All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.


05 May 2014

To diminish or not to diminish -- thou must choose

There's been a little kerfuffle on the web lately about a phrase that's sometimes deployed on university campuses: "Check your privilege."  I've heard this phrase used, and I'm generally not terribly impressed either with its interpersonal tone (which is generally acrid), the way the phrase is used (which rings somewhat liturgical to my ear) or with the ideology typically informing its use (which strikes me as problematically grounded in notions of race that I find personally threatening as a minority in this country).

I also suspect that most of those who use the phrase are deliberately trading on the ambiguity in the word "check" -- really using the phrase in the peremptory and authoritarian fashion of "check your attitude at the door" but claiming, when pressed, that they are using the word "check" in the sense of "examine" or "interrogate".

The kerfuffle started with an indignant response to the use of the phrase by a Princeton student, a Mr. Tal Fortgang, who didn't appreciated being told to "check his privilege."  There's been a lot written about this piece on the web, so I won't add my voice to the chorus of praise and criticism.  (It is worthy of both, for very different reasons.)  But recently, two students at Columbia -- Dunni Oduyemi and Parul Guliani -- have published their own response, in which they lament Mr. Fortgang's lack of awareness and sensibility.

 These two students make the argument one would expect: that "check your privilege" is a sort of interrogation of the power of whiteness in society.  The core of their response is the following:
His success, Fortgang argues, should not be diminished to a socially constructed narrative of white male privilege and ascribed to “some invisible patron saint of white maleness.” But what he fails to understand is that this “patron saint” of white maleness isn’t so invisible—historically, socially, and politically, institutions have protected and supported white men. Recognizing the fact that white men benefit from the kinds of racist and sexist structures on which American society is built isn’t meant to diminish his accomplishments. It’s meant to remind us that white men don’t have an inherent predilection for success—the odds have just been stacked in their favor.

Using the phrase "check your privilege", then, is supposed to be an invitation (or perhaps less charitably, a command) to "recognize the fact that white men benefit from the kinds of racist and sexist structures on which American society is built."

The purpose is, if we are to take Oduyemi and Guliani at their word, "to remind [Mr. Fortgang] that white men don't have an inherent predilection for success -- [that] the odds have just been stacked in their favor."  This position seems untenable to me.

First, it assumes that Mr. Fortgang needs reminding that white men don't have an inherent predilection for success.  But that hardly seems to be the case: it's fairly obvious that Mr. Fortgang is proud of his accomplishments (whatever they might be) on an individual level, and that if you asked him whether he was doing so well because he was white, he'd say no.  Indeed, the whole point of the phrase (again, if we take this position seriously) is to make Mr. Fortgang more aware of how his membership in a particular racial or ethnic group has influenced his accomplishments, and specifically to make him aware that it influenced it in a very particular way.  (One can imagine that Oduyemi and Guliani would be no less pleased were Mr. Fortgang to say that being white made his accomplishments more impressive.) 

Second, and more troubling, is the inherent tension between the claim that the phrase "is not meant to diminish his accomplishments" and the claim that the way in which Mr. Fortgang's membership in his particular racial or ethnic group has influenced his accomplishments is to have "stacked the odds in his favor".

You can't have it both ways.  You can either have the cake of good spirits and not diminish his accomplishments, or you can consume that cake and have the pleasure of reminding him that what he's done isn't really as good as he thinks it is, because the odds are stacked in his favor.

Because that's what it means to have the odds stacked in your favor: that the resulting endeavor is cheaper, easier, less impressive.  That's why so many people claim that a near-perfect SAT score from someone coming out of a prestigious institution like Lowell in San Francisco or Stuyvesant in New York is less impressive than the same score achieved by someone from a crime-ridden inner city school that no one has ever heard of.

Back in the day, before someone decided to abandon credibility, people who received extra time on the SAT had their scores marked as such.  The popular term for this was an "asterisk" though it's unlikely that it was actually an asterisk.  (Who knows, though?  Someone at the College Board knows.)   People say the same thing about sports records achieved under different conditions, whether the different conditions are different season lengths or the use of illicit performance-enhancing substances (indeed, the Maris asterisk is probably where the popular use of the phrase asterisk comes from).

It seems pretty clear to me that what the users of the phrase "check your privilege" really want to do is to append an asterisk to the accomplishments of those against whom the phrase is deployed.  But the argument against asterisks on SAT scores was that the asterisk really does diminish the accomplishment.  (Which, of course, is really the whole point of having it in the first place.)  Those who argued against the asterisk thought that those accomplishments didn't deserve to be diminished.

I don't mean to attack either Oduyemi or Guliani.  To riff on their theme, I don't really deserve any great credit for being able to philosophically assault an undergraduate newspaper column: the deck is "stacked in my favor".  But I think it's vitally important to make it perfectly clear that you cannot have it both ways: either you want Fortgang to feel less proud of his accomplishments, to understand that they have an asterisk next to them, or you don't want him to feel less proud of his accomplishments.

Thou must choose.

(As a side note, I use a prefix for Mr. Fortgang and not for the Columbia students simply because, while I'm not familiar with the typical association by sex of any of the three given names, Mr. Fortgang is the only one to have a picture included with his piece and so is the only one of whose sex I am certain.)

UPDATE: Apparently this got posted before it was finished, possibly under a different name.  I apologize for any confusion.

12 April 2014

It *WILL* Happen To Someone You Know

Someone once asked me back in the day (when I blogged a lot more than I do in my current incarnation) why I spent so much time and energy writing blog posts and essays attacking Zero Tolerance policies.  Even now, my wife sometimes chides me at wasting my emotional energy getting upset about cornercase situations happening in other states.

But the reason I get upset about stuff like this is that if you don't get upset enough, if you don't take enough action, if you don't stop the waves of stupidity and evil that course through society on a regular basis... eventually the insane madness stops happening to other people in other states.  Eventually, it happens to someone you know.  (I don't want to go all Godwin here, but first they came for the gun-shaped Pop Tarts...)

A popular Los Angeles high school science teacher has been suspended after students turned in projects that appeared dangerous to administrators, spurring a campaign calling for his return to the classroom.

Students and parents have rallied around Greg Schiller after his suspension in February from the downtown Cortines School of Visual & Performing Arts. Supporters have organized a rally on his behalf at the campus for Thursday, gathered hundreds of signatures on a petition calling for his reinstatement and set up a social media page.

Schiller was ordered to report daily to a district administrative office pending an investigation after two students turned in science-fair projects that were designed to shoot small projectiles.

One project used compressed air to propel a small object but it was not connected to a source of air pressure, so it could not have been fired. (In 2012, President Obama tried out a more powerful air-pressure device at a White House Science Fair that could launch a marshmallow 175 feet.)

Another project used the power from an AA battery to charge a tube surrounded by a coil. When the ninth-grader proposed it, Schiller told him to be more scientific, to construct and test different coils and to draw graphs and conduct additional analysis, said his parents, who also are Los Angeles teachers.

A school employee saw the air-pressure project and raised concerns about what looked to her like a weapon, according to the teachers union and supporters. Schiller, who said he never saw the completed projects except in photos, was summoned and sent home. Both projects were confiscated as "evidence," said Susan Ferguson, whose son did the coil project.

Greg Schiller was my fencing coach when I was at UCLA Law School.  He is my fencing-father, and the fencing grandfather of my student.  I invited him to my wedding.  (He couldn't make it in time because of Friday afternoon traffic...)   Though I haven't spoken with him in some time, he's my friend.

So that's my answer as to why I get worked up about this crap that happens to total strangers.  If it's not stopped, eventually, it will happen to someone you know.  It may even happen to you.

And so as they said in the 80's: Stop The Madness!

I'm urging you to support Greg Schiller, and anyone else subjected to the mindless asshattery that passes for school policy these days.  Support them by noticing what goes on in schools these days under the guise of "protecting" students.  Talk about the egregious instances that show up in the news.  Remember that zero tolerance doesn't exist to protect kids, but to protect school administrators from having to exercise discretion and thus open themselves up to criticism. 

If you're into such things (I tend not to be, but it works for some people), you can sign a Petition at Change.Org directed to Dr. Richard Vladovic, President of the LAUSD Board. 

If you feel like making more of a pest of yourself, you can email the Principal of Schiller's school, Kim Bruno, from this page.

