Category Archives: Web/Tech

The Kids These Days, Pornography, and Pleasure

Sasha 2Sasha Grey, via her Twitter feed

Cuddle Party would exist in my personal ninth circle of hell. Nevertheless, the sex/relationships guru who came up with the concept, Reid Mihalko, made some interesting comments in the San Francisco Chronicle yesterday that back up the ideas I was getting at in my critique of Katie Roiphe's Newsweek article on women, work, and S&M. 

In short: Greater interest in sadomasochism has less to do with economic trends and more to do with increased access to porn and erotica online. Mihalko spends a lot of time conducting workshops for college students, and he has found that many of them are exposed to really kinky stuff via the Internet, yet lack basic information on sexual health and pleasure, in part because they are graduates of abstinence-only sex-ed programs or received no sex education at all. He explains:

About 30 to 40 percent of what I do is lecturing at colleges. I do a lecture called "Sex Geek Chic," which is about using peer pressure in a positive way to encourage young adults to get their shit handled. If you don't know your STD status, if you don't know how to use a condom, if you're not savvy with consent and how to navigate your emotions in intimate relationships, you're uncool. …

There's an interesting dynamic going on among college students. A lot of them grew up with federally funded, abstinence-only education. But they also grew up with the Internet. So for visual learners, especially, they're getting their love-making cues from watching porn.

 Trying to learn how to be a better lover from porn is like trying to learn how to drive from watching "The Fast and the Furious."

Yes. I began high school in 1998, before pornography could be easily streamed online. It could be downloaded, but this took some real time and effort; guys I knew figured out how to do it, but if any of my female friends were experimenting with this in the late nineties and early aughts, we weren't talking about it openly with one another. (We were reading Anais Nin, though, don't get me wrong!) And way back when we were first hitting puberty in the mid-nineties, it was still scandalous and fascinating to get one's hands on an issue of Playboy.

Obviously, everything changed during my first few years of college–not just because my friends and I were getting older, but also because of technology. I don't want to be all old-ladyish at 27, but the last decade has seen a sort of epochal shift in how teenagers and young adults explore their sexuality. It used to be you had to go to an adult movie theater or the adult section of a video rental store or a sex club to watch other people getting it on; you had to actually interact with other human beings in those places and you risked getting "caught" by someone you knew. (A somewhat separate category of consumption would be the semi-ironic screening of retro porn movies on college campuses. Been there! And how prevalent was buying video pornography via the mail back in the day? I don't really know. Commenters?)

Now you can watch other people have sex anytime you want, for free, and in total privacy. This is a really significant development in the history of human sexuality, and I think its effects are both positive (less shyness about sex) and negative (more exposure to unrealistic, staged sex; more sexual outlets other than one's partner; and possibly more body anxiety as a result of comparing oneself to hundreds and thousands of other naked people).

Today it seems like we're having a constant, national conversation about porn and how it is changing our culture. Pornstars like Jenna Jameson and Sasha Grey have achieved some modicum of mainstream respectability, and pornography is regularly opined upon in the kinds of publications nobody would be embarassed to read on the subway. Porn has gone mainstream before, as it did in the "Deep Throat" era. But the shock and moral panic is, for the most part, missing these days (pace Rick Santorum); the general assumption is that almost everyone over the age of 12 has seen video porn at least a few times.

In any case, Reid Mihalko is on to something about young people and kink, even though he also seems a bit kooky. I really love the site MakeLoveNotPorn, and would like to especially refer my younger friends and readers to it (make sure to click on the arrows to see all the tips!). A more comprehensive resource on these matters is ScarletTeen.

On Bullying, Teen Suicide, and the Rush to Ascribe Blame (Often to Schools)

One of my first assignments as a college student journalist for the Brown Daily Herald was covering the suicide of a sophomore, who killed herself while home for October break. I remember feeling sick to my stomach as I walked to the girl's dormitory to interview her shocked, grieving friends. About 10 of us gathered in the dorm's common area, sitting in a circle. I scribbled notes as the dorm mates described an intelligent, curious, and socially conscious young woman. But when I pressed, somewhat uncomfortably, for details on the victim's emotional state and the recent events in her life, the friends were hesitant to speculate as to why, exactly, she had killed herself.

