Monthly Archives: January 2011

On Michelle Obama, Fashion, and the First Lady Role

Michelle state dinner
Michelle Obama, wearing Alexander McQueen, with American designer Oscar de la Renta, who disapproved of this dress.

I'm not gonna pretend I don't love seeing and commenting on what Michelle Obama wears. I do. She's gorgeous and stylish and with her embrace of bare legs in the summer and sweaters instead of suit jackets, she has helped my generation of young professional women win some perennial fashion arguments with our mothers. No, you don't have to dress like a man at work!

Kate Betts makes all those points in her Times op-ed about the controversy surrounding Obama's choice of a gown by a non-American designer, the late Alexander McQueen, for the state dinner honoring Chinese President Hu Jintao. But Betts' piece also reminds me how incredibly retro the role of First Lady is: "Americans look to Michelle Obama to set the emotional tone of his administration," she writes. "As we are with all first ladies, we are subconsciously invested in her looking good — it’s almost as if there’s some sort of national pride at stake."

I've said it before and I'll say it again: It is irksome to see this Harvard-educated lawyer and longtime professional anti-poverty advocate portrayed primarily as a fashion plate or image of idealized femininity. Why is it happening? Because we, as a nation and a culture, are invested in the idea of a First Lady as a national hostess and tastemaker instead of accepting first ladies for what many of them actually are: trusted advisors to and co-equal partners of our presidents. 

That's why we should get real and admit that being First Lady is an actual job that (and I know this is radical) maybe even deserves a paycheck

Imagine fitting a First Gentleman into the role we expect Michelle Obama to play, and you'll see how outdated and absurd it is. For a few years, I was obsessed with pointing out, over and over again, that the male spouses of the few female G20 leaders never showed at those summit spouse photo ops.


Why aren't the first dudes proud to be there? Maybe because there is something a little ridiculous about this fashion-focused first lady circuit–something a man like Joachim Sauer, the noted chemist married to German Chancellor Angela Merkel–doesn't really want to participate in. (That said, any first gentleman big enough to show up for a photo like this would earn my undying respect.)

Okay, back to Michelle Obama: Melissa Harris-Perry has written persuasively about how Obama's glamour and embrace of traditional motherhood and wifehood "subverts a deep, powerful, and old public discourse on black women as bad mothers," even while presenting a "potential danger … Michelle Obama's public persona of traditionalism could be used as a discursive weapon against women who do not conform to this domestic ideal."

And Michelle Obama herself is way more than a domestic ideal. I'll close this out by posting my favorite evidence of just how damn awesome and progressive Michelle Obama is. Here she is–clad simply and all in black, with her hair pulled back–giving a rousing antiwar speech in Iowa in 2007, way before a lot of the bullshit set in. 


Update from my Michelle Obama archives: Our First Lady has always been a working mom; she has never "stayed home"

How Politically Astute is Michelle Rhee?

Ben Smith and Byron Tau have written the definitive piece on this new phase of Michelle Rhee's career. She is attempting to build a national advocacy organization to directly confront the teachers' unions, and–though she continues to identify as a Democrat–she is now working most closely with GOP governors whose foremost priority is to drastically roll back public spending.

Smith and Tau very fairly present the evidence of Rhee's history of political tone-deafness and, to be frank, I don't think she has become all that much more sophisticated over the last three months since Adrian Fenty's defeat. There's only so much common ground a Democratic education reformer can find with politicians who resent the very existence of a social safety net. This hard reality calls into question Rhee's entire strategy of what Smith and Tau call "apocalyptic" confrontation with unions, as opposed to reasoned negotiation that recognizes the unions' expertise on matters ranging from school funding to curriculum and instruction. (And, by the way, I agree with Rhee that the seniority-based teacher layoff system needs to be reformed.)

The often wise Rick Hess explains clearly why Rhee is on such unstable ground: "One of the things that’s going to come down the pike — maybe in 2012, maybe in 2016 — there’s going to likely be a parting of the ways between these progressive education reformers and the folks who have deeper and more profound concerns about public section unions. … It’s a temporary alliance.”