Freedom, Civic Responsibility, and Testing Opt-Outs

Chester E. Finn is upset.  Why is he upset?  Well, he's upset because apparently the number of parents choosing to exempt their students from state testing is on the rise.
The opt-out-of-state-testing movement has notched more wins lately. “Thousands,” we read, are refusing to take the tests in New York alone. And tons more interest and attention are being devoted to this topic in states and communities far and wide.
 I came upon his piece (as I come upon so much in the Edu-Blog world) through a posting at Joanne Jacob's site, where reader response has been strangely muted.  Arguments like this tend to bring out a "spirited" response.  I'd urge readers to go read his piece carefully -- it's well-written, thoughtful, and persuasive.   While my initial reaction to his argument was to reject it out of hand, the more I thought about it, the more convincing it became.  It's the sort of argument that deserves some serious thought.

Unfortunately, it's also a not a very good argument.  And I'd like to spend some time explaining in what respects I think it fails.

Finn starts from the highly questionable assertion that "Education is both a public and a private good."  It's a sweeping statement, but he quickly clarifies what he means:
Education is both a private and a public good, which is why states have assigned themselves constitutional responsibility for educating their young people. Every single state. * * * *  That’s why states have enacted “compulsory attendance” laws. And that’s why paying for education is the largest or second-largest item in the budget of every single state.
So Dr. Finn does not mean to make a blanket conceptual pronouncement about education, but rather to comment specifically on the sort of education provided by institutional schooling in our particular society.  That is, to the extent that Education is a "good" (and I take it he means this word in the sense of a commodity, and not in the sense of a virtuous telos) it is a good that has value and benefit both for the individual who receives this schooling, and derivatively for society at large.

Now, Dr. Finn's focus is firmly on the public aspect of schooling in this piece.  His treatment of education's being a private good is both peremptory and somewhat cryptic:
Yes, the private side of the education “good” is well represented, too. The Supreme Court famously ruled in 1925 that “The child is not the mere creature of the State; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.”
 This passage bizarrely seems to confuse the cui bono of education (which I took it was his primary concern and what characterizes education as a "good" with respect to one party or another) with the quo regor of education, which is purely a question of politics.  And further, it's not clear how the private side is "well-represented" or to whom, or why being well-represented means anything to the current discussion.  I think we can assume that what Dr. Finn is doing here is attempting to provide cover for the rest of his argument by acknowledging that there are interests in play beyond the public interests upon which his argument will depend.

Now to the meat of the argument, which shows up in this passage:
But when [parents] expect the state to educate their children at public expense, the public has a right to know whether those children are learning anything (no, not whether Johnny and Mary are learning, but whether the children of Waco—or Scarsdale—are learning); whether taxpayers are getting a decent ROI from the schools they’re paying for; and whether their community, their state, their society will be economically competitive and civically whole in the future as a result of an adequately educated populace.

The argument hinges on the idea that parents avail themselves of a benefit from society, so they must therefore subject themselves to all the ostensibly reasonable requirements that come along with that benefit.  If you want society to pay for your kid's education, well... society also has things it wants.  It wants to know that its money isn't being wasted, and it can only do that through testing.  So if you want education, you have to take the testing, too.  His argument seems to hinge not on the fact that parents have an ab initio obligation to testing, but that it arises as a voluntarily assumed obligation as a result of their participation in publicly-funded education.

This is a silly argument.

The notion that parents are choosing to avail themselves of public education is of dubious provenance.  Finn has already recognized, supra, the existence "compulsory attendance" laws.  Couple that with the existence of taxes collected to support the "largest or second largest" item in most state budgets, and you could easily argue (and I would argue) that it's rhetorically dishonest to talk about parents expecting to educate their children at public expense.  They are more or less forced to educate their children at public expense, having been taxed out of the ability to fund it themselves, and being further required to provide schooling at risk of having those children taken away.

Now there's a way to counter this argument.  Perhaps you don't see it like that: perhaps you understand and recognize that the parents are society, and that they have chosen to institute a series of laws that allow their children to be educated at public expense.  Now the parents are in fact making a choice.

Which would be all well and good for Finn's argument -- except that by transferring this responsibility to the parents, you also eliminate the idea that the parents somehow owe it "to society" to participate in testing.  The parents, as society, can choose to have whatever sort of educational system they want, and if the system that they produce is one in which opting out of testing is a legitimate choice, when that's what they "owe" society.

Of course, faced with these truths, Finn might simply respond that society has a right -- completely separate from the parent's willing participation -- to test children. He might simply jettison that part of his argument and say that there oughtta be a law.  And there is, sometimes.  Finn, to his credit, admits that the question of whether parents can legally opt out is a "murky" one, varying from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and highly dependent on sometimes inconsistent enforcement.  He also recognizes that the question is not just legal, but political:
In the months ahead, states will have to clarify what is and isn’t required and how test participation is to be enforced—although, as with home schooling, they may choose to leave it murky rather than inviting big political battles
 And that's the real question: do we want to throw parents in jail and/or take their kids away for choosing not to have their children tested?  I doubt that the political will exists to really do this -- and I personally think it would be a terrible thing to do anyway.

But even if we did pass a law or series of laws that required testing, that still wouldn't mean that somehow the parents had voluntarily subjected themselves to the obligation of testing by "choosing" to have their kids educated at public expense.  That line of argument is simply vacuous.  Either the parents aren't really choosing, vis a vis society, or they are choosing as society and they have the right to choose whatever they want to choose.

But now we come to the real sticky thing about testing regimes, about which I've written before: even if you manage to muster the political will to enforce criminal penalties against anti-testing parents, you can't mandate that the children put forth their best efforts.  I mean, you can mandate it, but you can also command the waves to stay off the shore.  There is no practical way to prevent parents from instructing their kids to mark everything "C", or to fill in bubbles at random.  Lord knows I've deliberately tanked my share of tests in my life -- at least once or twice out of nothing but sheer spite.  And I didn't even have my Dad's encouragement.  I also know I'm not the only one. Testing requires active and willing participation to be of any use whatsoever.   To force academic testing on a population over protests is to critically affect the very thing that you're trying to measure.

In light of the fact that he's just wrong about the obligations of parents, and in light of the fact that forcing testing on people through political will is inherently unsound, I don't really understand Finn's heated rhetoric in the closing of his essay:
Our schools need to become more effective and our children need to learn more. Test results advance the public interest much as vaccinations do. (Maybe your kid is healthy today but the classroom needs everybody’s kid to be inoculated lest an epidemic start.)
Better tests are coming, but that doesn’t excuse “opting out” now. It’s not a legitimate form of civil disobedience. And it’s probably not legal, either. If you really find state tests odious, put your money and time where your mouth is—and stop asking taxpayers to educate your children.
Testing is nothing like vaccination.  At best, you can say that the institution of public schooling is like vaccination insofar as one educated imbecile really can ruin it for everyone -- and even that's a somewhat strained analogy. 

Testing either tells us something about the particular student being tested, the student body as a whole, or both.  (It may also tell us something about particular sub-groups in the student body, depending on statistical validity.)  Well, if what we're worried about is the individual, then I don't see the problem with opting out -- and Finn isn't making that argument anyway.  He explicitly stated that he wasn't interested in whether Johnny or Mary was learning, but that the public had an interest in knowing whether the children of Waco or Scarsdale were leraning.

But if what we're worried about is the statistical validity of the tests for the schools as a whole, well, then I'm almost equally flummoxed.  If 10% of students opt out of testing, you're still testing 90% of students.  You're still getting a good sense of what 90% of students are up to.  Do you know how many people Gallup talks to to get a decent model of the country's opinions?  A couple thousand.  Out of 300 million.

Rhee says (and Finn refrains) that testing is like stepping on the scale to find out if your diet is working.  Well it is.  But you also have to choose to step on the scale.  And you also don't need to step on the scale to see if the diet is working -- sometimes all you need to do is wake up and look in the mirror, or go for a walk and see how your knees feel.  Likewise, you can get a good intuitive sense of whether a school is doing its job by having a day's worth of conversations with its students.  (I'm not saying you get statistically sound quantitative data that way, but such data are not the only useful or legitimate epistemological objects.)

I want to be clear that I agree -- on purely pragmatic grounds -- with Finn (and Rhee) that testing is, like any sort of QC process, useful feature in our industrial education system.  Industrial-model schools can be supervised and sometimes made to work better when we can see what they are up to, and testing is the most efficient way to accomplish this.  (I do not agree that it is the best way, as Finn argues, but rather that it is the most efficient: that is, the best for the amount of resources and time that must be expended.  The best way would likely involve a prohibitive number of individualized observations and interviews.)  I'm also willing to accept arguendo that tests are getting better --  though I'm not convinced of that as an empirical matter.

