Category Archives: Class

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.

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 We Know About Michael Brown’s High School

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Normandy High is deeply racially segregated. It has a staggeringly high suspension rate. The school’s curriculum has little rigor. And Michael Brown was one of just 58 percent of his classmates who graduated.

After Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri on Saturday, his mother, Lesley McSpadden, said: “Do you know how hard it was for me to get him to stay in school and graduate? You know how many black men graduate? Not many.”

We know Brown’s alma mater, Normandy High, has struggled to remain accredited, and that Brown was enrolled in a special program there to help at-risk kids finish their coursework. I was curious about the school’s curriculum and disciplinary strategies, so this morning, I checked out the federal Department of Education’s civil rights database.

In 2011, the last year for which data is available, Normandy had 1,064 students. Ninety-eight percent were black and 74 were percent low-income. Those deeply segregated demographics aren’t surprising. According to the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, while less than a third of the population of the St. Louis region is black, 73 percent of black children there attend schools that are 50 to 100 percent black, and more than half of black children are in schools that are over 90 percent black. Nationwide, only Pittsburgh has deeper black-white school segregation than St. Louis.

At Normandy in 2011, just four students took calculus, while 33 took physics. There was only one AP class offered, which 12 students enrolled in — but zero actually sat for an AP exam. And there were 476 students who received out-of-school suspensions, most of whom were suspended more than once. That means 45 percent of Normandy students were suspended in 2011; indeed, the school has the highest discipline rate in the St. Louis region.  We know schools that aggressively suspend have higher dropout rates and more students involved in the criminal justice system than schools that suspend less often, even when demographic traits are held constant.

Lastly, the graduation rate at Normandy High School is 58 percent, compared to an average of 80 percent in the state of Missouri.

 

How College Contributes to Inequality

Check out my Atlantic interview with political scientist Suzanne Mettler, who is doing some of the best thinking on exploding college tuition, student debt, and for-profit colleges. 

Should we pay attention to those studies about how little money liberal arts grads earn in their first year out of college?

With the liberal arts, there’s long-term payoff. By the time you are 40, you are doing much better. As a college professor, I could ruminate on that. There’s been a reframing of higher education in the media in the last few years. The media looks at higher unemployment among college grads and says, ‘Maybe a college degree is not worth it.’ That’s wrong. You’re always better off to try and get more four-year college degree recipients. But then of course, we have to look at what sector of education are people attending? Is it a valuable degree?

Your book suggests that in many cases, people are better off not going to college at all than attending a for-profit college. 13 percent of college students are now enrolled at for-profits, yet they make up nearly 50 percent of student loan defaults. The industry says this is because they take a risk on less well-prepared students. They blame the students themselves when they drop out or fail to get decent jobs. What did your research turn up?

No. That’s an inadequate explanation. To the contrary, there are various scholars who’ve looked at this. As I show in my book, students who grow up high income and have low test scores are about as likely as students who are low income with high test scores to graduate college. What I’m trying to emphasize is the financial part of it. The major reason why students drop out and don’t complete college has to do with finances and with their varied ability to stay enrolled and afford it. That’s true across the board, whatever kind of institution the student is attending.

At the for-profits, the graduation rates are 22 percent. We know schools with more low-income students are going to have lower graduation rates. Studies control for that factor and still find particularly low graduation rates at the for-profits. They don’t have student support services and they don’t emphasize learning. They charge very high tuition. You could get the same kind of degree at a community college or four-year public for a much lower cost.

Read the whole thing

Jacob Riis, School Reformer

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Essex Market School, the East Side. By Jacob Riis, ca. 1888-1895.

I just caught this poignant essay at the New York Times about How the Other Half Lives, Jacob Riis' 1890 exposé of day-to-day life in New York City tenements. Bill de Blasio mentioned Riis during his inaugural address, and the book — which depicted urban squalor through vivid, flash photography (a new technology at the time) — is credited with sparking the movement toward modern sanitation laws and housing regulations. 

