is on part fantasy, part misunderstanding of child development and the constraints of the current classroom model.

What then, would I propose in place of current reform models ultimately built around the notion that bad teaching is the problem, such as pay-for-performance, union busting charters, testing accountability and endless professional development?  Critics have long assailed calls for more resources as "throwing money at the problem".  Yet of course, this ignores the vast amounts of money NCLB has spent in pursuit of its goals. I'm not sure how much money my ideas might cost, but they will no doubt be expensive.  If effective, however, they will pay for themselves many times over in increased productivity and reduced secondary social costs.

Some of what I think needs to happen is being implemented in small ways in different parts of the country, as individual programs are run in isolation.  Yet it is rarely the case that a comprehensive system is established that truly intervenes in the developmental problem in a targeted, long-term way.  The student I spoke of earlier, drunk in class with a two year old at home?  What can be done for that two year old child right now, and for the next 16 years so that she will graduate with an equal chance of success in life, as a citizen with relatively equal prospects?  Social services and educational institutions need to essentially close ranks, and envelop the child in a rich network of inter-connected, orchestrated outreach that assess and target her environmental needs so as to provide agile interventions both for her as well as her family.  Her mother no doubt already has substance abuse issues.  There are likely negative interactions with law enforcement among friends and family.  The state is already no doubt intervening in their lives.  I would propose however, the interventions - while conducive to the short-term safety of the rest of society - they are not conducive to the building of human and societal capital in that family cohort, and in many ways may be depleting it.

I don't know what a well-designed ecosystem of social services would look like.  But I know what its functional purpose would be.  And that, I fear, is more than can be said for too many of would-be education reformers today.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Self-Destruction as Rebellion

image: Paulina Sergeeva
Patrick Kobler is the founder of Solutions for Schools, a blog hub for those interested in innovative solutions for education.  As far as I can tell, it doesn't appear to be peddling more of the same old teacher-blame nonsense you find in education reform.  Kobler teaches social studies at an inner city high school, and seems genuinely understanding of the challenges facing poor communities and their schools.

In a guest piece on teen pregnancy for edweek, he writes about a student's life who is completely derailed by an unplanned pregnancy.
Most unfortunate is that this student had the potential to transform his life's path from one of poverty to one of hope and prosperity. The American Dream was within grasp. His future options used to be between universities. He is now choosing between a superstore and a fast-food joint, as his only concern is supporting his child, "being a father better than the one I never knew."

This is an enormous problem, and a major contributor to generational poverty.  In my career, I've taught both Kindergarten in a poor community, as well as continuation high school students.  So, I've seen the sort of cycle of underdevelopment that runs through the system.

In my kindergarten class, I saw first hand what is born out in the research: most of my students were coming in with almost zero knowledge of the alphabet or numeracy.  Cognitive skills were quite low, and there were a number of behavioral problems. 

With "at-risk" high-schoolers, it is not uncommon to see low-elementary reading levels.  You ask yourself, "How did they get this far without learning to read or do basic multiplication?"  But it isn't so simple.  Many had moved multiple times, or had terrible truancy issues.  But more common, I think, was this weird sort of "immunity to learning".  You could maybe get them to take notes, work with them one-on-one to flesh out concepts, and it might stick for a time, but it would then disappear. 

What I think is going on is that such students are in a state of severe rebellion against learning.  A process of disassociation happens whereby they go through the motions, but at a deep level resent the whole system and gain control by refusing to learn. 

I actually see pregnancy as a symptom of a similar attitude of rebellion.  For the boys, having sex and being tough is a badge of honor.  (The glorification of fighting is immense - they practice with each other and routinely brag about it).  It is a continuous "F*** You" to the system.   For the girls, not having sex, but actually getting pregnant seems to serve a similar purpose.  They see no future for themselves, and when faced with what seem like impossible life expectations, having a baby is the ultimate act of defiance.

These students have been told all their lives to do the "right thing", and they haven't been able to, because they have never been able to develop the emotional, behavioral and cognitive skills to do so.  In crowded classrooms, with overburdened teachers and a community that is failing all around them, they've fallen further and further behind. 

And yet the societal scolding remains: you can't do the work, you can't behave, you can't follow rules, you and your culture are worthless.  They see this implied not only to them, but to their community in general.  And so they rebel.  And the ultimate rebellion is self-destruction.  It is the attitude of, "If this is what you think of me, I'll show just how bad I can be!"

Now, I think it is likely rare that they hear this message explicitly.  Most social workers and teachers I have worked with have been very supporting and loving.  Yet the sum of the effects of the response to their behavior amounts to an implicit judgement of them as inferior human beings.

