Now, after reading this exchange between Deborah Meier and Diane Ravitch on the blog Bridging Differences (HT to Borderland for the link), I understand the situation a little better, although it still boggles my mind: the gap between the rhetoric (“land of the free, home of the brave, best country in the world, if you don’t like it – leave!”) and the reality is so wide that “gap” doesn’t cover it. It’s more like the reality is the opposite of the rhetoric.
I blogged earlier some of my responses to reading Kozol’s Savage Inequalities. My biggest impression was the “zero-sum game” mentality of almost all of those who either justify the inequalities or argue against any real attempts to rectify the situation.
I have a feeling that, while there are strong human, Christian (and I’m not excluding other religions of course), and emotional arguments in favour of doing something about these terrible inequities and injustices, there are also strong economic or other arguments to be made. Wouldn’t society be even more prosperous if a much greater effort was made to prevent these kinds of injustices? All of society, not just the poor, because I do not believe that human life is a zero-sum game.
Kozol quotes a Bronx school principal if they do not give these children a sufficient education to lead healthy and productive lives, we will be their victims later on. We’ll pay the price someday – in violence, in economic costs.
Common sense would suggest that this is true, however I would make a stronger argument: namely, that not only will society have to pay later in some way, but that the potential future benefits (even sticking to purely economic ones) far outway the costs of doing something now. In other words, these inequities and injustices should be dealt with now, despite the costs, not just to avoid higher costs further down the road, but to help create more wealth down the road than would be obtained by ignoring the problems and putting the lid on them.
“For the first time in history it is now possible to take care of everybody at a higher standard of living than any have ever known.
Only ten years ago the ‘more with less’ technology reached the point where this could be done. All humanity now has the option to become enduringly successful.”
– R. Buckminster Fuller, 1980
The zero-sum mentality is holding us back.
Here’s a challenge:
Buckminster Fuller challenged us with a bold vision: “To make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone.”
The title for this post came from this review of an article by economist James K. Galbraith in Mother Jones. According to the Wikipedia entry, Galbraith argues that modern America has fallen prey to a wealthy, government-controlling “predatory class”.
I’m not sure I fully understand what that means, but it seems to be compatible with the zero-sum game thinking exhibited by those in Kozol’s book who argue against making any real changes that would benefit the poor.
In Chapter 8 of George Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant!, we can recognize why broad prosperity, rather than merely individual opportunity, should be our goal. Let’s see how the concept of broad prosperity emerges from our values and principles. First, note the connections between the values freedom, opportunity, and prosperity:
“There is no fulfillment without freedom, no freedom without opportunity, and no opportunity without prosperity.”
If we share any of these values, then we should seek a prosperity of which all can partake. (As Rockridge guest scholar Delwin Brown notes, this understanding has deep roots in religious traditions as well.) This is why we would not be content with an extreme case in which the average income of a society rises, but most of its people toil in dire poverty while a few wealthy families grow richer.
These values lead to an important progressive principle, equity:
“If you work hard; play by the rules; and serve your family, community, and nation, then the nation should provide a decent standard of living, as well as freedom, security, and opportunity.”
Most Americans surely share this understanding, which is fundamentally at odds with the views of conservative market idolaters, who argue, for instance, that the minimum wage should be zero.
Continuing from Chapter 8 of Elephant!, the principle of equity then leads us to the concept of broad prosperity:
“An economy centered on innovation that creates millions of good-paying jobs and provides every American with a fair opportunity to prosper.”
Broad prosperity also recognizes that markets are “constructed for someone’s benefit.” They are the products of the laws of people, not nature. As such, we can and should choose to ensure that they are constructed to serve the broadest possible prosperity.
The concept of broad prosperity is one that Kozol would probably agree with. It seems to match what he is calling for in his book. The concept also highlights a broader context: the inequities that Kozol describes are not limited to schools (Kozol also describes hospitals which are obscenely under-equipped), and I feel that a solution to these inequities cannot be limited to addressing concerns of schools or education, in the same way that AIDS cannot be considered merely a medical problem. (And, no, that doesn’t mean we can give up trying to find a medical cure.)
I’m nearing the end of Savage Inequalities. As I am not affected in the slightest by what happens in US schools, I was mainly reading it in order to gain some understanding of the mindsets of the people involved. The first third or half of the book is mainly descriptions of schools Kozol visits, starting with the horrific East St Louis schools. The latter half of the book has more facts and figures, including quotes from court cases, and tries to explain why the horrors not only came about but also why they are allowed to persist, and (even worse), why they are being exacerbated.
