Friday, June 29, 2007

An Antidote to the New Legalized Segregation

No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, But shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due. U. S. Constitution, Article 4, Section 2; 3
Despite the objections of Justice Thomas to the contrary, Article 4, Section 2;3 makes it clear that the Constitution was not conceived and executed as a color-blind document. If it had of been, then Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Harrison, Van Buren, Jackson, and Polk could not have legally sent their bounty hunters from the White House across state lines in order to retrieve their flesh and blood black African properties who were seeking the freedom that the Founders could not afford to offer them in an, otherwise, color-blind Constitution.

Justice Thomas, of course, was in agreement yesterday with the Majority's Orwellian decision that concluded that if your school wants to make sure that black, brown, yellow, and white children go to school together, then you cannot use the color of their skin as a criterion to help you to achieve that end.

What remains for those seeking integrated schools and an integrated society? In an analysis of yesterday's Orwell Decision, the NY Times has a bit to say about socioeconomic integration, as is used in Wake County, NC and other districts. Essentially, it is school integration based on family income, and it appears to be a very promising practice, as noted by Richard Kahlenberg of the New Century Foundation.

An earlier version of the post appears at Schools Matter.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Marginal Utility of Education

Economists define “marginal utility” as the usefulness that is gained from an additional amount of some good. E.g., if you already have a washer and a dryer in your house, what is the marginal utility of having a second washer and dryer? Of another bottle opener when you already own three of them? Not much, for most people.

Charles Karelis makes an interesting argument using the idea of marginal utility to explain why poor people remain poor. Like all arguments at this level of abstraction, it illuminates at the same time as it is much too simple to carry the weight he wants it to.

It might seem like “the poorest people should get the most from a dollar of earnings” and that because they have so few of them, they should get more “satisfaction” from an additional dollar. But Karelis cites a range of research that indicates that it’s actually usually true that “the least useful bit of good is the first, and the first useful bit is the last.’ And the key reason is “because poor people, by definition, typically consume at low levels, where goods serve to relieve unhappiness and not to bring positive satisfaction.” In other words, “very poor people typically benefit less than moderately poor people from small increases in consumption—not more.” And this is even more true for the difference between the poor and members of the professional middle class (like most of us).

The same argument seems likely to hold in the case of education. A little bit more education can make a perceptible difference only at the upper levels. For a kid who can’t read much, reading a little better doesn’t help much. But learning a few more words could really affect the life of a kid taking the SAT.

More generally, relatively small changes in the quality of education at the bottom aren’t likely to have much impact on the life chances of poor kids. In contrast, a key skill or piece of knowledge may turn out to be just the “edge” that the child of a middle-class professional needs.

In other words, if I’m a poor kid and I hate school, why bother to work harder? The amount of additional work I’d need to put in to have it actually pay off in coherent satisfaction is much greater than it is for the middle-class child.

To add insult to injury, middle-class contexts are much more likely to foster effective learning. Work in schools populated by poor children is much more likely to be “work” with a more limited relationship to cognitive advancement.

This problem is intensified by the fact that education is to some extent a game of credentials. It isn’t so much the qualitative amount that you learn that matters, but instead whether you do or do not graduate and receive a diploma.*

The middle-class child is, in all likelihood, going to graduate. The only question is at what rank, with what GPA. There is a good chance, however, that the “average” inner-city kid won’t graduate. Therefore, any additional work she puts in on any given day is likely to be largely lost in terms the credential market will understand.

The upshot of all of this is that it may, in fact, not make much sense for poor kids, on a purely pragmatic level, to put more effort into her work on any particular day. There just isn’t enough marginal satisfaction received—either at that moment or in the future—to make it worth the sweat.

Of course, if activities in educational settings were intrinsically motivating, this wouldn’t be much of a problem. The end goal wouldn’t matter that much. But the truth is that most education in most places, especially in middle and high school, isn’t very enjoyable. And we haven’t been very successful at changing this, especially, again, in the most distressed schools.

What could we do to encourage marginalized students to work harder when the pragmatics of the situation indicate that it isn’t an illogical response just to look elsewhere in their lives for real payoffs?

