A Musical Performance: Collaborative Learning, Authentic Assessment, Opportunity to Learn

Earlier this week my husband and I attended a concert that happens in our school district every four years.  It is sponsored by a small nonprofit organization that promotes equity and opportunity to learn across our school district’s elementary and middle schools and that rents Severance Hall, the gorgeous, art deco home of the Cleveland Orchestra, for these quadrennial concerts to showcase our district’s school music program.  This year the concert happened, ironically, during the first-ever week of Ohio’s PARCC (Common Core) standardized test. But the test our students took on Tuesday night at Severance Hall was different.

Musical performance is the definition of authentic learning and assessment, and the recent concert was a test that our students definitely passed (despite that their performance will not affect our schools’ ratings based on state assessments and the PARCC). To use the lingo of the day, musical performance also perfectly exemplifies collaborative learning.  Elementary singers stayed on pitch and instrumentalists and singers came together from both of our middle schools in an honors chorus and an honors orchestra to perform together as they will in a year or two when they get to high school. The high school concert band sounded great playing a tricky piece with complicated percussion and lots of brass. A high school a capella choir sang a moving  “Shenandoah” with such intricate harmony and sensitive dynamics it made us cry, and then different student conductors led the next two selections.  When the high school symphony played a movement from Stravinsky’s The Firebird, a girl with blue hair played perfect bassoon solos. A recent graduate returned from Morehouse College to accompany a gospel ensemble on the piano and to sing a solo. I attended the dress rehearsal for part of the afternoon, and watched while the high school symphony and a huge choir prepared selections by John Rutter and Beethoven—adjusting the dynamics again and again in the huge and unfamiliar concert hall to ensure that the oboe was audible in one section and the orchestra didn’t overwhelm the choir in another. A jazz combo played for a pre-concert reception, men’s barbershoppers sang on stage, a harpist played a Beatles tune in the ticket lobby, and a mass choir with pit orchestra opened with a show tune by Frank Loesser.

Contrast all this with today’s dominant myth about education, described by NY Times columnist Paul Krugman in a column in last Monday’s paper.  Krugman describes what can be called “the world is flat” myth, which casts our nation’s economic future amidst a vast competition in a connected techie world.  This story alleges that the nation’s economic growth—and hence our future—is being imperiled by our public education system, which is mediocre at best.   Krugman explains: “The education-centric story of our problems runs like this: We live in a period of unprecedented technological change, and too many American workers lack the skills to cope with that change.  This ‘skills gap’ is holding back growth, because businesses can’t find the workers they need. It also feeds inequality, as wages soar for workers with the right skills but stagnate or decline for the less educated.  So what we need is more and better education.”  Krugman, a Nobel prize-winning economist as well as a NY Times columnist, rejects this myth: “There’s no evidence that a skills gap is holding back employment. After all, if businesses were desperate for workers with certain skills, they would presumably be offering premium wages to attract such workers…  Actually, the inflation-adjusted earnings of highly educated Americans have gone nowhere since the late 1990s.”

Krugman tells us that corporate profits continue to soar, but something besides education is preventing widespread well being and feeding the rapid growth of inequality:  “As for wages and salaries, never mind college degrees—all the big gains are going to a tiny group of individuals holding strategic positions in corporate suites or astride the crossroads of finance.  Rising inequality isn’t about who has the knowledge; it’s about who has the power.”  Krugman suggests some solutions for improving the economy: “Levy higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy, and invest the proceeds in programs that help working families.  We could raise the minimum wage and make it easier for workers to organize.”

Interestingly, last Monday the NT Times printed a sort of double whammy with an op ed piece on the same theme as Krugman’s column, an op ed from Larry Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute.  Mishel rejects tax cuts as any kind of solution to the problem of inequality: “What has hurt workers’ paychecks is not what the government takes out, but what their employers no longer put in—a dynamic that tax cuts cannot eliminate… Taxation does not explain why middle-income families are having a harder time making ends meet, even as they increase their education and become ever more productive.”  In fact tax cuts are counter-productive because they collapse society’s capacity to respond to rising inequality.  Mishel’s prescription is similar to Krugman’s: raise the minimum wage; protect workers’ right to unionize and bargain collectively, and keep people on salary instead of turning work over to so-called independent contractors. “Because wage stagnation was caused by policy, it can be reversed by policy, too.”