They were correct to be wary of my questions–and of the entire endeavor of "explaining" a suicide in a 600-word news article. Doctors, social workers, and researchers know that every suicide is unique and incredibly complex; there is rarely one simple reason why a person decides they no longer want to live. In a Slate review of the new documentary "Bully," Emily Bazelon does an excellent job complicating the picture of suicide the media so often paint, noting it's all too easy to blame schools after a tragic death, when, in fact, many suicidal teens are suffering not only from peer bullying, but also from mental illness, learning disabilities, and unsupportive home environments.

"Bully" devotes a lot of time to the story of 17-year old Tyler Long, whose parents–among the film's heroes–are suing his school district in the wake of Tyler's suicide. But as Bazelon reveals, the film never mentions that Tyler was on the Autism spectrum and had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and ADHD, nor that he sometimes picked fights at school and that his parents strongly suspected he was considering suicide, but didn't tell his therapist about it. What's more, Tyler's suicide note, addressed to his family, didn't mention bullying at all, and instead focused on their lack of support. "I don’t have a supporting family or friends for that matter," Tyler wrote. "You think I am worthless and pathetic. All I wanted was acceptance and kindness, but no I didn’t get love."

Jesse Green's 2010 New York article about Teddy Graubard, a 17-year old private school student who jumped to his death after being caught cheating, does an excellent job of showing just how complicated it can be to suss out why a teenager with Asperger's syndrome and a history of mental health issues kills himself.

The point is not that we shouldn't feel awfully, terribly sympathetic with suicidal teens and their devastated parents. We should. And of course, schools need to do everything in their power to help students feel safe and supported, both by cracking down on bullying and by referring kids (both the bullied and bully-ers) to in and out-of-school mental health services. The problem is the over-simplification of this issue in the public conversation, which actually makes it more difficult for schools and governments to address teen suicide rationally.

We saw this a lot around the story of Tyler Clementi, the gay Rutgers freshman who killed himself shortly after his roommate, Dharun Ravi, secretly filmed him making out with an older man. My Nation colleague Richard Kim has been eloquent on this point: The prosecution and conviction of Ravi had less to do with evidence that his actions led directly to Clementi's death, and more to do with moral panic over young people, bullying, technology, and sex. Richard writes:

Among the things blotted out by the trial and media circus is the enduring mystery of why Tyler Clementi committed suicide. He had an older, gay brother with whom he had a close and supportive relationship. His parents' reaction to his sexual orientation was mixed; his father was cool, his mother not so much, but they were still in regular and civil communication. He was clearly vexed about what Dharun Ravi had done, but was discussing what to do about it with a friend, the RA and online message boards. There’s nothing in these records that indicated he was suicidal or even beyond appropriately anxious about a situation to which he himself saw a resolution within reach (a new room). He wasn’t the victim of bullying across campus, and although he was socially shy, he was also somewhat sexually daring. He had four years of college, and a life, to look forward to—and indeed, until his Facebook post announcing his suicide, he was doing just that.

There are all too many cases of gay teenagers whose lives have been made intolerably miserable and who are driven to suicide by the harassment and violence of parents, family, fellow students, teachers and other authority figures. This is not transparently one of them.

In the wake of Clementi's suicide, New Jersey passed aggressive legislation requiring schools to document and address all cases of alleged bullying of students, whether they take place in or outside of school, or online (via Facebook, MySpace, email, etc.). As the Newark Star Ledger reports, the law, which did not include much extra funding for mental health services, has led to complaints from parents that it doesn't do enough, and complaints from school officials that it imposes a heavy paperwork burden without providing much explanation of how, exactly, to define bullying, or support to enable schools to monitor and address it effectively:

Guidance counselors and teachers face a steep challenge in trying to draw the line between conflict and bullying.

One suspected bullying incident in Roxbury involved two kindergartners fighting over crayons, and another stemmed from two intermediate school students excluding a third from their lunch table. The crayons case was ruled not to be bullying, but the lunch-table incident was, said Roxbury anti-bullying coordinator Phyllis Prestamo.

I'm not going to propose a solution to bullying or teen suicide, because I obviously don't think there is any kind of silver bullet, beyond supportive, caring families and schools, and expanding access to affordable, high-quality mental health care. It's just important to note that law suits, hate crime legislation, and education policy cannot be the only avenues for addressing these problems. I really do hope the Affordable Care Act, which will help a lot, is not overturned.

