Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Community Organizing and Urban Education: Cutting an Issue

[To read the entire series, go here.]

I am currently working on the introductory "lectures" for an online community organizing class I am teaching this Fall. Later on I'll be posting the first draft of the entire course online and will post an introduction on this blog. Below I'm posting the introduction to the "cutting an issue" module (FYI, it repeats some of the content of an earlier post). The complete lecture can be accessed here.

Note that I'm no longer numbering posts in this series, and I'll be reorganizing the "series" page to put posts under more coherent subheadings.

The "text" referred to is "Organizing for Social Change" by Kim Bobo, et. al.

Cutting an Issue”

In the previous module we discussed how to identify a “target” and the importance of analyzing the power structure within which the target resides.

As a reminder, a “target” is “the person or institution that can make the change you want” and a “secondary target” is “a powerful person or institution that can influence the

You need to know who the target is because otherwise you may be pressuring the wrong person or institution. It’s helpful to identify secondary targets, because they represent people and groups that can influencethe decision-maker.


A problem is something that you don’t like about the world or your society, but that is too big and/or too vague to grapple with in any coherent way. “Pollution” and “crime” are “problems.” We don’t like them, but it’s hard to know about what to do about them in general. To use an obsolete term, they are “bummers.” In the words of our text, they are “broad area[s] of concern.” They’re terrible but just thinking about them can be disempowering.

In the terms community organizers use, an issue is a more specific challenge that is separated out from the larger “problem.” An issue, rightly described, always includes the solution to the challenge that is chosen. As our text notes, “an issue is a solution or partial solution to a problem.” For example, an issue that one might “cut” out of the “problem” of crime is police accountability, and the solution that your group might fight for could be installing video cameras in all police cars in the city. An issue you might “cut” out of pollution might be a campaign to stop a new coal-fired plant from being built in your community.

Again, notice that from the perspective of community organizing, you haven’t “cut” an issue until you have also defined how you plan to solve the specific challenge you have chosen. Without an identified solution, your group doesn’t have anything specific to fight for.


To some extent, the criteria for cutting an issue, discussed in detail below, can be counter-intuitive. We are used to thinking about “winning” as the most crucial goal in any battle against oppression. However, community organizers think about campaigns in a fundamentally
different way. To understand organizing you have to understand this different way of thinking.

The key problem for any community organizer is a lack of sufficient POWER. You just don’t
have the money or the people to ensure that the social changes you want are made. So the core goal for all community organizers is generating POWER.

How do you generate power? In this context, you generate power by strengthening your
organization. So the core aim of all organizers is building a stronger organization.

Therefore, you want to pick issues that are likely to BUILD YOUR ORGANIZATION. For example, an issue that you can easily win without really making organization members work and extend themselves probably isn’t an issue you want to get involved in. You want an issue that will force the organization to grow, and organization members to learn to be better actors.

It is important to understand that having a reputation for a strong organization is a
crucial asset for organizing groups. If people perceive your group as strong, YOU MAY NOT NEED TO FIGHT! Groups that might have otherwise done things to harm your community may not because of the threat you may get involved. And organizations may invite you to the table early in the process of developing particular projects because they know you can cause problems for them later if you don’t. Organizations that aren’t respected, that aren’t seen as powerful, don’t get this treatment.

When you try to “cut an issue,” think about how a specific issue will help build your organization, how it will help you build POWER for the LONG TERM instead of just about whether and how to achieve a particular goal. Then and only then will you be thinking like an organizer.


One of the key challenges for “cutting an issue” is how you frame what your issue is to outside audiences which may be sympathetic to different concerns than you or your group is. On page 23, the text gives some examples of framing. For example, if you are an environmentalist and want to have logging stopped in a particular forest, it makes sense to frame your “issue” by emphasizing how you will make sure this won’t eliminate jobs, since forest workers may be a crucial part of your opposition.


Chapter 3 of our textbook, Organizing for Social Change, lays out a series of criteria for what counts as a good issue. They do a nice job of describing these. I focus in on what I think the key issues are, here.

  1. Result in a Real Improvement in People’s Lives

  2. Give People a Sense of Their Own Power

  3. Alter the Relations of Power

  4. Be Worthwhile

  5. Be Winnable

  6. Be Widely Felt

  7. Be Deeply Felt

  8. Be Easy to Understand

  9. Have a Clear Target

  10. Have a Clear Time Frame that Works for You

  11. Be Non-Divisive

  12. Build Leadership

  13. Set Your Organization Up for the Next Campaign

  14. Have a Pocketbook Angle

  15. Raise Money

  16. Be Consistent with Your Values and Vision.

For the rest of this lecture, go here.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

A Foundations Student Speaks on NCLB

I just wound up a summer session of my graduate foundations class. This is how one student closed her final essay in response to this question:

Is it possible or likely that the purposes and aims that you will pursue and promote as an educator are or can be realized by all American children, regardless of race, gender, or where they happen to go to school? Using evidence supplied from this course, explain how and why your most important educational purposes or aims are equally accessible – or how and why they are or cannot be equally accessible.

American education should be an equal-opportunity endeavor, but it is not. History has seen a constant struggle for democracy in education. Educational thinkers and policymakers have grappled with the question of how to give all students equal educational opportunities, yet even today, equity in American education is lacking. As a result of No Child Left Behind, the country is experiencing a frenzy to close the achievement gap between white and minority students. The unfortunate irony of NCLB, however, is that it is creating inequity in education rather than alleviating it, for the law is effectively harming precisely those students it purports to benefit: minority students, students with learning disabilities, and students whose first language is not English. Thus, my aforementioned aims [to cultivate a love of learning in my students and promote an ethic of care] as an educator are not equally accessible to all American children, regardless or race, gender or where they happen to go to school. The current emphasis on test prep makes fostering a love of learning nearly impossible, and the push to bolster the scores of some students while letting others fall through the cracks precludes an ethic of care in education.

My first aim as an educator is to cultivate a love of learning in my students by engaging their interests and making the classroom experience a positive one. However, if I am forced to teach to a test, that aim is made almost impossible. Many critics of NCLB say it is an attempt by the federal government to implement a standardized curriculum in public schools. Scripted lessons and “one-size-fits-all” curriculums are the antithesis of engaging and interactive learning. As Jaeger points out, “Teachers find that their work has been reduced to follow a scripted teacher’s guide, passing out worksheets, and drilling students on isolated skills,” (chapter 6). How can I, as Dewey and Noddings suggest, take my students’ individual needs and interests into account when I must deliver a robotic lesson or drill test strategies into their heads? It seems to me that NCLB unfairly makes teachers more concerned about ensuring students are proficient in math and reading for the sake of a test than providing them with a wholesome, fulfilling education.

Not only does NCLB lead to robotic teaching and narrow curriculums, it also reduces learning to filling in blanks and bubbling in scantrons; that is, it sends the message that the purpose of learning is to pass a test. According to Dewey, learning needs to be made relevant to students’ lives so that they will seek out more positive educative experiences in the future. In order to achieve my aim of cultivating a love of learning in my students, I have said that I will try to help them see the relevancy of the material to their daily lives. But if I can only justify the relevancy of my lessons by saying, “You need to know this for the test,” that aim is effectively derailed. The last thing students want to hear is that they must absorb the information because they’ll be tested on it later. High-stakes testing turns students off to learning. School must be made relevant to daily life so that students can realize the immediate impact of their educative experiences. The current testing craze greatly inhibits that aim.

