Monthly Archives: February 2012

The Narrative of Poverty

When I was reading Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers, about day-to-day life in the Mumbai slum of Annawadi, I couldn't stop thinking about how much the book had in common with one of my all-time favorites: Random Family, Adrian Nicole Leblanc's masterpiece about love and the drug trade in the South Bronx of the 1980s and 90s. So I wrote an essay for The Daily Beast about the two works–and about what Indian poverty and American poverty have in common. 

…the affinities between the two books—set 7,800 miles and two decades apart—are astonishing. The way Annawadi’s savvier operators make a business out of government corruption, skimming off the top of generously funded anti-poverty efforts, is not dissimilar from the way the drug economy operates in American inner cities. “Corruption was one of the genuine opportunities that remained” for personal advancement in a Mumbai slum, Boo observes; several of the garbage-pickers she profiles accept their dirty lot in life only after giving up on dreams of a good education and clean, service-sector work in nearby luxury hotels.

In LeBlanc’s account of the South Bronx, smart young men like Cesar turn to drug dealing as a rational response to a neighborhood devoid of opportunity as most of us know it, one that lacks quality schools and decent jobs. In both books, individuals who idealistically resist the financial pull of illegal commerce eventually learn that, as Boo puts it, “there were millions of other bright, likable, unskilled young men in this city”—and not nearly enough jobs in the legitimate economy to go around. (Only about half of Mumbai residents hold formal jobs, while in New York, a third of all low-income households have experienced unwanted job loss, wage reductions, or hour reductions over the past year.)

Read the whole piece.

Rick Santorum and Barack Obama Actually Agree on Vocational Education

It's too bad that Rick Santorum is sullying what might otherwise be a fairly sophisticated take on the benefits of vocational education with a ridiculous smearing of President Obama and misrepresentation of the White House's higher-ed agenda.

Santorum on Friday:

Not all folks are gifted in the same way. Some people have incredible gifts with their hands. Some people have incredible gifts…and want to work out there making things. President Obama once said he wants everyone in America to go to college. What a snob. There are good, decent men and women who go out and work hard every day and put their skills to test that aren't taught by some liberal college professor trying to indoctrinate them. I understand why he wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image. I want to create jobs so people can remake their children into their image, not his.

Here is what Obama actually said in his February 2009 address to Congress, the speech to which Santorum is referring:

So tonight I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training. This can be a community college or a four-year school, vocational training or an apprenticeship. But whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high school diploma.

It would be more than fair to complain–as I have–that the administration hasn't done enough to direct funding to successful career and technical education programs. But it's completly untrue that Obama expects all Americans "to go to college." Indeed, the president doubled down on his pro-vocational education messaging last June, when he visited a community college auto repair program in Virigina and said "the goal" of his higher-ed agenda "isn’t just making sure that somebody has got a certificate or a diploma. The goal is to make sure your degree helps you to get a promotion or a raise or a job. And that’s especially important right now.”

Obama is well aware that between now and 2018, over 14 million new American jobs will be created in "mid-skill" occupations, like dental hygiene, that require an associate's degree or an occupational certificate, but not a four-year college degree. That's why Secretary of Education Arne Duncan helped promote the Harvard report "Pathways to Prosperity," about the continued importance of vocational and technical education as routes from poverty to the secure middle class.

The Neighborhood as Curriculum

Crenshaw, L.A.Crenshaw section of South Los Angeles, near Crenshaw High School. May 2011.

The role of curriculum in school "turnaround" efforts is not often acknowledged, which is why I wanted to write this piece, about Crenshaw High School in South L.A. The school has struggled with difficult demographics, constant administrative turnover, and persistently low test scores. But the district has now empowered a group of activist teachers at Crenshaw to enact an unusual reform agenda, in which an interdisciplinary, problem-solving curriculum built around social challenges in South L.A. is married to more traditional goals, such as raising standards through the national Common Core:

Last semester, the 10th-grade Social Justice Academy focused on school improvement across L.A. For their final project, students had to analyze a data set that included test scores at various schools; neighborhood income levels; school truancy rates; and incarceration rates.

