Category Archives: Human Landscape

“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

“Progressive Homeschooling” is an Oxymoron

My new piece at Slate is a response to Astra Taylor's fascinating N+1 essay on "unschooling."

…[an] overheated hostility toward public schools runs throughout the new literature on liberal homeschooling, and reveals what is so fundamentally illiberal about the trend: It is rooted in distrust of the public sphere, in class privilege, and in the dated presumption that children hail from two-parent families, in which at least one parent can afford (and wants) to take significant time away from paid work in order to manage a process—education—that most parents entrust to the community at-large.

Take, for instance, Sonia Songha’s New York Times account of forming a preschool cooperative with six other brownstone-Brooklyn mothers, all of whom “said our children had basically never left our sides.” Indeed, in a recent Newsweek report, the education journalist Linda Perlstein noted a significant number of secular homeschoolers are also adherents of attachment parenting, the perennially controversial ideology defined by practices such as co-sleeping with one’s child and breast-feeding for far longer than typical, sometimes well beyond toddlerhood. Meanwhile, in suburban New Jersey, one “hippy” homeschooler told the local paper she feared exposing her kids to the presumably negative influences of teachers and peers. “I didn’t want my child being raised by someone else for eight hours out of the day,” she said.

Recent reports of teachers and teachers' aides in Los Angeles and New York molesting children only flame the fans of such fears. But these stories make news exactly because they are so rare; there's something creepy about giving in totally to terrors of the outside world harming one's child. In a country increasingly separated by cultural chasms—Christian conservatives vs. secular humanists; Tea Partiers vs. Occupiers—should we really encourage children to trust only their parents or those hand-selected by them, and to mistrust civic life and public institutions?

Slate pieces have a tight word limit, so I didn't have space to address Astra Taylor's discussion of the radical private school the Albany Free School, a 1960s holdover that embraces many of the practices of lefty homeschooling—the curriculum driven by children’s curiosity, the lack of strict discipline, the purposeful ignoring of state academic standards—while still offering students the social benefits of teachers and peers. The school serves some poor children, but it manages to do so by paying its teachers just $11,000 annually, a “stipend.” This is hardly a scalable model for national school reform. There simply aren't enough radical anarchist or trust-fund baby teachers willing to work for so little and also able to do a good job of it. Nationwide, 3.2 million teachers work in public schools; every day, about a sixth of the U.S. population either attends public school or goes to work inside public schools, which serve 90 percent of American children. 

Educating children–especially poor children–is ridiculously expensive. We need government involved to help foot the bill, and to bring best practices to scale.

Anyhow, I hope you head to Slate to check out the entire piece.

Flânerie Lives! On Facebook, Sex, and the Cybercity

I've given some thought to flânerie–the practice of explorative urban strolling–and I found Evgeny Morozov's technophobic Sunday Times essay, in which he laments "the death of the cyberflâneur," an off-base interpretation of both flânerie and the state of the social web. Morozov argues that the increased speed, commercialization, and publicness of the Internet prevents the languid exploration epitomized by flânerie. "If today’s Internet has a Baron Haussmann, it is Facebook," Morozov complains, comparing the social networking site to the urban planner considered the Robert Moses of Paris–the champion of order over chaos, wide streets over winding alleys, standardization over serendipity. "Everything that makes cyberflânerie possible — solitude and individuality, anonymity and opacity, mystery and ambivalence, curiosity and risk-taking — is under assault by that company."

Morozov correctly notes that in the transition from Geocities and AIM to Facebook and Gchat, the Internet giants asked us to trade anonymity for authenticity, most obviously by using our real names. This makes flânerie impossible, Morozov claims, quoting the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, who wrote, "The art that the flâneur masters is that of seeing without being caught looking."

Seeing without being caught looking. Is there any better description for so much of what we do online? Admit it: You're well acquainted with your significant other's ex's Facebook page. You've dived deep into the search results for the name of the person you're dating, the job applicant you're interviewing, the prospective tenant or roommate. On the dating site OkCupid, you can even pay for the privilege of "enhanced anonymous browsing," in which you can see who checks out your profile, but no one can see which profiles you've looked at yourself. On Facebook, one of the most common spam bots promises to reveal who's been looking at your profile. It's so tempting! People click and the spam spreads, but it's a trick: Facebook conceals users' browsing histories from one another. 

