Category Archives: Class

The New New Fatherhood

Screen Shot 2013-07-02 at 2.33.45 PMThe old "New Fatherhood" was about mainstream, middle-class American men redefining masculinity to encompass spending more time talking to, playing with, and caring for children. Today at the Daily Beast, I write about the New New Fatherhood, as depicted by the sociologists Kathryn Edin and Timothy Nelson in their important book Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner CityThe study is a follow-up to one of the books I recommend most often: Edin's Promises I Can Keep, which pretty much demolished the myth of the "welfare mom."

The new book questions the stereotype of the "deadbeat dad." It describes how low-income fathers love and yearn to spend time with their children. But instead of seeing "quality time" as an add-on to the traditional expectation of the father as provider — as in the New Fatherhood ideal — single dads in economically depressed neighborhoods have argued that quality time and emotional connection are a fair substitute for earning and contributing financially to a child's core needs. This is the New New Fatherhood.

I write:

"The problem with this vision of 'doing the best I can' is that it really isn’t good enough. It leaves all the most difficult responsibilities of parenthood, financial and disciplinary, up to mothers. Edin and Nelson conclude that 'lower-class fathers have tried to bargain for a wholesale reversal of gender roles,' in which dads are the 'soft,' emotional parents and moms are the tough, pragmatic ones. If this were true, however—if poor fathers were becoming traditional “moms”—they would be living with their children and performing all the domestic labor involved with their care and feeding. This, of course, is not the case. In Edin and Nelson’s study, the vast majority of single dads are noncustodial parents and seem to prize buying their children ice cream or watching TV with them—the fun stuff—over helping with homework or taking them to doctor’s appointments.

Make no mistake: this isn’t only a poor-people’s problem."

Read the whole piece.

On Doing Well to Do Good

Dylan Matthews has an interesting report about a group of young American and British professionals with progressive social values and high-paying jobs in finance and tech. The subjects of the piece are unusual because they are giving away between a quarter and a half of their incomes each year, typically to health and anti-poverty charities operating in sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, inspired by the philosopher Peter Singer, they say they have chosen handsomely paid jobs, like high-frequency trading, because they aspire to give away as much money as they can. 

I'm a fan of some of the organizations, like GiveDirectly and GiveWell, that are loosely part of this movement toward ethical, high-impact giving, with few or no requirements for the individual recipients of aid. Yet I worry about an ethical stance in which any career choice is socially responsible, as long as one pledges to give generously to charity. The fact is, the number of people who choose to make millions in order to give money away is infinitesimal; the ability to donate generously is usually cited as a guilty liberal's justification for richly rewarded work in fields, like finance, that can be defined by bad social values, such as lobbying for lower corporate tax ratestaking advantage of low-income consumers right here in the United States, and bad labor practices. That's not to say progressives should never work on Wall Street or for Big Food/Pharma/Tech; indeed, we need social justice-committed people within those fields to argue and work for ethical change. But the ethical behavior must go beyond individual philanthropy itself and toward efforts to make corporations better American and global citizens.

In Defense of Daisy

DaisyAh, Daisy — the glamorous, self-absorbed cipher at the center of The Great Gatsby. She has come in for a lot of hate from critics of the book and film. Richard Brody judges actress Carey Mulligan "overmatched by the part." Ester Bloom says Daisy is "a drip." Critisizing Fitzgerald's novel, Kathryn Schulz argues the Daisy/Gatsby/Tom love triangle is "psychologically vacant." She accuses the author of making a "travesty of his female characters–single parenthesis every one, thoughtless and thin," thus ignoring the vibrant women's movement of the 1920s. 

