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Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Problem With Not Being Finland

Over the last twelve years, I've taught in a college preparatory alternative school run by the county office of education, a charter arts and business school which I helped to plan and found, and a second charter arts and business school before landing at my current post. My career trajectory has been an intentional downward arc which has finally settled me into a place where I am working with the students who could not, or would not, be successful in other schools.

I like it here.

The job is not without its difficulties and it isn't a place where many teachers would want to be because much of our time and energy is spent on matters that are not directly related to the inculcation of knowledge, skills and ideas. Instead, the balance of our days are spent on management, discipline, coaching, cheerleading, comforting, counseling, and herding and if you've been following this blog for a while, you've probably noticed that these "non-teaching" roles are the ones to which I am the most attached. Whether it be with Marvin, Donald, Serena, Sally, Roberto, Jorge, Laura, Walter or Jerry, the things that catch my attention are not curricular, but social because so much of what is wrong with our educational system is unrelated to the curriculum (though the curriculum blows, too). Our educational system suffers from a social disease.

This was highlighted recently in a
Recent Wall Street Journal Article on Finnish Education which explored why Finnish schools are the best in the world even though:

High-school students here rarely get more than a half-hour of homework a night. They have no school uniforms, no honor societies, no valedictorians, no tardy bells and no classes for the gifted. There is little standardized testing, few parents agonize over college and kids don't start school until age 7.

How, the article asks, can a system that discourages competition, offers no gifted classes, and puts few limits on student behavior be so amazingly successful?

They don't pay their teachers more and they don't spend much more per capita on education than we do.

It must be because they're homogeneous. The article tells us that:

Despite the apparent simplicity of Finnish education, it would be tough to replicate in the U.S. With a largely homogeneous population, teachers have few students who don't speak Finnish. In the U.S., about 8% of students are learning English, according to the Education Department. There are fewer disparities in education and income levels among Finns. Finland separates students for the last three years of high school based on grades; 53% go to high school and the rest enter vocational school. (All 15-year-old students took the PISA test.) Finland has a high-school dropout rate of about 4% -- or 10% at vocational schools -- compared with roughly 25% in the U.S., according to their respective education departments.

This is almost always the answer I hear when people start talking about why another country's schools are better than ours: If we were all the same like they are, we would be able to be just as good. It's the fact that we aren't all white or asian (yes, that's what they are saying, don't deny it) that is holding us back.

Bullshit.

What's holding us back is the fact that large parts of our country really do believe that competition, stratification, and limitations on freedom are a prescription for helping foster a learning environment.

What's holding us back is a dedicated and powerful minority in this country that believes that universal public education is a mistake.

What's holding us back is a nationwide shared delusion that tells us that education is merely a product of schools and teachers, absenting the rest of our society from any responsibility for what happens to other people's children.

What's holding us back is a belief that even our most provincial municipalities should wield near complete control over their schools' curriculum.

But mainly what is holding us back is the fact that our country is divided not just by race,religion and culture, but by class.

Finland, being stupidly socialist, has little to offer in the way of income disparity and so also has little to offer in the way of bad neighborhoods, chronic social unrest, childhood malnutrition and obesity, obscenely high crime rates, or high concentrations of desperate people.

Finland also never refused to educate entire portions of its population because they were different and lesser.

Finland also never believed that separate could be equal.

Finland also never allowed it's cities and townships to control its most vital natural resource, thereby preventing provincial prejudice from derailing national interests.

Finland also decided to not let its people starve in the streets.

We have done it to ourselves and, at least here in California, we are going to make it worse with deep cuts in the very social programs that allow kids to come to school even marginally able to learn. And then we're going to cut education even further.

And yet each day, 300,000 teachers go to work in this country. We go to try and mitigate the damage, to try and scrape out another few success stories, to try and inspire kids to look beyond their cirucmstances, to try to make things a little more less-worse.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Travon Free's open letter to Gingrich

In case you weren't convinced that Newt's an idiot by my open letter to him, here's Travon Free's. His open letter is his personal story and it's worth a read.


Thanks to Eminent Credulant, Michael Gallagher, for the heads up and link!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Goodbye Roberto; A Fond Farewell to A Kid We Couldn't Save

Roberto came to us last year when he was seventeen and had passed only 18 classes in his three year high-school career. A big kid, matching my 6'1" and besting me in weight by a good twenty pounds, he has a kind demeanor and a giggle that gurgles out whenever he's uncomfortable. He won't say much about what happens at his house, but what does leak out is painful to listen to.

