Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Samasource: ethical outsourcing or 21st century deskilling?

For the last couple of weeks, I've been away on a trip in New Zealand. It's a spectacular place, and I've been "tramping" (this is the New Zealand word for walking) along all kinds of magical trails. As such, I haven't had much time for blogging. However, on a drive between tramps, I did manage to take in a fascinating BBC radio documentary on Samasource, a new San Francisco non-profit that does ethical outsourcing. This story annoyed me to such an extent that I felt compelled to write a post about it when I returned.

Samasource is a non-profit organization that claims to "bring dignified, computer-based work to women, youth, and refugees living in poverty." The work that Samasource farms out includes typing out business cards and receipts, checking scanned text for errors, and verifying business listings. Samasource then pays women and refugees a living wage to do this work.

What could possibly be wrong with this?

Friday, November 18, 2011

Danger: Thin Understanding!

Over a year after it came out, I finally sat down to watch Waiting for Superman. A conversation between the filmmaker and an African American grandmother from Washington DC, who has custody of her grandson Anthony, hit the issues square on the head, I thought. "Choice?", the grandmother exclaims. Taking in Anthony after his father died was no choice, she continues. He had no one else, so of course she raised him.

The rest of the movie was bunk. A case can be made for charter schools, but this film's shallow understanding of education puts its level of argument somewhere below that of a pre-service teacher at the end of one good semester of ed school. Those teachers, in other words, have a better understanding of education than Guggenheim does. When the cartoon showed a teacher pouring knowledge into the head of a child (with a comment to the effect of "it should be easy, right; knowledge goes from the teacher to the child"), I had to turn the movie off for a minute. I had to again after the movie claimed that of course KIPP schools can be scaled up -- after all there are around 80 already! -- as if this were any kind of evidence. (Even KIPP's founders deny that KIPP can be scaled up to include all schoolchildren who would benefit from such a program.) And while those were the most egregious errors, there were plenty more.

As I watched, I kept wondering if Guggenheim was aware of the irony of including that grandmother's quote. Choice? There is no choice. If there are children who need to be cared for, those who care about them take them in. That has never been a factual description of the United States, but it is certainly our ideal, our national myth. If all of us thought about schools and schoolchildren the way that grandmother thought about her grandson -- as vulnerable yet invaluable people who need care and commitment, not a menu of choices -- we'd end up with . . . well, public schooling.

This is but one of the deep and important truths that public schoolteachers understand. I'd call them the real Supermen, except, of course, most of them are not men. They're women. So, given that most schoolteachers are women, why not "Waiting for Wonderwoman"? Because there is an ugly gendered undercurrent to the criticisms of public school teachers at large in our national discourse -- and in this ugly movie. One of those other simple lessons that Guggenheim seems to have missed is that anytime you're inclined to scapegoat a group of relatively disempowered people for a national problems, you should think again.

I waited a year to see this movie, and might as well have kept on waiting. The filmmaker, I'm sorry to say, seems to have fallen asleep at the wheel.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Karl Rove's latest attack ad: Watch out, Elizabeth Warren's got THEORIES!

Another week, another attack ad aimed at Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren. This one, apparently, is courtesy of Karl Rove and his American Crossroads organization.

This ad, completely ridiculous though it may be, is substantially more effective than the last one. Let's go through it frame by frame:

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Occupy our Classrooms!

Two recent newspaper stories caught my attention. In both, teachers sought to connect the content they were teaching to the Occupy protestors in public parks near their schools. In one case, the teacher engaged her students in asking the protestors about the rationales for their actions, the understandings of democracy that prompted their actions, and the like. Given that much of our current prescribed, tested, and hidden curriculum works to silence student protest and divorce teaching of democracy from that actual practice of democracy occurring outside school doors, I found these stories to be worth celebrating.

Educating students for citizenship should not be confined to school walls or school personnel. It’s important that children experience organic efforts at trying out citizenship and dissent by studying and at appropriate times even working alongside real people engaged in struggle, doing what Giroux calls making “the political more pedagogical.”
Efforts to bring children out to politically and civically active groups and to bring those groups into schools helps to unite the prescribed and external curriculum. Skilled teachers can bring those external experiences back into the classroom as fodder for discussion, such as critique of the way the group operates, including how it uses language and media to engage dissent, how it builds coalitions, and whether or not its intentions are good, thereby helping students better understand how successful dissenting groups work and how they keep democracy healthy. Moreover, such an experience allows children to see how real life people engaged in protest experience suffering, struggle, and triumph, humanizing the learning of dissenting citizenship for children.

So I say let us use the Occupy protests as learning opportunities to help our students make sense of the political events occurring around them and, moreover, to learn to appreciate (and even practice) dissent as central to a flourishing democracy.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

"For now I see what is the matter with you, John Dewey": Dispatches from the Scudder Klyce files

One of the little known facts about Dewey is that he had an intense, frequent correspondence with a very strange ex-Navy man, Scudder Klyce (the image above is a postcard sent by Klyce in 1907, when he was on a naval posting in Nicaragua).

Outside of the world of Dewey scholarship, Klyce is perhaps best known his book, Universe, to which Dewey wrote a forward. The opening lines of the book describe Klyce's ambitious project clearly:
1. a. This book is a brief description, and rigorous proof of the truth of the description, of the universe and all that appertains to it, both "spiritual" and "material." Hence, the book is religion, science, and philosophy. 
Since Universe is (as one would expect) rather heavy going, I will make no judgment here as to whether Klyce succeeded in this difficult task.

At any rate, Klyce was a bright man, but he was also an odd duck, as virtually all of his (extremely lengthy) letters to Dewey make clear.

Consider, for example, Klyce's comments in a letter to Dewey, dated July 31, 1927. Klyce has recently found out that Dewey's wife had died, and he takes the time to send the following sympathetic missive:
I am very sorry that your wife has died. And I thank you for telling me the circumstances. For now I can see what is and has been the matter with you. I am sorry that I have been bothering you when your mind was thus preoccupied. This letter of yours which I have just received (yesterday afternoon) is so confused and contradictory as to be substantially incoherent. And I state that simple fact without implying any sort of adverse criticism—I am rather inclined to consider it a positive merit on your part that you should have written such intellectuallly defective stuff.
And the letter does not stop here!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Fixing schools because we can't fix the real problems

Did you catch Charles Blow's piece in the weekend NY Times featuring this chart? The chart is aptly titled "Bottom of the Heap" and makes clear that when it comes to the concept of the "just society," the United States does not make the grade. The US ranks 27th among 31 developed nations in measures of intergenerational justice (poverty prevention, child poverty, senior citizen poverty, income inequality, pre-primary education and health rating). Our senior citizens are not at the bottom of the barrel (thank you, Medicare and Social Security), our health rating is higher than Mexico and the former Eastern Bloc countries (something to brag about?), and we spend nearly as much as Finland on pre-primary education (not as good as it sounds since we're still in the next to the last quintile), but the other ratings are truly terrible.

As I was studying this chart I was reminded that inequality is not born and nurtured in our schools; it is deeply woven into American society. It is created by adults and sustained by adults -- and it should be up to adults to talk openly and respectfully about what kind of social fabric we want to weave and wear. Instead we talk about equity vs. excellence (a false dichotomy if there ever was one) and ask that we fix what ails society through high quality schooling.

