Poverty and Education Policy

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend the Los Angeles Charter School Leadership Symposium.  By far, the highlight of the day, was the thoughtful (if very fast) speech and Q and A by Los Angeles Superintendent of Schools, Dr. John Deasy.

When Dr. Deasy talks, I find myself desperate for a court reporter or transcription app.  He launches ideas out there (admirably) so quickly that you only have a second to grasp with one before the next one is knocking at your door.  But, one particular point that he made stuck with me right away.  It is one that I have been encountering for years, and which I feel requires some nuance in response.  It is the issue of poverty and how it effects our schools (locally) and our school system (perhaps globally).

Sometime in the future, I hope to write about Paolo Freire and his thoughts around the ways poverty as an issue and the poor as a people are co-opted to create an education system that serves the needs of the wealthy.  I hope to also explore the data around comparative U.S. school performance once poverty is controlled for.  But for this post, I want to discuss the way that poverty is characterized as an issue in the context of the education reform movement.

In his talk, Dr. Deasy told us of students he had visited who were too poor to afford basic hygiene, never mind medical and dental care.  He spoke of students too poor to afford food or even homes.  He provided a stark and challenging picture of the increasing number of extremely poor in the Los Angeles Unified School District.  Then, at the height of our empathy, he shifted gears and claimed that what we needed to do for these children was provide them with a highly effective (read “test score” boosting) teacher.

This claim was made essentially without evidence at a moment designed to appeal to our empathy and emotional reasoning.  It has some serious flaws.  It illustrates the way that education reform has become essentially a faith-based movement.  Without demanding or producing much evidence, the reform movement has adopted the idea that changing schools (in highly specific ways) will inevitably lead to a better society—one with more equality and less poverty.  My question is, if such a society is the goal, why don’t reformers work for it directly.  This reminds me of the idea that a national prohibition of alcohol would make people more Christian—it vaguely resonates on a values level, but is ultimately nonsense.

If you want to eliminate economic injustice, perhaps the best use of your time would be to Occupy Wall Street.  Or, if that doesn’t resonate, perhaps it would be best to work directly in communities, or to work politically for robust civil rights.  If you want to attack poverty, attack poverty, don’t attack teachers.  Certainly you should at least be questioning the rationale that claims that magically having higher multiple choice test scores will lead to the end of economic injustice.

My First Ed Week Blog Post

I have been making progress in the social media world.  Its fun.  Experimenting with twitter and blogging has been a nice way to get some thoughts out there.  And last night, my good friend and I were able to publish our first guest-post on a major education blog. If you haven’t already, please read it. And, as always, let me know what you think (critical thoughts encouraged) in the comments section, or elsewhere.

The College Admissions Files: Legacy Status

Almost as soon as I woke up this morning, I stumbled upon a debate in the NY Times Blog about legacy admissions.  It happens that, at the moment, I am reading The Chosen by Jerome Karabel which gives a detailed history of admissions policies at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton (which as the book correctly points out, are largely imitated by other selective universities in the U.S.).  I find the topic of legacy admissions interesting, and so, I thought this would be a good time to start writing on college admissions; a feature that I hope will be recurring over the course of this blog.

Legacy admissions is a great issue for debate because it seems to run directly counter to the compelling, and widespread, narratives of America as the land where success is possible for anyone who works hard and is capable, and of college as the place to go to launch a successful life.  It is natural for citizens, especially students and parents, to conclude that if you work hard and are capable, you should be admitted to a top college, where you can duly launch into your successful life.  A logical extension is that those admitted to the best colleges should be those who have worked hard and are most capable.

Several members of the media have argued that the failure of this narrative during the current recession is one of the primary motivations behind the Occupy Wall Street movement (and they may be right).  This resonates with me because I have always cautioned the students and parents I have worked with from considering the college admissions process as the sort of game you win by talent.  Simply put – the best and the brightest (if such people exist) are not guaranteed admissions to the best college.  The converse is more empowering—if you are rejected from the college of your choice, it is not because you are not good enough or smart enough.