He's smart and wants good things for himself, but he's an habitual pot-smoker and smoking has derailed both his plans and his efforts to right his own ship.

Like many of our chronic smokers, Roberto displays many other classic symptoms of PTSD.

But he's eighteen now -- a legal adult with no access to juvenile services so there isn't much we can do for him.

He knows he's got a problem. We've talked about it. He's come to me for help for it, but aside from referring him to counseling services, there's little I can do. He was of age before we got any insight into his homelife, so we can't call CPS. We can't legally refer him to any of the spiritual-based 12-step programs because we are a public school (though I've mentioned MA to him and told him how to look it up), but we can't continue to look the other way as he tries to sort it out himself. He's set off the smoke alarms twice trying to get high in the bathroom and he was busted a third time for smoking three feet from one of our school's ubiquitous surveillance cameras.

Childhood Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is, by some accounts, more common than obesity in neighborhoods like Watts, a byproduct of being chaperoned through childhood by sudden violence and needless tragedy. I'm not a psychologist, but I'm willing to bet that Roberto's seen enough of both. But there are limited services available for those like him that self-medicate against their own suffering. Counseling services have been thinned like all services in the great recession and even though the counselors we have are dedicated and good, they are not enough.

Roberto tries not to smoke, but on the days he comes to school straight, he wanders. He wanders to the bathroom. He wanders to talk with other students. He wanders to the printer. He wanders to the pencil sharpener. He wanders in wide slow circles around the classroom.

When he's not high he can't concentrate.

When he's not high he has trouble sleeping.

So we sometimes look the other way as kids cope as best they can. We don't ignore it. If they show up red-eyed and smiling with a soda in one hand and a can of Pringles in the other, we turn them around and send them home. If they smell like they've been smoking, they don't make it through the door.

But the ones like Roberto, who are professionals, they eat before they come, they change their shirts, they buy Visine at wholesale prices, so they fool most people. But they don't fool us. We cajole and remind and nag and hug and scold and praise and cheer, but we cannot cure.

The kids call him "Mota Man," which embarrasses him. One of the only times I've ever seen him angry was when a student called him that in front of me. He doesn't want to let me down.

He thinks of me as his father. He feels understood by me. He feels loved by me.

He cried when he told me that I was like a father to him. I wanted to cry, too, but I didn't.

On Friday I had to tell him that he was going to be dropped from our program at the semester.

I don't want to, but we can't keep him. We have too many other kids waiting for a space and he's had a year to show some improvement. Even though his attendance is good, his academic progress has been negligible. And he's been suspended a bunch of times.

Maybe the time away will be good for him. He'll be able to continue the counseling and maybe losing his adopted home will be the push he needs to change.

I told him that he could reapply in a while and if we have room he can try again.

But maybe he'll just fade further away, disappearing into the forests of lost young men in Watts.

He's been in my thoughts and prayers since he started with us and he will stay in them when he leaves us. He and so many others of my kids seem to need an act of God to save them.

Maybe if the rest of you all could pray for him, too, it would help.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Pidgen-Watts: Life or Death Language Lessons in South LA

I was in the office the other day and ran across a new kid. He was morose, sitting in one of the shit-seats where kids in trouble fidget while they wait to meet with the principal. He stared at me through a mop of thick stringy hair that fell in his face. I didn't know him, but I took a moment anyway because he looked like he needed a friend.

"Hey man, what's up?"

He looked at me. Friendliness from adults makes most students suspicious and often only brings defensive chaff in return, but this one was beyond that. He didn't say anything and he looked like he was going to cry. I sat down across from him.

"What happened?"

"I didn't know." He mumbled through his hair.

I began to feel like Dudley Pippin's principal -- a reference the kid in front of me surely wouldn't get.

"Didn't know what?"

"That fool didn't know enough not to say bootie out loud 'round here. Boy nearly got his ass kicked -- he was lucky it was in class and not in the hallway," another student in another shit seat offered before laughing and going back to her phone.

The poor kid was obviously not from around here.

Moving to Watts is like moving to a foreign country where the local language consists largely of English homophones -- it often sounds just like English, but the meanings are vastly and sometimes dangerously different. Fuck isn't rude, but Bootie can get you killed. That's what this kid had run into.

In most neighborhoods, bootie is a time-honored slang for a person's behind, most recognizable in phrases like "shake your bootie," or "bootie-scratcher," but here using it is bad news. Bootie-heads is what other gangs call the Bounty Hunters who populate the Imperial Courts housing projects and our school is filled to the brim with Bounty Hunters. This new kid had just called out one of our largest gangs accidentally. He wasn't morose, he was scared to death.

