Georgia’s schizophrenic politics of education

Leave a comment

Here’s the first AJC post by Lee Raudonis, of all things the former exec for the state Republican party, and now who runs PAGE’s STAR program. Makes you want to move to another state, although a better solution may be to get to the polls this November (just beware that your vote for President may not help things much either way).

Jer

http://blogs.ajc.com/get-schooled-blog/2012/09/26/georgia%e2%80%99s-schizophrenic-politics-of-education/

2:18 am September 26, 2012, by Maureen Downey

Lee Raudonis is a former teacher and former executive director of the Georgia Republican Party. He is a communications consultant and writer for an education publication. He coordinates the STAR program for the PAGE Foundation. (The Student Teacher Achievement Recognition (STAR) program honors Georgia’s outstanding high school seniors and the teachers who have been most instrumental in their academic development.)

This is his first essay for the blog. Welcome.

By Lee Raudonis

I admit it. I am confused. I do not understand the method behind what certainly appears to be the madness of Georgia education policies. O.K., maybe “madness” is too strong of a term to use, but there is no doubt that many educators—and parents— consider our state’s approach to education policy over the past decade to be both confusing and maddening. There is not much doubt that it has been schizophrenic.

Think about it. Early in the new century Georgia was one of the first states to embrace the policies of No Child Left Behind, including increasing accountability and testing. At the same time, the legislature significantly raised education spending in order to lower class size, and the governor pushed to strengthen the curriculum. And then, toward the end of the decade—even before the recession—the state imposed significant budget “austerity” reductions that have led to increased class sizes, and, in many systems, to shortened school years (some systems hold classes less than 150 days a year). [143 is the shortest – J]

With large numbers of the state’s schools forced to fire or furlough teachers, as well as cut back on education programs, including art, music, physical education and others, many legislators began to ramp up their criticism of the public schools for “teaching to the test” (but not scoring high enough on the same tests), having class sizes that were too large to provide individual attention, and having “poorly-trained” teachers who were “failing” to educate far too many students.

The real failure has been that of the elected officials who have failed to connect the dots between their legislative policies and many of the conditions that exist in the public schools. They have also failed to understand how these unacceptable conditions in the schools might be addressed.

Rather than attempt to find additional funding to lower class size and keep the doors open, the critics began to devise a myriad of plans to help students “escape’ from their neighborhood schools to private or charter schools. This has led to even more schizophrenic policies.

One that comes readily to mind is the state’s recent push to promote STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education while simultaneously devising a clever system to provide state-funded scholarships for parents to send their children to private religious schools where theories such as Darwin’s Theory of Evolution are treated like something scientists dreamed up while taking mind-altering drugs. No doubt about it, teaching the Biblical explanation of creation over that of the scientists will go a long way to boost Georgia’s reputation in the STEM community and the nation’s top colleges and universities.

Meanwhile, as most schools continued to struggle just to keep the doors open for a full school year, the politicians jumped headlong into another federal program called Race to the Top. This latest federal “cash for cooperation” plan calls for even more testing and accountability and could eventually cost the state billions of dollars it obviously does not have. Do the politicians really plan to implement any of the Race to the Top programs, such as Pay for Performance, or did they just see a way to get their hands on federal dollars to replace some of the state funding they had cut?

Is it any wonder that so many of us are confused? How can anyone understand the seemingly schizophrenic policies pursued by our elected officials over the past decade?

Unfortunately, there are no signs of a cure in sight. Even now, legislators are attempting to “fix” our public schools by taking even more money from them to fund state charter schools against the wishes of education officials in local communities. Isn’t that a curious policy for those who claim to support “local control” in education?

If you are as confused as I am, ask your legislative candidates to explain the state’s education policies to you. Their answers should be entertaining if not enlightening.

– From Maureen Downey,for the AJC Get Schooled blog

On how we treat teachers.

