NY Times Series Is About Homelessness, Poverty, Inequality and Public Education

This week’s New York Times feature series, Invisible Child, about a gifted Brooklyn preteen and her life for several years in a decrepit homeless shelter with her parents and six siblings, explores—from the point of view of the child herself—the mass of ways opportunity can be crushed.  Andrea Elliott, the reporter, traces Dasani’s journey from crisis to crisis over the several years her large family resides together in a 520-square-foot room.

This is also a story of the role of a public school in the life of a child who lacks another anchor.  At school she has her own place to hang her coat.  School is a place where much of the time she can hide the fragility of her family’s stability and where the principal and a special teacher willingly care for her and her siblings.

Here is a child whose parents both struggle with drug addiction and whose mother counsels her to fight to secure her place.  But Dasani also listens to the teacher she respects, someone who grew up in the neighborhood, and who advises, “I don’t ever wanna hear, ‘Well, my mother told me to do this,’ unless you know that’s the right thing.  I am telling you, as sure as I’m sitting here, you’re gonna be held responsible for the choices you make.” “You care about your life.  There are people out there who are so hurt they don’t care about leaving here. They are looking for an opportunity to do something crazy and ridiculous.  They have nothing to live for.  I am telling you to listen to your internal barometer.  Think about your next move before you make your next move.”

At a time when schools are judged by the average test scores of their students and when teachers are being evaluated by the econometric value-added formulas that consider cumulative test score growth of all the students in each teacher’s class, it is easy to forget what teachers really mean in the lives of the children in their classes.  Dasani’s teacher—the young woman from the projects who made it out on a scholarship to the State University of New York at Cortland and then came home to be a public school teacher—serves as an extraordinary and believable role model for this child who confesses at one point, “I don’t dream at all. Even when I try'”

Family homeless is a serious and growing worry in New York City.  Elliott explains: “Children are not the face of New York’s homeless… Their homelessness is hidden.  They spend their days in school, their nights in shelters…  Their numbers have risen above anything in the city’s modern history, to a staggering 22,091 this month.  If all of the city’s homeless children were to file into Madison Square Garden for a hockey game, more than 4,800 would not have a seat.”

The series of articles, Invisible Child, is long and heart wrenching.  I recommend taking the time to read and think about it.


A Fair Minimum Wage As a School Achievement Strategy?

When advocates for justice and equity in public education suggest that our nation will have to address America’s outrageous 22 percent child poverty rate as one step to improve school achievement, critics of such strategies point out that schools and teachers alone will have to build achievement levels, because there is little society can do to eliminate child poverty.

Two articles posted over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend suggest that there are steps we can take to ameliorate poverty, with a first step rather obvious: increase the minimum wage and automatically index it to inflation.  If parents can earn a fair wage for the work they do, their children will be more secure.

Writing for the NY Times, Massachusetts economist Arindrajit Dube describes minimum wage reform as The Minimum We Can Do.  According to Dube, “inflation-adjusted minimum wages in the United States have declined in both absolute and relative terms for most of the past four decades.  The high-water mark for the minimum wage was 1968, when it stood at $10.60 an hour in today’s dollars, or 55 percent of the median full-time wage.  In contrast, the current federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, constituting 37 percent of the median full-time wage.”  Ideally Dube would suggest raising the federal minimum wage to $10.78 an hour, though he would settle for the $10.10 per hour that is part of legislation already proposed by Iowa Senator Tom Harkin and California Representative George Miller.

Writing for the New Yorker in Higher Calling, Steve Call presents a less technical but equally compelling case for raising the minimum wage.  He notes that in local and state elections, voters have repeatedly been willing to pass ballot issues that increase the minimum wage. “The movement has momentum because most Americans believe that the federal minimum wage—seven dollars and twenty-five cents an hour, the same as it was in 2009—is too low.  A family of four dependent on a single earner at that level—making fifteen thousand dollars a year—is living far below the federal poverty line.”  Coll concludes: “The case for a strong minimum wage has always been, in part, civic and moral.  Minimum wages do not create new ‘entitlement’ programs or otherwise enjoin the country’s sterile debates about the value of government.  They are designed to insure that the dignity of work includes true economic independence for all who embrace it.”

