All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.


22 November 2013

Zero Tolerance, Punishment, and Community

So the ACLU (Pennsylvania chapter) went and released a report calling for an end to "Zero Tolerance" as a broad, educational policy.   There's an interesting discussion about this over at Joanne's site, but I can't help feeling like some of that discussion misses the point.

It's easy to hear something like "ACLU questions zero tolerance" and come away thinking they were arguing for something other than what the report actually said, especially in light of recent conversations, spurred by the Obama administration, regarding racially disparate impact in school punishments (and the ACLU's position thereon), which have sometimes unfairly caricatured the administration's position as one of knee-jerk opposition to anything with a disparate racial impact no matter how unrelated to actual discrimination it may be.  That's not to say that there aren't undercurrents of that sort of attitude in the conversation and even in the ACLU Pennsylvania's report;  but it is to say that what is at issue is a more nuanced set of policies than just "you have to suspend whites and blacks equally", and the motivations for it are complex and well-intentioned.  What's at stake is a larger question of the relationship between our schools, our students, and the community at large. 

Many people are likely to object to the recommendations in this report.  I think it's important to understand what's really being objected to before commenting on it, so bear with me.   The report starts by pointing out what "Zero Tolerance", for purposes of the discussion, really is.  By doing great violence to their work, I sum up as follows:
* Zero Tolerance started with discrete scope: zero tolerance for weapons, or drugs, say.
* Zero Tolerance expanded to include all sorts of stuff like uniform policies and "defiance". 
* Zero Tolerance uses suspension and expulsion to punish these infractions, without discretion.
 So that's the "Zero Tolerance" that the ACLU is arguing against.    As to why they think Zero Tolerance is a bad idea, well, the primary argument -- by which I mean the one that is voiced most consistently -- is one that is seemingly open to the charge of vacuity.   It really is, more or less, the "disparate impact" argument that many conservatives have criticized the DoJ and DoE for advancing.  Consider the following quote from the report (p.19):
In other to better understand the likelihood that a Black student, a Latino student, or a student with a disability faces of being suspended out of school, we looked at the number of such students who were suspended compared to that group's representation in the school population.
The ACLU report is obviously presenting the differences in suspension rates as an argument against the policies underlying those suspensions.  Now, the first thing that should occur to any reasonable person upon hearing this is, "Well, maybe the groups don't engage in misbehavior in  uniform ways."  One obvious move from there is to accuse the ACLU of sophistry and to dismiss their report on the grounds that they're seeing racism where racism perhaps doesn't exist.  As one of the commenters on Joanne's site pointed out, Zero Tolerance policies have often been seen as a way for administrators to shield themselves from charges of racism.  It's ironic that those same policies would now come under fire for being tools of discrimination.

But there's more to the ACLU's argument than this, and the argument -- I think -- works even if you acknowledge the possibility that, for whatever reason, certain ethnic groups might engage in a disproportionate amount of misbehavior.  With a little fiddling around, I can make that argument go something like this:
* Zero Tolerance policies bring down the hammer for trivia like defiance and uniform infractions.
* Zero Tolerance is itself exercised with a tremendous amount of discretion, with school districts employing it in vastly different ways.
* The punishments themselves are overly harsh, and whatever their other merits, result in students being removed from the school community.
* Therefore, even if the punishments handed out by zero tolerance policies are otherwise distributed in a non-racist way,  the punishments are not just.  And that means that because of the zero tolerance policy, actual injustice (overly harsh punishments) is falling on discrete and insular minorities (blacks, latinos, students with disabilities) in a way that it's not falling on white students.
* And what's more, this is happening more in some districts than others, maybe suggesting the possibility of direct racial animus on the part of administrators.

Really, the argument is something along the lines of arguments against debtor's prison.  It's not that the debtor hasn't done something wrong by failing to observe his or her obligations -- surely it's wrong to fail to pay one's debts.  Pacta sunt servanda.  The problem is that the debtor shouldn't be completely crippled as a result of that misbehavior.

Or maybe it's like the way that, at least anecdotally, punishment and enforcement for crack cocaine is more rigorous than that for the powdered variety.  It's not that crack addicts aren't breaking the law -- but they don't seem to be doing it in a way that's significantly worse than those sniffing their drugs.  And one can be forgiven for wondering if perhaps the demographics of the various addict populations has something to do with the legal distinctions, or the way that policies are enforced.

