Monday, December 19, 2011

Lobbying and Education


So I recently saw the above video of Stand for Children CEO Jonah Edelman discussing the process and strategy of pushing education legislation in Illinois (comments for which he subsequently apologized) and I, as I think were a lot of people, was dismayed. It may just be a factor of the truism that in policy-making as in sausage-making, it's never easy to see the process, but my initial reaction was to be repelled by how much this seemed like a clear instance of moneyed interests bullying the legislative process. And I haven't really changed my mind on that fact. It certainly is a clear example of how money and lobbying influences politics. But, I think it might be easy to take from this (and I have little doubt that many did) that this is a clear sign of the corrupt, corporate nature of reform movement, and that's not the right conclusion.

Instead, what I think we're seeing is not anything particular to the reform movement but is instead just the nature of current system of funding elections and the lobbying that has grown up as a result of that system. Maybe you could accuse Stand of playing that game more cunningly than the unions on the other side, but it's important to recognize that they're not playing a different game. Indeed, teachers unions are one of the biggest powerhouses in this game. OpenSecrets.org from the Center for Responsive Politics has put together a list of "Heavy Hitters" or the biggest donors to political campaigns over the years 1988-2012 and the two major teachers unions, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), rank 6 and 11 on that list, respectively.

I've recently been very caught up in the work of Larry Lessig on campaign finance. He has a new book out, called Republic, Lost. His work is well worth your time (see links below) and his basic thesis is that the influence of lobbyists, which demands both the attention and time of our congress (with, he says, senators and representatives spending between 30% and 70% of their time fundraising), is the root issue facing our nation (and distorting our policies) today. He certainly has me convinced, and I think most people react the way they do to instances like the one in the video because of how intuitively misguided this type of undue influence feels. What we see is not our legislators engaging in a sober, rational investigation of the best course of action to promote a healthy and thriving society, but rather a process dictated by forming alliances based on campaign contributions and personal vendettas (often connected to leglisators' follow-through, or lack thereof, with advancing the interests of interest groups, which is expected implicitly with every contribution given). As Lessig says, quoting John Edwards, in an appearance on Reason.TV, there's a big difference between making an argument to a jury and passing out $100 bills to the jurors. Because we all sense that so easily, we quickly recoil when we see the latter happening in our legislative process. And rightfully so.

What is perhaps most interesting about this process, though, is how it affects education in ways you might not even expect. Take for example this article from Slate describing the influence of lobbyists for King's Dominion Theme Park in Virginia in creating a law to prevent schools in Virginia from opening before labor day. Why you ask?:
It seems that since 1986, a Virginia law has barred schools from opening before Labor Day because it’s bad for the amusement park industry...The Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association, which represents Kings Dominion and other amusement parks, contends that shortening the summer tourism season “would forgo spending by about $274 million and decrease wages and benefits by about $104 million.” Last week the director of government affairs for the Association, Katie Hellbbush, clarified that "We’ve never seen any kind of difference in academic achievement in terms of starting before Labor Day. But studies have shown a distinct change in tourism."
While Hellbbush may have a point that the difference between August 22 and September 8 may be no big deal, this fails to recognize the huge difference that is seen between schools that extend the school year by more considerable margins (especially in low income communities) and schools that maintain the regular-length school year. And as the battle to change the norm of school-year length on a broader scale continues, it's unnerving to discover the influence of such a seemingly petty thing as the well-being of amusement parks. 


Lessig links:
Repulic, Lost in video form
Daily Show Interview: Part 1 Part 2
NYT OpEd
Good Soul Corruption: Part 1 Part 2
His new blog.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Whose fault is poverty?