Dube reminds us of the words of President Franklin Roosevelt, who believed that all Americans deserve “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.”  “No business,” declared Roosevelt, “which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country.”

It is perhaps easy to forget that increasing the minimum wage would likely affect school achievement, but there is overwhelming evidence that poverty and economic inequality are not only connected to the well being of children in America’s poorest families but also to significant income-related school achievement gaps.  Although raising the federal minimum wage and indexing it to inflation might not eliminate the entire school achievement gap, it would be a very good first step.

Why Is NY Times Worrying about School Funding in Kansas?

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities thirteen states have cut per-student education funding by more than 10 percent since the recession began five years ago.  The top four school finance slashers are Oklahoma, which has cut funding for K-12 public education by 22.7 percent, Alabama by 20.1 percent, Arizona by 17.2 percent, and Kansas by 16.5 percent.

In a 2006 decision, Montoy v. State, the supreme court of Kansas “ordered cost-based, sufficient, and equitable funding,” “based upon actual costs to educate children,” according to the Education Law Center (here, here, and here).  However, the legislature failed to fund the remedy fully, and as the economy of Kansas began to recover from the 2008 recession, Governor Sam Brownback and the legislature passed a five-year $3.7 billion tax cut instead of increasing the amount of money for public education.

In response, in 2010 plaintiffs pushed back, filing Gannon v. State, and leading to a unanimous trial court decision early in January 2013 in support of more funding for K-12 public schools.  The trial court demanded  that the state immediately increase investment in  education by at least $440 million.  The state, of course, appealed , and last week the supreme court in Kansas heard oral arguments.

Because Kansas is so very far in every way from New York, I was stunned to see the New York Times take the unusual step of editorializing in this case: “The court should quickly put priorities in order by affirming a lower-court ruling last January that found the state ‘completely illogical’ in using the new revenues to provide tax cuts while arguing it had inadequate resources for educating schoolchildren.”

Because all the states have different education funding formulas and because it all gets to seeming like an arcane bunch of numbers, I think it is easy to gloss over the school finance inadequacy and inequity in other states where the cuts don’t affect my own children or  neighbors or community.  Problems for those other places can seem pretty far away.  But when there is school finance trouble in my own state, the issues feel more personal than almost anything else. The school funding formula determines whether we have a school nurse, a school librarian, a middle school orchestra, a class in Calculus, Advanced Placement chemistry.  Will the kindergarten class have 21 or 32 children?  Will high school English teachers teach four classes of 25 or five classes of 35, a difference that will likely determine whether the teacher can assign and read enough essays to teach adolescents how to write.  Will I as a parent have to spend months trying to pass a local school levy merely to replace programs eliminated when the state legislature cut the funding?

It should be a cause for concern everywhere in America that, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “despite some improvements in overall state revenues, schools in around a third of states are entering the new school year (2013-2014) with less state funding than they had last year.” I am delighted to see the New York Times speaking to disturbing threats across the nation to K-12 public education, threats that derive not only from the lingering impact of the 2008 recession, but also from tax cuts by Tea Party-dominated legislatures and governors and the implications of the federal sequester for Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Young, Energetic, Enthusiastic, Inexperienced, Short Term: The Model School Teacher?

On August 26, Motoko Rich, in the New York Times, reported At Charter Schools Short Careers by Choice.  I shared my own concerns about the subject of her piece here,  Yesterday, Mike Rose, professor in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA and a respected writer on education and teaching, published a second reflection, Forever Young  (his first is here), as a guest writer in Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post column, “The Answer Sheet.”

In yesterday’s piece Rose concludes, “Given that the focus of so much school reform is rightly on poor kids in underserved schools, and some charter organizations and Teach for America are particularly concerned about making a difference with such children, this advocacy of brief teaching careers gets perilously close to moral quicksand.  Poor communities need jobs, decent housing, and health care, and they need stable institutions staffed with people who are invested in them, have made connections in their communities, are trusted by them, and operate with the best accumulated wisdom to serve their needs.  Therefore, it seems irresponsible to argue that a substantial number of teachers in these communities can come in straight from college or another career and rotate through their classrooms, giving them two, three, four years and leave.”