What's less well known is that Riis' exploration of poverty in New York City turned him into an education reformer — one who sounded a whole lot like today's teacher accountability hawks. His follow-up to How the Other Half Lives was a volume called The Children of the Poor. Here's a litte excerpt from my forthcoming book, The Teacher Wars (Doubleday, Sept. 2014), about the familiar arguent Riis made in that book:

Riis acknowledged the systemic constraints on immigrant children’s lives. The United States lacked strong anti-child labor laws and relied mostly on overextended local charities, many with a proselytizing religious mission, to provide the poor with health care and jobs training. There was no public support for sanitary affordable housing and far too little government funding for truant officers who were supposed to encourage child workers to enroll in school. (In New York City, Riis found that a paltry 12 officers were responsible for tracking 50,000 absent children between the ages of 5 and 14, many of them homeless.) Nevertheless, like today’s accountably reformers, Riis considered teachers the determining factor in whether a child escaped poverty. He wrote that schools are “our chief defense against the tenement and the flood of ignorance with which it would swamp us. … it is the personal influence of the teacher that counts for most in dealing with the child. It follows it into the home, and often through life to the second and third generation, smoothing the way of sorrow and hardship with counsel and aid in a hundred ways.” 

Is Giftedness Real?

Check out the latest episode of Schooled, my Slate podcast:

Is your child “gifted”? What does that even mean? Some schools use old-fashioned IQ tests to identify gifted students. Others use teacher recommendations. A few schools are ending gifted programs altogether and are trying to implement gifted-level instruction for all kids. Which of these methods is fair? What should schools do to make sure that gifted tracks aren’t an option only for socio-economically advantaged children? In this episode, I talk to Sandy Darity, a researcher on giftedness at Duke, and Jeff Danielian, a Rhode Island teacher and giftedness advocate.

 Listen here!

TFA Teachers Perform Well in a New Study — But Teacher Experience Still Matters

Before I dive in to Mathematica's new, positive research on Teach for America, a major caveat: Past studies of TFA suggest its recruits are more effective at teaching math than other subjects, and this study looks only at math. Across the board, it is easier for schools and teachers to raise math test scores than literacy scores. That's because most kids encounter math only at school, while in reading and writing, middle-class kids get a huge boost from vocabularly and book-rich home environments.

Here we go.

The study design: Mathematica compared the performance of 136 TFA math teachers and 153 Teaching Fellows math teachers in 11 unnamed school districts to the performance of "matched" math teachers from other training programs, working within the same school buildings and with similar low-income student populations. Student outcomes were measured using end-of-schoolyear standardized tests. TFAers and Fellows were not compared to one another, in part because they tend to work at different schools.

The big takeaway: TFA math teachers outperformed non-TFA math teachers in their schools by .06 standard deviations in middle school and .13 standard deviations in high school. The talking point will be that this is the equivalent of an additional 2.6 months of learning per schoolyear. But it's important to realize this represents a relatively modest improvement in student achievement. For the average child in this study, who scored in just the 27th percentile in math compared to her peers across the country, having a TFA teacher will help her move up to the 30th percentile–still a long way off from grade-level math proficiency.

Teaching Fellows teachers, who tend to be career-changers, not recent grads, performed similarly to their non-Fellows peers. They were slightly less effective than traditionally-certified teachers, but more effective than teachers who came from non-elite alternative certification routes.

Teacher experience still matters: The bias against first-year teachers is borne out in the data. The students of second-year teachers outperformed the students of first-year teachers by .08 standard deviations–a larger gap than the average one (.07) between the students of TFA and non-TFA teachers. And even though TFA recruits did well in this study, that doesn't mean teachers reach their pinnacle after two years on the job. To the contrary, the researchers found that for teachers with at least five years of experience, each additional year of work was associated with a statistically significant increase of .005 standard deviations in student achievement. Interestingly, during years 2, 3, and 4 of teaching, there is no observable improvement. So this study shows a big leap in effectiveness from year 1 to 2, a flat line for a few years, and then slow and steady improvement year-to-year after year 5.

College selectivity is not a magic cure-all: Are TFA teachers successful because they hail from elite colleges? Maybe not, this study suggests. Teachers here who attended selective institutions did not outperform other teachers, regardless of whether or not they participated in TFA or the Teaching Fellows. That finding is in line with new data from New York City linking student achievement back to the colleges teachers attended. In that study, NYU and Columbia grads were not significantly more effective than graduates of Hofstra or CUNY.

It doesn't matter much what teachers majored in: One of the big critiques of traditional teacher education is that not enough teachers have college degrees in the subjects they teach. But in this study, traditional teachers were actually more likely than TFA or Teaching Fellows teachers to have majored in math. That coursework didn't necessarily help them become better teachers.