Bootie isn't the only one. You have to be careful about offering Bubblegum, too, because of the Broadway Crips. Don't mention Miniskirts or the Main Street Crips'll sit up and take notice.

I once called a kid a slob in class for leaving papers and trash all around his desk and the room nearly exploded with "oooh's" and "Oh shiit!"'s. A slob is an insult to Bloods. I now make sure to use "messy" instead, which doesn't offend anybody.

I love language more than most people and, for me, coming to work in Watts has been a gift. Each time a new word or phrase is tossed at me, I try and catch it so I can toss it back. I figure that if they have to learn formal English, the least I can do is learn to speak pidgen-Watts. There are multitudes of other, less dangerous, adaptations, too. If you get called thirsty, it doesn't mean you're parched, it means you're being overly aggressive and controlling. If you are angry you're "Turn't up," and if you share somebody's personal business, you're "Puttin' them on Blast." Being crusty isn't good. But being a "cold piece," means you're hard-hearted but respected. I, it turns out, have Swag and I also "got jokes" because I can hold my own when going to the dozens.


There's a lot to learn for a newcomer here. I struggled at first but as a teacher, I got pretty much a free pass so long as I was willing to learn; like the rest of us, kids would rather teach than learn. I've incorporated a lot of the language in my school-site discourse. My wife wouldn't recognize me if she heard me talk at school.

For me, it's fun. For kids, though, it can be life and death.

This poor kid in the shit-seat wasn't going to get a free pass. As a kid, he was going to have to learn the hard way. Even in a community as transient as ours, there is a strong slant towards the nativists and they enforce it. Hard.


"What's your name?" Not nice, not kind, not pitying, agressive so he'll know I don't think he's weak.

"Jorge." He looks up at me for the first time.

"You pretty much stepped in it, didn't you?" I laugh, hoping he'll laugh a little bit, too. He does. He nods.

I told him about calling the kid a slob. He looks at me, as lost as I was when it happened. I explain. He nods. I give him a rundown on some of the other no-no words and he listens. I don't know them all yet -- I discover new ones all the time -- but I know the main ones. He will, too, if he wants to survive.

Because it just isn't hard enough to grow up poor and transient.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Gulag Education: Walter Russell Mead and the Death of Liberal Arts

Every once in a while, somebody important takes a break from keeping the world spinning just long enough to point out just how the rest of us aren't pulling our weight. Walter Russel Mead, internationally recognized expert on foreign affairs and editor of "The American Interest" magazine, has just done so, taking his hands off the wheel just long enough to use his bully pulpit to beat the shit out of a 22 year-old freelance writer.

Thanks, Walt.

Vanessa Formato, the writer in question, is a 22-year-old self-proclaimed "vegan cupcake enthusiast" who "tweets about puppies" and I am sure that she intended her article to neither be an exegesis on policy nor the topic of conversation at "The American Interest."

But Mead, who strongly encouraged regime change in Iraq, is evidently still a subscriber to the policy of overwhelming force and he employs it here against poor Ms. Formato. He accuses her of "producing prose redolent of relentless stupidity" and holds her up as an example of "the vacuous nature of the modern American mind"

What horrible thing did she write?

A puff-piece published in the Boston Globe entitled "10 College Courses You Wished You Registered For" that dared to wistfully yearn for the ability to take classes in surf culture, burlesque and toy design rather than a courseload full of classes that "you're absolutely dreading."

Mead pedantically explains to his blog readers that classes like these are step one in his "7 Steps to Ruin Your Life" and that students will destroy themselves by wasting their college years taking classes that don't result in "marketable skills."

The fact that he takes the time away from world events to declare Formato's writing to be "soggy, tasteless mush" is beyond uncalled for. But the real issue with Mead's screed is that it is yet another lightning bolt from Olympus that is squarely aimed at one of the things that makes education complete:

The context for all those marketable skills.

The Liberal Arts were developed by the ancient Greeks to be the foundation of a good education and they have slowly expanded since the Classical Era from rhetoric, grammar and logic to also include mathematics, geometry, music, literature, languages, philosophy, history, psychology, and science. The argument goes that a student who is versed in these areas will have both the skills necessary to be a productive citizen as well as the context necessary to know how, why, and where to best apply those skills to better themselves and the world.

And for those who do not want such things as art and music cluttering up their money-making, we have always had vocational, technical and professional schools instead. UEI will charge you just as much and they won't make you take anything fun.