The law also is antithetical to my second aim of promoting an ethic of care in the classroom. The very name of the law, “No Child Left Behind,” sounds caring enough in theory, but the reality is that it cares very little about the welfare of America’s children. It is largely ineffective in providing support for the students who need it the most. It expects children with learning disabilities to achieve at the same rate as other students, yet states are not allowed to make provisions for alternative tests or significantly modify testing conditions to make that possible (Jaeger, chapter 3). Furthermore, higher qualification standards for paraprofessionals has forced many of them out of their jobs, which means students with learning disabilities are not receiving the extra support they need (Jaeger, chapter 5). English language learners who have been in the U.S. for at least a year face a similar unrealistic and unfair expectation, for they are required to take a test that is not written in their first language. What’s even worse is that when it comes to intervention services for struggling students, many districts now focus on “those children who are considered ‘pushables’ (those just below passing) and ‘slippables’ (those at risk of slipping out of the proficient category),” according to Jaeger. “When one teacher asked what was to be done for students in dire need of extra help, she was told by her principal to ‘forget them’” (chapter 2). How can teachers care about each and every student when they are being told to forget about those deemed lost causes? And how can teachers show students they care when they cannot gauge their understanding of and response to the material, as Jaeger describes when she writes, “ They are unable to respond appropriately to the diverse needs of their students because required adherence to a rigid pacing schedule forces them to move full speed ahead whether students understand the lessons or not” (chapter 6)? Noddings says every child has the potential to achieve. It is our responsibility as caring educators to help students realize their potential, yet NCLB prevents such a caring approach to education.

Furthermore, NCLB makes it advantageous for schools to let drop-outs fall through the cracks. The provision of the law that it supposed to help schools with high drop-out rates implement prevention programs has a $0 budget, and “other provisions of the law serve to diminish rather than increase incentives for keeping all students in school,” (Jaeger, chapter 7). “There is a reason for excluding from testing lower-achieving students...by transferring or expelling them, or by encouraging them to drop out. If these students leave school, they do not participate in the tests which determine whether schools are deemed under-performing,” (Jaeger, chapter 7). Thus, NCLB effectively encourages schools to not care about lower-achieving students who are likely to drop out. One hardly needs to point out how this goes against an ethic of care.

Thus, it is clear that society’s emphasis on standardized test scores, as well as the federal government’s intrusion into the educational system, makes the realization of my most important educational aims highly unlikely or nearly impossible. But, to end on a more optimistic note, there is hope for me yet, as No Child Left Behind is up for re-authorization this September. Repealing the law would make my aims more feasible.

Dewey, J. (1938/1997). Experience and education (reprinted ed.) New York: Touchstone Books.

Dewey, J. (1938/2000). Experience and education. In R. Reed & T. Johnson, Eds., Philosophical documents in education (2nd ed.) (pp. 115-124). New York: Longman. (Reprinted from Experience and education by J. Dewey, 1938, Indianapolis, IN: Kappa Delta Pi, pp. 33-50).

Dewey, J. (1897/1972). My pedagogic creed. In R. Reed & T. Johnson, Eds., Philosophicaldocuments in education (2nd ed.) (pp. 103-110). New York: Longman. (Reprinted from John Dewey: The early works 1895-1898, vol. 5 by J. Dewey, J.A. Boydston, Ed., Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, pp. 84-95).

Dillon, S. (2007, July 25). Focus on 2 R’s cuts time for the rest, report says. New York Times. Retrieved August 9, 2007, from http://www.nytimes.com

Glater, J. (2007, July 29). Certain degrees now cost more at universities. New York Times. Retrieved August, 9, 2007, from http://www.nytimes.com

Jaeger, Elizabeth. What every parent, teacher, and community member needs to know about No Child Left Behind. Unpublished manuscript.

Noddings, N. (1992/2000). The challenge of care in schools: An alternative approach to education. In R. Reed & T. Johnson, Eds., Philosophical documents in education (2nd ed.) (pp. 247-257). New York: Longman (Reprinted from The Challenge to Care in Schools: An Alternative Approach to Education, by Noddings, 1992, New York: Teachers College Press).

Tyack, D. (2003). Seeking common ground: Public schools in a diverse society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

I wish that all my colleagues could say as much on the subject as well.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Flat Worlds, Poison Toys, and Political Thinking

What happens when you depend upon businessmen to make educational decisions, businessmen whose prime motivation in life is the never-ending uptick in corporate quarterly earnings? You end up with a politically-and-artistically- denuded curriculum that's heavy on science, math, and technology--and short on everything else. Welcome to Achieve, Inc. and the Business Roundtable's new vision of the American high school.

When the world got flat, you see, the pedagogical braintrust, not at Teachers College, but the one at the U. S. Chamber of Commerce, made the determination that economics is the only social studies that matters in school anymore, and that if we need to emulate China's totalitarian tunnel vision in order to achieve its level of productivity, then so be it. Cardboard dumplings, poison toys, anti-freeze toothpaste, melamine animal feed, slave labor, environmental disaster, political repression? It's what maximum efficiency and amazing economic engines are built on, according to the Business Roundtable. China's your best example--nobody does it better.

I went in K-Mart the other day, and everything I picked up had an American brand and was made in China. I could not find anything not made in China. I wondered what cost-cutting poison was waiting to be brought home in these pillows and camp stoves, and I wondered how many workers died in forced labor camps in order to have this row of 40 gleaming bicycles, all under a hundred dollars. I finally found a shirt made in Nicaragua. I bought it and left.

Anyway, I found this interesting story today in the NY Times on some pedagogical developments in India that the geniuses at Achieve, Inc. probably haven't heard about, either. There, politics, real politics is being used in Indian high schools to teach and learn critical thinking. And students are eating it up. So, too, are their teachers. Maybe the world is not flat--maybe it never was.

A clip:

NEW DELHI, Aug. 14 — Quietly, a great upheaval is taking place inside Indian high schools.

For the first time, the messy brawl that is modern Indian politics, including some of its ugliest and most controversial episodes, is being taught in political science class. It is part of a broader revision of the school curriculum, with potentially long-lasting implications for how Indian children grasp the workings of their nation and its place in the world.

Using cartoons, newspaper clippings and questions that invite classroom debate on thorny contemporary issues, the new curriculum comes at a time when democracy has firmly rooted itself in Indian soil and is indeed one of the nation’s principal selling points as it tries to assert itself in the world. India marks the 60th anniversary of its independence from Britain on Wednesday.

“Sixty years after independence, it’s a statement of maturity of Indian democracy,” said Yogendra Yadav, one of the two chief advisers to the political science textbook committee. “This couldn’t have been written 30 years after independence. This probably couldn’t have been written 15 years ago.”

