Category Archives: Race

Joseph Massad’s Stunningly Ignorant Al-Jazeera Essay on Zionism and Anti-Semitism

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In the hallway at Crenshaw High, spring 2011.

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

For their final project, students had to analyze a data set that included test scores at various schools; neighborhood income levels; school truancy rates; and incarceration rates.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading

On the Atlanta Cheating Scandal

I've written a new explainer for Slate on the indictments of 35 Atlanta educators for inflating students' test scores: What does it tell us about national education reform? For previous coverage of my thoughts on Atlanta and standardized test-based accountability, see this 2011 piece.

And here is my Martin Bashir segment on the same topic, from yesterday:

 

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

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

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

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

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

“Hipsturbia:” Actually Becoming Browner, Poorer, and Older

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map via Andrei Scheinkman and Timothy Wallace, The Huffington Post

Like a lot of other folks, I was amused by yesterday's Times style section piece proclaiming the birth of "Hipsturbia": a supposedly new cluster of affluent, creative-industry white people who have moved from Brooklyn to the lower Hudson River Valley after procreating, mostly to the suburbs of Irvington, Hastings, Dobbs Ferry, and Tarrytown. As Jess Grose (Irvington's finest) notes at Slate, upscale white families have been moving from the city to those particular towns for many, many decades. The changes are really around the margins; now those emigrants are arriving not only from Manhattan, but also from the gentrified neighborhoods of Brooklyn, which means they're bringing all the associated cultural tics with them, like foodie snobbery. (And trust me, Westchester County could use a few more interesting restaurants.)

If we look at actual data, however, we'll notice that American suburbs are not becoming hipper and younger, but are in fact becoming poorer (as young adults with economic means increasingly choose to live in cities), browner (as immigrants and African Americans are priced out of central urban neighborhoods), and grayer (as the suburban population ages). I grew up near the Times' "hipsturbia" in a gorgeous riverfront town that illustrates all these trends: Ossining, New York. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, the town fathers dreamed of building commuter-friendly luxury condos to attract more Wall Street workers, while farmer's market types hoped developers would instead renovate our downtown's historic warehouses and loft spaces, to attract artists. We all argued a lot and screamed at each other, because we wanted our town to have a broader tax base and be more culturally vibrant. But very little downtown development of any sort ever happened, and the reasons why demonstrate why the Times piece is so facile. 

First, Ossining was experiencing a massive influx of immigration from rural Ecuador, along with some of the visible social challenges — such as day-laborers on the streets, and bilingualism in the public schools — associated with immigration. Second, with a socioeconomically-mixed population, a maximum-security prison, and one of Westchester County's few clusters of public housing, many affluent, white parents were never interested in moving to Ossining, because the public schools simply can't boast the stratospheric test scores that are typically a feature of more homogenous school systems.

Most of the towns mentioned in the Times story buck the grayer-browner-poorer trend exactly because they have been so uniformly affluent for so long that they are able to resist the demographic tides overtaking the majority of suburbs. They do so, in part, by deliberately excluding affordable housing. (Tarrytown is an exception, with a more diverse population. And it's a very charming town.) In other words, there is nothing remotely counter-cultural about these Brooklynites moving to these specific Westchester villages. They might wear cooler glasses, but they are following the well-trodden paths of the Baby Boomers and World War II veterans before them.

Are these denizens of "hipsturbia" among the first in a new wave of defectors to the suburbs, or are they outliers? It remains unclear. One of the big questions demographers have about Generation Y and Millenials is whether our much-noted preference for city life will persist as we age and reproduce. We don't have great numbers on this yet, but if many more families make the same choice the Times is noting–moving to heavily white suburbs–both cities and suburbs will miss a lot of opportunities to create more racially and socioeconomically-integrated communities, which are great for kids, great for schools, and (in my opinion) great for society. 

A Little Glimpse at My Book Research: Red Scare Attacks on Teachers

If there were endless hours in the day, I'd blog about the news much more regularly. But since my book project is pretty much all-consuming at this point, I'm not posting here as much as I'd like. I do want to let you know that over at my Tumblr, Popular History, I'm posting occasional tidbits I find as I research the political and social history of American public schools and teachers, including some fascinating newspaper and magazine reports, photos, and drawings.