Leave a comment

Tried to find the electron copy of the way Maureen Downey planted this in the Monday print version but they’re moving files. She sent me this “in between” version. Very nice piece.

Jer

A few days ago, 350,000 students returned to school in Chicago, where the striking teachers’ union agreed to a new contract, ending a dispute that involved multiple grievances, including the use of student test scores in evaluations.

The seven-day strike reignited the debate over how we regard teachers and whether current reforms impose too much accountability on them without giving them enough autonomy. In fact, one of the victories in the new full contract — which is still being finalized — is that teachers, rather than principals, get to write their own lesson plans.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel had wanted tests to make up 40 percent of the criteria; the agreement brings it down to 30 percent. Teachers had other concerns, too, including honoring class-size caps and maintaining recess, art, music and foreign language instruction.

“The issues raised by Chicago’s educators and parents resonate across this nation because they are being felt by teachers, students and parents everywhere, ” said American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. “These issues include endless budget cuts that have eliminated art, music, gym and other critical subjects from our public schools; a growing obsession with high-stakes testing, denying kids the rich learning experiences they need; closing down rather than fixing neighborhood schools, which destabilizes neighborhoods; and concentrated poverty that forces schools to take on more in the face of dwindling resources.

“With all of this, teachers continue to be denied the tools and conditions they need to do their jobs and then are blamed for every problem facing our schools, ” said Weingarten.

An ongoing frustration among Georgia teachers has been that politicians focus on policies that are unproven. For example, Georgia lawmakers are now in a battle mode over a charter school amendment that will greatly expand the number of charters by giving authority to the state to overrule local boards and approve schools. Millions will be spent in the campaign to influence the outcome of the November ballot question.

But the evidence from other states is that a surge in charter schools does not lead to a surge in performance.

So what has been proven to boost achievement? Raising standards, curriculum and teacher quality.

The countries transforming their education systems have trained, lifted and empowered teachers, elevating the profession to the status of doctors and lawyers. They have not vilified teachers, marginalized them and run them off.

Speaking last week in Atlanta, noted reformer Phil Schlechty, author of “Working on the Work” and “Shaking up the Schoolhouse, ” said there are two current paths being touted for fixing schools — bureaucratic centralization or fragmentation/privatization.

“I say a pox on both their houses, ” he told the Professional Association of Georgia Educators Foundation.

Neither path, said Schlechty, recognizes the changing and critical role of teachers in a world where information is now easily obtained by an 8-year-old with a laptop.

“We don’t really understand that the primary role of the teacher has been absorbed, ” Schlechty said. “Most of us still see teachers as instructors because we see ourselves in the knowledge distribution business. Today, kids can go out and get the knowledge. What we have to become are knowledge work systems to help kids work on and with that knowledge.”

Teachers today must become designers of work for students and leaders/guides to instruction, as opposed to the instructor, he said. As leaders, teachers help students find their passions and their voices and inspire them to great work.

There are folks who complain that teachers, including those in Chicago, have no right to complain about worsening work conditions and escalating responsibilities, that everyone is being asked to do more with less. But Schlechty noted that teachers have been charged with a task never before asked of American educators at a point in time when resources and funding are evaporating: Keep students in school and educate them to higher and higher standards.

“Schools were designed to send 10 percent of students to college, ” he said. “In 1960, half the kids didn’t drop out of high school — because they didn’t come to school. They got through eighth grade and left. Schools are much better than they used to be at what they used to do, but we don’t want them to do that anymore.”

— Maureen Downey, Atlanta Journal Constitution, Monday, September 24, 2012

A former welfare mom speaks out

Leave a comment

Hi all – I’m sorry, I know I’ve been remiss in pestering you. Our conference on our doorstep reminds me I can’t shirk this fun..  Below is an editorial from the New York Times from a woman who was one of the now famous 47% – just like my officemate and so many of the students we have at GGC. There really are people who have to choose between a book for school or food for their kid.

