Check out my piece at Slate, on the big international education rankings that get so much attention. I review what's actually on the test, what the results tell us about American poverty, and explain why academic ability tracking might have something to do with our bad PISA scores.
I spent a year editing a philanthropy section at The Daily Beast. During that time, I often felt frustrated that corporate and celebrity donors seemed to lack understanding of the systemic causes of the problems they wanted to solve. A good example is what goes on in the Congo. Philanthropic and foreign aid dollars stream in to efforts to provide medical and psychological services to the victims of mass rape, but Western governments and corporations have expended very little will to end the regional, mineral-fueled war that is the root cause of the sexual violence there. As a result, many rape victims return to their villages and are raped again. Another good example is female genital cutting. The most hyped anti-FGC effort is conducted by the non-profit Tostan, in Senegal. A new UNICEF report finds no significant decrease in cutting rates in that country. Meanwhile, in the Central African Republic, an anarchic nation with fewer philanthropic interventions, cutting rates have decreased by almost half. Why? Nobody really knows!
So I was gratified to read Peter Buffett's Sunday Times op-ed, which shines a powerful light on the problem of philanthropy disconnected from political and economic systems: "Because of who my father is, I’ve been able to occupy some seats I never expected to sit in. Inside any important philanthropy meeting, you witness heads of state meeting with investment managers and corporate leaders. All are searching for answers with their right hand to problems that others in the room have created with their left."
Yes. Buffett doesn't explain how to solve this problem, but one place to start is with evidence. He complains that microfinance, for example, "feeds the beast" of the Western "system of debt and repayment with interest." This is a rather quixotic critique. The real problem with microfinance is that the most credible research finds that behind the heartwarming anecdotes of single moms who launch hatmaking businesses, these loans have no broad track record of success in lifting the poorest of the poor out of poverty, and in fact end up saddling many families with debt they cannot repay. A far better idea is for charities and governments to simply redistribute free money — no strings attached — to the poor.
Another solution is to ask where the non-profit sector is truly the most effective actor, and where less corrupt government–supported by progressive taxation–must step in to solve deep-seated social and economic problems. The Buffetts are liberals who support higher taxes on people like themselves, though for some reason Peter Buffett doesn't mention the word "taxes" in this op-ed. Nor does he mention government regulation of international corporate labor and manufacturing practices, which could help solve some of the most pressing problems of poverty in the developing world.
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 rates, taking 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.
I've been excited about Al Jazeera's expansion in the U.S. market, but this poorly-written, rambling essay by Columbia professor Joseph Massad, calling Zionists anti-Semitic, is as bad as its critics allege. Yes: The Israeli government's repeated claim to speak on behalf of all Jews, worldwide, is deeply problematic, especially given Israel's deplorable ongoing occupation of Palestinian lands. But Massad takes this observation and pads it with ignorant misreadings of history and religious belief, as well as a breezy, ahistoric, and anti-Semitic conflation of Zionism with Nazism. I have neither the time nor the inclination to rebut the piece point by point, but here are a few obvious flaws:
1. Massad claims the Jewish longing for Israel dates back only to the 18th century rise of Protestant nationalism in Europe. Hogwash. Much of the Jewish liturgy, dating back two milennia, is built around mourning for the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, and the hope that we will congregate in the Holy Land in a figurative "next year," returning there permanently after the coming of the Messiah.
2. Massad points out that both Zionists and Christian anti-Semites believed Jews did not belong in Europe. Does it follow that Zionists are as anti-Semitic as Nazis were, as Massad shockingly claims? Of course not. Many disempowered people have created separatist movements. In the American context, think of black nationalism and separatism. Were Marus Garvey or Amiri Baraka adherents of the same ideology as 19th century "Back to Africa" whites, like Lyman Beecher? No. Zora Neale Hurston opposed Brown v. Board of Education, not because she felt blacks were inferior to whites and thus should attend separate schools, but because she believed integration would damage "the self-respect of my people" by forcing them to closely associate with racists.