I don't think so. Daisy isn't awful, she is trapped and scared — and that is how Mulligan plays her, timidly. Raised a debutante in Louisville, she is expected to marry as a teenager, and she does, to the alcoholic, racist, chronically unfaithful Tom Buchanan. Daisy hasn't had the chance to go to college, or travel the world in the army, as the male characters have. She has a baby before she becomes an adult, and thus is hardly prepared to be an attentive mother. If there are opportunities out there for Daisy to live a more exciting, fulfilling life, she is only dimly aware of them. Is it any wonder she idealizes her first, adolescent romance, with a sweet young officer? Her brief affair with Gatsy is probably one of the only things Daisy has ever done fully by choice. Look at her wrists, bound by diamond cuffs. She is shackled by her own privilege. When she finds out her newborn is a girl, she can only hope the child will turn out to be "a beautiful little fool." Why? Because Daisy is smart enough to know how awful her predicament is, as an old money daughter and wife with few culturally acceptable options for independence. It would be easier, she thinks, if her own daughter could be simple-mided; if she could accept the role she was born into without coming to understand its severe unfairness. There's a reason why, in the film, director Baz Luhrman keeps drawing our attention to Daisy's massive diamond engagement ring. She has been acquired by Tom and is weighed down by men's expectations for her. Even Gatsby is in love with a chimera Daisy more than the real woman; as he tells Nick toward the end of the book/film, he wants her because she has always been "a nice girl;" the kind of girl who could help him his advance his climb from poverty into the upper class. 

Some of the most powerful feminist depictions in art are the ones that show us how bleak life was for women before feminism, or for women who couldn't or didn't embrace feminist ideas. (Think: Anna from Anna Karenina or Lily Bart from House of Mirth. Even Betty from "Mad Men.") By design, all the characters in The Great Gatsby, male or female, are sketches; archetypes of the most cynical, materialistic slice of a cynical, materialistic, lost generation. Nick Carraway could be any Ivy Leaguer with writerly pretentions who gets a job on Wall Street. But I've always found Jordan, Nick's unrealized love interest and Daisy's best friend, one of the more intriguing people in Gatsby. She is a golf star — a famous female athlete! Jordan, with her boyish name, is optimistic and fun-loving; unlike that pitiable, delicate flower, Daisy, Jordan has a life.

In the end, when Daisy runs away with her brutish husband, there is little question that she has made the "right" choice. Marrying a gangster who loves her for her respectability wouldn't have solved her problems. Poor Daisy. She might be a bit of "a drip," but it's not because she's bad at heart. She is the representation of every woman entrapped by beauty, wealth, and femininity. She is a tragic, utterly conventional, child bride. 

What We Talk About When We Talk About “IQ:” Algebra and School Quality

The now-unemployed Jason Richwine is portraying himself as a numbers-driven policy wonk who has been unfairly pilloried for a nuanced, intellectually sophisticated Harvard dissertation, whose only crime was questioning liberal pieties on race and IQ. Byron York:

Richwine and others also pointed to the fact that his ideas were expressed most completely in a dissertation done at Harvard, of all places, under the supervision of a group of distinguished scholars, and that the dissertation was accepted and Richwine was awarded a Ph.D. It seems unlikely that a Harvard dissertation, finished in 2009, would qualify as hate speech, his defenders contend. But that is how it was portrayed in the controversy.

Over the past several days, I dove more deeply into Richwine's dissertation arguing that Hispanics are innately less intelligent than whites, and thus should not be granted citizenship. Let me acknowledge at the outset that I disagree profoundly with Richwine's conclusion. I find it inhumane to argue that political rights be conditioned on a test score. Richwine and the Heritage Foundation also downplay the reality that many important jobs in our economy–picking tomatoes, delivering food, cleaning buildings–require little formal education or demonstrated intellectual ability, and that native-born Americans will not do them

But what I want to address here, at greater length, is the attention this controversy has put on IQ testing as a means of judging innate intelligence. What do measurements of IQ actually consist of? Does Richwine's analytic work stand up to scrutiny? He argues that education can do very little to help Hispanic immigrants achieve. So does he demonstrate familiarity with the educational and economic research on poverty, schools, and human capacity? 

Richwine's dissertation may not be hate speech, but I emerged from it surprised that this document garnered a Ph.D from the nation's preeminent university. Richwine fails to grasp the difference between testing academic achievement and testing innate cognitive ability, claiming that an exam that includes algebra can be used to draw conclusions about inherited IQ. He explicitly ignores the well-documented, historically persistent reality of educational inequality across the United States, assuming that the only "environmental" factors that affect a child's test score are ones inside the home.