Enjoy.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/23/opinion/sunday/taking-responsibility-on-welfare.html?emc=eta1&_r=0

I had trouble using this as a point and click, but it should work if you copy/paste. Text below just in case.

September 21, 2012

I Was a Welfare Mother

By LARKIN WARREN

Bethel, Conn.

I WAS a welfare mother, “dependent upon government,” as Mitt Romney so bluntly put it in a video that has gone viral. “My job is not to worry about those people,” he said. “I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” But for me, applying for government benefits was exactly that — a way of taking responsibility for myself and my son during a difficult time in our lives. Those resources kept us going for four years. Anyone waiting for me to apologize shouldn’t hold his breath.

Almost 40 years ago, working two jobs, with an ex-husband who was doing little to help, I came home late one night to my parents’ house, where I was living at the time. My mother was sitting at the card table, furiously filling out forms. It was my application for readmission to college, and she’d done nearly everything. She said she’d write the essay, too, if I wouldn’t. You have to get back on track, she told me. I sat down with her and began writing.

And so, eight years after I’d flunked out, gotten pregnant, eloped, had a child, divorced and then fumbled my first few do-overs of jobs and relationships, I was readmitted to the University of New Hampshire as a full-time undergraduate. I received a Basic Educational Opportunity Grant, a work-study grant and the first in a series of college loans. I found an apartment — subsidized, Section 8 — about two miles from campus. Within days, I met other single-mom students. We’d each arrived there by a different route, some falling out of the middle class, others fighting to get up into it, but we shared the same goal: to make a better future.

By the end of the first semester, I knew that my savings and work-study earnings wouldn’t be enough. My parents could help a little, but at that point they had big life problems of their own. If I dropped to a part-time schedule, I’d lose my work-study job and grants; if I dropped out, I’d be back to zero, with student-loan debt. That’s when a friend suggested food stamps and A.F.D.C. — Aid to Families With Dependent Children.

Me, a welfare mother? I’d been earning paychecks since the seventh grade. My parents were Great Depression children, both ex-Marines. They’d always taught self-reliance. And I had grown up hearing that anyone “on the dole” was scum. But my friend pointed out I was below the poverty line and sliding. I had a small child. Tuition was due.

So I went to my dad. He listened, did the calculations with me, and finally said: “I never used the G.I. Bill. I wish I had. Go ahead, do this.” My mother had already voted. “Do not quit. Do. Not.”

My initial allotment (which edged up slightly over the next three years) was a little more than $250 a month. Rent was around $150. We qualified for $75 in food stamps, which couldn’t be used for toilet paper, bathroom cleanser, Band-Aids, tampons, soap, shampoo, aspirin, toothpaste or, of course, the phone bill, or gas, insurance or snow tires for the car.

At the end of the day, my son and I came home to my homework, his homework, leftover spaghetti, generic food in dusty white boxes. The mac-and-cheese in particular looked like nuclear waste and tasted like feet. “Let’s have scrambled eggs again!” chirped my game kid. We always ran out of food and supplies before we ran out of month. There were nights I was so blind from books and deadlines and worry that I put my head on my desk and wept while my boy slept his boy dreams. I hoped he didn’t hear me, but of course he did.

The college-loan folks knew about the work-study grants, the welfare office knew about the college loans, and each application form was a sworn form, my signature attesting to the truth of the numbers. Still, I constantly worried that I’d lose our benefits. More than once, the state sent “inspectors” — a knock at the door, someone insisting he had a right to inspect the premises. One inspector, fixating on my closet, fingered a navy blue Brooks Brothers blazer that I wore to work. “I’d be interested to know how you can afford this,” she said.

It was from a yard sale. “Take your hands off my clothing,” I said. My benefits were promptly suspended pending status clarification. I had to borrow from friends for food and rent, not to mention toilet paper.

