Tuesday, September 27, 2005

The New Meritocracy and the Poor

Day Laborers in New Jersey

Sometimes googling turns up some funny stuff in the "sponsored links" section.

I punched in “day laborers” and got two automated ads, one from ebay and the other from Kadazzle.

The first one read: “Day Laborers for Sale. Low Priced Day Laborers. Huge Selection!” The second read: “Compare Prices on Day Laborers and Save Money!” Somehow appropriate, I guess, for a post on class, culture and poverty.

OK, let’s get back to the aftermath of the hurricane and prophetic responses. This one is a bit longer because the topic is so complicated. Sorry about that. Think of it as a two posts for one deal.

Here are some too simple takes:

• A powerful multi-ethnic and dual gender meritocracy has arisen in the U.S. over the past few decades. A multi-ethnic and dual gender underclass is expanding at the same time. Diversity and a certain kind of priveleged racial reconciliation win but for the poor it may be the same old same old.

• Class and culture currently play a more significant role than race in perpetuating poverty. In fact, when people talk about “race” I think what they usually mean is “class and culture.”

• It's time to shake free of old school racial analyses of the American underclass and get a sharper picture of the importance of class and culture in perpetuating poverty, and a better picture of how the new meritocracy thinks and feels about the poor. Without that shift it could be hard to reduce the number of poor people in the U.S and improve the lives of those who remain in poverty.

The Oppression Model of Poverty

A generation ago most thoughtful people identified with what I'll call the oppression model of poverty. In short, they thought that poor people were poor mostly because people with influence and power did them at most every opportunity.

And during that time a lot of people thought racism was the heart of that abuse of power. In that model the powerful white upper and middle classes justified their systemic oppression on the basis of the supposed inherent biological inferiority of African-Americans or other "non-white" groups.

That's not to say that popular thinking in those days wasn't more subtle than the simple old school model suggests, but I think it gives a fair picture of people's basic 'worldview' of poverty from just after WW2 until the 1980's.

The Centrifuge Model of Poverty

I think a very different new school 'worldview' on poverty began to get up and go in the 80's and became the predominant way people understand poverty and society now. I'll call that new way of perceiving things the centrifuge model of poverty.

Scientists use laboratory centrifuges to separate out substances in test tubes from one another. As a centrifuge spins at high speed, various particles become “segregated” from each other due to their inherently different sizes, shapes and densities.

The centrifuge in this case is a highly competitive, American society built on the idea of meritocracy. As that societal centrifuge spins the winners get loose from the losers and the strong spin safely away from the weak. A natural segregation occurs as those without the “right stuff” remain in or descend into poverty while the others enjoy the economic and social benefits of their natural and social advantages.

As harsh as it can sound to some people, you've got to hand it to this model. It’s got deep roots in American soil because it has some important similarities to the old Puritan idea that God economically blesses the good with abundance and punishes the bad with poverty. But it’s different and even more powerful because it adds the critical elements of meritocracy and competition, both of which are also powerful—even totemic—American values. For all those reasons it packs a serious punch.

Again, most thoughtful people don't see things so simply, but I do think this new intutive "road map" of poverty and society lies behind a lot of the current discussion of poverty and the social policy meant to alleviate it.

The Rise of the New Meritocracy and the Expanding Underclass

Whatever intuitive road map folks might use to understand poverty and the poor, some developments are pretty clear to most fair-minded people right now.

Poverty's gotten worse over the past 4 years in the US in terms of percentages of people in poverty and in real terms. The appalling social situation of so many people in New Orleans didn't surprise any of us who have lived and worked in American inner cities. The hurricane exposed it in a new way.

And the expanding underclass continues to become even more diverse. African-Americans and Latinos are disproportionately represented, but whites make up the majority of the poor. In fact, the expansion in the numbers of the poor in the past 4 years has occured primarily among rural "trailer trash" whites. Women and children make up large percentages of the underclass.

The gaps between the middle class and the poor, and particularly between the well off and the poor have been getting a lot wider. In 1965 the typical CEO made 24 times as much as the average worker. Today that figure is 184 times as much. That would have been considered immoral and even obscene 40 years ago. How has it become acceptable now? Perhaps a change in world view?