But I've worked in a factory.  They don't measure every widget.  They measure maybe every 20th widget.  They break out the calipers, and clink-clink-clink-clink-clink-clink-clink-clink-clink-clink-clink-clink-clink-clink-clink-clink-clink-clink-clink-clink-MEASURE!

I suspect that what really bothers Finn is that the students who would be opting out of testing are, by and large, going to be drawn from among the most capable students.  In other words, by taking themselves out of the testing pool, they will make their schools look worse, on average, than they would otherwise.  (Assuming those same students had participated fully and actively in the testing.) 

But so what?  If the schools are only giving a good education on average, then they're failing in their mission anyway.

And if enough parents object to the testing that opting out does become a statistical problem, well, you're never going to get the requirement passed in the political arena anyway (assuming proper functioning of the democratic republican system, which may be asking a lot).

Which brings us back to Finn's primary, moral arguments: parents owe it to the schools because of the choices they made.

But that argument isn't a good one.

18 March 2014

Greetings visitors!

Probably because of twitter-related issues, there's been a bit of a traffic spike lately.  Nothing tremendous, but I wanted to take a few minutes to let new visitors to the blog know that the "Greatest Hits" links on the sidebar are now in place -- all 5 of them.  They're all worth reading if you want to get a sense for how I think.  (I make no explicit claims not to have changed my mind about the substance of anything I've written.)

Take off your jacket.  Stay a while.

I'm a woefully underperforming blogger, but there's still plenty to read.

16 March 2014

Responses to Rachel Levy's Concerns

One of my favourite bloggers, Rachel Levy, has recently taken it upon herself to write out a series of thoughts, worries, and ruminations about various things having to do with education, race, and social class.  Her ideas are ideas about which much thought is required, and I wanted to take the time to address some of them. 

It's always nice when authors number their paragraphs.  It makes responses really, really easy.  Now in these responses, I am not out to criticize, and I'm not out to be a cheerleader.  (Though I do a fair amount of criticizing, especially in Number 7, and I'm always a big cheerleader for Rachel.)  I'm not even offering direct responses to everything.  I'm just taking the provocative thoughts she was "riffing" on, and doing some riffing of my own.  I'm quoting most of her post here, but you really should click through and read the whole thing first.

1.  What a person knows about race dynamics constantly evolves, no matter how long or how much one has been involved in struggles against racism, or how involved one has been in communities of color. Once we understand once, we will continue to learn and to struggle to understand the next time. Dynamics change, laws change, circumstances change, younger people come in with their own unique perspectives, perspectives that have been influenced by current times, not the past (even if they have studied the past).
1.  Despite the first sentence, the point Rachel seem to be making is more about the underlying dynamics themselves than what we know about them.  One might assume, of course, that we should "keep up" in terms of what we know.  But what's also true, I think, is that what there is to be known isn't really reducible to general principles or rules, even at any one point in time, without taking a certain sort of position of your own on racial issues.  What "race dynamics" there are out in society, what sorts of "shifts" and states there are to be perceived, is a function of your interpretative framework for racial issues in the first place.  It's almost as if "knowledge" of things is an organic process, a give-and-take between the self and the environment...
2. Some white progressive  (or other) public education activists seem to think that their first priority is to preserve public education and that those efforts will inevitably help to address structural racism. Are those efforts enough? I don't know, but it seems too simplistic to me. Too often, white public education activists seem to say, "You are hurting our common cause by bringing internal issues of race up" rather than "I am hurting the cause by not addressing issues of race."
2. Yes, well, beware of anyone who claims "common cause" with you when they seem to be undermining your interest.  On the other hand, trust people when they tell you who they really are.  If someone calls themselves a "public education activist" it's probably a strong sign that their first commitment is to save public education through activism.
3. Some white educators who teach a majority of students of color seem to think that because of that, they are engaged in social justice work, or in anti-racism work. But even if you serve students of color and serve them well as an educator, does that mean you're engaged in social justice or anti-racism work? I'm not so sure. It seems to me that there has to be something more to such work. Also, you can teach mostly or all white students and be engaged in anti-racism or pro-social justice work, as well.
3. It depends, of course, what you mean by "social justice work" and "anti-racism work".   The next time someone wants to claim that mantle for their work, I suggest that one just ask them what they mean by it.  Assuming that they don't just rhetorically collapse into a pile of fail-and-lose, they'll either have to tell you something REALLY interesting about their work, or they will have to give you a definition which will make it clear that the sort of high-moral-horse positioning that such conversations usually herald is totally unfounded.
4. Speaking of social justice, I hear that phrase batted about so much so that I wonder if it has lost its meaning somewhat. Or, maybe people just don't seem to know what they mean when they say it. How does one define social justice? Well, here's the definition of "social justice" from John Rawls and Aristotle via wikipedia:

Social justice is the ability people have to realize their potential in the society where they live.[1] Classically, "justice" (especially corrective justice or distributive justice) referred to ensuring that individuals both fulfilled their societal roles,[2] and received what was due from society. "Social justice" is generally used to refer to a set of institutions which will enable people to lead a fulfilling life and be active contributors to their community.[3] The goal of social justice is generally the same as human development, and the relevant institutions are usually taken to include educationhealth caresocial securitylabour rights, as well as a broader system of public servicesprogressive taxation and regulation of markets, to ensure fair distribution of wealthequality of opportunity, and no gross inequality of outcome.
Sounds good to me. But do all stakeholders agree on this? In any case, just because you call something "social justice" doesn't mean that it is.
4.  In 1999, I asked one of my good friends, a committed liberal, what "Social Justice" was.  (Note the capitals.)  I've asked dozens of actively liberal people since then -- some of them quite educated and intelligent --  and I've never really gotten a satisfactory answer.  As best I can tell, it's a label that identifies a vaguely-to-heavily intellectual approach to being a political Progressive.  It's an insider's term, a sort of shorthand for "the things in which we believe."  The best analog I can think of is the way that religious people use the term "Scripture."  Yes, the term technically means "part of the written text of the Bible/Torah/Koran", but that's not what it *really* means to the believers.
5. I'm wondering if there's a disconnect between public education activists who are anti-charter and parents of color who send their children to charter schools. I see a certain amount of judgement of people of color who send their kids to charter schools, especially the for-profits and "no excuses" chains. While I am troubled by the proliferation of charter schools, and especially of those of for-profits and no excuses variety, and have problems seeing them as public democratic institutions, I am also loathe to judge people who send their children to them. I'm not seeing where most people of color are gung-ho about sending their children to such charters, but rather that they see it as the least bad option. Or maybe, it's matter of values matching up. Even as I acknowledge that the "market" is rigged in well-endowed charter chains' favors, I find it problematic to assume that people whose children go to them are simply pawns of that system. We need to find out why people of color send their children to charter schools when they do. Furthermore, we need to acknowledge that the traditional public school system has not served students of color as well as it has white students. I don't think that that means we should destroy the traditional public schools system--I think we should make it better for all students, but "rigged market" aside, we need to explore what might cause people who would otherwise support public schools to leave them.
5. I don't think it's a disconnect.  I think it's a simple difference of interests.  As I indicated above, "public education activists" are, BY DEFINITION, in favor of public education to the point that they make supporting and expanding and improving it a large part of their day to day activities.  Parents who send their kids to charter schools are typically interested in one thing over all others: the best future for their child.  It's the same thing that most parents are interested in.  Whether they are making a mistake or not -- and they may be -- parents do what they think is best for their kids.  The more interesting question, and the question I take it Rachel really want us to ask, is why they THINK that the charter schools are best.  And I think that's obvious: Rachel said herself that "we need to acknowledge that the traditional public school system has not served students of color as well as it has white students." 

I think that mistates the case, though.  While it's true that students of color aren't as well-served, that's a side-effect of what I think is really going on, which is that *communities* of color aren't as well-served.  "The problem" is larger than the individual student, or even the individual school.  I'm not sure exactly what "the problem" is, but I suspect that it has something to do with the distance at which most large, urban districts work from their charges, and a sense of alienation that the community has from the educational enterprise.  Charters, even large network charters, are much more "boots-on-the-ground" type of institutions that often DEMAND interaction with the community in a way that more traditional, bureaucratic "public education" can actually discourage.  That's just a suspicion, though, not an argument.
6. When people say "we need to reach out to communities of color" and the group they are addressing includes people of color, there is something wrong. That "we" is excluding and sounds like the people of color already in the group are invisible. Furthermore, whose movement is it? Who owns it? If said policies are affecting mostly communities of color, should white people put themselves in charge of the movement?
6.  Here I think Rachel's wrong to worry.  If I'm in her audience, and she's talking about reaching out to communities of color, I think she's on safe ground -- because she's not really talking about reaching out to all people of color.  Odds are she's talking specifically about engaging under-serviced communities afflicted with certain types of social problems.  And as Brown as I am, I'm not really a part of such a community.  I'm included in her implicit "we" -- meaning us well-intentioned, well-educated, concerned citizens who don't like that children in our society are growing up without a "good" education as we understand it. 

