On “Show Me a Hero” and Suburban New York Poverty

show me a hero 2Via HBO, white people arguing about where non-white people should live.

At times it is unsubtle, but I generally like “Show Me a Hero,” the HBO miniseries from David Simon and Paul Haggis about the 1980s battle to integrate housing in the Westchester city of Yonkers.

Like Brentin Mock, I wish the NAACP, which sued Yonkers to locate affordable housing in traditionally white neighborhoods, was a bigger part of the story arc. Critics have also complained that the compassionately drawn public housing residents, many of them single mothers, are divorced from much of the political intrigue. Yet the absence of people of color in the scenes that depict local electoral politics rings true to me. I grew up in a nearby Westchester town called Ossining, with demographics similar to Yonkers. White ethnics were a slim majority, with public and affordable housing clustered close to the railroad tracks and Sing Sing prison. Though about 40 percent of Ossining was black and Latino when I was growing up, there were no black council members at the time I was paying attention, as a student journalist and stringer for a local paper in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Mayors were white. There were big debates about how to redevelop the village’s post-industrial waterfront, but there was limited, organized social justice activism on development questions, even though the black, Latino, and poor communities lived closest to the area slated for luxury apartmentsHundreds of families were on waiting lists for affordable housing while existing voucher housing was being transitioned to market-rate. Still, at one point the town’s NAACP chapter was decommissioned by the national organization for focusing more on national issues, such as Mumia Abu-Jamal, than on local ones. So to my eye, “Show Me a Hero” sketches many of the challenges around the suburbanization of poverty, especially the way in which outside of major cities, the infrastructure for progressive activism may not exist.

The show also reveals class tensions among whites. I particularly liked the recent scene where the Alfred Molina character, the anti-integration politician, talks smack to a youngish New York Times reporter who’s bugging him for an interview in a diner (and yes, diners are actually where important things happen in these Westchester towns). “Where do you live,” Molina asks him, “I bet on the Upper West Side or in Park Slope.” He lectures the reporter about how the judge who ordered housing desegregation and other affluent, liberal whites are more insulated from the problems of poverty than working class white people are in Yonkers. This reminded me of some of the folks I grew up around, who were civil servants, nurses, teachers, and owned small businesses. They were not eager to be exposed to what they saw as social dysfunction that they couldn’t afford to buy their way out of through private schooling. Note that when young Mayor Nick Wasicsko, the show’s accidental hero, is booted from office after belatedly supporting integration, he packs up his copy of Common Ground,  Anthony Lukas’ classic narrative of working class white opposition to school busing in Boston.

The show is making the point that the intergenerational poverty that white anti-integrationists feared living near was, in fact, a direct result of the geographic concentration of poverty that they fought to maintain. As I write in my book, desegregating neighborhoods and schools is an effective way of helping poor children become upwardly mobile, and does not tend to negatively affect the achievement of middle-class kids who come into contact with poor peers. If some of these social scientific facts are getting across to viewers of “Show Me a Hero,” I think the show is making a powerful contribution. The most important dialogue comes from the housing expert who wants to build townhomes at many different sites in Yonkers, instead of apartment complexes clustered together. He explains that the architecture of high-rise public housing fosters crime, because it is isolated from street retail and includes many internal no-man’s-lands that criminal organizations are able to exploit.

Separately, I think Oscar Isaac is wonderful as Nick Wasicsko, and totally transformed from his equally impressive portrayal of the folk singer Llewyn Davis. He captures both the self-involvement and charisma of a young, rising politician. My major pet peeves are that his wife is so sketchily drawn and that Winona Ryder, as another town politician, isn’t given more to do. I’m looking forward to the final two episodes.

“The Teacher Wars” in Paperback!


Dear readers, friends, and colleagues, 

Today my book, The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession, is available in paperback. I’m so grateful for how the book has been received. The hardcover debuted last September at #8 on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list. I was asked to speak about the book on the radio with Terry Gross and Leonard Lopate, at colleges, book festivals, union events, and in front of organizations that support tougher accountability for teachers. 