In math, students graphed the relationship between income and social opportunity in various south L.A. neighborhoods. In social studies, they read conservative and liberal proposals for school reform and practiced citing data in their own written arguments about how to improve education. In science, students designed experiments that could test policy hypotheses about how to improve education. And in English class, they readOur America, a work of narrative non-fiction about life in the Ida B. Wells housing projects on the South Side of Chicago. …

What’s controversial about the Crenshaw reform agenda is that it is explicitly political. It asks students to think critically about the social forces shaping their lives and to work actively to improve their low-income neighborhood. Poor children often hear that they need to do well in school in order to escape their communities. What if, instead, kids understood that doing well in school could help them become more effective advocates for their families and neighbors?

I first learned about Crenshaw through Alex Caputo-Pearl, a 19-year veteran social studies teacher and faculty leader at the school. Alex was actually part of Teach for America's very first class of recruits, in 1990, the year he graduated from Brown University. Since then, he has demonstrated an extraordinary level of commitment to social justice-oriented school reform in L.A., agitating for change within the teachers' union as a member of the Progressive Educators for Change caucus, helping to organize parents to demand better services in low-income neighborhoods, and now working with a group of colleagues to overhaul Crenshaw's curriculum.

(And here's why union representation can be so crucial for teachers: As a reward for his efforts, Alex was branded a troublemaker by the district in 2006, and transferred against his will to an affluent elementary school across town. Students, parents, and the teachers’ union protested. He was reinstated.)

After making contact with Alex about a year ago, I was able to visit Crenshaw last May and sit in on a day of teacher professional development training for the new curriculum I discuss in the article. I hope to visit L.A. again this spring and next fall to track Crenshaw's progress over time. In the meantime, check out the whole piece, at Zocalo Public Square.

Remnants of the Twentieth Century City, Newark

Here are some images of downtown Newark, NJ on the day I reported this story, about Cory Booker and Chris Christie's efforts to convince teachers and other white-collar professionals to move to the neighborhood. 

This is the retail corridor along Market Street, walking from Penn Station to the area of the proposed SOMA development.

Market Street, Newark 


The art deco Paramount Theater, opened in 1886 and shuttered in 1986. It was sold in 2007 for $2 million, but has yet to be developed. You can check out the gorgeous interior, which is set to be demolished, here

Historic Paramount Theater 

Turning south onto Halsey Street, approaching the site of the proposed SOMA and Teachers' Village developments. The building below will be demolished to make way for new construction by Richard Meier. (See renderings of the project here and here.)

Remnant of the 20th century, Halsey Street 

The future of these handsome buildings, some of them abandoned, remains in question. A lot depends on whether the SOMA developers can attract enough financing to the project.

SOMA, Teachers' Village border 

This is 17 Williams Street, a historic building next to the Teachers' Village site that is set to be rehabilatated. Here in 1939, the book Alcoholics Anonymous was written by Dr. Bob Smith, in an office donated by his friend Bill Wilson, a publisher.

17 William Street, historic building set to be refurbished 

A wall.

Halsey Street wall

Bill Gates Really Has Evolved on Teacher Quality

I heard some push back last month when I praised Bill Gates for adopting a more holistic view of teacher evaluation, one focused less on student test scores and more on peer review and continuous improvement. But today he's signaling his evolution on these ideas in the loudest way possible, by publishing an op-ed in the New York Times that argues against releasing teachers' value-added scores to the public–a policy the Bloomberg administration and Arne Duncan support–and in favor of using value-added as just one measure of teacher effectiveness (emphasis added):

Many districts and states are trying to move toward better personnel systems for evaluation and improvement. Unfortunately, some education advocates in New York, Los Angeles and other cities are claiming that a good personnel system can be based on ranking teachers according to their “value-added rating” — a measurement of their impact on students’ test scores — and publicizing the names and rankings online and in the media. But shaming poorly performing teachers doesn’t fix the problem because it doesn’t give them specific feedback.

Value-added ratings are one important piece of a complete personnel system. But student test scores alone aren’t a sensitive enough measure to gauge effective teaching, nor are they diagnostic enough to identify areas of improvement. Teaching is multifaceted, complex work. A reliable evaluation system must incorporate other measures of effectiveness, like students’ feedback about their teachers and classroom observations by highly trained peer evaluators and principals.