Here's today's offering, which displays the paranoid rhetoric surrounding leftist educators during the WWI, WWII and Cold War Years. Though just a few hundred of New York City's 80,000 teachers at mid-century were social activists, those who lost their jobs during periodic red scare witch hunts were some of the district's most inspiring and dedicated teachers, including early advocates for school integration and a black history curriculum. Chapter five of the book will tell their stories. 

Michelle Rhee, Back in the News in a Big Way

I'm looking forward to this evening's episode of FRONTLINE, which will explore evidence of adult tampering with children's tests in certain Washington, DC public schools during the chancellorship of Michelle Rhee, who is perhaps the nation's most controversial school reformer. The allegations are not new. They were first revealed nearly two years ago by my colleague Greg Toppo and his crack reporting team at USA Today, which used a computer algorithim to comb through reams of data, and found a national pattern of manipulated standardized test scores in the wake of No Child Left Behind, which greatly increased test-score pressure on schools and districts. Tonight's documentary, however, reported by John Merrow, will delve more deeply into Rhee's efforts to evade a thorough investigation of statistically implausible test score gains. In a preview interview with the Education Writers' Association, Merrow judges Rhee harshly. "The record is pretty clear that D.C. schools are not better because she was there," he says. "They’re still at the bottom, with the lowest graduation rate in the country."

The FRONTLINE report is especially timely as it comes just a day after Rhee's national advocacy organization, Students First, released a "report card" grading states on how closely they align with Rhee's agenda of tying teacher evaluation and pay to student test scores; weakening teacher tenure; transitioning teachers from traditional pension to 401(k) plans; funding charter schools and private school vouchers; instituting mayoral and state control of schools; and expanding the charter school sector and holding it accountable for results. Doug Henwood notes that states with high grades on the report card, including Louisiana and Florida, have woefully poor student academic achievement, while Massachusetts, with the highest math and reading scores in the nation, earned a D+ from Students First. This is true, but as Matt Yglesias writes, most of Rhee's favored policies are too new to be conclusively judged; the proof will be in the pudding a decade from now, when we can track what effect, if any, school choice and test-score based accountability policies have had on gold-standard NAEP test scores over time. 

That said, Rhee's most influential effort, her push to tie teacher pay and job security to individual students' standardized test scores, is the one element of this agenda for which we already have some powerful, and disturbing evidence, thanks to the investigations of USA Today and FRONTLINE. As I've reported, psychometricians, the scientists who study testing, have been warning for decades that when policy-makers attach ever-higher stakes to tests–first accountability measures targeting schools and districts, and now job security threats for individual principals and teachers–the reliability of test scores is compromised, sometimes due to teaching-to-the-test, and sometimes due to outright cheating. This consistent finding has crucial implications for "value-added measurement," the method, promoted by economists, of using standaridzed test scores as the major proxy for teacher quality and student learning. If we are concerned, as Matt is, about so much economic modeling being backed by poor data, we must deal with the implications this has for education policy. In my 2012 year-in-review, I talk a bit more about what all this means for education research; I want to emphasize that raising concerns about value-added measurement does not mean one is reflexively "anti-testing," it simply means that one is questioning the wisdom of tying high stakes to tests.

Before I leave the subject of Michelle Rhee, it's worth noting that Students First has had a very difficult time coming up with a consistent position on the rights of teachers to collectively bargain, even just for pay.  (Most recently, it seems that they are against collective bargaining — for everyone.) Now, as Joy Resmovits reports at the Huffington Post, many of the well-connected Democrats who worked for Rhee have left her team, and are being replaced by former staffers from Americans Elect, a hedge fund-backed effort to elect third-party independents. 

I'm not questioning Rhee's personal commitment to certain progressive aims. I was impressed, for example, with her genuine efforts to better integrate public schools in rapidly-gentrifying DC neighborhoods, by working hard to convince college-educated parents to enroll their kids in local schools. But as her career advances nationally, she is more and more allying with Republican, even Tea Party-type conservative governors and state legislators. I'm midway through writing a book on the history of American education, and from this vantage point, I'm very skeptical about relying upon an anti-government political movement–one almost totally indifferent to social and economic inequality–to invest in and improve the schools poor children attend.