Crisis Junkies: Politicians on Education

FACT:
Michigan passed a law that allows the State to dissolve small, struggling school districts. In this round, Buena Vista School in Saginaw County and Inkster in the metro-Detroit area, will be closed and consolidated. Both schools were under-attended and neither had enough money to open again in the fall.

In the last 10 years, the educational budget has decreased by 58.9%:
In FY 1999-2000, Michigan’s Educational Budget was
 $65,356,336.
In FY 2009-2010, Michigan’s Educational Budget was $26,864,200.

And yet we call the situation “failing schools” rather than “failing treasury department”.

FACT:
In the last three years, the number of permanent school closures has been at its highest since the early 1980’s.
A Nation At Risk (the first publication which compared American school-age children’s achievements with those of their international peers, and found the Americans wanting) was published in April of 1983. 

We perceive the American Educational System to be in a state of emergency. This “crisis” mentality has given politicians an excuse to make rash decisions and call them “strong leadership” and has limited their accountability to the people. In a crisis, we accept that our elected officials can push the normal rules of democratic citizenship into a secondary position. Our elected officials have held the educational system hostage, under the pretense of a national educational deficiency pandemic because living in a “crisis” affords them more power. Politicians addressing a “crisis” (like War-time leaders and Emergency Managers), are able to brush aside democratic processes and unilaterally cut, create, and re-design major institutions, regardless of protest or opposition.They have systematically reduced educational funding over the last 13 years, and then cried “crisis!” when the principals and teachers were unable to manage their institutions on these malnourished budgets.

Politicians on Education have become crisis-junkies – they need a crisis in order to maintain their position. Finding a solution that is complex, gradual, and effective is much more complicated and requires a much greater level of expertise and intelligence than our elected officials can give.

If we stop acting as though every moment was the last moment in the history of American public education, and then give back all of the money we’ve taken from our schools, we could stop schools from failing, prevent school closures, and improve educational opportunities for the communities that are most vulnerable.

It’s not charter schools or business-apparatuses or lower-salaried teachers or whole-language learning that will improve the educational system – it’s money and time and patience.

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Chicago Tribune Tweaks “Facts” to Make College Look Like Less of a National Disaster

In the Chicago Tribune’s recent article, Fact & Fiction about Getting a College Education: The discussion about the value of higher education is plagued by misconceptions, tells us that the hysteria about the fading value and astronomical debt of a college education is fictional. It goes on to provide examples of this self-inflicted panic and, until you think about their methodology and sample size, it seems like a pretty decent point. But the Tribune skews some of their answers and does not account for the fact that their samples are composed of non-representative groups.

The article suggests that Americans misunderstand the reality of college loan debt – we over-estimate it:

“Hardworking reporters have gone to great trouble to find people who borrowed more than $100,000 to fund their undergraduate education. […] The average debt accumulation among those who do borrow is about $27,000, almost the same as the average new car loan, according to the Federal Reserve.”

Furthermore – and this is the clincher – there are plenty of students who graduate with no debt at all!

Statistics show that about 30 percent of students who get bachelor’s degrees at private nonprofit colleges and universities and 40 percent of those who graduate from public institutions do so with no education debt.

Reading those statistics, don’t you feel like maybe the Tribune is right? Maybe we are over-reacting to the “education crisis”. Maybe there isn’t an inherent issue with the way schools are budgeted or how efficiently they’re run – maybe, really, it’s just one or two kids who took out more debt than they can reasonably pay back, and now they’re blaming it on the system (typical), rather than their own short-sighted actions. Clearly, the debate raging over the astronomical cost of education is at least slightly melodramatic.

To give more credit and, ostensibly, a little more context to these statistics, the Tribune does a little exercise to show us how FAFSA works. The article does this to try and prove that we’re all overreacting and things aren’t as expensive as we’re told – I mean, c’mon! Just look at the numbers, for Christ’s sake.

“Krupnick [*an unverified, unsubstantiated  person who the Tribune feels is qualified to make these assessments*] used published information from the colleges to figure out what a family of four earning $130,000 a year would be asked to pay, taking into account financial aid grants, for a year at California State University at East Bay ($24,000), University of California at Santa Cruz ($33,000) and Harvard ($17,000).”

Now, the Tribune attempts to further substantiate their claims by incorporating the trump card of ever-affordable two-year degrees.

“Average debt for those who earn two-year degrees — and for those who take on debt but never manage to earn a degree — is considerably lower [than $27,000].”

Well hot dog – why aren’t we all in Technical School yet?

I’m probably one of the biggest advocates for higher education without the 4-year pedestal, but we’re not there yet as a society, in how we view Associates Degree education. We live in a reality where technical school and community college graduates do not have the same opportunities as “4-year college” graduates. In fact, 81.4% of students currently enrolled in 2-year programs have plans to transfer to a 4-year program. Furthermore, depleted federal funding has diminished the quality and accessibility of Community College education.

Although they arguably serve students with greater needs, community colleges spend far less per pupil than four-year institutions […] Between 1999 and 2009, the budget at public research universities increased by nearly $4,000 per pupil in inflation-adjusted dollars. Public community college budgets increased by $1 per pupil over the same period.

Here’s a specific list of all the things the Tribune has “tweaked” or otherwise mis-represented, to make college look like less of a national disaster:

Average Debt: The Tribune’s argument relies on the fact that the audience will hear “average debt” and think – “about accurate for most people”. It also assumes that the reader will understand “most people” to mean “a respresentative variety of people”. The article critically depends on readers either forgetting or not knowing that an “average” is almost never representative of the context and constituents of the situation. That’s why “median” and “mode” get a lot more play than “averages” in college statistics – schools don’t publish the “average” LSAT, GMAT, ACT, SAT scores or GPA’s – they publish the Median numbers, and they usually provide additional information to help give those numbers context – like the infamous 25-75% range. Colleges and Universities do this because all statistically based numbers must necessarily cut out the qualifying information that defines those numbers. Statistics is the art of simplifying complex issues into quantitative terms so that we can assess the situation with fewer considerations – with statistics, the winner is whatever number is more desirable. It’s cut and dry and totally objective because that’s the point of statistics. But by nature, those kinds of numbers are always a little misleading, and the ones in this article are no exception.

The majority of college students come from sound middle-class or upper-class backgrounds. Translation: they can afford to pay at least part of their tuition without loans. The fact that the Tribune used an example of a family of 4 making $130,000 speaks to this fact. (Remember – the national median Household Income is $45,018 for 2012) The majority of modern college students come from similarly situated homes – families who can afford to pay some or all of the cost of college out of pocket. This includes college-specific savings accounts –  a luxury of the upper-middle and upper classes. So this is the demographic that the Tribune’s loan-debt statistics – an average $27,000 annually – refer to.

Well, of course  students who come from families making a reliable $130,000 (or more) annually have an average loan debt of $27,000 – they’re not taking out loans for 100% of their education. A family making $130,000 annually actually falls into the top 10% of wealth distribution in America, so it is completely misleading to suggest that these numbers are representative of the college debt crisis.
(Now granted – perhaps the income-percentile statistics are skewed because the income-percentiles take into account people who aren’t working, can’t work, choose not to work, or are otherwise not active in the economy, which may make the low-end numbers seem lower than reality)

Economic mis-representation in the Statistical Sample: The students who are most seriously struggling with student-debt are not the students who are represented in these statistics, because they do not make up the majority of college students and therefore are not adequately represented in the “average”. These students are not just the very poor students (of which there are too few that aspire to or achieve post-secondary degrees of any kind), but also middle class students whose families have other financial obligations and cannot help with college.

The Tribune doesn’t include interest.  If that $27,000 debt is split evenly between Federal and Private loans, the student could pay up to an additional $3,000 annually in interest alone (depending on which congress they get setting the rates for their federal loans). That means a student paying $300 per month would only be paying $50 per month towards their principle balance, and the other $250 would be going towards interest – i.e., money they didn’t actually use on their education. At an entry level job that pays about $25,000 annually (a very standard starting salary for many college students), $300 per month is 14% of their annual income. So students may walk away from graduation with *just* $27,000 in debt, but by the end of their first year (if they are able to find a job), they will still have $26,400 in debt, having effectively paid only $600 off the total debt. At this rate, it will take them 45 years to get their balance to $0, though we all hope that their salary will increase and they will be able to pay off larger amounts, and maybe be debt-free by the time their children graduate college.

Community College is more complicated than a surface comparison. If attending two-year institutions is the silver-bullet for educational debt, why aren’t we all in tech schools, getting associates degrees. Could it be because of:

  • A) the incredible stigma against technical schools, as 4-year degrees have been put on an unsustainable pedestal,
  • B) the fact that two-year degrees offer a radically lower salary ceiling than 4-year degrees,  or
  • C) that when competing for jobs with 4-year degree candidates, it doesn’t matter how relevant their 2-year degree was or how much money they saved going to community college or tech school, the student with an Associates gets beat out by the idiot with the Bachelor’s (almost) every time.