Shikha Chhabra, 16, offered an example from her new 12th-grade textbook, “Contemporary World Politics.”

She said she had always been taught that the nonaligned movement, in which India played a leading role during the cold war years and countries carved out at least a rhetorical policy of independence from both the Soviet Union and the United States, was “a wonderful thing.” The new textbook, she noticed, treats it differently. “Now they raise the question — does the nonaligned movement really apply in the world today? Was it just fence-sitting?”

She decided that it no longer applied, joining a contemporary hue and cry among politicians and political observers in this country about the merits of India’s new friendship with the United States. The class had a rich debate about the pros and cons of aligning with the Americans. It came during a chapter called “U.S. Hegemony in World Politics.”

“You do question what India’s strategy should be,” Ms. Chhabra said.

Her teacher, Abha Malik, head of the political science department at the Sanskriti School here, pounded on the textbook, which the National Council of Educational Research and Training, a government agency, rolled out four months ago for both public and private schools. “You can’t have a regular, regular class with this,” she said, beaming. “This book won’t let you sit still.”

In a country where rote learning has prevailed even at the most elite schools, the new emphasis on critical thinking signals a major shift in pedagogy. More striking is the substance of the new curriculum. Before, the emphasis in political science was on political theory. “This is realpolitik,” Ms. Malik said. . . .

Is "hegemony" on the vocabulary list of the Achieve curriculum? Didn't think so.

Posted previously at Schools Matter

Multiple issues in multiple measures

In his July 30 statement at the National Press Club, House Education and Labor Committee Chair George Miller said that his plans for reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act included the addition of multiple measures, an incantation that has provoked more Sturmunddrang in national education politics than if Rep. Miller had stood at the podium and revealed he was a Visitor from space. While Congress is in recess this month, the politics of reauthorization continue. I'll parse the debate over multiple measures or multiple sources of evidence, and then I'll foolishly predict NCLB politics over the next month or so.

The different issues

Calculating AYP

At one level, the discussion appears entirely to focus on the determination of adequate yearly progress. Add measures and you "let schools off the hook," according to Education Trust (with similar noises from the Chamber of Commerce's Arthur Rothkopf [RealAudio file-hat tip]. No escape hatch, promised Miller when asked. Maybe if you add measures, there are more ways to fail AYP, as one reporter noted at the press conference; not so, said Miller, for we'll figure out some way so that the extra measures only get you over the hump if you're almost there. Since AYP is the largest chunk of NCLB politics, all of the talking points are familiar. In the end, this piece of the debate will get bundled into the most likely package that includes growth measures.

Teaching to the test

As the Forum on Educational Accountability has argued, as well as last week's letter by civil rights groups, narrow measures of learning tend to distort how schools behave in several ways, from narrowing the taught curriculum to teaching test-taking skills and engaging in various forms of triage. One argument in favor of multiple sources of evidence is Lauren Resnick's old one, that a better test is likely to encourage better behavior by schools, both in terms of better assessments and school indicators that penalize schools for triage. To the extent that more input dilutes the incentive for systems to attend to single indicators, that may be true. On the other hand, multiple sources of evidence by themselves will not eliminate the corrupting effect of brain-dead accountability formulas, and to some extent the resolution of the debate over AYP can blunt the effect of multiple sources of evidence. On the third hand, I suspect most of those who support multiple sources of evidence are adults and prefer some improvement over none. Including multiple sources of evidence will not eliminate the deleterious side-effects of high-stakes testing, but they should ameliorate them.

Improving the quality of exams and their cost

Connecticut's NCLB lawsuit is based on the claim that the federal government has not provided enough support for the state to develop its performance-heavy exam for all the required grades. The feds allegedly told Connecticut that it doesn't need to use the performance-heavy exams, claiming that an off-the-shelf commercial test system would work just fine. After investing state money and political capital in the performance exams, Connecticut officials were rather peeved. The Title I Monitor nailed this issue in May, noting that the argument over multiple measures is in part a matter of the quality of assessments and cost. The Monitor also noted a level of denial in the US Department of Education that should be familiar to Bush-watchers:

[A] senior ED staffer acknowledged the benefits of states using varying assessment formats compared to a single test, but challenged the idea that costs and timelines are a barrier to states developing tests with multiple formats.

And the escalation in Iraq is currently providing an environment conducive to the reconciliation of factions. Right. Officials from a variety of states and a number of players in Washington agree that NCLB has essentially stressed if not broken the testing industry's credibility and infrastructure, and the inclusion of multiple measures is part of the negotiations over how much Washington will pay for better assessments.

Reframing accountability

One doesn't have to agree with George Lakoff's version of framing to recognize that the politics of accountability are driven by assumptions about the need for centralization and authoritarian/bureaucratic discipline. These themes are obvious in the dominant inside-the-Beltway narrative about NCLB: We can't trust the states. The best argument for this position is Jennifer Hochschild's thesis in The New American Dilemma (1984), a claim that sometimes we need a non-pluralistic tool to advance democratic aims, a contradiction she saw in desegregation. But we don't have an open debate about this dilemma. We didn't have it about desegregation, and we certainly don't have it about accountability.

Instead of reflecting some honesty about policy dilemmas, the arguments defending No Child Left Behind today are generally at the soundbite level. A common metaphor used by many supporters of NCLB relies on time, such as the Education Trust's organizing an administrators' letter several years ago warning against a thinly veiled attempt to turn back the clock. A step forward is another phrase that the same letter uses to describe NCLB, and Education Trust's response to the Forum on Educational Accountability proposals describes them as a giant step backward. This is an ad hominem metaphor: It says, "Our opponents are Luddites. They are not to be trusted to defend anything except their own narrow and short-sighted interests."

The other language commonly used by NCLB supporters is a simple assertion that they own accountability. Anyone who disagrees with them is against accountability. Together, these bits of accountability language imply that there is one true accountability and that NCLB skeptics like me are apostates or blasphemers. Pardon me, but I don't believe in an accountability millennium.

To shift the debate away from accountability millennialism, critics of NCLB have to provide a counter-narrative. Both the August 7 civil rights-group letter and the August 13 researchers' letter (or the letter signed by mostly researchers) describe the current NCLB implementation with words such as discourage, narrowed, and fail. In its August 2 recommendations for reauthorization, the Forum on Educational Accountability uses the words build, support, and strengthen. The Forum and August 7 letter also use a single word to describe the best use of assessment: tool. In their recommendations, the Forum and its allies use an architectural metaphor: we need to strengthen the system while keeping it mostly intact. The criticisms directed against multiple-choice statistics aren't part of that story, though I suppose a purist would insist on that, some how described as undermining foundations, eroding under the foundation, blowing out a window, or somesuch.

I don't know to what extent the debate over multiple measures will shift debate, but it is potentially the most far-reaching of the consequences of the letter.

Where we're headed in the short term

My guess is that Miller's September draft will bless consortia of states that develop assessments with more performance, authorize funding for more (but not all) of that test development if small states work in consortia, and promise to pay for almost all of the infrastructure needed to track student data.

