The Presidential Candidates and the Press: Missing What’s Important

The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss noticed something in the Democratic presidential candidates’ debates so far: “Now it’s getting ridiculous: four debates among Democratic presidential candidates, and no questions—or serious discussion about K-12 education.”  She notes that Michael Bennet alone made a plea to “fix our school system,” but beyond that imprecise declaration, explains Strauss: “Some candidates made passing references to universal preschool, and moderators did raise college affordability and student debt.  But when it comes to K-12 public education, which many believe is the most important civic institution in the country, nada.”  Strauss blames the moderators, and I encourage you to read her pointed speculation about what they might have been thinking when they ignored our public schools.

The school superintendent turned member of the Vermont State Board of Education and managing director of the National Education Policy Center, Bill Mathis also asks some tough questions of the press and policy makers, this time about the widespread and relatively unquestioned assumption that standardized test scores are a good measure for the quality of public schools.  While Mathis writes that parents, educators and students all seem to agree that other things matter at school more than test scores, he criticizes: “pundits and politicians who find it far easier to blame the schools than to confront our real problem… Poverty has a far greater influence on test scores than any other factor, including the schools. Poverty causes absenteeism, impaired attention, diminished social skills, lowered motivation and ambition, and increased depression… The state tests will not cure poverty but curing poverty will improve test scores.”

Lifelong professor of education and among our society’s finest writers about education, Mike Rose has also been worrying about the lack of a substantive conversation about what is happening in our public schools.  Rose has noticed the absence of the voice of professional educators in the traditional “high-and middlebrow media”—publications that “still have strong influence with government, think tanks, philanthropies, high-profile opinion makers, and other decision-making and gatekeeping entities.”

Rose worries about who is doing the framing of the national conversation about our public schools: “When we survey other monumental spheres of human endeavor—medicine, the law, the physical or life sciences, religion—we find cultural space for the practitioners of these pursuits to not only engage in specialized research in their disciplines, but also to reflect for the rest of us on tending to the ill, or on the place of the law or religion in our lives, or on the breathtaking complexity of human physiology or quantum mechanics.  We rarely see this treatment of education.”  Rose thinks the absence of the voices the professional educators has constricted our vision, “For a generation, education has been justified primarily for its economic benefit, both for individuals and for the nation, and our major policy debates have involved curriculum standards, testing and assessment, the recruitment and credentialing of teachers, administration and funding, and the like.  This economic managerial focus has elevated a technocratic discourse of schooling and moved out of the frame discussion of the intellectual, social, civic, and moral dimensions of education.  If the dominant language we hear about education is stripped of a broad range of human concerns, then we are susceptible to speaking and thinking about school in narrow ways.”

Rose quotes education philosopher, John Dewey: “The child of three who discovers what can be done with blocks or of six who finds out what he can make by putting five cents and five cents together, is really a discoverer, even though everybody else in the world knows it.”  Rose continues: “I want to hear from people who have spent a professional lifetime in the presence of such discovery—or discoveries of similar magnitude in the lives of adolescents or adults. What can they tell us about fostering discovery, reading the blend of cognition and emotion in it, judging when and how to intervene, what to do when discovery falters? What are the beliefs and values that shape their commitment to this work and what is it about the subject they teach—what core ideas or ways of knowing or exemplars—move them to want to teach it?  How do they experience the weight of history on their work, the history of the communities in which they teach, the history of the students before them—and how do they engage that history to enhance the growth of those students?”

David Brooks, the NY Times columnist also worries about the absence of what is important in our public conversation. Believing that Donald Trump’s presidency has degraded our politics and the way we talk about important policy issues, Brooks examines our current political dialogue more broadly: “If only Donald Trump were not president, we could have an interesting debate over whether private health insurance should be illegal.  If only Trump were not president, we could have an interesting debate over who was softest on crime in the 1990s.  If only Trump were not president, we could have a nice argument about the pros and cons of NAFTA.  But Trump is president, and this election is not about those things. This election is about who we are as a people, our national character. This election is about the moral atmosphere in which we raise our children.”

Brooks continues: “Part of the problem is that the two leading Democratic idea generators are both materialistic wonks. Elizabeth Warren is a social scientist from Harvard Law School who has a plan for everything—except the central subject of this election, which is cultural and moral.  Bernie Sanders… is incapable of adjusting his economics-dominated mind set… The bigger problem is simply the culture of the Democratic Party. ”

Brooks lists five values this election ought to be about:

  • “Unity: We’re one people.”
  • “Honesty: We can’t have deliberative democracy without respect for the truth.”
  • “Pluralism: Human difference makes life richer and more interesting.  We treasure members of all races and faiths for what they bring to the mosaic.”
  • “Sympathy: We want to be around people with good hearts, who feel for those who are suffering, who are faithful friends, whose daily lives are marked by kindness.”
  • “Opportunity: We want all children to have an open field and a fair chance in the great race of life.”