When I first came across Pissed Off (Teacher)’s blog, I couldn’t believe my eyes. This is NYC???!!? After reading Kozol’s book, I can now well believe it (he describes much more horrific schools), tho I can’t accept it. I asked, as does Pissed Off Teacher, how can people tolerate this injustice as acceptable?
Nationwide, black children are three times as likely as white children to be placed in classes for the mentally retarded but only half as likely to be placed in classes for the gifted: a well-known statistic that should long since have aroused a sense of utter shame in our society. Most shameful is the fact that no such outrage can be stirred in New York City…Even the most thorough exposition of the facts within the major organs of the press is neutralized too frequently by context and a predilection for the type of grayish language that denies the possibilities for indignation. Facts are cited. Editorials are written. Five years later, the same facts are cited once again. There is no sense of moral urgency; and nothing changes.
In an earlier post, I quoted Kozol’s description of the complicated system by which schools in the US are financed. But why no outrage?
There seems to be a deeply-rooted belief amongst US citizens that “equality” is a dirty word because it involves taking away from those who have and giving it to those who have not and that this is unacceptable. One newspaper derided this policy as that of “Robin Hood”. I always thought Robin Hood was the good guy, but he is not in the US, apparently. To justify this justification of inequality, people go through amazing mental and semantic gymnastics. Big budgets don’t boost achievement trumpets the Wall Street Journal. It is not money spent by parents, but the value system that impels them to spend money, which is the decisive cause of high achievement in [the affluent districts’] schools. The Journal does not explain how it distinguishes between a parent’s values and the cash expenditures that they allegedly inspire…. In disparaging the value of reducing class size in the cities, the newspaper makes this interesting detour: “If deep cuts can be made – reducing large classes by perhaps half – solid benefits may accrue, and research suggests that even smaller cuts can help the performance of young children in particular. But, as a universal principle, the idea that smaller classes automatically mean more learning doesn’t hold water.” Huh?
There seems to be a huge gap between the rhetoric and the reality.
According to our textbook rhetoric, Americans abhor the notion of a social order in which economic privilege and political power are determined by hereditary class. Officially, we have a more enlightened goal in sight…
The crowding of children into insufficient, often squalid spaces seems an inexplicable anomaly in the United States. Images of spaciousness and majesty, of endless plains and soaring mountains, fill our folklore and our music and the anthems that our children sing… It is a betrayal of the best things that we value when poor children are obliged to sing these songs in storerooms and coat closets.
Kozol refers to the profoundly rooted American ideas about the right and moral worth of individual advancement at whatever cost to others who may be less favored by the accident of birth. Perhaps as a kind of explanation, Kozol points out how, while reading is measured against a standard, most other tests are norm-referenced, meaning that for some to do well, some must not do well. This seems symptomatic of a majority of people’s thinking.
If Americans had to discriminate directly against other people’s children, I believe most citizens would find this morally abhorrent. Denial, in an active sense, of other people’s children is, however, rarely necessary in this nation. Inequality is mediated for us by a taxing system that most people not fully understand and seldom scrutinize.
Another common theme that comes up in the book is the thinking that welfare, charity, or simple human compassion are somehow bad. Kozol asks some NY school children if they can explain the [appalling] physical condition of the school. Hey, it’s like a welfare hospital! You’re getting if for free… You have no power to complain, says one boy.
The quotations Kozol uses from newspapers, governors, politicians, etc, to justify the continuation of the injustices are fully of generalities, talking of “principles” and concepts. They never speak in terms of specifics; it’s all lost in generalities. It is hard to imagine these people speaking with such confidence if they were taken to the schools and places Kozol visited, brought face to face with the children and teachers there, and required to explain to them face to face why they will be denied basic materials and safe environments.
Frequently, says a teacher at another crowded high school in NY, a student may be in the wrong class for a term and never know it. With only one counselor to 700 students system-wide in NYC, there is little help available to those who feel confused. It is not surprising, says the teacher, that many find the experience so cold, impersonal and disheartening that they decide to stay home by the sad warmth of the TV set.… Listening to children who drop out of school, we often hear an awful note of anonymity. I hated the school… I never knew who my counselor was, a former NYC student says. He wasn’t available for me… I saw him once. One ten-minute interview.. That was all.