So, while the title of this post promises a lot more than I can really deliver, I've been meaning to write about poverty for awhile now. And, as the rhetoric around Occupy Wall Street has been heating up and budget questions have forced the political discussion to questions of poverty and wealth, it has been increasingly difficult to avoid the type of rhetoric that reveals a lot about the broader society's views on what life in poverty is like and who is at fault when someone finds themselves in poverty. But I was watching the Newshour the other night when I saw the above piece and was struck by these comments of Senator Barrasso: 
GWEN IFILL: What about means-testing government health benefits, unemployment compensation and food stamps? Are you hitting the people who will be hurt the most? 
SEN. JOHN BARRASSO: Well, we heard from Sen. Coburn here today that there are people actually on unemployment who make huge amounts of money, and as well as those on -- on food stamps. And we want to see exactly -- I want to see exactly what the language is there.
So what really strikes me about this (beside the heavy mention of my hometown of Scranton) is the denial of the true state of poverty in this country and what it means for the families who live under the strain it creates. Felix Salmon had a recent post on the current state of the social safety net  that enlightens this a bit: 

It’s true that the poverty rate for children has come down — but it’s still unconscionably high. There are 13.6 million children under the age of 18 living in poverty — that’s 18.2% of all the children in the country. 
And most egregiously, even after taking into account food stamps and the like, 5.4% of the population — and fully 8.6% of the Hispanic population — is living on less than half the poverty level.
What does that mean, in practice? Here are the new poverty levels: 
threshhold.tiff 
To live on less half the poverty level means that a family of four — two adults and two children — would have a total household income of no more than $12,172 per year. Call it $1,000 per month. And that’s after accounting for aid from the government. 
With all respect to Senator Coburn, whose presentation Senator Barrasso cites, even if there are some people on unemployment and food stamps who make significant amounts of money, the evidence that Salmon presents show that there are huge numbers of people who do not make anywhere near "huge amounts of money" in our country, and any way of paying for government debts and programs that weighs heavily on those people is likely to cause a great deal of suffering. Let's match that plan against the administration's proposed tax hikes on those making over $1 million. As Gene Sperling explains of the program in the same Newshour piece: 
It asks those who make over $1 million, only 300,000 Americans, to pay a little more, about 3 percent more a year in the next -- in the coming years, so that we can give this type of tax relief, and not have the deficit go up by a single penny.
Let's put aside the seeming inconsistency of Barrasso's claim that it's alright to cut social safety net programs such as food stamps and unemployment benefits because people being assisted those programs are actually secretly pretty well off with his view that it's not alright to raise the tax rate on those American's who are making more than $1 million by 3 percent (For a really great commentary on this type of argument, see Jon Stewart from back during the Wisconsin collective bargaining debates). 

What's clear, beyond issues of fairness, is that the impact of implementing these different plans for paying for programs like the payroll tax extension will be vastly different. And, it seems clear to me, that a 3 percent increase on Americans making over $1 million will not cause suffering. It may cause some families to change their spending habits a bit, but compared to the impact of cuts on families already squeezing to live on close to $1000/month for whom such cuts might mean children eating less or walking to school in winter without a jacket or any one of the many important things that separate suffering from not suffering. This is just another way of saying that the same amount of money has different value to two people on different ends of the poverty and wealth spectrum. If your monthly salary is $1000, gaining another $1000/month doubles your salary. But if your monthly salary is $83,000,  an extra $1000/month is a drop in the bucket as a percentage of your salary. 

But more important than the math of the thing is what you're likely to spend that money on (or whether you're going to spend it at all). If you only make $1000/month there are probably still a lot of necessities that you are not spending money on and that would make your life significantly better if you were able to spend on them. If you're making $83,000/month you likely have very few necessities to spend that money on that will make large differences in their quality of life. So in a certain sense that extra $1000 is much more valuable to the person on the low end than it is to the person on the high end. But also, from the perspective of stimulative effect, the person making less money seems to me way more likely to spend that money because they're spending on necessities than the person who has those necessities already taken care of. (Admittedly, I'm sure there is a lot of economic work on this, and I am not really aware of it, so please feel free to leave links or responses in comments.)