Of course, the Gates Foundation is not abandoning value-added entirely; it continues to commit its own resources to developing value-added as an evaluation tool, in part by creating new, more stable student assessments, and in part by researching what combination of evaluation tools–both qualitative and quantitative–are least volatile and most predictive. But given Gates' history of statements on teaching, it's no longer credible to argue he hasn't evolved significantly in a direction most classroom teachers support: toward multiple measures of teacher quality.

For those interested in how to perform high quality classroom observations of teachers, I'll be moderating a panel on the subject on March 27 in New York, based on this paper by my colleagues at the New America Foundation, and featuring both researchers and educators. More info soon. 

Further Thoughts on Homeschooling, Liberalism, and Special-Needs Kids

I’ve been overwhelmed and gratified by the huge response to my Slate essay on secular, liberal homeschooling—especially Astra Taylor’s deeply thought rebuttal at N+1, which I highly recommend. Taylor maintains that her original piece was not prescriptive: that she does not believe progressive homeschooling is practical or right for all children, simply that considering its benefits—its child-centered ideology and disdain for testing—is a useful thought experiment when contemplating how to improve education broadly. 

To me, the salient question is how we get from point A) a public school system that isn’t doing a good enough job educating many kids, especially the neediest, to point B) a public school system that is more equitable and higher quality. Does the increasing prominence of homeschooling—both in terms of raw numbers of families joining the movement and homeschooling’s growing role in the political debate over education—serve this purpose? I continue to believe it does not, because it is difficult to improve an institution without broad buy-in into it.

Furthermore, I’m concerned that the deep cynicism about public education reflected in Taylor’s original N+1 essay and other statements from progressive homeschoolers and unschoolers–in which schools are compared to prisons and public school educators are depicted as vicious enforcers of class and race hierarchies–only serves to lessen support for this crucial social institution. 

I received dozens of emails since Slate published my piece, most from politically liberal parents eager to share stories of how homeschooling allows their own children to flourish through field trips, hands-on projects, and curricula molded to their quirky interests. Others told me they believe their child’s special physical, emotional, or intellectual needs can not be adequately served by schools; this is a wrenching challenge for millions of families with special-needs children, and one I should have acknowledged in my piece. (Later in this essay, I’ll address special education at greater length.)

But my Slate piece was not about the benefits or drawbacks of homeschooling for particular families or children. Rather, my piece was about the educational needs of society at-large. To clarify my own position, I do not think homeschooling should be illegal, and I acknowledge it may be the best option for a relatively small population of disabled and special-needs kids. My own belief is that when it comes to the typical child, however, homeschooling does not comport with crucial social justice values related to investing in the common good, and so I’d urge parents concerned with social justice—both broadly and in terms of their own children’s development—to think twice about making this choice.

The debate the article sparked, especially on the left, illuminates a deeper divide: What kind of liberalism does one subscribe to—one primarily concerned with the common good, or one primarily concerned with individual rights? Obviously a good society is made up of a careful, Rawlsian balancing of both these interests. But I believe American liberalism weighs private interests and “choice” too heavily, and that our society would be strengthened by more shared institutions and experiences, including in education.

Though just about 2 million children are homeschooled—compared to 55 million children in the public school system—homeschoolers are amazingly well organized, and have successfully lobbied many in the Republican Party to abandon their previous support for education spending and for federal and even state school improvement efforts. As secular progressives join the homeschooling movement in greater numbers, perhaps they will disassociate it somewhat from its outright hostility toward public education and efforts to improve it; one need not participate in a public institution to support it politically.

Yet as the political theorist Corey Robin deftly noted in our Twitter exchange about homeschooling, the social programs with the deepest support in the United States are those, like Medicare and Social Security, into which we all invest. In other Western democracies that have a history of greater public investment in education—and histories of greater respect for schooling and intellectual activity more generally—homeschooling and even private schooling is practically unheard of. Those cultural differences are why, as the New York Times reported last week, affluent, foreign-born parents in New York City enroll their children in public schools at nearly double the rate of native-born Americans in the same income bracket.