Viewed from that perspective, I am in complete agreement with the ACLU on their recommendations.  Suspensions and Expulsions are exclusions.  And exclusion is a potent, dangerous tool.

Some of the work I've done as an attorney-philosopher has been on the nature of punishment.  And one of the distinctions that I think needs to be made when talking about punishment is the distinction between punishments that recognize the offender's standing in the community and seek to capitalize on it, and punishments that revoke it.  Much of what's wrong with the American penal system, I think, is that it cuts offenders off from society for very, very long stretches of time.  Our society is also structured in such a way that re-integration is extremely difficult, even for those who commit things like minor drug offenses.  In many cases, "felons" lose their right to vote, their right to bear arms, and find it exceedingly difficult to find employment.  Certain professions are barred to them entirely.

I'm not saying we should allow drug lords to become police officers.  But it might not be crazy to think that someone who commits a robbery at age twenty might not make a good attorney a decade later.  And maybe if prison were harsher, we could have shorter sentences that did not necessarily result in a thriving and totally distinct prison culture to which inmates assimilate.

Anyway, this is all by way of saying that with something like say, a flogging, the punishment is harsh and discrete, but the offender can still be accepted back into the community with a minimum of fuss.  Without taking sides on the propriety of corporal punishment here, it's like spanking a child -- it doesn't mean you don't love them.  In fact, it can often mean the opposite.  Why would you bother, otherwise?  But dropping your kid into the cellar to rot because he or she didn't eat his or her vegetables would be something else entirely.

So I think that the ACLU has a point when they point to out of school suspension and expulsion as punishments that, first and foremost, remove the student from the school.  That's appropriate when it's a question of safety or danger.  But unless that's the issue, what's really going on is exile.  It's a demonstration not that the student is misbehaving and will be punished by the community, but rather that the student isn't really part of the community.    And to make matters worse, not being in school actually makes it more difficult to become part of the community.  The student misses out on the day to day rhythms, misses out on the flow of classroom conversation, and can come back to school feeling disjointed and apart.  After all, they didn't see yesterday's assembly -- the one that everyone is talking about.

I also think that the ACLU makes excellent points about law enforcement and arrests.  This is school.  Every fight on the playground does not need to involve handcuffs and flashing lights, and if the data the ACLU cites is to be believed, most of the police activity in Pennsylvania in schools is aimed at fighting and threats to fight that do not involve weapons.  (p.29)  That is the sort of behavior that needs to be curbed, but I wholeheartedly agree that it does not need to result in students being swept into the criminal justice system.

(I also happen to think that zero tolerance policies do a poor job of distinguishing between the aggressor and the defender in a schoolyard fight.  This is an issue that provides schools with a magnificent opportunity for moral education.  True, sometimes it is difficult to know who the aggressor is.  But sometimes it's not.)

This is just a blog post, not an article, so I'm going to wrap this up now.   My point in this post has really just been to try to demonstrate that even if you aren't on board with the "disparate impact" sorts of analyses that have been floated over the last few years with respect to school punishments, that the ACLUPA report still has a lot going for it, and that the argument can be made in such a way that it has broad, if maybe not universal, ideological appeal.

18 November 2013

Speaking of shared cultural touchstones...

Apropos of the post immediately below and its discussion of shared cultural touchstones, I wish to formally announce that this last Thursday, ABC's drama, Scandal, officially jumped the shark, or nuked the fridge, or whatever.

Twice in the same episode.

Shared Understanding, Culture, and Curriculum

This is a blog post, not an article or a treatise -- so I ask that you bear with the fact that I'm going to be awfully superficial and cursory.  I just wanted to get some thoughts down, and perhaps get some feedback on them.

I was thinking about the music I listen to.  It can be roughly broken down into three categories: classical, jazz, and pop.  In the classical category, I can listen to and thereby identify by name/composer maybe some 200 pieces or so.  I probably have a passing familiarity with maybe another 300 besides that.  I'm deeply familiar with maybe 40 -- things like Beethoven's 9th, Bach's Concerto in D Minor for 2 Violins, Vivaldi's Gloria, Saint-Saens' Christmas Oratorio, the William Tell Overture, etc.  These are pieces that are iconic and/or of which I have recordings that I listen to regularly.  If you put Broadway stuff into this category rather than jazz, it would account for another 100 songs or so.  In jazz, I can identify maybe around 500, though my composer number is going to be much smaller than my song title number -- and my "passing familiarity" number is likely to be quite a bit higher.  My deeply familiar number is probably around 200 -- most of that American classics and Manhattan Transfer stuff.   In Pop music, I'm probably running somewhere around 2,800 songs I can identify by artist, with another 2,500 I'm passingly familiar with.  I could sit and sing through, start to finish (more or less) maybe around 200.