There is another element to the discussion of poverty that is a bit troublesome to me, beyond the widespread underestimation of how extensive the problem really is. That is the question of what role the decisions and personal qualities of those in poverty contribute to their own impoverishment. Recently Tyler Cowen and Matt Yglesias had a bit of a back and forth on this recently, and Cowen represented the libertarian camp that wants to see more emphasis on personal responsibility when it comes to discussions of poverty:
How often will a progressive stress that the poor should develop greater conscientiousness rather than looking to government support? Many progressives are genuinely unaware of how unusual a moral code they often are communicating and celebrating, if only implicitly.
But for as much such a view on the effects of social welfare programs might seem intuitive or logical, I remain totally unconvinced that it's actually the case that a lack of personal responsibility is really what's at work in driving most of what keeps people in poverty. No doubt there are irresponsible poor people, but that shouldn't be confused as knock down evidence that poor people are irresponsible. After all, there are plenty of irresponsible rich people, and often enough that irresponsibility doesn't lead them to being poor.

Rather, I think the right way of framing this is that poor people have to face a lot more high-stakes decisions to be responsible for. This idea was explored recently in an article by John Tierney on the work of Roy Baumeister regarding will power:
Shopping can be especially tiring for the poor, who have to struggle continually with trade-offs. Most of us in America won’t spend a lot of time agonizing over whether we can afford to buy soap, but it can be a depleting choice in rural India. Dean Spears, an economist at Princeton, offered people in 20 villages in Rajasthan in northwestern India the chance to buy a couple of bars of brand-name soap for the equivalent of less than 20 cents. It was a steep discount off the regular price, yet even that sum was a strain for the people in the 10 poorest villages. Whether or not they bought the soap, the act of making the decision left them with less willpower, as measured afterward in a test of how long they could squeeze a hand grip. In the slightly more affluent villages, people’s willpower wasn’t affected significantly. Because they had more money, they didn’t have to spend as much effort weighing the merits of the soap versus, say, food or medicine.
Basically, when you have a lot of money, certain decisions are less high-stakes or simply do not exist for you. Budgeting is a much more labor intensive process when you have to do it consistently for things that are absolutely necessary. And, because the strain of that decision-making process is pretty considerable and there is limited mental energy to exercise the self restraint which serves as the base of personal responsibility, poor people aren't so much bad at exercising personal responsibility as it is they are asked to do a lot more of it.

And this has profound effects on other, comparatively less important decisions that nevertheless drive a lot of people's attitudes about the decision-making capacity of low-income people. Tierney explains:
Spears and other researchers argue that this sort of decision fatigue is a major — and hitherto ignored — factor in trapping people in poverty. Because their financial situation forces them to make so many trade-offs, they have less willpower to devote to school, work and other activities that might get them into the middle class. It’s hard to know exactly how important this factor is, but there’s no doubt that willpower is a special problem for poor people. Study after study has shown that low self-control correlates with low income as well as with a host of other problems, including poor achievement in school, divorce, crime, alcoholism and poor health. Lapses in self-control have led to the notion of the “undeserving poor” — epitomized by the image of the welfare mom using food stamps to buy junk food — but Spears urges sympathy for someone who makes decisions all day on a tight budget.
 While certainly this type of issue is not the whole story on poverty, but in the discussions I hear, these effects of poverty are rarely discussed. But when it comes to people's judgments of the poor information such as this is crucial. Because no doubt when people make statements like Senator Barrasso's, they are given the rhetorical license to do so not only by the superficial question of whether or not the economic need is actually there (that is, do they already make "huge amounts of money"), but also by the underlying assumptions about whether or not the poor are deserving.

How does this all relate to education? Well, when poor kids come to school, they not only face the deficits of having parents who come from lower educational backgrounds, but they also face these same questions about their own personal responsibility. And it affects their outcomes as well.

Admittedly, this is a hugely complex question, but as with most such questions of huge complexity, Planet Money has an enlightening perspective on these matters that, more than anything else, gives a clear sense of all the obstacles someone in poverty faces. Check out their podcast The Art of Living on the Poverty Line and When a Dead End Job Isn't a Dead End.


Saturday, October 22, 2011

The best way to raise scores is to teach students.


Jonetta Rose Barras has a piece in the recent Washington City Paper education issue that, despite some seriously disconcerting generalizations about middle class black families in DC, is a pretty interesting look at what’s happening at schools on Capitol Hill. Still, the article is sloppy in its discussion of the socio-economic integration (or lack thereof) that is taking place on the Hill and the supposed ethical obligations of parents in such neighborhoods:

"But the real culprit is the flight-not-fight mentality prevalent in the black middle class. Experts have long complained that such departures lead to starving neighborhood schools of the brightest students. Earlier this month, the Washington Post reported that test scores of children in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, like Wards 7 and 8, trail those of their counterparts in Ward 3. It didn’t mention, however, that many of those Ward 3 students are, in fact, upper- or middle-class African Americans from outside that Upper Northwest community."