The article makes a half-baked attempt to address this issue and essentially comes to the conclusion that bachelor’s degrees have a higher pay-off and social respectability, but that doesn’t make them the no-brainer choice.

“Certificates, two-year degrees and four-year degrees have very different requirements and knowing which is the right path is not always easy. That college pays off well on average, and that bachelor’s degrees pay off particularly well, doesn’t make that course right for everyone.”

I agree with the sentiment here – college is not right for everyone. And I stand by my assertion in earlier posts that we cannot agree to live in a world where all people absolutely need post-secondary education to contribute to the economy, have a sustainable job, and have a family. However, framing this argument by comparing the two, clearly favoring the 4-year degree and then encouraging people to still want the admittedly-inferior 2-year degree option, is counter-productive.

For-Profit Schools and Short-sighted students are to blame: The Tribune then claims that those few-and-far-between students who have accumulated more than $50,000 deserve our sympathy and concern… sort of. The article implies that the debt is not a problem in the system, but a problem with the short-sightedness of the student and the greediness of for-profit institutions.

” Look where you’re likely to find [students with more than $50,000 in debt]. In 2009, 30 percent of four-year college graduates who attended for-profit institutions had borrowed this much, but only 3 percent of graduates from public colleges and 8 percent from private nonprofit colleges had this much debt”

Though the article blames schools more than students,  it’s hard to miss the implication that the student could have (and should have) opted for an equally reputable school with a better financial aid set-up. This echoes an earlier point comparing the average student debt to a car loan. The Tribune then argues that, if students would take out comparable loans to buy a car without complaining about going into debt for it, why are we whining about similar numbers with regards to educational debt?

Car loans are not comparable to student loans. First of all, the Tribune fails to acknowledge that an 18 to 22 year old with sub-par or non-existent credit (i.e. – the majority of 18 to 22 year old’s), would never qualify for a $27,000 car loan. Young people don’t qualify for these kinds of loans because banks and car dealerships see the 18 to 22 year old’s as children with no concept of the harsh realities of the financial world. The banks and dealerships see these risk-indicators and reject the loan application because they recognize there is a strong chance the kid does not have the wherewithal to maintain fiscal responsibility for the loan.

Secondly, as The Atlantic so kindly pointed out recently, young people are not buying cars or other big-ticket items at all, largely because student loans have monopolized the modern student’s financial situation. And finally, of course, buying a car does not impact one’s lifelong economic potential the way a post-secondary degree does – so to suggest that each kind of debt should be treated with the same gravitas, is silly.

Somehow this article, and the whole Higher Education System doesn’t question whether it was unethical to take advantage of a bright-eyed kid with too few financial resources in the first place. In reality, the higher education system doles out huge debts to children and very young adults, without explaining the long-term consequences and obligations, without offering counseling and planning guides for how to handle the debt, and without providing comprehensive debt-repayment plans and career services, so that students can make good on their loans.

What about co-signors? Where are the parents? To answer the brewing counter argument – yes, I’m aware that parents often co-sign on both education and car loans. And if the parent comes from sound financial resources – then that parent probably has the wherewithal to explain credit, interest rates, debt, payment-plans, economics, and so forth. They can also probably help their child if s/he fails to make payments, for whatever reason. That is the purpose of a co-signer – to make sure the loan gets repaid even if the primary loan-holder can’t do it. If the parent is not financially sound, then there is a possibility that they are as uninformed as the child, and incapable of providing safety-net assistance if things go south after graduation.

Conclusions: So to recap, the Tribune used questionably verified information to demonstrate what an “average” family of four, making $130,000 annually would have to pay for a college education. We have assessed that income amount to be a skewed perception of the “average” student loan debt, and one which does not actually represent those students who struggle the most with educational debt. The people who are drowning in debt are disproportionately people from lower or middle socio-economic means which, also means that the student-debt crisis disproportionately effects minority students. And minority students do not make up the majority of college students. Do we see the circularity here?

The point is that, college is still the ticket to a high-paid job, and no one disputes that. But to suggest, as this article does, that there isn’t really a problem, that people are over-estimating student debt, and that, in fact, students are doing fine, is to completely marginalize all the people who have been duped by the higher education system and have taken on unsustainable debt, as they entered into a down-economy. Students and families are struggling because the system is broken – there is no reason that 4-year research institutions get more federal help than community colleges, and there’s no reason that tuition goes up as professor salaries and career prospects for graduates decline. Tweaking the facts and mis-representing the statistics does not make the educational debt situation any less of a national disaster.

NYC Increases Standardized Testing

New York prides itself on being a leader in educational reform – sponsoring massive overhauls, limiting teacher’s unions tenure-guarantee, and quantifying the knowledge students learn each year into scores. New York City is a leader in the testing movement – applying standards and ‘objective’ measures to weed out ineffective teachers and school administrators. Largely catalyzed by No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the model NYC follows heavily emphasizes reading and math skills, limiting the instruction of other disciplines and punishing schools and teachers if scores do not improve. For example, at its inception in 2001, NCLB set a goal of 100% proficiency in reading and math by 2014 and promised penalties to be enacted against any school which did not meet this goal (This expectation is absolute, and includes students with special-needs, ESL students, and homeless or otherwise under-priveleged students). But New York City has taken a new turn – testing for testing’s sake. The city has begun imposing additional standardized tests which have no assessment value – they do not indicate proficiency levels – and are comprised strictly of guinea-pig questions.

Most standardized tests have experimental sections – questions or sections which don’t count towards the student’s score, but serve as these guinea-pig questions for future tests. It helps test-makers weed out questions that are too confusing, to obscure, or otherwise unclear. When these questions make up the entire test, those tests are called ‘field-tests’. Field tests have no effect on the student taking them at all – they are used only to measure questions for the benefit of the test-maker.  Field tests are usually spread out among many different schools, in many different cities, environments, levels, etc – so as to offer the most representative experimental sample and to avoid over-burdening schools and students with bureaucratic processes. The intent is to make sure that each question gives the student a fair and likely chance of answering correctly; the hope is that using field-tests will improve scores across the board by removing confounding factors.

However, NYC has initiated new field-tests city-wide – to be taken by every school, at every level throughout the city. Given that students already undergo multiple standardized tests throughout the year (not including practice tests teachers offer to make sure their students are on track, and their jobs are secure), it seems exorbitant to impose more testing – especially when the tests have zero relevance or value for the students taking them. So why would NYC impose something so unpopular? Why would it willingly and publicly incur the wrath of NYC parents and activist groups?

Interestingly, New York City has a $32 million contract with Pearson – a big-time testing company. Not quite a Princeton Review or Kaplan powerhouse, but nonetheless a formidable presence, especially in the K-12 standardized testing world. And it was only subsequent to this contract that the New York City Board of Education has imposed additional standardized tests – field tests – in order to help Pearson best develop tests for the New York City school system.

So, to summarize: For the last 10 years, NYC has offered rigorous, frequent standardized tests which measured student proficiency and achievement and held inept teachers and administrators accountable. The results have been disappointing, if not wholly negative – students perform about as well now as they did 10 years ago, though the achievement gap has widened, due to school closures in low-performing (read: minority and impoverished) districts. NYC has now entered into a multi-million dollar contract which is intended to make the test scores better – put another way: NYC is paying Pearson to make the city’s extensive and invasive school reforms look better.

NCLB’s aspiration to create educational accountability by imposing statewide standards has one very large flaw that NYC has illuminated: standards and accountability are only reliable if the standard is immutable. If you can change the standard to improve your results (i.e., hire a testing company to create better tests which will “help” students do better on standardized tests), then what are you measuring with that standard? The ability to quantify a student’s aptitude loses its credibility when one state quantifies it differently from another state.

In her book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch provides this example to underline how meaningless standards have become:

In Texas, which was the model for No Child Left Behind,[…] the passing rates on the ninth-, tenth-, and eleventh-grade tests steadily increased. But when eleventh-grade students were asked to write a short answer about a text they were given to read, half of them were stumped. Whether in low-performing districts or high-achieving ones, students were unable to write a thoughtful response to a question that asked them to present evidence from what they read. They had mastered the art of filling in the bubbles on multiple-choice tests, but they could not express themselves, particularly when a question required them to think about and explain what they had just read.

Which leads me to ask – what exactly are those tests testing?

All of the standardized tests given under the umbrella of NCLB are based on the new “Common Core” – a general standard which is supposed to determine what specific things children in public schools should know by various grade levels. According to the Common Core website, for example, students in the 6-12th grade should be able to

Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.