Narrowing inequality, as Krugman and Mishel tell us, cannot be accomplished merely by improving education,  It will instead require policies that support the people who do the work, not merely the titans who manipulate high finance. But educating our children remains absolutely central to who we are as a people.  Think about that concert earlier this week. What made the evening of music especially important is that the concert presented a public school music program in a school district where the children are not affluent. Sixty percent of the students in our school district qualify for free lunch; they are not the children of the powerful financiers Paul Krugman describes. Enriching their skills to make and enjoy music and their opportunity to collaborate in the creation of something beautiful is our gift to them from the public. Public schools can’t get rid of inequality, but they are one way that our society can expand opportunity for our children.

Duncan’s Problem: Education Philosophy, Not Overreach

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has been widely criticized for federal overreach—federal grant competitions (Race to the Top, Investing in Innovation, School Improvement Grants) dangled as an enticement for state legislatures to adopt Duncan’s pet policies merely to qualify to submit a proposal—and waivers (from the most onerous penalties of the old No Child Left Behind Act) conditioned on states’ adopting additional punitive policies narrowly defined by Duncan’s department. The Department of Education brags that it is responsible for the adoption across state governments of widespread reform designed and promoted by the U.S. Department of Education.

Although I am concerned that Duncan has been pushing his agenda (quite legally) through federal administrative rules without public debate in Congressional hearings and without the check and balance of a vote by Congress, I urge you to read Arthur Camins’ profound diagnosis of what ails today’s federal education policy:  “The problem over the last several decades of education policy is not overreach.  It is that the federal government has been reaching for the wrong things in the wrong places with the wrong policy levers.”  Valerie Strauss reprinted Camins’ profound analysis in the Washington Post yesterday.

Our problem is our values not mere governance strategy. The Department of Education has been promoting public policy based on individualism at the expense of the common good: “Community and individualist values have been in tension throughout U.S. history. The diminishment of inequality that characterized the 1930s-1970s was the result of empathetic community responsibility values and strong unions.  The growing inequality of the 1980s through the present is the result of the dominance of competitive individualist values… When competition is the norm among parents for their children’s schools and among teachers for professional advancement, narrow individual solutions undermine broad systemic solutions.”

How has school choice worked out as a strategy for empowering parents living in poor communities?  “The rhetoric to support current education reform is that individual poor families should have choices about which schools their children attend just like rich folks.  Tellingly, this does not mean that rich and poor or black and white children attend the same schools.  Instead, new charter schools are located in racially and economically isolated communities so that poor families compete with one another for admission. The result has been increased segregation with no effort to ameliorate resource allocation differences between wealthy and poor communities.”

Camins believes that mistaking our much deeper philosophical dilemma in education policy for a governance problem of federal overreach will only further undermine the plight of children in our poorest communities. Efforts of the current Republican majority in both houses of Congress to reduce the federal role in education and return power to the states will further  “undermine efforts to support the nation-wide, democratically governed public system that is essential to successfully prepare students for life, work and citizenship…  Great advances for economic and social justice, such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and civil rights laws are the result of federal legislation and Supreme Court decisions.  All of these benchmarks of progress have been initiated by local social and political action, but they have been achieved nationally.”

We must be especially wary, writes Camins, because “virtually unlimited political contributions and lobbying, the growing influence of wealthy foundations and recent undermining of voting rights have all eroded progressive equity-focused… policies,” not only at the federal level, but also across the states.

Camins’ solutions will require changing the philosophical frame. Instead of reducing the federal role, Congress needs to leverage the full power of the federal government behind a public system that serves the needs and protects the rights of all children—expanding opportunity through school funding equity, school integration, creation of well-paying jobs, a living wage, stronger support for families with children, increased support for the education of special education students and English language learners, more support for teachers’ professional growth and collaboration, and better teacher preparation programs. “Improvements will only come from a national commitment to the values of equity, democracy, empathy, respect and community responsibility….”

I urge you to read and re-read Camins’ thoughtful column.