To respond directly to Taylor’s critique of my piece, I will admit to a romantic strain of thinking in some of my writing on public education. Looking back on the public schools I’ve chosen to report on over the past few years, from Newark to Queens to Denver, it’s true that I consistently visit excellent ones. In part, this is because I am eager to share best practices in the hope they can be replicated; in part, on an ideological level, I want to push back against “Waiting for Superman”-like thinking, in which charter schools are misrepresented as the only public schools helping low-income children transcend the economic conditions into which they were born. 

That said, I try to stay vigilant about policing Pollyannaish tendencies in my work, knowing I come from a family of public school educators and that I had a generally positive public school experience in a district that was (and remains) in many ways unusual. To this end, my first long-form magazine feature about education entailed revisiting my hometown to confront an issue Taylor brings up in her rebuttal to my piece: the problematic history of de facto tracking by race and class in integrated public schools.

But the fact of the matter is, if there’s one reason to feel romantic about American public education, it’s that the public school system is required to educate all children, regardless of disability-status, behavioral problems, or whether or not they have parents actively engaged in their child’s education. Here is Section One of Title XI of the New York State Constitution:

The legislature shall provide for the maintenance and support of a system of free common schools, wherein all the children of this state may be educated.

The history of American public education is a history of efforts to make good on the Common School movement’s promise of universal, quality education. The Education and Secondary Education Act, signed into law by President Johnson in 1965, gave the federal government a new, aggressive role in supplementary funding for the education of disadvantaged children. When Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 1975, it prevented states and districts from excluding special-needs children from public education.

It would be a farce to claim all public schools are doing a good-enough job at serving special-needs kids. But at least within the public system, parents have legal recourse when they believe their children are not being adequately served. In New York City, for example, there’s a fantastic organization called Advocates for Children that provides disabled kids, low-income kids, foster kids, and other disadvantaged populations with attorneys to represent their interests in confrontations with the public schools.

This is in marked contrast to the homeschooling cooperatives and radical “free schools” I discuss in my Slate piece, in which “problem” children may be completely excluded. In the Brooklyn preschool cooperative Sonia Songha joined, “things got ugly” after the teacher suggested one child needed an individual aide, a common service public schools provide to kids on the autism spectrum, for example, or who are hearing-impaired. As parents in the co-op fought over whether to hire and how to fund an aide, two families pulled out.

And while the private Albany Free School Taylor visits in her N+1 essay is a fascinating (though, as Taylor admits, un-scalable) experiment in social-justice oriented education, it is not required to educate all children. Taylor writes:

At the time of my visit the staff had just dismissed a student for the first time in the school’s history. The boy, 10 years old and extremely large for his age, was angry and aggressive, intimidating and hitting his classmates without provocation. His peers knew his home life was tough, but their empathy didn’t deter him from terrorizing them. The whole community—teachers and students—held a meeting and, after discussing the issue at length, voted to have him leave.

Public school teachers and students are not allowed to vote any child out of a school.

Last spring I reported from Providence, Rhode Island and met Betsy Blanchette, a public school psychologist who specializes in working with children on the autism spectrum. Because the state of Rhode Island is required to provide free services to all disabled kids, Blanchette spends her day shuttling between up to six schools, some of them private schools, where she meets with students for counseling and with parents and teachers to design plans to educate special-needs children.

In 2010, Blanchette won an award as educator of the year from the Asperger’s Association of New England. She was nominated by the parents of a high-functioning autistic first-grader whose small private school had become overwhelmed by his needs. Reluctantly, the parents approached the Providence public schools for help; Blanchette was assigned to the case. She began meeting with the boy once a week to work on basic social skills, like how to interpret physical mannerisms or stay calm if a teacher “redirects”—changes directions for an activity mid-stream, a very confusing thing for a child on the autism-spectrum to understand, since they tend to be highly-literal and rules-oriented. Blanchette encouraged the family to enroll their son in public school, and then convinced the district to hire a full-time aide to attend class alongside the boy. Today he is in a fifth-grade inclusion classroom and doing well.

In this case, only the public school system had the expertise, resources, and legal responsibility to serve this particular child. And at the end of the day, that’s why homeschooling is severely limited as an education reform thought-experiment. Because the vast majority of two-income and single-parent families will never be able to homeschool or afford private school, we need to pursue educational equality within the confines of the public school system we have—a system that is constantly struggling, in a legally-accountable way, to balance the needs of individual children with the needs of the community at-large. The more of us engage in this struggle, by enrolling our kids in public schools and supporting public schools politically, the better these institutions will be.