We will also see the true character of education advocates in Education Trust and the Chamber of Commerce. The Education Trust is now under the greatest pressure of its existence over both growth measures and the issue of multiple measures. In Washington, almost no one gets their way all the time. How people negotiate and handle compromise reveals their true character.

Cross-posted from Sherman Dorn

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Interesting Discussion of Oakes's and Rogers's Book

I don't have time to post this week. But for those who are interested in community organizing and education there have been some new and I think informative posts and discussion about my review of Jeannie Oakes's and John Rogers's Learning Power. We're still talking! Go here and scroll down to the last few posts.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Community Organizing and Urban Education XIV: Parables of the River

[To read the entire series, go here. A one-page version of the entire series is here.]

I have been working on introductions to learning modules for a community organizing course I will be teaching online in the Fall. One of the things I wanted to include was what some community organizers call the “Parable of the River” (or sometimes a waterfall) that is often attributed to Saul Alinsky. I was searching across the Internet to find a good representation of the parable and found a wide range of different versions. (To avoid writing introductions, I seem to have ended up writing this post . . . .)

Interestingly, it seems like there are versions of this parable with a different perspective than that used by community organizers. And this different version seems somewhat more prevalent among those oriented towards more traditional social service.

First an example of a “community organizing” version of the parable:

Once upon a time there was a small village on the edge of a river. The people there were good and life in the village was good. One day a villager noticed a baby floating down the river. The villager quickly swam out to save the baby from drowning. The next day this same villager noticed two babies in the river. He called for help, and both babies were rescued from the swift waters. And the following day four babies were seen caught in the turbulent current. And then eight, then more, and still more!

The villagers organized themselves quickly, setting up watchtowers and training teams of swimmers who could resist the swift waters and rescue babies. Rescue squads were soon working 24 hours a day. And each day the number of helpless babies floating down the river increased. The villagers organized themselves efficiently. The rescue squads were now snatching many children each day. While not all the babies, now very numerous, could be saved, the villagers felt they were doing well to save as many as they could each day. Indeed, the village priest blessed them in their good work. And life in the village continued on that basis.

One day, however, someone raised the question, "But where are all these babies coming from? Let’s organize a team to head upstream to find out who’s throwing all of these babies into the river in the first place!"

Now a different version of this parable:

While walking along the banks of a river, a passerby notices that someone in the water is drowning. After pulling the person ashore, the rescuer notices another person in the river in need of help. Before long, the river is filled with drowning people, and more rescuers are required to assist the initial rescuer. Unfortunately, some people are not saved, and some victims fall back into the river after they have been pulled ashore. At this time, one of the rescuers starts walking upstream

“Where are you going?” the other rescuers ask, disconcerted. The upstream rescuer replies, “I’m going upstream to see why so many people keep falling into the river.” As it turns out, the bridge leading across the river up- stream has a hole through which people are falling. The upstream rescuer realizes that fixing the hole in the bridge will prevent many people from ever falling into the river in the first place.

In both parables, the key issue is that those trying to rescue the drowning people are making an error by focusing on the current emergency rather than on what is causing the emergency. As a result, they have no hope of actually solving the problem.

A key distinction between them is that in the first parable an agent is assumed to be causing the babies to fall in the river. In the second the problem is simply technical, with no agent attached. The bridge “has” a hole (note the passive voice).

This tendency to obscure the agents behind oppression and social harm may be a key difference between what I would term a “community organizing” approach and more familiar “social service” and “social science” approaches. From social service and social science perspectives there simply are these problems that need to be solved. The highest level of action is identifying and addressing the (usually impersonal) causes of shared problems.

Importantly, this approach generally obscures the activity of the agents who are perpetuating social challenges through their action or inaction.

Perhaps some of the tendency to avoid seeking out responsible agents is a result of the enormous challenges involved in identifying someone or some institution that one can definitively say is causing a particular problem. But maybe part of the problem is this focus on “causes” in the first place. In fact, the “cause” question can become a pretty complex, ultimately unsolveable existential challenge with no clear solution. Is the cause of pollution from a coal plant the owners of the plant, or bad government standards, or perverse incentives that make clean production unprofitable, or any of an innumerable set of other influences? What is the “cause” of the fact that so many poor kids have difficulty reading?

In my experience, as social scientists, most educational scholars tend to draw from the second version of this parable rather than the first. There “are” problems and we need technical solutions to solve them. In fact, to the many scholars who tend to avoid thinking about “causes,” even the limited insights of the second parable seem like a revelation.

In contrast, when organizers are looking for targets (see earlier post) they aren’t really worried about who or what is the “cause” of a problem. Instead, they try to figure out who can or should be made responsible for the problem now that we have it. In other words, the challenge for a community organizer is to identify the agent that can be induced to solve the problem, regardless of the vast chain of influences that produced it. The aim is to build a coherent link between specific agents and a specific social problem, and the substance of such a link can vary widely.

From an organizing perspective, many people and institutions have resources that are not fairly shared, and the aim is to find ways to force some subset of these agents to use their resources in more equitable ways

To simplify the distinction I am making, here, one might say that social scientists and social service people tend to focus on “what” caused a problem and “how” to solve the problem, while organizers focus on “who” can solve the problem. And in many cases, answering “what” and “how” questions seem like pre-organizing issues. Sometimes, of course, getting people to figure out the answers to these questions themselves in a collective manner can be tools for engaging, educating, and organizing them, but often this does not seem to be the case.

One limitation of a focus on causes and solutions without focusing on agents is that each agent will be linked to different resources and different possible actions. In other words, different agents imply different solutions. Perhaps more problematically, failing to focus on the identification of realistic agents of change often creates an enormous unbridgeable gulf between theoretical solutions and actual solutions.

Here is a somewhat relevant example that indicates some of the differences between the social science approach and the organizing approach:

We have been working on the beginnings of an effort to transform dental care for low-income urban children. For a range of reasons, we want to fight for a school-based dental treatment program. And we have identified an agent and avenue of change—the state health department and the state health insurance program. But there is no clear established “blue chip” model or “solution” to fight for. So we have stepped back, and I have been working with the state dental school and local district officials to get a pilot school-based services project funded. A local “proof of concept” effort would provide the basis for a program blueprint that we could then fight for on a state level. To a large extent, however, this social science investigation work is “pre-organizing.”

Two final observations:

First, there is a key problem with this parable in both of its versions. It represents those who are harmed as powerless victims, often babies. But people are rarely entirely powerless, and organizers never approach people as if they were powerless or babies. It seems odd that this central parable used by many organizers contains such a disempowering metaphor at its core.

Second, it is interesting to note that in a version that Stanley Cohen says he got from Alinsky, “a fisherman is rescuing drowning people from a river. Finally, he leaves the next body to float by while he sets off upstream ‘to find out who the hell is pushing these poor folks into the water.’ According to Cohen, Alinsky used this story to make a further ethical point: ‘While the fisherman was so busy running along the bank to find the ultimate source of the problem, who was going to help those poor wretches who continued to float down the river?’”