This statement implies that students will be doing an analysis, in which case the expectations laid out are perfectly reasonable, even if they are uselessly vague. However, the students are afforded no opportunity to analyze in a multiple choice exam – they are only offered other analyses and taught testing-tricks: how to identify ‘fake’ answers, how to tackle different ‘question stems’ and how to diagram paragraphs for easy reference. Which explains why, when asked to think and respond in writing, students in Texas were stumped.

In NYC (and most of the country, right now), there are only tests, and multiple choice tests, at that. This is an arguable method for calculation-based questions, but any fan of literature and the literary arts will advocate for essays or discussions in place of tests. They will ask, as I’m asking now, how can you measure a person’s understanding of language if you prevent them from using the language they have (supposedly) learned in order to explain their answers?

And yet, on the testing-advocates press – citing standards and accountability – to impose more tests, more penalties, and more privatization of the public education system. Now these advocates are going so far as to hire a large test-making company to design and implement tests in a thinly veiled attempt to save the testing-movement from the harsh reality of their results by changing the standards.  It’s no wonder Mayor Bloomberg faces some staunch opposition in the Mayoral race. And it’s no wonder that dozens of NYC school principals have decided to send back the field-test packets – unopened.

Summary of a Brilliant Idea: BRAC

The NY Times published an op-ed article written by Tina Rosenberg entitled, “Where Private School is not a Privilege”, which describes how private school education is both free and accessible in many developing countries. Even though it is located in the “opinion” section, this article pretty much just relays the facts about emerging private school systems in developing countries, namely schools created and run by one company, BRAC. The article is fantastic. But even more fantastic is the fact that BRAC (and other entrepreneurs of education) even exists.

My post here is really to just summarize the highlights in hopes that all education enthusiasts will take a serious look at these methods. Obviously many of the methods and practices are not wholly compatible with Western educational systems and educational expectations, but the attitudes which have driven these new methods into existence are 150% applicable and necessary, if we are serious about improving our local school systems.

BRAC is a non-profit institution that started out in Bangladesh and is spreading rapidly to other countries. It is funded in part by humanitarian donors from large, rich countries, but mostly through the various businesses and stocks the company has acquired on its journey:

Dairy farmers needed milk chilling stations, so BRAC built them; BRAC dairy now has 22 percent of Bangladesh’s milk market. BRAC’s programs needed Internet connections; BRACnet is now one of the country’s largest Internet service providers.

BRAC’s mission: to education very rural, very poor, populations in developing countries by addressing all of the obstacles that prevent these communities from attending school, directly. While issues like affordability and access are well-established inhibitors to education in a developing country, less well-known factors include racial or ethnic discrimination, sexism and sexual harassment  as well as various forms of abuse from male teachers. Rosenberg sums up these basic improvements:

Teachers are female. The schools aggressively recruit girls, who make up two-thirds of the student body. Ethnic minorities study in their own language for the first few years; disabled children receive free surgery and medical devices. Each village has a school; “the school goes to the children; the children don’t come to the school,” said Safiqul Islam, BRAC’s director of education.

The general aura of a BRAC school is of the Montessori-mold – fewer grades, fewer standardized tests, and tons of focus on individual improvement. Teachers in these schools give their kids regular tests, but rarely let the students view their scores – instead, teachers use the scores to assess where their methods are strong or weak and what concepts individual students are struggling with.  

BRAC selects teachers from the local communities and give them two weeks of training before the school year begins. While BRAC sometimes comes under fire for hiring women who teach through song and dance, rather than rote memorization and textbooks, and who have less than a high school diploma, but BRAC insists that quality teachers are not always those with the highest degrees and formal training.

Additionally, BRAC schedules each school’s academic year and day based on the work schedules of the community. Days are short – only three or four hours, and they are respectful of the harvest and planting seasons in these communities – many of which rely on agriculture as the major industry.

Perhaps most crucially, is the long-term student-teacher bond: teacher’s work with the same group of students from 1st grade until 5th grade. When that batch of students graduates and moves onto secondary school, the teachers begin anew with a new set of students. I can’t underline this point enough – consistent student-teacher interaction necessarily makes the group more cohesive and likely makes the curriculum more interesting for the teacher to teach. 

Early returns are very positive – BRAC students graduate the 5th grade at 97%, compared with only 67% of public school children. They perform better on tests and generally have confidence and interest in school – all of which are intangible qualities that set these children up for success once they enter government-run secondary schools.

All in all, I think we can learn a lot about how to make education work by molding it to our communities, rather than trying to mold our communities to the educational system. Rather than trying to streamline all communities to fit one cultural/educational model, each school specifically addresses and incorporates the culture, industry, practices, strengths and weaknesses of the community the school serves. The result is a more integrated, practical, and inclusive school model which is not only more successful, but more popular and more respected within the community.

Degrees to Dollars: The (lack of a) Connection Between Education and Economic Success

It is widely accepted that there has been a definitive inflation in the educational currency: Today, we need a post-secondary degree to get the same economic and social security that a High School Degree once promised; tomorrow we will need post-graduate degrees to get where we are now, and by Thursday, we’ll be creating artificial, new delineations and symbols of achievement to get back to where we were yesterday.

In the Michigan Education Summit last week, Gov. Rick Snyder stressed the importance of schools’ collaboration with businesses in order to boost the economy. He made the obvious point that educators and employers should be on the same page and should be working towards the same goals – creating and harnessing an adaptable, capable, and employable workforce. In concrete educational terms, this means restructuring the way we approach education: moving away from general knowledge – math, language, science, English, history, arts, sports – and gearing the K-12 curriculum towards concrete skills. Traditional teachers tend to disagree with this approach, because they value the skill of learning over specific craft-based skills and, in Michigan at least, it seems that craft-based skills and the skill of learning are treated as mutually exclusive commodities.

Snyder said the education system often does a good job of “giving people knowledge” – but more needs to be done in terms of making connections early on between potential employers and potential employees. Snyder also says education needs to become more practical and specific to employment needs, saying there’s now a “mismatch” going on. The evidence: Michigan still has an unemployment rate higher than 8 percent. But there are roughly 60,000 open jobs listed on the state’s mitalent.org website.
“If we fill those 60,000 jobs, we drop our unemployment rate by about one-and-a-half percentage points,” Snyder said. “That’s a lot. So we need to do something different.”

Gov. Snyder’s approach assumes that education’s primary role is to be a vehicle for economic success, and rejects the current educational system because there is no easy-to-formulate way to connect general knowledge with economic success. This take on education is borne out of rose-colored nostalgia for an older America. In the older America, a publicly funded K-12 educational system could create well-trained, well-adapted graduates who walked from the podium into the workforce – almost literally trading their High School diplomas for income, economic stability, and social flexibility. By that yardstick, we’ve lost a lot of value in our education. The walk from the podium to the workforce has gotten longer and harder, the carrot at the end of the stick has gotten smaller, and social mobility found therein has become brittle. Most traditional teachers would argue that “being educated” is necessarily an intangible standard – and there is no point in assigning a direct dollar amount to the value of our schools. Unfortunately, however, education has become a social currency as much as a professional currency – the term “well educated” implies “well-bred” as often as it implies “employable”, and well-bred people have historically been the affluent members of society. And so it’s inevitable that we place a dollar value on our education – it’s a long-standing cultural perception that education begets social mobility and, with that, economic stability.

So what happened to that older America, where educational values and economic success were aligned? I’m no educational historian, but it is widely accepted that there has been a definitive inflation in the educational currency: Today, we need a post-secondary degree to get the same economic and social security that a High School Degree once promised; tomorrow we will need post-graduate degrees to get where we are now, and by Thursday, we’ll be creating artificial, new delineations and symbols of achievement to get back to where we were yesterday.

This inflation has reached an unsustainably high peak, and we will inevitably enter an educational recession. Really, we’ve already begun the descent – public schools (exclusively in low-income, urban areas – always the first to feel the brunt of an economic downturn) are closing in record numbers because there aren’t enough students to keep them open. There aren’t enough students because the schools are incapable of meeting the quality demands of their communities. At the Educational Summit, Gov. Snyder concluded that it’s time to proactively pop the educational bubble, and address the educational recession, rather than waiting for the system to implode and leave students and communities without viable learning facilities. The proposed pin-prick is to incorporate business incentives and vocational training into our K-12 educational system. Because businesses are, presumably, more objective and more efficiency oriented, they could quickly weed out ineffective topics and useless lessons – a business approach could “cut the fat” in a way that an abstract, idealist approach to education has so far failed to do. In concrete terms, this means a reduction of “general knowledge” classes – art, music, literature, philosophy, film, humanities, – any class or topic that is not directly tied to the student’s eventual salary. It also means that schools would begin to better represent business interests, so as to secure businesses’ investments. Supporters hope that “representing business interests” will translate into “teaching a more employable curriculum” and that “securing business investments” will translate into “more funding for schools”.