There is an important point here that needs to be made.  We, as a society, still fail to integrate what we know about human development with our social response.  At one level, we understand that there are reasons for why people do what they do.  But when it comes to our response, we struggle to incorporate that understanding. 

For example, a student who misbehaves is often scolded for having made "wrong choices".  Now, he did make bad choices.  But he only made them because he hadn't developed the capacity to not make them.  This is why we have so much compassion and understanding for small children.  Yet as they age, we become less and less understanding.  Eventually, we completely give up.  We assume them to be in complete control of their actions and able to have made the "right decision".  Yet this is clearly not true!  While as people age and their developmental process becomes much more complex and hard to track, it is not fundamentally different than that of a small child.  There are still reasons for why they were or were not able to make decisions.

Our failure in education has been, I feel, rooted in our failure as a society to understand human development.  We have not made the connection between development and consciousness, development and behavior.  If we are to truly solve teen pregnancy, we are going to have to solve deeper problems of human agency.  

A good place to start will be to begin to do better, earlier assessments of children.  These will point us towards the kinds of targeted interventions that will allow us to deliver high-resolution developmental remediation where it is needed.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012


Last night I made the mistake of watching the film Moneyball, about the baseball general manager Billy Beane, played by Brad Pitt, who figured out a way to revolutionize his sport by concentrating solely on his players' statistical performance, as opposed to the inclusion of more traditional measures such as personality, looks, attitude, health, age or other difficult-to-quantify factors.  The underdog element of the story gives it its biggest punch, as the team he manages resides in a smaller market, and thus can't afford to compete with larger teams, who can afford to buy superstars for their teams. 

Yet this appeal to humility makes the film deeply ironic.  A sense of unfairness and cold economics is responded to with an even colder, albeit deviously smart, emphasis on calculation and dehumanization.   While romantic notions of well-matched competition might have been dashed by market realities and multi-million-dollar salaries that turned the game into a dueling of paychecks, the underdog response is neither pluck, serendipity nor sheer human courage, but rather a double-down dueling of rigid statistical maneuvering.  Adding insult to injury, the team is managed like widgets, coldly fired and hired at will, shuffled like inorganic set-pieces.  Tellingly, the film seems to recognize this dynamic, and in a nod to the existence of what a more touchy-feely type might describe as human "spirit", draws a causal connection between more humane contact between administration and the players and their increased performance on the field.

Whether because I'm not a natural fan of baseball, or just tedious scenes of complex business deals over speaker-phones, I eventually turned the film off in boredom.  Maybe I just could look at a cocky Brad Pitt shoving another hotdog into his plump lips, talking about the "bottom line" in his greasy sport shirts.

Or maybe because the story hit too close to home.  The film's parallels to education reform are many, even if there are as many differences.  The deepest problem in education may indeed be that so many in the reform movement wouldn't see the differences. 

Leaving aside the romance of the game, the outcome in sports is perfectly clear:  runs, points, errors, touchdowns, etc.  All are right there in front of you in black and white. Success means stepping up to the plate and delivering.  In education, this is true as far as it goes: a good test score generally means a kid is doing well in school.  However, how you get there is infinitely more complex.  In baseball, the individual player is largely responsible for his own success or failure.  He puts in the training hours, and he ultimately gives it his best on the field.

The education reform movement is nothing if not infatuated with numbers.  It designed the infamous NCLB laws that mandated nationwide testing.  It tied those scores to classroom teaching.  It penalized schools and teachers who didn't improve their students' scores.  It brought a business-oriented buzzwords like "accountability", "data" and "performance".  It sought to ignore the human side of teaching, what is possibly one of the most complex of human endeavors, reducing everything to the "bottom-line", literally a number in a column.

Yet this reductionist model, while maybe more meaningful in a simple system like professional sports, or a widget factory, required in its pursuit of simplicity and convenience a throwing out, or ignoring, of vast amounts of relevant data.  Because while baseball players, or widgets, are relatively static, known quantities, students are not.  A baseball player is a highly motivated individual with a set of comprehensive statistics.  A widget is an inorganic unit with a weight, size and shape that can be measured with perfect precision. 