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Civil Rights groups call for NCLB changes

this is crossposted from dailykos

No Child Left Behind, the title for which was stolen from the motto "Leave No Child Behind" of the Children's Defense Fund, has as a primary purpose to ensure that minority children and special education recipients receive full attention and opportunity to succeed - this is one reason the law requires the disaggregation of test scores by groups including race, Hispanic identity, and special education education classification. Thus when a common statement is issued by most of the important civil rights and disability organizations, it behooves to pay attention to their concerns. Yesterday a letter was sent to the House and Senate Education committees signed by more than 20 of such organizations.

The letter calls for the use of multiple measures both in assessing student learning and in evaluating school performance.

I hope that the Members and Senators will give this letter the deference it deserves. To facilitate that process I am attempting to make its contents as widely known as possible, hence this diary. Please keep reading to learn more.

The letter, whose complete text can be read at the website of the Forum on Educational Accountability, was signed by the following groups, the list of which I offer first to make clear the widespread agreement on this issue:

Advancement Project
Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund
Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance
Civil Rights Project
Council for Exceptional Children
Japanese American Citizens League
Justice Matters
League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC)
Learning Disabilities Association of America
National Alliance of Black School Educators (NABSE)
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)
NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc.
National Association for Bilingual Education (NABE)
National Association for the Education and Advancement of Cambodian,Laotian, and
Vietnamese Americans (NAFEA)
National Coalition of ESEA Title I Parents
National Council on Educating Black Children
National Federation of Filipino American Associations National Indian Education Association
National Indian School Board Association
National Pacific Islander Educator Network (NPIEN)
National Urban Alliance for Effective Education (NUA)
(and I note that ASPIRA is the education and leadership development of Puerto Rican and other Latino youth and ACORN is a community organization of low- and moderate-income families, working together for social justice and stronger communities).

The letter (whose authors have sought my help in publicizing it and given me permission to quote as much as necessary) expresses "strong support for a comprehensive model of accountability" which it seeks through "multiple measures which can focus schools both on developing high quality teaching and learning and on educating all students to graduation." They believe the law can be improved "to better foster genuine educational progress and to hold schools and school systems accountable for a broader array of
important educational outcomes" through the use of "a relatively simple and feasible system of multiple indicators" and they write:
We believe that the accountability provisions must include a system of multiple assessments of learning, which can help schools focus on assessing the full range of standards and skills appropriately, and multiple indicators of school performance, which emphasize the importance of keeping students in school and educating them to graduation.

Ideally, schools should be held accountable for student growth along all parts of the achievement continuum. They should demonstrate continuous progress on an index of indicators comprised of multiple academic assessments, plus measures of student progress through school, such as graduation and grade promotion rates. Together, these components can support a comprehensive and educationally beneficial accountability system.

They note that
A number of studies have found that an exclusive emphasis on (primarily multiple-choice) standardized test
scores has narrowed the curriculum
and which indicated narrowing of curriculum both in increasing limiting of instruction to the subjects tested, reading and math, at the expense of other subject, and even within those subjects narrowing instruction to the limited format (usually only multiple choice) and content of state tests which often over-emphasize low-level learning. The letter goes on to say
As reporter Thomas Toch recently stated, "The problem is that these dumbed-down tests encourage teachers to make the same low-level skills the priority in their classrooms, at the expense of the higher standards that the federal law has sought to promote." To succeed in college, employment and life in general, students need critical thinking and problem solving skills that the tests fail to measure, and they need a complete curriculum.

The letter notes that the every-year testing requirement of the law discourages the use of instruments that test higher-order thinking skills - such instruments are more expensive and time consuming, even as they tend to motivate stronger teaching and learning. While I am not personally a fan of international comparisons, since such comparisons have been used to denigrate American public education, it is interesting that the letter notes
These kinds of assessments – which include written essays, oral examinations, research papers, open-ended problems, and other performance assessments – are routinely used in high-achieving European and Asian systems that emphasize higher-order knowledge and skills. Some of our nation’s highest performing districts and states have given up the high-quality assessments they created in the 1990s, because the law currently acts as a disincentive to encourage their continued use.
Here it is worth noting that Connecticut, When Betty Sternberg was in charge of the state's schools, wanted to maintain its high quality alternative year testing method. The cost of expanding that testing to every year was prohibitive. The response of the US Department of Education was to use cheaper (and hence lower quality) tests to fulfill the mandate of testing every year.

Let me quote a key part of one paragraph that may help explain why these groups are so concerned
Perhaps the most troubling unintended consequence of NCLB has been that the law creates incentives for schools to boost scores by pushing low-scoring students out of school. The very important goal of graduating more of our students has simply not been implemented, and the accountability provisions actually reward schools with high dropout rates. Push-out incentives and the narrowed curriculum are especially severe for students with disabilities, English language learners, students of color and economically disadvantaged students.

Those of us who were critical of the law when first proposed by the White House noted the push-out phenomenon was well-documented in the system in Texas which was serving as a model for the proposal. The authors mention studies which indicate the perverse effects of the law as written that the raising of "standards"is resulting in fewer students, especially of color, receiving an education.

Here in its entirety is the letter's justification for multiple measures of students and schools:
A central part of a solution to these problems is to employ multiple forms of assessment and multiple indicators, while retaining the powerful tools of publicly available assessment information and the critically important focus on equity. A multiple measures approach can help schools and districts improve student outcomes more effectively because:

1. The use of multiple measures ensures that attention will be given to a comprehensive academic program and a more complete array of important learning outcomes;

2. A multiple measures approach can incorporate assessments that evaluate the full range of standards, including those addressing higher-order thinking and performance skills;

3. Multiple measures provide accountability checks and balances so that emphasizing one measure does not come at the expense of others (e.g. boosting test scores by excluding students from school), but they can give greater emphasis to priority areas; and

4. A multiple measures index can provide schools and districts with incentives to attend to the progress of students at every point on the achievement spectrum, including those who initially score far below or above the test score cut point labeled “proficient.” It can encourage schools to focus on the needs of low-scoring students, students with disabilities, and ELL students, using assessments that measure gains from wherever students begin and helping them achieve growth.

The letter goes on to note use of multiple measures in making economic and business decisions, the possible negative consequences of relying upon single measures, and the professional standards of the measurement community which mandate the use of multiple measures for making major decisions. The current version of NCLB in theory calls for multiple measures of student performance, but the law has failed to promote their use for measuring school progress.

Those Yearlykos attendees who came to the Saturday morning roundtable entitled "Rethinking Educational Accountability" heard Doug Christensen, Commissioner of Education in Nebraska, describe a different way of doing assessment, and Sherman Dorn (who offered this diary with a link to the audio of the session) provide a broader context for assessment and accountability. I mention this because those who did attend or have listened to the audio are quite likely to grasp the basis for the arguments made in the final 4 paragraphs of, which I now quote in their entirety before making a few comments of my own:
Multiple indicators can counter the problems caused by over-reliance on single measures. Multiple forms of assessment include traditional statewide tests as well as other assessments, developed and used locally or statewide, that include a broader range of formats, such as writing samples, research projects, and science investigations, as well as collections of student work over time. These can be scored reliably according to common standards and can inform instruction in order to improve teaching and learning. Such assessments would only be used for accountability purposes when they meet the appropriate technical criteria, reflect state-approved standards, and apply equitably to all students, as is already the case in Connecticut, Nebraska, Oregon, Vermont, and other states successfully using multiple forms of assessment.