Flânerie Lives! On Facebook, Sex, and the Cybercity

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tome III intro artist, Pauquet

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

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

                                                Comptoir Pauquet

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

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

                                             Trollope

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

Beyond Pink vs. Blue: Why Gendered Toys Really Matter

Peggy Orenstein writes in the New York Times today about how various toy stores and toy manufacturers are navigating the minefield of gender and play. Parents of young children often marvel that, despite their own egalitarian intentions, their kids are the ones who police traditional gender norms. Indeed, as Orenstein notes, studies of primate and human toddlers found that while both sexes enjoy stuffed animals and books, boys prefer cars and balls, while girls are drawn to dolls. I myself have an embarrassing childhood memory of being distraught when given the gift of a remote-control airplane; my parents had to remind me to say thank you and then encourage me to play with it—and, of course, it turned out to be a lot of fun.

Orenstein points to research finding that children raised in households that practice and preach gender egalitarianism make better romantic partners as adults. But there are other reasons to encourage girls especially to play with stereotypically male toys. Research shows that boys get their first computers at younger ages than girls, and are more likely to become expert at video and computer games and to play with toys (like Legos) that develop spatial reasoning skills. This matters because all of these childhood activities are correlated with eventually pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and math—the STEM sector, which over the past decade has created three-times as many jobs as non-STEM fields. According to the Commerce Department, though women currently hold less than one-quarter of all STEM jobs in the economy, those who do work in STEM fields earn 33 percent more than women in non-STEM jobs.

Laura Reasoner-Jones is a Virginia elementary school computing teacher who enters teams of girls in  FIRST LEGO League, in which children compete to construct and program robots. She says parents should actively encourage their daughters to get over the “ick” factor many girls associate with traditionally “boy” activities, such as interacting with machines and building things. “Girls should be encouraged to go out and take apart the lawn mower; take the grass off the blades and see how it works. Parents can start with that.”

Sylvia Martinez, an expert on educational technology, has written about how all children need to reinforce math and science concepts through “tinkering”—interacting with the physical world, as opposed to just learning at their classroom desks. (For example: collecting water samples to test pH levels, or reinforcing math concepts by learning basic computer coding.) It doesn’t work, Martinez says, “to explain everything to kids without them having any basis in experience. I’m trying to expand the idea of ‘tinkering.’ It’s not just going down to the basement and playing with stuff. You can play with data, ideas, equations, programming.”

Parents can foster this type of experimentation at home, but schools should also do their part. The problem is that in an age of increased focus on standardized test scores in reading and math, many schools are canceling computing and science courses or cutting down lab time.

“We’ve created math and science in school as very abstract,” Martinez says. “We’ve taken away a lot of hands-on experiences from kids in favor of testing. We’ve reduced a lot of science to vocabulary, where kids are being given vocabulary tests about the ocean instead of going to the ocean or looking through a microscope at organisms. If we taught baseball the way we taught science, kids would never play until they graduated.”

When schools fail to spark children’s interest in science, math, and computing, the result is that populations that have historically been drawn to those fields—the sons of college-educated parents—continue to excel, while girls and low-income kids lag behind. The toys kids play with at home matter, and so do the lessons children learn at school; in order to overcome overwhelming cultural conditioning to the contrary, both parents and educators should actively send the message that all children will have fun and learn a lot when they “tinker” in the physical and electronic worlds.

cross-posted at The Nation

On the Purposes of Schooling

Mann pic

Horace Mann: "Man is improvable. Some people think he is only a machine, and that the only difference between a man and a mill is that one is carried by blood and the other by water." 


The New York Times' Stephanie Saul has a blockbuster investigative feature out on K12, the for-profit manager of virtual public charter schools. Saul finds that enrolling a child in a virtual school is, in fact, cheaper for the state than enrolling him in a brick-and-mortar school. But in the case of Pennsylvania's Agora Cyber Charter School, the modest cost savings are more than offset by a loss of quality: a learning "environment" of low standards (the lowest grade is not 0, but 50, and it is almost impossible to enforce attendance) and little or no real-time interaction with peers and teachers.

Many educators believe there is a place for full-time virtual learning for children whose pace is extremely accelerated or those with behavioral or other issues, like teenage mothers who need to stay home with their babies. But for most children, particularly in the elementary grades, the school experience should not be replaced with online learning, they say.

“The early development of children requires lots of interaction with other children for purposes of socialization, developing collaboration and teamwork, and self-definition,” said Irving Hamer Jr., deputy superintendent of Memphis city schools.