I am all for high quality schooling for all our children -- and we need to mobilize every person and every resource in that effort not because it solves inequality but because education is good -- for students, for communities, for economic interests. But I can't help but think that those who consider themselves "new reformers" of public schools are fixing schools because they just don't know how to fix any of our real societal problems.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Mental and Moral Science

I just finished reading an obituary for the Jungian psychologist James Hillman who -- with Robert Bly and Michael Meade -- was a key figure in the "men's movement" of the 1990s. Two interesting points worth pondering today:

1) Hillman took seriously our "demons," urging that thoughts of death and suicide be thought of not as symptoms of mental "illness" to be cured, but as philosophical longings to be explored and understood. Parents who were trying to "manage" a mentally troubled son would be well-advised to to begin by NOT trying to change him. Counterintuitive? Surely but oh so sensible. This brought to mind thoughts of R.D. Laing's thesis in The Politics of Experience that insanity was just a sane response to an insane world. Why is THAT rolling around my psyche right about now?

2) Hillman graduated from Trinity College in Dublin with a degree in "mental and moral science," a phrase and a concept Dewey might have a good time with. Where could one study such things today?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Wisdom from Experience and Nature

A lovely remark in Experience and Nature caught my eye recently:
The "matter" of materialists and the "spirit" of idealists is a creature similar to the constitution of the United States in the minds of unimaginative persons. Obviously the real constitution is certain basic relationships among the activities of the citizens of the country; it is a property of phase of these processes, so connected with them as to influence their rate and and direction of change. But by literalists it is often conceived of as something external to them; in itself fixed, a rigid framework to which all changes must accommodate themselves. Similarly what we call matter is that character of natural events which is so tied up with changes that are sufficiently rapid...It is no cause or source of events or processes; no absolute monarch; no principle of explanation..." (p. 73)
It's meant to be a call to think about reality in terms of experience rather than in terms of underlying substance. However, there's lots of political food for thought here as well, particularly given the times in which we find ourselves, in which constitutional literalism is, rather surprisingly, stronger even than in Dewey's time.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Anti-intellectualism: it's back!

Remember 2008, when conservatives mocked Obama for being an "arugula-eating pointy-headed professor type"? With all of the hooting and hollering about Obama's alleged "intellectual elite" status, I had thought that 2008 might have been a high-water mark for anti-intellectualism, which Richard Hofstadter defined as "a resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it."
Of course, there was nothing unprecedented about this hostility--America has a long tradition of anti-intellectualism. Thomas Jefferson, one of the less boring founding fathers, was derided during the campaign of 1800 for his "shewy talents" and his dangerously French "theoretic learning." 

So perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that in 2011, with the Republican primaries in full swing, anti-intellectualism is back, baby!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Education Connection: worst ad in America or worst company in America?

The Consumerist, a consumer rights blog, is running their annual "Worst Ad in America" contest. Beyond the usual mix of unfunny jokes, horrible theme songs, or hackneyed corporate spokesthings, one ad caught my eye. It's a spot for Education Connection, a company which claims to help match students with colleges. If you click on the video, you will discover why Education Connection has been nominated for Worst Jingle:

But it's not the quality of the jingle that interests me here. Our pitchwoman sings, "It matched me with the right college for me for free." As Neil Young says, "Tell me more, tell me more." Who are these altruists who want to inform America's youth about their exciting college options?

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Tough questions: new teachers and free speech

In life, most of us (save those, perhaps, that adopt an unabashed go-with-your-gut philosophy) experience the occasional moment of internal conflict and indecision. Usually, these happen to me at the store, when I'm trying to choose between Oat Flakes and Oat Clusters. Difficult waters to navigate--ingredient lists that extend far beyond oats, stunning illustrations of the magic of food chemistry, and so on. This is why it sometimes takes me a while to emerge from the supermarket.

But, once in a while, conflicted moments happen in the professional context. Last week, I was invited to appear on a panel at the University of Prince Edward Island (UPEI). The topic of the panel was dealing controversial issues in the classroom, and I had been invited because the students had read my article on the Morin case.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Longer, Faster in Chicago

Since I became a Chicago Public Schools parent two years ago, I have been rolling my eyes at our district's notoriously short school day and short school year. School dismissed at 2:45? 3 weeks straight of 3-day weeks in November? No school for Pulaski Day? Come on, I would think, as I scrambled to find useful ways to engage my daughter's out-of-school time, is this district for real? CPS students spend fewer hours in the classroom and fewer days in school than most other large urban school districts, and when Jean-Claude Brizard was appointed CEO, he was charged with changing that.

In the past few weeks, his attempts to do so have been making headlines. After cancelling the 2% raise originally offered CPS teachers, Brizard offered individual schools who were willing to waive their contract and add an extra 90 minutes to schooldays $150,000 for the year, or $75,000 if they make the change in January. So far, 7 schools have elected to do so (on a majority vote by teachers). In the 2012-13 school year, Brizard has announced, all schools will have a longer day.

It comes as something of a surprise, then, to find myself horrified by this possibility. Here's why.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Did a Québec Blogger Cause a Car Dealership to Burn?

Early this morning, a KIA dealership burned down in Montreal. The fire department suspects that the fire was a result of criminal activity because some cars in the lot were found with their tires slashed.

Normally, this wouldn't be big news. Things burn down regularly in irregular ways in Montreal, and for the most part no one pays much attention. It's usually a matter of someone not paying their protection money to one of the many organized crime syndicates that ply their trade around here.

This time, though, it may be different. Early this week, the dealership was targeted by a Québec blogger, Gab Roy, who claimed that it had ripped off his friend Genevieve, an attractive former reality TV contestant. Apparently, Genevieve had placed a $500 deposit on a car at KIA Pointe-aux-Trembles, but she eventually bought another car at a different dealership. When Genevieve returned to get her deposit back, KIA Pointe-aux-Trembles refused to return it.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Call for Proposals--John Dewey Society meeting in Vancouver (April 13-17, 2012)

Dear Members and Friends of the John Dewey Society,

Founded in 1935, the John Dewey Society exists to keep alive John Dewey's commitment to the use of critical and reflective intelligence in the search for solutions to crucial problems in education and culture. We subscribe to no doctrine dogmatically, but in the spirit of Dewey, we welcome controversy, respect dissent, and encourage responsible discussions of issues of special concern to educators. We also promote open-minded, critical reconsiderations of Dewey's influential ideas about democracy, education, and philosophy.

At this upcoming conference, we welcome contributions that either relate specifically and directly to Dewey's life and work OR that represent the "spirit" of John Dewey. They may be in the form of papers, panels, or other formats described by the author. Please submit an abstract of no more than 750 words. You do not need to be a member of the John Dewey Society to submit a proposal, although you will be asked to join should your paper be accepted. The deadline for proposals is September 5, 2011. They should be sent to Kyle Greenwalt, Secretary of the John Dewey Society, at

Sincerely yours,

Deron Boyles
President, John Dewey Society

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Click N for “No”: An Educational Technology Returns from the Dead

As a graduate student at the Stanford School of Education, I often attended lectures in a large lecture hall at CERAS, the Center for Educational Research. The distinguishing feature of the otherwise ordinary lecture hall was that it was equipped with large cash register-like keypads that were embedded in the tables in front of each seat. When we asked what the keypads were for, we were informed that they were part of a “state-of-the-art” student feedback system that had been installed during the 1960s. During the course of a lecture, students would press Y or N on the keypad to indicate whether they understood a lecturer’s point, or they might key in a specific number to respond to a mathematical question. When they were installed in the late 1960s, these keypads were hailed as a revolutionary educational technology. No longer would lecturers have to wonder whether students understood a particular point; instead, students could anonymously key in Y or N. A breakthrough in student learning was surely just around the corner.