Update: I forgot to mention that a few homeschoolers wrote to me saying they also believe investing in the common good is very important, so despite pulling their kids out of public schools, they have them volunteer, visit cultural institutions, and do other activities related to giving back. This is great, but again, this is the private liberalism of piecemeal philanthropy, not the sort of public liberalism I support, in which we build strong, shared social institutions capable of systemically addressing poverty.

Update 2: Yes, of course the choice of where to live, in terms of moving to a "better" school district, severely impacts educational equality and buy-in to the common good, as well–and is far more common than homeschooling. Click here and here to learn about ways to lessen the negative impact of residential segregation on schooling.

Update 3: A really smart response to the debate, from my friend Sara Mead.

“Progressive Homeschooling” is an Oxymoron

My new piece at Slate is a response to Astra Taylor's fascinating N+1 essay on "unschooling."

…[an] overheated hostility toward public schools runs throughout the new literature on liberal homeschooling, and reveals what is so fundamentally illiberal about the trend: It is rooted in distrust of the public sphere, in class privilege, and in the dated presumption that children hail from two-parent families, in which at least one parent can afford (and wants) to take significant time away from paid work in order to manage a process—education—that most parents entrust to the community at-large.

Take, for instance, Sonia Songha’s New York Times account of forming a preschool cooperative with six other brownstone-Brooklyn mothers, all of whom “said our children had basically never left our sides.” Indeed, in a recent Newsweek report, the education journalist Linda Perlstein noted a significant number of secular homeschoolers are also adherents of attachment parenting, the perennially controversial ideology defined by practices such as co-sleeping with one’s child and breast-feeding for far longer than typical, sometimes well beyond toddlerhood. Meanwhile, in suburban New Jersey, one “hippy” homeschooler told the local paper she feared exposing her kids to the presumably negative influences of teachers and peers. “I didn’t want my child being raised by someone else for eight hours out of the day,” she said.

Recent reports of teachers and teachers' aides in Los Angeles and New York molesting children only flame the fans of such fears. But these stories make news exactly because they are so rare; there's something creepy about giving in totally to terrors of the outside world harming one's child. In a country increasingly separated by cultural chasms—Christian conservatives vs. secular humanists; Tea Partiers vs. Occupiers—should we really encourage children to trust only their parents or those hand-selected by them, and to mistrust civic life and public institutions?

Slate pieces have a tight word limit, so I didn't have space to address Astra Taylor's discussion of the radical private school the Albany Free School, a 1960s holdover that embraces many of the practices of lefty homeschooling—the curriculum driven by children’s curiosity, the lack of strict discipline, the purposeful ignoring of state academic standards—while still offering students the social benefits of teachers and peers. The school serves some poor children, but it manages to do so by paying its teachers just $11,000 annually, a “stipend.” This is hardly a scalable model for national school reform. There simply aren't enough radical anarchist or trust-fund baby teachers willing to work for so little and also able to do a good job of it. Nationwide, 3.2 million teachers work in public schools; every day, about a sixth of the U.S. population either attends public school or goes to work inside public schools, which serve 90 percent of American children. 

Educating children–especially poor children–is ridiculously expensive. We need government involved to help foot the bill, and to bring best practices to scale.

Anyhow, I hope you head to Slate to check out the entire piece.

New Pieces by Me

In case you missed them Friday:

Obama Birth Control Compromise Defuses Religion Issue – The Daily Beast
The president made a common sense compromise—but the flare-up reveals an absurdity of America’s health-care system, in which a woman’s boss is involved in her sex life.

Cory Booker and Chris Christie: Teachers Should Live in Downtown Newark - The Nation
Politicians and developers try to lure 200 teachers to live in a struggling Newark neighborhood. Will it improve the quality of education?

Flânerie Lives! On Facebook, Sex, and the Cybercity

I've given some thought to flânerie–the practice of explorative urban strolling–and I found Evgeny Morozov's technophobic Sunday Times essay, in which he laments "the death of the cyberflâneur," an off-base interpretation of both flânerie and the state of the social web. Morozov argues that the increased speed, commercialization, and publicness of the Internet prevents the languid exploration epitomized by flânerie. "If today’s Internet has a Baron Haussmann, it is Facebook," Morozov complains, comparing the social networking site to the urban planner considered the Robert Moses of Paris–the champion of order over chaos, wide streets over winding alleys, standardization over serendipity. "Everything that makes cyberflânerie possible — solitude and individuality, anonymity and opacity, mystery and ambivalence, curiosity and risk-taking — is under assault by that company."