The entire piece raises the following question: What is school for? There is a disturbing tendency in the education reform debate to narrowly define "student achievement" as the goal of schooling. If our measures of success are merely graduation rates and test scores, then why not save $1500 per student and allow a bunch of disadvantaged kids to veg out in front of their laptops, indoors all day? Sure, over half of K12's 200,000 "cyberpupils" are behind grade level, but most of them are poor anyhow, and their neighborhood schools are probably failing, too. And maybe we can improve virtual schools over time–there's no reason to be a technophobe! Right?

In researching the history of American education for my book project, I've been struck again and again by the newness of the idea that schooling is primarily a matter of academic achievement. The mid-nineteenth century reformers who founded the Common Schools Movement, the precursor to our modern system of universal public education, believed that Protestant morality was the first goal of education. "Scientific truth is marvelous, but moral truth is divine," Horace Mann declared. His friend Catharine Beecher, an advocate for girls' education and women teachers, believed that the role of the teacher was "to instruct in morals and piety."

As the student population diversified at the turn-of-the-twentieth century, "Americanization" became the major goal of public education. In later years, reformers focused on vocationalism and then on racial healing. It is only really since "A Nation at Risk" that we've had a national dialogue about academic excellence for every child. This is a much-needed development in American culture, but its discontents are numerous: A lack of attention paid to the civic, social, and artistic benefits of schooling, and the ways in which children are (ideally) shaped as moral, cultured, socially-responsible people by their teachers and school communities. 

It will be a real political and moral failure if we continue to focus the expansion of the for-profit virtual learning sector not on advanced students, but on children who are already falling behind. These are the kids who most need and deserve the support of traditional learning communities, and who are least likely to have parents who can devote the many hours per day needed to act as a "learning coach" for a child enrolled in a school like Agora. 

That said, privileged kids, too, are dealing with the outcomes of over-rationalized educational thinking. In New York Robert Kolker reports on Valerie Reidy, the controversial principal of the Bronx High School of Science, one of New York City's premier public "test" schools for high-performers. Both my mom and stepdad graduated from Bronx Science; it has a reputation for excellence and creativity not only in the sciences and math, but in literature and history, too. Reidy, however, pushed by the Bloomberg Department of Education, was unhappy with the fact that Bronx Science students scored lower on Regents and AP exams than their peers at Brooklyn Tech and Stuyvesant. Over time, she required teachers to put more emphasis on preparing students for end-of-year tests, many of which are pitched at a lower level than Bronx Science students are capable of. This sparked a wave of student protests and teacher turnover.

One can debate Reidy's pedagogical approach, which focused on the inquiry method. My question is more about the ends to which she was applying this approach. Were average Regents scores of 85 instead of 95 at Bronx Science evidence of an underperformcing school, as Reidy and the DOE claim–or just evidence of a school that, as a community of educators, parents, and students, had decided to focus on values other than test scores? What's wrong with that?

Follow-Ups and Reading Lists and a Poem

I'm caught up in long-form writing projects this week, but here are some quick thoughts and reading recommendations until I can return to the blog in full force:

  • I got a lot of interesting responses to my post on Siri and abortion access. A common critique was that it's crucial to catch problems like this early in a new technology's life cycle, before it reaches mass market penetration. I totally agree, but maintain that greater progress would be made for more women right now if half the attention paid to the Siri contretemps was funneled into building basic web sites for locating reproductive health services. For example, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy has created Bedsider, which allows you to enter your zipcode and get a list of nearby clinics that provide affordable contraception. We need something similar for abortion.
  • Linda Darling-Hammond (on the left) and Rick Hess (on the right) are two of the smartest people in education policy. Here is their joint prescription for fixing No Child Left Behind, and for the federal government embracing a more "humble" role in school reform.
  • On the occasion of the Utne Reader downsizing, my friend Reihan Salam has a very thoughtful post on how small-ciruclation print magazines created "virtual communities" before the Internet. As Reihan notes, this was a big part of being a nerdy kid in the 1990s. And yes. I basically owe my life to small-circulation print magazines!
  • Speaking of which, the new issue of N + 1 contains delightful histories of Pitchfork and Gchat. Pick up a copy.

Lastly: My New Year's resolution for 2011 was to read a poem each night before bed. I failed miserably (of course), but in the spirit of the year ending, I've attempted to actually do this occasionally for the past month. Here is an old favorite, which I still find almost shockingly irreverent. But it's true, I think, nonetheless.