So where do you start this kind of massive educational overhaul? I think most people would instinctively answer, “at failing schools”. I think that’s the most popular answer because, when we take something that we perceive as already broken, we believe it to be a low-risk, high-reward option. These schools have already failed their students and their communities – they cannot get any worse. Implicitly, they can only get better. This is the same logic that led to a massive influx of charter schools in failing districts – if there is nowhere to go but up, then why not try something new? As the charter school experiment ages and we have more evidence with which to measure its success, however, we see more that the measure of “school success” does not just move “up” and “down” – there is the possibility of no movement at all, i.e., a stagnant school system. In many districts, charter schools have not improved student or teacher performance – nor have the diminished student or teacher performance. With few exceptions, the measure of achievement pre- and post-charter school has remained stagnant, which suggests that it is not just the leadership and management of a school which needs to change in order to turn a “failing school” into a “functioning school”. In order to improve school performance, there has to be a change in the way the community interacts with the educational system, so that “school” is not just a place kids go during the day, but a place where students make progress, individually and in their communities. Unfortunately, the “it can only get better” mentality has fragmented communities – transforming singular communities with shared problems which were symbolically and effectively represented through their school districts, into piece-meal communities with dozens of different problems and interests and no unified identity, no unified funding, and most importantly, no unified power as voters to effect change in their school systems. Because charter schools are privatized, free from the politics of government regulated school boards, they are effectively free from the power of the people as voters.

It seems disingenuous that the areas in which we’re always trying these magical educational remedies are disproportionately low-income, racial minority communities. In Michigan, these communities have been injected with Charter Schools – the state’s first attempt to curb a widespread epidemic of failing educational institutions. Now, 20 years after Michigan opened it’s first Charter Schools, Michigan has decided to test a different remedy – the business-run school. The business-run school is just a variation on a theme that has already been vetted by the charter movement – replace ineffective management and the company will thrive. The business-run version, however, also seeks to modify the school system’s product – instead of just “knowledge”, K-12 public education will now (hopefully) offer effective vocational training and fewer distractions (read: arts).

But where does that leave these communities? Lansing has already eliminated all arts, music, and physical education teachers, though it has yet to welcome a CEO as principle. Amongst many teachers, the outcry is that we are no longer interested in teaching students how to learn, but only how to do specific tasks. The danger, as any liberal arts graduate will tell you, is that skills have a shelf-life that is directly linked to the industry the skill applies to; industries change on a whim. Learning, on the other hand, is immortal, because it’s independent of industry, market, or circumstance. Obviously the ability to “learn” is a life skill that you cannot replace with any number of vocational tasks, however, it also requires a lot more leg-work from the get-go, and there is no way to directly correlate a student’s ability to learn with their eventual economic success. And in an economic recession like the one we’re currently experiencing, there is always a greater push to see a dramatic and direct correlation between hard-work and money. And because business is all about the money, Gov. Snyder hopes that this explicit and public alliance of business and school will draw clear and definitive lines to connect our educational degrees with the dollars we make.

Unfortunately, I can’t tell where this alliance will end up. On the one hand, I fully and adamantly support vocational training in schools – particularly for students who actively and loudly dislike school, whatever the reason. On the other hand, there are students in high-performing public schools who also dislike school and fail to excel academically – why don’t we start these initiatives in those institutions? The stakes may be higher, but a successful alliance of business and education in a high performance setting would indicate a genuine success – not a lesser of two evils. It would also indicate that the state was interested in providing students with a choice – not a mandate.

My arguments against this fall into 5 basic categories:

1) I feel strongly that students with far-reaching academic aspirations should not be pigeon-holed into a career as a welder because they failed English their freshman year of high school. I feel equally strongly that a student who aspires to be, first and foremost, economically stable, should not be forced to study obscure poetry.

2) Incorporating vocational training into K-12 schools could ciphon off “academic” kids from “vocational” kids at an age where physical, emotional, and mental maturity have not been reached. It sets the state up to be like the bad guys in the “Ugly Duckling” fairytale – judging students before they can be fairly or objectively judged on their own merits, when they have grown into themselves.

3) Skills training runs the risk of forgetting to teach students, or at least undermining the importance of teaching lessons like, “how to solve a problem” or “how to resolve a conflict”; “how to think” and “how to view the world from a new perspective”. Without those lessons, the world may become a more polarized, bigoted place because we will not have taught our students how to approach the world with questions, but instead to ignore and dismiss things beyond their immediate usefulness.

4) K-12 students represent their parenting and the merits of their upbringing much more than their own personalities, values, and merits. That’s true across all socio-economic and racial boundaries and we shouldn’t judge students or treat groups differently for the shortcomings or problems that plagued their parents. It is one of the reasons we have a (more or less) nationalized school curriculum – to ensure that no student is being held back due to circumstances beyond their control.

5) In the last 60 years, education has been strongly connected to other social changes and it would be foolish to begin a new approach to education reform by ignoring these realities.  While rose-colored glass makes the American educational system of the 1950’s look like a global powerhouse, it overlooks facts of segregation, sexism, and extremely high unemployment rates post-high school graduation for minorities. We have embraced more equality, letting more people into the academic and workforce markets, and now we are grappling with the social issues that play out for those contingencies behind-the-scenes – chronic poverty, unstable homes, and urban gentrification. These issues prevent many communities from participating in the educational and economic arenas at their fullest potential and these issues are almost exclusively within the jurisdiction of the government to fix. Any educational reform which does not pointedly address these issues cannot really “reform” anything – it can only change the players and the actors from students and teachers to vocational students and MBA principals.

If you have any thoughts on how businesses might impact public schools, positively or negatively, please feel free to educate me. For now, I’m digesting all the possible outcomes and hoping for the best.

How Do You Solve a Problem Like School Districts?

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In Washtenaw County, there are 6 miles and 91 percentage points between Community High School and Ypsilanti High School. What gives?

School districts aren’t run by politicians – they’re run by independent special-purpose governments, known as school boards, which answer to (but are fiscally and administratively distinct from) local governments. Within each larger school district, there are smaller districts, which determine which specific school you will go to, based on your location. This image is a representation of all the school districts in Washtenaw County, where I live. For perspective, I live in the center of the Ann Arbor Public School District, and I can get to Ypsilanti in about 10 minutes.

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The Michigan Department of Education releases an annual study which ranks all schools and districts in Michigan, called the Top to Bottom List. Aside from the uninspired title, this list ranks schools across the state not just the county, and even just assessing high school – grades 9-12 – the disparity is shocking. On page 1 of 107 of the report, we see Community High School in Ann Arbor ranks in the 99th percentile in the state. Untitled

On page 99 of 107, we see Ypsilanti High School, in Ypsilanti, ranks in the 8th percentile in the state. These schools are 6 miles apart.Ypsilanti High School - Top to Bottom Ranking

Looking through the entire report, we can see similar disparities in all the counties across Michigan. The disparities themselves don’t come as a surprise – we all know that there are poor schools and then there are rich schools. The type of school depends on the income of the neighborhood in which that school is located. It comes down to property taxes and the parents financial and work-related flexibility to be involved in fund-raising. What I think is remarkable about this particular disparity, is that there are only 6 miles between the two schools. Six miles and 91 percentage points. What happens in that six miles stretch?

Let’s compare and contrast Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor:

  •  Ann Arbor is buzzing hub of cultural activity and the quintessential “college town” – dozens of boutiques and micro-brewerys, constant musical events, arts-festivals, diversity celebrations, political speakers, and, of course, the one and only University of Michigan. Everyone in the area generally loves Ann Arbor – it’s a liberal, open-minded place with an intense sense of community and locality and homegrown pride in the great state of Michigan.
  • Ypsilanti is more of a working-class cultural hub – it has its own, less popular festivals and events, unique (but much more reasonably priced) boutiques, celebrations of diverse cultures, and even its very own University – Eastern Michigan University. But viewed from the rest of Michigan, Ypsilanti has a bad reputation. At 8.68%, it’s violent crime rate is approximately double the Michigan average of 4.45%, and property values are almost half what they are in Ann Arbor. Ypsilanti has some very nice neighborhoods, but the general perception from Michigan residents living outside of Ypsi (and even, to a degree, living in Ypsi) is that living in Ypsilanti is a step down from living in Ann Arbor. And that mentality shows in the family income levels and the overall success of students in the Ypsilanti school district.