These are all just guesses.  I could be off by up to 200%, easily.  But my first point is just this: even if you triple the number of songs that I "know" -- I'm NOWHERE near knowing all the songs that there are to know.  iTunes has some 26 million songs last I checked.

Now for my second point: if I were to try to "pass on" my appreciation of music to someone, a student or child or friend, I couldn't even come remotely close to giving them a "big picture" of music.  Because I don't have a big picture.  I've got my own tiny little corner of the world of music.

That leads me to think that this collection of stuff with which I'm familiar is not a "culture" in and of itself, but rather reflects my participation in some particular culture or cultures of music.  And that means that cultures are defined not by looking at what any one person knows, but by looking at what a lot of different people "know", understand, and are familiar with.  How many people does it take to make a "culture"?  I don't know.  More than two, I would guess.  But probably not as high as 10,000.

One might imagine that the smaller the number of people, the more "tight" the fit between them has to be to establish something that can viably be called a culture.  In this way, you might think of culture as a sort of probabilistic enterprise.  If you have a sample size of four, the odds of there being some very general overlap in their tastes, customs, and so forth are likely to be quite good.  The odds tighten up, though, as you get more specific.  At some point, the odds get low enough that you say to yourself, "This is something salient."  You call it a culture.  When you're dealing with really, really, really big groups of people, it's harder to get even very general similarities.  So there's less similarity required to establish a "culture".

I'm not trying to give a hard definition of culture here -- I'm just pointing out some observations of how I think about it.  I suspect that there's much more that goes into making a culture: there likely has to be some degree of recognition and interactivity among the participants, for example.  But what I've said will do for now.

Let's switch gears now and talk about books.  Why?  Books make up a big chunk of our society's academic curriculum, and curriculum is really my topic here.

As in music, in books there's a lot I haven't encountered.  If you made up a list of the 200 most-assigned high school novels, for example, I'd probably only have read at most half of them.  (I'm basing that rough estimate on the number of books on this list that I have read.)  I'm supposed to be a very, very educated person, too.  I'd guess I've probably read more than most.  That's not bragging -- that's just an acknowledgment of probabilities.

So that means that, whatever sort of education I received, I was not given the entire "culture" of our society with respect to books.  I was, at most, given a taste of it -- enough for me to participate on a very superficial level.

Now comes the problem.  To participate in my society's culture, I need to be able to relate to other people vis-a-vis certain cultural touchstones, such as books, movies, music, art, television, etc.  But that can be hard to do if I've read A, B, and C, while my interlocutors have read W, X, and Y.    We may be participating in the same culture at some larger level, but we're not participating in that culture with respect to each other.  

Now I'm getting a picture of a web of daisy-chained cultural overlap.  I've read A, B, C, and E.  You've read C, D, E, and F.  John over there has read E, F, G, and H.  Nancy has read G, H, I, and J, and Alberto has read I, J, K, and A.  The "culture" as a whole is defined by the set {A-K}, but each of us has only a small piece of it.  Indeed, Nancy and I have nothing in common with each other except insofar as we can both be said to share something with others.

So now we come to curriculum.  What books do we pick -- and let's limit the discussion to literature for now -- to give students the best chance to participate meaningfully in culture?  Also -- to what degree to we acknowledge real inequities in society, and the way in which culture tracks those inequities?  In other words, and this is just by way of example, if all the rich people have read The Great Gatsby, while all the people in prison, say, have read Crime and Punishment, do we have to take that into account in deciding curriculum?  Is it important that everyone -- even the sons and daughters of people in prison -- read The Great Gatsby so as to have the maximum chance of meaningful participation in the higher socioeconomic levels of society?

By teaching a particular book to a student, we are creating connections with those other people who have already read it, and creating the potential for connections with those who will read it in the future. 