A Brief for the Defense, by Jack Gilbert, from Refusing Heaven

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that's what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.

Who Would Actually Use Siri to Find an Abortion Provider?

Amanda MarcotteJill Filipovic, and lots of other folks are calling attention to the fact that Siri, the new iPhone voice-recognition software, can find Viagra, prostitutes, breast implants, and anti-choice crisis pregnancy centers, but not abortion providers or contraception. For example:

Jill: I want a blowjob.
Siri: I found twelve escort services fairly close to you.

Jill: I want cunnilingus.
Siri: Is that so?

Jill: I’m pregnant, should I have an abortion?
Siri: I didn’t find any abortion clinics.

Jill: I’m pregnant. What do I do?
Siri: Are you?

Jill: My girlfriend is pregnant. What do I do?
Siri: Consider your alternatives.

Jill: My girlfriend is pregnant. What do I do?
Siri: First, do no harm.

Jill: My girlfriend is pregnant. What do I do?
Siri: Always do the right thing.

This is pretty hilarious for what it tells us about the puerile, male-dominated culture of the engineers at Apple and the third-party developers whose data and software run Siri. What this isn't is a crisis for women who own iPhones and are facing reproductive health challenges.

The average household income of an iPhone owner is $100,000 annually, compared to $85,000 for other smartphone users and about $50,000 for the typical American. Do we really believe that women who own iPhones–a generally privileged, educated, savvy group of people–will turn first to Siri when they are in need of a birth control prescription or information about where to obtain an abortion?

What women really need on these occasions are websites that plainly and clearly list where one can access various affordable reproductive health-care services. Here's a great page provided by the New York City Department of Health, explaining where to pick up emergency contraception. It would be wonderful if there were a similar page for abortion providers in the city, but I can't find one. Instead, when you click on "abortion" on the city's "Health Topics A-Z" site, you are told to call 311, an extra step that could dissuade many people, especially young girls hesitant to talk about their pregnancies. 

If you have money or tech expertise to donate to local women's clinics, it would be a great idea to help those organizations improve their SEO, so that when women Google for information on reproductive health services, they are directed to helpful sources, instead of to the CPC crap that so often rises to the top of searches. It would also be great if there were more local websites geared specifically toward teenagers, providing easy-to-read information on where to access birth control and abortion. 

In any case. Apple is embarrassed. It's sad and funny. But it's way more important to focus on basic web searches for this kind of information than it is to worry about Siri, a tool used by a very privileged and educated slice of the population.

An Explosion in Lobbying around For-Profit K-12 Programs

My friends at The Nation have published a really fascinating investigative piece by Lee Fang about the explosion in lobbying around K-12 for-profit, virtual education, particularly targeting charter schools. This is a sector of the education world that's very difficult to track, because every state has different, often vague laws about how for-profit companies can be involved in public education.

As of 2008, 13 states allowed charter schools to partner with for-profit companies for facilities, 17 states allowed partnerships for services, and three states actually allowed for-profit companies to directly open a charter school. But even in states where for-profits are not allowed to hold a charter themselves, they are sometimes allowed to spin-off an affiliated non-profit to hold the charter, which will then contract with the for-profit for services. (This is prevalent in Ohio). Here in New York, no charter opened after 2010 can be managed by a for-profit, but in Michigan, 80 percent of charters are for-profit.

What do for-profit education services for public K-12 schools look like? Sometimes they are online-learning classes or tutoring services offered to students enrolled in brick-and-mortar schools. Sometimes they are completely virtual schools, like the one described by Katherine Boo in her 2007 New Yorker piece about the collapse of Manual High School in Denver:

Ashley, who had been accepted into a small, competitive program at another public high school, was uneasy, too, and, anyway, there were flyers at Wal-Mart about a publicly funded online charter school a few blocks from home. One of the people involved with the program had been a Denver Nugget, and his daughter was the R. & B. singer India.Arie. Students did their work on the Internet, and it was graded by teachers in an office somewhere else. Plus, they could train to be nurses or doctors, or something; the details weren’t clear. Still, after a stressful year, the chance to stay near home, with Internet access and relational proximity to India.Arie, seemed soothing, so two of Manual’s star students changed their plans.