Charter Schools Fail the Test of Justice

Several weeks ago I was asked by Northeast Ohio Media Group (The Plain Dealer), as part of a point-counterpoint series on charter schools—pro and con, to contribute a short article.  The person who requested the column knew of my concern that it is not possible to create a school system based on school choice that does a good job of serving the needs and protecting the rights of all children.

She asked me to write a piece that summarizes my concerns.  I did not know who would be writing the pro-charter piece.  Yesterday cleveland.com published the articles.  Here is mine: Charter Schools Fail the Test of Justice.  You’ll find a link to the pro-charter article following my piece.

My goal was to examine the role of charter schools in the context of what we have traditionally believed is the mission of public education—to serve all of our society’s children for their benefit and as the foundation of our democratic society.

The piece published yesterday declares: “Justice in education—the idea that schools distribute opportunity to all children—must be systemic. A public education system like ours in the United States—publicly funded, universally available, and accountable to the public—is the best way I know to balance the needs of each particular child with society’s responsibility to protect the rights of all children. While there are some excellent charter schools, I believe the growing charter school movement threatens our system of public education.”

You can read the rest here.

New Book from David Berliner: Update on Manufactured Crisis He Identified 20 Years Ago

In 1995, nearly 20 years ago, Arizona State University education professor David Berliner and University of Missouri professor Bruce Biddle published a prophetic book that anticipated the largely trumped up attack on public education that has brought us vouchers and charter schools; No Child Left Behind with its requirement that the school year be filled with test-prep and high stakes pressure on children and teachers alike; and Race to the Top and the other Obama programs that are transforming the Title I Formula—a civil rights program—into a philanthropy-like grant competition aimed at “incentivizing”  innovation.

In The Manufactured Crisis, Berliner and Biddle wrote:  “The Manufactured Crisis was not an accidental event.  Rather, it appeared within a specific historical context and was led by identifiable critics whose political goals could be furthered by scapegoating educators.  It was also supported from its inception by an assortment of questionable techniques—including misleading methods for analyzing data, distorting reports of findings, and suppressing contradictory evidence.  Moreover, it was tied to misguided schemes for ‘reforming’ education—schemes that would, if adopted, seriously damage American schools.”

Back in 1995, Berliner and Biddle identified serious problems challenging American society and our public schools—income and wealth inequity; stagnation of the economy; racial, ethnic, religious, and linguistic diversity; racial discrimination practiced for years against black Americans; segregation in suburbs and ghettos; violence and drugs; the aging of the population; competing demands for funds; and the restructuring of work.  They concluded, “Unfortunately, many people who propose reforms for education seem to be unaware of these problems and as a result their proposals are unrealistic.  Effective reforms must begin by taking these problems seriously.”  Berliner and Biddle also looked at myriad issues within the public schools themselves that need to be addressed.

Hot off the press this month is a brand new book from David Berliner and the National Education Policy Center’s Gene Glass: 50 Myths and Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools: The Real Crisis in Education.  I look forward to reading this book for ongoing help with responding to the manufactured crisis Berliner warned us about in 1995.

According to the publisher, Teachers College Press: “Two of the most respected voices in education and a team of young education scholars identify 50 myths and lies that threaten America’s public schools.  With hard-hitting information and a touch of comic relief, Berliner, Glass, and their Associates separate fact from fiction in this comprehensive look at modern education reform.  They explain how the mythical failure of public education has been created and perpetuated in large part by political and economic interests that stand to gain from its destruction.  They also expose a rapidly expanding variety of organizations and media that intentionally misrepresent facts…  Where appropriate, the authors name the promoters of these deceptions and point out how they are served by encouraging false beliefs.”

Here is what Jonathan Kozol says about the new book: “50 Myths and Lies is a powerful defense of public education and a discerning refutation of the reckless misimpressions propagated by a juggernaut of private-sector forces and right-wing intellectuals who would gladly rip apart the legacy of democratic schooling in America. It is a timely and hard-hitting book of scholarly but passionate polemic.”