I think this is an important example of how easy it is to get tangled up in the complexities of education policy. There’s a bunch going on in this paragraph. For starters, the “flight-not-fight mentality” that Barras posits underscores how intertwined housing policy is with school policy. (For more on that, check out this Matt Yglesias piece on the awesome new Atlantic Cities site.) But, putting that aside for a second, Barras also seems to use as the foundation of her argument the notion that parents who decide to take advantage of the District’s school choice opportunities are “starving neighborhood schools of the brightest students.” In the process, Barras misses another crucial nuance of education policy: the idea of adding value to students. In Barras’ diagnosis of the main problem facing neighborhood schools in less affluent wards is essentially one of recruitment and retention. That is, because the most affluent (and consequently, the highest achieving) students are fleeing their neighborhood schools, the scores that neighborhood schools should “deserve” to have coming out of their own schools are going to Ward 3 instead. 
        It’s important to recognize that this is in no way an argument about the quality of education that is taking place at these schools. Essentially, it discounts the value of schools altogether. Instead of saying that schools are (at least in part) responsible for taking students from where they are academically and teaching them to a level of proficiency or advanced proficiency, Barras argues that there is a limited (and static) supply of high-scoring students in the DC and the allocation of those students to different wards is totally screwy. Further compounding the seeming injustice of this inequitable allocation of students is the fact that so many high-scoring students that test in Ward 3 live in Ward 7 & 8 and therefore their high scores in some sense belong to those schools.
        But this is a totally extraneous argument to be having. Students’ ability to achieve certain scores is, of course, not static at all and the main work of schools is not to recruit and retain those high scorers. Although there is no doubt that schools that have a preponderance of students with previously high achievement have a much easier job to do in keeping those students at high-achieving levels, what’s causing schools in Ward 7 & 8 to struggle is not that there high-scorers are leaving. Instead, what’s causing high-scorers to leave is that their neighborhood schools have failed so many students for so long. Now, of course, as those high achieving students leave, the benefits of the peer effects that such students bring with them disappears, and I would not fault Barras for lamenting that fact. However, even if her argument were based on the idea that the loss of these peer effects is a huge factor compounding the difficulty of lower-achieving schools, the correct conclusion does not seem to me to be to accuse the parents of students who are leaving their neighborhood schools of shirking their responsibility to their community. Instead, it seems to just expose a huge vulnerability of such schools that might otherwise be obscured somewhat by peer effects. If schools aren’t able to add value to students who aren’t getting great scores, then they probably weren’t teaching very much to the kids who would naturally have scored high on tests. To me, the first priority in such a situation would not be to bring back the peers, but to take a good hard look at the teaching that happens there.
        Now, I want to be clear that while I think peer effects are an important part of understanding the vicious and virtuous cycles that drive scores in the worst and best schools, they are far from as important as my most charitable reading of Barras’ argument would suggest. I tend to think that peer effects aren’t really what she’s discussing, though. I think it’s much more likely that she’s mounting an argument about who has the right to retain and take credit for the highest achieving students and how the individual choices of families impact this.
        Putting aside the policy issues, from an ethical perspective this message to parents that they owe it to their community to keep smart kids in failing or struggling schools seems amiss. I'm not certain I'm ready to commit to the idea that what people owe to their local community ought to be construed as an ethical obligation, but I will certainly concede that communities as a whole are bettered by active participation of community members who feel that they have a stake in the local community. Still even if you decide that your commitment to your community is an ethical matter, it's definitely not the only ethical concern people have to contend with. One of those ethical obligations is to provide your children with a good education that will promise them optimal life prospects. And, when two ethical obligations compete to guide your actions (for example, when your obligation to your community competes with your obligation to your child and his or her education), the more important of the two ought to prevail. Ultimately, parents do (and, I would argue, ought to) feel a stronger pull in the direction of their ethical obligation to give their child the best possible education and will act accordingly and they shouldn't be faulted for this.