I urge you to read carefully Rose’s concerns, because Mike Rose is among the most thoughtful people writing today about the need for excellent public schools and strong teachers in every community to expand opportunity.

He notes one other particularly important side point in yesterday’s piece, however:  “The leaders of high-profile charter organizations and especially of Teach for America have a huge megaphone, lots of influence and media connections.  People listen to them.”  In fact Congress has listened to them, having created what many people call “the Teach for America exemption” to the “Highly Qualified Teacher” requirement in the federal education law that we continue to call No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

On August 27, Valerie Strauss posted a guest report on this topic, How the Public Is Deceived about ‘Highly Qualified Teachers,’ by Kenneth Zeichner, a teacher educator at the University of Washington.  Zeichner explains that, “Our federal government supports a practice of putting the least-prepared teachers in the highest-need classrooms—classrooms that are most often filled with children from low-income families, English language learners, students with disabilities and students of color.  There are powerful players in the education reform world who are advocating for the Obama administration and Congress to maintain a federal policy that promotes this practice.”

In December of 2010 in the lame duck Congressional session, Congress inserted into a continuing budget resolution an amendment that labels teachers-in-training in alternative certification programs to be Highly Qualified Teachers under the requirements of NCLB.  These are teachers who, while they may have completed a five-week summer training course, are not trained or certified as teachers.  While they have completed a college degree, they have not completed college work in education, nor have they experienced supervised and mentored student-teaching.

California has recently strengthened its own requirements for teachers entering the classroom from alternative programs, but the U.S. Department of Education (that has been mandated by Congress to gather data on the number of alternative teachers placed “as highly qualified” and the location of classrooms where they are being placed) has been dragging its feet in the collection of this data that Congress asked to see by December 2013.  A coalition of 90 national education, civil rights, and community organizations has been actively pressing the Department to collect the data but to no avail.

This is an important issue.  All children need well-qualified and experienced teachers, and our society needs a permanent, qualified, credentialed teaching profession.

In his newest article Rose gets at some of the underlying assumptions:  “To argue that teaching should be done by an ever-changing corps of energetic new recruits converts teaching into a kind of entrepreneurial and experimental enterprise suited more for Silicon Valley capitalism than the development of children.  Another analogue is that teaching becomes volunteer or rescue work—intense but short-term.  And yet another comparison is missionary work…  this kind of talk about a few years of dedicated service in a community that is not your own reinforces the comparison.”

Choosing Inexperienced Teachers? Why?

Motoko Rich’s piece in the NY Times, At Charter Schools, Short Careers by Choice, troubles me.  Rich describes the 2.5 year average career of teachers at the charter chain, YES Prep, along with teaching careers averaging 4 years at KIPP and New York’s Success Academy charter networks.   Certainly there is nothing wrong with hiring young teachers who often bring enthusiasm and energy to their work, but these chains of charter schools are not hiring experienced teachers.  Rich surmises that charter chains may be establishing a culture of short stints for young people as teachers, a contrast to the career school teachers of earlier generations.

The teachers Rich describes at YES Prep Charter Schools undergo a two and a half week training intended to immerse them in the school-wide discipline techniques and specific formulas for curricula delivery.  A principal observing a beginning teacher, for example, corrects the words this teacher has taught students to chant, a rote practice all children in the school are expected to master.  It is unclear whether YES Prep Charter Schools require their teachers to be certified or whether the states in which the schools operate require traditional certification in charter schools.  It is also unclear whether the teachers at this school are expected to individualize or personalize learning.

Teachers being certified in college programs, on the other hand, must study child and adolescent development, extensive methods classes, academic courses in the areas they will teach, and philosophy and psychology of education. They must also, these days, teach at several points during their training, all under the supervision and mentoring of their professors   It is expected in traditional public schools that teachers will serve as more than deliverers of prescribed lessons and implementers of a set of discipline procedures.