Two longer term trends also contribute in a major way to the expanding numbers of the poor. The loss of a manufacturing based economy drove many people who previously worked at better paying jobs into low paying jobs with few benefits in the service industries. A lot of poor people, maybe most of them, work silly hours but still can't make ends meet. And the continuing flow of illegal immigrants swells the numbers of the poor while our government can't figure out what to do with lots of people who are simply looking for a better life.

We've also seen a steady effort on the part of our current political leaders to cut proven and beneficial programs for the poor while getting close and personal with the rear ends of the wealthy through dubious tax cuts for the rich and egregious pork.

Katrina stopped that momentum temporarily because people are now aware of poverty again and political leaders risk voter backlash if they press further cuts at the expense of the poor. But the ideological convictions of the congressional majority haven't changed. Americans have consistently voted over the last ten years for congressional leadership that clearly and obviously favors the "haves" and ignores or even punishes the "have nots" through cuts and the elimination of valuable and proven programs and approaches that help poor people better their lives.

But I think another very important development is making a decisive contribution to the current look of poverty in the U.S. I'll call that young thing The Rise of the New Meritocracy.

I believe the new school/centrifuge thinkers are right that America is far more competitive and meritocratic than ever. Large and thriving African-American, Asian-American, and Latino middle classes and even upper middle classes have arisen in the past 40 years, and woman have far more opportunities than ever before. Those are astonishing American social success stories by any historical standard.

This multi-ethnic wave of men and women, most 50 years old and younger, share a core set of values. They value competition, efficiency, meritocracy, entrepreneurship, education, and family stability. By and large, they're comfortable in an information economy. They're the new economic and cultural bedrock with potentially the greatest political influence of any group beyond the rich. Both major parties are desperately trying to win them over. The conservative Republicans, with their recent and pivotal victories in the entrepreneurial exurbs, got out to an early advantage.

But the new meritocracy has also chosen to segregate itself from the urban and rural underclass. The educated white middle and upper middle class mostly abandoned the poor long ago, and now this new class is following the same pattern. African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Latinos who identify with this new "culture" and "class" have largely left the ghetto and the small town in the rear view mirror. The immense creativity and economic resources and social capital of this new class aren't--in most cases--being invested in efforts to shrink the growing American underclass.

Here's something ironic about this new class. Though it's been forged by a greater cultural emphasis on opportunity and meritocracy, the new meritocracy may be creating greater and even more impenetrable class barriers. There are clear signs, outlined in a recent series in the NY Times and in various articles in The Economist, that America is becoming more class stratified. The old American value of upward mobility and the cherished myth of the American Dream may be threatened.

Why? These new meritocrats pass their centrifuge friendly values to their children and concentrate heavily--in a way no previous American generation has done--on the education of their own children, sparing no expense or effort and often placing them in private schools. At the same time the poor struggle in appalling public schools and in contexts where many important values that help bolster career success are simply not modeled. Any successful neighbors who might have modeled those values left the inner city or the small rural town long ago. Hence, a widening gap, and in many ways, a gap that may no longer come with a ladder which the poor can use to climb out.

It's not too late for that new class and culture of movers and shakers to commit in a new way to solidarity with the poor and to a new and updated version of the American Dream, but the signs at this point aren't good. It may be that the ideology of the centrifuge, which most of them embrace on one level or another, gives them reason to view the poor as the inevitable losers that every game requires. I'd guess part of the reason so many people have responded to the poor so differently post-Katrina is that folks knew the poor were not "at fault" in that particular instance. The exception here may prove the usual rule.

Or they may feel the class divide between themselves and the poor is insurmountable when they look at some of the more dysfunctional realities in many poor communities like common teenage pregnancy, high levels of family instability, widespread substance abuse, and a lack of emphasis on education. They may view the poor as "them" rather than "us."

Well, that's enough recap of some key developments that I think are influencing the expansion and persistence of poverty.

What These Developments May Mean

Here are a few glimpses of my own responses to these developments to get the ball rolling:

• Both models of poverty and society tell part of the truth. But while the new school thinkers suggest that the rise of a new meritocrats is an obvious good, I'd argue the development of that emerging class and culture has created a new kind of social division in the U.S. that has serious and potentially troubling ramifications for the poor.