In other words, it's not problematic because the "they" and "we" isn't really a distinction based on race at all.  (This ties in to the discussion below in #8.)

As for "who owns" the movement... it depends on what the movement is.  Generally speaking, when a bunch of white (read: rich/middle class) people get together to do work for a community of color (read: poor), what's going on is a sort of cultural missionary work.  Oh, they deny it.  How they deny it!  But that's usually what's going on.  And here's a newsflash: the converts can't "own" the missionary work until they've been converted first. 

Still, it's an open question both whether the community wants the missionary work, and whether the community would be better off with or without it.
7. Sometimes, I see or read about injustices that happen to people of color in the education sector and I am outraged or troubled and I want to write about them. I can use any megaphone I have to try to get others thinking about these things, to try to effect change, and I can use my white privilege to try to get through to those who don't see a problem. But in doing that, am I co-opting the outrage? Am I associating the problem with me, a white woman, rather than "making space for people of color to share their experiences directly," as a friend of color recently spoke of? By listening to and talking to someone who might not listen as easily to my black or Latina equivalent am I perpetuating their racism?
7. Pardon the profanity, but Fuck this whole line of thinking.

To hell with the notion that Rachel shouldn't speak up about injustice or mistake because she's not "authentic" or aggrieved enough to say something, and to hell with the silly idea that her friend seems to have that her only job is not to speak herown mind, but to engage in some sort of service to help others speak theirs. 

Rachel Levy is a human being and a citizen of the United States (in addition to being a graduate of the greatest University on God's Green Earth).  If she's upset about something, she has the right -- and perhaps the moral duty -- to speak up.  If someone else wants to speak up -- someone with a darker complexion than she -- guess what?  THEY CAN SPEAK UP TO.  It's not a zero sum game.  We can all stand up and make a joyous noise unto the Evils of the Earth.  We probably all should.

And if she wants or feels the moral/social need to help facilitate others' speech, she can do that to. (Though her time and attention and energy *is* a zero sum game.) 
8. Even in 2014, inequality is not just "about class, not race." It's seductive to think so, and I went through a phase of thinking this, but espousing such a point of view means ignoring the role of history on conditions today and it means telling a person of color that the prejudice they experience does not exist. Even if it is more about class now than race, race very much determined class, and still does at least to a certain extent. I refer you to Ta-Nehisi Coates:
 8.  Look, Allah loves wond'rous variety.  At least that's what Morgan Freeman said in Kevin Costner's Robin Hood movie.  And guess what?  There's ALL SORTS of inequality.  There's inequality differentiated on what's actually unequal: genetic endowments, educational access, money, scenic views, library access, school quality, air quality, traffic and public transportation access, opportunities to learn what silverware to use, opportunities to learn how to physically defend yourself, etc.  There's inequality differentiated on what's CAUSING the inequality: inequalities based purely on location, inequalities based on race, inequalities based on sex, inequalities based on perceived gender, inequalities based on fashion sense, inequalities based on height (this may also be part of the first set), inequalities based on "social class" (which are different than inequalities based on income and resources).  It's a wide, wide world of inequalities.  We can play all sorts of games with inequality taxonomies.

The key, as always, is to listen to what's being asserted.  I think that Coates and Rachel are, to some degree or another, attacking a straw man: the argument that "social class" explains everything.  You either have to be a moron or an over-the-top Marxist to really think that, or you have to be so afraid of engaging with issues of race that you reach for the magic explain-it-away concept.  OF COURSE there are still inequalities based on race.  There are inequalities based on race, and inequalities only *partially* based on race.  There are even inequalities that are mostly, but not exclusively, based on race.  And there are differentiations that can be made in the sorts of inequalities that are "based on" race.

But I strongly suspect that most (not all, but most) of that race-based inequality -- and I'm not saying it's not real -- is an "echo effect" of past discrimination.  It's like the way I still can't run, 10 years after my catastrophic leg injury.  It's like the way my inability to run has affected my life in a variety of derivative, negative ways.  There's no one stomping on my leg right now, no one driving me off the road.  The wrong that was done to me is no longer being done -- I've escaped that situation.  But the damage persists, until either it heals or I die (it's not going to heal).

Any community is an organism, and the African American community, such as it is, received an extended course of absolutely catastrophic damage over the last 300 years.  In this, Coates is right. 

By analogy, it suffered massive immune compromise, massive head trauma, extensive neurological damage, and some debilitating long-term deficiencies in important nutrients that led to skeletal and muscular degeneration.  As an organism, it simply is not functioning at 100%.  There's a very famous quote about this, by LBJ:
You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: 'now, you are free to go where you want, do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please.' You do not take a man who for years has been hobbled by chains, liberate him, bring him to the starting line of a race, saying, "you are free to compete with all the others," and still justly believe you have been completely fair... This is the next and more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity—not just legal equity but human ability—not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and as a result.
I'm not saying that these "echo effects" account for all of the inequalities experienced by African Americans.  But I'd be willing to best that echo effects account for a LOT of them.  And that means that the inequality experienced by people of color isn't really about racial discrimination happening RIGHT NOW.  It's "about" racial discrimination, sure -- in a historical sense.  But that's not the same thing.

To continue the analogy: I don't need people to stop smashing my leg.  What I need is therapy and exercise.  And so now the question arises: which serves me more?  Should I pursue physical therapy, or should I insist that we stop people from running me off the road?

I take it that when Coates' "liberals" attempt to reduce the problem to one of class, what they're really doing in their well-intentioned hearts is to try to move to the "therapy" stage of things, on the view that the actual threat to the health and safety of the organism is mostly gone.  They have moved on to treating symptoms.

And that's probably true. 

It's *mostly* gone.


07 March 2014

Predictability and Education

Universal Pre-School.
Elementary school.
Junior High.
High School.
A Job.
Social Security.

There's a mindset that wants the entire course of life to be predictable and stable.  In this aspirational view, pre-school gets you ready for elementary school.  Elementary school gets you ready for Junior High.  Junior High gets you ready for High School.  High School gets you ready for college.  College gets you ready for a Job.  A Job lets you pay into Social Security, and Social Security lets you retire at age 96.  (Or it will by the time I get there.)

The stages flow into one another, and the result is a life that -- if you took the time to look -- you could see laid out before you as early as the age of 8.

It is this perspective that worries about things like whether the SAT is testing kids on the same things that they are studying in school, on whether employers think college grads are being adequately prepared, whether every student is going to college, and whether the Core Curriculum is going to get students ready to go to College.  It's the sort of viewpoint implicitly endorsed by ignorant high school teachers who tell you that you need to learn citation format X by heart, "Because you'll need it for college." 

John Dewey had a name for the view of education that pervades this sort of mindset -- he called it "Education as Preparation."  That's not the name of a fashionable academic theory -- it's just the name of a viewpoint that sees the purpose of Education as Preparation for other things.  There's much to recommend the view of Education as Preparation.  You're only a child for so long, and you'll never have another time when your phases of neural proliferation and pruning allow you to learn things so well, so easily, and so deeply.

But Education-as-Preparation should only be endorsed insofar as it is an end of Education, not the end.  Dewey was right when he said that the life of the child has value in the here and now, and that one's education should be geared to the present as well as the future. 

Additionally, the plain fact of the matter is that technology has allowed us to do some pretty remarkable stuff in a relatively short period of time.  We are remaking our society over and over again, week in and week out.  If you're reading this blog, you likely know the drill: the jobs of today won't be the jobs of tomorrow; we don't even know what the jobs of tomorrow will be; Social Security looks like it's going to be bankrupt well before I ever collect, etc.  The future is unstable.

If the tail end of the sequence is unstable and constantly shifting, it's going to whack the head of the sequence back and forth.  You can't prepare for Jobs in College if you don't know what the jobs are.  You can't prepare for College in High School if College is constantly trying to find its footing.  And so on, all the way back.

We want things to fit neatly together, because we value predictability.  (And by "we" I mean "those people".)  We don't want to have to think about what comes next -- it's the Progressive Dream: a life where everything is mapped out for you and all you have to do is color in the lines and enjoy your vacation time however you want.