As it happened, even in their 1960s and 70s heyday, the keypads were seldom used. The machines turned out to be unreliable, and, more importantly, the professors at the School of Education turned out to be largely uninterested in the supposed transformative power of the keypads. By the time I arrived at Stanford in 2001, the technology had been dead for twenty years. I was still free to press Y or N to indicate my low level of comprehension or my secret disagreement with the lecturer, but, alas, no one was monitoring the response.

Imagine my surprise, then, upon discovering that Stanford’s white elephant is making a 21st century comeback. This time, however, the keypads have gone wireless. In the contemporary version of the “student response system,” students are issued small credit-card sized “clickers” upon which they can press Y or N or a numerical response. As was the case with the Stanford system, the results are made available to the lecturer, and with our 21st century technology, the fruits of this “instant polling” can now be instantly displayed in a nifty Powerpoint slide.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Civility: It’s All the Rage

Only a few short months ago in Wisconsin, protesters engaged in what the Christian Science Monitor called, a “week of rage” through protests over the governor’s budgetary cuts that would weaken collective bargaining power of public employees. Their rage was compared to that expressed by tea party activists over the past two years and even activists leading the protest that caused Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to resign.

In late February the University of Arizona announced the establishment of a National Institute for Civil Discourse, naming former presidents Clinton and Bush (Sr.) as chairs. Acting in the wake of the violent rampage in Arizona that took the lives of 6 people and maimed 19 others, including Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, Arizona Board of Regents member Fred DuVal charged the Institute with the task of defining “best practices and corrosive practices” in debate. He asked, “How do we nurture robustness on one hand and not in any way chill speech, and keep it in bounds that are not destructive to democracy? Will it change the nature of dialogue? That will be a tall order.”

Monday, August 1, 2011

Cheers to the Save Our Schools March and National Call to Action

Over the weekend, thousands of teachers simultaneously braved temperatures over 100 degrees and a chilling political climate that has worked to silence many educators to speak out at the Save Our Schools March and National Call to Action in Washington D.C. This grassroots, teacher-led organization (spearheaded by teachers Anthony Cody and Nancy Flanagan) brought together teachers from around the country in support of four principles: equitable funding for all public schools, an end to overreliance on high stakes tests for punitive ends, teacher and family leadership in forming education policies, and curriculum development within local communities. Hundreds gathered beforehand at a two-day conference at the end of the week, while thousands appeared Saturday for speeches and a march from the Ellipse to the White House. The march was kicked off by speeches by higher education leaders Jonathan Kozol, Deborah Meier, Diane Ravitch, Linda Darling-Hammond, and Pedro Noguera, as well as passionate talks and songs by teachers, preservice teachers, and administrators. Finally, some Hollywood sparkle lent support to the teachers’ movement via a heartfelt speech by Matt Damon and a brief comical piece by Jon Stewart. As Ravitch noted in her speech, this event was the first of its kind in a long history of teacher frustrations with educational policy, especially in the past decade. Here’s to hoping that it’s the first of a sustained and effective movement to truly champion educators’ voices in school reform.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Summer Camp

If it's July, there will be articles about summer camp. This summer, two in the New York Times have caught my eye. "When s'mores aren't enough" looks into the business side of camp and reports that traditional summer camps -- the kind where kids hang around in the woods engaged in fun activities, friendship, and marshmallow roasting -- are having a hard time staying competitive with camps that promise more bang for the buck by honing tennis, college readiness, and other skills that promise to bring a financial return someday. An article on parents' increasing use of private jets to transport their children to rustic camps touches on some of the same economic issues: the cost of camp, the lack of time. Rather Marie Antoinette playing farmer at Versailles, but camps that serve wealthy children have always been that, if less dramatically so when reached by car or train.

Although chartering a private plan to get a child to camp might seem more outrageous than dedicating a child's summer to useful activities like soccer and marine biology, the decline of s'mores worries me more than the rise of private jets, perhaps because absurd disparities in wealth is such a familiar story by now that it takes a bigger story (like impending default on US debt) to raise my ire. Why worry about the end of s'mores? Because more than they need tennis skills and college admissions, children need time to ramble around in the woods, negotiate friendships outside the scrutiny of adults, and daydream.

The other big summer camp story, of course, is the shootings in Norway. A far more horrible invasion of summer camp (and that he shot kids at summer camp is what makes it so especially horrible!) than the incursions of self-improvement on American childhood, but analogous all the same.

I could cite research supporting the importance of unstructured time and free play for children, but since it's summer, I'll leave readers to ponder at leisure the question of whether, and why, free time ought to be children's birthright and a blank sheet of paper we provide for them to color in as they please.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Zero Tolerance and the Failure to Educate

The older I get and the more exposure I have to schooling and educational policy in the United States, the more I wonder if we like children.

I was recently reminded of this when I saw yet another example of a very young child given an absurd penalty because of an over-literal interpretation of a “zero tolerance” policy in a local school ( The details of this case—first grade boy suspended because he pointed his finger as though it was a gun—are the sort that get people either laughing at the disconnect between the action and the severity of the response or outraged for the same reason. After all, a child’s finger, on even the most liberal interpretations of zero tolerance, is not a gun. But that response misses a deeper point: zero tolerance policies renege on the promise that schools are in the business of education for democratic life.

Mindless forms of “classroom management” have triumphed over efforts to help children become better people. And we know there are more positive and more effective – more educational – ways to respond to bad behavior in schools (see, for example Deborah Meier’s The Power of Their Ideas or Vivian Paley’s You Can’t Say, You Can’t Play). Perhaps it is because of the increasing focus on maximizing time on task in order to increase test scores, but I am not sure that is the reason: the policy of treating children like animals predates the regime of testing so often supposed to be its cause. Behavioral control has been the approach of “classroom management” for all of my professional life, and I started teaching high school in 1968.

One district where I was employed adopted Lee Canter’s “Assertive Discipline” program in the 1970’s; the catch-phrase of this program was “deal with the behavior, not the child.” I heard this from many teachers, always expressed with pride. The idea always puzzled me, however, because I has become a teacher because I wanted to deal with children, and in line with that commitment, I have always believed that a child’s behavior is a part of who the child is, and to treat those two things as separable is to fail to understand our role in democracy as much as it is to violate the integrity of the person the child is.

There are two reasons we should reject the emphasis on behavioral strategies for controlling behavior and “classroom management”: they are demeaning to both the children against whom they are used and to the teachers forced to use them, and they diminish the likelihood that our public schools will form democratic citizens. When they work, even when they are applied rationally, zero tolerance policies shape behavior by fear, not by consideration of what sort of people they should be, or what sort of choices they should make. Further, such policies send the message that the school and the adults in it do not think the child who breaks a rule counts for very much. They make clear to all children that the adults in the school consider the children to be disposable.

Zero tolerance policies explicitly state for all to see that we consider our rules more important than our children, and our children see this. Even the children who obey the rules understand where they stand in a regime of zero-tolerance. This will certainly increase the alienation children and young adults feel toward schools.

Children will sometimes behave badly. They will break rules, even really serious, important rules. Such events can be seen as opportunities to banish the miscreants, or as an opportunity to educate. Only the last honors our claim to be educators trying to prepare children to be citizens in a democratic society.

