Monday, April 23, 2012

When Policy Meets "Art for Art's Sake"

Reading Jonah Lehrer's post about the promise of developing the ability of people (especially children) to focus, I was struck by how much it contrasts the usual rhetoric on matters of focus, especially when it comes to education. There's a lot of conventional wisdom out there about focus issues, and it consists mostly of excessive doubt or excessive sympathy. That is, most people either treat all focus issues as the upshot of bad parenting/bad-kidness or treat every ostensibly focus-based issue as the result of a disorder and beyond the control of the student. But rather than engage in this pretty fruitless back and forth, he instead highlights the evidence for various methods of improving the executive function of those students who lack focus (emphasis mine):
But here’s the good news: Executive function can be significantly improved, especially if interventions begin at an early age. In the current issue of Science, Adele Diamond, a neuroscientist at the University of British Columbia, reviews the activities that can reliably boost these essential mental skills. 
The list is surprisingly varied, revolving around activities that are both engaging and challenging, such as computer exercises involving short-term memory, tae-kwon-do, yoga and difficult board games. Dr. Diamond also notes that certain school curricula, such as Montessori and Tools for the Mind, have also been shown to consistently increase executive function. 
Yet, despite this impressive evidence, most schools do virtually nothing to develop executive function. Even worse, education departments are slashing the very activities, such as physical exercise and the arts, that boost executive function among the broadest range of students.
Lehrer's critique of cuts here is spot on, but its interesting how rhetorically different it is from so much of the criticism you hear of such cuts. Unlike most criticism, Lehrer cites the specific value of the arts and physical education in his defense of keeping them in school curricula. Too often, you hear a defense such programs on a much less clear basis. People tend to argue that cutting such things deprives students of a fuller curriculum and the broad range of subject matter that they deserve. I certainly agree with that, but when policy makers find themselves making cuts, especially in the recent economic environment, they aren't cutting things like art and phys. ed because they are malicious bureaucrats hell-bent on the destruction of the liberal arts. Nor are they even underestimating the value of art and phys. ed. They're simply setting budget priorities and, given the fiscal constraints of the system, are forced to make choices between cutting programs they see as more essential to a child's education. So, rhetorically, if you want to make an argument for saving such programs, it's important not to overlook the utility of such programs. Now, I fully understand that a big part of the value of a liberal arts education is learning to appreciate art for arts sake. But it's important to recognize that just because the arts may have an inherent value doesn't mean they don't also have a utility value. And if you're sitting down for a budget meeting, you're going to get a lot farther with an argument based on utility than you will with one based on the squishy, feel-good value of the arts.

One version of this type of argument appeared in a weekend editorial by Claire Needell Hollander in the Times tellingly titled "Teach the Books, Touch the Heart," except this one was aimed at standardized testing. In the article, Needell Hollander laments the disappearance of high-quality literature in today's classrooms and, especially, on exams. Instead, she says, exams are beginning to feature the boring, lifeless informative texts. She explains,
Until recently, given the students’ enthusiasm for the reading groups, I was able to play down that data. But last year, for the first time since I can remember, our test scores declined in relation to comparable schools in the city. Because I play a leadership role in the English department, I felt increased pressure to bring this year’s scores up. All the teachers are increasing their number of test-preparation sessions and practice tests, so I have done the same, cutting two of my three classic book groups and replacing them with a test-preparation tutorial program. Only the highest-performing eighth graders were able to keep taking the reading classes.
Since beginning this new program in September, I have answered over 600 multiple-choice questions. In doing so, I encountered exactly one piece of literature: Frost’s “Road Not Taken.” The rest of the reading-comprehension materials included passages from watered-down news articles or biographies, bastardized novels, memos or brochures — passages chosen not for emotional punch but for textual complexity.
Now, it is certainly a negative thing that students have to spend more time preparing for tests and less time reading great literature. But this is hardly the fault of standardized exams. Instead, doing that seems to me to be a case of blaming the thermometer for the temperature. That is, what stops students from accessing great literature in way that all students deserve to is that far too many students still lack the requisite skills to handle such texts in a robust way. Take for example this chart from the National Center for Education Statistics based on data from the National Assessment of Adult Literacy:

Given that even those adults registering as "Intermediate" in their prose literacy can only "perform moderately challenging literacy activities," it certainly seems questionable that anyone other than adults at the proficient level could handle the type of literature Needell Hollander rightly values, and it is certainly doubtful that anyone at the Basic or Below Basic level could. And, if people aren't able to handle it as adults, then they certainly weren't prepared while they were students either.

