Category Archives: Politics

Questions to Ask About Suspending Five Year-Olds

Is it ever okay to suspend a kindergartener — repeatedly? John Merrow’s recent PBS report showed that the Success Academy charter schools do this. But as this response from Success CEO Eva Moskowitz demonstrates, even little kids are capable of violent behavior that impacts other children’s ability to learn. Teachers reported that the boy in question punched, scratched, kicked, threw desks, and screamed.

My question is what, other than suspension, did Success try to help this troubled boy? Psychological counseling? A smaller class? Did this child have a special education evaluation and a behavioral intervention plan? There may be privacy issues with revealing this information about this specific boy, but what, in general, is the practice at Success? If the boy in Moskowitz’s letter is indeed the same child who Merrow interviewed on camera, he seems to have grown into an articulate kid able to perform under the right circumstances.

These behavioral questions are some of the toughest in education and juvenile justice. They cut across charter schools, neighborhood schools, and private schools. If schools are going to follow the Obama administration’s guidelines to reduce suspensions, they need to have a set of alternative strategies in place, which should include support for teachers in how to do different kinds of discipline.

On “Show Me a Hero” and Suburban New York Poverty

show me a hero 2Via HBO, white people arguing about where non-white people should live.

At times it is unsubtle, but I generally like “Show Me a Hero,” the HBO miniseries from David Simon and Paul Haggis about the 1980s battle to integrate housing in the Westchester city of Yonkers.

Like Brentin Mock, I wish the NAACP, which sued Yonkers to locate affordable housing in traditionally white neighborhoods, was a bigger part of the story arc. Critics have also complained that the compassionately drawn public housing residents, many of them single mothers, are divorced from much of the political intrigue. Yet the absence of people of color in the scenes that depict local electoral politics rings true to me. I grew up in a nearby Westchester town called Ossining, with demographics similar to Yonkers. White ethnics were a slim majority, with public and affordable housing clustered close to the railroad tracks and Sing Sing prison. Though about 40 percent of Ossining was black and Latino when I was growing up, there were no black council members at the time I was paying attention, as a student journalist and stringer for a local paper in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Mayors were white. There were big debates about how to redevelop the village’s post-industrial waterfront, but there was limited, organized social justice activism on development questions, even though the black, Latino, and poor communities lived closest to the area slated for luxury apartmentsHundreds of families were on waiting lists for affordable housing while existing voucher housing was being transitioned to market-rate. Still, at one point the town’s NAACP chapter was decommissioned by the national organization for focusing more on national issues, such as Mumia Abu-Jamal, than on local ones. So to my eye, “Show Me a Hero” sketches many of the challenges around the suburbanization of poverty, especially the way in which outside of major cities, the infrastructure for progressive activism may not exist.

The show also reveals class tensions among whites. I particularly liked the recent scene where the Alfred Molina character, the anti-integration politician, talks smack to a youngish New York Times reporter who’s bugging him for an interview in a diner (and yes, diners are actually where important things happen in these Westchester towns). “Where do you live,” Molina asks him, “I bet on the Upper West Side or in Park Slope.” He lectures the reporter about how the judge who ordered housing desegregation and other affluent, liberal whites are more insulated from the problems of poverty than working class white people are in Yonkers. This reminded me of some of the folks I grew up around, who were civil servants, nurses, teachers, and owned small businesses. They were not eager to be exposed to what they saw as social dysfunction that they couldn’t afford to buy their way out of through private schooling. Note that when young Mayor Nick Wasicsko, the show’s accidental hero, is booted from office after belatedly supporting integration, he packs up his copy of Common Ground,  Anthony Lukas’ classic narrative of working class white opposition to school busing in Boston.

The show is making the point that the intergenerational poverty that white anti-integrationists feared living near was, in fact, a direct result of the geographic concentration of poverty that they fought to maintain. As I write in my book, desegregating neighborhoods and schools is an effective way of helping poor children become upwardly mobile, and does not tend to negatively affect the achievement of middle-class kids who come into contact with poor peers. If some of these social scientific facts are getting across to viewers of “Show Me a Hero,” I think the show is making a powerful contribution. The most important dialogue comes from the housing expert who wants to build townhomes at many different sites in Yonkers, instead of apartment complexes clustered together. He explains that the architecture of high-rise public housing fosters crime, because it is isolated from street retail and includes many internal no-man’s-lands that criminal organizations are able to exploit.

Separately, I think Oscar Isaac is wonderful as Nick Wasicsko, and totally transformed from his equally impressive portrayal of the folk singer Llewyn Davis. He captures both the self-involvement and charisma of a young, rising politician. My major pet peeves are that his wife is so sketchily drawn and that Winona Ryder, as another town politician, isn’t given more to do. I’m looking forward to the final two episodes.