Perhaps we should work harder to make education intrinsically rewarding and worry less about final outcomes. Could we imagine cutting back on reading and math instruction and focus on music and art and sports? Reading cool stories to children instead of trying to get them to learn boring reading skills? Maybe if we helped poor kids love school throughout their entire experience they might end up learning those other things as well, or at least not less well.

This is different from the usual “trades” vs. “college” education argument that revolves around the likely final employment resting place of these kids. It refocuses us on the now with not so much emphasis on what the learning in the now is “for.”

Most parents of poor kids would almost certainly oppose this. For good reason, they want their kids to learn like privileged kids. “Stop experimenting on my kids!” “How dare you say that it doesn’t matter what my kids learn!” And perhaps they are right.

But this leaves us in a conundrum. How do we find a middle path between the enormous abstract value that poor families often hold for education and the limited marginal utility of additional educational effort for their actual children?

[* The problems with the payoff from a diploma is complicated, of course, by the fact that the credentials achieved by poor kids are usually much less valuable than those received by the more privileged. As Wilson showed, many poor, inner-city high schools are actually red-lined by employers who treat graduation from them as a visible mark of a person’s inferiority. And the return to these kids from graduation is, in monetary terms, quite limited—although this increases, of course, with college education. At the same time, since poor kids may actually learn less in their classes, it may be the credential itself—however tainted it may be—more than the cognitive impact of their experiences in school that may be most important to their future life chances.]

Friday, June 22, 2007

The Forum for Education and Democracy

Jim Garrison pointed me to this website for The Forum for Education and Democracy, which also has a blog. It's unclear exactly what they are doing, although there is this project page and they did publish this report on Guiding Principles for NCLB. The participant list is pretty impressive. Overall it seems like just another shell organization. To the extent to which it is as "empty" as it seems (the website looks like this even though the Forum was founded over a year ago), it may embody how education usually deals with "education and democracy".

Note also how their statement on NCLB lists relating schools and communities together as one of their three top goals, but how it appears in only one out of the six actual recommendations. Community engagement sounds good, but usually gets only pretty vague lip service. There seems to be a broader policy document related to the short recommendation piece, so maybe there's more there.

Maybe someone else knows more.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Balanced Discussion of Teach For America?

This looks like a fairly balanced discussion of the Teach for America program. See the nice graphs at the bottom. 130 full-time recruiters? $56 million bucks? I had no idea they had that much money. I don't know a lot about TFA. Comments?

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Roundups of Responses to Ruby Payne Across the Blogosphere from Jane Van Galen's Blog

Jane Van Galen has been pulling together responses to the NY Times article discussed below by Dan Butin here, here, and here. Also see her response here.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

A Response to Tough's Article on Ruby Payne

Paul Tough, an editor at the New York Times Sunday magazine, has just published “The Class Consciousness Raiser” about Ruby Payne. (The article is in a NYT Magazine special issue on “Inside the Income Gap”.) It is a glowing and uncritical review of Payne’s work, and in many ways an obvious next article for Tough, after his most recent article for the NYT Magazine, “What It Takes to Make a Student.” I see three big points that should be made up front: Payne’s work is an un-nuanced rehash of scholarship 20-30 years old; the immense popularity of her work signals the complete inability of educator preparation to strongly impact future teachers’ (and administrators’) understanding of issues of race and class; Tough’s write-up demonstrates how marginalized foundations scholars are in impacting the discussions around educational policy and, more generally, classroom practices.

Here’s the context: Tough’s previous article highlighted the middle class skill sets necessary for urban youth to become successful. The defining moment for Tough was when he visited a KIPP school and saw such middle class skills being explicitly taught:

Students at both KIPP and Achievement First schools
follow a system for classroom behavior invented by Levin and Feinberg called
Slant, which instructs them to sit up, listen, ask questions, nod and track the
speaker with their eyes. When I visited KIPP Academy last month, I was standing
with Levin at the front of a music class of about 60 students, listening to him
talk, when he suddenly interrupted himself and pointed at me. “Do you notice
what he’s doing right now?” he asked the class.
They all called out at once,
Levin’s contention is that Americans of a certain background
learn these methods for taking in information early on and employ them
instinctively. KIPP students, he says, need to be taught the methods explicitly.
And so it is a little unnerving to stand at the front of a KIPP class; every eye
is on you. When a student speaks, every head swivels to watch her. To anyone
raised in the principles of progressive education, the uniformity and discipline
in KIPP classrooms can be off-putting. But the kids I spoke to said they use the
Slant method not because they fear they will be punished otherwise but because
it works: it helps them to learn. (They may also like the feeling of having
their classmates’ undivided attention when they ask or answer a question.) When
Levin asked the music class to demonstrate the opposite of Slanting — “Give us
the normal school look,” he said — the students, in unison, all started goofing
off, staring into space and slouching. Middle-class Americans know intuitively
that “good behavior” is mostly a game with established rules; the KIPP students
seemed to be experiencing the pleasure of being let in on a joke.

Tough had mentioned Payne in this previous article but not gone into depth. His focus had been on attempting to show that low-income urban youth could be successful, particularly within the context of mandated NCLB requirements. So here he goes into depth on Ruby Payne, the most public advocate with a “theory” behind strategies such as “Slant.”

So let me now get to my three points:
First. Payne’s work is a poor rehash of anthropologists of education and educational theorists such as John Ogbu, Lisa Delpit, and Annette Lareau. Delpit most famously wrote about the seeming divide between African-American and white parenting, teaching, and learning styles (Delpit originally framed it as a Black/White divide and later acknowledged the class issues involved). (Tough, by the way, uses much more recent educational psychological research, which, while strong, still lacks the nuanced understanding of the cultural issues involved.) Whereas such authors (yes, even Ogbu) provided context and nuance to the immense complexity of ethnically and racially diverse youth struggling within school cultures that mirror and reward middle-class patterns of acting and thinking, Payne simply makes the standard “deficit culture” move of stating that the patterns and cultures of the poor (and nonwhite) are the sole responsibility of the poor (and nonwhite). She as such advocates that low-income youth apply a type of “code switching” such that they can fit in and be successful (which is what “Slant” formalizes in the school curriculum). This plays nice to large audiences and our American mantra of individual responsibility, but it ignores and leaves hidden (and thus privileged) a school system that only works for youth who have the requisite SES backgrounds that index a host of qualities (quality teachers, access to test prep, parents who expect college success, etc.) The spotlight, as usual in a deficit approach, points back at the individuals least culpable and least able to change their situation.

Second, I have taught such issues to teachers, principals, and administrators across K-12 education in undergraduate and graduate courses as well as workshops for over a decade. Almost always, my students (just like Payne’s audiences) are shocked to learn about such issues. I, in turn, am shocked by their shock. I came into education through an alternative pathway and as such assume I missed a lot of basic foundational stuff that would have made me a better teacher. Yet these are individuals who have gone through the educator preparation system, taking courses where they should have been exposed to such issues early and often. This lack of impact by educator preparation is atrocious. It signals the marginalized status that such issues have become in lieu of instrumental coursework in methods, instruction, etc.

Third, Tough’s article has a back story (or at least one back story that I am familiar with). I belong to the anthropology of education listserv, where a heated discussion has been ongoing ever since Tough’s “What It Takes” article. In addition to writing letters to the editor (which went unpublished) and compiling resources to refute and expand upon Tough’s claims, several members contacted Tough and initiated a discussion about how he had misstated and misunderstood some of the more important cultural issues at stake. The point I want to make is that Tough, in his most recent article, comes down harshly and disparagingly on the academics who have attacked Payne (and why, I wrote at the beginning of this post, his article is uncritical). This is really frustrating in the sense that a large number of excellent academics could not influence how Tough viewed the issue. And Tough is smart. If top academics can’t make a forceful argument to a top editor at the NYT Magazine over an extended period of time, how can we as foundations scholars expect to do better in an even less nuanced landscape of educator preparation? This is a hard nut to crack. Look at Tough’s disparaging comments:

Payne’s work in the schools has attracted a growing chorus of criticism, mostly
from academia. Although Payne says that her only goal is to help poor students,
her critics claim that her work is in fact an assault on those students. By
teaching them middle-class practices, critics say, she is engaging in “classism”
and racism. Her work is “riddled with factual inaccuracies and harmful
stereotypes,” charges Anita Bohn, an assistant professor at Illinois State
University, in a paper on Payne’s work. Paul Gorski, an assistant professor at
Hamline University in St. Paul, writes that Payne’s central text “consists, at
the crudest level, of a stream of stereotypes and a suggestion that we address
poverty and education by ‘fixing’ poor people instead of reforming classist
policies and practices.” […] You would think that Payne wouldn’t fret about a
few angry assistant professors whose collective audience is a tiny fraction of
the size of hers. But somehow, like gnats at a backyard barbecue, they drive her
to distraction. Each time a progressive education journal publishes a detailed
Foucauldian critique of her book (which she wrote, don’t forget, in a single
week), Payne feels compelled to write in with a paragraph or two in her own
defense. It doesn’t work, of course; the author invariably blasts back with
another extended volley of withering scorn. In the pages of the Teachers College
Record, the rich blond-haired white lady from Corpus Christi is never going to
come out ahead.

Tough is referring to the following article by Gorski here and Payne’s reply. (I must say that for someone with a PhD, Payne’s response is worse than weak.) Gorski’s article, by the way, is deeply steeped in critical theory, not Foucault. But I guess it is still OK to put down an academic by smearing him with the taint of using Foucault. (Sigh, I guess I’m doomed.) The point, though, is that Tough’s literary trope is of the underdog overcoming the critique of academic ivory tower gnats to achieve and succeed and help teachers better understand why their low income kids are failing and allow said teachers to get excited that, nope, it’s not the teacher’s fault but that darn poor culture getting in the way.

So, to end this overlong post, it is deeply frustrating, on many levels, that what foundations scholars research and teach seems unheeded in education schools, top education writers, and our own colleagues. And those who ultimately get shortchanged are this nation’s youth who need K-12 teachers and administrators to better understand how to fix a broken system.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Community Organizing and Urban Education X: Is Progressive Democratic Education Undemocratic?

[To read the entire series, go here.]

Progressive reformers at the turn of the century undertook the project of reclaiming citizens from the “human junk” produced by industrialization . . . .

In the short run, as many historians have shown, Progressive reform of the political process narrowed rather than expanded the circle of citizenship. Dewey and most Progressives . . . failed to acknowledge this process of exclusion. . . .

The Progressive movement[‘s] . . . vision of the people, although universal in its claims, was in fact more limited and culturally bounded. New immigrants and African Americans were consigned to the margins, their capacity for assimilation dependent on their slow progress, their citizenship claims contingent.

--Stromquist, Re-Inventing “The People,” pp. 5, 7, & 10

Among progressive educators, today as in the past, the key contribution schools can make to social transformation is through education in practices of democracy. But is this effort to inculcate democracy itself anti-democratic?

Two key points are important to emphasize, here.

First, it is important to understand the intensity of the Deweyan model that nearly all progressive educators look to. In Democracy and Education, Dewey lays out an intensive process of transformation designed to develop individuals who think and interact with the world in a very specific manner. To become democratic, children must learn a complex model of intelligent inquiry. And they must develop a subtle set of social capacities that will allow each engage in a fluid collaboration with each other, drawing out and valuing the unique contributions of each participant.

What Dewey describes is an ongoing process of social development that reconstructs children’s perceptions of and actions into the world in fundamental ways. It involves a deep operation on the workings of their body/minds.

Second, as Stromquist and McGerr and others have argued, this progressive “democratic” individual is not simply a neutral model. Instead, it drew from the middle-class culture that was emerging at the same time at the turn of the 20th century, and that was shared by nearly all prominent progressives. Dewey’s vision of democratic collaboration, for example, was deeply informed by a developing culture of professional dialogue and of educated middle-class families like his own.

It is important to acknowledge that progressives like Dewey were critical of the middle class as well. While their vision was rooted in the cultural practices they were most familiar with, they sought to build upon and improve what the thought was best about it. Thus, the middle-class children in Dewey’s Laboratory School still had much to learn if they were to fully embody the capacities of a democratic society.

