Thursday, March 25, 2010

How Conservatives See the World; Or, Why Jonathan Kozol Is Worse for Black Schoolchildren than George Wallace

I'm always astounded by the extent to which conservative-minded folks see the world in a profoundly different way than liberals. One of Matt Yglesias' favorite topics in this vein is on the issue of race and racism in America. For most conservatives, sometime soon after the Voting Rights Act was passed racism ended in America. Suddenly, the problem of reverse-racism (against white people) became a far greater concern. I'm not sure anyone would deny that individual acts of racism against people of color don't happen anymore, but if you listened to conservatives, you'd slowly come to realize that racist acts against whites is the real issue, and that it far outstrips racism against blacks.

I see similar sorts of discussions in debates around "the problem with the modern public university." Liberals tend to want to steer the conversation toward things like the lack of state responsibility to fund it, the privatization of a once public good, the growth of business schools and profit-driven sciences and marketing within it, etc. Conservatives tend to ignore these rather broad, large-scale problems and point to what seems to liberals like me to be rather trivial issues: that some black or Latin@ professor is not teaching enough Shakespeare, and that the humanities have been overrun by relativists. It may be the case that we are not teaching enough of the white, male "classics," for example--just like it may be the case that acts of discrimination against whites do indeed happen in our society--but this seems like a pretty bizarre place to start a conversation about the problem with universities, or the problem with racism.

I was reminded of this liberal vs. conservative divide when I read John McWhorter's recent piece for the New Republic on the ten people black folks could most do without. For the sake of brevity, I'll focus on one person on the list, #9, Jonathan Kozol. Keeping with the Huffy Crew's recent theme of school funding...Kozol has been a famous proponent of changing the way we fund schools so as to equalize funding between city and suburban districts. McWhorter counters that Kozol is wrong, and that equalized funding doesn't really matter when it comes to black children's academic performance. Fine. Fair enough. I'm even willing for the sake of argument to concede that McWhorther might be right on this particular point. But taking a step back for a moment, I'm left wondering who has been worse for black children's academic performance? Is Jonathan Kozel in the top ten? Let me go through some possible scenarios:

- Jonathan Kozol vs. Louise Day Hicks and the dude who soiled Old Glory in the Boston busing crisis
- Jonathan Kozol vs. George Wallace, a governor who refused to desegregate Alabama's schools and universities, and spread his rhetoric of aggrieved white men throughout the country in the two presidential campaigns.
Jonathan Kozol vs. Lester Maddox, the segregationist Atlantan who rose to governor of Georgia.
Jonathan Kozol vs. Bryant Bowles, founder of his local National Association for the Advancement of White People after the Brown v. Board decision. A great demagogue who arose fierce opposition to desegregation in many communities that otherwise would have been compliant
Jonathan Kozol vs. Charles Murray, advocate of the theory that black children aren't as smart as white children.
Jonathan Kozol vs. The Framers and Voters Who Supported California Proposition 13 and Colorado's Tax Payer Bill of Rights. Less tax money to spend on schools can't be very helpful for anyone, but it disproportionately affects the poor.
Jonathan Kozol vs. William Levitt, one of many postwar suburban planners who's idea of community (and suburban schools) intentionally excluded African Americans.
Jonathan Kozol vs. Richard Nixon, the great advocate for suburban whites and great opponent of busing.

And I'm sure we could add many others. I realize that McWhorter is being purposefully provocative and idiosyncratic with his choices here, but I think the tendency here fits in well with the conservative mindset I've outlined: racists and framers of policies that have disproportionately hurt black people are somehow less harmful than a guy who thinks that giving more money to poor schools would help poor black kids in those poor schools.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

"What's so great about choice?" A Response

[My comment exceeded the length limit so I'm just starting a new post.]

There's a lot to unpack here. Ravitch's book is getting a lot of press, and deservedly so. She's capturing an important zeitgeist here: the pushback among public school teachers and schools of education, in particular, against the Bush/Obama reform agendas that promote increased high stakes testing, teacher evaluations, and "school choice." I'm particularly pleased that you framed the question as you do, Scantron, as a more general issue with "choice" itself. I'm very much interested, as you know, in when/how choice became an educational and parental value, one as important--if not more so--than traditional concerns about local/parental control of schools.