That’s not to say we didn’t have angels: work-study supervisors, academic advisers and a social worker assigned to “nontraditional” students, which, in addition to women like me, increasingly included military veterans and older people coming in to retrofit their careers. Faculty members were used to panicked students whose kids had the flu during finals. Every semester, I had at least one incomplete course, with petitions for extensions. One literature professor, seeing my desperation, gave me a copy of “The Awakening” by Kate Chopin to read and critique for extra credit. “But it’s not a primer,” he cautioned. (Spoiler: she walks into the ocean and dies.)

With help, I graduated. That day, over the heads of the crowd, my 11-year-old’s voice rang out like an All Clear: “Yay, Mom!” Two weeks later, I was off welfare and in an administrative job in the English department. Part of my work included advising other nontraditional students, guiding them through the same maze I’d just completed, one course, one semester, at a time.

In the years since, the programs that helped me have changed. In the ’80s, the Basic Educational Opportunity Grant became the Pell Grant (which Paul D. Ryan’s budget would cut). In the ’90s, A.F.D.C. was replaced by block grants to the states, a program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. States can and do divert that money for other programs, and to plug holes in the state budget. And a single mother applying for aid today would face time limits and eligibility requirements that I did not. Thanks to budget cuts, she would also have a smaller base of the invaluable human resources — social workers, faculty members, university facilities — that were so important to me.

Since then, I’ve remarried, co-written books, worked as a magazine editor and finally paid off my college loans. My husband and I have paid big taxes and raised a hard-working son who pays a chunk of change as well. We pay for sidewalks, streetlights, sanitation trucks, the military (we have three nephews in uniform, two deployed), police and fire departments, open emergency rooms, teachers, bus drivers, museums, libraries and campuses where people’s lives are saved, enriched and raised up every day. My country gave me the chance to rebuild my life — paying my tax tab is the only thing it’s asked of me in return.

I was not an exception in that little Section 8 neighborhood. Among those welfare moms were future teachers, nurses, scientists, business owners, health and safety advocates. We never believed we were “victims” or felt “entitled”; if anything, we felt determined. Wouldn’t any decent person throw a rope to a drowning person? Wouldn’t any drowning person take it?

Judge-and-punish-the-poor is not a demonstration of American values. It is, simply, mean. My parents saved me and then — on the dole, in the classroom or crying deep in the night, in love with a little boy who needed everything I could give him — I learned to save myself. I do not apologize. I was not ashamed then; I am not ashamed now. I was, and will always be, profoundly grateful.

A writer who was the co-author of Carissa Phelps’s “Runaway Girl: Escaping Life on the Streets, One Helping Hand at a Time,” and is at work on her own memoir.

A difference between private and public

Leave a comment

Just to keep things politically balanced, Jay Bookman’s print piece today, posted several days ago in electrons, is a worthy companion to David Brook’s piece posted here yesterday. I’ll leave you to make the intellectual leap to any analogies about schooling.

Jay’s piece can be found at http://blogs.ajc.com/jay-bookman-blog/2012/07/09/a-test-of-morality-on-a-florida-beach/ – 600+ responses and counting – some will no doubt make for some interesting reading.

Print title: Nature of corporations laid bare by a lifeguard.

9:25 am July 9, 2012, by Jay

Why can’t you run a government like a business? Why is a corporation NOT a person?

To both questions, I would offer the same two-word answer: Tomas Lopez.

While the name may not be familiar, his story probably is. Last week, Lopez was fired from his $8.25-an-hour job as a beach lifeguard in Hallandale, Fla., because he left his guard station to help save a drowning swimmer in a nearby “unprotected” swimming area. (The rescued swimmer was later hospitalized in intensive care but is expected to make a full recovery.)

“We have liability issues and can’t go out of the protected area,” company supervisor Susan Ellis said in explaining the decision to fire Lopez. In addition, the company fired two of his fellow lifeguards who had said that they too would have rescued the struggling swimmer.