In Chapter 2 of the dissertation, Richwine acknowledges that the "language bias" in most American IQ tests makes it difficult to assess the intelligence of native Spanish speakers or those who grow up in Spanish-dominant homes. He therefore argues that gaps between Hispanic and white performance in math provide the strongest evidence of innate ability differences between the two groups. He draws many of his conclusions from the 1979 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which collected IQ scores from nearly 12,000 individuals who took the Armed Forces Qualification Test.

Is the AFQT an accurate measure of genetic cognitive ability, as Richwine claims — as distinct from academic achievement?

As Richwine writes, the AFQT "was designed for 17 and 18-year olds who speak English and have taken algebra." Some students in the data set may not yet have enrolled in algebra when they took the exam, so Richwine adjusts for school-entry cutoff birth dates. This ensures, he writes, that his entire sample has completed the same number of years of schooling, and thus their cognitive abilities can be accurately compared to one another using this test that includes algebra.

Here I was taken aback. I don't know about you, but I was not born knowing how to solve for x. It was taught to me at school, by teachers. Was Richwine truly claiming that 12 years of schooling in Scarsdale, for example, was equal in quality to 12 years of schooling in East New York? Was he claiming that there is no significant inequality in schooling across the the United States that could help explain differences in scores on a math test? As I continued to read, this did, in fact, emerge as Richwine's argument. From pages 65-66:

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Sure, academic standards are more uniform today than they were 100 years ago, and we give schools more funding, even in the "inner city." But to claim that school quality no longer "varies enormously" is shockingly ignorant. Affirmative action in college and private school admissions does nothing to guarantee the typical young Hispanic child access to effective preK-12 schools or teachers; in fact, in recent decades, American schools have become more segregated by race and class, with the poorest children most likely to be stuck in low-quality schools. We know these children do much better when we get them into better schools and classrooms, because we've tried it. Poor kids score higher than their racially and socioeconomically identical peers when they are enrolled in schools with middle-class students. Teachers who are good at raising their students' test scores (like, in algebra) are also good at helping them graduate high school, avoid teen pregnancy, and get higher-paying jobs — all those achievements that can supposedly be attributed to genetic IQ. Economists have been demonstrating for 15 years that somewhere between five percent and a third of the achievement gap can be attributed to poor children's lack of access to effective K-12 teachers.

So while Richwine does acknowledge that both genetic and environmental factors contribute to IQ, he locates environmental variability almost solely in the home, as if there were no inequality in contact with good teachers, orderly classrooms, up-to-date textbooks, and engaging curricula. He praises only one school-based intervention, the Abcedarian pre-school project, which he admits demonstrated "modest, tentative" IQ score gains that merit "further research." He quickly moves on, however and his overall elision of school as a factor allows him to claim that "environment" itself is a function of low IQ, with poor parents too unintelligent to provide a stimulating environment for their kids, who inherit the genetic deficit. He does not seem to know or care that such families have, through no fault of their own, unequal access to good schools that can and do raise student achievement in algebra and many other areas.

I've written extensively about how difficult it is for schools to overcome the academic affects of poverty. Yet we know good schooling does make a significant, potentially life-changing difference, and that poor children, including Hispanic immigrants and their descendents, do not have equal access to good schools. When people obsess about IQ in the face of these obvious inequalities and the vast research literature dissecting them, one has to wonder: What is the motivation? Ta-Nehisi Coates takes some guesses here. So does Jamelle Bouie.