A classroom on the other hand, is a dynamic group of children, all with complex environmental and developmental needs, from a multiplicity of backgrounds and circumstances that change by the day, that must be differentiated by a teacher.  The teacher does not merely deliver content into their heads as if static receptacles.  The teacher must first create an environment in which their minds are safe and comfortable enough to become open to positive learning.  Their social interaction and participation must be carefully orchestrated so as to facilitate not only the acquisition of new knowledge, but its digestion and synthesis with old knowledge to form
greater and deeper understandings which can then be applied in novel ways.  The teacher must assess and identify where each student is at every single moment of class, and subsequently deliver instruction tailored to their specific and unique needs.

In contemporary American society, we are still highly stratified and segregated by human and societal capital.  Thus, a given school's demographic population will vary widely from one community to the next.  The specific and unique needs of the students in classroom X at school Y will be entirely different than the needs of the students in classroom A in school B.  The teaching of such diverse populations of children will be dramatically different.  Because the needs of the students are so different, so to will be their capacity to learn.  For instance, a student with a vocabulary of 20k words will have a much more difficult time studying a given length of grade-level text than a student with a vocabulary of 40k words.  Or, to present a non-academic, but rather environmental, physiological example, a student from a single-parent household who had to put himself to bed, fix his own breakfast, and then ride a bus filled with angry, bullying children will face similar struggles when presented with text to read, when compared with a child from a two-parent home who was lovingly read to before bed, gently woken up, had her hair brushed and driven to school by a calm, soothing mother.

I was recently let-go by a principal who was disappointed that my students were not as engaged as he felt they should have been in my direct-instruction lessons.  This, despite the fact that I teach at a continuation school, where the population is severely emotionally and academically underdeveloped, and face all manner of trauma at home.  For this reason, the staff rarely bothers with direct-instruction, because it is an ineffective model of instruction with our student population, and for the most part only does so because administrators insist on scoring them according to a direct-instruction rubric.  Comments attached to my low-marks would say things like, "a few students were not taking notes", or "one student kept looking at his cell phone". 

In a normal classroom, such expectations might be warranted.  Yet in our setting, where students routinely come to class high, don't show up for days at a time, or sit in silence - only present at because mandated to do so by their probation officer.  Instead, continuation teachers must be much more flexible.  Instruction is centered around credit recovery and the shifting curricular needs of our students.  It is common for every student in a classroom to be working on a different chapter, or even different subject (I taught both Earth Science and Biology).  Most instruction occurs on-on-one, and often involves considerable cajoling and external motivation. 

One of the added benefits of this model is that it naturally lends itself to interpersonal communication and emotional development in the student.  Because they rarely see the counselors, and when they do have little basis for rapport - they are largely highly defiant and anti-institution oriented, they have few opportunity to have their emotional needs addressed.  In informal conversation, life circumstances often are spoken of that illustrate just how traumatic and tragic their home-life often is.   As a teacher who sees them everyday and is able to speak with them in a non-threatening, informal manner, I am able to at least go some way in helping them to rebuild emotionally, a project that is generally at the root of their academic failure.

Absurd then, it is, the administrative pedagogy that would ask teachers to abandon this form of highly-differentiated, complex and nuanced rehabilitation that takes into consideration not merely the student's academic growth, but more fundamentally the particular emotional and behavior development that must be established before higher-order thinking and learning can take place.  In order to understand how this pedagogical malpractice could have taken place, we must return to the wider view of American education reform and how its misguided world-view has shaped administrative thinking, and subsequently lead to a failure to fundamentally appreciate the ways in which learning takes place in the classroom. 

NCLB was created in part to determine which students at which schools were not succeeding academically, and in part to then hold such school accountable for "fixing the problem", or as the law put it, "to leave no child behind".  Although anyone who was familiar socio-economics and education could have told you that an "achievement gap" had already existed for years, NCLB was now delivery powerful demonstrative evidence, in a way that everyone could clearly see. 

Yet what the reformers, a movement obsessed with data, did not see, was the complexity behind the numbers.  Hypnotized by the convenient allure of quantifiable, concrete and manipulable digits, all they saw was a nifty little number problem.  All we had to do now was to get the numbers to even out, to erase the achievement gap.  On paper, it was easy to lose sight of the monumental challenges involved in overcoming the profound developmental inequities that societies have been struggling with for centuries.

When things didn't turn out as planned, the reformers were quick to blame "bad teaching", and the unions who supposedly protected them.  But this ignored the vastly more complex nature of the problem, one that a handful of "bad" teachers couldn't be expected to account for.  Even non-unionized charter schools turned out to fare no better than traditional schools.  The ones who did so relied on selective enrollment, specialized grant supplements in their budget, or simple luck (as many outliers could be found among traditional schools).