Nonetheless, members of the professional middle class were (and remain today) closest to the Deweyan ideal. Members of the working class, and most members of oppressed cultures like those of African Americans and new immigrants had the farthest to go, the most to learn.

Thus, it is accurate in a limited sense to say that progressives sought a society in which everyone interacted more like they and their class interacted. Dewey developed an educational model designed, in part, then, to make people more like him.

Why is this discussion relevant to a series on community organizing?

I would argue that models of community organizing, like the ones I have been discussing in previous posts, embody a much less elaborate vision of democratic practice. In contrast with the kind of deep transformation that Dewey aimed at (and that schools have almost universally failed to achieve) community organizers have much more modest aims.

For purely pragmatic reasons of limited resources, among others, neo-Alinsky organizing groups take people largely as they are. Instead of trying to transform how participants conceptualize the world in deep ways, organizers provide people with a collection of fairly basic tools for making sense of inequality and for bringing disparate groups of marginalized and sympathetic actors together to fight for change.

Organizers also have developed a sophisticated conception of the difference between “public” and “private” perceptions of the world. Unlike Deweyan progressives, they leave the vast realm of people’s “private” understandings and practices alone, aiming only to give people skills for acting in and making sense of the “public” realm. Regardless of who you are in your private world, they argue, when you emerge in public you need to play a particular kind of role that can be learned in much less time.

And instead of asking every single participant to embody the sophisticated skills and understandings that these groups have developed over time, they accept a distribution of knowledge. Highly trained organizers work with less well-trained top leaders, who work with emerging leaders, who work with an only marginally involved mass of participants. They balance out the potentially undemocratic implications of this model by constantly working to stay in touch with the passions and desires of individual participants and by constantly seeking to find new leaders who can be brought up into the power structure.

I am grasping for a way to frame differences between the visions of democratic education embraced by Deweyan progressives and neo-Alinsky community organizers. Perhaps it is useful to distinguish between the educational “transformation” sought by Deweyan democratic educators and the more blunt, if often sophisticated “tools” of community organizers.

The Deweyan side focuses on an elaborate and subtle process of individual transformation. The goal is to change “who” people are in quite fundamental ways.

In contrast, the organizing side strips down what is needed for effective democratic engagement to the bare essentials required to contest unequal power.

In other words, it seems at least somewhat true that organizing sees people as more ready, as they are, for political participation in the democratic polity than do progressive educators who often sigh in despair at the incredible amount of work that needs to be done. And, as a result, organizing may, of necessity, be significantly more respectful of the cultural practices that different groups bring with them to the fight.

By teaching less the education involved in community organizing may, in fact, be more “democratic,” than that of progressives.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Almost 16,000 Children Die in the World Every Day from Starvation

Hunger Facts: International

In America, 35 million people feel the effects of hunger every day, which researchers estimate costs the nation 90 billion dollars a year, mostly from illnesses, but also from lost education.

Throughout the year in 2003, 88.8 percent of U.S. households were food secure, essentially unchanged from 2002. The remaining 11.2 percent (12.6 million households) were food insecure. These households, at some time during the year, had difficulty providing enough food for all members due to a lack of resources.
hunger and obesity [can] coexist because many hungry families buy high-calorie foods that are low in nutrients. "They're dependent on foods that are going to make their bellies feel full, rather than on nutrients," Ms. Laraia said. "The diet is compromised."
In another survey, people in America without enough food--often single mothers--reported causes included:
Most of those . . . who reported food shortages said the primary reasons were lack of money, food stamps or WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) vouchers; about 9 percent also blamed inadequate transportation.
And it will surprise no one reading this blog to hear that Bush's 2006 budget proposals
changes in eligibility requirements [would have] resulted in a reduction in funding for food stamps by $500 million over the next five years, potentially removing an estimated 300,000 women and children from the roster of eligible recipients.
From another article:
The Wall Street Journal, for example, recently published a series on the new face of poverty in the country. One of its most compelling stories was how a school in Tyler, Texas, started a backpack club so that poor children could take crackers and other foodstuffs home over the weekend. The club was started because school officials noticed how children would go into a "food panic," on Friday at lunch. They ate as much as they could - and came back to school breakfast on Monday and ate as if they hadn't eaten all weekend. As it turns out, they hadn't. More and more families are increasingly being forced to choose among buying food, affording health care or keeping a roof over their heads.
In my local Walgreens, in a mostly white, increasingly hip part of town near some poorer areas, there is only one shelf that is locked behind a clear plexiglass sheet: the shelf that holds the powdered baby formula.

