Category Archives: Human Landscape

2012: The Year in Review, Education and Beyond

Education story of the yearThe Chicago teachers' strike. American teacher unionism was founded in Chicago in the late 1890s, as female, largely Catholic elementary school teachers resisted centralization policies–standardized testing, a uniform curriculum, numeric teacher evaluations–pursued by a male, Protestant bureaucracy. So it was fitting that the loudest cry of protest against contemporary standards-and-accountability school reform emerged in the Windy City this September, as teachers resisted professional evaluation tied to student test scores, closures of neighborhood schools, and the expansion of the charter school sector. You can read my history of Chicago teacher unionism here.

The strike has had a few interesting results. First, it raised the profile of Chicago Teachers' Union leader Karen Lewis, who is a less compromising and more leftist figure than Randi Weingarten, president of the national American Federation of Teachers. Second, it brought to the public's attention the tension bewteen increasing test-score pressure on teachers and schools while cutting budgetary support for art, music, counseling, school psychologists, and the many other crucial, yet more holistic services schools provide. Third, it resulted in a compromise contract with both progressive and regressive features. More funding for social support services, especially in high-poverty schools, is a good thing. Continuing to backload teacher salaries and bonsues, though, will not make the profession more appealing to ambitious young people or career-changers. Yet it is encouraging that CTU agreed, at least in theory, to professional evaluations that include evidence of student learning. Now the devil will be in working out the details, particularly on what role standardized test scores will play, and how to evaluate teachers of currently non-tested subjects and grades, like art, music, PE, and kindergarten.


Magazines of the Year: Tomorrow and Jacobin.

Education research-finding of the year: Teachers matter, and not just for academics. A study by economists Raj Chetty, Jonah Rockoff, and John Friedman found that teachers who consistently improve their students' standardized test scores also help children avoid teenage pregnancy, get to college, and earn higher incomes. But there is a crucial caveat to this finding: The study was conducted in a low-stakes settingin other words, among teachers whose pay and evaluation were not tied to test scores. The researchers admitted in their paper that when tests do become high-stakes, there is an increased risk of score manipulation, which can occur either through teaching-to-the-test or outright cheating. In high-stakes settings, test scores become less reliable and, therefore, their link to better life outcomes for kids could be compromised.


Under-reported education trend of the year (and decade): Sociology used to be the academic discipline with the most influence over public education policy. Today that discipline is economics. On the upside, we now have more data about children's academic and life outcomes. On the downside, education policy-makers are paying less attention to aspects of children's lives that are more difficult or impossible to quantify, such as parental involvement and comfort with diversity.


New York restaurant of the year: Pok Pok. We only had the patience to wait in line for this place once, but it was so, so, so worth it. A close runner-up is Battersby, where I had two wonderful meals. Another year, another few reasons never to leave Brooklyn. 


Book of the year on How We Live NowTwilight of the Elites, by Chris HayesThis bracing book about "America after meritocracy" has implications for every area of policy-making, but is especially sharp at deconstructing myths we tell ourselves about education: that test scores measure aptitude and that elite schools serve the common good.


Education story to watch in 2013: The roll-out of the Common Core. Will the movement to implement shared national academic standards remain bipartisan, or will conservatives and Republicans increasingly turn against it? Will schools implement the Core faithfully, or will myths about the standards–like the false idea that they cut out fiction reading–persist?  


Albums of the year: "Break it Yourself," by Andrew Bird. "Sun," by Cat Power. "Channel Orange," by Frank Ocean. "The Idler Wheel…" by Fiona Apple. "Shields," by Grizzly Bear.


Education book of the year: My favorite was Saving the School, by Michael Brick.


A book to pounce on in 2013: The absolutely masterful Hope Against Hope, by Sarah Carr, the definitive account of education reform in post-Katrina New Orleans, told through the eyes of a student, a teacher, and a principal. A gripping narrative with deep historical and political ramifications. 