To give you a taste of Berliner’s good sense and willingness to challenge conventional thinking, here is the text of a graduation address, The Teacher as Sisyphus,  he delivered last May at Manhattanville College.  Berliner moves quickly to his hard-hitting message without mincing words:  “Good evening.  First I want to assure you all that I will not stand long in the way of your celebration… Second I want to thank the administration of the college…. Third, I want to congratulate you graduates.  I also want to tell your parents, relatives, and friends gathered here today to remember something very important, namely, that the future pay of each of the graduates you care about depends on your ability, and your desire to pay your taxes!  Many of these graduates are likely to end up as workers for the common good, helping to serve us all.  And those who work for the common good—the police, firefighters, librarians, our teachers and other educators—are all paid from monies collected in taxes… I don’t want to be a scold on this wonderful day, but these graduates will need your support for their entire careers.”

Be watching for the new book by David Berliner and Gene Glass, 50 Myths and Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools: The Real Crisis in Education.

Public Education, Public Obligation, and the Distribution of Opportunity

A just society would distribute opportunity fairly and, in the case of K-12 education, give each child the chance to realize her or his promise.  While our society has never fully realized this ideal, we have, historically, agreed on the goal.  We have also assumed that there is a public purpose for public education—that our society benefits from the education of its citizens in myriad ways.

Education philosopher John Dewey declared: “A government resting upon popular suffrage cannot be successful unless those who elect and who obey their governors are educated.” (Democracy and Education, p. 87) Political philosopher Benjamin Barber describes public schools as, “our sole public resource: the only place where, as a collective, self-conscious public pursuing common goods, we try to shape our children to live in a democratic world.” (An Aristocracy of Everyone, pp. 14-15)  Chicago education professor Bill Ayers writes:  “What makes education in a democracy distinct is a commitment to a particularly precious and fragile ideal… that the fullest development of all is the necessary condition for the full development of each; conversely, the fullest development of each is necessary for the full development of all.”

These writers define public education as essential to the public good, and they point to the moral obligation to provide opportunity for all, not just for some in a society that aspires to justice.  These days we talk very little about the universal provision of public services as the foundation of opportunity.  We placidly ignore the skewed provision of public goods based on vastly unequal local resources from place to place, refuse to find ways to fund the equalization of those services, and then suggest that if we give parents control through privatization and school choice, they will be able to finesse the system on their children’s behalf.

Two articles posted this past week explore the moral implications of vast inequality experienced by children in today’s America.  Arthur Camins, in a column reprinted by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post, explores the false promise of choice as a so-called solution to educational inequality. Camins contrasts a value system grounded in common purpose to a value system of individual initiative and competition. He critiques the result after describing the rationale for school choice: “that successful schools will win the competition for students and thrive, while others will wither and close.  However, this strategy is in itself inequitable because the disruptive effect of school closings negatively impacts students in already unstable communities, but not those in stable middle class or wealthy communities…  In doing so it shifts the improvement focus from a shared concern or common struggle about the community’s children to individual parents making self-interested selections for their own children…  Self-concern is a rational moral choice only in the context of a society that refuses to systemically address inequity and only if everyone becomes convinced that collective action is a hopelessly naive moral and strategic principle.”

In Getting the Edge, Rev. John Thomas, former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ and now a professor and administrator at Chicago Theological Seminary, examines another moral issue in a society of exploding wealth inequality.  He describes the  benefits that accrue for the children of the wealthiest among us as private and public privilege add up in a society that manages, through over-reliance on local property taxes, to spend the most public dollars on the education of children who are already pampered.  Some children end up with almost unimaginable privilege as their parents invest in foreign travel and posh summer camps even as children in poor communities are denied basics like small classes and libraries in their public schools.

Rev. Thomas writes: “Aside from the wisdom of treating some of our children like pampered thoroughbred race horses in the Ivy League sweepstakes, or of infiltrating every activity with the rhetoric of economic competition, all of this demonstrates the structural ways in which our society helps to protect the very affluent class from downward mobility while doing little to nothing to provide meaningful upward mobility for poor and near poor children.”

In the unequal world that Rev. Thomas describes, we must continue to ask whether school choice through privatization—the prescribed “solution” today to inequality in education across America’s big cities—can possibly address the deepest injustices. Privatization and school choice embody values of individualism, freedom, liberty, choice, innovation, and competition—very different principles from those embedded in universal public education.