While in the end, the Moneyball team didn't win any championship, they did do spectacularly well, given the situation.  It was clearly a victory for some level of data analysis and business-minded administration.  However, one wonders what all of this hyper-institutionalization and dehumanization means for the game.

In education, the approach has led to an all-time low in teacher moral, slashed school budgets, a gutting of non-tested subject areas, countless hours and money wasted on  punitive and aimless professional development, loss of professionalism and the kind of individual initiative that that leads to innovation in the classroom.  Schools are not factories, classrooms are not baseball franchises. 

The pendulum will inevitably swing back, however from here one wonders where that might be, and how many decades it might take.  What we do know for certain, is that the business-model of education has been a disaster, and likely in ways that we have yet to fully realize.

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Final Transaction

I've wanted to write about this for a while now, but I never thought I had enough worth saying.  But here goes.

I'm a pretty serious music fan.  As long as I can remember, music has had an unmatched power in my life to move me in transcendent ways.  I don't think a day has ever gone by when I haven't at some point hummed a melody, whether from a popular piece of music or my own improvisation.  As a child, I used to create my own little songs, frequently nothing more than percussive rhythms composed of oral clicks and pops.

I took up the banjo at age 17.  Well, not quite the banjo, per say - I never figured out how to tune it properly.  I simply used it as a stringed instrument, something with which to experiment.  I fell in love with its possibilities.  I began to record small arrangements on a tape deck, which I would then play back as I recorded a new "track" on a different tape deck, repeating the process again until the original recording had deteriorated beyond recognition.  One of my most inspirational memories was when at one point in a particular recording a streetcar rang its bell outside in just the right spot.  The song might now be lost to history, but here's a different example of my work from that era:

I've since gone on to further develop my songwriting, eventually completing a number of complete, although unpublished albums.  Music - both its production and appreciation -  remains central to my life.

I remember my first album, a cassette tape of Bob Marley's greatest hits.  My older brother got into punk rock, and hung Dead Kennedys posters in his room.  Who could forget the controversial Penis Landscape by H.R. Giger, included in the album  Frankenchrist. In 5th grade, I dropped LSD and vividly recall the magical disbelief I felt when I was able to light a match by striking it across the cover of Metallica's Kill 'Em All.  To this day, it still bears the phosphorous mark.

Growing up in Santa Cruz, I regularly attended performances by reggae artists who made sure our appreciative town was on their tour schedule.  Marijuana was central to the experience.  And it was a beautiful thing.  For hours we would dance, reveling in the joy of the rhythm, swaying to the bass.  I remember on one occasion being drawn to a stack of bass amps that towered like a wall over my head, closing my eyes and feeling the deep, low wavelengths reverberate through me.

Some of my fondest memories have been digging through used record bins.  In high school, I brought home on a $.99 lark what seemed to be the silliest album I had ever seen, Larry Graham's Star Walk, with Graham on the cover in tight pants and a sequined top.  Yet as I sat listening to it alone in my room, safe from social pressures, I realized that the music - silly disco as it was -  was beautiful!  I discovered his earlier work with Graham Central Station, and the larger funk genre.  My favorite finds were Hot Chocolate and the obscure Booty People.  I couldn't get enough.  It felt like my own secret musical universe.  And best of all it was made possible by bargain-basement prices.  I found a local embroidery company to sew the letters "FUNK" into a black fitted baseball cap.  When I discovered bands like Parliament I began to appreciate just how much the sampling of these bands had been a part of the rap music I was listening to.  For a research project presentation in social studies class, I played actual examples of how music from the seventies was being used in songs from the 1990s.

With the advent of internet file-sharing, the boundaries of musical discovery have disappeared.  Anything you can possibly think of is out there for you to find, and probably download for "free".  Of course, the issue of legality arises.  Well, in most cases downloading "free" music is clearly illegal.  But the moral issue is a bit more tricky.  As with any form of digital media, the act of reproduction does no physical damage to the original work. Yet in terms of whether the increased availability of a near-perfect copy limits the original owner's ownership, and thus his ability to exploit its value, the question is open.

No one seems to have a very good answer for where the line is between outright stealing, where harm is actually done to the original owner, and sharing, where value is only added.  An argument for the former would be that compensation is limited by those who get for free what they otherwise could only have paid for.  An argument for the latter would be that the music may not have been bought, or listened to otherwise.  Many independent artists, their work traditionally lacking the institutional marketing muscle to expose themselves to the public in the first place, have argued that by their music being shared, value is added in terms of building public awareness.I think every case is surely different.  There are so many variables to the question, and so many pieces we would never be able to know about the pathways to particular artist's compensation.