To counter the narrowing of the curriculum and exclusion of important subjects that has been extensively documented as a consequence of NCLB, the new law should also allow states to include other subjects, using multiple forms of assessment, in an index of school indicators. To ensure strong attention is given to reading and math, these subjects can be weighted more heavily. Graduation rates and grade promotion rates should be given substantial weight in any accountability system. Other relevant indicators of school progress, such as attendance and college admission rates, could be included.

Because evidence is clear that multiple assessments are beneficial to student learning and accountability decisions, we hope that the committee will take the step of providing significant funds to assist states and districts to implement systems that include multiple forms of evidence about student learning, including state and local performance assessments. Congress should also require an evaluation of state multiple measures programs to enable sharing of knowledge and improvement of state assessment and accountability systems.

A multiple measures approach that incorporates a well-balanced set of indicators would support a shift toward holding states and localities accountable for making the systemic changes that improve student achievement. This is a necessary foundation for genuine accountability.

It is not clear to me that NCLB will be reauthorized this year. Rep. George Miller is determined to get the House version passed, presumably by the end of September. While some of the issues raised in this letter have been discussed within the committee, the Ranking Member (Republican Howard "Buck McKeon)is visibly balking at the idea of multiple measures. And at a recent forum on NCLB sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus a representative of The Education Trust, an organization which claims it is dedicated to closing the "achievement gap" and which carries some weight among centrist members of the House and Senate, strongly opposed the idea of multiple measures. From discussions with staff I have come to believe that when reported to the floor the House version will have a relatively closed rule, making further changes to the committee version exceedingly difficult. That could cause a backlash. While it is not clear when the Senate version will come out of committee, and how different it might be from the House version, all indicators are that it will be at least several weeks later and have some significant differences. And in the Senate, the process of moving a committee measure to acceptance by the full Senate is, of course, far more subject to amending and dilatory tactics.

The danger is that if no reauthorization is sent to the President, we will instead get a continuing resolution, which would maintain funding at the current insufficient levels and allow the clock to continue running on the punitive sanctions. That could have a devastating effect on our schools.

Even with all of the changes suggested in this letter, NCLB will still be a badly flawed piece of legislation. And yet as the current incarnation of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act it is the primary mechanism through which the Federal government provides funds for public schools. IF there is no extension the school that will be most harmed are those with high numbers of minority and poor children. I have noted the impact of a continuing resolution. Thus I see no choice but attempting to make the most significant changes possible in the law.

This letter should carry great weight. It should be widely distributed - to the press, to Members and Senators not on the committees, to anyone with a concern about public education. There is a press release which covers the key issues, which is available at the Forum website in both HTML and PDF formats.

I hope you will consider passing this information on to whomever you think can help with the process. If your Members or Senators are on the Committee in her body, perhaps you can contact them with your support for this initiative: the list of House Committee members can be found here and that for the Senate here.

Please, if you care about public schools, do whatever you can in this effort. I thank you in advance for your cooperation.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

NCLB, "New Democrats," and the Information Age

[Re-posted from Mark Kleiman, with permission]

I'm on a listserv embracing a bunch of real journalists and a bunch of bloggers, academics, activists, and think-tankers, representing a pretty good spread of Blue opinion. (Please, don't tell Mickey Kaus; you might hurt his feelings.)

Two threads on that list come together in a way I haven't seen commented on before.

One thread is about the extent to which the Information Age dictates basic changes in social policy. Crudely speaking, those who are politically centrist tend to think that the Information Age changes a lot, and that the thinking behind many established programs dear to liberals is Industrial Age thinking.

The other thread on the same listserv is about No Child Left Behind. Supporters of NCLB think it puts pressure on schools to actually teach somebody something, and especially to stop failing poor and otherwise disadvantaged kids. Critics focus on the problems: the tests measure to narrow a spectrum of capacities, measure them too infrequently, measure them badly, measure them in ways that aren't robust to "teaching the test," and lead to a soul-deadening rote-learning atmosphere not only in the failing schools where it may be better than the aimless chaos it replaced but also in schools whose demographics ought to make them aspire to do better. I'm definitely on the critical side, but the supporters certainly have a point that the system that NCLB challenged was failing badly and not obviously getting better.

Now in the broader political world, I think it's fair to say that support for NCLB is a typical centrist, New Democratic, technocratic idea, while opposition tends to be among people who consider themselves unreconstructed liberals/progressives.

But note that the (non-Luddite) critique of NCLB is precisely that it uses an Industrial Age model of what it means to manage by measurement. The spirit of NCLB is the spirit of Taylorite "scientific management," with time-and-motion experts finding the One Best Way of doing each task, workers treated as interchangeable parts whose only role is to do their job the One Best Way and never think about it (think: Open Court), and quality assurance done by inspecting each part as it comes off the line by comparison with a set of rigid yes-or-no criteria and then counting the number of failing parts. It's as if W. Edwards Deming had never invented statistical QA and Douglas McGregor had never adapted the Maslovian needs hierarchy into the Theory Y approach to encouraging good, creative performance by employees.

(I sometimes think that the worst thing about NCLB is the aid and comfort it gives to the Luddites in the educational establishment who use "Our function is much too sacred to measure" as a defense against demands that the system start producing value for money, especially when it comes to teaching kids who don't get an educational leg up at home. But if I were in a grade-school classroom, I'd probably find other aspects of it even worse.)

Of all the social-service functions, education probably has the most to gain from using Information Age technology. The teacher-stands-by-the-blackboard-and-talks-to-thirty-students model of schooling is doomed by the Baumol Cost Disease, which is why real per-student costs of schooling have been skyrocketing and teacher quality has been falling. Putting that system in an Industrial Age measurement straitjacket has to be precisely the wrong thing to do.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Community Organizing and Urban Education XIII: Public vs. Private

[To read the entire series, go here. A one-page version of the entire series is here.]

Note: Much of this is elaborated from pp. 96-99 of Commonwealth by Harry Boyte.

Innumerable books have discussed different ways to conceptualize differences and similarities between “private” and “public” realms, mapping these across history, different cultural groups, and different conceptual frameworks. Here, I discuss the model developed in the context of community organizing.

According to one of Saul Alinsky’s lieutenants, Ed Chambers, one of Alinsky’s many shortsighted attitudes was about the private lives of organizers. “Indeed, Chambers spoke with visible pain of Alinsky’s cavalier, dismissive attitude toward his associates’ family life and retirement and security needs.” Chambers noted that “’He called me up long distance to order me to Rochester’” to work on a famous organizing campaign (Boyte, 96).

This refusal to respect people’s personal lives created numerous problems. Not the least was the tendency to burn people out. Many organizers speak of the revolving door through which many experienced organizers and leaders fled, never to return to the field. In this way, their hard-earned skills that could have supported future efforts were lost.