Benjamin Barber sorts out these issues with precision in his reflection on privatization.  It is a fascinating exercise to consider carefully Barber’s statement that follows in the context of one of today’s examples of a school system designed around choice—whether in Chicago, New York City, Newark, New Orleans, Detroit, or Philadelphia:

“Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics.  It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right.  Private choices rest on individual power…. Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities and presume equal rights for all.  Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract.  With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak….” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

In the context of growing family wealth inequality, Rev. Thomas believes our best chance for justice in education is through the public schools that represent our society’s public obligation to our children: “Children don’t need to study marine biology in New Zealand or entrepreneurship on Wall Street in the summer to have hope.  But they do need good schools; well paid, well trained, well supported career teachers; and supports for their families to be able to provide a safe and stable home life.  Absent this, all the talk about equal opportunity for all our children is not only futile, but obscene.”

American Dream Features the Individual; Justice Is the Community’s Solution

In a fascinating academic study, The American Dream and the Power of Wealth, sociologist Heather Beth Johnson and a group of researchers conduct interviews to try to discover how we “acknowledge structured inequality as we teach our children that individual achievement determines life chances.”

She is exploring our society’s cultural narrative of the American Dream, the idea that we live in a meritocracy where all can succeed if we work hard—where if we are strategic and patient, we can all win—where we rise or fall pretty much on our own.  The book is filled with transcripts of the interviews the researchers conduct.  Here is a typical sample:

  • 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.”

Again and again those who are interviewed acknowledge structural inequality—that some people face far greater barriers than others—but they also explain that with hard work, we all have an equal chance.

In a brand new, expanded and revised edition of his 2009 education philosophy, Why School?, UCLA professor and well known education writer Mike Rose adds a chapter to address the latest pop psychology attempt to explain the American Dream in a way that makes it possible for the poorest children to succeed at school despite the challenges segregation and poverty present.  Rose has just shared this chapter, Being Careful about Character, on his website as a delicious morsel to tempt us to get the book and read more.

Introducing the new chapter on his website, Rose writes about books like Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed: “I certainly don’t dispute the importance of qualities like perseverance and flexibility and, as is the case with so many teachers, do my best to foster them, but I am also worried that we, once again, are seeking a miracle cure for the entrenched social problems of poverty and inequality. What follows is a kind of extended cautionary tale.”

The chapter follows, and I urge you to read it and then get the new version of the book.  Rose concludes the chapter on character-strengthening this way: “But we have to be very careful, given the political tenor of our time, not to assume that we have the long-awaited key to helping the poor overcome the assaults of poverty.  My worry is that we will embrace these essentially individual and technocratic fixes—mental conditioning for the poor—and abandon broader social policy aimed at poverty itself… We seem willing to accept remedies for the poor that we are not willing to accept for anyone else  We should use our science to figure out why that is so—and then develop the character and courage to fully address poverty when it is an unpopular cause.”

The narrative of the American Dream is a story of the triumph of individuals who are able through grit and character to overcome whatever their individual circumstances may be.  Another way to look at all this is through the ethical lens of the world’s major religions.  Not one of them defines justice individually.  Justice is about the responsibility—the obligation—of a society to create conditions where all can contribute.  I like the definition of justice presented by the Rev. J. Philip Wogaman, the retired pastor of Foundry Methodist Church in Washington, D.C., in a relatively old book, first published in 1988, Christian Perspectives on Politics:

“Justice is the community’s guarantee of the conditions necessary for everybody to be  participant in the common life of society… If we are, finally, brothers and sisters through the providence of God, then it is just to structure institutions and laws in such a way that communal life is enhanced and individuals are provided full opportunity for participation.” (pp. 216-217)

Valerie Strauss Parses Public Education Rhetoric and Reality in SOTU

My expectations for what the President would say about public education in the State of the Union message were low.  After all, I have not once noticed any recent shifting away from a public school strategy that emphasizes competition, standardized testing, and sanctions for school teachers and for so-called failing schools.

President Obama’s so-called school reform policies have closed schools across the poorest neighborhoods of America’s big cities, promoted privatized charter schools as the alternative, and emphasized the need to grade school teachers on their children’s test scores.

