Monthly Archives: March 2012

In Defense of Peter Beinart

Please head over to The Nation to read my essay on Beinart's important new book, The Crisis of Zionism:

Beinart accurately diagnoses the central challenge for the 21st century international Jewish community: how to come to terms with “the shift from Jewish powerlessness to Jewish power.” In other words, if Jews do not learn to wield our newfound military, political, and economic strength ethically—showing the same concern for Palestinian and Arab-Israeli minority rights that we hope gentiles will show for Jews—then we, as a people, have failed to learn the painful lessons of Jewish history.

What I found most revelatory about The Crisis of Zionism was the way in which Beinart appeals not just to Jewish political liberalism, but also to our faith. The holy books of Judaism are filled with portents about what happens when Jews abuse power, Beinart notes. After Persia’s Jews toppled Haman, the anti-Semitic royal advisor, they slaughtered 75,000 people in retribution; our texts recount that both the Babylonian and Roman destructions of Jewish empires came in the wake of Jewish moral decadence. “Our tradition insists that physical collapse was preceded by ethical collapse,” Beinart writes.

Read the whole thing.

Remembering Adrienne Rich

Here are my two favorite verses from 1976's "Twenty-One Love Poems:"


Where in this city, screens flicker
with pornography, with science-fiction vampires,
victimized hirelings bending to the lash,
we also have to walk…if simply as we walk
through the rainsoaked garbage, the tabloid cruelties
of our own neighborhoods.
We need to grasp our lives inseparable
from those rancid dreams, that blurt of metal, those disgraces,
and the red begonia perilously flashing 
from a tenement sill six stories high,
or the long-legged young girls playing ball
in the junior highschool playground.
No one has imagined us. We want to live like trees,
sycamores blazing through the sulfuric air,
dappled with scars, still exuberantly budding,
our animal passion rooted in the city.


Since we're not young, weeks have to do time
for years of missing each other. Yet only this odd warp
in time tells me we're not young.
Did I ever walk the morning streets at twenty,
my limbs streaming with a purer joy?
did I lean from any window over the city
listening for the future
as I listen here with nerves tuned for your ring?
And you, you move toward me with the same tempo.
Your eyes are everlasting, the green spark
of the blue-eyed grass of early summer,
the green-blue wild cress washed by the spring.
At twenty, yes: we thought we'd live forever.
At forty-five, I want to know even our limits.
I touch you knowing we weren't born tomorrow,
and somehow, each of us will help the other live,
and somewhere, each of us must help the other die.

“The Rent is Too Damn High” and Education

We know school desegregation is important because of a growing body of research showing that "peer effects" are correlated with better teacher quality and higher test scores for low-income children. So I've done a lot of reporting and writing about how public schools can racially and socioeconomically integrate classrooms, both through instructional reforms and by forging partnerships with other schools across the boundaries of neighborhoods and even muncipalities.

That said, school desegregation efforts are, at their core, a work-around for the problem of residential segregation by race and class. That's why I found my friend Matt Yglesias' new e-book, The Rent is Too Damn High, so fascinating. Matt argues for increasing the supply of affordable housing in central urban neighborhoods–the kinds of places with good or rapidly-improving public schools–by allowing real estate developers to build tall apartment towers, regardless of NIMBY concerns about historic preservation, aesthetics, or preserving sight lines. He also argues that inner-ring suburbs should reduce zoning barriers that make it impossible for developers to construct high-density, affordable housing near good schools.

Here's the crux of Matt's argument as it relates to education:

The United States is racked by a multisided and vicious series of controversies about improving learning outcomes in our public schools. One thing everyone can agree on is that it's neither logistically nor politically easy to achieve large improvements. But given that some schools are already performing better than others, this raises the question of why parents don't simply relocate to places with better schools. Many parents, of course, do relocate. It's common for afluent young couples to move out to the suburbs when their children reach the appropriate age. "Everyone knows" that poor families can't afford to do this. But we only rarely ask why poor families can't afford to move to nice suburbs. It's not because construction costs are higher in the suburbs. It's because it's frequently illegal to build the kind of dense apartment buildings that could accommodate lower-income families. Indeed, in higher-income suburbs, American regulatory policy often goes further and bans "accessory dwellings"–the practice of renting out a room a basement, garage, or attic to someone who's not a member of the family. 