I look at this "metaphysical" love of choice (which I think you put nicely) more historically, having arisen from a series of policies, cultural and demographic changes, and ... parental choices ... throughout the 20th century. Choice may be an important philosophical value, but in my mind it was one that arose after the fact. Milton Friedman may have put it in writing, in other words, but for the tens of thousands of Catholic parents who wanted an alternative to the “Protestant” public school system; for the white parents who were calling for greater parental choice to avoid desegregation; and for the tens of thousands of black parents calling for it as the true meaning of desegregated school systems, freeing up choice was simply the only way to achieve their goals. Today, calls for school choice sound very reasonable to black parents stuck in ever-decaying urban cores, as they do to the Fred Hiatts of the world living quite comfortably in suburban areas where the choices are, as you put it, between a pretty good public school and a very good private school. But in places with county-wide school districts as in Wake County, which I’ve blogged about before, school choice can appear rather ominous. If you’re a parent who hates the idea of your kid being bused out of your neighborhood, a discourse surrounding “local control” of the neighborhood school might be a lot more palatable than market-based solutions.

I’ll save the historical discussion for another time. In the meantime, I’d like to push back a bit on your characterization of the conditions that give rise to school choice. The reality is that we don't live in Lake Wobegon, where everyone agrees on a common national curriculum (see Texas), and all students are above average coming from supportive above average families. In that sense, I do see this as a "market of heterogeneous preferences." And, more importantly, I don't see how schools of choice present less of a problem to a common curriculum than have local and state boards of education (again, see Texas). Privatized schools generally don't look drastically different from public schools when it comes to curriculum, the reason being, I suppose, that skills and knowledge are determined by a quasi-marketplace: from colleges and universities, to textbook markets (for the third time, see Texas), to parents. The demand for schools that don't teach important skills and knowledge, however we want to define that, is not very high.

My problem with choice has less to do with curriculum and more to do with the other, intangible things schools can teach. I do think (as does Ravitch) that schools should be places where different kinds of people from different backgrounds are brought together, and I think public schools have the potential to do this better than do privatized schools—though I will note that there are studies that suggest that private schools have far more diverse student bodies than we might assume. I also think, going off on another thing you mentioned, Scantron, that the taint of private interest is real. Competition has its benefits (and, unlike Ravitch, I think that the positives of competition applies to schools as well) but it also has it costs. Literally. Schools that have to compete have to engage in all sorts of ridiculous spending on marketing, not to mention the inevitable corruption (equally inevitable as large public monopolies) that comes with privatization, particularly in job-depleted inner cities where these contracts represent a real bonanza.

Turning from my special interest to yours, I’m wondering, What do the ancients have to say about choice? I can’t recall them extolling the virtues that come with opening up choices, but I might be wrong. Obviously there’s an important emphasis on the kinds of choices we make (moral, immoral), but I’d be curious to hear if anyone you’ve read talks about the importance of choices per se, whether politically, ethically, etc.

It would be a Freudian slip if anyone still cared

David Brooks today:
Nobody knows how this bill [health care reform] will work out. It is an undertaking exponentially more complex than the Iraq war, for example.
No one but a clueless American chauvinist, a ruling class errand boy whose glib imperialist assumptions are dyed so deep as to be practically reflexes, could say such a thing. I have no idea how this comment made it into Brooks' otherwise anodyne column, perched alongside such banal (yet desperate) acts of projection as, "But to me, [health care reform] feels like the end of something, not the beginning of something." But in fact that's the whole point: it makes sense to the embodiment of conservative "sensibility" to consider a tepid Nixonian bill "more complex" than the near-complete dismantling of a state's infrastructure, institutions, public health, and basic security. It's not merely the obvious absurdity of comparing an outcome of our enfeebled democratic process (imagine that, majorities passing legislation!) to a war of aggression that's on display here, but the callous, unblinking attitude that suggests to its bien-pensant possessor that the massive infliction of violence half a world away can be considered a relatively tidy exercise, a clean-up job that somewhere along the way "tragically" got bogged down with unnecessary complications. Funny how just a few sentences in a Times column can so perfectly exemplify the traditional and (for the foreseeable future) ineradicable rot at the heart of our national political thinking.

Brooks' comments can be construed as expressing this truth, though: unlike the Iraq war, the passage of health care reform did not enjoy bi-partisan support.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

What's so great about choice?

Imagine my surprise when the Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed on Tuesday by a certain Diane Ravitch speaking out against charter schools and other market- and profitability-based education reforms. (Ravitch was Assistant Secretary of Education under Bush Sr. and a founding member of the Koret Task Force for education at the Hoover Institution -- i.e., "good conservative credentials.") Read the whole article, but the take-away points are:
But the promise [of charter schools] has not been fulfilled. Most studies of charter schools acknowledge that they vary widely in quality. The only major national evaluation of charter schools was carried out by Stanford economist Margaret Raymond and funded by pro-charter foundations. Her group found that compared to regular public schools, 17% of charters got higher test scores, 46% had gains that were no different than their public counterparts, and 37% were significantly worse.