So how can we rectify this disparity – the 91 percentage points? Out of habit, we blame those who administer education – the school administrators and teachers. If we blame these groups, and their presiding school boards (those independent, specialized governments I mentioned earlier), then the obvious solution is to do away with poisonous public school management systems and implement the untainted Charter schools. Michigan has made huge strides in Charter education, especially in Detroit. The state of Michigan believed that Detroit desperately needed school-choice options student achievement was chronically deplorable and the achievement gap for Detroit families was not just a Policy-making term, but an every-day reality for the majority of students attending public school in detroit.

In 2011, 7 percent of Detroit 8th graders achieved grade-level proficiency in reading, and only 4 percent achieved grade-level proficiency in math

About half of all Detroit students eventually enrolled in Charter Schools, and unfortunately, nothing changed.

Charter schools are funded on a per-student basis, not to exceed the amount of per-student government funding provided to public schools. So coming from the government, the contribution is the same – this is supposed to be the control factor which then allows us to judge school and teacher effectiveness by results, rather than by funding margins. But Charter schools are generally perceived as better-funded – why is that?

As private companies, Charter schools can supplement the per-student allowance provided by the government with private profits. Due to the theoretically increased funding and the fact that Charter schools are not bound by the same government and union regulations as public schools, the idea is that the alternative operates more efficiently and effectively. But there are pretty substantial overhead costs for schools, even if the charter school company doesn’t build a brand new facility. Students need desks, white-boards, text books, supplies, access to computers, special education services, etc – all in addition to qualified teachers, staff, and stimulating curriculum. In Detroit, the theoretically increased funding doesn’t go very far towards making a difference in the academic outcomes. This is not true for all charter schools or all charter-heavy districts – but it is a fact for Detroit.

Now, let’s be clear – the failure of Charter schools in Detroit doesn’t mean that, prior to Charter-izing Detroit, the public schools were well-run and effective, and somehow the government completely mis-diagnosed the problem. Clearly there were, and are, many management and administrative issues facing the school boards. But the failure of charter schools hints at three distinct aspects of the educational debate that Policy-Implementers have neglected so far: First, that the problem is multi-faceted and must be addressed with multi-faceted solutions. Especially in cities which have storied histories regarding labor, unions, entrepreneurship, inventive-ness, and racial discrimination, like Detroit, it is absolutely absurd to claim that changing the names and the faces involved in school district will somehow correct the problems within that school district. That was a worthwhile tactic a decade ago, not anymore.  Secondly, we cannot dissociate students from their success. We are not going to correct the achievement gap by plucking under-achieving students out of failing schools and transplanting them in new schools. They will not, and have not, just magically become academic all-stars. We have to address the long-standing issues, habits, and deficiencies that the sub-par school system had already bred into them and we must encourage them to become agents in their own academic success, rather than addressing the problem as if school were a phenomenon that just “happens” to kids, rather than an activity in which they partake. And thirdly, we must recognize and admit that “divide-and-conquer” is not an effective strategy. In principle, downsizing is an effective way to manage tight budgets. Since we can’t discharge thousands of students from the school system the way a business might lay-off employees, splitting school districts into multiple, smaller charter districts is the educational variation of down-sizing. But this method has put school districts deeply into debt, up-rooted kids from their communities, and given them teachers who are often ignorant of and unprepared to cope with the academic issues and difficult circumstances with which most of their students grapple.

To improve education, we have to start looking at the actual causes of the problems, rather than focusing on the simplest solution (deposing school boards).

So what do I think we should do?

I think we should try the other extreme – let’s pool resources. I think it’s worth a try to combine school districts into larger groups, using shared facilities and personnel resources. Share bus-systems, share math teachers, open communal facilities – the idea in my head is based largely on a Pomona College in California type of set-up – several different schools, all under the same umbrella which share resources and facilities and funding, but each of which has its own focus and flavor. They are independent and unique but they are part of a community and so they depend on and assist each other. We could, in this regard, make school districts less about neighborhoods and more about communities – we could put disparate neighborhoods in touch with each other, which might help to alleviate the harsh perceptions some Ann Arbor residents have towards Ypsilanti, and visa versa. It could also cut down on overhead expenses like sports facilities and bus systems. But most of all, it would allow for vocational and academic specializations within a single community. We could offer students the ability to attend the technical high school while still offering them the opportunity to engage in academia if they were interested, and visa versa. We have so divided “skills” training from “academic” training and with it we have emboldened the achievement gap. Vocational training and academic training are just variations on a theme, and the theme is economic stability and social mobility.

Rather than further marginalize students who are already under-achieveing by dividing them up and throwing them into charter schools, which are also under-achieving, why don’t we try to create an inclusive community school district in which students and families are all tangibly related to each other’s success?

Now,  I usually refrain from making my own suggestions for solutions because I’m sure there are a MILLION reasons, which I have not considered or am not aware of, that make this a bad idea, impractical, unethical, etc. I offer my silly ideas up on a platter this time because I want to demonstrate the fact that we are absolutely failing to even consider options like the one I suggested. We are determined to do the same ineffective thing over and over and expect different results – we are pouring money into a broken school system (nationally $11,000 per student annually), dividing schools into smaller and smaller pieces, and not even touching on the pressing issues in student achievement. So while I know my idea isn’t great and it’s rife with issues – I am at least suggesting something other than “more funding!”, “more teachers!”, “more choices!”, “gut the unions!”, or my favorite conservative thought on the subject: “screw them!”.

So I’d love to hear everyone’s wild and crazy ideas for an outside-of-the-box educational system for students under 18 years old, and I’d love you all to tell me exactly what’s wrong with my model.

Gerry Canavan – The MOOC’s are not out for your job.

MOOC’s are largely uncharted territory, great for some subjects/teachers/students, terrible for some, and so-so for the rest. There are hundreds of issues and complications which make it a difficult pedagogical forum, and most everyone who engages in this debate acknowledges that. In fact, I think you would be hard pressed to find an intelligently written article which ignored the issues with MOOC’s and instead encouraged the eventual demise of traditional academia. To participate intelligently in the debate over the future direction of education, specifically of post-secondary education, necessarily means that we assess the strengths and weaknesses of the “tried-and-true” University system. Unless you wear rose-colored glasses to class every day, it’s clear that traditional higher education is rife with issues: tenure politics, low-quality graduate TA’s, “professors” who are really researchers, student income disparity, racial and religious inequity and underrepresentation, exorbitant student loan debt, inadequate course availability, sub-par retention and completion rates, unaddressed social tensions and tragedies, artificial admissions criteria, subjective coursework quotas, a complete lack of inter-institutional standardization, student laziness and partying, name-school vs. state-school recognition, inadequate job preparation and career placement – these are just a few of the issues that existed at my small, private, midwestern alma mater.  I would be surprised if other universities could honestly claim that they don’t share these deficiencies.

This post is a response to the blog pose “Some Preliminary Theses on MOOC’s”, by Gerry Canavan. In summary, Mr. Canavan argues that Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC’s) are a detriment to the academic profession because they seek to unilaterally dismiss the historical significance of the university and abolish a model which we have depended upon for so long. He argues that MOOC’s are an unsustainable and  format for education and that we have resigned ourselves to their existence because we lack faith in our economy.

So, Mr. Canavan… the tone for most of the essay was condescending, hyperbolic, and under-researched – only in the last, paragraph did you deign to acknowledge one or two attributes to MOOC’s, presenting a more balanced picture of the issue with reasonable examples. The combination of the dismissive tone and the evidence you do not offer presents you, the author, as an academic elitist bitterly feeling the mortality of your profession. But if you take a walk outside of your academic bubble, you will see that this “mortality” is in form only. As our social consciousness changes and our social dialogue begins to assume and take for granted a communal desire for global egalitarianism across all sectors, industries, people, and nations, “academia” will become perceived as an industry rather than some kind of Platonic Form; education will begin to participate in the general economy in a more practical, accessible, and well-funded way, which is good for professors as well as students. All of which is to say:

Gerry Canavan – the MOOC’s are not out for your job.

First and absolute foremost, I reject your premise that the economic conditions will “reset”. That’s not an economically sound statement because economies don’t “reset” – we can’t press a button and start from scratch. We live on a continuum and that’s a complicated place to live. The world experiences recessions, makes adjustments accordingly, which then bring the world out of the recession. Depending on the flavor of the particular recession and the social climate, our specific adjustments are different – sometimes heavy-handed governments (Obama), sometimes not (Van Buren). But to suggest that we should make no adjustments and the economy will somehow “reset” itself is not only absurd, but its ignorant of how economics fundamentally function. Though I will not say continue to address this point later, I consistently reject your economic analysis of the MOOC situation because all of your arguments in this vein stem from this logic. The underlying argument is hyperbolic and uninformed and does not have a place in an academic discussion.