Katha Pollitt described a somewhat earlier iteration of these practices in "Webstalker," her brilliant 2004 New Yorker essay:

After my lover left me, I went a little crazy for awhile. … at night, after my daughter was in bed, I would settle myself at the computer with a cup of coffee, and till one or two in the morning, I would browse the Internet, searching for information about him. Except "browse" is much too placid and leisured a word– a cow browses in a meadow, a reader browses in a library for a novel to take home for the weekend. What I did fell between zeal and monomania. I was like Javert, hunting him through the sewers of cyberspace, moving from link to link in the dark, like Spider-Man flinging himself over the shadowy chasm between one roof and another. 

Webstalking and flânerie have so much in common: nighttimes and sex, insomnia and social anxiety. The flâneur roamed the city in search of artistic inspiration, yes, but in search of women, too–hence Baudelaire's haunted images of prostitutes and young lovers emerging from the shadows. But the most important thing to realize about the flâneur is that he was a character; not a real person, but a "type," a fantasy of male bohemianism created by Baudelaire, Balzac, and the journalist Jules Janin. Just as we carefully curate our online presences today–tagging only the most flattering photographs, listing the favorite books and bands that prove our coolness–these men created the flâneur as an idealized version of themselves: a seductive master of the modern city, chronicling its decadence and delight without succumbing to its crass commercialism. 

Tome III intro artist, Pauquet

depiction of the flâneur from the coffee-table book Les Français peints par eux-mêmes: Encyclopedie moral du dix-neuvième siècle. 1839-1842. Courtesy Brown University Library

In reality, these young writers, like the flâneur protagonists of the novels Sentimental Education (Flaubert) and Lost Illusions (Balzac), were filled with self-recriminations about selling out artistically, going into debt, and failing to get the girl. All too often, flâneurs were penitents, shifting their political allegiances for the latest freelance journalism assignment and buying luxury goods on credit in order to impress women. Their urban world–like our cyberworld–was defined by the tensions between commercial, sexual, aesthetic, and political interests. 

                                                Comptoir Pauquet

drawing of flâneurs flirting with salesgirls at a luxury clothing shop, from Les Français peints par eux-mêmes. Courtesy Brown University Library

What's more, it isn't at all clear that flânerie was defined by anonymity or blending into the crowd. The literature of nineteenth century Paris is filled with examples of attention-whore flâneurs: young actors, aspiring writers, and political activists, all of whom–like so many Facebook users–outwardly signalled their bohemian credibility through fashion. The historian Della Pollock, contra Morozov and Bauman, describes flânerie as "observing well and…being well worth observing" in turn. Hence the flâneur's habit of going out to see and be seen at gathering places like the Tuileries gardens–a practice that, in contemporary life, might be best approximated by the interplay of our Twitter feeds and Tumblrs in the frantic, self-promotional world of the social web.


drawing of male urban types putting themselves on display for the crowds, from Paris and the Parisians in 1835, courtesy Brown University Library

In Their Focus on Religious Giving, Romneys are Like Most American Donors

Mitt Romney's tax documents are out, and they show the GOP frontrunner and his wife donated $7 million to charity over the past two years, an amount equal to about 16.4 percent of their income. The Romneys gave to a number of secular non-profits, including the Boys and Girls Club of Boston, the Center for the Treatment of Pediatric MS, the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, and Homes for Our Troops. But they donated far and away the most money–$4.1 million in cash and $2 million in stock–to the Mormon church. 

In their decision to prioritize religious giving, the Romneys are typical of American donors. When I was working at The Daily Beast in the wake of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, we decided to take a close look at how disasters impact American charitable giving. We were surprised at the results of our research: According to the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, only about one-third of all American charity–from individuals, foundations, and corporations–directly serves the poor, either within the United States or abroad. Year after year, religious organizations, typically local church groups, take home the biggest slice of American charity, even in the wake of major humanitarian crises. 