In an excellent book of essays published early this summer, Public Education Under Siege, edited by Michael Katz and Mike Rose, David Labaree, a professor at Stanford University, explains why teachers need experience, not merely energy, youth, and the will to master a charter network’s prescribed lesson techniques.  According to Labaree, to be effective, a teacher needs to develop and establish a “teaching persona,” a sense of identity that comfortably establishes a sense of control and brings together a “teaching voice,” a mastery of structure and routine, and a clear grasp of expectations and goals.  Well-trained teachers incorporate what they have learned in college, the content mastery and the learning theory, into their teaching persona, but without this persona, they will be unable to accomplish the complex multitasking required of every teacher. Labaree believes the first years of a teacher’s career are spent developing this persona.  Experience matters.

Here are at least some of the things a well developed teaching persona helps a teacher do, sometimes all at once: know each student and respond to each child’s particular needs and learning style; present the curriculum in a way that is individualized to all the students’ particular needs; maintain order and a respectful, safe classroom environment; time the lessons to keep the students moving forward, and be comfortable enough in the teaching persona and the routine to engage teachable moments, incorporate humor, and stay in touch with the sense of vocation that called the teacher to this profession in the first place.

Another book published last spring, David Kirp’s wonderful Improbable Scholars, describes the children who thrive in impoverished Union City, New Jersey, but its primary focus is the experienced teachers who live in Union City and shape the school environment to the needs of the children, the vast majority immigrants from Central and South America.  Many of the teachers know their students’ lives intimately because they experienced childhood in the very same setting.  They integrate their training into a district-wide curriculum they have themselves designed, a curriculum that incorporates bilingual language arts and the requirement that the children read in their native language before they begin reading in English. The professionals Kirp profiles have been instrumental in turning around this school district and mentoring new teachers who in turn become committed to educating Union City’s children.

The teachers profiled by Kirp are not merely taking on teaching as a short- term job to build a resume or as something to do while they decide on a lifetime career.  They are well-trained, and reflective about how the classrooms they establish will be safe, respectful settings for children to learn and mature.  It’s a very different vision for education than the one Motoko Rich describes at YES Prep Charter Schools.

Of course one primary difference is  the cost.  A school where teachers stay two or four years never has to pay for teaching experience.  Such schools can rotate in the next crop of college graduates.  Administrators at some of the schools Rich describes admit that if they could pay more, they could attract more experienced teachers and that experience might be a benefit for their schools.

Charters are far less likely to be unionized and therefore less likely to pay well, build in raises for experience, or offer comparable fringe benefits.  In these times of widespread austerity across state legislatures, times when state budgets haven’t yet recovered from the 2008 recession and yet many states are at the same time cutting taxes, charter schools where salaries tend to be considerably lower than the traditional public schools can appear to be a way to save money.  But at what cost?

American Dream… American Delusion?

Reading Robert Putnam’s excellent article yesterday about widening inequality made me return to look at a growing body of material about the relation of family income inequality and school achievement for children and adolescents.

Certainly many of us have noticed the outmigration of wealthier families in some metropolitan areas and in other cities the concentration of gentrification in particular neighborhoods, along with the accompanying displacement of poor families and concentration of poverty in other neighborhoods.  The Stanford University sociologist Sean Reardon has published striking numbers that document these trends, numbers that shock even though we might have noticed the patterns informally.  Here are links to two of Reardon’s research studies;  I urge you to check out at least their executive summaries:

Reardon  shared some of his conclusions in the New York Times earlier this spring in a shorter piece, No Rich Child Left Behind, to which UCLA professor, Mike Rose, who has been writing about educational inequality for a long time responds.

Five years ago sociologist Heather Beth Johnson published a fascinating book, The American Dream and the Power of Wealth, describing a  study of how Americans explain to themselves our society’s growing inequality .  Not surprisingly, Johnson discovered that a mass of people frame their thinking with the narrative of the American Dream, a story that credits inequality to the power of the individual. This is the idea that we live in a meritocracy where we all begin life with the power to succeed if we work hard; where we all play by one set of rules and if we are strategic and patient, we can all win; where we rise or fall pretty much on our own.