On My Hometown, Or, Why I Became An Education Writer

My alma mater

I became an education writer, in large part, because I attended the public schools in Ossining, New York. Due to a unique integration/busing program that has been maintained throughout the decades, even as other districts reverted to segregated neighborhood schools, the district is currently 39 percent Hispanic, 38 percent white, 18 percent black, and 5 percent Asian. About a third of students are eligible for reduced-price or free lunch.

So day after day for the 13 most formative years of my life, I (and every other kid in the Ossining schools) saw up close the achievement gap between middle class, mostly white students and everyone else, and the ways in which the school system attempted to fight the problem while, in some cases, exacerbating it. 

Yesterday the New York Times profiled Ossining's nationally recognized science research program, which was just getting off the ground when I was in high school. Peter Applebome makes a very important point about how such excellence can coexist with inequality:

It would be nice if a fabulous science research program translates to a fabulous school and district, but Ossining’s overall test scores do not compare with those of the most successful districts. Its achievement gap between largely affluent whites and less affluent minorities, who make up a majority of the district, remains stubbornly wide. This year’s Intel semifinalists come overwhelmingly on the favored side of the demographic divide. In the most recent Regents tests, 11 percent of Ossining students scored above 85 on the chemistry test. In Scarsdale, 65 percent did.

But then, there are more than a few parents in neighboring districts with higher test scores who are envious of the richer real-world experience students get in Ossining, where students come from an estimated 53 countries and speak 39 languages.

But it wouldn't be fair to say Ossining isn't struggling mightily against its achievement gap–more so now, under Superintendent Phyllis Glassman, than ever. I wrote a feature article in 2007 about the district's attempt to get more children of color into college level courses and, controversially, to provide social enrichment experiences targeted specifically at black and Hispanic boys. 

These programs haven't been transformative so far. But Ossining is a great example of a district deploying many different tools in an attempt to close the achievement gap, and should be recognized for that.

Random Interlude on Women in Rock Music History

For my book writing course, I am reading and really enjoying Girls Like Us, Sheila Weller's joint biography of Joni Mitchell, Carole King, and Carly Simon. It's a page-turning, deeply-reported account of how female musicians in the sixties and seventies exploded popular notions of what was appropriate for women to write and sing and speak publicly about. There was Joni Mitchell's "Little Green," a love song to the daughter she had out of wedlock and gave up for adoption; Carole King's "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," an unmarried girl's cautiously hopeful–and wonderfully frank–ballad about entering into a sexual relationship; and Carly Simon singing "Nobody Does It Better," which Radiohead's Thom Yorke (decades later) called "the sexiest song ever written." (Watch this very 1980s Carly performance. He was sorta right.)

All three women experienced more than their fair share of heartbreak, but I was particularly moved by the story of Carole King's difficult early twenties. Her first husband and songwriting partner, Gerry Goffin, was not only a manic-depressive addict, but had an open affair–and a child–with Jeanie Reavis (stage name: Earl-Jean), a pop/soul singer with a gorgeous, smooth voice. It was Carole and Gerry who co-wrote Earl-Jean's classic hit, the love song "I'm Into Something Good." 


Carole found out about the affair and the baby, but didn't immediately leave Gerry. In fact, Goffin and King–by then hugely successful songwriters–bought a house in their white, suburban New Jersey neighborhood for Reavis to live in with her husband, their kids, and the new baby girl. 

Both marriages (surprise, surprise) eventually disolved, and Carole moved to Los Angeles, where she launched her massive solo folk-rock career. And I maintain that her own performances of her songs are the classic ones–they are just so deeply felt. Here is one of my all time favorite love songs. 