We have children, says one grade-school principal,who just disappear from the face of the earth. This information strikes one as astonishing. How does a child simply disappear in NYC? Efficiency in information transfer – when it comes to stock transactions, for example – is one of the city’s best developed skills. Why is it so difficult to keep track of poor children?
The unspoken answer is obviously, because people don’t care; the poor children don’t matter. Who cares if they come and go?
Janice, who is soft-spoken and black, speaks about the overcrowding of the school. I make it my business to know my fellow students. But it isn’t easy when the classes are so large. I had 45 children in my fifth grade class. The teacher sometimes didn’t know you. She would ask you, ‘What’s your name?’
You want the teacher to know your name, says Rosie, who is Puerto Rican. The teacher asks me, ‘Are you really in this class?’ ‘Yes, I’ve been here all semester.’ But she doesn’t know my name.
This shines a different light on the conversation about care and its importance for teachers (a conversation going on over here). Quite clearly, the message being given (and received) in many inner-city and other poor schools is You don’t matter, you’re not important, we don’t care about you, there’s no reason why we should because you don’t have much value. So it’s ok if you have no gym, if the doors don’t hang straight or close properly, if you have to share your textbooks with 3 other classes, if there aren’t enough chairs to go round, if your school has 6 computers for 600 children.
The critical reviews on Amazon for this book are enlightening.
Well, I’m hanging in there and learning a few things.
The answer [to the gross inequalities] is found, at least in part, in the arcane machinery by which we finance public education. Most public schools in the US depend for their initial funding on a tax on local property. (p 54)
I didn’t know that.
There are wonderful teachers such as Corla Hawkins almost everywhere in urban schools, and sometimes a number of such teachers in a single school. It is tempting to focus on these teachers and, by doing this, to paint a hopeful portrait of the good things that go on under adverse condition. There is, indeed, a growing body of such writing; and these books are sometimes very popular, because they are consoling. (p 51)
This is what I dislike about those “uplifting” movies about schools that the US seems to produce in such quantities, although I have enjoyed some of those movies as movies: Stand & Deliver, Dead Poets Society, etc. These movies focus on individuals and help propagate the myth that the solution is individuals with character and determination; at the same time, they mask the economic, political, and racial factors which underpin the school environment, but are much harder to see and therefore less exciting to make a movie about. Kozol continues,
The rationale behind much of this writing is that pedagogic problems in our cities are not chiefly matters of injustice, inequality or segregation, but of insufficient information about teaching strategies: If we could simply learn “what works” in Corla Hawkins’s room, we’d then be in a position to repeat this all over Chicago and in every other system. But what is unique in Mrs. Hawkins’s classroom is not what she does but who she is. Warmth and humor and contagious energy cannot be replicated and cannot be written into any standardized curriculum. If they could, it would have happened long ago… (p 51)
It took an extraordinary combination of greed, racism, political cowardice and public apathy,” writes James D. Squires, the former editor of the Chicago Tribune, “to let the public schools in Chicago get so bad.” (p 72)
“Equal opportunity across the board” will not automatically “produce equality” in school performance. Still, “one doesn’t force a losing baseball team to play with seven men.” Not surprisingly, when parents of poor children or their advocates raise their voices to protest the rigging of the game, they ask initially for things that seem like fairly obvious improvements: larger library collections, a reduction in the size of classes, or a better ratio of children to school counselors. (p 77)
Chapter 2 is entitled “Other People’s Children” which reminded me of this book . I wonder which came first, or if the phrase is an echo of something older?
Not sure why I read this stuff, as I have no connection whatever to education in the US, but a couple of posts recently caught my eye, one on the Freakanomics blog, and the other on Pissed Off (Teacher).
Stephen Dubner of Freakanomics, dips into the mailbag and quotes this correspondent:
Hi guys. I know you guys have railed against confusing correlation with causality, and also discussed various statistical problems, but you do not seem to have addressed one that affects many real world decisions. I have noticed what appears to be an increase in decisions based on single variant analysis and averaging, often ignoring consequences of those decisions and/or the context of the analysis. It seems you ought to address these, as they are right up your alley. Some simple common examples…
He gives 3: Post Office boxes, schools and testing, and global warming. Here’s an excerpt from the schools and testing example:
Another example happening in the SF Bay Area involves schools. The District looks at average standardized test scores of each school and closes the ones with the lowest average. They do not consider whether these ones which are lower have the poorest kids with least parent involvement and most transience and the like. But, by closing the school and moving them to a much larger school, these low performing kids continue to be low performers, they just do not pull down the average as much. Worse, these low performing kids often do worse (at least according to a recent study at Stanford) and/or drop out. Dropping out helps the averages, so you could argue it is a good policy (Texas allegedly uses that to improve their scores), but the consequences are likely dire for society (more crime or welfare or both). The problem is that the poor performing school may in fact have those particular kids doing much better than they would in another school (due to extra attention, etc), but decision makers are taught that “statistics do not lie”. This is the opposite of some of your situations (where statistics show “common sense” to be wrong).