Here is a transcript of one of the interviews Johnson reports:  “Interviewer: ‘Do you think there are some ethnicities, races, groups in this country that are more disadvantaged than others?’  Responder: ‘Yeah.’  Interviewer: ‘So you think there are certain  groups… as a whole that have a harder time making it today?’  Responder: ‘Sure. Definitely.’  Interviewer: ‘Okay, now, what about the American Dream? The idea that with hard work and desire, individual potential is unconstrained… everyone gets an equal chance to get ahead based on their own achievement?’  Responder: ‘That’s a very good definition.’  Interviewer: ‘Do you believe that the American Dream is true for all people and that everybody does have an equal chance?’  Responder: ‘Yes. Everybody has an equal chance, no matter who he or she is.'”

In interview after interview participants tightly hold both beliefs: some people have it much harder in America, and everyone has an equal chance.  Johnson attributes the contradiction to the blindness of privilege, the invisibility of the influence of intergenerational gifts—some even quite small but significant because they arrive at key times—by which those with some money can assist their children and grandchildren: help with a car payment, assistance with doctor bills, family vacations, college tuition, and even assistance with the down payment on a house.  Parents and grandparents with fewer assets and lower monthly income are unable to provide these boosts.  Johnson explains: because speaking about money is taboo, “the intergenerational transmission of it and the purposeful use of it are normally hidden from public view.”

Research like Reardon’s demonstrates that despite the strength of the story of the American Dream in our collective imagination, this myth does not describe today’s America, where child poverty is 22 percent, highest in the developed world;  where seven million of those 16 million poor children are trapped in extreme poverty with annual family income under $10,000; where social mobility has stalled, residential segregation increased, and inequality skyrocketed.

Power of Private Philanthropy Endangers the Public

Back in 2006 as part of a pledge to “give back” his accumulated wealth, investor Warren Buffett turned over $30 billion to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and at the same time added to smaller foundations he had created for his three children.

This weekend in an extraordinary opinion piece in the New York Times, The Charitable-Industrial Complex, Buffett’s son Peter, a musician, describes what he calls his journey as a philanthropist.

“I noticed,” writes Peter Buffett, “that a donor had the urge to ‘save the day’ in some fashion.  People (including me) who had very little knowledge of a particular place would think they could solve a local problem.  Whether it involved farming methods, education practices, job training or business development, over and over I would hear people discuss transplanting what worked in one setting directly into another with little regard for culture, geography or societal norms.”

“As more lives and communities are destroyed by the system that creates vast amounts of wealth for the few,” Buffett declares,” the more heroic it sounds to ‘give back.’ It’s what I would call ‘conscience laundering’—feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.”

in a book called Consumed, published a year after Warren Buffet turned over the bulk of his fortune to the Gates Foundation, political philosopher Benjamin Barber discusses the explosive growth of philanthropic giving as part of our society’s rush to privatization:

“First a privatizing ideology rationalizes restricting public goods and public assets of the kind that might allow the public as a whole to rescue from their distress their fellow citizens who are in jeopardy; then the same privatizing ideology celebrates the wealthy philanthropists made possible by the market’s inequalities who earnestly step in to spend some fragment of their market fortunes to do what the public can no longer do for itself.  Better philanthropy than nothing, but far better than philanthropy is a democratic public capable of taking care of itself with its own pooled resources and its own prudent planning.  The private philanthropist does for others in the larger public what they have not been enabled to do for themselves, as a public; democracy, on the other hand, empowers the public to take care of itself.”  (131)

In public school policy two obvious examples of the growing power of the philanthropic sector are the investment of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in developing econometric Value Added Measures (VAM) for the evaluation of school teachers and promoting that government require this kind of technocratic reform, and in supporting school privatization through the Charter-District Collaboration Compact program at the Center for Reinvesting Public Education at the University of Washington.  Staffers from the Gates Foundation have filled the Arne Duncan Department of Education from the beginning.

The most obvious way to curb the power of huge philanthropy is to increase taxes on those amassing vast fortunes. Taxes are, of course, the way we fund the public sector.  As Warren Buffett has famously pointed out, the tax system today is skewed to the degree that he pays taxes at a lower rate than his secretary.

Building the political will to curb the power of private wealth also requires us to name the problem.  Peter Buffet helps us here.  He calls the spreading of philanthropic wealth as an act of charity, “philanthropic colonialism.”