Att. Jason Richwine: You’re Not the First Guy to (Wrongly) Believe Immigrants are Dumb

It turns out that the deliciously-named Jason Richwine, author of an anti-immigration reform paper from the Heritage Foundation, is also the author of a 2009 Harvard public policy dissertation called "IQ and Immigration Policy," which claims that because Latinos are genetically intellectually inferior to whites and Asians, their immigration to the U.S. should be tightly restricted. Richwine has also contributed to a white nationalist website called 

The human brain remains, in many crucial aspects, a mystery to science. So what is IQ? It is a measure of the capacity to learn in the linear fashion prized by Western culture, and we know that it is partially determined by genetics. Yet in the life of the average, individual human, those "innate" genes are vastly, vastly overpowered by the effects of environment: decent nutrition; an emotionally stable, vocabulary-rich home life; physically and emotionally attentive parents; good schools and teachers. Those factors tend to be in shorter supply among high-poverty populations. Claiming that such populations are genetically inferior ignores about a century of research and writing on the malleability of IQ and the proper uses of intelligence assessments.

Alfred Binet, the French psychologist who invented IQ testing, made quite clear that his exams could not draw conclusions about the difference in innate ability between two individuals from different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. Little has changed. In 1995, after the tempest around Charles Murray's The Bell Curve, Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman summarized what is known about intelligence, race, class, and heritability. The consensus is that IQ can help distinguish between the capacities of "within-group" individuals–for example, two upper-middle class American Jewish girls who attended good public schools and then Brown University. However:

1. IQ supremacists claim IQ is a measure of innate ability. Yet IQ tests are actually achievement exams, which, in Heckman's words, can be "manipulated by educational interventions." If a child is asked during an IQ assessment to memorize and repeat a long string of numbers, she will do a better job if she has an excellent math teacher or if her dad helps her with her math homework at night — if, in other words, she has had the opportunity to gain confidence around numbers.

2. If two race-similar individuals are compared, the person with the higher IQ will often have superior social outcomes. He is more likely to graduate high school or get a high-paying job. Yet the evidence suggests that IQ itself–as opposed to all the other social factors correlated with IQ, like parental income–is responsible for only a small fraction of this difference in achievement. Not to beat a dead horse or anything, but correlation does not imply causation. 

3. IQ is one predictor of success on the labor market, but it is not the only or even the most important factor. Social skills and work ethic are not measured by IQ, yet can be substantially improved through education and training, especially if that training is received in childhood. 

4. We know socioeconomic factors influence intelligence, but our measures of those factors are crude. For example, a nutritious diet increases cognitive function, but we don't know by exactly how much. If we get better at isolating and measuring such effects, it might turn out that genetic intelligence is even less important than we assume. 

One of the books I recommend most often is The Big Test by Nick Lemann. He shows how wave after wave of new immigrants, including white immigrants, were assumed to be innately stupid, in part because of their initial bad scores on IQ exams. This is true even of those groups, like Jews, whom we think of as "smart" today. Here Lemann writes about IQ tests given to World War I recruits, and the way the scores were intepreted by Carl Campbell Brigham, a Princeton psychologist who became an author of the SAT:

On the Army IQ tests, Nordics scored higher than Alpines, who scored higher than Mediterraneans. The test results as a whole were like a photograph of American culture, so faithfully did they reproduce the social order. Officers scored higher than enlisted men, the native-born scored higher than the foreign-born, less recent immigrants scored higher than more recent immigrants, and whites scored higher than Negroes. There were ironclad natural laws at work here, Brigham felt, and he warned that wishful thinkers who pretended otherwise were deluding themselves–writing, for example, "Our figures, then, would rather tend to disprove the popular belief that the Jew is highly intelligent." Brigham's stern conclusion was this: "American intelligence is declining, and will proceed with an accelerating rate as the racial admixture becomes more and more extensive…These are the plain, if somewhat ugly, facts that our study shows." 

The social and cognitive science has improved since then. But somehow, Richwine didn't get the memo, so we keep rehashing these noxious old arguments.