One of my former colleagues wisely suggested that the way to be more effective in classrooms is to “be the child,” to try to understand what need the child is meeting my misbehavior and then to help the child meet that need in more positive ways. This is not at all to suggest that classrooms should be places of permissiveness or places where there are no rules that matter. It is to suggest that our job is to help children understand and internalize the norms of democratic life the rules are meant to enact, and that they best learn democracy by living it. However, when we replace citizen formation with zero tolerance policies we do not prepare them for democratic life, but for what some now refer to as the school-to-prison-pipeline (

I do not understand why so many educators think the proper response to children who are alienated from the school’s social contract (I am making a large assumption here, I know) is to exacerbate and formalize that alienation with the official proclamation that they really do not belong. I do not understand how a culture that valued its young could make zero tolerance a policy.

One final irony: this incident took place in Oklahoma where—I could not make this up—there is a serious on-going effort in the state legislature to make actual guns on school, college, and university campuses legal.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Local deliberation on the federal role in public education

As a scholar interested in the meanings that public still might have for education and schools, I’ve been intrigued with the potential of deliberative forums to help develop individual understanding, dialogue across diversity, and shared decision-making. As a member of the League of Women Voters here in Oxford, Ohio, I have access to a good organizational structure for fostering political deliberations. Our local League will deliberate this fall on the prickly questions surrounding the proper role for the federal government in K-12 education.

The national League of Women Voters (LWV) this year announced a new national study on the role of the federal government in k-12 education. A local, state, or national League group can call for a study of any political or policy issue that is relevant to its members, and a study commits a League to undertaking a careful deliberative process that educates members and encourages them to come to consensus on the issue under study. While not every study ends in a consensus among members, the aim of these studies at the national level is to help national LWV advocate and lobby on behalf of policy positions that reflect the views of its membership. This Education Study is designed to help local League organizations give feedback to the national League so that it might take up a good position with regards to the upcoming re-authorization of No Child Left Behind and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

For those readers unfamiliar with U.S. schooling history and policy, the involvement of the federal government in public education is a relatively recent phenomenon. Before 1950 the federal government played almost no role at all in the administration, curriculum, funding, or assessment of public education. The launch of Sputnik compelled some national activity towards enriching science and math education to fuel the “space race.” Civil rights and equity movements led to the development of greater federal regulation, mandates, and funding for particular populations in the 1960s-1980s (for example, students who are poor or who have disabilities). And in the last decades, a push for a more national standards/assessment system has gained much ground, due in part to the U.S.’s waning eminence as an economic and educational super-power, and in part to help pressure schools to erase the pervasive achievement gaps between white and non-white populations (which, schools by themselves cannot possibly do). No Child Left Behind is obviously the prime example of this effort. At this point, education is still mainly the responsibility of state governments and federal money usually does not represent more than 10% or so of any district’s budget. It is politically unlikely that the federal government will play a larger role in funding schools in the future. Still, there is much discussion that our school systems are too entrenched in their parochial, localized history, and that our country’s educational achievements are bogged down by this decentralized structure, and in the “bureaucracy” of federal regulations in the realm of equity.

The U.S. League of Women Voters wants regular citizens to be more involved in these important debates. That’s why they are encouraging local Leagues like mine to host deliberations around these questions.

According to the national LWV, our local study should help our members take positions on two broad areas: common core standards and assessments, and federal funding for equity issues. With regards to common core standards, our League members will become educated on the history of decentralized schooling in the U.S., the recent movements towards national standards, and the degree to which common standards should become those which are federally mandated or incentivized, as well as monitored through a set of national assessment measures. With regards to equity, our League study participants will look at the history and forms of federal involvement for equity goals.

There are many ways to deliberate, and consensus among members may not always be the goal of a deliberation. But whatever the goal and format of deliberation, such programs help to both educate voters and begin discussions among diverse voters on complex issues that are often reductively treated in the media. And there are increasingly more organizations like LWV that can be conduits for deliberation activity in communities. I like LWV because it provides a non-partisan space for people to learn and think through political issues, and become involved for particular policies or stances.

Deliberation is important, but it is also important to remember that it is one among many kinds of political tools in a democracy. Deliberation isn’t activism, lobbying, or policy-making. There are many different kinds of political activities, and it is important to understand what each sort of activity does and does not accomplish. Deliberation can help citizens understand and take positions on complicated issues like the federal role in K-12 education. It cannot, however, substitute for advocacy and activism on behalf of positions. The strength of the deliberations in Oxford, Ohio will be funneled to the national League, who will hopefully articulate a strong and persuasive position as law-makers engage in the sausage-making working of revising NCLB/ESEA in the coming year.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Join our Conversation on a Declaration of Education Rights

I just put up a post on my journal’s blog that I thought readers of this blog might find interesting. In the post, Jim Strickland, the Regional Coordinator for the Western Region of John Goodlad’s National League of Democratic Schools, suggests that we are desperately in need of “a moral compass by which we can guide our practice, develop our programs and policies, and evaluate our results….a mutual commitment to values that will inspire us and keep us from drifting off course.” As Jim warns us, “In education, as in all areas of life, if we do not decide where we are going, someone will be happy to decide for us.”

In the interest of full disclosure, our journal and its governing institute participate in the League so we were particularly interested in Jim’s reflections. In the post, Jim proposes a Declaration of Education Rights as a “common standard of achievement for the continuous growth and self-realization of all people in the context of democratic community.” In the context of the paucity of good ideas in today’s national dialogue on education, we think Jim’s proposal is a good starting point for a deeper, more meaningful discussion on the public purposes of education.

The post is long with thirteen articles and comments but we invite readers to join the conversation.

Journal of Educational Controversy Blog:

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Value of College?

(Cross-posted from Smart and Good)

From an article in the NY Times two weeks ago (June 26, 2011, SR3) ....

If you have a college degree, you make more money no matter what job you end up in, even if that job does not seem to require a college education. College educated dishwashers make $34K compared to high school grads at $19K. College educated hairdressers make $32K versus those with high school diplomas at $19K. (Interestingly, that $19K figure came up a lot as the likely income level for someone who had a high school diploma).

In some fields (e.g., child care worker, dental hygienist), you made a lot more if you had a college degree. In other fields, you made a bit more (e.g. firefighter, social worker). But in some fields, you made about the same amount of money whether you had a college degree or not: cook, secretary, clergy, casino worker and electrician.

I've been wondering what that is about, especially since I am an educator and am surrounded by folks who believe that a college degree is the "ticket to ride."

We have to ask ourselves whether the learning college affords makes a difference or whether the degree functions the way a letter of introduction worked in the 18th century affirming one's goodness or whether the kind of person who goes to college is the kind of person that employers prefer no matter what the qualifications needed. Of course, maybe it's some combination of factors, the answer I'm inclined toward.

I went to college and I learned a lot -- about life, about other people, about myself, about ideas, but I also missed a lot in the college bubble. So when I came out, I had more and different stuff to learn. And I clearly wasn't qualified for any job. ... except maybe any job that required attention to people, to detail and to communication and to take responsibility for what caught my attention.

I'm trying to remember if I was that way when I went in to college and, despite the years, I think the answer is yes. But college was a gift: time to mature, to let the me I was taught to be all along settle in and settle down. And there's no question that a degree from Bucknell University carried with it a certain cachet (but not as much as a degree from Harvard or Stanford would :-). Is this a system that is fair? that maximizes the potential of each and every young person? I'm not so sure.