But now, just as with K-12 education in this country, there is a direct and powerful assault on the liberal arts by those who would see our education system reducted to a Soviet gulag of marketable skills. Mead and others like him argue that any study that is not directly tethered to a vocation, to a profession or to a technical skill is a waste of time and money -- a dalliance that will distract and destroy the pupil. They envision a world where the educational mission is reduced to a metric of simple employability, saving no room for those who crave more.

Mead specifically sites one specific sort of student who should studiously avoid taking "fluff" classes -- a student who has taken out loans. His argument seems to be that, instead of re-investing in our post-secondary schools as a nation so we can provide a holistic education to all comers, we should solely reserve the fun classes for those whose parents are wealthy enough to let their children enjoy learning.

The enjoyment of learning, it seems, is a perk of privilege.

At Bard College, where Mr. Mead sits high on his endowed chair, there are classes in "The History of Cinema; The Silent Era", and "American Popular Song" that I am sure he is actively attempting to get means tested so that poorer students are disallowed. After all, to let them take such courses would be "financial fraud"

By his own argument, I would think that Mr. Mead himself shouldn't have earned that BA in English Literature -- we all know that lit majors don't get jobs.

But the fact is that they do. And so do anthropology majors and history majors and music majors. Oddly, psychology and geography majors are the most employable and IT majors are the least. Most companies would rather have a literate thinker than a technician. I have two friends who are highly successful in IT. One was a music major. The other majored in journalism. They could think, communicate and learn which means that they have stayed relevant into their forties.


What's really sad about it all is that these days high school sucks. The last thirty years of banshee wails about our "Nation at Risk," coupled with reductions in school funding and the emergence of high-stakes testing have led to the steady scraping of "chaff" from our curriculum. We have lost woodshop, creative writing, auto shop, home economics, visual arts, music classes, and drama all over the country.

I see transcripts every day from students entering our program and it is rare that I see a class that isn't directly tied to a state requirement or the mandates of No Child Left Behind. "Read 180," "Math Intervention," and "CaHSEE Support" have choked out everything else.

And it seems that if the Meads of the world have their way, college will be just like high school.

On some level, I know that Mr. Mead understands that we cannot survive in a world where there are only engineers. He himself once saw the utility of courses in the Romantics and chose seminars on Pindar over Applied Physics. I'm sure at the time he understood that we did not create civilization in order to limit ourselves to marketable skills, that instead the glory of civilization is that we are able to spend our time pursuing our interests, not just meeting our needs.

And I'm sure that if he thought about it, he would see that the ones who most desperately need to indulge their curiousities are the very students he and others would preclude from the opportunity to do so. Being poor is already its own punishment -- there's no need to make it worse.

So shame on you, Mr. Mead. You owe Vanessa an apology and maybe you should audit that class on silent film so you can remember what it's really all about.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Tablets not Textbooks? What do you think?

So, as this article shows us, it's already beginning to happen. Textbooks are being replaced with tablet computers. I'm still on the fence about this personally, so I'm curious what you all think. Good idea? Bad idea? Strengths? Limitations? Pitfalls? Potential?

Comment and coverse so I can figure out my own mind.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Interesting Article on Standardized Testing

I haven't commented much on standardized testing, but I will be doing so soon. Here's an interesting article that relates the experience of a (possibly) NYC school board member who took the 10th grade required exams.

He failed them, and his take on the process and its implications are worth sharing.

More later!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Learning from Beggars: How to Be Human So People Will See You

Sally asks for money at least once a week. It started small with cadges like, "Singer, you got a dollar for the bus?" I'd give it to her if I had it. Sometimes I'd dip into the cash we keep on hand for kids who need a little. She's a good kid. She's friendly, funny, she works hard and her homelife is a massive mess.

She's not alone, by the way. Teachers tend to be soft targets for kids who need a little bit of fold in their pocket, but most kids aren't as nuanced as Sally. Most try asking for money with "Give me a dollar. I know you got one." I give them a dollar occasionally if I have one and I feel like it.

Sally's better at it than most. She started including a back story and the amounts started to grow. Her brother took her cash and she couldn't afford food. Her mom stole twenty dollars from her and she needed to buy some personal items. She started to spread it around, too, asking other teachers and the IAs. It became a topic of discussion among us -- whether she was lying, whether we should continue to give her money.

She sensed the change in our attitudes as we transformed from cavalier benefactors to tightfisted misers. She began to change her tactics.