My dentist is great! He sends me reminders so I don’t forget checkups He uses the latest techniques based on research. He never hurts me, and I’ve got all my teeth.
When I ran into him the other day, I was eager to see if he’d heard about the new state program. I knew he’d think it was great.
“Did you hear about the new state program to measure effectiveness of dentists with their young patients?” I said.
“No,” he said. He didn’t seem too thrilled. “How will they do that?” “It’s quite simple,” I said. “They will just count the number of cavities each patient has at age 10, 14, and 18 and average that to determine a dentist’s rating. Dentists will be rated as excellent, good, average, below average, and unsatisfactory. That way parents will know which are the best dentists. The plan will also encourage the less effective dentists to get better,” I said. “Poor dentists who don’t improve could lose their licenses to practice.”
“That’s terrible,” he said.
“What? That’s not a good attitude,” I said. “Don’t you think we should try to improve children’s dental health in this state?”
“Sure I do,” he said, “but that’s not a fair way to determine who is practicing good dentistry.”
“Why not?” I said. “It makes perfect sense to me.”
“Well, it’s so obvious,” he said. “Don’t you see that dentists don’t all work with the same clientele, and that much depends on things we can’t control? For example, I work in a rural area with a high percentage of patients from deprived homes, while some of my colleagues work in upper middle-class neighborhoods. Many of the parents I work with don’t bring their children to see me until there is some kind of problem, and I don’t get to do much preventive work. Also, many of the parents I serve let their kids eat way too much candy from an early age, unlike more educated parents who understand the relationship between sugar and decay. To top it all off, so many of my clients have well waterwhich is untreated and has no fluoride in it. Do you have any idea how much difference early use of fluoride can make?”
“It sounds like you’re making excuses,” I said. “I can’t believe that you, my dentist, would be so defensive. After all, you do a great job, and you needn’t fear a little accountability.”
Words fail me. I’m not sure I can finish this , it’s making me sick. I feel like I’m in a time warp, reading about Dickens’ London.
I looked up East St Louis on Wikipedia but apart from the crime statistics, the entry gives little hint as to the horrors depicted in Kozol’s book. Maybe he made it up. I remember reading about Buckminster Fuller’s ambitious and creative plan for the city. Too bad it never happened. That looked like fun.
These photos and commentary give a somewhat more detailed description. The photos were taken about 10 years after Kozol’s book was published. The commentary bears out some of Kozol’s descriptions
Over here are more photos and comments and questions to and from people who have some connection to the place, who were born there, live there now or went to school there. Someone asks if the city is really as bad as Kozol paints in Savage Inequalities, and someone writes back, ” Unfortunately, the situation deteriorated further after that publication….” Whoah! Altho at least a couple of commenters (including that one quoted) point out that things are looking up, apparently. I pray they are, and stay that way.
An amazon.com commenter wrote, “Don’t read this at night ~ This book will turn you into an activist”.
I sometimes get a feeling like Kozol has a deep sense of guilt about what he observes, mixed in there with the genuine compassion:
But if one knows the future that awaits them, it is terrible to see their eyes look up to you with friendliness and trust – to see this and to know what is in store for them.” (p 45)
Dang! Even the pathos is Dickensian.
Distraction. Stephen Levitt is co-author of a popular book Freakanomics, and also co-authors the always interesting Freaknomics blog. The most recent blog entry there points to some interesting research done by Levitt and Fry on why blacks don’t do as well as whites in the job market. If you’re interested in the “achievement gap”, take a peek at the Forbes article.
Quick update: IMDB offers quotes from the movie, including this:
Andre: It’s the dumb class cuz. It means you too dumb.
Jamal: Man, say it to my face cuz.