Birth Control is a Class Issue: On Ricki Lake’s New Documentary

About six years ago, I began crying everyday around 3 pm. I’d be sitting at my desk in my downtown Washington, D.C. office, and would feel hazy and distracted. Then I’d get choked up. By the time I took the elevator to the lobby and started walking around the block outside, desperate for privacy, I was sniffling and my eyes were spilling over. At the time, I was in my mid-twenties. I’d been on anti-depressants as a young teenager, but hadn’t felt clinically depressed in over a decade. Six months earlier my longterm relationship had ended, but I was by then basically fine. So why was I crying every single day? Not knowing was deeply weird.

Eventually I remembered that I had recently switched from one birth control pill to another. I switched back, and sure enough, the 3 pm crying ended, pretty much immediately.

So you don’t have to convince me the pill can have side effects. I get it. I’ve probably tried 10 different prescriptions over the years in the search for the one that works best for me. None were perfect.

I’m thinking about this because a friend recently forwarded me a crowd-funding page for “Sweetening the Pill,” an anti-hormonal birth control documentary by Ricki Lake and Abby Epstein, the team behind the home-birth manifesto “The Business of Being Born.” Here’s their promotional video for the new birth control project:

The film will be based on a book by Holly Grigg-Spall, also called Sweetening the Pill. (I haven’t read it, but Lindsay Beyerstein has a smart and critical take at Slate.) I’m guardedly excited about the conversation this film could start. When I started to learn about fertility awareness, I was angry that I was never taught – sorry to be graphic – about how fertility is indicated through cervical mucus and body temperature. These are basic facts about female biology, and it is a serious failure of mainstream sex education that most young women are only passingly familiar with them.

But I’m also anxious about this documentary, not least because it’s sure to get a lot of attention, and this team’s last effort was more of a one-note attack on traditional obstetrics than a balanced take on women’s options for labor and delivery.  My problem with the documentary’s promotional material so far isn’t just the reflexive defense of the “natural,” as Amanda Marcotte notes at Slate— even though what’s natural isn’t always what’s best for women or anyone else. The truth is, one shouldn’t really talk about birth control in America without acknowledging that abortion is becoming less and less accessible to poor women, those who can’t afford to travel to access medical care. Just last month, a federal appeals court issued a ruling that would effectively shut down 80 percent of Texas abortion providers. Women are being prosecuted for helping their daughters access abortion pills, or for ordering them for themselves.

Against this backdrop, let’s remember that hormonal birth control is 90 to 99.5 percent effective, according to the CDC. In comparison, the male condom – which is controlled by men – has an 18 percent failure rate under typical use, while the failure rate for natural family planning is 24 percent. When birth control fails and abortion is inaccessible, the result can be forced pregnancy.

I’ve read Taking Charge of Your Fertility, the classic book by Toni Weschler about fertility awareness, the method the Lake/Epstein documentary promotes. Weschler acknowledges that it’s mostly more affluent, highly-educated women who have been interested in her system, which entails charting one’s physical signs day by day in order to track fertility cycles, whether to avoid or achieve pregnancy. It’s easier to remember to take your temperature in bed, at the same time every morning, if you work one job instead of two; if your work hours are regular; if you don’t work the night shift; and if you have a partner who can hop up to grab the crying baby. (To be sure, fertility apps are beginning to make some of this a little easier, but this type of technology is also disproportionately used by the well educated and affluent.) A failure rate of 24 percent is no joke. If I use natural family planning and get pregnant by accident, I am okay with getting an abortion or having a baby. But a woman with fewer resources may have fewer options.

I hope this new documentary acknowledges that.

What Is Justice For Kids Who Kill?

My new feature story is a partnership between The Marshall Project and Slate. It’s a longread about a 14-year old boy, Kahton Anderson, charged with murder as an adult. You may remember him from last year’s tabloid coverage: He was a middle school kid who got involved in street crews and shot an innocent man on a Brooklyn bus. This spring, he went on trial. A bill currently in front of the New York legislature would reform the legal landscape for kids charged as adults in criminal court, so this heartbreaking story is especially timely.

In 2012, Kahton Anderson found a gun.

The .357 Magnum, a revolver with a silver barrel, was hidden inside the radiator in the kitchen of the apartment Kahton shared with his mother and two siblings in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. Kahton said he had watched his older brother, Lakim, hide the gun there.

At first, Kahton, who was 12 at the time, only looked at the gun in its hiding place. But he quickly got to know the weapon better, removing it from the radiator, toying with it, and taking pictures of himself holding it. “If I could get some bullets for this mag, we would clear a lot of shit out,” he boasted to a friend on Facebook. By March 2013, Kahton was writing, “When beef come, we ready!”