So here's my (somewhat im-) modest proposal for today given the current high cost of college:
1) make high schools places where kids are coached to pay attention and take responsibility,
2) offer all students a place to mature for a few years -- mandatory community or military service perhaps? -- and ensure that those places/placements offer some kind of useful skills training as well as increasing social responsibility,
3) recommit to the Emersonian view that we Americans (and all citizens of the world) are morally equal, morally entitled to develop our own unique potential so that our contribution to this world is not lost.
4) revitalize democracy as "associated living" (a la Dewey) and encourage public forums (discussion groups, book clubs, etc.) that are broadly educative.

It would be interesting to see how liberal arts learning and vocational training would sort itself out if all four elements mentioned above were in place.

KIPP and Career Building

The other day I read Rick Hess’ interview with KIPP co-founder Mike Feinberg and inched closer to figuring out what bothers me about the TFA-pipeline-turned- “real reformer” crowd (as distinguished from the rest of us who have been working diligently for 30 or so years to ensure rich educations for all young people in this democratic society of ours).

I really do like the TFA educational entrepreneurs I know. I respect their intelligence, energy, entrepreneurship and commitment. I appreciate the way they grab hold of openings (like charter school laws) and turn those openings into educational edifices (institutional as well as bricks and mortar). They are opportunistic in apparently constructive ways, turning public money into personal accomplishments. I’m just not always sure that their commitment is educational. I think what is bothering me is that their commitment seems to be more about those personal accomplishments than about developing students’ greater selves. Kids who graduate and go on to four-year colleges feel like notches in someone’s belt. School founder/leaders who are barely out of college appoint themselves “CEO” of whatever they create. I realize that I am growing old and crotchety but is a 27 year old CEO a good thing? Isn’t it at least a little immodest?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The case of Samantha Ardente, school secretary/porn actress

With Weinergate continuing to unfold (or, one might say, perhaps more appropriately, "extend itself") the question of the sexual habits of public figures is in the zeitgeist at the moment. I'm not particularly interested in what happens to Congressman Weiner after he is finished with "rehab" (maybe he will eventually earn big cash on the motivational speaker circuit: "How I recovered from my sex/sexting addiction."), but the storm of public condemnation around Weiner's actions indirectly highlights an important educational issue: the ways in which school personnel are judged for their sexual practices outside of schools. 

Specifically, I'm thinking about the recent case of Samantha Ardente. Up until March of this year, Ms. Ardente (not her real name) had been a low-profile office assistant at a Québec City secondary (grades 7-11) school.  She continued in this role without incident until a student discovered that Ms. Ardente had a sideline job: she had performed in several porn scenes.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

War on Teachers?

From my inbox almost two months ago:

"So, where did this war on teachers, and other public employees come from? I certainly didn't see that coming."

A former colleague (a faculty member in a humanities department) was responding directly to word that Pennsylvania was cutting P-12 funding and slashing state support for public higher education. But her consciousness was framed by events in Wisconsin and elsewhere.

So I have been paying attention to the news in a new way. Is my colleague right? Is there a “war on teachers”? I think she may right that there is a “war” going on but I’m having a little more difficulty determining just what it is we are fighting about and fighting for. Are teachers the target? Or are teachers collateral damage in a larger struggle –because teachers (and their students) don’t fight back and because everybody feels entitled to an “expert” opinion about educational matters generally?

I hope to think more about this over the summer and invite any readers to join in with news items, anecdotes and analyses that help us all figure out where we want to stand in what is clearly a struggle for the social, economic, political and educational terrain within our own communities and our nation.

Here are a couple for starters:

Monday, May 23, 2011

Money, Education and Democratic Voice

I read two articles today that stood in such stark contrast that I had to share them.  Both describe their efforts as “grassroots.” The first was an article in the N.Y. Times entitled, “Behind Grass-Roots School Advocacy, Bill Gates,” by Sam Dillon (NY Times, May 20, 2011). The article talks about the staggering amount of money that is going into education by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. According to the tax forms filed for 2009 alone, the Bill Gates's foundation spent $373 million on education efforts of which $78 million was dedicated to its new form of education advocacy. According to Allan C. Golston, the president of the foundation’s United States program, the foundation plans to spend $3.5 billion more in education, up to 15 percent of it on advocacy, over the next five or six years. Attached to the article are “Annotated Excerpts of the Gates Foundation 990 Form 2009,” a tax form required for nonprofits that runs for 263 pages and includes more than 3,000 items and 360 education grants.

The approach marks a new strategy for the foundation that previously used its philanthropy to creating small schools . The new strategy is described in the article as much more ambitious. It is an attempt to work more systemically by reforming the nation’s educational policies. To achieve this end, the foundation “is financing educators to pose alternatives to union orthodoxies on issues like the seniority system and the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers.” But it is also “creating new advocacy groups.” Some of the examples the article reveals include:

The foundation is also paying Harvard-trained data specialists to work inside school districts, not only to crunch numbers but also to change practices. It is bankrolling many of the Washington analysts who interpret education issues for journalists and giving grants to some media organizations…..

Last year, Mr. Gates spent $2 million on a “social action” campaign focused on the film “Waiting for ‘Superman".....

There are the more traditional and publicly celebrated programmatic initiatives, like financing charter school operators and early-college high schools. Then there are the less well-known advocacy grants to civil rights groups like the Education Equality Project and Education Trust that try to influence policy, to research institutes that study the policies’ effectiveness, and to Education Week and public radio and television stations that cover education policies.…..

Its latest annual report…. highlights its role — often overlooked — in the development and promotion of the common core academic standards that some 45 states have adopted in recent months. ….The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, which developed the standards, and Achieve Inc., a nonprofit organization coordinating the writing of tests aligned with the standards, have each received millions of dollars.....

In 2009, a Gates-financed group, the New Teacher Project, issued an influential report detailing how existing evaluation systems tended to give high ratings to nearly all teachers. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan cited it repeatedly and wrote rules into the federal Race to the Top grant competition encouraging states to overhaul those systems. Then a string of Gates-backed nonprofit groups worked to promote legislation across the country: at least 20 states, including New York, are now designing new evaluation……

Two other Gates-financed groups, Educators for Excellence and Teach Plus, have helped amplify the voices of newer teachers as an alternative to the official views of the unions. Last summer, members of several such groups had a meeting at the foundation’s offices in Washington....
The Times article actually starts with a story of some out spoken local teachers who testified before the Indiana State Legislature and who had written policy briefs and op-ed pieces about layoffs based on seniority. Said one state legislator, “They seemed like genuine, real people versus the teachers’ union lobbyists.” Indeed, they may very well have been genuine, as the article points out, but ”they were also recruits in a national organization, Teach Plus, financed significantly by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation” ….. a group that is later revealed in the article to have received awards totaling $4 million dollars.

And that brings us to the crux of the Times article. Writes reporter Sam Dillon:

Given the scale and scope of the largess, some worry that the foundation’s assertive philanthropy is squelching independent thought, while others express concerns about transparency. Few policy makers, reporters or members of the public who encounter advocates like Teach Plus or pundits like Frederick M. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute realize they are underwritten by the foundation.

Perhaps, the concern was best put by Bruce Fuller, an education professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who was quoted as saying: “It’s Orwellian in the sense that through this vast funding they start to control even how we tacitly think about the problems facing public education.”