“They sat me down and told me that my answer will determine if I get to keep my job or not,” 20-year-old Travis Madrid told the Florida Sun-Sentinel. “When I told him I would do the same thing, they told me I was dismissed.”

From the employer’s narrow point of view, its actions are perfectly understandable. As we are often reminded, a business has a single mission: produce profit for its shareholders. A corporation has no obligation to produce jobs, offer health insurance to its employees or provide other socially useful functions. In this specific case, the saving of a human life outside the boundaries of its protected area had no value to Jeff Ellis and Associates and could only bring negative consequences in the form of potential lawsuits. So the company was within its rights to fire the employee who had put it in that situation.

Viewed from the perspective of a human being, however, the situation looks much different. If Lopez had honored company policy, remained at his post and watched a drowning man die, it might have eaten at his conscience for the rest of his life. “It was the moral thing to do,” Lopez said later. “I would never pick a job over my morals.”

The situation also looks different when viewed from the perspective of government rather than business. Government’s essential purpose is to serve people, even the hapless swimmer who chose to venture beyond the protected swimming area. The mayor of Hallandale, Joy Cooper, said she was horrified by the actions of the company, which has had a contract to provide lifeguards to the town’s beaches since 2003.

“I know people across the country are as outraged as I am,” Cooper said. “This doesn’t reflect our culture. We are a small, caring community.” Cooper and others have promised a review of the decision to privatize its lifeguard services, noting that the city’s contract with Jeff Ellis and Associates ends this year. The incident has provided a reminder that while privatization has its uses, the highest goal of a private corporation is not the performance of public services but the provision of profits.

Toward that end, Jeff Ellis and Associates has belatedly recognized that its business interests might be threatened by its own bottom-line fixation. Last week, the company announced that it had offered to rehire Lopez and other lifeguards who had either been fired or left the company voluntarily in the wake of the incident.

Lopez has declined the offer.

Corporations or businesses are not by any means inherently evil; to the contrary, they provide absolutely essential functions in a capitalist economy, and many are run in ways that attempt to mimic good citizenship. They are, however, inherently limited in their perspective and purpose. They are single-purpose human inventions, that purpose being to produce profit, and as Tomas Lopez reminds us, profit is not the highest and best goal of the human spirit.

– Jay Bookman

The Opportunity Gap

Leave a comment

David Brooks is a true conservative as I learned what that is in my so long ago philosophy undergrad minor. He shares few of the abject insanities of the current political climate, and is one of the few of such ilk I can count on one hand I always read with anticipation. What he writes here is especially petrifying to me as it further lends fuel to my own paltry interpretations of the data.  Cheers. On the bright side, WE are a small cog in the wheel of the positive side.

It’s at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/10/opinion/brooks-the-opportunity-gap.html?_r=1&emc=eta1.

J

p-Ed Columnist

The Opportunity Gap

By DAVID BROOKS
Published: July 9, 2012 575 Comments

Over the past few months, writers from Charles Murray to Timothy Noah have produced alarming work on the growing bifurcation of American society. Now the eminent Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam and his team are coming out with research that’s more horrifying.

While most studies look at inequality of outcomes among adults and help us understand how America is coming apart, Putnam’s group looked at inequality of opportunities among children. They help us understand what the country will look like in the decades ahead. The quick answer? More divided than ever.

Putnam’s data verifies what many of us have seen anecdotally, that the children of the more affluent and less affluent are raised in starkly different ways and have different opportunities. Decades ago, college-graduate parents and high-school-graduate parents invested similarly in their children. Recently, more affluent parents have invested much more in their children’s futures while less affluent parents have not.

They’ve invested more time. Over the past decades, college-educated parents have quadrupled the amount of time they spend reading “Goodnight Moon,” talking to their kids about their day and cheering them on from the sidelines. High-school-educated parents have increased child-care time, but only slightly.