Along the way I learned so much from the debates the book sparked. My goal has never been to engage in “the teacher wars,” but to help end them. The problems we face today in child poverty, teacher training, and school segregation have their roots in history. And it is only when we understand the past that we can effectively struggle to transcend it, not by blaming teachers, but by remaking public policy in order to build a diverse, intellectually engaged teaching profession. 

The New York Times called The Teacher Wars “meticulously fair and disarmingly balanced.” The New Yorker called it “engaging,” and the San Francisco Chronicle “thorough and nuanced.” But the emails I’ve received from readers have meant just as much to me. Here is one that made my day: 

“I admire your well-researched, analytical approach to controversy, shifts in policy, hysteria, and overreactions. The recommendations you suggest in the epilogue are notable for their intelligence and for being unbeholden to any union or political agenda. From a nine year veteran of public education who has experienced more than a few of the challenges you articulate, thank you. Your book is a wonderful service to those who care about understanding public education.” - Jeremy Blaustein

I hope you’ll pick up a copy of the paperback, and if you enjoy it, that you’ll recommend it to others. 


On Giving Away the Ending

IMG_0879Half way through “Among the Ten Thousand Things,” a superbly written novel of middle-aged infidelity, author Julia Pierpont fast-forwards several decades and reveals what has happened to each of the central characters. This takes place in a 12-page interlude, after which the narrative picks up where it had left off. Justifying this breach of structural convention, Pierpont writes, “The end is never a surprise. People say, Don’t tell me, Don’t spoil it, and then later they say, If I’d only known.”

The drama in the first half of the book concerns whether Deb, a college dance teacher and former professional ballerina, will leave her long-philandering husband, Jack, an artist. Their two children have become aware of Jack’s affair with a young sycophant, something Deb had known about for months, but had convinced herself she could get over. Now she is forced to decide whether teaching her children about the value of commitment and self-worth and dignity is worth disrupting her own comfortable life.

The fast-forward answers the question of whether Deb and Jack stay married. And for me, it presented a problem. After reading it, I lost interest in finishing the book. I put it down and didn’t pick it up again for over a week.

I’m glad I did, because it is a pleasure to read Pierpont. She is strongest and most cutting when in the milieus of Jack and Deb’s work. One of my favorite sequences takes place in the second half of the book, when Jack visits an Arizona college that has commissioned a sculpture from him. Forced to attend a dingy reception in his honor with grad students and faculty, Jack knows, “A reception was an evaluation he hadn’t wanted, his career laid out in rows of weak, sweet supermarket wine, prepoured a third of the way, his worth measured in cheapie plastic cups on a tablecloth made of hospital gown…He neighed every time, on cue.”

Yet the majority of the latter portion of the novel, after the fast-forward, takes place in coastal Rhode Island, where Deb and the children have escaped Jack’s perfidy to a rundown vacation home. Deb is ostensibly deciding whether to stay with Jack, but we, the readers, already know the choice she will make. These scenes, though expertly crafted, were too familiar: teenage Simon’s assignations with a lunch counter waitress, 11-year old Kay’s anger at her warring parents, Deb’s flirtation with her husband’s friend. This is the stuff of ten thousand other bourgeois narratives. I missed the sharpness of the scenes that took place in New York City, shaded by unrealized artistic ambition. In her twenties, Deb had been a corps member with the City Ballet, never ascending to soloist, and had used her first pregnancy as a way to gracefully let go of the career she had prepared for since childhood. Now, teaching a group of Barnard undergraduate dancers, she is wary: “To encourage them would feel like a lie, because really, she didn’t approve, wanted to whisper in their ears: Quit now. Better off spending time in economics or history, pre-med, pre-law, pre-anything. To watch them try depressed her.”