The other article I read at the same time this week was sent out on a grassroots listserv called the Education Liberation Network. The group also has a website called the Education for Liberation Network. In the post, the author, Tara Mack, announces an event that is to take place in two months in Providence, RI, where hundreds of educators, activists and students will come together for a grassroots gathering called, “Free Minds, Free People.” The organizers want to make the event a catalyst for continued action rather than a solitary event.

They write on their listserv:

The Education for Liberation Network has an important contribution to make to that effort. One of the ways we aim to capitalize on that energy is to begin developing regional networks that will strengthen the connection between local work and national movement building. We want to bring the network closer to you.

They then make a plea for donations to carry out this work:

To start that work we need to have the resources in place before the conference. That's why we are coming to you now. Grassroots work takes grassroots investment. Today we are kicking off our One Great Reason campaign, a week-long drive …. that will help us keep the momentum of Free Minds, Free People going by moving straight from the conference into the development of our regional networks.

Each of us has a reason for being part of this community, a reason why this work matters to you. Each day this week a member of the Education for Liberation Network will share via this listserv his/her reason for being part of our community. If their stories resonate with you, I hope you will take moment to contribute to our efforts to strengthen and expand.
The amount that this grassroots network of educators is attempting to raise this week -- $1000.

With such disparities in money and access to media and seats of power, how does a society engage in a true democratic dialogue. How is a public being created for public education? Here are two very different efforts that lie at the heart of the contradictions in democratic power and voice.

Cross-posted on the Journal of Educational Controversy Blog

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Managing to Find Time to Read

I just read an interesting challenge on the popular Book Lady's Blog. The blog asked its readers how they manage to find time to read. Most replies started off saying how much they "sucked at" finding time to read. And these are book lovers!

I thought I would share my answer and invite readers of Social Issues to share theirs. After all, finding time to read is really an important social issue.

With so many books and so little time, all of us “suck at” reading as much as we may want. That said, here is how I manage my reading time:

1. I set up my reading on a wekly schedule, write my reading goals down in a special section of my weekly to-do list, and share and discuss the entire list with my wife in our weekly family goal and plans meeting – every Sunday at 4PM.

2. I read for an hour every nmight before going to bed.

3. I treat myself to book dates – usually on weekends after visiting library sales or garage sales to find great books.

4. I never watch TV. This is not because there is nothing ood on the tube. Its because there is almost always something good — think book TV.

5. I read on public transport. I used to do this every day on my commute to and from work. Now I’m retired, so this reading management tool is less useful to me.

6. I read on long drives when someone else is driving. We have a place in Florida, and the drive gives me plenty of reading time. When I am driving I listen to books on tape. Recently ‘read’ Madame Bovary that way and it was great.

7. I don’t have a TBR (to be read) pile, but I have a large set of ‘aspirational’ book shelves. Used books are very cheap and make wonderful wall decorations. My aspirational books help me define myself and my future goals.

8.I organize reading projects that support other life activities. For example, I draw in watercolor with a drawing group every Wednesday evening, and I read seriously about the history and techniques of watercolor.

9. I read the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books as soon as they arrive in the mail. I put this practice on my lifetime goal and to-do list more than thirty years ago.

10. I am a writer. Writing makes it very hard to find the time or mental energy to read. The great developmental psychologist Jean Piaget was once asked what he made of Jung’s theory of development. He said that he had never read Jung. “There are two kinds of psychologists,” he said, “those who read and those who write.” Also reading to support my writing research takes up a lot of my reading time. This is why it is very important for me to plan recreational reading and stick to my plan.

Please share your own tools for managing time to read. I'll make time to read your responses.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Rogue Shepherd

The recent arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), on charges of sexually assaulting, forcibly confining and attempting to rape a hotel maid can be properly seen as a victory for the rule of law. While the American legal system asks us to presume innocence until guilt has been established in a court of law, the very fact that Strauss-Kahn is being held to answer these charges in a court of law is a welcome testimony to the principle that no one is above the law.

Removed from a plane bound for Paris moments before its take-off, and now most recently denied bail as a flight risk, Strauss-Kahn – often discussed as a potential future President of France – appears headed to a criminal trial in an American court. That his accuser, a hotel maid who has been reported in the media as a female of African descent, was taken seriously and properly treated by American law enforcement officials is also greatly cheering given the tremendous power disparities between her and the IMF head.

I will leave for late night TV hosts the low hanging fruit of commenting on how similar this incident is to the IMF’s typical interactions with Africa. Rather, I would suggest that we can use this incident to reflect on fundamental issues of equality and inequality.

While we can applaud the fair application of the law, we should not allow this to distract us from the basic social and economic structures that have created a society where some stay in lavish $3,000 a night hotel rooms and others are maids who might not make as much in a month of work. Were we to don John Rawls’ “veil of ignorance”, would we accept that a role of the dice could put us in the maid’s or in Strauss-Kahn’s position. Perhaps yes, as the interest-maximizing logic of Capital and “free markets” has convinced many of us that the greater good is served by allowing individuals to acquire resources beyond basic human needs. Perhaps yes, as the maid in question would appear to enjoy considerable legal protections against exploitation. Yet, what is particularly significant in this case is that we are not talking about a relation between a successful business person and a service worker – it is a relationship between a political leader and a citizen.

When teaching the Republic I make the claim to my students that Plato’s philosopher-kings are alive and well – and among us in figures such as Ben Bernanke and Alan Greenspan of the US Federal Reserve. (Appointed to office, not elected; chosen on the basis of their education, wisdom and prudence; able to see Ideal Forms such as “consumer confidence” where the rest of us merely grapple with the individual choice of whether or not to upgrade to a flat screen TV; and, charged with leading the flock through hard times.) By any yardstick, as an intergovernmental organization designed to oversee the global financial system, the IMF and its leaders seem to bear a clear responsibility to look after the public good. When those shepherds abuse the powers of their office for personal gain or pleasure, we want a system in place to check those abuses. Perhaps, however, this extends beyond the personal foibles of Strauss-Kahn and we should ask what systems have been put in place to compel us to understand and obey the orders of philosopher-king experts. What should our shepherds cost us?

Noah W. Sobe
Loyola University Chicago

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Fighting to defend progressive school reform in Québec

Over the course of the past decade or so, the school system in Québec has undergone a complete overhaul from K-11. This large-scale school reform, which is referred to as the "Québec Education Program" (QEP) in English, has had a transformative effect on the school system. There is a lot in this reform that Dewey scholars (as well as other educators of a progressive bent) will probably like.  Critical thinking is emphasized as a "cross-curricular competency", and all students are required to participate in an innovative new program called "Ethics and Religious Culture" that I have described in previous posts. In science education, which is a particular interest of mine, the new curriculum emphasizes STS (science-technology-society) questions and takes an inquiry-based  approach to science learning. In general, the program has a progressive, child-centered bent.

Given its immense scope and its progressive slant, it is not surprising that the reform has received a lot of criticism. A Québec teachers' union has conducted several massive campaigns against the reform, and the reform has received extensive criticisms from editorialists, academics, and politicians (and even sitcoms). These critiques have aroused some public sympathy; as is the case elsewhere in North America, traditional conceptions of schooling are strong in Québec.

In response to this opposition to the reform, a group of education professors from across Québec has recently released a document called Manifeste pour une école compétente (Manifesto for Competent Schools). This title sounds rather strange in English--the explanation for it is that one of the main criticisms of the reform is that it (allegedly) emphasizes "compétences" (competencies) at the expense of "connaissances" (facts/knowledge). The point of the manifesto is to reply to some of the key criticisms of the reform and to defend the reform from piecemeal modifications that are weakening it.