I believe that Mike Rose’s concern is about finding space where educators can share broadly the way these same values can be encouraged and enhanced in their classrooms. And Bill Mathis would list these values as the central parts of a fine education that will never show up in standardized test scores.

If our politicians and the press really began to talk substantively about Brooks’ fifth value—opportunity, the educational conversation would have to get beyond Pre-K, free college tuition and college debt relief. Debate moderators would need to begin asking questions like the ones Valerie Strauss suggests: “Is it too difficult to compose questions that get at the heart of major matters confronting public schools?… How about: ‘America funds its public education system largely through property taxes, and federal efforts to close the gap between high-income and low-income neighborhoods have not bridged the gap.  Should there be a fundamental change in the way public schools are funded?’  Or: ‘If the Supreme Court rules, as it may do, that it is constitutional for states to use public funds for religious education, would you take any action as president to override that decision?  Do you believe it is constitutional for public funds to be used for religious education?’ Or: ‘Do you agree with any education move that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has made?’  Or: ‘What is the most damaging step Betsy DeVos has taken, and how would you change it?’  Or: ‘Do you agree with Betsy DeVos on expanding charter schools, and if not, where is the disagreement?’  Or: ‘Can you name the three biggest problems facing K-12 education today, and how you would fix them?’ Or ‘What is the role of the federal government in education policy?'”

An inquiry that pays attention to Brooks’ five values would lead the press and our politicians to explore some of the deeper issues in our schools.  What can teachers tell us about the effect of the enormous class sizes we heard about as teachers struck last year from West Virginia to Kentucky to Oklahoma to Los Angeles and Oakland? What is the role of school nurses and what can teachers tell us about why their presence is so important? What sort of support for students is really needed at school in terms of social workers and counselors?  How much should we pay teachers and how do teachers’ salaries help stabilize a school’s faculty in a way that supports children and families? What can school principals tell us about how a library with a professional school librarian enriches a school or why theater programs and bands and orchestras are so important in high schools?  I haven’t seen serious consideration of the needs of children and their schools mentioned in the plan of any of the candidates.

David Brooks is right: “We need an uprising of decency.” And public education—a human endeavor as well as a matter of public policy—needs to be part of our serious political conversation—including the voices of the professionals who nurture and educate 50 million of our young people.

And, of course, there is that serious public policy question about school privatization that our Democratic presidential candidates keep trying to hedge. Most of them sort of support and at the same time sort of oppose charter schools—when they are for-profit.  And almost none of the candidates seems to realize that it is the management companies, not the nonprofit schools themselves, which are stealing away millions of our tax dollars.  This issue is, at its heart, also a matter of what I would add to Brooks’ list as the sixth important value we ought to be talking about: JUSTICE.  I hope that a presidential candidate will emerge who understands and can explain to the American people why justice cannot be other than systemic.  Any policy that takes from the many to serve a few—or that incorporates competition with winners and losers—cannot answer our society’s needs.  Public schools are the institution designed to serve the needs and protect the rights of ALL of our children.

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Blaming the Poor… Again

You may have noticed David Brooks’ recent column in the NY Times on The Nature of Poverty.  Brooks is one of those conservatives who prefer to blame the problems of the poor on their character and their culture.  Fortunately the NY Times also employs a more knowledgeable columnist, the Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman, who quite regularly corrects the mistakes of David Brooks.  In yesterday’s paper, Krugman undertook to do that in an excellent column, Race, Class and Neglect.

Racism is, of course, wound into this discussion, and Krugman cites Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson, who explained, “that widely-decried social changes among blacks, like the decline of traditional families, were actually caused by the disappearance of well-paying jobs in inner cities.  His argument contained an implicit prediction: if other racial groups were to face a similar loss of job opportunity, their behavior would change in similar ways.”  Krugman continues: “And so it has proved.  Lagging wages—actually declining in real terms for half of working men—and work instability have been followed by sharp declines in marriage, rising births out of wedlock, and more,” across all racial groups.  Krugman notes a stunning statistic, that among our poorest citizens of all racial groups, life expectancy rates are actually falling in America, although Krugman points out that the statistics are particularly stark for black Americans: “Many people have pointed out that there are a number of black neighborhoods in Baltimore where life expectancy compares unfavorably with impoverished Third World nations.”  He continues: “In fact, much, though by no means all of the horror one sees in Baltimore and many other places is really about class, about the devastating effects of extreme and rising inequality.”