Unlike Deb, Jack seems to be an original and uniquely talented (though not totally successful) artist, which is one reason why Deb fell for him. Her struggle is realizing, as Pierpont memorably puts it, that how good someone is at admirable work does not necessarily correspond with how good they are as a human being — how worth loving and sacrificing for. This tension between admiration and commitment propels the plot, so while I admire Pierpont’s audacity in “giving away” the ending halfway through, I can’t ultimately support it. The book’s strongest themes recede in its second half and give way to a far less fascinating story.

Class Warfare at the Beach?

This Ginia Bellafante column railing against the new gourmet food court at Jacob Riis beach is, in my view, wrongheaded. So what if affluent people enjoy taking the ferry to this public park and purchasing oysters when they get there? The beach is also accessible by subway, public bus, and car. And as Bellafante notes, there is a large area for grilling and picnicking, which is typically filled with black and Latino families. She claims that the split between the food court and the grill area makes this a “segregated” beach, and somehow also manages to blame helicopter parenting: “the constant prodding of children toward achievement, the endless roundelay of enrichments that begins at conception, the eviscerating process of admission to a suitable college when, really, it will all end here, in a hangover on a boat to the beach where the only corrective is more to drink.”

When I was a kid growing up in the New York area, my middle class white family never went to city beaches. We drove out to Long Island or Connecticut and were surrounded by people much like ourselves. I’m glad New York beach culture has evolved. It would be one thing to call for a Nathan’s hot dog stand at the new food court. Come to think of it, that’s a great idea. But the worst thing for a city is when its more privileged residents abandon its public places: its beaches, its parks, its schools. That is segregation. In 2015 at Jacob Riis park, New Yorkers of every type are enjoying the scenery, sunbathing, and swimming together. That leads to investment in our public sphere. And if quality, fresh food helps draw people, that’s a good thing.

Birth Control is a Class Issue: On Ricki Lake’s New Documentary

About six years ago, I began crying everyday around 3 pm. I’d be sitting at my desk in my downtown Washington, D.C. office, and would feel hazy and distracted. Then I’d get choked up. By the time I took the elevator to the lobby and started walking around the block outside, desperate for privacy, I was sniffling and my eyes were spilling over. At the time, I was in my mid-twenties. I’d been on anti-depressants as a young teenager, but hadn’t felt clinically depressed in over a decade. Six months earlier my longterm relationship had ended, but I was by then basically fine. So why was I crying every single day? Not knowing was deeply weird.

Eventually I remembered that I had recently switched from one birth control pill to another. I switched back, and sure enough, the 3 pm crying ended, pretty much immediately.

So you don’t have to convince me the pill can have side effects. I get it. I’ve probably tried 10 different prescriptions over the years in the search for the one that works best for me. None were perfect.

I’m thinking about this because a friend recently forwarded me a crowd-funding page for “Sweetening the Pill,” an anti-hormonal birth control documentary by Ricki Lake and Abby Epstein, the team behind the home-birth manifesto “The Business of Being Born.” Here’s their promotional video for the new birth control project:

The film will be based on a book by Holly Grigg-Spall, also called Sweetening the Pill. (I haven’t read it, but Lindsay Beyerstein has a smart and critical take at Slate.) I’m guardedly excited about the conversation this film could start. When I started to learn about fertility awareness, I was angry that I was never taught – sorry to be graphic – about how fertility is indicated through cervical mucus and body temperature. These are basic facts about female biology, and it is a serious failure of mainstream sex education that most young women are only passingly familiar with them.

But I’m also anxious about this documentary, not least because it’s sure to get a lot of attention, and this team’s last effort was more of a one-note attack on traditional obstetrics than a balanced take on women’s options for labor and delivery.  My problem with the documentary’s promotional material so far isn’t just the reflexive defense of the “natural,” as Amanda Marcotte notes at Slate— even though what’s natural isn’t always what’s best for women or anyone else. The truth is, one shouldn’t really talk about birth control in America without acknowledging that abortion is becoming less and less accessible to poor women, those who can’t afford to travel to access medical care. Just last month, a federal appeals court issued a ruling that would effectively shut down 80 percent of Texas abortion providers. Women are being prosecuted for helping their daughters access abortion pills, or for ordering them for themselves.