Cultural controversy of the year: The battle over the future of the New York Public Library's main branch, at 5th Avenue and 42nd Street. Should this world-class research institution ship several million books to New Jersey, and open space for a lending library? Should architect Norman Foster, known for his glass additions to historic buildings, be let loose on this Beaux Arts masterpiece? I work there almost every day, and I still can't decide how I feel about it. 


TV Show of the Year: "Girls." Feminists are funny. 


#longreads of the year: This past spring, the magazine that launched my career, The American Prospect, experienced a terrifying brush with death. I'm so glad donors and subscribers have helped The Prospect continue its work, because under editor Kit Rachlis, it has published some amazing writing. Monica Potts' "Pressing on the Upward Way" is a compassionate, beautifully-constructed portrait of rural poverty in Eastern Kentucky. Equally stirring was Gabriel Arana's "My So-Called Ex-Gay Life," which not only told Gabe's personal story of surviving "ex-gay therapy," but also broke news by revealing how the psychiatrist who pushed to define homosexuality as a mental illness, Robert Spitzer, has come to regret and retract his previous work.

Documentary of the Year: "Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry," by Alison Klayman.

Personal Highlight of the Year: Pacific Street. With this guy.
Happy New Year, folks. 

The Death of the Urban Comprehensive High School?

Head to The Daily Beast to read my review of Michael Brook's new book, Saving the School, which does important work capturing this particular moment in national education reform, when so many urban neighborhood high schools are at risk of closure:

Brick, who worked for The New York Times, spent a year embedded at John H. Reagan High School in “the Two-Three,” a poor neighborhood on the eastside of Austin, Texas, known for tensions between black and Hispanic residents. Of the school’s approximately 700 students, 110 are teen parents, and only 22 are white. Over a third of Reagan students are classified as still learning the English language, and over 80 percent are so poor that the government pays for their school lunch. When a girl refuses to remove her hat during a school assembly, she is handcuffed and dragged out by the police. Military recruiters roam Reagan’s halls.     

Brick has done his homework on the history of American education, and he accurately assesses why schools like Reagan often appear to be such blighted places: less because their teachers are uniformly uncaring or their students unmotivated than because so many impoverished schools have become, over the past 30 years, increasingly cut off from the mainstream of American society, situated in neighborhoods victimized by white and middle-class flight; asked to compete with charter schools; and then left to educate a greater proportion of poor, special education, and non-English speaking students than the public school system at large. Reagan High is a good stand-in for the approximately 1,700 high schools across the country that are classified by the Obama administration as “persistently failing.” They are also sometimes known as “drop-out factories:” schools where more than half of the freshman class never graduates.

Read the whole piece.

Diverse Neighborhoods and the Charter School Movement

My colleague Sarah Garland has written a wonderful piece for The Atlantic about a local/federal/charter school partnership to racially and socioeconomically integrate the East Lake neighborhood of Atlanta. Across the country, more and more charter school movement leaders are realizing that if charters serve only poor, black, and Latino families, they will limit their potential educational reach, and will leave themselves open to criticism that they are reifying the segregated nature of American public education. Here in New York, for example, Eva Moskowitz's controversial Success Academy charter network will soon open two new schools in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Cobble Hill, where many white and college-educated families live. An explicit goal of the schools is to attact a student body far more diverse than that of the typical "no excuses" charter school. In the process, charter advocates hope to increase the base of political support for charter school expansion.

But as Sarah writes, the successful Atlanta charter she reported on, Charles Drew, is not a "no excuses" or "strict discipline" type school. Unlike the Success Academies, Drew embraces progressive pedagogy and does not overtly obsess about discipline or testing:

Drew is not one of the "no-excuses" charter schools where young children march in formation through the hallways and teachers give out demerits when students don't maintain eye contact. At Drew, children wiggle and dance through the halls, hugging teachers as they pass and laughing with their friends. Standardized testing is a focus, but not the only focus. It's the sort of school that might attract suburban middle-class parents.

"We're trying to instill a sense that you're taking responsibility for your educational experience," says Don Doran, the principal at Drew. "It's hard to do that if you come out with a whole lot of rigidity."