Post-Alinsky, many organizing groups realized that they needed to fundamentally change the way they supported organizers. Over time, to the extent possible, major organizations like the Gamaliel and Industrial Areas Foundations have tried to make organizing more humanly “doable,” something one could continue for a long-term career. At least in these flagship organizations, pay rates have increased, retirement and other benefits are more likely to be planned for, and thinking has gone into making jobs more family friendly.

One of the approaches developed in the wake of these issues was a new way of framing a distinction between “public” and “private” relationships. These new distinctions were designed to help them and the leaders they work with navigate the enormous emotional and time challenges inherent in any organizing effort. Like all concepts in organizing, these distinctions are meant as flexible guidelines. They are pragmatic tools for helping organizers and leaders make ethical and practical choices in a world that is always too complex to be captured by such binary frameworks. And it’s important to understand that these principles were actively constructed. They were not simply found lying around, but were developed and are still in the process of being developed in response to ongoing experience.

In trainings, organizers started by distinguishing between two columns of different kinds of relationships. On the private side they listed the more intimate relationships one has with one’s family and friends. On the public side they listed the more instrumental relationships one generally has with organizational colleagues, politicians, strangers, and others outside of one’s relatively narrow circle of intimacy. This is all summarized in the following table:

Roles Played in Private vs. Public Relationships

PRIVATE Relationships

PUBLIC Relationships


Church Members


Students at School


Political Actors


People on the street

They also distinguished between what had emerged for them through their organizing experience as the key differences in the characteristics of relationships in these arenas.

In the private, people tend to encounter people who are mostly like themselves in the characteristics that are important to them. Private relationships are often given or inherited—few people, for example, can choose their families. They are relatively permanent. One might want to disown a sibling or a parent, for example, but we rarely do. Similarly, once we decide people are our “friends,” we become much more likely to tolerate their imperfections (and to expect imperfections to be tolerated in ourselves). In private, we have the right to expect to be relatively safe in a range of different ways; we can be honest about our feelings and fears and needs.

In the public, we encounter people that are often very different from us. If we conflict with them, we are much more likely to vote with our feet rather than try to work things out. If we are “stuck” with them (on the job or in politics, for example) our engagements with they are likely to be guarded, since public relationships are inherently less safe than private ones. Part of the reason for this lack of safety is that public relationships are much more likely to be instrumental. We engage with other people in public because we have something we need to accomplish or deal with. Partly as a result, these relationships are often quite fluid, with old acquaintances fading away while new ones emerge, often as a result of changes in our institutional or geographical location and not because we have necessarily chosen new people to engage with.

The table below summarizes these key characteristics of public and private relationships:

Characteristics of Private and Public Relationships













Restricted to small number of intimates

Open to a large number of acquaintances

Finally, our expectations of what we can get out of public vs. private relationships are quite different. In the private, we expect to be accepted. We expect some level of loyalty, regardless of how problematic we may be at any moment and we often have a need to be liked or loved by our family and friends. Furthermore, in private we give without much expectation of getting anything in return.

In the public, as I have already noted, our relationships are much more pragmatic. We have relationships because there is some instrumental reason why we need them. Instead of wanting to be liked, in public, we expect respect (regardless of whether others like us or not). Instead of letting it “all hang out,” we must be much more guarded about what we say. In fact, in public, we generally take on a particular kind of dramatic “role.” This is common to teachers and politicians and bosses and workers. In these contexts, to one extent or another, all of us present a particular kind of “face” to the world. The point is not that one must necessarily be dishonest in public—in fact, persistent dishonesty can destroy public relationships even quicker than private ones. Instead we must be careful about how we frame what we think, what we reveal about ourselves, and the topics we discuss. While we can expect un-judgmental loyalty in private, in public we expect to be held accountable for what we say or do, and to hold others accountable in the same way. In general, then, what is most important to understand in public relationships are the self-interests of the different people involved. What motivates us and others to act? {In a future post, I’ll talk more about the broad way organizers frame self-interest.)

The table below summarizes the benefits and aims of public and private relationships:

Benefits and Aims of Private vs. Public Relationships



The need to be liked

The need to be respected

Expectation of loyalty

Expectation of accountability


Quid pro quo/self-interest

Again, I want to emphasize that these distinctions are not definitions that can be followed strictly and unproblematically. Instead, they are flexible guidelines for “’appropriate behavior’ in [these] different realms” (Boyte, 96). Organizers, perhaps better than most people, understand that “’universals,’ principles that seem to apply across widely varying cultural and communal contexts, need always to be contextualized to have any real meaning. Thus, IAF teachers argue that nothing is ever completely ‘either-or.’” One organizer pointed out, for example, that “’public’ would have a qualitatively different meaning in most African societies . . . . And different settings partake of different ‘public’ and ‘personal’ or private qualities—a church . . . is far more personal than a convention or a political rally” (Boyte, 97).

I often use the example of my own “public” role as a teacher in my community organizing course. But at the same time as we talk about how I need to be held accountable and to hold my students accountable, we also talk about how there are private aspects of the teacher-student relationship as well. To some extent, it is important for me to be loyal to my students, and to balance accountability with a more personal kind of caring. No role is ever completely public or private (although teacher-student roles may be especially fraught with these kinds of tensions).

One way these conceptions of “private” and “public” are useful to organizers are in helping them distinguish between ways of treating people who are intimate relations and those who are public acquaintances. They allow one to draw relatively clear boundaries between people one should expect to be liked by and those from who one demands respect. They help limit one’s responsibilities to those who fall outside of one’s private arena and clarify the responsibilities, benefits, and burdens involved in admitting new people into one’s private circle. One organizer noted, for example, that he used to try to treat everyone like they were friends. He just ended up totally exhausting himself and actually damaging his relationships with people who really were his intimates—like his family. Learning to distinguish between “private” and “public” relationships helped him let go of relationships with people in his organization who weren’t living up to their responsibilities and concentrate on people who he could depend upon.

Despite limitations, it is in the realm of power, politics, inequality, and oppression that these distinctions between “private” and “public” come into their real power. In general, organizers argue that powerful people often try to control those who are less powerful by intentionally confusing private and public relationships.

A few examples:

On the east-west highway in my city right now there is a large billboard advertising a bank that says “it’s not business, it’s personal!” This is a perfect example of an effort to make people feel like a public relationship is really intimate. The fact is that the bank doesn’t care about individual clients. It understands quite clearly that its relationship with those it serves is not private but public. And if you don’t live up to your responsibilities to a bank you will find this out quite quickly, regardless of how nice the tellers and mortgage brokers may be.

Recently my wife and I went to buy a car. We had decided not to purchase a particular vehicle from a salesperson, and he started in on a passionate appeal to us, telling us that he needed another sale to get his bonus for the month. In other words, he was asking us to be loyal and altruistic towards him, even though he knew quite well that his relationship with us was entirely temporary and that any intimacy on his part was really an act that he performed with every customer who came onto his lot. Needless to say, we walked away from that deal.

Waitresses know quite well the power of fake private relationships. There is clear evidence that patrons who are touched lightly during a meal will give a larger tip than those who are not. Of course, in a sense at a restaurant one is paying for a kind of manufactured intimacy. But much of the impact of the strategies used by people like waitresses is quite invisible to patrons. They “feel” more personally connected, and this activates their “private” tendencies.