Against this backdrop, let’s remember that hormonal birth control is 90 to 99.5 percent effective, according to the CDC. In comparison, the male condom – which is controlled by men – has an 18 percent failure rate under typical use, while the failure rate for natural family planning is 24 percent. When birth control fails and abortion is inaccessible, the result can be forced pregnancy.

I’ve read Taking Charge of Your Fertility, the classic book by Toni Weschler about fertility awareness, the method the Lake/Epstein documentary promotes. Weschler acknowledges that it’s mostly more affluent, highly-educated women who have been interested in her system, which entails charting one’s physical signs day by day in order to track fertility cycles, whether to avoid or achieve pregnancy. It’s easier to remember to take your temperature in bed, at the same time every morning, if you work one job instead of two; if your work hours are regular; if you don’t work the night shift; and if you have a partner who can hop up to grab the crying baby. (To be sure, fertility apps are beginning to make some of this a little easier, but this type of technology is also disproportionately used by the well educated and affluent.) A failure rate of 24 percent is no joke. If I use natural family planning and get pregnant by accident, I am okay with getting an abortion or having a baby. But a woman with fewer resources may have fewer options.

I hope this new documentary acknowledges that.

What Is Justice For Kids Who Kill?

My new feature story is a partnership between The Marshall Project and Slate. It’s a longread about a 14-year old boy, Kahton Anderson, charged with murder as an adult. You may remember him from last year’s tabloid coverage: He was a middle school kid who got involved in street crews and shot an innocent man on a Brooklyn bus. This spring, he went on trial. A bill currently in front of the New York legislature would reform the legal landscape for kids charged as adults in criminal court, so this heartbreaking story is especially timely.

In 2012, Kahton Anderson found a gun.

The .357 Magnum, a revolver with a silver barrel, was hidden inside the radiator in the kitchen of the apartment Kahton shared with his mother and two siblings in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. Kahton said he had watched his older brother, Lakim, hide the gun there.

At first, Kahton, who was 12 at the time, only looked at the gun in its hiding place. But he quickly got to know the weapon better, removing it from the radiator, toying with it, and taking pictures of himself holding it. “If I could get some bullets for this mag, we would clear a lot of shit out,” he boasted to a friend on Facebook. By March 2013, Kahton was writing, “When beef come, we ready!”

A year later, this boy, with this gun, would take an innocent man’s life on a New York City bus. The case was easy fodder for the tabloids, which quickly dubbed Kahton a “fiend” and “thug.” It also raised some of the most difficult and pressing questions in criminal justice.

Read the whole piece.

New Reviews and An Excerpt

Hey, look! It’s The Teacher Wars on the cover of The New York Review of Books!Screen Shot 2014-11-16 at 3.49.00 PM

Pick it up at your favorite local bookstore or newsstand. (If you have a subscription, you can read the thoughtful and generous review essay, by historian Jonathan Zimmerman, online.) Also this week, The Teacher Wars hit the pages of the Los Angeles Review of Books and Boston Review.

Lastly, The American Prospect published an excerpt from Chapter 6 about the National Teacher Corps, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s version of Teach for America.

“The Teacher Wars” Across the Country and in the News

The Teacher Wars has just gone into its fifth hardcover printing, and I have a number of exciting events coming up.

On November 10 I’ll be in Durham at North Carolina State University, delivering the “American Ideals” lecture.

On November 12 I’ll be at Yale Law School and the university’s Calhoun College.

On November 17, Ezra Klein will be interviewing me about the book on stage at Sixth & I in Washington, D.C.

And on November 23, I’ll be at the Miami Book Fair speaking with two authors I admire greatly, Bryan Stevenson and Randall Kennedy.