I've visited a number of "no excuses" charter schools, and some of them do seem like very happy places, despite the emphasis on rules. That said, as I reported from Rhode Island last year, the "no excuses" model does present significant challenges for middle-class families, who tend to prefer less drilling and test-prep; more art, music, and extracurricular activities; and more opportunities for parents to get involved in shaping school policy. As the charter school movement looks to expand beyond the poorest zip codes, it will be interesting to see whether more charters end up looking like the progressive Community Roots in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, and fewer like KIPP, a national network of "no excuses" schools.

That said, using progressive pedagogy and enrolling white-collar families does not guarantee that a charter school will attract broad-based political support. Community Roots, for example, experienced strong opposition to its proposal to open a new middle school, which the city eventually approved. The teachers' union and some neighborhood parents objected to the charter taking over space currently alotted to a traditional public school that serves a high proportion of special-needs students. These arguments over real estate and whether charter schools "cream" easier students to teach aren't going away, especially in the nation's most diverse and expensive cities. 

On That Baby-in-the-Briefcase Story and the 5 Real Policy Fixes Women (and Men) Need for Work-Life Balance


Can women have it all? Probably not. Can anybody who isn't wildly wealthy "have it all?" I don't think so.

I have long admired Anne-Marie Slaughter as both a foreign policy intellectual and as a role-model for women. But I was filled with annoyance and dread as I read her Atlantic cover story, which, as Jessica Valenti notes, was rather problematically packaged. 

I'm annoyed because the problem of not being able to "have it all" is NOT about "the failures of feminism," but, in Slaughter's case–in which she left the State Department to return to her job as a tenured professor at Princeton–about the particularities of the Washington power structure and the intense expectations on high-up political appointees. I personally know both men and women who've struggled with the lifestyle of an appointee; indeed, no one seems to want to stay in these jobs for more than two years or so. I don't see why it's surprising that appointees often lose steam after a short time, since this kind of job isn't personally sustainable for the vast majority of people of either sex. A small number of individuals want to risk their personal relationships and private happiness for the sake of having an internationally important job. As Slaughter notes, more of the people willing to do so are men than women, because of the history of expectations on men to be breadwinners and women to be caregivers. Here I agree with Slaughter that we need to deploy technology in the service of changing workplace cultures to make them more flexible and family-friendly for both sexes. We should also acknowledge that working in the State Department or White House will always be intense and not suited for all people indefinitely. 

But I also felt dread. As a woman in my late twenties who is, in fact, incredibly privileged, I am sick of being told to approach my personal and professional future with anxiety and foreboding instead of optimism and activism. (Men are never expected to wring their hands in this way, though plenty of men I know struggle with the exact same work-life balance challenges.) I am sick of hearing about the failures of feminism when actually what we need to fix these problems for all families, across socioeconomic distinctions, is more feminism, not less. Such as:

2. Extended learning time at school, not just for more test-prep, but for art, music, sports, and other enrichment and supervision affluent kids get as a matter of course. This would help the school day better conform to parents' work day, which helps women (and men) work and parent (Slaughter also points this out)
3. A higher minimum wage and workplace representation in the service sector (especially helpful for single moms)
4. Paid family leave
5. More enlightened men – men who do chores! According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' latest time-use study, men still do only about 25 percent of housework, 29 percent of food preparation and clean-up, and 33 percent of childcare.*
I'd like to see college-educated women and men who care about work-life balance devote some of their energy to advocating for the above proposals. We need to raise active support for these ideas among folks who are affluent enough to spend their way out of these problems, through nannies, private schools, housekeepers, and the like. 
*To answer commenter John Romano's question, the BLS stats show men still do more lawn-care, for example, than women. If outdoor and indoor chores are combined, men do about 40 percent of all "household activities." I'd only add that there is a minute-to-minute, day-to-day quality to food preparation, indoor clean-up, and childcare that "outdoor" housework lacks. Hat-tip to Doug Henwood for help analyzing the BLS numbers.