A generation ago, working-class parents spent slightly more time with their kids than college-educated parents. Now college-educated parents spend an hour more every day. This attention gap is largest in the first three years of life when it is most important.

Affluent parents also invest more money in their children. Over the last 40 years upper-income parents have increased the amount they spend on their kids’ enrichment activities, like tutoring and extra curriculars, by $5,300 a year. The financially stressed lower classes have only been able to increase their investment by $480, adjusted for inflation.

As a result, behavior gaps are opening up. In 1972, kids from the bottom quartile of earners participated in roughly the same number of activities as kids from the top quartile. Today, it’s a chasm.

Richer kids are roughly twice as likely to play after-school sports. They are more than twice as likely to be the captains of their sports teams. They are much more likely to do nonsporting activities, like theater, yearbook and scouting. They are much more likely to attend religious services.

It’s not only that richer kids have become more active. Poorer kids have become more pessimistic and detached. Social trust has fallen among all income groups, but, between 1975 and 1995, it plummeted among the poorest third of young Americans and has remained low ever since. As Putnam writes in notes prepared for the Aspen Ideas Festival: “It’s perfectly understandable that kids from working-class backgrounds have become cynical and even paranoid, for virtually all our major social institutions have failed them — family, friends, church, school and community.” As a result, poorer kids are less likely to participate in voluntary service work that might give them a sense of purpose and responsibility. Their test scores are lagging. Their opportunities are more limited.

A long series of cultural, economic and social trends have merged to create this sad state of affairs. Traditional social norms were abandoned, meaning more children are born out of wedlock. Their single parents simply have less time and resources to prepare them for a more competitive world. Working-class jobs were decimated, meaning that many parents are too stressed to have the energy, time or money to devote to their children.

Affluent, intelligent people are now more likely to marry other energetic, intelligent people. They raise energetic, intelligent kids in self-segregated, cultural ghettoes where they know little about and have less influence upon people who do not share their blessings.

The political system directs more money to health care for the elderly while spending on child welfare slides.

Equal opportunity, once core to the nation’s identity, is now a tertiary concern. If America really wants to change that, if the country wants to take advantage of all its human capital rather than just the most privileged two-thirds of it, then people are going to have to make some pretty uncomfortable decisions.

Liberals are going to have to be willing to champion norms that say marriage should come before childrearing and be morally tough about it. Conservatives are going to have to be willing to accept tax increases or benefit cuts so that more can be spent on the earned-income tax credit and other programs that benefit the working class.

Political candidates will have to spend less time trying to exploit class divisions and more time trying to remedy them — less time calling their opponents out of touch elitists, and more time coming up with agendas that comprehensively address the problem. It’s politically tough to do that, but the alternative is national suicide.

Tracing the test-cheating scandal back to its roots

Leave a comment

I thought Jay’s piece in this morning’s print version was superb. I’ve been ranting about these issues for several decades yet on deaf ears,and perhaps his nicely done words will also fail. However, I think the tide is turning, albeit slowly – even with the scandals (with inescapably more to come), we as a whole are slowly recognizing that “it’s the leadership, stupid.”

There are teachers, as I was reminded today, who were single mothers facing no other option but welfare should they lose their jobs. Their choice was to put their babies at risk or erase bubbles on answer sheets under the orders of superiors. What would you do? I already know. See my piece here of January 8 on the Milgram research.

I don’t think he’s entirely correct (the elders among us will remember our frustration with automobile quality control), as Errol Davis has noted, education is the only profession in which the blame is placed on the workers.

My favorite turn of phrase from Jay, of many: ” . . .  we place a burden on testing that it is too fragile to bear.”

Disparate thoughts, but all touched in Jays far more coherent piece below.

Jer

Tracing the test-cheating scandal back to its roots

10:20 am May 9, 2012, by Jay Bookman, Atlanta Journal Constitution

http://blogs.ajc.com/jay-bookman-blog/2012/05/09/tracing-the-test-cheating-scandal-back-to-its-roots/

For weeks, teachers and administrators implicated in the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal have been appearing one by one in front of a tribunal, telling their stories in hopes that they will be allowed to retain their jobs and careers.