On “Innovation,” Inequality, and the State of the Union

President Obama mentioned "innovation" 11 times in last night's State of the Union address. To keep things in perspective, check out Mike Mandel's helpful breakdown of the sectors of the American economy that are most likely to lead to innovative job creation–biomedical research, for example–compared to the sexier sectors Obama actually spoke about, such as space exploration and green tech. 

And while the subject last night was economic innovation, the administration's attachment to often-wishy washy "innovation" rhetoric dates back to the Democratic primary and, later on, its launching of various social policy stimulus programs including the Social Innovation Fund, Race to the Top, and Investing in Innovation

In fall 2009 I wrote an essay for The American Prospect discussing how the administration frames "innovation" in education and urban economic development specifically as a poverty and inequality-fighting tool. It strikes me that although Obama did not mention inequality or poverty last night, there was a similar subtext in the State of the Union, as he argued that innovation is "how our people will prosper" in a harsh global economy.

This "innovation" agenda, which is largely focused on the federal government incenting various movements in the private and philanthropic sectors, may be politically astute in a climate in which the White House has decided it is impossible to argue for the largescale expansion of the government social safety net. Yet it's important to keep scale in mind; most of the non-profit and private sector efforts that have benefited from Obama's innovation agenda thus far have been rather small-bore and locally targeted, and certainly not systemic poverty fighting tools. (You can read about a few of them in that old Prospect piece I mentioned.)

The health reform act and the stimulus bill, in comparison, were truly transformative ways to fight joblessness and poverty at the national level–as would be a national daycare system, or universal free pre-school, or any one of many long-needed anti-poverty programs that are absolutely nowhere on our national political agenda.

Hat tip: Dear Ezra

Megan McArdle’s Head and My Head, Blogging on Education Politics

Megan McArdle and I filmed a long and juicy education Bloggingheads this afternoon, which you can check out here. I'll post two sections. First, my rather long disquisition on the troubling relationship between value-added teacher evaluation–which has been heavily promoted by the Obama administration and will soon be required in states including New York–and more standardized testing of kids. This is the topic of an upcoming feature story I'm working on.


Second, Megan and I struggle mightily to come to some common ground on the currently defunct D.C. Opportunity Scholarships, a voucher program that the Obama administration ended in 2009 and that House Republicans are now pushing to reinstate. And we debate the practical and ideological limits of "school choice."


TFA Founder Wendy Kopp: Don’t Release Teacher Value-Added Scores to Newspapers

I enjoyed spending some time with Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp last Tuesday, and today my profile of her is up at The Daily Beast. Two newsy bits from our interview:

1. Kopp said being the chancellor of the New York City public schools would be "the best job in the world…just awesome," but that she was not approached about the position by Mayor Mike Bloomberg.

2. Kopp said she does not support the Bloomberg administration's policy of seeking to release to news organizations individual teachers' value-added ratings. In fact, she said the idea of doing so is "baffling. … I can't imagine it's a good organizational strategy to go publish the names of teachers and one data point about whether they are effective or not in the newspaper."

Read the whole thing.

On American Jews, Zionism, and Philip Weiss

Over at Tablet, my friend and colleague Michelle Goldberg has written a beautiful, nuanced profile of Philip Weiss, another writer whom I'm proud to call a colleague and a friend. 

Phil is the founder of Mondoweiss, which has become the Internet's foremost destination for often bracing, leftwing critiques of Israeli policy and Zionism more broadly.

I don't agree with Phil on every single issue. As he points out, he calls himself an "anti-Zionist" and I call myself a "post-Zionist," which is just one way of saying he's a bit to my left. But I can't stress enough how much I appreciated Phil's mentorship and support (both public and private) when I first began writing about Israel/Palestine two years ago.

Previously I had avoided the subject like the plague, primarily because the evolution of my thought on the matter had opened up a rift between myself and my mom that was very painful to explore and discuss. But spurred on by the Gaza ground war, I decided that–as  a young, progressive American raised as a Conservative Jew–I did, after all, have something to say about Israeli policy and the way American Jewish institutions actively discourage young Jews from thinking critically about Zionism.