That increasingly large section of society, who often have more in common with each other than they do with poor members of their own ethnic or gender groups, is largely ignoring the poor or in many cases actively working to improve their own situation at the expense of the poor.

The old school oppression model has something pretty eternal and biblical to contribute. The new twist is that a different group of folks gathered more on the basis of meritocracy than skin color is now in a position to ignore or take advantage of the weak and dispossesed.

• Seems to me that dealing with current American poverty will mean exploring the attitudes this new meritocracy has toward the poor. And calling that new and powerful segment of society to accountability to a wider understanding of community, to a deeper committment to distributive justice, and to a energized effort to invest their talents, lives and resources in poor communities. The focus of these efforts has to be true development, not charity. Economic investment, ownership, practical training, entrepreneurship and education have got to be the cornerstones.

This will mean challenging people to respond to the poor not primarily on the basis of race or ethnic identification, but on the basis of fairness and social justice. I think that will mean acknowledging and grappling with class differences in a way Americans usually like to avoid. We've always viewed ourselves as a classless society and we've identified class analysis with Marxists and other "crazies." We'll need more "Class Matters" and perhaps fewer "Race Matters" seminars.

Christian theology and teaching will have to take on class again and the church and other religious movements and institutions will have to take the lead in prophetically calling the new meritocracy to a faithful identification with the poor. In many ways, this kind of broad societal shift will require the kind of major spiritual awakening we experienced during the civil rights movement in the 50's and early 60's.

• Racism—-at least in the way that the old school thinkers understood it—-is a secondary factor in the perpetuation of poverty and the lack of conviction about reducing and ending it. The current social and economic effects of historical racism are still a very significant factor however, something that has to be acknowledged clearly and addressed in policy and action in politics, the business community, and in faith communities like the church. I was pleased and surprised to hear President Bush concede the ongoing impact of historic racism in his speech on rebuilding New Orleans.

• Changing some aspects of the "culture of the underclass" could make a big difference. Reducing teen pregnancy, increasing the stability of families, increasing the value on education, and reducing the incidence of substance abuse are key. Many people rightly believe that unless poor folks can introduce more constructive values into their own midst most of them will be caught in poverty for generations. The "centrifuge" rewards education and stability.

Throughout history spiritual revivals among the poor created the conditions for an escape from poverty. The Methodist movement in England during the 18th century broke the power of despair and alchoholism and helped huge numbers of the poor to break out of poverty, a sea-change that altered English society and the English economy for the better.

• Anybody with a good idea or a proven plan for reducing poverty, no matter what their ideology or politics, should get a hearing. Right now American approaches to poverty are highly ideologically driven and have been for many years. That's part of why they usually don't work very well. Our national genius is pragmatism. I pray for a return of common sense and a concern for outcomes rather than harsh ideological battles.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on race, culture, class and poverty, and any thoughts on practical approaches to make a prophetic difference.

11 Comments:

Blogger jon said...

Agree Agree Agree Agree Agree

Another thing is that I think our conservative churches, preachers, and political leaders have to be challenged to put their money/time where their mouths have been. In the 25-year-old "lower taxes" push I've heard over and over that private entities can do things better than the government, and therefore the money should be in private hands. My experiences have shown that to be true, but that doesn't matter if the private entities don't even try to do their job. If you say the government should cut your tax rate by 15% because you know how to use that money better, then you better be using that money for God's work in your community. I doubt there's been private Christian individuals with the material resources of America's Christians in the entire history of our faith. If they got their act together and started using their time and money the right way, amazing things could happen without the government doing a thing.

11:33 PM  
Blogger jon said...

I don't blame people who successfully move out of the underclass and proceed to physically distance themselves. Many aspects of the culture can be exceedingly detrimental, and it is in the best interest of some to remove themselves and their families from those influences. I live in a neighborhood that is not a healthy neighborhood to be living in. I'm on the edge of a community that has a 42% unemployment rate (despite Inglewood in general having a rate in the single digits), extraordinarily high drug use, high gang involvement, high crime, and a very high murder rate. There have been more killings on my block this year than my previous cities of residence had seen in the first 21 years of my life. I spent three years teaching at a school that I would never, ever recommend that anyone allow their children to attend, and even as a teacher I believe that I became a worse person in some ways for having been in that environment for that long. I have chosen to live and work in the city because I believe that's God's call for me, and I love the people here too much to just leave. But I don't fault the ones that do leave at all.