The process — guaranteed to them by law — is meant to ensure that if fired and stripped of the right to teach, they will be fired and decertified for good cause and after they have had the chance to defend themselves. Frustrating as it might be to some who want a quicker, cheaper resolution of the controversy, that’s important.

However, the public nature of the process and testimony has also produced an important side benefit: Taxpayers, parents and citizens in general are getting a more complete and in many ways more human picture of the internal culture of the Atlanta school system and how that culture contributed to the scandal. It is possible in at least some cases to sympathize with the individuals involved and the pressure they experienced, even if that sympathy does not mean excusing what they did.

In fact, while each educator implicated in the controversy has had a unique story to tell, in the end they leave me circling back to the same basic question:

Where was Beverly Hall?

Whatever mistakes were made by individual educators, the atmosphere of fear and casual corruption within the school system was Hall’s creation as longtime superintendent. The absence of safeguards and indeed the total lack of concern about potential cheating was Hall’s responsibility. The institution’s reluctance and even aggressive refusal to support district employees who knew something was wrong and who tried to protest is a direct consequence of her leadership style and priorities.

Hall has retired and left the district, and so far has played no role in the tribunal proceedings. And while investigations continue, there is no indication that she will be held officially accountable in any way.

In her rare public utterances, she has portrayed herself as a victim of employees who failed to do their duty, but in the end she failed them, not the other way around. In fact, Hall bears a significant degree of responsibility for every career that is being ended and every future that is being compromised.

However, it’s important not to leave the issue there, because in some ways Hall herself is as much a symptom as a cause. As AJC investigations have established, cheating on standardized tests has become a nationwide problem, with high-profile schools all over the country producing wildly implausible claims of improvement in student performance. Confronted with that evidence, public officials in too many cases have retreated into the same pattern of denial that has become familiar to Atlanta residents.

When the same problems occur on such a large scale, in so many different communities and school systems in more than 30 states, it is no longer possible to dismiss it as the actions of an unethical few, or of a corrupted bureaucracy here or there. Something deeper is driving the phenomenon.

There is no question that standardized tests are an essential diagnostic tool. They can tell us which students, teachers and schools are performing well and which require attention. But when we take it a step farther and use those same test results to dictate fates, we place a burden on testing that it is too fragile to bear. When that happens, the tests themselves become a form of cheating, a means of producing misleadingly easy answers to what are really hard questions.

It’s also deeply confusing. In recent years, education reform has been dominated by two themes that are directly contradictory yet are often espoused by the very same people. And that contradiction is almost never acknowledged.

Here in Georgia, for example, state leaders have insisted that standardized testing be used as the educational equivalent of an industrial quality-control system. They produce a standardized model, and the tests determine how closely students conform to that model as they come off the assembly line.

Yet at the same time, we are told, the one-size-fits-all public-school industrial model must be dynamited to make way for a more experimental, let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom approach to education via charter schools and even vouchers. There’s a fundamental incoherence between those two messages that leads me to suspect that we really don’t know what we’re doing, and in fact are using schools as a battlefield in a deeper social struggle that we do not wish to acknowledge.

– Jay Bookman

David Brooks on America’s social fabric

Leave a comment

One of my favorite discussions on the tube is on PBS between David Brooks and Mark Shields. Having minored in philosophy and hence introduced to the college professor’s intellectual perspective on the tenets of conservatism, I typically appreciate David’s carefully reasoned moderate conservative perspective as much as I’m horrified by the psychoses of the so-called social and religious “conservatives” who have nothing in common with what I understood to be political conservatism.

David’s piece was printed today in the AJC; originally published a week ago in his New York Times column. Here he chews on what he argues are our mistakes leading to the destruction of America’s “social fabric.”