The release of the manifesto on April 13th was accompanied by a PR blitz. Newspaper editorials were written in advance and were printed by the major Francophone newspapers. The manifesto was also accompanied by a website and a series of Youtube videos. This effort was quite successful--over 1000 people have signed the manifesto online (visit here to add your signature) and the book version of the manifesto has made it on to the Le Devoir non-fiction bestseller list.

Education professors, particularly in the United States, have a lot to learn from this effort. Led by a core group of senior professors in the Université du Québec system, and including signatories from every university in Québec, the manifesto was a thoughtful, well organized effort to influence policy. Although it remains to be seen what effect the manifesto will have, this is the kind of campaigning that education scholars need to do more often. Unless education academics work to communicate with the public about why progressive education is worthy of support, progressive reforms are unlikely to be enacted or to remain in place.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Can a School be Outsourced?

The blog Mobiledia reported on May 6th 2011 on the announcement by the National Trust of the UK that they would be operating a real-world farm along the lines of the popular on-line game Farmville. The Trust's announcement has since been greeted with a flurry of commentary. I'll get to that in a moment, but first, a few words about the farm itself.

The National Trust has invited 10,000 participants to pony up roughly $50 each to participate in running the farm, the 2,500 acre Wimpole Estate. Decisions about crops and procedures will then be 'crowdsourced' to these 10,000 virtual 'farmers' and decisions will be made via the 'wisdom of crowds'. To assist the farmers, the National Trust will supply information through blogs and Youtube videos about various agricultural and commercial matters of relevance.

The project piggy-backs on the enomous popularity of the Farmville game.

But crowdsourcing management decisions is not entirely new. In the blog CMI, Adi Gaskell, in reporting on the announcement, noted that a similar experiment called "My Football Club" had taken place a few years ago; 32,000 fans ponied up a similar fee to participate in managing a pro football team. Unfortunately the excitement wore off quickly and participation fell rapidly to about 3,000. When the operators put the question of retaining crowdsourcing or returning the team to professional management to the surviving participants, only 132 even bothered to vote.

What then is the likely fate of the Real-world Farmville?

According to James Surowiecki, author of the book on The Wisdom of Crowds, a crowdsourcing project requires four conditions in order to be successful:

1. Diversity of opinions: participants must be drawn from diverse populations;

2. Independence: participants' decisions are not deetermined by other participants;

3. Decentralization: people can draw on specialized knowledge and local information not available to others; and

4. Aggregation: there must exist a reliable mechanism for converting the many private judgments into a collective decision.

Gaskell asks us to consider the crowdsourced farm in terms of these criteria, pointing out that even if the initial participation is diverse, the decline in popularity is likely to make the eventual crowd much less so (as it is now built from die-hards). Because the trust will supply all of the information about the farm to participants (who are also free to visit the farm in person but in most cases will not) the participants will not be independent, and will not be able to draw on their differentiated local knowledge. Something akin to groupthink is thus cooked into the operating procedure, defeating the wisdom of the crowd.

Gaskell concludes that the Trust is unlikely to produce a profitable and effective farm through crowdsourcing. (Let us grant that the Trust will succeed, and already has, in bringing a lot of attention to itself by grabbing some of the attention paid to Farmville the game).

The question remains: could a school be crowdsourced to its local community? Could state educational policy be crowdsourced to citizens. Please share your own ideas about whether this would be an interesting, a wise, a democratic or an effective way to run public education 'by the people'.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Arne Duncan Shows his Appreciation for Teachers

It’s rare than an open letter of appreciation is received with the sensation of pouring salt in open wounds, but that seems to be what happened this week as Arne Duncan attempted to mark National Teacher Appreciation Day with a letter of thanks to America’s teachers. Duncan tried to herald teaching as an honorable and autonomous profession, listed things he claimed to have learned from listening to teachers, and closed by suggesting that continued progress could be made in education reform by him working together with teachers. On the face of it, this seems to be the type of letter that would be welcomed by teachers, especially as many increasingly feel the sting of public attacks related to collective bargaining negotiations and new job (in)security measures. But—wow—do the teachers’ comments on this letter suggest a different reaction! Teachers find his letter to not only be hollow and disingenuous, but hurtful and infuriating. I encourage you to read for yourself the important criticisms they make of Duncan’s letter, many of which relate to feeling that their voices are not being heard, particularly by Duncan and the Department of Education.

So, what’s to be done? Rather than “Ask Arne,” as the US Department of Education website invites me to do, I thought I would “Urge Arne” instead. I wrote to Mr. Duncan, urging him, as the teachers responding to his letter did, to practice what he preached. I urged him to demonstrate his genuine respect for teachers and true desire to listen to their ideas by taking the time to publicly respond to the teachers’ comments on the Education Week website. This would show, in small part, that he really does care about what teachers have to say and that he sees them as professionals whose contributions are worthy of his time and attention—a type of professional accountability that goes up the chain and not just down it. Engaging in such a public exchange would be a way to show teachers that their voices do matter, especially during the week that we celebrate our teachers. Such an act would be a more genuine display of appreciation for our teachers than his open letter, written at a distance from real teachers, could be. Instead of pouring salt in wounds, it might make one small step toward healing them.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Bin Laden's Justice, and Ours

“Justice has been done,” President Obama declared, as he announced that US forces in Pakistan had killed Osama bin Laden. Yes, it has, but as Americans wave flags and chant “USA”, blast the bagpipes, and sing the Star Spangled Banner, let’s not forget that this is retributive justice, volatile stuff. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. The same kind of justice that inspires young men to rise up and smash airplanes into skyscrapers in retribution for perceived insults to their honor.

In the news reports I’ve read so far, the only explicit mention of honor is in a quote from bin Laden. Speaking to Americans via ABC news in the late 1990s, he said “This is my message to the American people: to look for a serious government that looks out for their interests and does not attack others, their lands, or their honor”. Pretty good advice, actually, if you disregard the anti-Semitic diatribe that precedes it, and the advice that we hold our government to account for our real interests is not far from what progressive liberals like Paul Krugman are asking for. The mention of honor, though, takes us out of post-Enlightenment liberal politics into terrain much older, and murkier, and problematic.

President Obama, in his announcement to the nation, made no direct mention of honor. He spoke of family (the empty chairs around the dinner table), of pluralism (let this not divide our country), of professionalism (“work” came up over and over as he spoke of the military), of human dignity. These are comfortable modern ideals, in distinct contrast to the ideals that motivated the Greeks to sack Troy, motivated the Romans to sack Europe, the Crusaders to sack Constantinople, and so forth, right up to us and Al Qaeda. Eventually, Obama tied bin Laden’s death to the story of American Exceptionalism (we can do anything we set out to do), and tied that story to “liberty and justice for all”. Wise rhetorical choices, since these are ideals that – if they really did motivate all of us, at the voting booth as well as when we listen to lofty speeches – might lead to a different sort of justice. The sort of justice that recognizes the plight of the weak, that contests privilege and greed, that demands equal treatment under the law, that demands honesty and professionalism of politicians and bankers, that supports peace.

The justice done to bin Laden is not that sort of justice.