11:51 PM  
Blogger jon said...

Last comment - I think a vital part of the change has to be an improvement in education. I currently teach at a remarkable school in the middle of Inglewood. Our charter school is alwayssf safe, all of our students take a college prep curriculum, our dropout rate is an order of magnitude lower than other local schools and most of our graduates will attend college. Yet we have been verbally attacked by the Inglewood Teachers Association and were rejected by the IUSD (our existence is only due to the California Board of Education, which funds our school against the wishes of local authorities). My experiences in the teacher's union showed me that they care about two things alone - making their own workload lower and getting more money and benefits. The majority of things the CTA supports are actually detrimental to the education of students. The schoolboards and teacher's unions are the two most powerful entities in public education, are currently doing almost nothing to improve education. If I could change everything, I would reduce the number of administrators by 1/2, cap the size of schools, streamline the removal of incompetant teachers and administrators, and force parents to take an active positive role in schools. Until then, I feel that the only solutions lie in an expansion of charter schools and an implementation of a voucher system in order to allow the underclass to attend qualtiy schools.

12:03 AM  
Blogger anhomily said...

just a quick comment on the oppression vs. centrifuge models. I think your portrayal (and many people's understanding) of the latter assumes a kind of external control to the system which stratifies society, like it just happens, or that some neutral scientist seeking progress is spinning the centrifuge of society faster. But it is the rich who are spinning the wheel - they simply want to portray the actions which are in their best interests as inevitable, neutral, or even beneficial for society. Not only are the over-class trying to distance themselves financially and physically from the poor, but morally. That is to say they are constructing (and continualy reasserting) moral-economic system which simplifies the poor out of the picture. The over-class is choosing to distance themselves from the realities/consequences of their moral choices, so that they don't have to deal with the dealt of being oppressors - they diffuse the responsibility to an impersonal "system." One of the few differences in this retelling of the same old story is that some of those perpetuating the system of their own success are (at least consciously) ignorant of its moral implications because they are so widely distributed/diffused that they appear less wrong. So in brief, I think the centrifuge model can only be accepted with the acknowledgement that it is a system internally powered, upheld and accelerated by those who benefit from the resultant stratification. An argument could be made on behalf of this over-class that they can not make the centrifuge slow down, and that even the under-class is forced to fuel the system's acceleration.

6:12 PM  
Blogger Matthew Pascal said...

I agree anhomily that it is the rich who are spinning the wheel, and that they do desire to portray the actions that are in their best interest as being benificial to society. I would add though, that I think many of them actually believe that their actions really are benifiting society as a whole. It is interesting how we can convince ourselves of nearly anything should we so desire...

So the moral consequences of their actions are of no real concern to them because they have convinced themselves that in some odd way they are helping the under-class.

12:46 PM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

Just got back in country. Thanks for the comments everybody--really important stuff.

A couple of quick responses:

Private entitities can do some things better than governments. But government is necessary and very important. Anti-government ideologies have contributed some important correctives, but the problem with them is that they are unrealistic. The church does not have the resources to fund a serious social safety net for all Americans even it had the will. And it has never demonstrated the will, nor have other private Americans, to engage in the kinds of numbers and way that might make private approaches viable in place of governmental approaches. Finally, private approaches are not accountable, which governmental approaches must be in a democratic system.

So I think it's wise to encourage as much Christian and private involvement as possible, but to also strongly and prophetically engage government to hold it accountable. Simply attacking government as hopeless and the problem does more damage than good in my mind. Or another way to put it is, traditional conservative anti-government thought is ok as an "oppositional" strategy to challenge and limit government, but it isn't a realistic "ruling" or governing ideology--it's simply not practical.

Good points, anhomily. I actually agree with you but tried in my original post to describe the two models the way people who subscribe to them do. You raise some very important stuff that would be worthy of a longer post. The whole "invisible hand" thing from capitalism is so ingrained right now that people really do believe that the economy is completely "out of their control" instead of a system they choose to encourage and shape. That allows them to evade responsibility.