But maybe we should recognize that each of these stages actually has a stand-alone, independent job to do.  I suspect -- and it's just a suspicion -- that one of the reasons our high schools aren't what we want them to be is because they (the schools) don't have their eyes on what they are doing.  They're looking forward, worrying about "college preparation" when what they really need to be doing is producing a solid, integrated high school graduate.

If we can de-link the chain of predictability, we can stop worrying about whether high school grads are "college ready" and start worrying about whether they are good high school graduates.  We can start asking ourselves what that really means.

Let the colleges worry about figuring out whether people are college-ready or not.  Let employers worry about finding the right person for the job that they need to fill here and now.  Let future employers worry about those things down the road.

An added bonus: most high school teachers are pretty good at being high school graduates.  Most of them are only fair to middlin' at being college graduates.   A lot of high school teachers (not all, and maybe not even most, but a lot) just don't know what it means to be a good college student: they muddled through and took Micky Mouse courses.  They shouldn't be teaching "college prep" because they don't really know what is expected and requried at college: they had at most four years of second-hand, tangential experience with a limited range of college life, and odds are they didn't knock those four years out of the park. 

But they've got high school nailed.  Let them come back and be instructors for that.

And we can do the same thing at the collegiate level: decouple a degree from the job.  Get the degree as a symbol that you've completed a course of training that prepares you not for the "next step" but rather that prepares you for being a certain type of person.

When we talk about the humanities, and the futility of racking up thousands of dollars of student loans to study Women's Studies or Art History, we're endorsing the view that these things do not have an independent value -- that they are only good to the extent that they advance you to "the next step." 

Well, if you're looking for "the next step", Women's Studies or Art History probably isn't the way to go.  And if you sunk tens of thousands of dollars into it thinking that it was the next step -- well, you're the victim of a tragic mistake.  You're a victim of the Predictable Education mindset, which told you that all you needed to do was go to high school, then go to college, then you'd get a job.

But that's not what college was designed for, and it's not what it's good at.  College is good at producing a certain type of person.  That certain type of person tends to be fairly good at a lot of things, but that's no guarantee that they'll be a good employee for any particular job.

Let the colleges worry about producing good college graduates.  Let the employers worry about finding the right person for the job that they need to fill here and now.

It'd be nice (and by "nice" I mean "nice if you're lazy") if everything was done for us -- if our decisions about what to do next were made for us, if our employees were prepared for us, if our prospective college students were ready-made for the college experience.  It would be nice if we could approach life without having to navigate and make important decisions.

But that's not really the world we live in, and it won't be, no matter how much we pretend and no matter how much we attempt to structure our social institutions to reflect the reality we want instead of the reality we have.  Life isn't predictable.  And an Education that prepares you properly for life can't be, either.

05 March 2014

The New Old SAT

Once again, the SAT has morphed.

And once again, it's not clear the changes are entirely for the better.
Saying its college admission exams do not focus enough on the important academic skills, the College Board announced on Wednesday a fundamental rethinking of the SAT, ending the longstanding penalty for guessing wrong, cutting obscure vocabulary words and making the essay optional.
Let's go through all the changes, one at a time.

Removing the wrong-answer penalty doesn't have much to do with the content of the test itself -- but it does have to do with the distribution of scores.  I can think of two effects.  First, a penalty makes people less likely to make a wild guess.  This, in turn, means that test-takers are less clustered in the distribution than they might otherwise be, as weaker students who aren't sure of the answers lose their opportunity to "fake" into the higher brackets.  Removing the penalty means that there will be more faking -- more right answers that aren't completely indicative of the test taker's mental prowess, and that will likely lead to more dense clustering of the resulting distribution (or an expanded distribution that is less differentiated at the extremes).  Second, removing the penalty will cause grumpy old people to say, "Back in my day, when you got an answer wrong, you LOST points."  And said grumpy old people might have a point.

"Cutting obscure vocabulary words" really can be translated as "reducing the amount of vocabulary a student needs to learn."  However you want to cut it, this is just straight-up dumbing down of the test -- making it more difficult to differentiate at the high extremes (although perhaps easier to differentiate at the lower extremes).

Making the essay optional is blessed relief.  If you don't have time to read the damn thing (and graders of standardized tests do not), the student shouldn't have to take the time to write it.  The essay was always something of a joke.  It's a merciful death, long overdue.

But that's not all the changes:
[T]he scoring will revert to the old 1,600-point scale — from 2,400 — with top scores of 800 on math and 800 on what will now be called “evidence-based reading and writing.”

So now the real old geezers like me, and all the youngin's... we can compare SAT scores.  It's just the milennials who are going to be the odd people out with their odd, hyper-inflated scores.  (Of course, the score is utterly meaningless.  I've long thought that the only thing that matters is the percentages.  But maybe I'm just competitive.)

I'm not sure what "evidence-based reading and writing" is.  The only "evidence" available to people taking a standardized tests are the things that they believe to be true, and the things that the test presents to them as true.  One would imagine that any sort of reading and writing outside of creative composition and poetry is "evidence based" in some vague sense.  It probably means something like "deploying facts in an argument" and "understanding how facts are deployed in an argument."  In other words, it -- meaning the reading and writing that takes place while taking the test -- is probably "about" evidence or "involves" evidence, rather than being "based on" evidence.

The overall push seems to be to align the SAT "more closely" to schoolwork -- a sort of summative assessment of the secondary school years, I suppose. 

That strikes me as only as strong a foundation for a test as the relationship between schoolwork and college readiness in the first place -- which can be highly questionable.  Good college students aren't really made in the classroom, I think.  They are made in the hours spent pursuing intellectual hobbies, reading for pleasure, rehearsing music and drama, and having engaged and active discussion with family, friends, and teachers about subjects other than what one thinks about the what happened on the Vampire Diaries last night.

01 March 2014

Portrayals,Caricatures, and Stereotypes

It sometimes seems that you can't move your foot on a college campus without kicking a controversy involving some sort of racial or cultural stereotype.  A lot of times this involves Fraternities dressing up, or having a "theme" party, but sometimes it's a cartoon, a student being clueless, or some stupid faculty member making a generalization.

I think, though, that civil society could really do with a refresher course on the distinction between something that is merely subjectively offensive to someone, and something that is (for lack of a better term) "objectively" offensive in the sense that it's the sort of thing a reasonable person would find offensive.

A lot of things can be subjectively offensive to some particular person or another.  But that fact alone doesn't make that behavior objectively unreasonable.  Sometimes people are trafficking in stereotypes that aren't offensive, and sometimes they aren't trafficking in stereotypes at all -- sometimes it's just a caricature, or even less bothersome, a straight-up portrayal.

The reason that this matters so much is because of the response that the different sorts of behavior warrants.  If someone inadvertently hurts your feelings, the thing to do is to let them know that they've hurt your feelings, and perhaps ask them not to do it again.  For example, if some fraternity or another is having a "Mexican" theme party, with sombreros and 'staches, and it really bothers you, you might send the fraternity a letter expressing your displeasure.

But here's the truth: the stereotype of Mexicans as thick-mustached and Sombrero-wearing just isn't objectively offensive: Mexicans really did (and do) wear Sombreros.  Ditto the 'staches.  And the bandoliers, if you want to take it that far.  Pancho Villa really did look like that.  So did Emiliano Zapata (scroll down).

Look at the bottom picture on this page.  Revolutionary heroes, all of them... with big thick mustaches and all wearing Sombreros.  They WANTED to look like that for their picture.  It's an ideal picture of what a certain kind of Mexican man is supposed to look like.  Portraying that, or even caricaturing it a little, simply is not trafficking in any sort of offensive stereotype.  It's trafficking in a stereotype, to be sure.  But the stereotype isn't offensive.

When someone does something that is objectively offensive, it's appropriate (if perhaps a little excessive) to publicly demand apologies, to write letters in the newspaper, and maybe even to talk about a climate of racism if there's really grounds for that.  People who do objectively bad things should be treated appropriately.  But if a bunch of people are having a little bit of fun with a cariacature that's at once legitimate and not objectively demeaning in any way, then taking to the ramparts and making accusations of racism is probably something of an overreaction.  Of course, execution matters.  Attitude matters.  If you're dressing up and pretending to be illegal aliens, or acting lazy or drunk, well, that starts to sound downright racist.  But the behavior itself isn't necessarily offensive. 