In contrast, I believe our society’s highest priority for education ought to be investing in improving public schools in poor communities and creating incentives for states to equalize their investments, for it is true that our reliance on local funding for education ensures that the most public money is spent year after year on the children in wealthy suburbs where there is lots of property to tax.

Even so, I found the President’s comments in the State of the Union disheartening.  I was sad to hear him brag once again about his Race to the Top program that takes money from the Title I formula—a centerpiece of the fifty-year-old War on Poverty—to fund a state-by-state grant competition with winners and losers.  Much of the money that went to the winning states remains unspent, there is some question about whether the programs have made a difference, and more states and school districts have been losers in this competition than winners.  The pithiest critique of the Department of Education’s grant competitions comes from the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who defends public education’s mission to leave no child behind: “There are those who would make the case for a race to the top for those who can run, but ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”

I would like to have heard even a bit of evidence that the President has paid attention to angry parents—like those in Newark just this week, and in Chicago and Philadelphia—whose schools are being closed through one of the turnaround strategies being prescribed by the U.S. Department of Education.

My problem is that I get so mad about President Obama’s speeches on education that I am unable to respond.  This time, however, there is a profound critique from Valerie Strauss in this column published in the Washington Post.  I urge you to read it.

The Times Really Seem to be A Changin in NYC

It seems hard to believe, but 21 days into the term of a new mayor of New York City, the conversation has shifted away from “corporate” school reform—from efficiency and privatization to what children need and how the public can provide it.  New York’s new Mayor de Blasio has siezed the attention of the media.  And the focus is about children—about the need for pre-school for all NYC four-year-olds, after-school programs for students in middle school, and a tax on the super-rich to pay for it.

Here is how the gorgeous website (with a moving video) proclaims the new mayor’s agenda: “UPKNYC is a grassroots campaign to enact Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to raise taxes on the wealthiest New Yorkers to fund universal pre-k for every four year old and after school for every middle school student in New York City.”

An organizing campaign has volunteers on the streets seeking signatures on petitions and motivating citizens to press their representatives in Albany to pass enabling legislation for the tax increase.  Last Friday I received tweets all day long from Zakiyah Ansari, the New York City community organizer for the Alliance for Quality Education.  “We’re proud to support @UPKNYC’s campaign for universal pre-K and after-school in NYC. Then add your name: http://upknyc.org .”  A picture posted with the caption: “This mom knows the importance of pre-K firsthand. RT if all NYC kids deserve a seat. pic.twitter.com/yeFwqZJRcd.”

That the new mayor and his people are also working with the press is clear in an editorial in this morning’s NY Times trumpeting Mayor de Blasio’s talking points.  The newspaper that followed and usually supported Mayor Bloomberg’s efforts to promote choice and charters is suddenly explaining: “Full-day prekindergarten is a smart investment in growing minds, preparing children to be skilled learners at a moment when they are primed for it.  It’s better to reach them at age 4 rather than fixing their learning problems later.”

Today’s editorial credits Mayor de Blasio for his seriousness compared to Governor Cuomo’s mere nod—a quick mention of universal pre-school in his state of the state address: “While Mr. Cuomo seems content with an applause line in a wish list, Mr. de Blasio is on the hook with a deeper commitment.  He has said how he will pay for it, how much it will cost and that it will begin late this year.”  The editorial frames the proposed tax increase on those making over $5oo,000 a year in de Blasio’s populist rhetoric: “He calls this a negligible sacrifice for a transformative social good.”

In The Nation magazine, Betsy Reed has recently puzzled about the bias of news coverage in NYC.  “In recent years, as wealth has flowed upward in New York City, the media gaze has followed, fixing ever more intently on the lives of a tiny elite…  Of course, this variety of lifestyle journalism isn’t entirely new. .. But the disproportionate attention heaped on the small number of very wealthy families obscured what most New York families were up against in the Bloomberg era.”