But I also think that a capitalist system, in a very important sense, is powerful and beyond the direction of any one person or group. It's a principality and power that does have its own momentum and inner logic that are seemingly irresistable. That doesn't mean it can't be challenged and changed because it can, but it does mean that many of us, including the wealthy, will experience it as something overpowering and dominating. That's true even when they benefit from that system and become propagandists for it and ignore the terrible damage it does to so many people.

5:39 PM  
Blogger Matt said...

I agree! I differ with Jon, however, on some of his points about education: I also teach in an inner city school, but I would gladly send my child there. In part because it's a high school, and I think that once someone gets to high school the quality of education they get has a lot more to do with their own investment... I can understand not wanting to send my daughter to some of the elementary schools my wife has worked at... but just because better alternatives are available to me, I don't know that Jesus shrugs his shoulders indifferently when I take an advantage not available to everyone just because it's there.
Okay, that was an extended aside. My main bone of contention with Jon is the idea of charter schools and vouchers as an alternative to public schools. I think that this will, at best, make it easier for those already at the top of the centrifuge (or is it the bottom? Is wealth or poverty analagous to density in this model? Do meritocratic benefits make you heavier or lighter?) to continue separating their children academically from the poor... but now it's cheaper! It may also allow a thin layer at the top of the border to cross over from public school to private/charter. The problem is that the poorest of the poor, those who most desperately need their education to be radically altered (and I heartily agree that the public education system is in terrible, terrible shape right now, and has been for quite a while, and isn't getting any better) instead get many potential role models at their school taken away, both among their peers and their teachers. I fear that it would only extend the meritocracy to a few more and accelerate the rise of those already there. It's not a solution because it doesn't challenge the model, just tries to make it work for a few more people, but unfortunately making it work even better for those already at the top.
Public education was supposed to even out the playing field by offering the same education to everybody for free. Instead, it's become a tool to maintain the status quo and widen the gap. Just pouring more money into public education isn't a solution, I know; but taking money out for vouchers and charter schools (most of which are excellent and should be models for all educators of how education can be done much better) isn't a solution, either.

8:49 AM  
Blogger jon said...

Those ideas are very similar to the ones I had before I started living and working here (I stayed in urban public schools for 3 years before going charter), so I understand where the thought can come from. But I've found the reality in the worst areas to be different. It is far easier for the majority of kids to pull the minority down than it is for the minority of dedicated students to pull the others up, especially when the system around them is rotten. I don't know what the school you work at is like, but here in Inglewood the schoolboard and the superintendent's office are both terrible. Change will not come from them.

That being said, how do charter schools in any way help those who are wealthier, or seperate people away from the poor? Charter schools are free and all you have to do to get in is apply. The percentage of families who qualify as socioeconomically disadvantaged is higher at my charter school (79%) than at any of the surrounding public schools (52% and 48%). And if by some chance it became lower than them, we would be liable to closure for violation of our charter.

The amount that I've seen quoted for vouchers is not enough to pay for an elite private school, but it is definitely enough to cover a Catholic school education (which operate at far less than the cost of the local public schools). If we approved a voucher that paid $2,500-$3,000, that would put a Catholic school education within the reach of every family that wanted it. And the Catholic schools around here definitely outperform the public schools, even with less money.

I also don't see how it takes away any money for the school district. I have never seen an amount suggested for vouchers that matches the amount the school district would get to educate each kid. If half the kids in the state took vouchers and fled, the public system would actually have more money to spend per child, not less. Right now LA Unified has a budget of $7.1 billion to educate 698,000 kids. If 200,000 kids took $2,500 and left, that would leave them with $6.6 billion to teach 498,000 kids. Wouldn't that be a financially preferable situation?

9:18 AM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

Very interesting stuff Matt and Jon. My wife has been an elementary school teacher for decades and taught in both World Impact's LA school in SoCentral(more like a religious charter school) for a few years and in the public system in Pasadena for many years. She teaches at the most "low income" elementary school here in our district. So we've had a bit of experience with the issues you're discussing.