Likewise, if someone puts on blackface -- shoe polish blackface or even worse, the sort with the exaggerated lips -- that's a deliberate invocation of a negative, nasty portrayal of a racial group from a time when they were oppressed by law.  It's either culpably ignorant or mean-spiritedly racist.

But if a model actually makes themselves look different by using make-up -- I'm thinking of something like this -- that's not trafficking in an offensive stereotype.  It's not just that the stereotype isn't offensive, it's that there's no stereotype to begin with.  That's just dressing up like something else. And playing dressup is not objectively offensive in and of itself.  Once again, the specific execution matters.  If you're acting like an ass and talking with an exaggerated ebonics accent... then no matter how well-done your make-up is, what you're doing is, as a whole, offensive.  But if someone dresses up as Samuel L. Jackson for Halloween, I'm not going to call them a racist just because they're trying to do a good job of it.

I'm not saying you can't get upset about it.  People feel what they feel.  And like I said, there's nothing wrong with letting someone know that they've hurt your feelings.  But I think that we all have a duty to be mindful of when we're lodging justified complaints about real, objectively offensive behavior, and when we're taking the time to let our fellow citizens know that they've pressed on one of our sensitivities.  Our response to those two different situations should, I think, be correspondingly different.  It's easy for us to say that others should be mindful of our feelings, and that others should always keep our sensitivities in mind when acting.

But we might all want to try following the same advice, and spend some time thinking about our own sensitivities, and whether certain behavior by others really calls for all-out political warfare, or whether maybe something a little more moderate and humble is called for.

24 February 2014

The New College Conservatives?

Via Ann Althouse, I am greeted this morning by the news that there is a Petition at Boston University to cancel a concert by this fellow of whom I'd not ever heard until Miley Cyrus used him as a sex toy, Robin Thicke.

More than 1,600 people have signed an online petition started by members of Humanists of Boston University to get Thicke’s March 4 date at the school’s Agganis Arena cancelled.

‘Thicke’s hit song, Blurred Lines, celebrates having sex with women against their will,’ the group’s petition at states.

* * * *

‘Lyrics such as, “I know you want it,” explicitly use non-consensual language. And while watching the extremely explicit video, the insinuations grow from subtle to explicit to obnoxious.’

 I always get an uneasy feeling in the back of my head when I read about groups attempting to stop someone from speaking or performing on a college campus.  I'm not only Libertarian in this respect, but also something of a First Amendment Purist, both as a legal and philosophical matter.  But that's not what I want to write about.

What I want to write about is the fact that the Humanists of Boston University want to prevent Thicke from performing based on the fact that his songs are crude, rude, and vile.  Because no matter how you slice it, that's what's going on: they are saying that whatever meagre benefits may be provided by his performance are outweighed by the damage that his antics do to the culture, and that such coarseness doesn't really have a place at a University.

And that strikes me as a perfectly legitimate reason for objecting to the show -- not one I'd necessarily share because of my free speech commitments -- but a legitimate objection.  (I want to make perfectly clear, however, that I'd cut off a pinky rather than attend a Robin Thicke concert.)  

But I think you have to accept that it's an undeniably conservative reason, one which seeks to suppress certain types of expression in order to protect cultural mores seen as valuable from being undermined.  And if you object to Thicke's performance on those grounds... well, maybe the next time someone objects to something that they find crude, offensive, and not quite worth the benefits, even if you disagree with them, at the very least you can understand where they are coming from.

~ ~ ~

As a side note to the BU students who issued these statements to the press... "I know you want it" isn't explicitly non-consensual.  In fact, when you say that they are "insinuations" that require the video to make them grow to "explicit insinuations" (whatever those are), you're really undermining your entire statement.

The lyric is not even really implicitly non-consensual -- at best there's an inference here rather than an implication.  I take it that the lyric in question is supposed to be true -- that the woman to whom Thicke is speaking really does "want it" and that he really does know -- even if she doesn't necessarily realize it as a fully conscious thought.  So a more accurate way of putting that would be, "Lyrics such as 'I know you want it" echo and reinforce an attitude of male entitlement and sexual control, while simultaneously presenting women as inherently passive objects unable to take control of their own desires."

And that still presents the lyric as properly bad and objectionable -- but it also has the added benefit of being true.  But I suppose it doesn't sound as good as a sound-bite.

UPDATE: Minor grammar edit to the last paragraph, and some spacing fixes.

25 January 2014

Chronicling the Meier-Pondiscio Debates

I want to warn you, gentle readers, this post is VERY, VERY long.  I'm more or less summarizing several months of blogging that took place on another site.

Robert Pondiscio, executive director of CitizenshipFirst (a group devoted to "reminding... Americans that the founding purpose of education was to prepare our nation’s young people for self-government")  has been engaging in a lengthy, somewhat in-depth back-and forth with Deborah Meier over on her "Bridging Differences" blog at Education Week.  (Subscription required)  What I'm going to do here is first give a recap of their discussion for those of you who don't have subscriber access.  I think that this debate is at once illuminating, maddening, and important.  After I've set out what was said, then I'm going to offer some brief thoughts on their debates.


It started with what I thought was a fairly innoccuous post by Mr. Pondiscio, who once worked in journalism, then decided to become a 5th Grade teacher, and now pushes for civic education reform.  His position was basically that people are a little too set in their ideological positions in the ed reform world, and that even if we can't always agree about structural reform issues, at the very least we should be having conversations about instructional reform issues.   Along the way, he mentioned that he was in favor of "a knowledge-rich core curriculum; safe and orderly schools staffed by competent and committed adults; schools where educating for citizenship is as important as for college and career."  (Emphasis mine, because this is what's going to start the ball rolling.)  But while he wasn't going to abandon his commitment to these things, he wasn't interested in zealotry.


Deborah responded somewhat obliquely -- though I'm not sure there was a way to directly respond to Robert's generalized musings.  She began by professing a commitment to the role of education in preparing students for active participation in a free democracy.  Then she said this: "So it is on the basis of democracy, for example, that I find the common core risky—regardless of one's conservative or liberal views. Even if it was not enforced by testing, and even if it were not written in a way that actually impinges on "pedagogy," and even if I wrote it myself, I believe it distorts some essential intellectual premises upon which democracy rests. " Her objection to "common core", then, is a fairly standard objection to centralization, or to academic dogma. "Before 'what' comes 'why'," in teaching for Meier. And the why -- democratic participation -- suggests that a monlithic curriculum is at odds with the mission of schools.


Having seemingly had his entire opening piece reduced to an off-handed mention of a "core curriculum", Pondiscio reluctantly engaged. The key quote here is this: "A good education must prepare us for our public role as citizens, but also for wise exercise of individual freedom and personal responsibility. In short, education for democracy also means education for liberty." And liberty, for Pondiscio, includes a certain degree of selfishness. Schools aren't just about public participation: they are also "engines of upward mobility, individual agency, and self-fulfillment." (Whatever that last thing means.) Pondiscio invoked E.D. Hirsch (whom he affectionately calls "Don) to make the case that it is a content-rich curriculum -- the actual learning of important things -- that gives students the maximal chance for success, and for membership in the "ruling class." It's here that we can see the first deep ideological fissure opening up between Meier and Pondiscio: she believes that "ruling class" should have a universal extension, while Pondiscio seems resigned to a ruling class shaped by egalitarian ideals: meritocracy and open access. Pondiscio closed by noting that "the education [he] was trained to give to [his] students left them less than prepared for self-sufficiency and upward mobility."


The game is now afoot. And having isolated a slogan upon which they both can agree -- EDUCATION FOR DEMOCRACY AND LIBERTY -- she starts trying to figure out what those words mean, starting with Democracy. Now I confess I don't really understand what her point is for the first half of her post. She meanders a lot, but then things crystallize and I think it comes down to the sentiment that Democracy is hard, that it's not perfect, and that "we can't stop acknowledging the influence of class, wealth, the color of our skin, being privileged, and being well-educated." Democracy, it seems for Meier, is intimately tied up with equality of many sorts: equality of respect, equality of political standing, and even perhaps equality of economic power. The public schools, she thinks, provide us with a stepping stone to a hoped-for "better society" in which we are all free and equal. Education is "not for the sake of the so-called free-market economy -- which has helped make us less equal" but for the sake of equality of power (something intimately tied up with money). Deborah closed pessimistically -- warning that even if schools were able to direct themselves to this sort of task, the deck seems stacked against them. There may be too many obstacles facing some schools without some sort of structural reform. To that end, "We need to end a world in which very rich children spend 12-plus years in schools that spend $30,000 to $40,000 per student and where teachers have class sizes of 12, while other children attend schools that spend $8,000-$15,000 and teachers have loads of 160-170 different students per week."