Towns' reasons for wanting to zone out potentially "undesirable" low-income families are understandable, if not particularly admirable, but when exclusion occurs all across the country it becomes a major barrier to the delivery of high-quality public services.

Although I believe there is real cultural value in some historic preservation efforts, I generally agree with Matt that American urban liberals should worry less about preserving buildings and property values, and more about expanding access to quality education, transportation, and other services. 

I'd only add that politically, achieving greater residential integration may not totally solve the problem of school segregation. Some privileged parents feel so strongly about sending their children to schools dominated by racially and socioeconically similar children that they will do almost anything to preserve school segregation, including gerrymandering school zones; opening new schools for the "gifted;" suing to prevent school district consolidation; and so on and so forth. 

But Matt's thinking on the issue is creative and an important challenge to established policy assumptions. Check out the e-book here.

Event Announcement: Watching Teachers Work

In the wake of New York City's public release of teacher value-added reports, are you curious about more holistic ways to evaluate teachers and help them improve their practice? On Tuesday March 27, I'll be moderating a New America Foundation discussion on classroom observation, featuring NYC teachers and principals with real-life experience using classroom-based evaluation tools. 

WHO: The New America Foundation; educators from the Brooklyn New School, PS 77, and the Lenox Hill Neighborhood House; me
WHAT: Panel discussion on classroom observation and evaluation of teachers
WHEN: Tuesday March 27, 9-11 am
WHERE: NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, 60 Washington Square South, the Kimmel Center
RSVP: Required! Click here!

In the meantime, I will be on vacation for the next week. If you're starving for some eduwonkery while I'm gone, head over to The Nation to check out my interview with Lisa Delpit, the teacher and theorist behind the groundbreaking idea of "decoding" the "culture of power" for disadvantaged kids. 

Randi Weingarten on Teachers, Tests, and What Obama and Duncan Can Learn from Other Nations

When I talk about education with folks who aren't experts, but who are politically engaged, the person they ask me about most often is Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. They usually want to know if Weingarten is a "real" reformer who actually cares about the quality of schools, or if she is more of a traditional labor unionist; a political operator who has cagily moved to to the center–accepting new limitations on tenure protections, for example, and embracing more stringent teacher-evaluation protocols–only because the national education debate has shifted to become more critical of career teachers and their unions. 

I think the "real" Randi Weingarten is both of those things: a proud unionist who will fight to the death for her members' pocketbook benefits (including the old-fashioned benefits, like pensions, that are politically unpopular) and someone who thinks seriously about how to improve schools. I've interviewed her many times and written about her at length, and while I don't agree with all her issue positions, I always learn a lot when I speak with her. 

This week Weingarten was in New York for the second annual International Summit on the Teaching Profession, hosted by the OECD. Over at The Nation, I interviewed her about what the United States can learn about teaching from other nations–from Japanese "lesson study" to Singapore math–and why she believes the Obama administration needs to pay closer attention to international best practices in education reform. Here's a sample:

What do you hope Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his staff will take away from the summit, having heard that very few other nations are pursuing teacher reform strategies that are as test-driven as the kinds of reforms the Obama administration incentivized through Race to the Top?

I just hope they listen. I never doubt—and I know this will be controversial—but I never doubt their wish and hope and aspiration for transforming America’s educational system to ensure that there is both excellence and equity for all children. I don’t doubt them for a second. But it’s about the hows. The president is a very smart guy and he focuses on evidence. Here you have a lot of evidence about what works in other places.

America always pivots between collective responsibility and the idea that the individual can pull himself up by his bootstraps. What you see is that in education, you have to understand this notion of systems rather than individuals. Creating teacher capacity, teacher efficacy, and climates of trust are what enable all kids, rather than just some kids, to learn. If you want equity, you have to have a system that focuses on it. 

There was a real consensus at the summit. When nations were reporting their plans, you heard the buzzwords of collaboration and trust, of retainrecruitsupport. You didn’t hear market solutionscompetition, things like that.