We both think creative solutions have to be attempted given the appalling state of public education in poor areas. At this point I'd argue for four changes:

1. Reforming the way public schools are financed in the first place

2. Making a voucher system more widely available

3. Increasing teacher pay

4. Increasing teacher accountability

Charter schools are certainly one important approach, though I would say the stats on charter school performance aren't as impressive as we both would have hoped at this point. Some are excellent and others don't seem to show much improvement over what the better public schools in poor areas achieve. However, if there is any improvement it's worth trying.

I personally like the idea of trying vouchers for education on a broader level, but only if it is accompanied by other changes. If that is the only approach to change I believe we'll end up with even greater educational apartheid than we have now.

Basically, if vouchers are used and "half the kids in the state" left public schools, it isn't too hard to imagine what the remaining public schools would look like even if they had more money per student. With most of the kids and families with a higher drive for a better education (those who would presumably go the voucher route)leaving those schools, jeez, I'd hate to teach in those places after the exodus.

But I agree with you Jon that the less motivated kids really do tend to drag down the higher achievers, so perhaps that kind of even greater isolation of the "poor and less motivated" is worth it in what's left of the public system after the exodus. But that's a pretty dark scenario for me and I think that's why lots of principled people oppose the idea of vouchers without other major changes.

In my mind the "issue that can't be mentioned" (sort of like Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter)is how public schools are financed in the first place. If American's are truly committed to equality of opportunity, which begins with the quality of education, fundamental changes in the way property taxes are used to fund local education have to change.

I'd argue that property taxes be apportioned more or less equally to public schools around the state instead of the current system where some districts have dramatic advantages in property tax revenues and in the consequent quality of schools and facilities. If you combined that with the idea of vouchers I think you might see some dramatic shifts in quality of education and performance.

In that scenario, I think many of the schools in poorer districts would improve significantly because they would be able to dramatically improve their resources and facilities. My wife had to teach in Pasadena at times without textbooks, etc, etc. I can guarantee that never happens in La Canada!

The chances of that happening are small right now, but I think that change is the most important and fundamental shift necessary. Without it other changes will simply produce mostly cosmetic shifts. The well off and upper middle class would fight that change tooth and nail. And if it ever happened, I would guess the vast majority of them would send their kids to private school. But that's already happening in many respects, so I'm not sure how much effect it would have anyway in those privelaged districts.

With that shift, many poorer districts would surely improve, meaning fewer poorer parents would want to move their kids out of public education. But some still would anyway, and I see no reason--given the property tax reform--why they shouldn't recieve help in the form of vouchers to do so.

The other two changes are also critical, and I agree that teachers unions, particularly in California, have made reform in teacher accountability very difficult. But it seems obvious to me--and I would guess most reasonable and non-ideological folks--that attracting better teachers (through higher pay)and holding them to higher standards is a no brainer.

So I'm not sure making public schools better in poor areas is really that much of a mystery. As with so many things, the obstacles to change are powerful and entrenched special interests like well off communities and teachers unions.

11:15 AM  
Blogger jon said...

wow - I think our thoughts are actually so aligned on this it's scary. I'll throw in a few more experiences that I know of, but I think that the way you and I think about this is right in line.


"Charter schools are certainly one important approach, though I would say the stats on charter school performance aren't as impressive as we both would have hoped at this point. Some are excellent and others don't seem to show much improvement over what the better public schools in poor areas achieve."

I agree that the overall statistics haven't been as overwhelmingly positive as I would like, but I don't think that's too much to be worried about. They should do exactly what they claimed they would do when they started the charter system: shut down the schools that don't perform, and replicate the models that do. Experimental schools won't work all the time, but they'll work if we replicate the successful experiments (like the Animo schools).


"But I agree with you Jon that the less motivated kids really do tend to drag down the higher achievers, so perhaps that kind of even greater isolation of the "poor and less motivated" is worth it in what's left of the public system after the exodus. But that's a pretty dark scenario for me and I think that's why lots of principled people oppose the idea of vouchers without other major changes."