A year later, this boy, with this gun, would take an innocent man’s life on a New York City bus. The case was easy fodder for the tabloids, which quickly dubbed Kahton a “fiend” and “thug.” It also raised some of the most difficult and pressing questions in criminal justice.

Read the whole piece.

What We Know About Michael Brown’s High School

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Is School Desegregation a Failed Movement?

I turned in the revisions of my book to my publisher yesterday (!), so my plan for the next few weeks is to get back into the swing of daily journalism. So. 

Over at Slate, Tanner Colby is writing a series on "The Massive Liberal Failure on Race." His first entry was "how the left’s embrace of busing hurt the cause of integration." 

Colby is right to point out that the progressive meme of "resegregation" of the nation's schools is flawed, because controversies over busing in the 1960s and 1970s meant the nation never fully implemented desegregation in the first place. He then concludes, "So far, nobody seems to have a solution that works" in terms of educating children of different races and classes together. That, however, is not really true. Here are some of the things that have worked: 

Recognizing that housing policy is schools policy. When neighborhoods integrate with mixed-income housing, schools integrate and test scores go up. Because more and more Americans in their 30s are choosing to put down roots in diverse urban neighborhoods, this presents an amazing policy opportunity to foster integrated schools. Charter schools like the Larchmont network in Los Angeles, Community Roots in Brooklyn, and Charles Drew in Atlanta are embracing integration as part of their missions, and are popular with families across lines of race and class. Last month President Obama  signed an executive order to allow charter schools that receive federal funding to weight their admissions lotteries in order to create diverse student bodies. 

Where busing is used, make it a matter of choice. Colby writes about an urban-suburban busing program that didn't work in Kansas City. But such programs are often quite popular: In Boston, Hartford, Milwaukee, and other regions, there are tens of thousands of children on waiting lists for voluntary inter-district transfers. 

When I began reporting on education in 2006, desegregation was seen as hopelessly outdated. Today there is actually growing consensus around the wisdom of integrating schools at the classroom level. (That means not using "gifted" or AP tracks as de facto tracking programs for affluent kids). So while it's important to acknowledge busing's flawed history, we need to bring this conversation into the present, too, and explore creative policy solutions to the problem of American children growing up without enough meaningful contact with children from backgrounds different than their own. 

Jacob Riis, School Reformer

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

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

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

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

Checking in on Bill de Blasio’s Universal Pre-K Ambitions

The signature proposal of Bill de Blasio's mayoral campaign was a promise to raise the wealthy's income taxes to fund universal, free, full-day pre-K for all the city's four-year olds. 

In the new issue of The Nation I report on the political prospects for this abitious plan, and also describe what a gold standard pre-K education looks like. 

Check it out!

Michelle Obama Has Always Leaned In

Michelle Cottle has written a Politico Magazine piece about Michelle Obama, called "Leaning Out: How Michelle Obama became a feminist nightmare." 

Cottle writes that Michelle has "always" prioritized the domestic sphere over the public, political one, thus enraging feminists. But that's not true. First, there are the basic facts of Michelle's biography, many left out of this piece. When Michelle and Barack met, she was his boss in the law firm where he was a summer associate. She worked full-time until her husband began his presidential run. She earned a lot of money. 

On the campaign trail in 2007 and 2008, she spoke movingly about how fear had led the United States into an ill-advised war in Iraq. Shortly after the inauguration, the first couple visited a Washington, D.C. public school. When Michelle asked the children what they wanted to be when they grew up–and one little girl cried out, "First lady!"–Michelle responded, "It doesn't pay much."

If that's not embracing the "Lean In" ethos, I don't know what is. A FLOTUS with a wry take on her transition from a $316,000 per year job to that of an unpaid figurehead? That's not the Michelle Obama we see in Cottle's portrait. Nor do we see the woman who went on a speaking tour to federal agencies to support the stimulus, and who pushed hard behind the scenes for health reform.

And to be fair, that's not the Michelle Obama that her husband's political advisors are most eager to show off. There has been a concerted push to portray Michelle as the "mom in chief." At times, it has rankled. 

But what's most problematic about the Politico piece is that although Cottle acknowledges race, she doesn't at all address what leading black writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Melissa Harris-Perry have been talking about for years: that Michelle Obama's focus on portraying herself as an exemplary mother is, in and of itself, somewhat radical, in a country in which the black family is openly pathologized as dysfunctional.

There's another, point, too. The supposedly "soft" issues Michelle has embraced, like healthy eating, exercise, and college-going, are ones that disproportionately affect the black community. Her partnership with Wal-Mart to address inner city food deserts didn't really take off, but at least Michelle helped put this problem on the national agenda.

The first lady role is infuriatingly fluffy, but that isn't Michelle Obama's fault. 

For more on these issues, check out this dialogue on black feminism between Melissa Harris-Perry and philosopher bell hooks.