Your first main point is that MOOC’s use “computers, and the Internet? What could be more future-oriented than that?” Shockingly, this comment is satire and an effort to condemn the “futuristic” educational ideal of a MOOC. But it’s true – by their nature, MOOC’s are primarily forward-looking. However, your comment implies that the future-oriented focus results only from the technology on which MOOC’s are based. This assumption overlooks the more intangible, but far more relevant focus of MOOC’s – cosmopolitanism and the global conversation. MOOC’s are forward-looking and “future-oriented” primarily because they seek to break down cultural and economic barriers to information and education. Furthermore, while you are mistaken to treat “future-oriented” as a synonym to “end-of-history fantasy”, in fact MOOC’s do seek to end certain parts of history. Through educational accessibility and the expansion of literacy, MOOC’s and other global education projects seek to end the parts of human history where learning is censored, education is an aristocratic endeavor, and knowledge is a luxury. This kind of forward movement depends on historical issues – it seeks to identify and correct the inadequacies in that history. When you suggest that the MOOC pedagogical method is delinquent because it doesn’t focus on the past, you are not only completely missing the point of MOOC’s and an incredible opportunity as an academic, but you’re also working against your own purported principles – that “the entire point of the academy is discovery and dialogue”. You cannot shut down the dialogue about modifying higher education with derisive and sarcastic remarks and simultaneously claim to be a champion of dialogue and discovery.

The MOOC mission, as it is stated by MOOC giant Coursera is:

  We want to empower people with education that will improve their lives, the lives of their families, and the communities they live in

As far as I can tell, this does not speak to technology or future-orientation at the expense of our tried-and-true lessons. It speaks to an new ideal for education and a new forum through which to attain it.

You proceed to make the argument that MOOC’s depend on a non-existent “surety and fixidity of our current academic knowledge, but the point of the academy is discovery and dialogue.”
First, whatever the academy’s “point” is (and since academia is as old as the written word, don’t you think it’s a little arrogant to assume you know the whole “point” of the field, even if you went to Duke?) it’s hard to argue that there are fixed aspects to any curriculum, industry, or discipline, and it would be pretentious to claim otherwise. In fact, in all courses up to and including undergraduate studies, most courses are largely fixed in their content. If that weren’t the case, we wouldn’t have standardized tests, graduation requirements, GED’s, or majors and minors.  We mandate those things because we believe there are certain fixed aspects of each discipline that students should learn in order to be proficient in the field.  For quantitative disciplines it’s a little more straightforward than the humanities and arts, but the rule holds across the board. For example, there is some general assent about what constitutes a Shakespeare class because every English major in the world has to take at least one. Clearly academics depend on some surety and it’s hyperbolic and self-defeating to say that they don’t.
Second, I would argue that, for many people seeking affordable higher education, “discovery and dialogue” are no longer the purposes of higher education. Perhaps it’s the purpose of academia in theory and in history – but we live in a world based on practice and economics. We live in a world where people learn insofar as they need to complete certain tasks or else insofar as the subject interests them. For some, the task at hand is simply “to learn” – and those are the scholars and the professors, the researchers and the academics. That contingency of people is not going to magically disappear, and neither will the professions they engage in – namely teaching. Suggesting that the teaching profession will soon become extinct because of the advent of the MOOC reminds me of the suggestion that the occupation of Motherhood would disappear with the advent of an independent female labor force.  It’s a suggestion that’s borne out of fear for change and is not based on reality or an objective analysis of society’s needs, and the world’s cultural ebb and flow.

For your third argument about the eventual demise of the academic world – your points are both illogical and contradictory. First, let me speak to the theme that runs through your rant: you believe that the academic profession loses its value when MOOC’s are widely accessible and the course content taught therein is generally accepted as on-par with the course content taught in a traditional classroom. Specifically, you raise concerns about the replication of professors to perpetuate the academic profession as a result of MOOC’s.

Both points are illogical. First, though a MOOC can consist of 10,000 students, it is extremely unlikely that 10,000 students pass, or even stay in the class. In this regard, there will not be a sudden over-saturation of the market where we are plagued with 6 billion people waving around bachelor’s degrees with no way to differentiate between traditional and MOOC diplomas, thereby diminishing the value of “real” academia. Second, the fact that more people have access to higher education does not diminish the likelihood of future students becoming professors – these are unrelated phenomena, that happen to occur in the same academic sphere.

But in the event that you are, for some reason, still responding to the idea that giants like Coursera are right-wing plots to end liberal indoctrination and ‘out-source’ (perhaps better titled ‘digi-source’?) your job to “MOOC-ers”, please let me reiterate this point:

THE MOOC’S ARE NOT AFTER YOUR JOB.

Speaking to your point about the administration of MOOC’s… well, honestly you’re just over-thinking it. The people in charge of the administrative tasks for MOOC’s would be the same as the administrative team that handles University life, class registration, non-profit educational funds, or really any other business. Administrative executives just might be the easiest thing to come by. And yes – perhaps some of them will have engaged in rampant MOOC-ery. I have faith that they will carry out the duties of their profession beautifully, despite that black mark on their conscious.

Judging by your harsh rhetoric and the fact that you did not incorporate any concrete examples into your essay, I assume that you’ve never participated in a MOOC – either as a student or as a professor. Maybe this is principle-driven, maybe not. If it’s principle-driven, then it completely undermines your very last point, “I don’t oppose the MOOC form in principle”. If it’s not, then you’re speaking from a place of willful ignorance. Either way, you should go ahead and try it – even professors can expand their knowledge and their interests with a free, no-pressure class through Coursera. The world of MOOC’s doesn’t have to just be about getting “the degree”. It’s largely about leisure learning – I should know, I do as much leisure learning as I possible can, through books, my blog, NPR, and Coursera.

So Mr. Canavan – rather than tell the world everything that is terrible and destructive about MOOC’s, your time would be better spent convincing the world that we still need small-town professors. Do not tell me all the things a MOOC is not. Tell me all the things that traditional university is. Because, frankly, your argument comes across as bitter and irrational. There are many more positive impacts you could have on the academic world if chose to advocate for those causes, like advocating for the hiring more young professors; making tenure rules more logical and less like a French union; cutting administrative costs; expanding social and psychological resources; increasing career advancement for graduates. These are all qualities that are absolutely unique to the traditional system – perhaps it’s time that academics did a little reflection and fixed the places where traditional university is broken before they start throwing stones at the MOOC house.

‘Girls’ is Self-Indulgent B.S.

I’ll give Lena Dunham credit for the honesty and accuracy of the title of her show, ‘Girls’ (as opposed to titling it “women”). I give her credit for her unorthodox casting – namely herself – and her all-or-nothing approach to the storyline. I give her credit for paying heed to an often-overlooked segment of society – the group of twenty-somethings for whom the term “First World Problems” was coined. I give her credit for being fearless in her defense of everything ‘Girls’ and I will absolutely give her credit for creating an incredibly addictive and well-written drama – soap-opera, really.

But, as a twenty-four year old woman, a living relic of the “twenty-something” narrative (a term I’m beginning to hate), I really can’t call ‘Girls’ realistic, honest, or truthful. In fact, I think it could be totally damaging to the overly-impressionable psyches of young people, fresh out of college, and too green to know which way is up.

This post is a diddy that has nothing to do with the state of education, except that I think speaks pretty loudly to my very early point about Recent College Grad’s sense of entitlement towards and mis-perceptions of the “real world”.

 My gripe with ‘Girls’ is that it wants to make 20-30 year old people – but mostly women – more selfish, more immature, more impetuous, less responsible, and less foresightful than they really are – because that’s the only audience who will tolerate this soap-opera parading as a dramatic representation of reality. I argue that ‘Girls’ turns back the progressive clock on women, celebrating immaturity, impetuousness, and male-dependency while pairing these behaviors with sexual “freedom” and “openness”.

‘Girls’ illustrates twenty-something women as slutty, shallow, aimless babies who wallow a lot. The show accomplishes two things: 1) it validates hyper-dramatic, self-involved, aimless-for-aimlessness’s-sake BS that some young people are prone to, and 2) it makes women who aren’t in those positions feel like they’re not a part of the twenty-something narrative because, though they might be confused, they’re not engaging in a soap opera about it – the soap-opera element is indicative of ‘Girls’ commitment to being “true to yourself”. In the spirit of “true to oneself”, Lena Durham’s character, Hannah, wears a sheer yellow mesh shirt, nipples showing, out in public, coked-out, engaging with people – friends and strangers, and ends the night by dictating other people’s morals to them. In this episode, Hannah is actively going out of her comfort zone in order to “find where the magic happens”. But the only part that’s out of her comfort zone is the coke – the rest of it is totally normal for her.