An organizer I know spoke of a campaign in which his organization was in conflict with a major bank in our city. The bank director used to call him up and the first thing the director would do was ask about the organizer’s family, his children, etc. The organizer said he would patiently wait out this “private” discussion, and then move directly to the “public” part of their discussion.

Frequently, politicians and others in power positions will say something like “I’m a nice person. Why are you doing this to me?” They’ll ask leaders and organizers to lunch or dinner in relatively intimate settings and try to create a personal relationship. But these relationships are not personal, they are public. They involve citizens putting on public faces and engaging with the powerful in their public role. And when social activists don’t understand this, they are open to being used.

One classic way to fight against absentee landlords in the central city who are letting their properties become blighted is to force what they want to be private into the public. A couple of years ago, the organization I work with went to the neighborhood in the suburbs where a notorious landlord lived. Leaders left leaflets with her suburban neighbors with pictures of her properties and a description of how her lack of upkeep was affecting her residents and their neighborhoods. This forced the landlord into a public relationship with her neighbors. This act essentially argued that people who do harm like this should not be able to hide in the private realm. Not surprisingly, if I remember correctly, this landlord very quickly made a deal with my organization.

These distinctions between “private” and “public” help social action organizations decide what kinds of actions are and are not ethical. An ethical action, these distinctions imply, will be one oriented towards the public roles played by an individual or an institution. It’s not legitimate, for example, to bring someone else’s family into the fight unless there is some specific reason why this has become fair game.

During a fight with the school board a couple of years ago, the board president, who was opposing us, declared that at a public meeting that anyone could come to his house any time they wanted. His door was always open for discussion. I thought that this opened him up to a very effective action where our organization might come in force to his house and present him with demands collectively. From my perspective, he had tried to use this as an example of how he was really a “personable” kind of guy as an effort to resist our efforts. This action never happened, however. He had younger kids and there was legitimate disagreement about whether this would overstep ethical bounds and exactly how to do something like this in an ethical way. I’m still not sure, myself, about this strategy.

Whether a relationship is public or private is a result of the role a person is playing at any particular time. For example, two US senators might be married. At home, they would have a “private” relationship under this rubric, but on the Senate floor, their relationship would be “public.” This is something that politicians and powerful people generally understand quite well. It’s why very conservative and very liberal Senators can say terrible things about each other’s views on the airwaves and then go play an amiable game of golf. And the fact is that a personal relationship with and between the powerful can be useful tools in a range of ways as long as the individuals engaged understand when they are playing different roles.

As Boyte notes, the distinction between public and private has

proved significant in teaching leaders the dynamics of effective political action, from the parish level to the life of communities. “We would never have been able to challenge the priest to stop acting like our ‘father’ without this sort of training [about public and private’ said Beatrice Cortez, a president of San Antonio COPS [a congregational organizing group] . . . . ‘You learn what is appropriate and inappropriate for politicians. They shouldn’t try to get us to love them, for instance.’

Cortez frequently tells a story about her daughter to illustrate how children can quickly pick up the point. During her tenure as president of the organization, Cortez had a COPS phone in her house. One day the mayor, Henry Cisneros—whom she had known for years—called up on the line. ‘My daughter answered and at first didn’t know who it was. ‘Who should I say is calling?’ she asked. Cisneros said, “Tell her it’s a special friend.’ ‘Then she recognized his voice,” Cortez said. “She said, ‘On this line, you’re not a friend, I know who you are. You’re the mayor!’ I told her, ‘You’ve got that right, honey!’ (Boyte, p. 98)

In general, Boyte argues that

The self-conscious recognition of the public realm in which IAF [and other community organizing] organizations functioned as significant actors thus began to make explicit and clear what had often been known intuitively but never quite identified: public life had its own distinctive dynamics, its own principles. . . .

But public life . . . also stands in a different relationship to private life than has been classically conceived. Indeed, the groups partially reverse the traditional attributes of public and private . . . The private . . . is the more self-sacrificial and idealistic realm, while the public is the world view of quid pro quo and self-interest. (Boyte, p. 98)

In a future discussion of the practice of “one-on-one” interviews developed by community organizers, I will discuss a range of other issues related to the rich conceptions of public and private that inform much contemporary organizing work.

[For discussions of “public” and “private” that influenced the development of the specifics of this distinction in community organizing, see Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, and Richard Sennett’s The Fall of Public Man.]

"Rethinking Educational Accountability" recording

An audio recording of the "Rethinking Educational Accountability" panel at YearlyKos is now available online. This session featured a discussion with Nebraska Education Commissioner Doug Christensen, Maryland teacher Ken Bernstein, and me (Sherman Dorn). The recording is 47 minutes long. You can listen with the online player or download the mp3 (which I think is 44 MB).

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Epistemological Redlining: The Price of Doing the Education Business

How much is a history or journalism course worth compared to, let's say, a business or engineering course? Or a math education course compared to an ed foundations course (I know, they are both worthless). Wonder what will happen to poor and minority enrollment numbers in high-premium knowledge areas as we double the tuition charged for those courses? I don't know the answers either, but it looks like we are about to find out before the discussion can begin.

A couple of clips from the NY Times story earlier this week:
. . . .Starting this fall, juniors and seniors pursuing an undergraduate major in the business school at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, will pay $500 more each semester than classmates. The University of Nebraska last year began charging engineering students a $40 premium for each hour of class credit.

And Arizona State University this fall will phase in for upperclassmen in the journalism school a $250 per semester charge above the basic $2,411 tuition for in-state students.

Such moves are being driven by the high salaries commanded by professors in certain fields, the expense of specialized equipment and the difficulties of getting state legislatures to approve general tuition increases, university officials say.

“It is something of a trend,” said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

Even as they embrace such pricing, many officials acknowledge they are queasy about a practice that appears to value one discipline over another or that could result in lower-income students clustering in less expensive fields.

“This is not the preferred way to do this,” said Patrick V. Farrell, provost at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “If we were able to raise resources uniformly across the campus, that would be a preferred move. But with our current situation, it doesn’t seem to us that that’s possible.”

At the University of Kansas, which started charging different prices in the early 1990s, there are signs that the higher cost of majoring in certain subjects is affecting the choices of poorer students.

“We are seeing at this point purely anecdotal evidence,” said Richard W. Lariviere, provost and executive vice chancellor at the university. “The price sensitivity of poor students is causing them to forgo majoring, for example, in business or engineering, and rather sticking with something like history.”

. . . .

“There was a time, not that long ago, 10 to 15 years ago, that the vast majority of the cost of education at public universities was borne by the state, and that was why tuition was so low,” he said. “That was based on the premise that the education of an individual is a public good, that individuals go out and become schoolteachers and businessmen and doctors and lawyers, that makes society better. That’s no longer the perception.”

. . . .

“The salaries we pay for entering assistant professors [in business] on average is probably larger than the average salary for full professors at the university,” Mr. Parker said of business professors. “That’s how far the pendulum has swung at the business schools, and I sure wish they’d fix it.”. . . .

Posted, too, at Schools Matter.