As Fang notes, online learning can be an important supplement to real-world classrooms; I think this is especially true for advanced high school students, who should be given the chance to jump ahead in the curriculum, perhaps through video lectures from college professors. The problem is that the studies we have of typical online learning outcomes haven't shown very impressive results. Fang writes:

A recent study of virtual schools in Pennsylvania conducted by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University revealed that students in online schools performed significantly worse than their traditional counterparts. Another study, from the University of Colorado in December 2010, found that only 30 percent of virtual schools run by for-profit organizations met the minimum progress standards outlined by No Child Left Behind, compared with 54.9 percent of brick-and-mortar schools. For White Hat Management, the politically connected Ohio for-profit operating both traditional and virtual charter schools, the success rate under NCLB was a mere 2 percent, while for schools run by K12 Inc., it was 25 percent. A major review by the Education Department found that policy reforms embracing online courses “lack scientific evidence” of their effectiveness.

So there's good reason to proceed with caution, which is difficult to do when folks like Jeb Bush are traveling the nation advocating for absurd laws like one recently passed in Florida, which requires every single public high school student to enroll in at least one online course before graduation. This is certainly putting the cart–technological "innovation"–before the horse, which should be a quality education provided by effective teachers.

More Non-Fiction, Simplified Elementary School Math: How the Common Core Could Change the American Curriculum

Knob-creek-bourbonOn Saturday I attended a fascinating presentation on the new Common Core curriculum standards in English and math, which 47 states and territories have agreed to implement by the 2014-2015 school year. The speakers were journalist Peg Tyre; testing expert Laura Solver, who works for a consortium of states developing assessments based on the Common Core; and David Coleman, a lead author of the actual standards.

Coleman has become the face of the Common Core on the edu-wonk speaking circuit, and let me tell you: He's a real showman. A former school reform entrepreneur with a master's degree in Greek philosophy, he opened the panel discussion for reporters, hosted at the Columbia Journalism School, by asking, "Do you know what the root of 'symposium' is in Greek?" My friend Greg Toppo of USA Today got the right answer: "drinking together." Coleman then pulled a handle of Kentucky bourbon and a stack of green plastic cups out of a paper bag, circulating them around the room of twittering (and tweeting) journalists.

Past attempts to develop national curriculum guidelines became mired in culture war controversy, but this latest effort–led by the states, not the federal government–has a real shot at influencing teaching and learning at the classroom level, and hopefully fostering a more rigorous academic culture in American public schools. If administrators and teachers implement the new standards faithfully, how will the curriculum evolve? Let's first look at math.

Currently, American students are taught just a little bit about a whole lot of mathematical topics each year; we have a curriculum with tons of breadth, but not much depth. Check out this chart Coleman showed us from education researcher Bill Schmidt. It demonstrates that while typical first-graders in high-achieving Western European and Asian countries learn just three concepts–quantity, measurement, and addition/subtraction of whole numbers–American first-graders must learn 14 topics, including polygons, circles, how to use a compass, and how to estimate. 

MathThe American curriculum may appear more rigorous, but our six-year olds are actually being denied the opportunity to master the foundational skills upon which the rest of their mathematical education will be based. The problem, according to Coleman, is that American curriculum standards have traditionally been written by committees whose members advocate for their pet pedagogical theories, such as traditional vs. reform math. "The only way to end a committee meeting is to let everyone get their stuff in," Coleman said. The result is that teachers feel rushed each year to move through an enormous list of standards. "Students and teachers bear all the weight of this," Coleman pointed out. "The standard writers are removed from this." The goal of the Common Core is, for the first time, to move American math standards in the simplified direction of our international peers. 

That said, states have agreed only to use the Common Core as the starting point of their own curricula in math and English; states do have the option of adding additional topics. So it's certainly possible that many will ignore best practices and heap more topics onto the rubric. 

In English, the potentially most controversial recommendation of the Common Core is to reduce the proportion of the curriculum focused on fiction. Currently, according to Coleman, American students are reading about 80 percent fiction and 20 percent "informational texts;" he would like to shift that balance to 50/50, in order to better approximate the kinds of reading and writing students will be expected to do in college and eventually in their careers.

I've written in the past about the problem of American teens not reading and writing serious non-fiction, and plan to write a longer piece about it soon. In short, our educational culture reflects our popular literary culture in its obsession with memoir. We are constantly asking kids to reflect on their personal experiences, but we aren't expecting them to engage seriously, in writing, with news, political arguments, or historical debates.  