I agree that the idea is super scary. My initial philosophy coming into public schools was to be a beacon of hope in the worst places, so that no one could say that they had no chance. In fact, I turned down the opportunity to teach at a charter school that I helped to create in 2003, because I knew that it would do fine without me and I wanted to keep trying to help the public schools. But what I found was that I could be of very little help in the worst schools - administrators were incompetant and stopped good teaching from happening, the teacher unions were incompetant and stopped good teaching from happening, a body of parents existed that spent their time attacking the teachers that were trying to help their students (at least 7 teachers at my school were sued in 3 years, and I was threatened with lawsuits several times), and many students caused such enormous discipline issues that much teaching stopped on most days. I was considered an outstanding teacher at a private boarding school, at suburban high schools, and now at an urban charter school. Yet I was completely unremarkable at an urban public school where no remarkable teachers seemed to exist. I don't think that all schools are as bad as my school, but if I go by test scores alone there must be quite a few that were worse.

My hope is that if a large number of students left and the urban schools ended up with half as many kids with no motivation, they'd have a crisis they'd have to deal with. They'd have to cut out half of their administrators and teachers, and if they did it right that would give them a chance to concentrate the good ones. They would have enough facilities and wouldn't have to deal with overcrowded classrooms anymore. With a smaller hierarchy, classroom space, and the realization that they really had to do something quick, I think they could begin to make a difference.


"I'd argue that property taxes be apportioned more or less equally to public schools around the state instead of the current system where some districts have dramatic advantages in property tax revenues and in the consequent quality of schools and facilities."

I do think we should do this. Oregon did this exact thing when I was growing up with a voter-approved ballot measure (the infamous "Measure 5"). Public school spending was evened out across the state, but at the cost of limiting property taxes overall. Now I was and still am in support of that, but it takes mentioning that Oregon's school system has only gotten worse across the board and is currently terrible. The problems with Oregon's schools have mostly occurred because overal funding levels were cut. But evening out funding definitely didn't solve anything by itself. And many school districts (D.C. is the textbook case) with tons of money are still utter failures.


"My wife had to teach in Pasadena at times without textbooks, etc, etc. I can guarantee that never happens in La Canada!"

It is true that I occasionally went without enough books, desks, supplies, or clean facilities. But I don't think that overall funding levels were the problem so much as completely incompetant central office administration. My charter school has much tighter funding than any Inglewood Unified school, yet we never go without those things, because our administration makes them a priority. When a history teacher came up 30 books short on the first day of school, the principal ordered them herself that night, even though we were overbudget. If something is important, they make it happen. Inglewood Unified has tons of money that gets floated around in useless or wasteful ways. There's no way that a school district with a multi-million dollar budget can't find room to get textbooks. Kids go without textbooks because of lack of concern, not lack of funding.


"The other two changes are also critical, and I agree that teachers unions, particularly in California, have made reform in teacher accountability very difficult. But it seems obvious to me--and I would guess most reasonable and non-ideological folks--that attracting better teachers (through higher pay)and holding them to higher standards is a no brainer."

YES! That's exactly what the organization that runs our schools and our teacher union decided to do. An accurate blurb I read about it says this:

"As part of a comprehensive strategy to drive change, Green Dot is practicing union reform with its teachers in hopes that it will help provide an example of cooperation in public education. Teachers at Green Dot’s schools have organized as the Asociacion de Maestros Unidos, which is its own bargaining unit, but an affiliate of the CTA. Green Dot management and the Asociacion signed a three year contract that is a clear example of union reform. Key reforms written into the contract and agreed to by the union were: no tenure, teacher performance evaluations, professional work days (no defined minutes) and flexibility to adjust the contract over time. "

Aside from the fact that we are affiliated with the CTA, I love how we cooporate. We get paid more, get good health benefits, are given more and better training, we make more of our own decisions, and we are treated like real professionals. In return we work harder and are held to high standards at all times. It's exactly what the other teacher unions would never let happen.

The goal of our supporting organization is not to make all kids go to charter schools, but to be an example to the school districts to get them to implement change. But kids who are in those public schools right now can't afford to wait years for change. They deserve to get an education right now, which is why I think that charter schools and vouchers should be supported immediately.

1:27 PM  
Blogger 3wishes said...

My friends and family in El Canada are paying upwards of $ 5.00 canadian for a gallon of gas. And on Black Friday, Nov. 26th, they load up their cars, cross the border and "shop till they drop" in PA, NY and MI so as to avoid the Canadian sales tax. Yes they have textbooks and the taxes that pay for them.

3:32 PM  

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