That this adjustment in the focus of the curriculum was made to compensate lacking literacy skills and not rather the result of a misguided desire to advance a crazy standardized testing regime seems to be betrayed in Needell Hollander's column itself. As she notes, "the highest-performing eighth graders were able to keep taking the reading classes." This suggests that those students with high literacy skills don't need the strict test prep in order perform well on the tests. Put another way, if you have the skills, test prep isn't going to add a lot of value to you. But, if you lack the skills, intensive test prep can produce an increased focus on gaining those literacy skills necessary to not only handle the tests, but also handle texts such as those that Needell Hollander would like to see stay on syllabi throughout the country. Sure, this may be, when executed poorly, a short-sighted, short-term way of boosting student scores. But it is crucial to see that this is both a failure of pedagogy and a symptom of the tremendous deficits students have. The response, therefore, should not be to roll-back the testing requirements that make such deficits apparent, but rather continue to focus on the methods of both policy and pedagogy that will set students up to develop the literacy skills necessary that they need to read the great books in the first place. 

Also - just as a quick PS to all of this. To my mind, one of the failings of Needell Hollander's article is that it confuses the value of exposing students to interesting and moving stories with the value of developing in students a sharp literary sense. This may seem like splitting hairs, but to me it is the difference between reading the SparkNotes version of Shakespeare and reading the actual text. Great plots are wonderful as far as they go, but the value in literature is not simply in reading an entertaining, emotional story. Instead, great literature helps us examine the created world of fiction or poetry, and instead, using skills that help us dissect more fully the tropes, diction, imagery, etc., we learn to think more clearly and profoundly about our own world. This distinction matters because students with substandard literacy skills might be able to connect with the plot of great stories, but they will struggle much more to connect with its true depth as a piece of literature. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Go Read "The Blind Side"

I haven't seen the movie, but I finally just finished Michael Lewis's The Blind Side. It's a really tremendous read that provides a unique perspective on football, race, class and poverty with a depth and power of metaphor you rarely see in non-fiction like this. It's hard for me to do it justice here, so it's probably just worth going out and picking up the book. But, if you're into the whole brevity thing, The New York Times ran an adapted version of the Michael Oher story called the Ballad of Big Mike back when the book was about to be released. Here's a taste: 

For his first year it didn’t matter. He failed his classes and didn’t play anything. As far as the Briarcrest teachers could determine, he didn’t have a thought or a fact or an idea in his head. But then almost by accident they figured out that he needed to be tested orally, whereupon he proved to them that he deserved high D’s instead of low F’s. It wasn’t clear that he was going to acquire enough credits to graduate with his class, but Simpson and Graves stopped thinking they were going to send him back out on the streets, and they let him play sports. He joined the basketball team at the end of his sophomore year and soon afterward the track-and-field team (throwing the discus and putting the shot). In his junior year he finally got onto the football field. 
The problem there, at first, resembled his problems in the classroom. He had no foundation, no idea what he was meant to do as a member of a team. He said he had played football his freshman year at Westwood, but there was no sign of it in his performance. When Freeze saw how fast he could move, he pegged him as a defensive tackle. And so for the first six games of the 2003 season, he played defense. He wasn’t any worse than his replacement, but he wasn’t much better either. One of his more talented teammates, Joseph Crone, thought Big Mike’s main contribution came before the game, when the opposing team stumbled out of its locker room or bus and took the measure of the Briarcrest Christian School. “They’d see all of us,” Crone says, “and then they’d see Mike and say, ‘Oh, God.”’
Michael Lewis has something of a pattern he uses when writing, especially about sports. And it's a smart idea that he does because it's a really compelling pattern. The pattern is roughly: here's some way that talent once went unrecognized, and now let's tell the story of how it got recognized. If you've seen Moneyball you know that this is the basic structure of the plot, and that is true as well for The Blind Side. In the Blind Side, though, the story of why Michael Oher's talent went unrecognized for so long (even though it was so obvious) has a lot to do with race, class and educational opportunity. Lewis tells that story in a really interesting way and does not fail to recognize just how many kids like Michael never get their talent recognized, whether in sports or academics, because of the limitations of their environment. 

Lewis also authored a piece of this same basic structure (tremendous talent gets underestimated, and then, suddenly, properly estimated) in the New York Times about Shane Battier. It too is a story colored in interesting way by the backdrop of race and class, and whether you're interested in those things or are just a basketball fan, it's well worth your time. Here's a bit: 
Battier was half-white and half-black, but basketball, it seemed, was either black or white. A small library of Ph.D. theses might usefully be devoted to the reasons for this. For instance, is it a coincidence that many of the things a player does in white basketball to prove his character — take a charge, scramble for a loose ball — are more pleasantly done on a polished wooden floor than they are on inner-city asphalt? Is it easier to “play for the team” when that team is part of some larger institution? At any rate, the inner-city kids with whom he played on the A.A.U. circuit treated Battier like a suburban kid with a white game, and the suburban kids he played with during the regular season treated him like a visitor from the planet where they kept the black people. “On Martin Luther King Day, everyone in class would look at me like I was supposed to know who he was and why he was important,” Battier said. “When we had an official school picture, every other kid was given a comb. I was the only one given a pick.” He was awkward and shy, or as he put it: “I didn’t present well. But I’m in the eighth grade! I’m just trying to fit in!” And yet here he was shuttling between a black world that treated him as white and a white world that treated him as black. ‘‘Everything I’ve done since then is because of what I went through with this,” he said. “What I did is alienate myself from everybody. I’d eat lunch by myself. I’d study by myself. And I sort of lost myself in the game.”