Consider this typical elementary school writing prompt, for New Jersey 3rd-5th graders:

Most people have a special activity or hobby that they enjoy. Some people collect things while others like to read or play games. What activity do you like to do? Write a composition describing what you enjoy doing. Explain why that activity is special to you.

The Common Core Appendix B contains suggested reading lists and writing prompts for children of all ages. These are written for teachers, not for kids, but you can see how different a prompt resulting from this standard would be:

Students describe the reasons behind Joyce Milton’s statement that bats are nocturnal in her Bats: Creatures of the Night, and how she supports the points she is making in the text.

Here's a 12th grade writing prompt from the NAEP test, which is currently considered the gold-standard American exam:

Who are our heroes? The media attention given to celebrities suggests that these people are today's heroes. Yet ordinary people perform extraordinary acts of courage every day that go virtually unnoticed. Are these people the real heroes? Write an essay in which you define heroism and argue who you think our heroes really are–mass media stars, ordinary people, or maybe both. Be sure to use examples of specific celebrities, other people you have heard or read about, or people from your own community to support your position.

This assignment at least asks students to back up an argument with evidence, but the prompt is pulled out of the ether of pop culture, instead of referring to a specific text or even movie or TV show. The Common Core would hold high school seniors to a much higher standard:

  • Students delineate and evaluate the argument that Thomas Paine makes in Common Sense. They assess the reasoning present in his analysis, including the premises and purposes of his essay.
  • Students analyze Thomas Jefferson’s "Declaration of Independence," identifying its purpose and evaluating rhetorical features such as the listing of grievances. Students compare and contrast the themes and argument found there to those of other U.S. documents of historical and literary significance, such as the Olive Branch Petition.
  • Students provide an objective summary of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden wherein they analyze how he articulates the central ideas of living simply and being self-reliant and how those ideas interact and build on one another (e.g., “According to Thoreau, how specifically does moving toward complexity in one’s life undermine self-reliance?”)

When it comes to fiction, the Common Core will expect students to engage directly with a text, instead of "talking around the text" by asking kids to reflect on a literary theme such as justice or personal growth. For third graders:

  • Students ask and answer questions regarding the plot of Patricia MacLachlan’s Sarah, Plain and Tall, explicitly referring to the book to form the basis for their answers.
  • When discussing E. B. White’s book Charlotte’s Web, students distinguish their own point of view regarding Wilbur the Pig from that of Fern Arable as well as from that of the narrator.

For 12th graders:

  • Students analyze the first impressions given of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet in the opening chapter of Pride and Prejudice based on the setting and how the characters are introduced. By comparing these first impressions with their later understanding based on how the action is ordered and the characters develop over the course of the novel, students understand the impact of Jane Austen’s choices in relating elements of a story.
  • Students compare and contrast how the protagonists of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter maintain their integrity when confronting authority, and they relate their analysis of that theme to other portrayals in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century foundational works of American literature.

Before closing out, a few words on the nuts and bolts of the effort to implement the Common Core. The project is a partnership between a number of organizations, including the National Governor's Association; the Council of Chief State School Officers; Achieve, a non-profit testing group created by the governors; the ACT; the College Board; the State Higher Education Executive Officers; the American Association of School Administrators; and the Business Roundtable. The federal government is supporting the Common Core with about $350 million, most of which is dedicated to developing and implementing tests based on the new standards. Federal funds are also being used to create instructional materials and professional development sessions for teachers who will use the new curricula.

The other major supportor of the Common Core is the Gates Foundation, which expects to spend a total of $250 million "to develop next-generation instructional tools and assessments that will help states and school districts implement the standards."

If I'm skeptical of any part of this effort, it's probably the strong belief, voiced by advocates like Coleman and Solver, that high-quality assessments will drive states, schools, and teachers to faithfully implement these new standards. There's a long history in American education reform of believing that better tests will lead to better schools and deeper learning; as authors like Nick Lemann and Herbert Kliebard have demonstrated, that isn't usually the case. And there are some other looming issues around assessment: Common Core tests will be given on computers, and although Solver said real people will be grading essay questions when the program rolls out in 2014, it's clear that the partner organizations are intrigued by the possibility of developing computer technology to grade student writing. I mention that push in my recent piece on the testing industry for GOOD magazine, and hope to do more reporting on it soon.

In short, there is so much to follow-up on here, my head is spinning. The Common Core is one of the biggest stories in American education right now, and has been woefully undercovered in the press.