Writing about the other strand of de Blasio’s current child-related agenda, after-school programs for students in middle school, Reed continues: “But even so, out of 1.1 million children in city schools, only 15 percent are enrolled in city-funded after-school programs.  A survey by the Campaign for Children found that most parents who rely on these programs would, without them, either quit their jobs or leave their children home alone—suggesting that a good number of parents of the 935,000 kids left out are, right now, doing just that.  This is a scandal in a prosperous city—but other than perfunctory news stories about the annual budget dance, it’s mostly gone unnoticed.”

A Special Christmas Wish for What Children Need This Year: Quality Teachers

The Rev. John Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator Chicago Theological Seminary.  His wonderful blog post for this Christmas is about the importance of quality public school teachers:  All I Want for Christmas.

“While the old holiday song suggests that children might want two front teeth for Christmas, this year I’d like to suggest an alternative: “All I want for Christmas is a teacher.” Sunday’s New York Times reported the stark impact of the recent recession on schools, namely, the massive loss of public school teachers since 2008. According to Labor Department statistics, public schools across the country employ 250,000 fewer people today than they did prior to the recession. Meanwhile, pupil enrollment has grown by 800,000 students. To maintain pre-recession staffing ratios, public schools nation-wide would have had to add 132,000 jobs.

“What does this look like in the classroom? In Coatesville, Pennsylvania, a declining steel town forty miles outside of Philadelphia, the professional workforce of 600 prior to the recession has been cut by twenty percent. This means that some of the thirty students in one fourth grade class sit halfway into a coat closet. In a middle school social studies class one teacher handles twenty-five students, ten with special education needs, four who know little or no English, and several others who need advanced work to stay engaged. He used to have two aides to help; not any more.”

Thomas concludes by sharing the story of the public school music teacher who composed the song, “All I Want for Christmas.”  Read Rev. Thomas’s blog post here.

Good wishes for the season to all readers of this blog!

The Overlay of Economic Injustice and Race in America

Earlier this week the Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz offered a personal and sober view of American society and the economy fifty years after the March on Washington: “Dr. King realized that the struggle for social justice had to be conceived broadly: it was a battle not just against racial segregation and discrimination, but for greater economic equality and justice for all Americans. It was not for nothing that the march’s organizers, Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph, had called it the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.”

Fifty years ago Stiglitz traveled to Washington for the March.  A recent college graduate, he was set to enter a graduate program in economics just a few weeks later.  He writes that the March on Washington and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King were instrumental in inspiring him to focus his career on economic inequality.

Today, fifty years later, we know that children’s opportunities remain constrained by inequality and continuing racial and economic segregation. Our dilemma is neither merely the failure to have achieved racial justice nor rapidly accelerating economic injustice; the two are overlaid for the mass of black and brown children.  According to Stiglitz, today the median income of black families is 58 percent of the median income of white families, with the median total wealth of whites 20 times that of blacks.  Stiglitz reports that 65 percent of African American children live in low income families, and “The Great Recession of 2007-9 was particularly hard on African-Americans (as it typically is on those at the bottom of the socioeconomic spectrum). They saw their median wealth fall by 53 percent between 2005 and 2009, more than three times that of whites: a record gap.”

Stiglitz summarizes the mass of factors that conspire to undermine educational opportunity.  While an income-inequality achievement gap has now surpassed the racial achievement gap in American public schools, it is important to remember that for a mass of children the gap is one and the same. Today American children of color are too often segregated in all poor public schools.

Only a year before the March on Washington—in 1962, Michael Harrington wrote The Other America, a book that opened America’s eyes at least temporarily to the poverty and inequality our society had chosen not to see.  Harrington’s indictment continues to describe our very separate and unequal society: “There is a familiar America. It is celebrated in speeches and advertised on television and in the magazines. It has the highest mass standard of living the world has ever known… This book is… about the other America. Here are the unskilled workers, the migrant farm workers, the aged, the minorities, and all the others who live in the economic underworld of American life… Now the American city has been transformed. The poor still inhabit the miserable housing in the central area, but they are increasingly isolated from contact with, or sight of, anybody else. Middle-class women coming in from Suburbia on a rare trip may catch the merest glimpse of the other America on the way to an evening at the theater, but their children are segregated in suburban schools.”

I wonder what we choose to see today. Stiglitz’s important piece this week is aimed to help us open our eyes.