She started to leave notes on my chair:

"Dear Mr. Singer, I know I'm always asking you for money and I feel real bad doing it again but I need five dollars so I can buy some food. My mom said she's not gonna let me eat hers no more."

That one earned five dollars.

But just as Mr. Peachum, who's job it was to arouse human pity, had to continually find new ways to entice the hardhearted citizens of London to part with their pence and shillings, so Sally had to continually find new ways to arouse our pity.

The notes started to come in envelopes. That worked for a little while, but then we forced her to up her game again.

She began new notes by telling us how important we are, how much she appreciated everything we were doing for her.

I'm softhearted. I keep giving her money, but some of my co-workers have decided to try and cut her off. I can't say they're wrong. They probably aren't. My coworkers are suggesting that we refer Sally for counseling.

I'm not convinced there's anything wrong with what she's doing. As a matter of fact, I think we could learn from her.

Daniel Ariely, a personal hero of mine, recently did a study on begging, specifically looking at the question of why some beggars were more successful than others. What he found was that the more closely a person in need adheres to the basic elements of polite social interactions, the more likely they are to be paid. A person who sits on the sidewalk, eyes down, is easily ignored. A person who is standing, puts out their hand to shake yours, makes eye contact, and converses directly with you is highly likely to end up with change in his pocket.

His conclusions are important:



I think there are two main lessons here. The first is to realize how much of our lives are structured by social norms. We do what we think is right, and if someone gives us a hand, there’s a good chance we will shake it, make eye contact, and act very differently than we would otherwise.

The second lesson is to confront the tendency to avert our eyes when we know that someone is in need. We realize that if we face the problem, we’ll feel compelled to do something about it, and so we avoid looking and thereby avoid the temptation to give in and help. We know that if we stop for a beggar on the street, we will have a very hard time refusing his plea for help, so we try hard to ignore the hardship in front of us: we want to see, hear, and speak no evil. And if we can pretend that it isn’t there, we can trick ourselves into believing –at least for that moment– that it doesn’t exist. The good news is that, while it is difficult to stop ignoring the sad things, if we actively chose to pay attention there is a good chance that we will take an action and help a person in need.

Sally picked this up intuitively. Her earnings (and our discomfort with her earnings) are evidence of the fact that she has effectively exploited our social norms and as a result we've each parted with considerable sums of cash.

This cat-and-mouse between people in need and people who can help is age-old. Each of us engages in it on a regular basis whether it be with the guy holding a hand-written sign at the stoplight, a student, or with the charity mailers that separate the bills in our mailboxes. Each is working hard to push through our willful blindness in order to engage us on a human level because they know the simple truth about most humans:

If we are forced to confront the fact that other people are suffering, we feel obligated to try and help.

There are, of course, notable exceptions to this maxim. just ask Kitty Genovese, but on the whole most people, when forced to identify with somebody in need of help, will do so. It works on the individual level quite well. If it didn't, people wouldn't continue ask for help. We are not John Galt, no matter how much some people wish we could be.

Where it doesn't work as well is in the larger abstract sense. When people aren't confronted with the reality of need, when it is presented as an abstract concept like Welfare or Unemployment Benefits or WIC or Housing Assistance or Failing Schools or Starvation or Homelessness, we are able to substitute the distance and caution that comes along with every use of the third person plural, "They" instead of the connection and concern that comes naturally to most of us when we are forced to use the second person, "You," or the first person, "We."

Sally gets money from us because she's Sally. Poor kids get told that they have no work habits because they are "They."

So, in order to create change in our society, we must create a personal connection between the 1% and the 99%. As long as we are "they," we can be ignored. As long as "they" are "they," they will be hated. Just as in Daniel Ariely's study, if we cannot make eye contact, if we cannot force a handshake, we cannot get the change we need.

The Occupy Movement has been enormously successful in forcing awareness, but already the level of interest has waned outside of those of us who are involved. By stepping outside the social norms, we made the first step -- we got them to look at us, but we we didn't force any form of personal connection and we are already being re-ignored. To continue along this line, we would need to continually up our game just as Mr. Peachum said and just as Sally did.

But just like in any family fight, after the shouted catharsis must come the quiet conversation, not louder shouting. Without quiet considered conversation, no changes will be made and the fight will recur and escalate.

Most of us are not beggars -- and neither is the Occupy Movement. Therefore, we need to be able to engage in direct conversation. We need to create circumstances where one on one dialogue can occur. It may seem counter-intuitive when we are dealing with a problem as massive and as complicated as income and wealth inequality and a lack of social mobility, but without human connection, we each will continue to be "they" to the other and that will mean that, just like a panhandler, we will have to get continually louder and more aggressive in order to be heard because they will continue to get better at ignoring us.