In his response, Pondiscio attempts to refocus this debate about social equality and structural egalitarian reform into a debate specifically about curricular detail:
The tough, essential, and unavoidable question is what, if anything, we expect all children to learn. What are the basic, non-negotiable things? Is there a baseline of common knowledge that a free people must command in order to prize, preserve, and protect the freedom and liberty we both agree are essential?
 What follows feels a little well-rehearsed, as one might expect from the head of a group called "CitizenshipFirst". Educating for Democracy requires educating for citizenship. And as it happens, the U.S. has a citizenship exam that one-third native-born citizens allegedly cannot pass. Educating for liberty, though, "is a trickier question." It seems to have something to do with an introduction to language. Here Pondiscio seems to have in mind something like the discursive theories of education presented by R.S. Peters -- a proper education is one that gives the student the ability to participate in conversations of value, to interact within the cultural soup of his or her society. (That language is all my take on Peters, not anything Pondiscio says directly.) Having put the emphasis on language, Pondiscio notes that "factual knowledge is the wellspring of language proficiency." Pondiscio envisions a "shared knowledge" of art, music, literature, science, and history that provides the milieu in which free and democratic interactions can take place. He then challenges Meier to "specifcy any body of knowledge that all children must know."


Meier's response is at first, frankly a bit sneering: she poo-poohs the idea of basing any sort of educational reform on something as fragmented and silly as the U.S. Citizenship test, which she casts as a half-random collection of facts like, "Who wrote the national anthem." She makes a very interesting point that "only kings of yore believed they had unrestricted freedom", and that democracy not just about ensuring liberty, but about limiting it responsibly. But she's not really responding to Pondiscio's challenge (which seems fine to me because it's her blog and he doesn't get to unilaterally set the terms of debate). She does engage with his educational theorizing though, agreeing that "most of the dialogue about power is conducted in a language unfamiliar to many citizens." She then suggests that it's not just that the poor should be initiated into the discourse of the powerful, but that maybe everyone should take the time to build linguistic bridges. (I note that the title of her blog is, after all, "Bridging Differences.") She takes it as given that we all live inside our own linguistic worlds (which I think is correct), and she' invokes (again, impilcitly) the sort of educational theory that holds that different knowledge structures aren't deficient, and uses that implicitly as a platform for endorsing a sort of relativism. The takeaway line?
A diversity of knowledge claims is essential for democracy and liberty, as well as for the arts, sciences, technology, etc. When one "best practice" rules, it undermines liberty, democracy, and progress, in general. We need collaborators and resisters, collegiality and ornery individualists.
In short, she believes in decentralization not just of curriculum, but of culture as well. At least that's the impression she's left me with.


Pondiscio opens his next post by noting that she didn't answer his question. His next big move is when he takes on her fundamental premise from the last post:
You asked, "Do we really have to teach a common core to promote thinking, or do we mean 'thinking like us?'" The answer, whether we like it or not, is empirically and emphatically, "Yes." And if by "thinking like us" you mean "thinking like Americans" (all Americans, regardless of race, gender, or sexual identity), the answer is clearly and unambiguously "Yes" again.
So now we've got a clear disagreement. Pondiscio thinks that there is something that should be "thinking like an American." Meier, it seems, believes that one is an American and that being one entitles one to the freedom to think in whatever way comes naturally. What started as a question of policy seems to have morphed into a barely sublimated clash of world-views. It's exciting stuff.

He then reiterates his earlier claim that "cognitive skills... are knowledge-based." They are not disembodied faculties, but ways of engaging with the world. (Again, I'm rephrasing.) Like a good politician, Pondiscio then repeats his call for some sort of solid body of factual knowledge to ground the cultural/epistemological structure that he believes we should share. He closes by asking Meier if she understands why he is saying that the ends he seeks -- social justice and equality -- require a grounded and shared culture.


The title of Meier's next post is "A Standard Curriculum Won't Erase Gaps". Her actual post, though, has more to do with her earlier arguments dealing with the structural inequality of schools. She thinks that local control -- the ability of parents to interact with, influence, and participate in the project of education -- is what will promote democracy. She doesn't want an impersonal, detached bureaucracy. "In the end," she writes, "I simply want for all children what the wealthiest count on for theirs."

What we have, she says, is a "dual" system: "one tightly organized and structured to prevent trouble" (for poor kids) and "the other open and inviting, expecting the best" (for rich kids). She then offers "four steps" for "using our schools to defend and deepen our democratic ideals." I want to warn readers: it's not really four steps. It's a whole bunch of ideas, some of which are steps and some of which aren't, all smashed together under the numbers 1-4. Actually, she makes two other points that she labels 5 and 6. Maybe the "steps" that she's talking about are in part psychological "steps" that people need to take? I don't know. I'm not going to try to break them down. Instead I'm going to pick out the three big themes that she takes up:
THEME 1: Ideological commitments to pluralism and "messy" democracy. We've covered these above.

THEME 2: Pedagogical suggestions. There are two, really. First, children need adult interaction and behavior modeling. Second, we need to get rid of tests because they are essentially engines of differentiation and social sorting, and that sorting inherently takes place within one particular socio-linguistic framework or another. That means the test inherently privilege one perspective over another, and that's unacceptable in Meier's democracy.

THEME 3: Structural Issues in Education. First, we get an answer to the question Pondiscio's been asking:
I know of no specific information—much less pages and pages of information— that would help democracy OR the economy flourish. To demand that all 4-year-olds can count to 100, 5-year-olds to 1,000, and by age 6 be able to point to Mesopotamia on a world globe surely wouldn't appear on my list of "musts." It all "depends." And there are far better ways to insure that the "it depends" isn't an excuse for racism.
Then we get an interesting statement: "Democracy won't survive if we depend on schools alone." Meier's not interesting, it seems, in fixing schools. She wants to restructure society. If I can take some liberties in summation: A Standard Curriculum Won't Erase Gaps. Erasing Gaps will erase gaps.

She closes by -- uncharitably, I think --  taking another dig at the "Star Spangled Banner" question.

 Pondiscio responds by attempting to claim the mantle of the "Real Progressive." His heavily rhetorical post boils down to this: he's working tirelessly to see that students from all backgrounds have a real chance at social mobility, at economic success. And he's more or less sick of "limousine liberals" dumping on America as a hopeless, greed-infested, inherently immoral hotbed of structural inequality. Then he suggests that Deb might be in that camp. There's really not much more to it than that.


Meier's response is another long, meandering set of ruminations, loosely organized around a few themes. The themes are by now familiar: inherent structural inequality, pluralistic democracy, etc. She claims to be a "Dewey-an" on "means and ends" (which is odd, because she seems to be absolutely rejecting the more fundamental theories of education upon which Dewey erected his normative work) I take it that by this she means she thinks that there's support for her vision of extremely decentralized democratically-organized education in Dewey's work (which there arguably is).

The most interesting thing she says, though, gets to what seems to me to be the heart of the matter: what are we trying to do with this institution called school?

The crux is that, what we won't know, even after a lifetime of learning, is far more than what we will, no matter how hard we try. Not to mention at 18. A lot of what we won't know or understand is important stuff, but so is what we will know. (Including the stuff the poor know that the "common core" curriculum doesn't dignify as real knowledge.)

The task from K-12 is building a thirst for knowledge, pleasure in speaking up, and curiosity, curiosity, curiosity—persistently pursued. We need habits of the mind that carry over to the many hours we are not in school and the years and years that follow. "Take your hand off my throat so I can breathe" is precisely what the best teachers are crying out for.

I can heartily sympathize with this. School isn't just about learning the stuff in school: it's about becoming a certain kind of person. But if we want schools that are going to provide this sort of thing, we're going to be waiting a long time, Meier says.  (I have made alterations (in bold) to this quote to make it more intelligible.)
If we wanted to tackle even these school-based inequities we'd need schools that were organized very differently: Schools where we're not only told there should be "homework," but we count the hours involved in reading and responding to it; or schools where everyone agrees we need more parent "engagement" and so we make time and space for this engagement to occur; or schools that don't just parrot the slogan—each child should be taught to his or her individual strengths and  but acknowledge that we have to tackle class size and a teacher's high school pupil loads of 150-plus students a day to live up to it.

Following a break for New Year's, Deborah took up the pen once again. This time, she seemed to be more interested in advancing the dialectic. Her focus was explicitly on the questions raised over the course of the discussion: "What kind of compromise is possible that meets each of our minimum requirements—and promotes democracy and liberty? What would a public system that puts "citizenship first," but supports many ways to get there, look like? What's the "key" to our differences, and how does it play out?"