It meant a lot to me that several older, Jewish writers, including Phil, reached out to offer their support, and that I was able to connect online with a whole new community of young Jews–both American and Israeli–who were looking to think, write, and speak openly about these matters.

Over the past two years my career has evolved, and now I focus almost exclusively on domestic social issues like education and health care. But Israel/Palestine remains near and dear to my heart and I am grateful for the work that Phil does.

On MLK Day, Some Thoughts on Segregated Schools, Arne Duncan, and President Obama

American schools are more segregated by race and class today than they were on the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed, 43 years ago. The average white child in America attends a school that is 77 percent white, and where just 32 percent of the student body lives in poverty. The average black child attends a school that is 59 percent poor but only 29 percent white. The typical Latino kid is similarly segregated; his school is 57 percent poor and 27 percent white. 

Overall, a third of all black and Latino children sit every day in classrooms that are 90 to 100 percent black and Latino. 

This is a sad state of affairs in a pluralistic society, and it is borne of two factors: 1) residential segregation and 2) purposeful drawing of school district boundaries to isolate middle class and white families from poor families of color. So it is absolutely a good thing that last Thursday, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wrote a letter chiding the Wake County, North Carolina school board–which has been taken over by Tea Partiers–for dismantling a groundbreaking school integration program.

The Wake County program located high-achieving, themed magnet schools within poor neighborhoods, and opened them up to any interested student. For each seat at the magnet school occupied by a middle class or affluent kid from across town, an inner city child was given the opportunity to bus to the neighborhood school the wealthier kid would have attended, if he hadn't chosen the magnet instead. Such schemes are known in wonk world as "voluntary intra-district transfer programs," and in many of the cities where they exist (such as Milwaukee, Hartford, and Seattle), they are popular and vastly oversubscribed. 

The problem is that Arne Duncan's words of support for the Wake County integration plan have never been backed up by Obama administration policy. Neither of the Department of Education's two big school reform grant programs–Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation–provide any funding at all for districts that wish to pursue magnet school-driven integration as a reform tool. And make no mistake–integration is one of the most powerful school reform tools in the kit. 

Here's how we know that: At the macro level, four decades of data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress–the "nation's report card"–show that the achievement gap between white and minority students shrunk fastest during the 1970s and 1980s, the era of Court-mandated school desegregation. Between 2004 and 2009, on the other hand–our NLCB, "standards and accountability" era–the achievement gap between white children and black and Latino children did not shrink at all.

Let's see how this operates on the ground level, around the key issue of teacher quality: When another North Carolina school district, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, ended its 30-year busing program in 2000 and reverted back to racially segregated schools, the highest-performing teachers fled schools that became predominantly black and poor.

Here's another local example: In Montgomery County, Maryland, a largely affluent area that has taken care to locate several pockets of public housing within high-performing school districts, those poor students who attended the lowest-poverty schools had significantly better academic outcomes than demographically similar poor students–also living in randomly-assigned Montgomery County public housing–who attended schools that served a greater percentage of poor kids.

Given this track record, it's a disappointment that the Obama administration has not created incentives aimed at encouraging school districts to experiment with magnet schools and other means of desegregation. On the upside, there is good work being done at the Department of Housing and Urban Development on attacking residential segregation; in 2009, for example, HUD told Westchester County it could no longer build affordable housing only in towns and cities that already had high concentrations of poverty. (Doing so was always illegal, but past administrations failed to enforce the law.)

Still, what we really need is a multi-pronged approach to attacking segration: First, we need to fight poverty and economic inequality broadly. But while we do that, we also need to use every tool at our disposal–meaning both housing and education law and policy–to diversify our existing neighborhoods and schools.

Advocating for such policies does not imply that high-poverty, all-minority schools cannot be excellent. We know they can be. But on the whole, such schools are failing. One way to reverse those outcomes for kids is to get them into more diverse, higher functioning schools that are not overwhelmed by the challenges of poverty.