Update: Via Twitter, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross points out that in his dissertation, Richwine does discuss the Brigham research. He concludes that Brigham unfairly discriminated against certain white immigrant groups, since those groups, like Italians, now perform equally to Northern European Americans on today's more sophisticated IQ tests. This is from page 20:

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Richwine recognizes Brigham's bias toward certain white people. Yet he assumes that innate genetic traits are responsible for Latino's lower IQ scores over the past several decades, as opposed to the many socioeconomic realities described above and acknowledged as far-greater predictors of IQ. Richwine writes that since Asians are both poor and do well on IQ tests, this destroys the argument that poverty accounts for Latino's lower scores. Yet poverty is not a monolithic phenomenon. It differs culturally, across the globe, in terms of how much emphasis is put on academic learning. Ex; Until Reconstruction, it was illegal in the American south to teach black people to read. Chinese culture has emphasized success on written civil service examinations for over a millenium. Some Latino teenagers arrive in American public schools nearly illiterate in Spanish; they come from agricultural communities in countries where anything beyond an elementary education is off-limits to the very poor. Comparing Asians to Latinos is thus exactly the sort of "out-group" analysis that Heckman and Binet warned about.

Rich Parents Love Small Class Sizes

In the Sunday Times, Sara Mosle suggests that the way to square the circle on the class size debate–while working within current budget limitations–is to guarantee smaller classes for poor children only, while setting up pilot projects to test the thesis of Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, Mike Bloomberg, and Mitt Romney: That excellent teachers might be willing to take on 3-5 more students per class for a moderate pay raise, say $5,000 or $10,000. The reformers argue that improved student achievement would be the result.

The political problem with Mosle's idea is that many of the loudest advocates for small classes are middle-class and affluent parents. This is backed by polling; by a growing national advocacy movement, driven by middle-class parents and educators, that considers small classes a sacred right for all kids; and by evidence that when American parents choose private schools, one of the main perks they are purchasing is lower teacher-to-student ratios. In fact, the United States has one of the largest private school-public school class size gaps in the developed world — 19.4 vs. 23.6 children – compared to an average of just one additional student in the public school classrooms of other developed nations.

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via the OECD

In other words, denying middle-class kids smaller classes turns out to be a great way to alienate middle-class parents from education reform, and might even drive rich families out of the public school system entirely. This is problematic for the political sustainability of education reform.

There's a policy problem, too: Pursuing smaller class sizes only for disadvantaged children assumes that poor and middle-class kids are sitting in different classrooms or attending different schools. This is true most of the time, yet because of demographic shifts in both urban and suburban areas, we are seeing more and more diverse classrooms — a good thing. Giving districts extra money for class size reductions targeted at poor kids could induce schools to track disadvantaged children into separate classes, something that actually happened during the Great Society era when federal funds were first tied to efforts to provide poor children with extra services. 

Click here to read about research on the relationship between class sizes and student achievement. 

An Activist Teacher, a Struggling School, and the School Closure Movement: A Story from L.A.

In the hallway at Crenshaw High, spring 2011.

On Monday, half the teachers at Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles found out they had been dismissed from their jobs as part of a "conversion" process. Among them was Alex Caputo-Pearl, who I first met two years ago when I reported on Crenshaw. Caputo-Pearl was a member of the very first class of Teach for America recruits, in 1990. He has spent two decades teaching in high-poverty L.A.-area schools, first in Compton and then at Crenshaw, where he helped craft a reform plan known as the Extended Learning Cultural Model. ELCM won sizable grants from the Obama administration, the Ford Foundation, and other philanthropies to pursue school improvement driven by the higher expectations of the Common Core, yet built around a curriculum tied to addressing the challenges of the low-income South L.A. neighborhood where Crenshaw resides. Here's an example of some of the work expected from 10th graders enrolled in Crenshaw's Social Justice and Law Academy, the themed small school-within-a-school founded by Caputo-Pearl and some of his colleagues, who have also been dismissed:

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 read Our America, a work of narrative non-fiction about life in the Ida B. Wells housing projects on the South Side of Chicago.

In addition, some Crenshaw students were placed in paid community-service internships. Others worked with local colleges to conduct research on South L.A. Click here to read more about the research that backs this reform vision.

Teachers like Caputo-Pearl led the turnaround work at Crenshaw, in part because the school has seen massive management turnover — over 30 different administrators in seven years. Test scores remain below district averages, though they have shown some growth, especially for African American and disabled students. I've reported here on some of the unique demographic challenges Crenshaw faces, including higher-than-average numbers of students living in foster care.