She advances a theory that democracy presumes -- or perhaps "requires" might be a better word -- a certain level of "equality of condition, power, skill, and knowledge" to operate. In other words, it requires the very sort of thing it's supposed to help promote. And she once again expresses pessimism that we're in a position to engage in real democracy with the structural inequalities in our society as bad as they are.

Then she shifts gears slightly, moving into a discussion of power-structures and decisionmaking in schools. (Some critical-theory types might call this a discussion of "praxis".) She gives some examples of decentralization that took place on a small scale in New York, and indicated that "small networks" of autonomous schools may hold the key to restructuring education. She then attempts to shift the conversation to this topic -- to deep structural questions about educational authority rather than questions about curriculum.


After confessing that he "will always be more interested in what goes on inside schools than in governance issues and structural reform", Pondiscio responds by more or less saying that he agrees with Meier on the structural issues, but that absent some sort of solid content that is to be taught by these small networks of schools, all you get is "new and different flavors of bad." He acknowledges that neither he nor Meier "would be completely comfortable" with the other's pedagogical and curricular choices, and that this isn't necessarily a problem. Pondiscio seems to be following Meier's lead and moving the question to the structural, away from the curricular. He's less interested in power and democracy, though, than he is in organization and structure:
How do we create the conditions that allow both of us to pursue these different approaches, which clearly have similar ends -- engaged citizens prepared for a lifetime of active citizenship? What kind of system accommodates both our approaches, and many others?

Those aren't questions that Deborah's going to answer, though. Her next post deals more directly with some of the multicultural-education-theory stuff that's been lurking in the background of her last few posts. Specifically, she takes up the notion that teachers need to abandon their view of non-dominant cultures as deficient or inferior. She offers anecdotes of teachers who correct language, thinking that they are helping the student, when in fact they are just getting the students to clam up and withdraw.

To address social inequity, it seems, schools must reach across the cultural gap and work with communities and parents on their own terms. This, Meier seems to be hinting, is something that can only take place on a smaller, individualized level. Schools require the liberty to deal with their constituents on that smaller, individualized level.

Implicit in this is a rebuke of Pondiscio's overall point: if you adopt a single cultural framework as the "right" framework in which to initiate students, you will be unable to communicate with the families and communities in the intensely interpersonal way needed for true education.

I confess, I'm making Meier's post sound more focused than it actually is -- but I take it that's the real point.

In Pondiscio's response, he seems just about ready to throw up his hands and walk away. Yes, decentralization of schools is good. Yes there is a "hidden curriculum" that enforces the values of a dominant culture, and often to the detriment of those not born to it. But what do those schools teach? He offers an example -- really, it's a challenge to Meier to come up with something of her own -- of useful content that he's been working with in Harlem: a curriculum designed specifically to give students the practical tools to engage in civic life: information about voting, about political power and process, and experience with advocacy. He wants to show the students the levers of power in society, and teach them how to pull them. (It's all very Lisa Delpit in a way -- though she approaches things on a more overtly linguistic plane.)


Meier's response is extensive -- and it amounts to summarizing the entire foundational ethos behind CPESS -- Central Park East Secondary School, which she helped found and direct (which you can read about here). The long and short of it is that specific content doesn't matter -- the information the students learn can be from history textbooks or pulled from the morning's headlines. What mattered for CPESS was an ethos of inquiry and skepticism, and empirical habits of mind: asking questions such as What's the evidence? Is there a pattern? Is there an alternate perspective, explanation? What if? And who cares?

What Meier really wants, though, is for schools to have the liberty to pursue different approaches, and for the schools to have access to each other, learn from each other, and even criticize each other (in a non-authoritarian way, I take it).


And that brings us to the most recent post by Pondiscio: If Not College, Then What? The title is somewhat misleading. He's not asking it rhetorically, but sincerely. This is by far the least tightly-written of his posts, and it almost feels more like Meier's writing. Maybe they're rubbing off on each other.

He sees school's mission as preparing students for life -- for an independent life, a rich and fruitful life no matter how it's lived or accomplished. Sometimes this means college, but sometimes it means other things as well. Meier and Pondiscio seem to be in rough agreement that "college for all" is a mistake as an educational philosophy. But if not college.... well, he wants to know what those other things are: apprenticeships? Workprep?

He closes by noting that children imitate the adults in their lives, and wondering what sorts of values the adults at CPESS were modeling. But honestly, at this point it seems like the conversation is over and they are talking completely past each other, perhaps at best trying to score rhetorical points.


So that's the dialectic, such as it is. I've got a few thoughts to offer in summation.

Pondiscio wants a goal -- an "outcome" to put it in modern jargon. He wants to be able to look at a school and see if it's meeting the goal. His goal, it seems, can be very abstractly defined, and open to all manner of accomplishing it. But he's still got the Peters vision of school as an initiation into social and cultural life going in the back of his head.   The goal is the ability to act freely and forcefully within society, to be a democratic "free agent", as it were.

Meier is far more interested in process.  She seems to take for granted that the goals of democracy (and a soft strain of Marxism, I'm sensing) is going to be reached if schools can achieve good process.  Of course, good process for Meier includes economic and social parity, or something close to it, as a pre-requisite.

But the goal that they are talking about is a different goal.  Pondiscio takes it for granted that power is power, and that there is a language of power in our country that you can either learn or not.  Meier wants to decentralize not just education, but power.  She wants to "empower", if I can use that word, all of the various social discourses that make up our country.

These positions each have their problems.  Meier's position borders on incoherency, because the intensely multicultural perspective is nonetheless a specific and particularized perspective.  You don't get to raise a child "without a perspective", open to every idea under the sun.  Claudia Mills made this point in her attack on Joel Feinberg's famous "open futures" argument: to raise a child in a thousand faiths is to raise them with no faith whatsoever.  And that is, nonetheless, a concrete choice that closes off opportunities.

Pondiscio's position is more philosophically stable, I think, but treacherously so.  Meier is right to think that there are deep problems with the idea of centralizing what is to be taught, which socio-linguistic framework we're going to use in building curriculum.

It's a double-bind: in order to accomplish the goals of education, you need to have a culture into which to initiate your students.  But the students already have  a culture, or the beginnings of one, and if it's at odds with what's being taught, there will be trouble and difficulty.  In a fairly homogenous monoculture, education is a simplistic, even trivial exercise.  Set up your schools and go to town.

But we're not in a monoculture.  We're educating for a huge, diverse society.

And I take it that that means we have to teach to the things that we all have in common.  And THAT  means that our curriculum is going to be very, very, very, very thin.  At a national level, it's probably going to be thin enough that the primary education a child will receive will take place outside of school.

And that means that inequalities will be magnified, as the dominant class leverages their position to reinforce their children's status, and the poorer children are left to adapt themselves to the position into which they are born.

So we turn to education to fix these inequalities.  But what do we teach?  Well.... we're educating for a huge diverse society...

I think Pondiscio, perhaps inadvertently, made the best point when he asked "Who's the real Progressive?"  Because what we see unfolding in this long, rambling debate is a clash of two models of Progressivism.

In the end, it comes down to this: Pondiscio, whether he admits it or not, wants cultural cohesion.  He recognizes that the powerful are not going to give up their power just because, and that they will persist because of that power.  So he thinks the way to go is to expand the socio-linguistic framework of the dominant class to everyone equally.  It's very old-school Progressive.  We're going to make Progress together -- onward to the Promised Land.

Meier thinks that this is dangerous, and I also get the sense that she thinks that this is sort of like cultural genocide (although to be fair she NEVER says that).  But to do things her way seems to be to just hope that, maybe some day, the powerful will decide to be nice and share.  It's very Hippy-Progressive: have a Coke and a smile. Though one has to give her insane props for what she and hers were able to do with CPESS.  But there's no question that CPESS is a craftsman's custom work of art, and what Pondiscio thinks we need for solving our more systemic inequalities is a template for die-cast molding.

He's right to think that we probably can't rely on individual craft in this sort of thing, not if we want a global solution.  But maybe Meier's right that a global solution isn't a solution at all -- just another problem.  But she's also pretty explicitly rejecting Dewey's notion that one of the jobs of a school is to pick away the stuff in a culture that's not important, and to isolate what is.  That's exactly what Pondiscio seems to want to do.

So who's the REAL Progressive?  I don't know.

But I'd love to sit these two down with Paolo Freire and then ask that question.