The Kids These Days, Pornography, and Pleasure

Sasha 2Sasha Grey, via her Twitter feed

Cuddle Party would exist in my personal ninth circle of hell. Nevertheless, the sex/relationships guru who came up with the concept, Reid Mihalko, made some interesting comments in the San Francisco Chronicle yesterday that back up the ideas I was getting at in my critique of Katie Roiphe's Newsweek article on women, work, and S&M. 

In short: Greater interest in sadomasochism has less to do with economic trends and more to do with increased access to porn and erotica online. Mihalko spends a lot of time conducting workshops for college students, and he has found that many of them are exposed to really kinky stuff via the Internet, yet lack basic information on sexual health and pleasure, in part because they are graduates of abstinence-only sex-ed programs or received no sex education at all. He explains:

About 30 to 40 percent of what I do is lecturing at colleges. I do a lecture called "Sex Geek Chic," which is about using peer pressure in a positive way to encourage young adults to get their shit handled. If you don't know your STD status, if you don't know how to use a condom, if you're not savvy with consent and how to navigate your emotions in intimate relationships, you're uncool. …

There's an interesting dynamic going on among college students. A lot of them grew up with federally funded, abstinence-only education. But they also grew up with the Internet. So for visual learners, especially, they're getting their love-making cues from watching porn.

 Trying to learn how to be a better lover from porn is like trying to learn how to drive from watching "The Fast and the Furious."

Yes. I began high school in 1998, before pornography could be easily streamed online. It could be downloaded, but this took some real time and effort; guys I knew figured out how to do it, but if any of my female friends were experimenting with this in the late nineties and early aughts, we weren't talking about it openly with one another. (We were reading Anais Nin, though, don't get me wrong!) And way back when we were first hitting puberty in the mid-nineties, it was still scandalous and fascinating to get one's hands on an issue of Playboy.

Obviously, everything changed during my first few years of college–not just because my friends and I were getting older, but also because of technology. I don't want to be all old-ladyish at 27, but the last decade has seen a sort of epochal shift in how teenagers and young adults explore their sexuality. It used to be you had to go to an adult movie theater or the adult section of a video rental store or a sex club to watch other people getting it on; you had to actually interact with other human beings in those places and you risked getting "caught" by someone you knew. (A somewhat separate category of consumption would be the semi-ironic screening of retro porn movies on college campuses. Been there! And how prevalent was buying video pornography via the mail back in the day? I don't really know. Commenters?)

Now you can watch other people have sex anytime you want, for free, and in total privacy. This is a really significant development in the history of human sexuality, and I think its effects are both positive (less shyness about sex) and negative (more exposure to unrealistic, staged sex; more sexual outlets other than one's partner; and possibly more body anxiety as a result of comparing oneself to hundreds and thousands of other naked people).

Today it seems like we're having a constant, national conversation about porn and how it is changing our culture. Pornstars like Jenna Jameson and Sasha Grey have achieved some modicum of mainstream respectability, and pornography is regularly opined upon in the kinds of publications nobody would be embarassed to read on the subway. Porn has gone mainstream before, as it did in the "Deep Throat" era. But the shock and moral panic is, for the most part, missing these days (pace Rick Santorum); the general assumption is that almost everyone over the age of 12 has seen video porn at least a few times.

In any case, Reid Mihalko is on to something about young people and kink, even though he also seems a bit kooky. I really love the site MakeLoveNotPorn, and would like to especially refer my younger friends and readers to it (make sure to click on the arrows to see all the tips!). A more comprehensive resource on these matters is ScarletTeen.

Remembering Adrienne Rich

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


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


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

“The Rent is Too Damn High” and Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Neighborhood as Curriculum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remnants of the Twentieth Century City, Newark

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

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

Market Street, Newark 


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

Historic Paramount Theater 

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

Remnant of the 20th century, Halsey Street 

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

SOMA, Teachers' Village border 

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

17 William Street, historic building set to be refurbished 

A wall.

Halsey Street wall