Yet despite hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal and philanthropic support for the Extended Learning Cultural Model, L.A. Superintendent John Deasy announced in November that Crenshaw's work would be halted and the school would be reconstituted as a magnet, with a focus on expanding Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate offerings. Teachers were required to reapply to their jobs. The Social Justice and Law Academy will be done away with; three new magnet programs will be organized around the arts, entrepreneurship, and STEM – science, technology, engineering, and math. 

Cresnhaw's union chair, Cathy Garcia, wrote in a letter to supporters that the district seems to have targeted for dismissal Caputo-Pearl and other teachers who led the Social Justice and Law Academy. A district spokesperson responded, "Students, parents, alumni and community members helped to create the criteria used during the selection process for candidates and educational programs. The district, as well as the school’s staff, believe the changes will establish rigorous academics, allowing all Crenshaw students to graduate college- and career-ready.”  

According to Crenshaw sources who have seen a list of dismissed teachers, 21 of the 33 are African American, and 27 have over 10 years of experience. These teachers will be placed into a candidate pool and will be allowed to apply for open positions at other schools. But for educators who have dedicated their careers to improving Crenshaw, and who have deep well-springs of support among parents and students, the dismissals are devastating. 

This isn't the first time the district has attempted to remove Caputo-Pearl, an outspoken activist, from Crenshaw. In 2006, as he was organizing neighborhood parents to fight for better school resources, such as up-to-date computers, he was forcibly transfered to a more affluent school across town. Parents complained and he was eventually reinstated. Caputo-Pearl is part of a dissident, left caucus within the L.A. teachers' union, and he has written in the New York Times about why he has become a critic of Teach for America. He opposes tying teacher evaluation and pay to student test scores, and is critical of the expansion of the charter school sector.

He says his next step is advocating for the Crenshaw students who will be affected by the school's reorganization. Those children will not be automatically re-enrolled in one of the new magnet schools inside the Crenshaw building; instead, they or their parents will need to fill out a "Choices" application, which looks like this. This barrier can be a signfiicant one for children in foster care, or whose parents are not aware of what the process entails. Many students "feel unsure of what school they will be at next year," Caputo-Pearl said. "Our immediate priority has to be ensuring all students have the right to a neighborhood school in the Crenshaw area, and the right to equitable treatment at that school."

What's happening at Crenshaw is representative of the death of the large, urban comprehensive high school all across the country. In New York, research from the New School suggests that Mayor Bloomberg's efforts to break up large, underperforming high schools have, in fact, led to the founding of higher-quality schools. The problem is that students whose schools close may not end up enrolled in those better schools; instead, a significant number of them will be enrolled by default in the nearest large high school that is still open, which itself has extremely low test scores. That school, in turn, will eventually be shut down, creating what the New School researchers call a "domino effect," in which the most disadvantaged teenagers are shuttled from failing school to failing school, while those with more active, involved parents win spots at new schools. 

In Chicago, only 6 percent of students whose schools are shut down end up enrolled in a school within the top achievement quartile, and 40 percent of students from closed schools ended up at schools on academic probation. 

If smaller, themed schools are better for kids — and there is significant evidence they are — the question then becomes, how can districts transition to such a system without leaving behind those students who most need help? Crenshaw was already pursuing a themed school-within-a-school reform plan, and it is discouraging, I think, that the Social Justice and Law Academy, whose work was politically and intellectually challenging, will be discontinued, with its leaders dispersed. 

After the jump, I am posting a statement from Alex Caputo-Pearl, as well as the letter from union reps Cathy Garcia and Joseph Zeccola.

Continue reading

Does It Matter When Education Reformers and Activists Send Their Own Kids to Private School?

The scandal-prone Michelle Rhee does it. So does Leonie Haimson, the combative leader of the advocacy groups Class Size Matters, Parents Across America, and NYC Kids PAC, which oppose almost all the ideas Rhee supports, like increased standardized testing, teacher pay tied to test scores, and larger class sizes for effective teachers.