And that means that the books we choose are probably going to reflect "our" values -- where "we" are the relevant community.  We're going to want our students and our children to relate to us.  And while we can't teach everything, each and every thing that doesn't get taught is a potential connection that is not taught.  Since school time and student attention are finite resources, it's a zero-sum game.  And if certain subcultures aren't taught at all except within those particular subcultures, there won't be any ground for interaction at all.

But at the same time, if we are dedicated to principles of pluralism, we are going to want our students and children to be able to relate to others beyond us.  That's important, after all.  That's part of our values (again, if that's how we roll).  So it's going to be important that the students read the books that we've read, but also some other books that give them at least the starting place for meaningful interactions with other cultures and subcultures.  But still, a huge part of the motivation for the whole exercise is to create connections.  (Obviously, the substance of what is read matters, too. Phaedo will produce more thoughtful thinkers than Pokemon: The Novel.  But I'm not talking about that right now.)

So... curriculum.  Do we choose MacBeth or Romeo and Juliet?  The Mayor of Casterbridge or WaldenThe Invisible Man or The Well of Loneliness?  (Actually, scratch that.  Few districts in the country would teach the latter.)  Moby Dick  or The Lord of the Rings?

I'm no longer convinced it really matters.  I know what I, were I an English teacher, would teach (at least in my first class or two).  If those were the choices, it'd be MacBeth, The Mayor of Casterbridge, The Well of Loneliness, and The Lord of the Rings.  Why?  Because I've read those.  I haven't read the other ones, although I've seen Romeo and Juliet performed enough times that I feel like I've read it.

And that brings us to my last point in this meandering mess: teachers can't teach what they don't know.  If we're going to have institutional schooling, we're going to have a LOT of teachers.  And those teachers are all going to have read different sets of books.  (See Alberto, Nancy, et al., supra.)   So no "unified" curriculum is going to be possible.  The best you're going to be able to do is to give each student a certain number of "entry points" into the overarching cultural conversation, and perhaps into a number of smaller, more intimate cultural conversations.

But there's so many of those, you can't get all of them either.  Maybe the best you can do is try to get students to see the value in expanding their cultural repertoire. 

Because it's going to be up to them to pursue those connections.  And if they work themselves ragged doing so -- if they become as widely read as, say, me (again, I'm only acknowledging that I've read a lot of books) -- they're still only going to have a small, tiny slice of the relevant pies.

16 November 2013

Testing: Who holds the cards?

I want you to imagine the following scenario.

A high school history class comes into the classroom and sits down.  There's some talking here and there as the students wait for the bell.  The bell rings.  The teacher clears her throat.

"First order of business... I want to remind you all to get a good night's sleep.  Tomorrow's the state's learning assessment test.  We'll be on a special schedule."

A hand goes up.

"Yes, Charles?"

"Ms. Indigo, why are we taking these tests?"

"People want to know how well our school is doing."

"Yeah, but why are WE taking these tests?"

"Because you have to."

"Says who?"

"Says the state."

"Will my colleges see my scores?"


"Will they affect my grades in any way?"

"Well, no."

"Will these scores keep me out of honors classes?"


"Does the score I get actually affect me in any way?"

"It goes into your permanent record."

"Does anyone outside this campus care?"

"The state cares."

"Did the state say I had to try my best on the test?"

"Well, no.  But don't you want to do your best on the test?"

"I don't know.  That's what I'm trying to figure out.  What's in it for me?"

"Well it helps the school's reputation."

"But what's in it for me?"

"Well, you don't want to get a bad result on the test."

"Why not?"

"People might think you're not as smart as you really are."

"But that wouldn't be a problem if I announced that I'm deliberately tanking the test, would it?"

"But you'd have to just sit there if you just picked answers at random."

"But I have to just sit there anyway, don't I?"

"Well, yes.  But what are you going to do?"

"I think I'm going to ask you for $1,000.  Not you, I mean.  The school.  And," he says, looking around the room, "I think all of you ought to ask the school for $1,000, too."

The classroom erupts into murmurs and laughter.

"Go to the principal's office."

"Is he going to pay me to take this stupid test?"

09 November 2013

Dr. Lopez, I Presume?

I've finished my Ph.D.  I'm now Dr. Michael E. Lopez, Esq. -- attorney, philosopher, singer, swordsman, game designer, and devil-may-care all-around nice guy.

The last year has been hard -- practicing law nearly half-time while also finishing my dissertation.  There simply has not been time for blogging.

Now there  will be time for blogging.  And maybe even some exercise.

My apologies for the long hiatus.