As a parting shot on this matter, one quote in particular stuck out to me as provocative, but never explored or explained by the speaker or Barras. Barras quotes Daniel Holt as saying "
Economic integration is the quickest way in our lifetimes to make schools better." This is a very thorny matter, and raises the question of whether we want school reform to happen in the quickest way or in the most effective and long lasting way. Personally, I'd go with the latter, but in reform circles you hear a lot of talk about "urgency" that tends to reject in principle the notion that doing what's best and doing what's quick ever exist in a strict dichotomy. But I think if you choose to ignore the fact that efficacious reforms take time you do so at considerable peril. In any case, I hope to write more about economic integration soon, but for a really smart and important post about the subject, check out Sara Mead here

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Parking Lot

My apologies for not writing much of late. Been quite busy. Lots of stuff coming soon, though. In the mean time, here's some reading for you:

David Foster Wallace ruins everything. (NYT Mag)
"At 20 I congratulated myself on my awareness of the subjectivity of aesthetic judgments, the arbitrariness of critical proclamations, the folly of received wisdom. I pored over the Deconstructionists and the French feminists and advocated, in complete seriousness, the overthrow of language. (Also, the patriarchy.) Then I went to law school and was forced to confront serious practical and ethical questions — Brown v. Board of Education, for instance, and Roe v. Wade — that managed not to be resolved by the insights of Derrida."

Your favorite quotes are probably made up. (NYT)
"Gandhi’s words have been tweaked a little too in recent years. Perhaps you’ve noticed a bumper sticker that purports to quote him: 'Be the change you wish to see in the world.' When you first come across it, this does sound like something Gandhi would have said. But when you think about it a little, it starts to sound more like ... a bumper sticker. Displayed brightly on the back of a Prius, it suggests that your responsibilities begin and end with your own behavior. It’s apolitical, and a little smug."

Did you know that Michelle Bachmann started a charter school? (New Yorker)
"'The minutes of the school’s board meetings show that Bachmann, who was a member of the board, and her fellow-administrators repeatedly violated that rule. The C.E.O. of New Heights was Dennis L. Meyer, an evangelical-Christian activist and former schoolteacher who ran a prison ministry. At one of the first meetings, on July 20th, Meyer set the tone for how the school would be run: “Denny encouraged the board to do things and move forward not because we ‘think’ it should be done a certain way, but because God wants us to.'"

Don't go to grad school. (Chronicle of Higher Ed)

"Nearly six years ago, I wrote a column called "So You Want to Go to Grad School?" (The Chronicle, June 6, 2003). My purpose was to warn undergraduates away from pursuing Ph.D.'s in the humanities by telling them what I had learned about the academic labor system from personal observation and experience. It was a message many prospective graduate students were not getting from their professors, who were generally too eager to clone themselves." 
(Also check out Felix Salmon with an interesting chart on Law School salaries and an even more interesting chart on the overall value of advanced degrees.) 

It's really depressing that these two Larry Lessig videos only have 355 & 245 views on youtube. That's not just because I've been pushing them excessively on Facebook, but also because they're really good. Luckily, he has a book on the subject coming out tomorrow. (Apropos of all that, check out which of your Senators and Representatives are receiving money from whom.)

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Parking Lot

Paul Tough is really smart, and usually right.  (NYT)
“To point out the obvious: These are excuses. In fact, they are the very same excuses for failure that the education-reform movement was founded to oppose.”

This Dana Goldstein profile of Diane Ravitch is well worth a read. (Wash. City Paper)
“But a review of Ravitch’s career, which actually began on the left, suggests a more complex narrative. A lifelong political liberal who has always wrestled with a sort of innate personal conservatism, Ravitch—like Jane Jacobs, the urbanist whose book she referenced—has been constant in her deep attraction to institutions that have survived the test of time, and her aversion to intellectual fads. ‘It’s the fierce urgency of no,’ Ravitch says of her worldview. ‘I like institutions, in part because I like to rebel against them, but also because I think society needs them and needs to continually reshape them, not blow them up.’