Many lefty education writers have criticized Rhee for enrolling one of her daughters in the exclusive Harpeth Hall girls' school in Nashville, which boasts of tiny class sizes and a focus on critical thinking and the arts. But Haimson says her own decision to send her youngest child to a private high school is different, because unlike Rhee, she believes all children, especially the poor, should benefit from the small classes and progressive pedagogy many private schools provide. Indeed, Haimson has devoted her life to this cause, and isn't planning on stopping her activism simply because her own child is now enrolled in private schoool.

I am a product of socioeconomically diverse public schools and have written about why opting-out of public schooling — or any kind of schooling! — can have negative affects on both individuals and the common good. I've also reported on the choices prominent education personalities make on where to send their own kids to school, and like this media ethicist, I think it's a completely legitmate topic for journalists to cover.

But unlike Haimson, I'm not sure if it's fair to play gotchya! with Rhee, or any other public figure, on this question, as opposed to simply speaking and writing honestly about what personal choices can tell us about the constraints on American public schools. (Geoff Decker's reporting on Haimson at GothamSchools is an absolutely wonderful example.) We don't know anything about Rhee's daughter or Haimson's child; whether they have special academic or behavioral needs, for example. What's more, while I'm on the record as a years-long skeptic of some of Rhee's favored policies, I'm not sure if it is fair to accuse her of hypocrisy. Though it is rarely discussed openly, the contemporary standards-and-accountability school reform movement is based, in part, on the assumption that disadvantaged children need more structure, stricter discipline, and more back-to-basics instruction than many affluent kids do, in order to catch up academically and make up for some of the poverty-related turbulence in some poor children's home lives. If you're interested in reading about this way of thinking, check out Paul Tough's Whatever it Takes, about the Harlem Children's Zone, and Jay Matthews' Work Hard, Be Nice, about the KIPP charter schools. Rhee and her ex-husband, Tennessee Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman, are generally associated with this ideology.

On the other hand, Rhee has admitted that the fastest way to improve a city's public schools would be to require every single child within district limits to enroll in them, which would bring engaged, politically savvy parents into the system. Instead, she and Huffman are choosing to opt out, and it's worth asking them more about it. Do they believe other people's children will benefit from a different type of education than their daughter needs? Why? Or are they simply unwilling to enroll their child in a school system that they do not — at least not yet — consider up to par for any child? Do they believe their own privileged daughter's educational and life outcomes would be hindered by attending school alongside less privileged peers? If so, why? These types of frank conversations happen far too rarely.  

Feminism, Child Development, and the Legacy of Shulamith Firestone

Screen Shot 2013-04-12 at 9.28.13 AMLike a lot of other people, I was riveted by Susan Faludi's New Yorker report on the work, life, and death of Shulamith Firestone, a Second Wave feminist theoretician and organizer whose name I knew, but whose legacy I was barely cognisant of. Faludi deals beautifully with Firestone's repressive Orthodox Jewish upbringing, her struggle with schizophrenia and social isolation, and the unfinished business of her particular brand of radical feminism, which declared that "pregnancy is barbaric" and childbirth is like "shitting a pumpkin." Those notions are shocking and perhaps ridiculous, but I nevertheless found insight in Firestone's observation — decades before Judith Warner's Perfect Madness and Elisabeth Badinter's The Conflict – that the increasing fetishization of childhood in the developed world has brought with it an unrealistic set of burdens on mothers, just as women finally earned the right to full lives beyond the domestic sphere. Describing Firestone's classic, The Dialectic of Sex, Faludi writes:

The book’s longest chapter, “Down with Childhood,” chronicled the ways that children’s lives had become constrained and regulated in modern society. “With the increase and exaggeration of children’s dependence, woman’s bondage to motherhood was also extended to its limits,” Firestone wrote. “Women and children were now in the same lousy boat.” The argument drew the appreciation of one notable feminist, which must have pleased Firestone. Simone de Beauvoir told Ms. that only Firestone “has suggested something new,” noting how the book “associates Women’s Liberation with children’s liberation.”