Also at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/14/opinion/brooks-the-materialist-fallacy.html

February 13, 2012

The Materialist Fallacy

By DAVID BROOKS

The half-century between 1912 and 1962 was a period of great wars and economic tumult but also of impressive social cohesion. Marriage rates were high. Community groups connected people across class.

In the half-century between 1962 and the present, America has become more prosperous, peaceful and fair, but the social fabric has deteriorated. Social trust has plummeted. Society has segmented. The share of Americans born out of wedlock is now at 40 percent and rising.

As early as the 1970s, three large theories had emerged to explain the weakening of the social fabric. Liberals congregated around an economically determinist theory. The loss of good working-class jobs undermined communities and led to the social deterioration.

Libertarians congregated around a government-centric theory. Great Society programs enabled people to avoid work and gave young women an incentive to have children without marrying.

Neo-conservatives had a more culturally deterministic theory. Many of them had been poor during the Depression. Economic stress had not undermined the family then. Moreover, social breakdown began in the 1960s, a time of unprecedented prosperity. They argued that the abandonment of traditional bourgeois norms led to social disruption, especially for those in fragile circumstances.

Over the past 25 years, though, a new body of research has emerged, which should lead to new theories. This research tends to support a few common themes. First, no matter how social disorganization got started, once it starts, it takes on a momentum of its own. People who grow up in disrupted communities are more likely to lead disrupted lives as adults, magnifying disorder from one generation to the next.

Second, it’s not true that people in disorganized neighborhoods have bad values. Their goals are not different from everybody else’s. It’s that they lack the social capital to enact those values.

Third, while individuals are to be held responsible for their behavior, social context is more powerful than we thought. If any of us grew up in a neighborhood where a third of the men dropped out of school, we’d be much worse off, too.

The recent research details how disruption breeds disruption. This research includes the thousands of studies on attachment theory, which show that children who can’t form secure attachments by 18 months face a much worse set of chances for the rest of their lives because they find it harder to build stable relationships.

It includes the diverse work on self-control by Walter Mischel, Angela Duckworth, Roy Baumeister and others, which shows, among other things, that people raised in disrupted circumstances find it harder to control their impulses throughout their lives.

It includes the work of Annette Lareau, whose classic book, “Unequal Childhoods,” was just updated last year. She shows that different social classes have radically different child-rearing techniques, producing different outcomes.

Over the past two weeks, Charles Murray’s book, “Coming Apart,” has restarted the social disruption debate. But, judging by the firestorm, you would have no idea that the sociological and psychological research of the past 25 years even existed.

Murray neglects this research in his book. Meanwhile, his left-wing critics in the blogosphere have reverted to crude 1970s economic determinism: It’s all the fault of lost jobs. People who talk about behavior are blaming the victim. Anybody who talks about social norms is really saying that the poor are lazy.

Liberal economists haven’t silenced conservatives, but they have completely eclipsed liberal sociologists and liberal psychologists. Even noneconomist commentators reduce the rich texture of how disadvantage is actually lived to a crude materialism that has little to do with reality.

I don’t care how many factory jobs have been lost, it still doesn’t make sense to drop out of high school. The influences that lead so many to do so are much deeper and more complicated than anything that can be grasped in an economic model or populist slogan.

This economic determinism would be bad enough if it was just making public debate dumber. But the amputation of sociologic, psychological and cognitive considerations makes good policy impossible.

The American social fabric is now so depleted that even if manufacturing jobs miraculously came back we still would not be producing enough stable, skilled workers to fill them. It’s not enough just to have economic growth policies. The country also needs to rebuild orderly communities.

This requires bourgeois paternalism: Building organizations and structures that induce people to behave responsibly rather than irresponsibly and, yes, sometimes using government to do so.

Social repair requires sociological thinking. The depressing lesson of the last few weeks is that the public debate is dominated by people who stopped thinking in 1975.

Older Entries