What we need is not a marketplace, but a coherent curriculum that prepares all students. And our government should commit to providing a good school in every neighborhood in the nation, just as we strive to provide a good fire company in every community.

On our present course, we are disrupting communities, dumbing down our schools, giving students false reports of their progress, and creating a private sector that will undermine public education without improving it. Most significantly, we are not producing a generation of students who are more knowledgable, and better prepared for the responsibilities of citizenship. That is why I changed my mind about the current direction of school reform.

I have typically been an opponent of both excessive testing (Ravitch's other target) and charter schools because I believe that education is 1) a matter of forming character, strengthening certain processes of thought and argumentation, and instilling a shared body of knowledge in the citizenry, rather than training for a trade; 2) everyone should receive the same form of this education; and 3) the only way to ensure this universality, and to ensure that curricula won't be tainted by private interests, is to make education a public good. Note that these arguments have nothing to do with what we owe the poor in a capitalistic society; they hold for any kind of social formation.

Today Fred Hiatt of the Washington Post comes along and supplies the only objection he knows, which is that taking away charter schools takes away "choice." And who would want to deprive poor people of choice, since rich people have choice?

But in the meantime, is it right to tell parents stuck in dangerous schools that they just have to wait for, as [Katrina] Vanden Heuvel [editor of the Nation] calls it, that “fundamental change in the way America’s poor are treated in every aspect of their lives?” That they should take heart, because maybe Klein’s and Rhee’s hard work will pay off in time for the next cohort of children? Middle-class parents don’t have to wait; they have options. The evidence is incontrovertible that poor parents want options, too -- today. Why would we take those away?

There are really two points here. One is that it is unfair that wealthier people should have more choices and that we should then take away the few choices poor parents have. The other is that, because "fundamental change" (that we can believe in!) is so far off on the horizon, the few kids within the few kids who are actually better off because of charter schools make it worth it.

The first point casts light on the weird situation we've been reduced to thanks to the touting of "more choices" on the part of the political elite in this country. Part of this mentality is that it's just better overall, whether metaphysically or whatever, to have more choices, even when they're bad. To be more precise, choice is supposed to drive competition and thus improved quality, but that line of thinking is based on a market of heterogeneous preferences. Now, even if most people don't think as stringently as I do about what education should be, most, I think, would agree with Ravitch that kids need a "coherent curriculum that prepares all students." But a market apparently can't do that: it can't deliver a universal curriculum, and it can't even deliver the current curriculum well. So we're left with the absurd situation that greater choices are desirable just because they're psychologically gratifying or something, even when they're incapable of delivering better "products."

The second point misses the dynamics of the situation. The more kids attend charter schools or use vouchers, the more these options will be touted as a superior alternative to the failing public school system, and the more institutional "cling" they will enjoy. It is much easier to allow them to grow now than to try to get rid of them later. Now, proponents of charter schools who think charter schools provide better education want this to happen. But Ravitch claims charter schools don't provide better education. (And there are other reasons, such as those I've stated, why they're undesirable.) In any case, very powerful interests will keep promoting them, because they don't want to see tax money going to a public institution and they want to create an ideology of the free market in general. (More immediately, they might also want to make money off of privatized education or profitably-run charter schools.) So a good reason not to endorse charter schools is because this will lead to worse outcomes than now, even if a tiny minority of kids are currently benefiting from their "wider choices."

Anyway, the "public school/charter school" choice seems like a false one, since the agenda has been set so selectively: public schools at their current crappy levels of funding and performance vs. anything else. If you're devoted to the idea of education being of a certain quality and universal, then you're going to want to make it a viable public good through taxation and social programs. Of course, conservatives will want to say that this option has been exhausted already, since inner-city "culture" and teacher union intransigence has made funding public schools a waste of money. Liberals will say it's about poverty and the effects of US institutional racism, as Ravitch now seems to think. In any case, I'm interested to hear what y'all think of the arguments. I know that Robot, in particular, is considering looking at the idea of school "choice" for his dissertation.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

only shallow.

Lou Doillon in Vaccarello

Gaulthier a/w 10

Andreia Chavez mirrored shoe

Feretti a/w 10 + Sam the Eagle

American Apparel swine flu fashion

Crystal Brass Knuckles