Andrew Rotherham interviews Arne Duncan.  (TIME)
“But I always say that budgets reflect not just numbers but our values. And if our budgets don't reflect the value we put on education, how important we think children are, how important it is that we give every child a world-class education, then, yes, I will challenge that.”

Reality Television Industry, Know Thyself.  (NYT)
“He said he was disappointed that ‘most of America is immune to the bigger issue here,’ the issue being mental health. He recalled attending a television conference last year where both a producer and a network executive, in separate sessions, talked about recruiting people with bipolar disorders for reality shows.”

If this happens, who gets to sit on the panel that decides who does and does not qualify as ugly?  (NYT)
“The effects are not small: one study showed that an American worker who was among the bottom one-seventh in looks, as assessed by randomly chosen observers, earned 10 to 15 percent less per year than a similar worker whose looks were assessed in the top one-third — a lifetime difference, in a typical case, of about $230,000.”

What is it that schools do, after all?

I don’t have a lot to say about the majority of the content of Sara Mosle’s review of Steve Brill’s new book Class Warfare as I am yet to read the book, but this part of her argument did catch my eye:
      Brill extols the recent documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman,’ ” which argues that better teachers are the key to boosting achievement. But surprisingly, what we see in the movie aren’t so much good teachers as academically effective parents: mothers and fathers who, despite difficult circumstances, read with their children, push them to do their homework and actively seek out exceptional charters, which (unlike the mediocre or failing ones) are oversubscribed and thus rely on lotteries with long odds for admission.
       Yet to Brill and the filmmakers, these parents’ love, sweat and tears must be irrelevant, because what really matters is the quality of a child’s teacher. To prove the point, Brill cites one study that shows that students who won the lottery subsequently performed better in school than those who lost. “Same demographics, same motivation, different result,” he concludes.
      But this argument ignores the aggregate effect of student and parental attitudes. Children who don’t win a coveted spot at a program like KIPP don’t just miss the charter’s arguably better teachers; they also lose out on the self-­reinforcing atmosphere of success and striving that comes from attending a school where everyone — or at least most students and parents — has demonstrated an especially deep commitment to learning. At KIPP, for example, students go to school longer each day, each year, and also attend classes on alternating Saturdays and in the summers. Families that don’t embrace this ethos leave or can be asked to leave, an option not available to regular public schools.
If I follow the logic here correctly, it goes, roughly:

· Unions aren’t the whole story.

· The actual story suggests a much bigger place for non-school factors, especially “academically effective parents”

· Brill is wrong to point to KIPP and other successful charter groups as proof points because their secret sauce isn’t so much that they teach students in a transformative way as bring together the most committed families in underserved communities, producing an “aggregate effect of student and parent attitudes” that accounts for such success.

This seems to me an especially odd version of the selection effect argument about charters. That argument usually posits that the key to charter success is the ability to pick and choose the best and most motivated students (not by creating admissions standards, but by eliminating a certain unmotivated portion of the population by requiring more steps to enrollment than simply living in the boundary of a neighborhood school, and when that fails to eliminate slackers, schools can just kick them out.) I tend to be a bit suspicious of these arguments given that I’ve never seen them accompanied by data (and I can’t imagine it’s that hard to figure out how many students the most successful charters kick out, or other important data related to such an argument). Still, Mosle’s argument isn’t that argument, exactly. Instead of culling the smartest students, she says this effect takes place by attracting the most motivated families.

Implicit in this conclusion, it seems, is that credit for the success that results from this coming-together of families should go to the families and not the schools. Now, I’m certainly not one to try to deny credit to the devoted families that work so hard to give their children the best they can in an environment where passivity too often results in tragic life outcomes. However, Mosle’s conclusion here demonstrates both a misread of the situation and a bias about what schools do for students. First, from my limited knowledge about what happens at KIPP and other successful charters, I feel no hesitation in saying that these schools don’t simply put out lemonade and cookies in a gymnasium and let families get together and chat about the best ways to push their students to do their best. That is, to be sure, an oversimplification, but it underscores my broader point about the bias that this conclusion demonstrates. The bias is one that operates from a limited perspective on what it is precisely that schools do. Schools aren’t merely content conveyors; schools are social environments and the best schools work hard to promote the types of school and community culture in which the accumulated effect that Mosle describes not only occurs, but thrives. That is to say, it seems unfair to deny schools some credit for their very purposeful promotion of this “self-­reinforcing atmosphere of success and striving.”