For example, Americans donated $100.63 billion to religious causes in 2010, accounting for 35 percent of all giving.

Screen shot 2012-01-24 at 12.34.53 PM

After Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, Americans responded with $2.7 billion in donations over the first year. Yet this swell of support accounted for less than 1 percent of total giving in that time period. A similar pattern took shape after 9/11 and the Asian tsunami of 2004. In fact, the discrepency between emergency humanitarian giving and religious giving was so large, it was difficult for us to visualize on this chart; imagine the bar on the right as five times higher than it actually is:

Screen shot 2012-01-24 at 12.27.29 PM

Of course, some religious giving does serve the poor, through church-run food banks, homeless shelters, and the like. But Patrick Rooney, executive director of the Center on Philanthropy, told me this is not generally the case. “A large part of that goes toward the ongoing cost of owning and operating a church,” he said, “paying for the rabbi, minister, or priest; heating and air-conditioning costs.”

Thoughts on My Trip to Mexico City and the Drug War

The view from Ricardo Salinas' home office 

View of Mexico City from the home office of Ricardo Salinas, the retail/media/banking tycoon.

I spent the first half of this week in Mexico City, on a junket sponsored by Grupo Salinas. There's a lot of worry about Mexico's violence–and I have some of my own thoughts on the topic, below–but I didn't feel at all unsafe. Mexico City is an architecturally beautiful town with a lovely culture of late-night, outdoor dining and delicious street food. Swaths of the city reminded me of the immigrant neighborhoods of south Los Angeles, cut by smog and gridlock, but home to vibrant local business strips and cohesive communities. Indeed, Mexico's economy has been less hard-hit by the financial crisis than ours has.

Our group of writers and policy wonks met with a really interesting list of journalists and politicians, including three presidential candidates. My take on Mexico's upcoming election and the country's education challenges are over at The Nation in a new column; in short, I was surprised by just how similar the rhetoric on Mexican school reform sounds–there's a big focus on the excesses of the teachers' union, for example–even though Mexico is confronting an educational inequality crisis far more serious than our own, with the average Mexican dropping out after just eight years of formal schooling. 

So if you want to learn more about education in Mexico, click here.

More broadly, the trip left me all fired up to legalize drugs. About 45,000 Mexicans have been murdered since President Felipe Calderon escalated and militarized the drug war in 2006, with political, financial, and tactical support from the United States. The drug cartels are conducting terrible massacres, and intimidating and sometimes killing both professional and citizen journalists. 

All of this is happening despite the fact that "the war" has successfully led to the deaths and arrests of dozens of top drug lords. In their absence, some of the major trafficking cartels split into smaller, more agile organizations that can better resist detection. These small groups are now fighting among themselves, which has (of course) contributed to the increase in violence.

Why isn't the drug war working? Because it isn't addressing the demand side of the equation: Americans' unquenchable appetite for illegal cocaine and marijuana. The only way to decrease demand is to begin treating addiction primarily as a public health problem, not a criminal one–as Portugal has done–and to legalize the production and sale of less dangerous drugs, like pot, to tamp down on the violent narcotics black market.

Ending the drug war would also revitalize American inner city neighborhoods, where the existence of this underground economy disincentivizes education and work, and sends 17 percent of black men to prison. 

In July the Los Angeles Times' published a riveting four-part series about the regular Americans and Mexicans caught up in the massive Sinaloan drug cartel. I highly recommend it, and think it could win a Pulitzer: Read parts one, two, three, and four.

“Kings of Pastry,” France, America, and the Vocational Education Debate

Jacquy Pfeiffer & chocolate sculpture 

MOF finalist Jacquy Pfeiffer, cofounder of Chicago's French Pastry School, with sugar sculpture. Photo via "Kings of Pastry"

It's been awhile since I've had the chance to indulge my Francophilism on the blog, but last night I watched a fantastic documentary, "Kings of Pastry," that left me reflecting on the cultural differences between how Americans and the French think about intelligence, knowledge, and education. 

The film, which you can stream on Netflix, tells the story of the MOF–Meilleurs Ouvriers de France, or "best French craftsmen"–competition in pastry. Every four years, chefs, bakers, cheesemongers, florists, jewelers, weavers, woodworkers, and dozens of other French artisans compete to win this designation. It is considered one of France's highest civilian honors. 