3. Massad writes that almost all those Jews who opposed or were skeptical of Zionism were killed during the Holocaust, leaving a monolithic group of rabidly Zionist (and also anti-Semitic?) Jews. In fact, a number of prominent Jews and Jewish organizations remained critical of Zionism after the war; Albert Einstein and Hannah Arendt obviously come to mind. In his book The Crisis of Zionism, Peter Beinart discusses how organized American Jewry was actually rather slow to embrace Zionism as a central cause. Massad also asserts that "Orthodox and Reform Jews, Socialist and Communist Jews, cosmopolitan and Yiddishkeit cultural Jews" were opponents of Zionism. In fact, members of all the aforementioned groups were sometimes strongly Zionist, whether they lived in Europe, Palestine, or the United States. For example, many of the earliest Zionist Jewish settlers in Palestine came from European cities and were socialists. They created kibbutzim to reconnect Jews to the land in a communiatarian way.
Al-Jazeera can do better.
Kudos to David Leonhardt for calling attention to the staggeringly high American youth unemployment rate — 26.6 percent — compared to rates in Europe and Japan. I just want to add that in addition to overall sluggish job creation, one of the problems is that American employers tend to avoid job training and seek workers who already have the exact experience they're looking for. A Boeing executive pretty much sums up this world view: "To expect business to bring graduates up to speed," he told the Chronicle of Higher Education, "that's too much to ask."
Compare this attitude to the one that prevails in nations like Germany and Switzerland, where schools and employers work together, through the apprenticeship system, to prepare young people for the specific jobs the economy needs. Here's my interview with an expert on those aprrenticeships, who explains how they work and why, contrary to American assumptions, they don't prevent young people from pursuing higher education. I've also reported on promising attempts to replicate the European model in the U.S. at both the high school and community college levels. Even Boeing maintains a small apprenticeship program in Washington State. But there is almost zero political will to provide schools or employers with the incentives they need to create and scale these systems.
This is the text of a loyalty oath New York City public school teachers were expected to take in 1917 and 1918. Over the next three decades, teachers across the country were periodically subjected to these sorts of jingoistic fevers. For Quakers and antiwar activists, a particular problem with the pledge was the vow of unquestioning obedience to American military policy, as well as the promise to inculcate such obedience in one's students:
"We, the teachers of the public schools of the City of New York, do solemnly pledge our unqualified loyalty to the President and Congress of the United States in this war with the imperial governments of Germany and Austria.
"We pledge ourselves actively to inculcate in our pupils by word and deed love of flag and unquestioning loyalty to the military policy of the government and to the measures and principles proclaimed by the President and Congress.
"We declare ourselves to be in sympathy with the purposes of the government and its efforts to make the world safe for democracy, and believe that our highest duty at this moment is to uphold the hands of the President and Congress in this crisis.
"We believe that any teachers whose views prevent them from subscribing to such sentiments should not be permitted to teach the youth of our city.”
Related: Texas state senators object to a curriculum that supposedly sympathizes with socialists, critiques founding fathers.
Yesterday I got to meet and interview Bill Gates, along with five other writers and reporters. We sat around a conference table at a midtown Manhattan hotel. Gates, wearing a totally unassuming gray suit and sipping Diet Coke out of a glass bottle, was business like and to the point. His passion flared up a few times during the hour-long conversation. He vehemently pushed back against economist and blogger Tyler Cowen's suggestion that macroeconomic and population growth, as well as better roads and other infrastructure, could bring faster humanitarian relief to Africa than more direct health interventions like vaccinations or contraceptives, which the Gates Foundation funds. Discussing the bleak living conditions in the Central African Republic and Yemen, Gates said, "If you don't invest in health there, you're a cold-hearted bastard." In a rare personal comment, he discussed how one of his daugthers was moved by video footage of a child survivor of polio limping down a dirt road. "What did you do to help her?" she asked her dad — an insightful comment, since Gates said he feels growing concern about the survivors of once-deadly childhood diseases like malaria and polio, who often arrive at school with cognitive delays that make it difficult to learn.
On education, I think a few of Gates' comments broke news. He hinted that his foundation may soon invest resources in alternate rankings of American colleges, saying the true metric for success in higher education should be whether a school accepts a student "with a combined SAT score of 600, and they got $100,000 jobs, and they're super happy." In response to several questions from yours truly, he also discussed standardized testing and teacher evaluation at length, particulary in non-traditional subjects such as art and music. Gates said he isn't sure if good tests can be created in the arts, and he called Florida's plan to move forward quickly with such non-traditional testing "crazy," as well as something that could create a popular backlash against education reform.