This bias about what it is schools do shows up in a much more pernicious way when it comes to discussion about the future of technology and education. While many are predicting the fast-approaching death of the traditional classroom in favor of a more individualized, student-driven, online learning experience (read: YouTube, video games and iPad apps), I tend to think that a quick, wholesale replacement of the current system is unlikely. While I might be convinced with enough evidence that such an individualized technological approach to education could do a much better jobs at getting kids to learn their times tables (and other such “hard skills” in a variety of content areas), I think that just misses the point of what school is all about. The best schools are also good at teaching students softer skills such as the navigation of their social environment, persistence in the face of hardship, leadership, etc. that are just never going to be replaced by Math Blasters. Planet Money had a great podcast on the power of these soft skills recently. (If you want the shorter version of the story from All Things Considered, you can find that here.) Fair warning: these stories contain super cute children.


If you want to hear more discussion of Brill’s new book, C-SPAN’s Book TV (I’ll pause a second here while I wait for you to wake back up from the narcoleptic effect of the phrase “C-SPAN’s Book TV”) provides the tantalizing prospect of Diane Ravitch interviewing Brill about the book. Ultimately, though, it just provided me with a fun game of see-how-long-you-can-stand-the-bickering. (Incidentally, I lasted about 15 minutes.)

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Gotta Start Somewhere


So I’ve recently finished Michael Johnston’s account of his time as a Teach For America corps member in the Mississippi Delta, In the Deep Heart’s Core, and, though I thoroughly enjoyed the book, I was a bit bothered by something the whole time. Here was Johnston, Yale Law grad though he was, remembering full paragraphs of dialogue from throughout his first year of teaching. And I might be sufficiently suspicious of this premise had Johnston worked, say, any job other than teacher, but it seems downright absurd given my own experience as a first year teacher. While I can say I do remember a few things from the months September through February of my first year, they consist mostly of me, in a grumpy stupor, trying to figure out the complex calculus of how many times I could afford to press the snooze button or coming to the conclusion that if hadn’t shed my grogginess after 25 minutes in the shower, it probably wasn’t going to happen.

Anyhow, for that reason I was consistently bothered by this problem of Johnston’s seemingly impeccable memory. In his Endnote, Johnston does address the issue. He admits that, though he never carried a recorder or notebook, he had believed his renderings to be faithful to his experience. Fair enough. Still, I was left with the feeling that I had no such way of accounting for my experience in Teach For America and so the idea of a blog popped to mind. To be fair, I remain thoroughly ambivalent about the prospect of writing a blog. It’s a weird mix of the desire to get some ideas down and out for reading and an awareness of the fact that, quite possibly and quite rightly, no one would care.

So I’ve settled on something somewhere in the middle. Rather than writing on my experience, I think I’ll write about something my experience informs a modest amount: education policy and the reform landscape. I come to the issue modestly, but mostly in search of whatever clarity might come to me through the process of writing in a forum that forces me to think critically about these complex issues I find so important.

Anyway, that’s my mild defense of blogging; and I do hope you’ll continue to read, comment, argue and discuss. But if you decide to blow it off, you should blow it off by reading In the Deep Heart’s Core, especially if you were/are in the corps. For a taste, you might try reading the introduction to his book here (pp. 3-4). Or here’s a small taste:


"The history of slavery, Jim Crow and segregation, the extreme poverty, the enduring chasms of race and class: All of these ills bear down on the Delta like the heat of the sun focused through a magnifying glass, threatening at any moment to set the landscape with flames. The ghosts of our great civic soldiers and their dreams of social justice linger strongest here; their restless souls not yet convinced that their work has been completed. You can feel them hovering over the graveyards and schoolyards, the courthouses and the jailhouses, letting the weight of their watching compel us to right ourselves and steer toward a new horizon."