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The School and the City

So I have recently discovered a love for the 99% Invisible podcast. Roman Mars has a developed a really admirable aesthetic for the show and some deeply cool stories on the design behind everything we encounter in our daily lives, but rarely notice. But besides being greatly entertaining, 99% Invisible takes seriously the idea that design has real consequences for the quality of life of those people interacting with the design. They trace this theme through examples small and large, from the design of queues through the design of the World Trade Center. But one episode in particular caught my attention recently:

In this episode they explore the way the design of cities can serve to exclude or segregate various groups within that city. This is a theme that's been on my mind a lot recently. Especially having recently read Matt Yglesias's new book, "The Rent is Too Damn High," and being in the middle of Ryan Avent's book "The Gated City," of similar subject matter. In their books, Yglesias and Avent explore another kind of design, policy design, and the ways in which it subtlety shapes and distorts the cities in which we live, and as a result, the quality of life of the people living in those cities. Both see a tremendous power in the ability of cities to generate innovation, maximize productivity and just plain make people happier by providing them with more of what they like and need nearby. But both also see how the design of cities, specifically regulations that affect the supply and use of land, can lead to majorly destructive constraints on the potential of cities to make the most of those positive attributes. For Yglesias, the story is simple: artificial constraints on the housing supply (such as minimum parking regulations or height restrictions on buildings) drive up the cost of rent. This is a problem because these regulations not only straightforwardly prevent more people from moving to the city (that is, if you build less places for people to live, less people will live there), but also do indirectly by pricing less affluent people out of the market. Most people know this process of rising land value pushing out poor people as gentrification. (For a funnier explanation of gentrification check out Michael Che subtlely here.) But, as Yglesias explains in the book, this isn't just an immutable law of city physics. Part of what exacerbates the problem of gentrification is that regulations that constrain the supply of housing artificially raise rents. And, he explains on his blog, equality of access requires abundance.

So what does all of this have to do with schools and poverty? Well, as it turns out, schools have to pay rent too. (Or at least have to purchase land. Either way, they're affected directly by the artificially high cost of land.) But also it seems fairly obvious that the problems of gentrification make people uncomfortable because of the exclusion it implies. Economic exclusion is just one type of exclusion that can be embedded in our cities, as the 99% Invisible episode makes clear. And exclusion in schooling is called segregation. Granted, this is de facto segregation, but it's segregation nonetheless, and it leads to all sorts of inequitable outcomes for students. This became really clear to me recently when I was looking at some maps of DC recently on the tremendously cool Radical Cartography site. Here are a few maps that show the effects of such exclusions.

First, you can see that there clearly is a divide in DC based on income (the darker the pink you see, the higher the income; the darker the blue you see, the lower the income):

Second, as you can see, this divide is also disproportionately one of race: 


Third, you can see this divide also tracks very much with educational outcomes, as measured by attainment of a bachelors degree. 

As is pretty clear, if you live in deep northwest, you have a college degree or will someday get one. If you live almost anywhere else, you don't. This is pretty obviously a big problem for those of us interested in seeing a large portion of the population receiving a high quality education. But in an economy where low-skill labor jobs are increasingly disappearing (highly recommended link, by the way), this is pretty clearly a major economic problem too. Matt Yglesias also recognizes in his book that the disparity in educational outcomes implies that some people currently are receiving a high-quality education. Which raises the question of why poor families don't just move to the areas where the best educational opportunity is. Well, as you might have guessed, it's because the rent is too damn high:
Many parents, of course, do relocate. It's common for affluent young couples to move out to the suburbs when their children reach appropriate age. "Everyone knows" that poor families can't afford to do this. But we only rarely ask why it is that poor families can't afford to move to nice suburbs. It's not because construction costs are higher in the suburbs. It's because it's frequently illegal to build the kind of dense apartment buildings that could accomodate lower-income families.
This is all just to say that for all the bluster today about the importance of school choice, education reforms often focus on increasing choice by increasing the supply of schools available to students, especially to those attending the worst schools. But, in addition to building charter schools at a dizzying pace, much of which often allows sub-par quality charter schools to enter the market, education reformers might take a second look at the promise of increasing choice by promoting density.