I’m not saying that bin Laden shouldn’t have been killed, or that retributive justice is inappropriate in this circumstance. Rather, that we should keep our kinds of justice straight. The honor of the United States has been restored, and Americans are relieved. But when you restore your own honor at someone else’s expense (which is inevitably how, once your honor has been slighted, you have to restore it – that’s how avenging one’s honor works), the framework remains “might makes right”, which is also the logic that supports street gangs, honor killings of girls and women, and international terrorism. Retribution doesn’t relieve us from danger. Only redefining what’s truly honorable – from the death of our enemies to a different kind of justice – will do that.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Come on down to 4Profit U!

We've covered the University of Phoenix and its amazingly low graduation rate in other posts, but nothing gets the message across about for-profit universities as effectively as the following cartoon:

Check out Tom the Dancing Bug's page for a full-size version.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Education and Income

It is a matter of faith in our society that more education equals a higher standard of later living—high school graduates earn more than high school dropouts, but not as much as two-year-college graduates, who do not earn as much as four-year college graduates, etc., on up the educational ladder. Of course, the issue is more complicated than this, with gender, race, ethnicity, SES of birth family and neighborhood playing a part (to name just a few of the usual suspects). Additionally, of course, once we move to the ranks of the college graduates and holders of graduate degrees, the degree of status and exclusivity of the college or university matters: the kind of social access attained with the degree varies from school to school.

However, it seems a grievous category error to extrapolate from the extent to which more education equals greater earnings for individuals, to the cumulative loss to the national economy, although this is a category error we consistently and pervasively make. A recent study ( reported in Education Week ( is a clear example of this tendency and an opportunity to consider why such analysis is both inaccurate and harmful.

Imagine a perfect educational system in which all students receive a perfect education, whatever that might mean. Every student graduates from high school knowing everything that high school graduates are supposed to know. Every high school graduate goes on to the very best college and graduates knowing everything that college graduates are supposed to know. Carry this process on as far as you like. At the end of the day, with all this perfect education, would the supply of perfectly educated workers elevate the salary of the greeter at Wal-Mart or the counter-worker at McDonalds, or reduce the ranks of the unemployed?

My point is that when we look to educational attainment to explain economic inequality, we are engaging a blame-the-victim game, in which the poor are blamed for their poverty: if they had only stayed in school, they would not be poor today. This is obviously a comforting notion to those of us on the right side of the economic divide, just as it helps those on the wrong side accept their deprivations as justified. It conceals from both groups the fact that unemployment in a capitalist economy is both structural and designed in. Unemployment is the result of a shortage of jobs and a surplus of labor, not a lack of educated workers. Again, think of Wal-Mart: given the surplus labor pool, why would they pay more than they do? Obviously they would not. The problem of poverty is structural, not personal inadequacy.

This is not to deny that educational attainment serves to distribute poverty, but that is as very different point. In a society that had the sort of universally perfect educational system described above, we would need to find some other way to distribute inequality. If education were to truly provide an equality of opportunity, and if we chose to continue tax and regulatory policies designed to increase inequality, there would need to be some other way than education for the wealthy to preserve their status and power. An advantage of this state of affairs might be that it would become more transparently true that wealth and power are now generally inherited, not a matter of “meritocratic” achievement (by whatever measure such a thing is determined).

There are two problems with our current state of affairs: we have extremes of wealth and poverty that are unsustainable in a democratic polity, and the mechanisms of the perpetuation of inequality are hidden such that even the victims of the system too-often think the system is fair. Too many of the poor accept the notion that if they had worked harder, been smarter, stayed in school longer they would be economically better off. That is possibly true, but ignores the systemic dimension of poverty: in a world of surplus workers, the movement of one worker up the hierarchy would mean the downward displacement of someone else.

As long as we conceive of poverty as the result of individual failure of will and effort or the lack of talent, we conceal the structural elements that are designed to guarantee a certain level of poverty. As long as we blame the victims of a game played with loaded dice for their losses, we are prevented from making the changes that would result in greater equality and justice. As long as we keep the current game intact, we continue in a downward spiral of competition for the few open places at the top (for example, the search for the “right” preschool that begins with the positive pregnancy test).

And so I wonder how to construct a public conversation about schools that both decouples schooling from being a purely economic and purely competitive enterprise, while at the same time allowing or fostering a public awareness of the fact that the system is rigged. While it may be the fact that the individuals suffering from extremes of poverty are in the situations they are in because of the fact that they did not receive a good-enough education, the fact remains that if everyone worked hard and received a great education, poverty might be distributed differently, but it would hardly be eliminated.
The damage our commonly-held myth about education leading to economic success does twofold damage to our civic life: (1) the myth of meritocracy is a classic case of blame-the-victim, and it prevents us from discussing the real causes of inequality and abject poverty; and (2) it equally prevents us from discussing the purposes of schooling and the meaning of education, since schooling becomes a means to winning the economic competition that defines capitalism rather than the pursuit of either human flourishing in the humanistic tradition or democratic citizenship in the democratic one. And whatever we can say about the arguments for and against the latter two purposes of education, clearly preparation for winning economic races cannot be justified as the goal of education even as it becomes the only purpose of schooling.

What would it look like if we designed a system of public schooling in which we actually tried to educate children?

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Don't Turn Your Dairy Cows into Hamburgers, Wisconsin!

What do Wisconsin politics and nuclear catastrophe in Japan have in common? Wisconsin voters have much to learn from Japan about the state of their own backyard, and here’s why.

This spring is also the 25th anniversary of the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl, and as events as the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan unfold, the media has been reminding us how much worse things could be. Without understating the anxiety of the Japanese, or the concerns they have about whether their politicians and TEPCO management are telling them the full truth, it bears emphasizing that because they live in a liberal democracy, the Japanese are already many, many times safer in the face of nuclear catastrophe than were Ukrainians in 1986. Because they live in a state that respects freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and intellectual freedom of many sorts, the Japanese people would never be sent in to fight a nuclear meltdown in their shirtsleeves. Engineering expertise, both local and international, and the personal heroism of workers are rightfully praised for preventing complete meltdown in Japan, but freedom of speech and information deserves a fair share of the credit for insuring that the expertise and heroism were properly deployed.

In Wisconsin, meanwhile, the Wisconsin Republican Party recently invoked its Open Records right to access the state-provided email account of a government employee, in order to search UW Madison William Cronon’s correspondence. As Chancellor Biddy Martin and William Cronon recognize, Open Records legislation is important legal support for freedom of information. In this case, however, there is reason to suspect that it may have been invoked for purposes of harassment rather than freedom. The Wisconsin Republican Party made its request soon after Cronon published an Op-Ed piece in the NY Times about Wisconsin politics. There was no evidence whatsoever that Cronon had abused his position at UW Madison in order to promote a political cause. The Wisconsin Republican Party appeared to be acting out of retribution rather than reasonable worry. The reasonable worry in this case comes from Cronon, Martin, and others, who fear that such acts of petty retribution, and the resulting fear of harassment, will discourage scholars from exploring politically sensitive topics. The great irony, as Cronon points out, is that Wisconsin was an early leader in promoting academic freedom.

I am no farmer, but I suspect that successfully dairies do not turn their best dairy cows into hamburger. What Wisconsin, and the United States in general, has going for it in times of economic, political, environmental, and social uncertainty is our free access to knowledge. Our free speech, freedom of information laws, academic freedom – all that enables our workers to be heroes, our scientists to do their best work, our citizens to hold politicians and CEOs accountable – that’s our best dairy cow in the herd. True conservatism, the conservatism that Wisconsin at its best has exhibited, knows the value of holding on to the good things you have. Wisconsin, of all places, should recognize the importance of taking good care of its dairy cows.