In an unforgiving economy with increasing social stratification, affluent Americans, unlike many European parents, obsess about providing their kids with the sorts of intellectually stimulating, resume-building experiences that supposedly prepare one for the rigors of meritocracy. The hours spent signing children up for activities, taking them there, and providing them with educational play and conversation at home are borne disproportionately by women, since mothers still do over twice as much childcare as fathers. And the burden of mothering expectations has gotten heavier since Firestone was writing: While both men and women now work more hours outside the home and do more childcare than they did at mid-century, mothers still spend far more time on domestic responsibilities than fathers do.

Yet today, one ought to balance this critique with evidence from contemporary child development research, which suggests that some of the practices of preening parents, such as constant "conversation" with even the smallest babies, really do yield cognitive and academic gains that last a lifetime. At the Times, Tina Rosenberg has a fascinating report on Talk Providence, a new program that aims to teach low-income mothers about the benefits of early vocabulary building through regular parental speaking to babies, and conversing back and forth with toddlers and older kids. It's important, however, to balance these expectations for mothers with continued support for childcare and school programs that serve the neediest kids — hence, President Obama's new pre-K proposalI'm skeptical of the claim, made by some vocabulary researchers, that changing parental conversational practices can alone erase socioeconomic achievement gaps. Vocabularly can't make up for the lack of social capital that prevents many poor children from enrolling in the most effective schools and extracurricular activities, or from eating a nutritional diet or living in adequate housing. 

On “Innovation” in Social Policy, and “Solutionism” in Education

The following was written by the Princeton sociologist Melvin Tumin, in 1973. Tumin was thinking about the Teacher Corps, a Great Society program that was a sort of lefty precursor to Teach for America, in which intern teachers arrived in disadvantaged schools eager to close achievement gaps and — because it was the sixties — also build racial pride, improve student self-esteem, and overhaul the curriculum to better reflect African American history and culture. Most Teacher Corps interns grew frustrated by the slow pace of change within schools; most veteran educators were suspcious of the interns' intentions and ideology. As Tumin points out, this inevitable culture clash is a key finding of research in organizational theory, and helps explain why it is so difficult for small social programs to impact bureaucracies:

…one of the most important factors that made the Program difficult to implement was that it could not promise the members of agencies and institutions whose cooperation was needed that it would be worth their while. Innovation is a charming word, beguiling and rousing. But it is like other terms such as relevance, concern, sensitivity. One cannot be against these on principle. But they are almost always privately read as warning signs that there is trouble ahead for those who are fulfilling their accustomed routines. Moreover, since most innovation efforts fail sooner or later, wise masters of ongoing enterprises have learned to live and wait until such innovations speed themselves to their ultimate demise. While not many other earthly travails can be safely waited out, with any hope of relief, innovative programs do have that special quality of a high probability of failure, so that “this too shall pass” is a reasonably sound prediction about most of them. 

I read this just after I returned from SXSWedu, and it seemed particularly relevant to the (almost total lack of) dialogue between social entrepreneurs who want to use software to disrupt traditional classroom practices in ways that are supposed to benefit poor children, and the majority of teachers and administrators who might be enthusiastic about specific technologies, but who simply do not see the lack of technology as the key barrier preventing schools from better serving all students. Educators are more likely to point to teacher quality, or to the content of the curriculum, or to factors stemming from the home and family. And sure, technology may be able to address many of these challenges. Yet tech-hypers lose credibility when they ignore the fact that inequalities outside the realm of access to technology remain the primary drivers of disparate educational outcomes.

Evgeny Morozov's recent essay on technological "solutionism" is certainly applicable to the tendency to mistake the technocratic measurement of educational problems, using software, as the very same thing as coming up with solutions to those problems. It should be obvious–yet at SWSWedu, it rarely was–that the quantification of inequality, whether in student achievement scores or ratings of teacher effectiveness, is only a jumping off point for complex political, policy, and social debates over how to use such data, and whether and how to close achievement gaps. The collection of "Big Data" does not, in and of itself, guarantee the formulation of effective solutions to problems.