In response to Jason Kottke, Gates briefly addressed his reputation as one of the world's most celebrated college drop-outs, and I thought his comments were interesting considering the backlash against college coming from Peter Thiel and some other Silicon Valley luminaries, who tend to imagine upper middle class kids and the Ivy League when they hear the words "higher education." First, Gates correctly pointed out that community colleges and four-year public universities make up "the heart and soul of education in America," and that those schools are currently operating under severe budget constraints, which hinder their ability to move the working poor into the middle class. Second, he said the number of successful tech entrepreneurs or programmers without a college degree is "a rounding error, that's why it's so mythic," and added that he had enjoyed college and "I'm just about as fake a drop out as you can get," since he loves lectures and left Harvard only to pursue the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to launch Microsoft.
Lastly, in response to Jacob Weisberg, Gates addressed the potential of MOOCs–massive online open courses–to transform higher education, saying such classes would not live up to their full potential unless they enroll more low-income students and provide some sort of counseling or support to guide students through completing the MOOC and ultimately attaining some sort of credential. Currently, most MOOCs are seeing drop-out rates of up to 80 percent, and are reaching a fairly privileged audience.
Head on over to The Atlantic to read my full report.
It's holiday giving season. Would you donate cash to a poor family, and let them spend it on whatever they wish? That's the radically simple premise of the new philanthropy GiveDirectly, which I report on today at The Atlantic:
GiveDirectly remains an outlier in the development arena, perhaps the only organization that distributes private donations, made online, directly to the poor with no strings attached–no requirement to launch a business or to immunize one's child; no distribution of bed nets, solar lanterns, orgoats.
The economics might be sound. But the politics within the non-profit world are more complicated. Niehaus, now a professor at the University of San Diego, says other development experts who have tested unconditional cash transfers are enthusiastic about the approach. The trouble is convincing NGOs to invest in such programs beyond the pilot stages.
"We had conversations with people [in the non-profit sector] who said there was a lot of internal resistance to unconditional transfers," Niehaus told me. "If this works, what are we all here for? Why do we have jobs? There's an industry that exists that tries to make decisions for poor people and determine what's best for them. In some ways, that's the industry I came from. But the value of that hasn't been proven."
The decade-long conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, mostly over control of mineral deposits, is the deadliest the planet has seen since World War II, with an estimated 3 million people killed and 500,000 women and girls brutally raped. Every expert agrees that the governments of neighboring Rwanda and Uganda, which receive hundreds of millions of dollars in American military aid each year, have enabled the militias that perpetrate much of the violence in the Congo. We also know that multinational mining and tech corporations, many of which have deep political influence in the United States, are dependent upon the minerals dug up in rebel-controlled Congolese mines. These materials are used to build cell phones and other small electronic devices.
UN Ambassador Susan Rice’s history of consulting for the autocratic Paul Kagame regime in Rwanda should certainly be on the table as the president, Congress, and public weigh her candidacy for secretary of state. But it is crucial to note that in her repeated attempts to downplay the role of the Rwandan government in the systematic mass killing, rape, and torture of Congolese civilians, as well as in the recruitment of child soldiers, Rice is serving not as a lone actor, but in absolute concert with the Obama administration’s overall Africa policy. Under Hillary Clinton, the State Department committed $17 million to alleviating sexual violence in the region. Most of the money was spent on treating rape survivors, which, while absolutely crucial, did not address the political and economic root causes of the conflict. That’s a problem because no matter how hard health and development organizations work to rehabilitate rape victims and former child soldiers, as long as the conflict continues, these survivors risk being re-victimized once they return to violence-torn communities. That is why so many Congolese women and girls are raped multiple times.
As I reported in 2010:
Obama has long been interested in Africa, both personally and politically. As a freshman senator in 2005, he sponsored legislation, later signed into law by President Bush, empowering the secretary of state to withhold aid from neighboring countries that play a role in destabilizing Congo.
But that prerogative was never exercised, under either Bush or Obama, even as both Sweden and the Netherlands de-funded Rwanda because of its support for armed rebel groups active inside Congo.