You can also check out new interviews with me in the Dallas Morning News, U.S. News and World Report, and on these two episodes of the fantastic American RadioWorks podcast with host Emily Hanford.

On My Favorite Books, and the Similarities Between Journalism and Teaching

Thanks to Kaylen Ralph of The Riveter for asking me some really thought-provoking questions in our interview about The Teacher Wars.

You come from a family of pubic school educators. Did you ever consider becoming one yourself? How did you end up in journalism?

I’ve known since I was a very little girl that I wanted to be a writer, and since about third grade that I wanted to be a journalist. My parents subscribed to The New York Times and Newsweek, and my heroines were the female op-ed columnists of the 1990s, like Anna Quindlen. My path into the profession was fairly typical. I worked on my high school and college newspapers, did internships in daily journalism and magazines, and then moved to Washington, D.C. after graduation and worked at a small political magazine, The American Prospect. I learned so much at the Prospect, working alongside Ezra Klein, Ann Friedman, Adam Serwer, and a lot of other writers and editors I am still proud to call friends and colleagues. We were really idealistic about doing political journalism that was as much about policy and big ideas as it was about personalities.

Who are some education reporters you admire? I’m thinking of Athelia Knight’s Pulitzer-nominated series about life in McKinley High School from 1987. Who inspired you while you were training as a journalist?

When I first started reporting on education at the Prospect, in 2007, I read The Children in Room E4 by Susan Eaton. It’s a fabulous book that combines journalism, legal writing, and history to explain how school segregation impacts real kids in Hartford.

The Big Test is an intellectual and cultural history of the SAT by Nicholas Lemann, which also tackles the contemporary debate over how standardized test scores should be used in college admissions. Lemann is a journalist who writes fantastically compelling narrative history featuring real people. He was someone I thought about a lot as I wrote my own book. What he also does really well is situate education within American politics and culture. I tried to do that in The Teacher Wars. The school reform debate can become consumed in minutae, and it’s always a challenge to remember to zoom out. Schools are social institutions within larger economic and political systems.

Just as teachers aren’t paid enough, many would argue that journalists aren’t, either. Do you think there’s a connection between the two roles? Why are they both undervalued?

I am very lucky, as a journalist, to feel fairly compensated for my work at this point in my career. Though I do admit in the book that my first full-time job in journalism paid $21,000–less than an entry-level teacher earns! I was lucky to come from an upper middle-class family and to not have student loans. So I could afford to work for very little, at least for awhile.

The downward pressure on journalists’ pay is driven by technological change and the collapse of the advertising-driven profit model that has sustained the industry since the 19th century. So far, stagnant teacher pay has been driven by different forces, such as austerity policies in the public sector, and also by pay scales and ladders that require people to work for many decades before reaching a decent salary.

Some people believe, or even hope, that technology will exercise a similar pressure on teaching, by making online learning more viable, requiring fewer teachers, and then causing more competition and allowing for higher teacher pay. I’m skeptical because I think, ultimately, parents will demand real live teachers for their real live children. People used to think the television and the VHS would transform public education. They did not.

I feel optimistic about both journalism and teaching. In a way, they are both service professions aimed at creating a more knowledgeable public. The world keeps getting more complex and the technology for disseminating information keeps improving. This is good for both education and journalism. Both jobs require smart people–teachers and journalists–to analyze and translate all this information.

Taken at face value, the title of your book has connotations of internal strife amongst teachers…do you think this is a problem? Do teachers have a “we’re in this together” outlook outside of their union?

The title is certainly open to interpretation. My way of thinking about The Teacher Wars is that we’ve always been debating, arguing, and fighting about the role of teachers in American public life, dating back to the birth of our common schools system in about 1830. There is not one war with two sides. It’s a melee! And everyone is drafted in this battle, from teachers to parents to politicians to social scientists to students themselves.

Read the whole interview.