You can steal everything else except that.

How much of our "educational" problem has nothing to do with pedagogy?

Why do we focus so much energy on pedagogy, alone, when basic services like health (e.g., glasses for the estimated 50% of poor children who have vision problems) and nutrition might, by themselves, have a huge impact on learning?

Is there any way to alter the way Schools of Education frame the problems of "education"?

Let's conclude with an excerpt from a review of scientific studies (scroll down) showing the impact of hunger on children:
The research shows that youngsters from food insecure and hungry homes
have poorer overall health status: they are sick more often, much more likely to have ear infections, have higher rates of iron deficiency anemia, and are hospitalized more frequently. In short, going hungry makes kids sick. As a result, they miss more days of school and are less prepared to learn when they are able to attend, making the relationship between hunger, health and learning of far greater importance than we previously realized. Further exacerbating this interactive impairment of young bodies and minds are the emotional and behavioral impacts that accompany food insecurity and hunger. At-risk children are more likely to have poorer mental health, be withdrawn or socially disruptive, and suffer greater rates of behavioral disorders.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

NCLB and Test Scores

[Kevin Drum] Here's the headline in the Washington Post today:

Test Scores Soar After 'No Child'

Now, this is a peculiar headline since the second paragraph of the accompanying story admits, "The study's authors warned that it is difficult to say whether or how much the No Child Left Behind law is driving the achievement gains." And indeed, the study from the Center on Education Policy (available here) goes to considerable pains to emphasize that the trend they're reporting started before NCLB was enacted. This, along with other factors, makes it very difficult to say whether, or how much, NCLB is responsible for the gains since 2002.

But put that aside for a moment. An even better question is: even if state test scores are rising, does that indicate that student achievement is also increasing? Bob Somerby suspects that rising scores might actually be due to dumbed down tests, and unfortunately, the study itself suggests he's right. . . [read on]

Regulating Homeschooling?

Talk to Action gives an excerpt from this forthcoming paper on homeschooling. Key paragraphs:
Surprisingly, the social and legal implications of this phenomenon have received almost no scholarly attention. For decades political theorists have worried and argued about what steps a liberal society must take to protect children being raised in illiberal communities. They have focused their attention
on the extent to which a liberal society must permit or condemn such practices as polygamy, clitoridectomy, and child marriage.
Virtually absent from the debate has been any discussion of the extent to which a liberal society should condone or constrain homeschooling, particularly as practiced by religious fundamentalist families explicitly seeking to shield their children from liberal values of sex equality, gender role fluidity and critical rationality.
. . . .
Legal academics have been even more silent in the face of homeschooling's dramatic rise. Most articles about homeschooling have focused on the narrow question of whether public schools must permit homeschooled
students to participate in extracurricular activities. Very few have provided any critical evaluation or assessment of current homeschooling laws more generally. None have addressed the significant constitutional questions raised by state abdication of control over homeschooling. This paper seeks to begin to fill this important void. The paper explores the constitutional limits the state action doctrine puts on states' ability to delegate unfettered control over education to homeschooling parents. It argues that states must--not may or should--regulate homeschooling to ensure that parents provide their children with a basic minimum education and check rampant forms of sexism.
I don't know a lot about the homeschooling movement, although it is interesting, as the paper points out, that this movement started as a left-wing phenomenon as a part of the free schools efforts in the 1960s. I'm not sure how one could argue for regulating homeschooling without regulating private schools (and choice schools) which seem mostly unregulated (from a pedagogical standpoint at least) in Wisconsin as far as I can tell.