Krugman directs significant criticism to statements in David Brooks’ recent column: “So it is… disheartening… to see commentators suggesting that the poor are causing their own poverty, and could easily escape if only they acted like members of the upper middle class.  And it’s also disheartening to see commentators still purveying another debunked myth, that we’ve spent vast sums fighting poverty to no avail (because of values, you see.)  In reality, federal spending on means-tested programs other than Medicaid has fluctuated between 1 and 2 percent of G.D.P. for decades, going up in recessions and down in recoveries.  That’s not a lot of money—it’s far less than other advanced countries spend—and not all of it goes to families below the poverty line.”

Yesterday’s NY Times also featured a report on new research being released by Harvard economists Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren, a study that demonstrates that children who move away from extremely poor neighborhoods do better in life, especially if they move when they are young.  Chetty and Hendren’s study confirms the impact of the racial and economic segregation of a child’s neighborhood on the child’s life chances: “The places where poor children face the worst odds include some—but not all—of the nation’s largest urban areas…. Many of these places have large African-American populations and the findings suggest that race plays an enormous but complex role in upward mobility….”

What about the places that seem to offer greater opportunities?  “These places tend to share several traits, Mr. Hendren said.  They have elementary schools with higher test scores, a higher share of two-parent families, greater levels of involvement in civic and religious groups and more residential integration of affluent, middle-class and poor families.”

I have read only the NY Times story by David Leonhardt about Chetty and Hendren’s study; I’ve not read the study.  In the NY Times piece, however, there is an assumption that mirrors the tendency in David Brooks’ recent column blaming poverty on the poor.  Leonhardt’s story quotes Hendren in a way that seems to blame the public schools in the communities from which the report’s authors encourage families to move away.  We prefer to blame somebody after all, and if we can’t blame the poor, maybe we should blame the schools that serve the poor or maybe blame the teachers.

Chetty and Hendren are economists. I think it is wise, as one tries to understand the many factors affecting groups of people, to look at the sociological research as well.  And there is a large and deepening body of sociological literature that speaks to the convergence of poverty and struggling schools.  What sociologists are telling us is that extreme segregation by income overlaid on racial segregation affects not only the children but also the schools to which they bring the challenges of extreme poverty.

In a 2010 study of schools in Chicago, Anthony Bryk and his colleagues identified what they called “a previously unrecognized subclass” of schools—those they called “truly disadvantaged.”  Here are the characteristics of the 46 schools they identified in Chicago that were far more severely challenged than surrounding schools (many of which served relatively poor neighborhoods). Truly disadvantaged schools were 90-100 percent African American. “These schools served neighborhoods characterized by extreme rates of poverty.  On average, 70 percent of residents living in the neighborhoods around these 46 schools had incomes below the poverty line, and the median family income in 1990 was only $9,480.  In 6 out of 10 of these schools, more than 50 percent of the students lived in pubic housing.” The schools featured what the researchers call a “consolidation of socioeconomic disadvantage and racial segregation.”  “Many confronted an extraordinary concentration of student needs, including students who were homeless, in foster care, or living in contexts of neglect, abuse, and domestic violence.” (Organizing Schools for Improvement, pp 23-24)

Sean Reardon’s research at Stanford University helps explain what is happening.  Reardon documents that across America’s metropolitan areas the proportion of families living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods increased from 15 percent in 1970 to 33 percent by 2009, and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods declined from 65 percent in 1970 to 42 percent in 2009.  Reardon also demonstrates that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap among children and adolescents.  The achievement gap between students with income in the top ten percent and students with income in the bottom ten percent is 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975.

In his recent book, Robert Putnam adds an important factor that affects children’s prospects and the sense of hope or despair that is likely to pervade their schools: the widening disparity in family assets. “Growing inequality in accumulated wealth is particularly marked…. Even taking into account the losses of the Great Recession, the net worth of college-educated American households with children rose by 47 percent between 1989 and 2013, whereas among high school-educated households, net worth actually fell by 17 percent during that quarter century.  Parental wealth is especially important for social mobility because it can provide informal insurance that allows kids to take more risks in search of more reward.” (Our Kids, 36)

David Brooks’ assumption is that poor people ought to pull themselves up, and as Leonhardt describes the Chetty-Hendren study, the assumption is that poor people ought to get it together for the sake of their children and find a way to move away from the schools No Child Left Behind has caused us to brand as “failing schools.”  Maybe that leaves the rest of us feeling less guilty, but it doesn’t really provide any way to address one of our society’s most troubling trends: rapidly growing income inequality across America and growing segregation by race and income that affects not only families but also the schools their children attend.  Here are just a few of the ways we could begin to address parts of this problem: more full-time work, a living wage, the significant construction of mixed-income housing across our city and suburban neighborhoods with far more subsidized units included for low-income families, and finally some sort of honest grappling with the fact that our society spends far less public funds for the schools in low income communities than in places that are wealthy.

Instead of taking steps to address poverty and inequality, we too often blame the poor or their schools or their teachers. Our collective failure to act is not only a policy problem but also a moral failure.  We are not the good society we like to imagine ourselves to be.