Morozov correctly notes that in the transition from Geocities and AIM to Facebook and Gchat, the Internet giants asked us to trade anonymity for authenticity, most obviously by using our real names. This makes flânerie impossible, Morozov claims, quoting the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, who wrote, "The art that the flâneur masters is that of seeing without being caught looking."

Seeing without being caught looking. Is there any better description for so much of what we do online? Admit it: You're well acquainted with your significant other's ex's Facebook page. You've dived deep into the search results for the name of the person you're dating, the job applicant you're interviewing, the prospective tenant or roommate. On the dating site OkCupid, you can even pay for the privilege of "enhanced anonymous browsing," in which you can see who checks out your profile, but no one can see which profiles you've looked at yourself. On Facebook, one of the most common spam bots promises to reveal who's been looking at your profile. It's so tempting! People click and the spam spreads, but it's a trick: Facebook conceals users' browsing histories from one another. 

Katha Pollitt described a somewhat earlier iteration of these practices in "Webstalker," her brilliant 2004 New Yorker essay:

After my lover left me, I went a little crazy for awhile. … at night, after my daughter was in bed, I would settle myself at the computer with a cup of coffee, and till one or two in the morning, I would browse the Internet, searching for information about him. Except "browse" is much too placid and leisured a word– a cow browses in a meadow, a reader browses in a library for a novel to take home for the weekend. What I did fell between zeal and monomania. I was like Javert, hunting him through the sewers of cyberspace, moving from link to link in the dark, like Spider-Man flinging himself over the shadowy chasm between one roof and another. 

Webstalking and flânerie have so much in common: nighttimes and sex, insomnia and social anxiety. The flâneur roamed the city in search of artistic inspiration, yes, but in search of women, too–hence Baudelaire's haunted images of prostitutes and young lovers emerging from the shadows. But the most important thing to realize about the flâneur is that he was a character; not a real person, but a "type," a fantasy of male bohemianism created by Baudelaire, Balzac, and the journalist Jules Janin. Just as we carefully curate our online presences today–tagging only the most flattering photographs, listing the favorite books and bands that prove our coolness–these men created the flâneur as an idealized version of themselves: a seductive master of the modern city, chronicling its decadence and delight without succumbing to its crass commercialism. 

Tome III intro artist, Pauquet

depiction of the flâneur from the coffee-table book Les Français peints par eux-mêmes: Encyclopedie moral du dix-neuvième siècle. 1839-1842. Courtesy Brown University Library

In reality, these young writers, like the flâneur protagonists of the novels Sentimental Education (Flaubert) and Lost Illusions (Balzac), were filled with self-recriminations about selling out artistically, going into debt, and failing to get the girl. All too often, flâneurs were penitents, shifting their political allegiances for the latest freelance journalism assignment and buying luxury goods on credit in order to impress women. Their urban world–like our cyberworld–was defined by the tensions between commercial, sexual, aesthetic, and political interests. 

                                                Comptoir Pauquet

drawing of flâneurs flirting with salesgirls at a luxury clothing shop, from Les Français peints par eux-mêmes. Courtesy Brown University Library

What's more, it isn't at all clear that flânerie was defined by anonymity or blending into the crowd. The literature of nineteenth century Paris is filled with examples of attention-whore flâneurs: young actors, aspiring writers, and political activists, all of whom–like so many Facebook users–outwardly signalled their bohemian credibility through fashion. The historian Della Pollock, contra Morozov and Bauman, describes flânerie as "observing well and…being well worth observing" in turn. Hence the flâneur's habit of going out to see and be seen at gathering places like the Tuileries gardens–a practice that, in contemporary life, might be best approximated by the interplay of our Twitter feeds and Tumblrs in the frantic, self-promotional world of the social web.


drawing of male urban types putting themselves on display for the crowds, from Paris and the Parisians in 1835, courtesy Brown University Library