Regardless of whether I would personally engage in that behavior, my point is that I don’t know a single twenty-something woman who would. First, most people define a difference between “free spirit” and “nips out” – because the former embraces self-respect and ignores outside influence, while the latter just screams for outside commentary. Second, the implication that Hannah’s moral opposition to cocaine is holding her back from artistic achievement, suggests all sorts of obnoxious things about women and their morals. For example, a twenty-something woman who doesn’t engage in sexual behavior before marriage, according to Girls, would be missing out on her god-given right to participate in the twenty-something narrative. The point here is that the show celebrates impetuousness and bad-decision-making to the point of excluding all other types of young women from the conversation. And unfortunately, one thing ‘Girls’ does get right is that young women desperately want to be included – and they contort themselves in all sorts of ways to achieve that. If inclusion requires that women break their moral beliefs and engage in behavior that they neither believe in nor are comfortable with, then we’ve really jumped backward in the feminist narrative, never mind the general societal narrative.  

Furthermore, ‘Girls’ suggests, by its casting and its story line, that the selfish, immature, short-sighted, irresponsible antics are usually and predominantly perpetuated by women. While this show seeks to progress the sexuality of twenty-something women, it represses the emotional and professional maturity of that same demographic, suggesting there is an inherent link between a sexually carefree attitude and immature, irresponsible behavior. Since its genesis, commentators have called ‘Girls’ the new Sex In The City – a next generation media wave that portrays women’s sexual antics in as harsh, honest, and un-puritanical a light as men’s sexual antics. But ‘Girls’ is remiss because it claims to be representative of the “gritty” realities of twenty-something life when, at best, it represents a very small minority of realities for a small minority of people – mostly women.

 This show is a soap-opera which is calling itself something else, and for that categorical faux-pas, it’s receiving a lot of attention. If Lena Dunham would acknowledge that this show shares more characteristics of a soap-opera than a docu-drama, then she would have to admit that ‘Girls’ profits off of drama for drama’s sake – and drama of any kind carries a certain amount of glamour. But, problematically, she claims that ‘Girls’ is real. I seriously wonder about the the circular effect ‘Girls’ might have – encouraging and creating a cult of self-absorption and self-indulgence as the new norm for young, post-bachelor’s women. The characters on Girls exist in a kind of hipster glamour, where things are ‘rough’ and they may be confused but, dammit! they’re artistic souls and they’re true to themselves, so what else matters? Let me answer that one for you: a shit ton of stuff outside of your personal feelings matters.

Girls supports the continuation of a “spoiled brat” attitude in young people that has somehow grown beyond teenage antics, spread into being acceptable college student antics, and now is becoming a standard mode of behavior for twenty-something post-baccalaureates, too. It’s ridiculous – by the time you’re out of college, you’ve had two decades to be selfish, shallow, and ignorant of the world around you. Don’t you thnk after spending $40,000 a year of daddy’s or Uncle Sam’s money, it’s time you grow up and start contributing to the world, rather than wallowing in your own misery? Instead, Girls endorses a prolonged adolescence – and with it, the sense of entitlement and whining that has historically been associated with spoiled teenagers.

 ‘Girls’ perpetuates a narrative wherein the characters face tangible and relate-able problems, like loneliness, career confusion, poverty, friendship complications, identity crises, etc, but then undermines the relate-ability of those situations by praising and celebrating the characters for their completely immature and short-sighted problem-solving methods. Every single character in this show feels that the world has somehow “wronged” them. The narrative is that the characters shouldn’t try to correct these situations or examine themselves to perhaps evolve and adapt to the grown-up world – instead the narrative of ‘Girls’ suggests that the characters should just live moment-to-moment and deal with problems as they arise, in whatever way is most emotionally rewarding – usually harsh words or a one-night-stand. None of the characters show any concern for the way their actions impact other people, situations, or themselves in the future – it’s all about instant gratification and the glory of being impetuous.

This show is the battle-cry for those who live on the phrase, “woe is me – why is it so hard to be me?” It offers nothing in the way of a proactive approach or long-term solutions to those “woes” (the relate-able issues, listed above). Girls offers an implicit support of the idea that the world has “wronged” twenty-something’s – and the narrative is structured so that all the characters wait around for the world to align, hand them good fortune, and apologize for the transgression.

I’ve considered the possibility that this structure is meant to reveal the pitfalls of that kind of self-indulgence – but after watching an entire marathon, I’ve concluded that – no, it isn’t setting up a false paradigm in order to prove the falsity; it’s not a parody or a farce. It is “honest”, in that Dunham really believes this story-line is an accurate and worthwhile reflection of the problems and solutions of young people.

As always, my opinion is by no means definitive. It’s fully possible that this “twenty-something narrative is actually just an “early-twenty-something” narrative, intended for 20-23 year old’s and I’m over-ripe. Or perhaps, I’m just surrounded by superior twenty-something’s who have their lives together and aspire to more than the hipster, existentially-confused, not-really-in-poverty-but-kind-of-wish-they-were-because-slumming-is-SO-cool glamour that ‘Girls’ perpetuates. But let’s be honest – for most young people, the debauchery and discord in Girls doesn’t really exist in such potent forms, with such regularity, and with such reckless disregard for the future and for the world beyond our own ego’s.

“Twenty-something’s”, people between the ages of 20 and 30 years old – are better than Girls wants them to be. I just hope all the 20-30 year old’s watching this show know that, lest they fall into the trap of aspiring downward to join Marni, Hannah, and the gang.

Let’s Talk About SES, Baby.

The Socio-Economic Status (SES) of infants and toddlers is the single most powerful indicator of future academic and personal success. At first, that statement seems self-evident – obviously students with more opportunities and fewer limitations will stretch themselves further and ultimately attain more in their lives. That’s the nature of inequality and poverty and is the historical impetus for government assistance and charitable organizations. We live on the assumption that familial circumstances shape the way a child is nurtured by society, and those circumstances over-power the academic/personal potential that Nature imbued in that child. As a country (or maybe a species) we’ve concluded that our social ties are so strong and that they so clearly dictate where we go, who we become, and what we attain (this phenomenon is more commonly referred to as “networking”), that we’ve created an environment where Nurture overpowers Nature. And when we discuss any social liberalism, that’s the baseline – our social ability to Nurture has overpowered our biology-given Nature. So, since we nurture different classes/races/locations of people differently, it has become a matter of ethics and social justice that we actively correct that imbalance. Enter Government Assistance programs and all their negative-rights opponents.

But here’s the kicker – this correlation is not just a social phenomenon; SES does not simply determine social opportunities and limitations. At a very early age, toddlers born into families with low socio-economic statuses show markedly different brain development.

PHYSIOLOGICAL REPRECUSSIONS:
To sum up Jack Shonkoff’s study, linked above, babies, infants, and toddlers have very malleable brains – like puppies, they remember and ingrain into their development almost every early experience. (This is why it’s easier to train a puppy when he is 12 weeks old than it is to train a puppy you adopted when he was one year old). For impoverished families, this emphasizes two realities: that parents almost always have less time to spend talking to their kids – encouraging socialization, positive emotions, and increasing vocabulary and cognitive function through “adult” interactions; and also that parents generally exude less stability, more stress, and less interest in their children, as a result of their SES insecurities. Babies are like puppies – even if they can’t understand all the words, they understand anger, frustration, and sadness – and they react to these emotions in a psychological and biological way. Early exposure to those negative emotions, without a proper balance of more wishy-washy emotions like support, “baby talk”, caregiving, etc, ingrains a reality of constant stress and fear in the brains of these children. Cognitively speaking, no one, neither children nor adults, learns when they are experiencing a strong negative emotion. From 9 or 10 months old, these children are given a physiological obstacle to their academic and personal success in the future. That’s a cerebral certainty.

As a side note, I would like to emphasize that the “realities” stated above – that poor families don’t love, support, or help their children – are grossly overstated, and obviously stereotyping. Obviously not all poor families are failed families (when using “failed family the way the UN defines “failed states”). And obviously there are plenty of wealthy families who “fail” and whose children flounder. Correlation does not equal causation here – there is a strong correlation between impoverished families and unstable, less-friendly, less-encouraging homes, but there is no evidence to suggest that the SES of the family causes any of the negative repercussions the infant/toddler might experience.

In any event – socially and biologically, these conclusions emphasize the importance of preschool. Michigan’s governor, Rick Snyder, made this one of his points his State of the State address, and explained that we need more funding for early education programs. According to our governor, 29,000 four-year olds are eligible for the state’s free preschool program, Great Start Readiness Program (Snyder really drops the ball on “catchy slogans”) but they have no preschool to attend. Snyder understands that for every $1 we spend on early education, taxpayers save $7 in the future – due to decreased crime, more economic productivity, and less reliance on welfare programs.

