Category Archives: Television

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.

Discussing Teacher Tenure on “Melissa Harris-Perry”

Here is part of my conversation with Melissa Harris-Perry, teachers’ union president Randi Weingarten, accountability reformer Derrell Bradford, and Amy Goodman of “Democracy Now.” We squeezed in a lot (the full segment was 40 minutes), but I would have loved to add the following points: First, surveys show teachers themselves strongly support tenure, but believe it should take longer — about five years — to earn it. Second, a major challenge in high-poverty schools is not that too few teachers are leaving, but that there is constant staff turnover (and turnover itself decreases student achievement). Third, teachers say a great principal would be the number one draw to get them to take a job in a high-poverty school, more attractive than incentive pay.

There’s more on all this evidence in chapters 9 and 10 of my book.

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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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.

2012: The Year in Review, Education and Beyond

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

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


Magazines of the Year: Tomorrow and Jacobin.

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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

Discussing Educational Inequality With Chris Hayes

Chris Hayes is getting a lot of flack for his Memorial Day episode, in which he grappled seriously with war, peace, death, and memory. I'm going to outsource commentary on that to Conor Friedersdorf, but really, Chris should be lauded for hosting a show that deals with issues like education policy with more nuance than any other show on television. I was lucky enough to be part of Chris' panel on Saturday, where we discussed racial and socioeconomic segregation of schools, teachers' unions, and other crucial topics. Here are some clips.

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My Thoughts on Katie Roiphe, Sadomasochism, and Feminism

are over at The Nation:

Katie Roiphe has written a link bait-y Newsweek cover story making an interesting claim: that the pop culture appearance of submissive female sexual fantasies, in shows like Lena Dunham's "Girls" and pulp fiction like Fifty Shades of Grey, is somehow a backlash against women's increasing economic power.

I think this is generally wrong. …

Taboo-breaking sex is culturally prevalent right now not because of macroeconomic trends like the decimation of the male manufacturing sector, but because we live in an age in which all sorts of sexual practices are incredibly visible and talked about. In particular, easy access to online pornography allows people, at a younger age than ever before and with more privacy, to explore non-vanilla sex, whether low-key spanking and restraints or much kinkier stuff. Female-authored erotica and sexualized fan-fiction are burgeoning genres online, as well, and e-readers have made it possible for consumers to purchase and read this material with perfect privacy. This is the world from which Fifty Shades of Grey emerged.

But these desires are as old as the human race; in every century and decade, sadomasochistic erotica has broken into the mainstream, from from de Sade to Swinburne to Anais Nin to Anne Desclos to Anne Rice. Why assume, as Roiphe seems to, that some authoritative brand of feminism was ever supposed to lead to human beings losing their curiosity about power-play during sex, which is, after all, a physical act? 

Read the whole post.

My Al-Jazeera Appearance on American Jews and Israel

Last Wednesday I went to D.C. to appear on The Stream, a smart Al-Jazeera English show that combines traditional, in-studio interviews with feedback from online social networks. The topic was American Jews' changing views on Israel, the subject of Peter Beinart's new book The Crisis of Zionism, which I reviewed favorably for The Nation.  

I was especially interested in the Skype interview with Saar Szekaly, an artist who appeared on the Israeli version of "Big Brother" as a sort of political, performance art project, in order to raise awareness about what he considers an unjust occupation. On The Stream, Szekaly made the point that the average young Israeli, especially outside of Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, has almost no contact with Arabs, Palestinians or Muslims, and that this makes it difficult for many Israelis to understand the depth of Palestinian suffering. Because of the continuing conflict, the security wall, and increased racial and religious segregation, a young Israeli is less likely than her parents or grandparents to have befriended non-Jews. 

This is in remarkable contrast with the experience of young American Jews. Many of us attended racially and culturally diverse colleges, where we encountered the Palestinian narrative and grappled with it. In the post-9/11, Arab Spring era, most of us have far more interest in and contact with the Arab world than our parents and grandparents did in their formative years.

I do wish this segment had included a perspective further to the left, from someone who supports the broader BDS movement, for example, like the writers at Mondoweiss.

an earlier version of this post appears at The Nation