And teachers' own test scores are not all that predictive: TFAers and Fellows demonstrated better standardized test scores in math–they scored an average of 17-22 points higher than their counterparts–perhaps because they were much more likley to have attended academically selective colleges, which require good test scores for admission. The relationship between teachers' own test scores and student achievement remains murky, however. The researchers conclude that at the high school level, higher teacher test scores are associated with slightly better student outcomes, but that there is no relationship between teacher and student test scores at the middle school level.

Coursework is distracting: When a teacher is taking night courses–as all first-year TFA teachers do, to meet state certification requirements–student achievement declines. 

So, why are TFA teachers successful? If it isn't college selectivity or their higher test scores in math, what's the theory of change? After observing TFA's summer training institute this July, I'd guess that there are two major factors. First, TFA teachers are incredibly mission-driven and optimistic. They actively choose to teach in low-income schools and they are selected because they believe closing the achievement gap is not only important, but possible. This inspires them to work hard. (Of course, many non-TFA teachers have these characteristics, as well, and also tend to be great at their jobs.) Second, TFA's training emphasizes data tracking of student outcomes and the importance, specifically, of raising standardized test scores. That could lead to the students of TFA teachers getting more test-prep and hearing more messages about why performing well on tests is important.

Update: The researchers tell Dylan Matthews that although they used the results of high-stakes state exams to measure student outcomes in the middle-school grades, at the high school level, the tests they used were completely new to the teachers, so they couldn't have prepared students for them. I'd still make the point that the students of TFA teachers may be more likely to take testing seriously, for the reasons I outline above.

Don't forget race and class: Of TFA's 2012 class of recruits, 62 percent are white. But the TFA sample in this study was a whopping 89 percent white, while the demographics of the non-TFA comparison teachers were starkly different: only 30 percent white. The student population, meanwhile, was 80 percent low-income children of color. As I research my book, sources across the country are telling me, anecdotally, that urban districts are losing teachers of color, especially African American teachers. Given what we know about the importance of race-similar role-models for minority students, and how this, too, can affect achievement and school culture, it's important to gather more information on how well districts and teacher training programs are doing at putting teachers of color in front of students of color. 

Peter Buffett’s Solution-Free Critique of Big Philanthropy

I spent a year editing a philanthropy section at The Daily Beast. During that time, I often felt frustrated that corporate and celebrity donors seemed to lack understanding of the systemic causes of the problems they wanted to solve. A good example is what goes on in the Congo. Philanthropic and foreign aid dollars stream in to efforts to provide medical and psychological services to the victims of mass rape, but Western governments and corporations have expended very little will to end the regional, mineral-fueled war that is the root cause of the sexual violence there. As a result, many rape victims return to their villages and are raped again. Another good example is female genital cutting. The most hyped anti-FGC effort is conducted by the non-profit Tostan, in Senegal. A new UNICEF report finds no significant decrease in cutting rates in that country. Meanwhile, in the Central African Republic, an anarchic nation with fewer philanthropic interventions, cutting rates have decreased by almost half. Why? Nobody really knows!

So I was gratified to read Peter Buffett's Sunday Times op-ed, which shines a powerful light on the problem of philanthropy disconnected from political and economic systems: "Because of who my father is, I’ve been able to occupy some seats I never expected to sit in. Inside any important philanthropy meeting, you witness heads of state meeting with investment managers and corporate leaders. All are searching for answers with their right hand to problems that others in the room have created with their left." 

Yes. Buffett doesn't explain how to solve this problem, but one place to start is with evidence. He complains that microfinance, for example, "feeds the beast" of the Western "system of debt and repayment with interest." This is a rather quixotic critique. The real problem with microfinance is that the most credible research finds that behind the heartwarming anecdotes of single moms who launch hatmaking businesses, these loans have no broad track record of success in lifting the poorest of the poor out of poverty, and in fact end up saddling many families with debt they cannot repay. A far better idea is for charities and governments to simply redistribute free money — no strings attached — to the poor. 

Another solution is to ask where the non-profit sector is truly the most effective actor, and where less corrupt government–supported by progressive taxation–must step in to solve deep-seated social and economic problems. The Buffetts are liberals who support higher taxes on people like themselves, though for some reason Peter Buffett doesn't mention the word "taxes" in this op-ed. Nor does he mention government regulation of international corporate labor and manufacturing practices, which could help solve some of the most pressing problems of poverty in the developing world.