This is not just a matter of raw education that takes place for 3 and 4 year olds. Preschool is only very gently about “problem solving” and “vocabulary building” and all those other things we associate with “learning” and “school”. Preschool requires the child to socialize and develop emotionally. In bad home situations, it offers the child a daily safe-haven from the stresses and obstacles of low-income life – a necessary positivity that counteracts the negative physiological repercussions of constant stress and negativity at home.

But Snyder is conflicted (aren’t all politicians?). Decreasing crime and reliance upon welfare, while increasing economic and academic opportunity were NOT the issues he singled out as the ultimate priorities for the State of Michigan. He claimed that transportation infrastructure is “the single toughest issue” facing Michigan.

Though my tone is disparaging, I don’t actually think he’s being ridiculous. Putting money into the infrastructure would improve dangerous roads, increase public transit for communities that need it, create transportation between communities like Ann Arbor and Detroit where there is a lot of work-home commuting, and obviously would create jobs for then thousands of unemployed. Of course, this last point – the Republican battle cry of “JOBS JOBS JOBS” is his biggest focal point. But realistically we have to recognize two things. First, he has decided to deal with the loudly present symptoms of unemployment, rather than preventative measures which more directly address the problem. Secondly, by choosing to fund construction jobs over early childhood education jobs, he is realistically choosing between government funding for men’s jobs vs. government funding for women’s jobs.

I’M ACKNOWLEDGING THE BREWING COUNTER ARGUMENTS:
I acknowledge that there is nothing legal which prevents gender cross-over in those sectors. I acknowledge that discussing employment in terms of “men’s work” and “women’s work” can be seen as regressive and anti-feminist (and yet, by pointing out the inequity, it can also be seen as feminist). And I recognize that there is a strong contingency of people (though they probably don’t read my blog) who see this gender differentiation in the midst of an otherwise relevant argument about socio-economic opportunity, as distracting and irrelevant. This is me acknowledging the counter-arguments so I can prove how I’m right.

… AND NOW I WILL REFUTE THOSE COUNTER-ARGUMENTS:
We have to recognize the complexity of this juncture – where the need for early education and the need for jobs meet. A number of different forms of evidence suggest that those children who come from families with low SES, were children that were unplanned for – i.e., they were born to people who did not have proper birth control access to prevent the pregnancy, did not have the means or the access to obtain an abortion, and had no meaningful resources after becoming pregnant to discuss the options and the consequences. I will refrain from opening the debate over women’s reproductive health here, and instead just focus on the other inequities I’ve already laid out, but I’m sure you can see how this is not a straightforward circumstance.

This is society’s issue, but it is also necessarily a woman’s issue as women are the only members of society capable of carrying a pregnancy to term, thereby creating children who need preschool and, eventually, jobs. Many of the 29,000 children who qualify for free preschool are born into single mother families, and they qualify because their mothers are unemployed or under-employed. These children are exposed to the biological stresses of poverty which create physiological obstacles that inhibit their long-term success, because the women who head their households do not have enough work. So I rebuke the argument that differentiating between “men’s work” and “women’s work” in this conversation is irrelevant – clearly the employment of women has a direct effect on the SES of their children and that SES has an effect of the child’s success and productivity.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING:
Again, we have to rely on correlation, not causation, but the correlations are pretty difficult to dispute.

Across America, 24% of children live in single mother homes – those are households without adult male influence or caregiver. Of that 24%, in Michigan, 81% of those households live in poverty. The number is higher in other states – like my home-state NM where it’s 84% (though Mississippi is the winner at 87%). In other kinds of households – single father or two-parent – only 30% of children live in poverty, according to the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, in their study U.S. Children in Single Mother Families.

So when we argue about how to best abate unemployment, why do we so often focus on jobs which are historically best suited and nearly exclusive to men? Well Robert O. Self has a very poignant perspective on this in his book All in the Family: The Realignment of American Democracy Since the 1960’s. It’s a phenomenally insightful analysis of and take on the role that “family values” plays in our public policy debates. Essentially, we as a country gear our economic policies towards the “nuclear family” – we want to encourage two-parent homes, with a single breadwinner, preferably male. Our economic policies encourage this image – we have jobs initiatives which are almost always geared towards men – things like infrastructure and construction. These initiatives were so wonderfully effective back in FDR’s era, when women did house and factory work, that they are a veritable “go-to” when we hit rough patches in the job-market. Again, I emphasize that it is irrelevant that women have the negative right to working in construction. Construction is an almost exclusively male-dominated field and it receives an incredible bulk of job-creation funding. It is not enough to say to a woman “go put on your hard hat” because the intangible barriers – from accessible child-care to physical unpreparedness – are deeply ingrained and incredibly difficult to overcome, without help.

HERE’S AN EXAMPLE OF HOW IRRELEVANT A WOMAN’S NEGATIVE RIGHT TO WORK IN A “MAN’S” INDUSTRY REALLY IS:
 Pick a profession which is the female equivalent, one which requires no additional schooling or specialized skills and in which men have the negative right to work, but which is nonetheless is almost exclusively female-dominated. How about day-cares? Our economic policies do not incentivize these jobs on either end – either encouraging employers to hire more caregivers with tax breaks or encouraging workers to apply through higher pay grades. However, this is one of the most necessary services in America today, where any family having a stay-at-home parent is now in the minority. These services are at least as beneficial as infrastructure (if not MORE beneficial because they allow parents – both mothers and fathers – to have more affordable child care and thereby work longer/go to school/etc). However, the government does not incentivize the industry of child care. Why? Because we see it as a secondary work-force – an income supplemental to the breadwinner’s income. And we see it that way because that’s what it has become – that’s what our previous economic policies made it. While tech industries and construction workers were receiving a leg-up, day cares were not receiving any kind of government help. They weren’t being oppressed, but the lack of help in a social structure where government help is a make-or-break aspect of industry security, created a situation wherein day care is secondary and inferior, both in perception and in pay grade. All of this is a result of basic perceptions, based largely on gender, about the difficulty and necessity of different types of work.

Now I’m not saying that “The Man” is trying to squash females in the work-force or keep the poor, poorer. We’ve made huge strides in re-defining the American family, and therefore American economic policy. But we need more than negative rights, if we’re going to make long-lasting improvements to the bottom tier of society. We need to offer the single mothers and impoverished children more than the legal freedom to achieve whatever they want, we need to help them achieve it by recognizing the inequities we live by and actively addressing those inequities.

We have two inequitable social situations which can both be substantially improved with the same measure – increase female employment and encourage higher wages for those industries which are almost exclusively female. That would include early-childhood education. Subsequently, we would have more preschools and a more competitive preschool market, increasing availability and quality for those children who need it most – and that could help pull them out of the poverty-cycle they’ve been born into.

Resume Value

Resume-value: adj.  1. A description of the relative worthiness one’s activities as listed to a future employer/institution, esp. as applied to non-essential activities occurring outside of work/school;      2. noun – A predictor of success or failure in an application process: Mary’s after-school activities had no resume value, and so her college applications were weak;     3. noun – A job which has no inherently positive qualities but which is held within an organization with a recognized named and is therefore prestigious: Sarah took the resume-value job, even though she knew she’d just be pouring coffee for patriarchal CEO’s, because she knew BYU respected and respected the Heritage Foundation;     4. noun – A method of exaggeration, bordering on lying, which is culturally acceptable and therefore comes without consequences: Though she had less than a dozen followers and only wrote sporadically, Kat gave her blog more resume-value by describing herself as “the editor-in-chief of a small, online newspaper which analyzes and critiques the costs and benefits of, and the obstacles to effective education in America”;     5. noun – A hyper-competitive mentality which creates a sense of deep self-loathing and permanent insecurity among adolescents esp. those found in traditional college preparatory school environments: Though Jim spoke four languages and had helped to build a village in Africa, he felt his decision to pass on the AP Calculus class had diminished his resume-value compared to Joe, thus ensuring that he would neither get into Yale, nor succeed in life;      6. noun – The currency of potential: Because older attorneys are not going to notice that Sue entered Latham during the years that the institution had hiring troubles, she was getting a lot of bang for her buck in resume value;     7. noun – An admissions and applicant-review criteria which favors students and applicants of financially privileged backgrounds and fails to recognize the intangible values and abilities of less privileged students and applicants: Tom was passed over for the promotion because, despite his commitment to the ideals of the company as evidenced by his 5 years of employment as well as his volunteer and social activities during his off-hours, he lacked the resume-value of a college degree in that area of expertise;    8. noun – the single most relevant factor for accepting or denying a summer program/internship.    9. noun –  A cause of the great Twenty-Something Conundrum – see “About Kat”.