The 16 pastry chef finalists–all of them male, a fact the film ignores–bring an absolute, overwhelming intensity to the MOF competition. Their wives and girlfriends speak of normal family life being on hold for years while their partners pursue the MOF doggedly, testing elaborate recipes and decoration techniques, usually at night after working a full day in a restaurant or shop. Some competitors devote decades to the process, competing every four years until they finally acquire a coveted MOF medal. 

The film shows President Nicolas Sarkozy speaking at a MOF award ceremony for chefs. I was really struck by how coherent his support is for what might be termed "vocationalism," and how out of step this would sound in an American context. Sarkozy said:

"Worker, artisan, apprentice. I affirm: There are not two forms of intelligence, two kinds of knowledge. Manual skill doesn't fall from the sky any more than intellectual skills. I don't want any more of that concept in our country. Because this idea is morally scandalous, and is insufficient economically."

The French education system is structured around such ideas. In the last three years of high school, or lycee, French teenagers choose to focus on the hard sciences, social sciences, or literature, or from among eight career-oriented "technical" courses of study, including the food sciences, health sciences, and hospitality. 

Americans are–and probably should be–skeptical of efforts to "track" 15-year olds into specific careers, especially given the vast inequities in children's educational and social opportunities before they ever enter high school. But some of the most thoughtful education reformers I've talked to in my reporting are Americans who are trying to seed workforce-relevancy into our own school system, by introducing young adults to possible professions in an intellectually rigorous way. This is important work, because we know one of the primary causes of dropping-out is that low-income students don't see how their education will help them land a job or build a satisfying, remunerative career in the future. 

I profiled two high schools that embody workforce-relevancy and academic rigor in my July Nation feature, but I'd say this remains a real minority movement in American education circles. So many of us–and I'd include myself–feel a real attachment to a romantic idea of the liberal arts, and of "college" in general.

"Kings of Pastry," however, romanticizes vocationalism in a way that is both enchanting and very foreign seeming. It's a delightful film — but also also very relevant to the education debate.

Dysfunctional Tiny Cities and Dysfunctional Tiny School Districts: The Sorry Story of Central Falls, RI

Central Falls High School 

Central Falls, Rhode Island–infamous since its superintendent attempted to fire every single high school teacher last year–filed for bankruptcy today. Local officials are promising the bankruptcy will be the city's first step on the road to economic revitalization. "From the ashes of bankruptcy Central Falls will rise again," claimed Robert Flanders, the state-appointed city receiver. 

I hate to say it, but that may be far too optimistic: Central Falls has long been unable to function as an independent municipality. Since 1991, its failing school district–less than half of all students graduate high school on time–has been controlled and funded by the state of Rhode Island. Last year the state also took the reins of the city government, which presided over a $5 million deficit and $80 million in unfunded health and pension benefits.

Central Falls simply does not have a healthy tax base. It consists of a tiny, 1.2-square mile parcel of land straddling the Blackstone River. Until 1895, Central Falls was part of the nearby (and now affluent) town of Lincoln, Rhode Island. But at the height of the region's economic confidence, when the Blackstone Valley was bursting with textile mills, Central Falls became independent. That decision has never been seriously reconsidered, even though Central Falls' 19,000 residents, many of them low-income immigrants from Central America, are today living in a post-industrial landscape lacking decent social services and accountable government. The contiguous 73,000-person city of Pawtucket, on the other hand, has better and more diverse schools, a lower poverty rate, and a more economically-vibrant downtown. 

I've written before that I'm against tiny school districts, and the saga of Central Falls is a good reminder why. The schoolchildren of this teeny little "city" are segregated from the children of the surrounding, normally-sized municipalities. When I visited Central Falls High School this spring, I found a school earnestly attempting to turn itself around, but hindered by a sense of distrust between and among teachers, administrators, students, and families.

The thing is, school cultures don't grow in a vacuum–they are shaped by the cultures of the cities and towns that host them. Central Falls is particularly dysfunctional. Something radical needs to change.