In its dealings with Rwanda, the U.S. is “paralyzed,” argued Mvemba Dizolele, a native of Congo and Africa policy expert associated with the Hoover Institution and Johns Hopkins University. “We lost our moral authority in 1994 when the genocide happened, and we allowed [Rwandan President] Paul Kagame”—the leader who ended the genocide—“to become the authority in the region and go into Congo.”
As a veteran of the Clinton administration, Rice is part of the group of policy-makers who deeply regretted America’s inaction in the face of the Rwandan genocide, and who greeted Kagame’s rise to power with relief. In 2009, Bill Clinton presented Kagame with a Global Citizenship Award at his annual Clinton Global Initiative conference in New York. In 2010 I asked President Clinton about UN reports holding Kagame’s administration partially responsible for violence in the Congo. Clinton replied:
“The U.N. said what it did about what happened after the [Rwandan] genocide, in Congo. … Kagame strongly disputes it. Right now I’m not going to pre-judge him because there’s this huge debate about what happened in the Congo and why, and I don’t know.”
In reality, Kagame’s culpability has been broadly documented for years, by the United Nations, by Human Rights Watch, and by Africa scholars and advocates. It’s fine to hold Susan Rice accountable on this, but we have to reach higher, too, into the State Department, the Department of Defense, and the Oval Office.
Every so often the paranoid rhetoric of the "parental rights" movement surfaces in the Congressional Republican caucus. That's what happened yesterday when 38 senators blocked the United States from adopting the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, a treaty largely based on the Americans with Disabilities Act. That celebrated piece of legislation was signed into law by George H.W. Bush in 1990. Both former Bush presidents, Bob Dole, and John McCain all back the treaty, which seeks to prevent discrimination on the basis of disability, and which would do nothing to change any exisiting U.S. law or to prevent homeschooling. Yet anti-internationalist conservative interest groups have organized strong opposition to this treaty and others among homeschooling parents and Tea Party activists, telling them it could prevent parents from educating disabled children at home or using corporal punishment. From the Senate floor, Utah's Mike Lee articulated this position:
I and many of my constituents, including those who homeschool their children or send their children to private or religious schools, have justifiable doubts that a foreign UN body, a committee operating out of Geneva, Switzerland, should decide what is in the best interests of a child at home with his or her parents in Utah or in any other state in our Great union.
Back during the GOP primary I wrote an essay for The Nation about divisions in the Republican Party over school reform. The GOP education agenda is no longer set by No Child Left Behind moderates, who see school accountability and choice–backed by shared academic standards and enforced through standardized testing–as essentially conservative ideas. Instead, as President Obama and most Democrats have come to embrace that reform agenda, and have implemented it through programs like Race to the Top, the GOP has shifted far to the right, becoming increasingly responsive to activists who see any federal foray into education or children's issues more broadly as an invasion of the sacred parent-child relationship.
This helps explain what happened in the Senate yesterday, and it explains what the Republican Party will have to resolve, internally, if it really intends to make education a core part of its emerging post-2012 agenda, as Buzzfeed's John Stanton and Zeke Miller are reporting. Sure: Private school vouchers and anti-teachers' union rhetoric can coexist quite comfortably with strong support for unregulated homeschooling. Both sets of ideas are predicated on a certain hostility toward traditional public schools; Jeb Bush and Rick Santorum would agree, for example, that more kids should be able to use their state and federal education funding to enroll in online, for-profit charter schools, which students "attend" from their home computers, and which are much cheaper to operate than brick-and-mortar schools.
But ultimately, authentic school improvement must take into consideration the curriculum and how it is tested or assessed, not just at charter or online schools, but at traditional public schools, as well, in which close to 90 percent of American children are enrolled. The religious right has a long history of opposing state and national efforts to raise academic standards and even to provide high school students with on-the-job vocational training (Michele Bachmann began her career grandstanding on such issues); moderate Republicans like Jeb Bush and Mitch Daniels, however, remain comitted to the Common Core and to the basic idea that Washington has a role to play in supporting local schools and holding them accountable for results.
The intra-Democratic Party debate between traditional teachers' union positions and standards-and-accountability reform was resolved over the course of the past 20 years mostly in favor of reform. The Republican Party may now go through a similar transition. Will the GOP choose centrist standardization and school improvement (which costs money), or conservative hostility toward any investment in public education?