Accepting the role of luck and rejecting the idea of meritocracy (a word that this commenter rightly points out was coined satirically to describe how the elite ensure success for their progeny in a democracy) is important for the emotional and mental well being of students and parents participating in the college admissions process.  It is equally important to understand that where you get in matters less than how you work once there, and that even how you do in college (much less high school) does not predestine you to success or failure.  Members of Occupy are wrong to expect that their college education should guarantee them a good job, but they are probably right to protest the “meritocracy” narrative whose ubiquitous place in our society led to such expectation (and they are protesting many other things besides which are beyond the scope of this writing).

Legacy admissions is indeed a way for institutions to attract and secure money by implicitly promising access (and associated “success”) to future generations of current members of the club.  This may not seem fair, but it is true.  Perhaps it should end, but perhaps also diversity preferences, athletic scholarships, or admitting that really talented tuba player to help round out the marching band should end as well.  I am more concerned with students and families correctly conceiving of the process of college admissions and which parts of it are and are not under their control, than I am of changing these policies.

I will review The Chosen when I am finished reading it, but even from its preface, it makes a very important point.  Selective admissions policies have always served as a way for the elite to reproduce itself, and to ensure success for its members’ children.  However, this is done through adopting values and then policies that reflect these values.  The elite colleges do indeed promote the idea of merit—but what constitutes merit changes throughout different times and contexts.  This is important to understand because it has wide ranging implications for those trying to enter these systems from the outside.  Currently, the values of diversity, equality (of opportunity), a well-rounded student body, and wide access to programs and research in the college dominate.  So do the values of need-blind admissions and financial aid for all who are eligible.

If you are applying to an elite college, you can use this to your advantage.  You can demonstrate your unique potential role in college life, you can show how you will bring diversity, engage with programs, conduct research, etc.  Or, you can show, through the largesse of your parents, that you will bring in money to support all of these missions.  What’s important, for legacy and non-legacy applicants alike, is to understand this, and then to understand that whatever you bring to the table there are thousands of others, who are not better, but are also bringing things to the table.  Purely logistically, luck is going to play a big role in the admissions decision.

Note: As I wrote this, I realized that I am bringing up many different points, all of which need to be explored more.  I am blogging in a very loose, quick, style, and so the writing is almost a stream of consciousness.  I hope you will forgive the disjointed and clumsy parts of these early attempts, and stay tuned…

An Introduction — Nice to textually meet you.

“The only purpose of education is Freedom, the only method is experience” – Leo Tolstoy

Every educator I have known has stories of how they were inspired and impacted during their time as a student.  Mine tend to focus on issues of authority, freedom, and trust.  I love working with young adults and trying to help them realize their power and responsibility in the world.  I believe that schools should be intellectual places and vibrant communities, built on strong relationships and that policies and curriculum are best when developed together and locally, allowing teachers and learners maximum trust and freedom.

I was first introduced to the education philosophy of Leo Tolstoy by a dear friend (and Tolstoy descendant) while I was a research student at Oxford University.  My thesis focused on attempts to provide students with mathematical authority in the context of the secondary classroom.  The statement that you read at the beginning of this post illustrated to me how simple the motivation behind education should be, but how complex and difficult the practice of education is.

If the purpose of education is freedom, then surely we must educate by allowing and encouraging freedom.  If the method is experience, then we must empower students and teachers to make use of their experience.  Thus, true education cannot be imposed or controlled but must involve choice, experiment, interaction, messiness—each context will be different, each problem different, each solution different, and any standardized, scripted, approach ultimately doomed to failure (almost by definition).

In this blog, I hope to share my musings, some of my work, and the thoughts and experiences of some teachers that I know personally.  I hope to interact with friends, colleagues, students, and strangers…so read and comment and hopefully we can produce something invigorating.