Read the whole interview.

On Democrats and the Liberal Arts

My friend and colleague Rick Perlstein interviewed me for his latest Rolling Stone column, in which he argues Rick Santorum got one thing right in his otherwise counterfactual anti-college rant last month: Democratic presidents have a history of putting too much faith in the power of the liberal arts to lift people out of poverty:

Stick to your guns, Rick [Santorum]! The thing is, you exposed a poetic truth: While Obama might not push college education exclusively, like most Democrats he does oversell it, and does shortchange the alternatives. And millions of young Americans pay the price.

Here’s how. One of Lyndon Johnson's aides once joked that his boss so worshipped the power of education that "he seemed to think it would cure everything from chilblains to ingrown toenails." Barack Obama errs on the side of the chilblains theory of education, too. Most of us do, especially educated Democrats. Liberals tend to stress how marvelous education is, in and of itself, and also adore it as a vessel for genuine equality. (That's me, by the way: Hell, I think we should be spending $50 billion a year to make college education free.) Few of us take seriously enough the moral wisdom  of the great populist leader William Jennings Bryan, who said in the early twentieth century, a time when only six percent of Americans graduated high school, "I fear the plutocracy of wealth, I respect the aristocracy of learning, but I thank God for the democracy of the heart that makes it possible for every human being to do something to make life worth living while he lives and the world better for his existence in it."

Do you? Does Barack Obama? Not exactly. "The administration has done a good job of talking about, and even funding, career training for high-school graduates," says education expert Dana Goldstein of the New America Foundation. "What they will not do very much is talk about or fund career training for teens, even though there is good evidence that if you don't offer career and technical training via the public schools, you may lose people forever." A democracy of the heart that acknowledges there are simply some people who will never step into an academic classroom post-high school, and that this is alright, seems a bridge-to-the-twentieth-century too far for our schooling-mad politicians these days.

I agree with Perlstein, but I'd add that after the 1983 publication of "A Nation at Risk," many prominent Republicans embraced the notion that test-driven education reform can substitute for a broader anti-poverty agenda, and have thus adopted a similar faith in the miraculous power of education. This is the thinking behind No Child Left Behind. The entire Bush family, John McCain, Mitt Romney, John Boehner and many other  Republicans have subscribed to this ideology over the years, which I trace with greater precision in my recent Nation essay.

Read the rest of Rick's column here.

Republicans and the Education Culture Wars

In a new essay at The Nation, I trace the recent history of the Republican Party's school reform agenda, looking at how Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney started on the same side–pro-federal intervention–but ended up in drastically different places:

Judging by the applause lines at GOP campaign stops and debates this winter, a significant segment of the Republican electorate understands public education not as a crucial civic institution, nor as a potential path from poverty to the middle class, nor even as a means of individual betterment. Instead, this coalition of religious conservatives and extreme tax-cutters prefers to vilify public schools—and actually, pretty much any traditional educational institution, including liberal arts colleges—as potential corruptors of the nation’s youth; as unwanted interlocutors in that most sacred relationship: the one between a child and her parent.

It is a curious thing, because with some 90 percent of American children enrolled in public schools, there must be significant overlap between the consumers of public education and the approximately one-third of Americans who describe themselves as Tea Party–type conservatives. Never mind: It is clear that in the American political economy, there is nothing unusual about a voter hating and resenting a government program even while relying heavily upon it.

Rick Santorum’s presidential bid looks increasingly quixotic as we head toward Super Tuesday. He clearly represents only a minority of the Republican base. But what his surge made clear is that there was appeal in appointing a sort of national standard-bearer for the culture war against mainstream education, perhaps because anti-government voters could look up to Santorum, a homeschooling father of seven, as a man who actually lives their values. Disdain for schools has been everywhere in Santorum’s rhetoric, from his ad nauseam boasting about his own family’s homeschooling; to his assertion that government-run public schools are "anachronistic;" to his complaints about comprehensive sex education; to his counterfactual claim that President Obama is “a snob” who opposes vocational training and wants all Americans to be “indoctrinated” by liberal college professors.

Read the whole thing.