Andre: I just did. See what I mean? Dumb?
a pervasive complex of martyrdom. Hmm, food for thought. I disagree mostly with JD Hirsch’s push for a unified curriculum, “What every child should know” etc, but his analysis of the romanticisation of teaching philosophy, the rosy glasses thru which otherwise rational people allow their vision to be distorted, I think is accurate and could usefully be read and considered by every teacher who favours “hands-on, project-based, student-centred learning”. Not that I don’t believe in those approaches; it’s just that it’s easy to get behind ideas, as Hirsch puts it, that sound good, and fail to check if they actually work or not.
That said, I think everyone involved in this debate needs to be real careful. The issue of education is one that people feel passionately about, and have deep-rooted, what I can only call ideologies about this, making reasoned debate extremely difficult and rare. I hope this blog can be one of the rare places it happens. (A great (or terrifying) example of ideologies at work is described in Doc: the story of Dennis Littky and his fight for a better school.)
Setting up straw men is a dishonest debating tactic, loved by ideologues and politicians – people who aim at persuasion, not revealing the truth – and the writing on education is full of this tactic, on both the liberal and conservative sides. Caring ? sadly ? is how the majority of my co-workers and co-bloggers have framed the objectives of our job. Really? I know and have read many who point out the importance of the emotional state in learning, but that is only in order to promote better teaching, not as an aim in itself.
And on which “side” should we place someone like Pissed Off (Teacher)? Does it sound like the administration and supervisors she works with care about the kids? Is she a wimp, trying to avoid responsibility and wriggle away from accountability, just because she cares about her students?
It’s not black or white, and it’s not a 2-sided issue, “caring vs professionalism”. It’s a lot more involved and complex than that.
Martyrdom has an interesting younger sibling: playing the victim. The Republicans have pretty much had things all their own way in public affairs for the past 7-8 years and before that under the elder Bush and Reagan. Yet many of them play the victim, whining about how the entire US (the media, the schools, the universities, the courts (!) even) is run by rabid left-wing nutcases who make them feel intimidated and afraid or even unable to speak out freely about their conservative views. I couldn’t believe my ears when I listened to actual Republicans. Is this (mis)perception manipulated and exploited by some for political and personal gain? Is the Pope Catholic?
(I only know that it’s corrosive … on a day-to-day, post-to-post basis…to teach while feeling like the harmlessly insane…. no one seems to be listening to this side closely enough. Now that isn’t martyr talk or victim talk is it? No! Of course not.)
Another point where one needs to tread very, very carefully, is in avoiding being conned. Cons use people, usually enthusiastic people, to further their own, hidden, agendas, not yours, and not the ones they sound like they are promoting. They are masters of rhetoric and sophistry. I worked with a guy for several years before I realized that he had approached me only so that I would give his enterprise a veneer of professionalism and solidity; he loved it when I pointed out how “our” approach was solidly supported by pedagogical theory, but he himself didn’t believe any of that shit and he couldn’t have cared less, just as long as people bought the product.
I’m not a big fan of the “inspiring teacher” film genre. A friend once gave me Dangerous Minds to watch, but was taken aback when I told him I was more impressed with the apparent bankruptcy of a “system” that allowed such decrepit schools and dangerous environments to develop in the first place.
(Curiously, while many of these movies depict outstanding, strong-minded individuals [would you call Louanne Johnson a wilting bleeding-heart-liberal violet?], the kind of pedagogical approach many of the protagonists use kinda goes against the “student-centred, project-based, free expression” approach many enthusiasts seem to favour.)
Finally, here’s a quote from Tom Englehardt which kinda sums up my position on this debate. If you’re still here, thanks for reading:
Every now and then, I go to some event — I covered the demonstrations in front of the 2004 Republican Convention and then the Republican delegates on the convention floor — and essentially ask people why they’re there. In our media, we almost never hear people speak in more than little snippets…
So we seldom hear their real voices or how they actually think, and they almost invariably turn out to be more eloquent and complicated than we expect.
I’m a sucker for technology. I blog, read blogs, use Google Reader daily. Love it. But reading this post by Pissed Off Teacher (and then this one) just totally depressed me. Ruined my day. Can technology help here, or is it just insultingly irrelevant? I would suggest that if it can’t help in this practical and political matter, then School2.0 or whatever you want to call it isn’t worth much. Is Web2.0 just mental masturbation, something to stave off the boredom in between leaving our comfortable middle-class homes and returning to them in the evening? Or is it able to make a difference in the face of this kind of (to my mind) criminal negligence (and bureaucratic, systemic negligence, which is far harder to identify and root out)?
I’m sure this teacher is not alone or in a unique situation. Solidarity and legal advice, perhaps financial support seem to be needed here.
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