But maybe a simpler way to look about this is to focus less on individual products, and on our role as consumers in society.  Because, if we are to look at the morality of our purchases, could we not then look at our own purchasing power, and our own compensation?  What rights do we possess as citizens to enjoy the fruits of society's labors at large?  Do I really deserve the condition of the street I live on?  Does my contribution to society qualify my enjoyment of its public parks, schools and police?  These are public goods paid for by taxation, a system itself designed - in principle - to fairly reflect individual obligation.

A fascinating piece to this conversation is the existence of public libraries.  We have a very long tradition of accepting the notion that it is perfectly fair one to borrow books without paying for them.  In recent decades, this notion has broadened to include music, magazines and DVDs.  The only limitation has been on the number of physical copies a particular branch is able to acquire.  And even here, there has historically been inequality among neighborhoods with regards to the selection and general quality of library branches.  Yet the library itself rests in no small part on the notion that as a purveyor of ideas, it is a pillar of democracy to spread information to all citizens - both for knowledge but also pure enjoyment.  To imagine a world without public libraries is almost impossibly bleak.

I have read many books at a library instead of purchasing them.  But I have also read many that I would not have purchased.  And what price to put on such an experience?  How much wiser am I because of it?  How much am I able now able to contribute as a citizen?

In the past 10 years, I have downloaded countless gigabytes of music.  Was I stealing, or was I sharing?  I've never been able to spend very much on music.  As I mentioned previously, I have almost always purchased music used.  In many cases, there is simply no compensation being distributed back to the original creator.  The compensation is mainly being passed back and forth between previous owners, the shop owner basically collecting a transaction fee.  One could argue, I think, that to the extent that a market in used music exist, it drives down the prices of new music.  Ought that be called stealing?

In the video game market, there has always existed a robust used market.  However, that may be changing as platforms head towards a digital distribution model.  Rumors are that the next systems will do away with portable media entirely.  You can't sell a used file.  In many ways, getting rid of the used market for media would represent a huge win for content creators.  Aside from removing the middle man, they would no longer face competition from used versions of their product, from which they derive no profit.  And should ebooks become the norm (if you don't like their inflexible, "inorganic" feel now, just imagine someday turning pages that feel just like paper and ink, yet are in fact display conduits for digital ink), what will happen to libraries?
  The physical location will be unnecessary, as all content will exist online.  Will it still be free?  Digital content exists today at many libraries, however the selection is quite limited by publishers.

Again, I suggest we return to the concept of ourselves as consumers in society, and specifically to our role as nodes in a larger web of labor transactions.  It might clear away much of the muddle if we simply look at the sum totality of our individual contribution, and determine to what extent we ought to contribute.  A good example of this model is that of listener-supporter radio.  I have determined - in my own, highly unscientific way - that I want to pay about $10 a month to my local NPR station.  For that price, I can use them as little or as much as I want.  Couldn't we apply this model to our media consumption in general?

I have taken a similar tack with regard to my music purchases.  Despite all of the music I have downloaded without paying anyone, I have continued to purchase $10-15 of music monthly.  It became convenient to do this through eMusic, as all of the artists I enjoyed could be found there at bargain prices.  Yet, I recently realized that I wasn't actually getting anything from them that I couldn't get for free via torrents, and that my main concern was really to support the artists.  Because I've always enjoyed listening to vinyl, what I could do instead was spend my money on a record each month, and then continue to download whatever I felt like.  I am buying no more or less than I always would have, I am supporting artists, and I am able to completely engage in the process of music appreciation.

Maybe $10-15 isn't the best remuneration for the relative value I am taking from my music consumption.  Yet whatever I am not paying music artists, I am paying the grocer, or the monthly check I send to the United way.  What is fair for any of us to contribute to society?  Isn't that ultimately the real question?  How do I spend my free time?  Am I smiling enough to passers by?  Am I giving enough attention to my daughters?  Am I being a supportive husband to my wife?  Am I doing my job the best I know how?  All of these things are transactions, whether or not someone has developed a way to monetize them.  If I fail to be gracious enough to the cashier at Target, am I stealing?

In a way, maybe I am.  I have been designed by society to give the love that I have gotten.  At least, that is what I believe.  I believe in a society in which everyone gives as much as they can to the human project, to a cultural evolution we have been embarking on now for hundreds of thousands of years.  Predestined or not, I can only do my best to make as much sense of it as I can and align my integrity with the result.

That is the final transaction, the only one that really matters.