It's time to talk without shouting. Ed Speenburgh, an occupier in Gainesville, Florida is hard to ignore even though he speaks softly. Another raucous demonstration in the streets is getting easy to ignore because it's simply more white noise.

As a society, we are good at ignoring massive upheavals, but we can't seem to ignore the plight of a single individual and will move heaven and earth to help. Just ask Mamie Carthan Till or Baby Jessica.

Marches and protests are important, but massive changes in society have always come about with a massive change in individual beliefs caused by humanization. Now might be the time to start talking.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Career College Cancer; Destroying Lives for Profit

Social Mobility, the ability to get a leg up and leverage a foothold on the ladder into vertical motion, is the holy grail for anybody who works with or lives in poverty.

For those that subsist on the ground floor, beneath the bottom rung of the American ladder, whether millionaires pay their fair share is less important than rent.

Today, Arne Duncan explained that post-secondary education is still the key to social mobility in this country. He told the American People that "Going to college, by far, is the best long-term investment any individual can make for their future."

Now, many of my students aren't even sure that they can (or even want to) finish high school. My classroom is filled with second-chancers who have already lost the ability to graduate in the traditional fashion, so when one of them comes around and decides that they want to go to college, it's a moment of celebration and it becomes our job to breathe energy into whatever has kindled the small flame inside.

But that's hard to do when college often means Everest, Devry, AI, or UEI.

A few days ago Laura, one of my students, came in to show me something. She was excited. She'd been researching colleges and had settled on one. She pulled out a brochure and my heart sank. She wants to go to UEI.

If you've not heard of it, you can use any one of the thousand other for-profit career-technical schools as a reference point. UEI specializes -- as many of them do -- in low-end certificated employment programs like "Criminal Justice" (TSA Screening, Gaming Observer, Security Guard) and Business Office Administration (secretarial school).

"What do you think?" she asked.

What do I think? I think that we need to be more specific when we talk about post-secondary education being the key to social mobility.

I think the same thing I think when any predator snags new prey. I think the same thing I do when anybody falls for a cheap line. I think the same thing I do when somebody I know tells me that they're reading Dianetics.

What do I think?

I think the for-profit post-secondary education industry is the single most horrible thing to happen to education and social mobility in this country in the last generation.

Education may be the key to social mobility, but education is not what the for-profit colleges offer.

Education cannot be done for a profit because education, the process of taking somebody who is knowledgeless and unskilled and transforming them into a skilled and knowledgeable contributor to society, is definitionally unprofitable. The people that require education require it because they do not yet have the capacity to earn. A For-Profit University cannot make money educating people, so therefore their mission is not fulfilled through education.

The for-profit nature of the institution's mission means that education is not an end product, but a means by which the institution can reap profit. And since their students are low-yield on that front, the school's chief focus is not on them. The institution's chief focus must be on the students'money-gathering properties.

Recently, the General Accounting Office investigated the for-profit university scams. They focused on 15 colleges and found that all 15 engaged in deceptive and misleading practices. Four of the fifteen engaged in outright fraud. Even Wall Street is souring on the for-profits because the model is truly unsustainable without rampant dishonesty.

Laura, just like most all of their other students, will have to take out loans and the school will do whatever it can to ensure that she receives them, including fraud, deceit, and trickery.

And what she will receive in return for her ability to gather money for her corporate master is a debt load and a useless degree that will trap her permanently in the underclass.

$10,000 in debt in order to earn $15 per hour.

$10,000 in debt to learn skills similar to the ones that we used to teach in public school vocational programs.

A poor girl will go $10,000 in debt in order to support corporate profit.

Fuck For-Profit Colleges.

That's what I think, but what do I say?

"I think it's good to be looking at college, Laura, but are you sure that this is the one you want?"

She is. She wants to do Dental Assistant.

I nod and suggest we look at the website. I pull it up and we begin to go through what she will need to do for her degree. It's an 8-month program.

I ask her whether this is what she wants to do for the rest of her life. She shrugs. "I can get a job with this. I want money."

I open the link to the required regulatory information and show her the figures. I point out that only 37% of the students finish the course in 8 months and that even then 1 in 5 are unable to find a job. Another truth of the for-profit university world is that a graduate is more work and less money than a drop-out. A person that completes the program is reflected in the job-placement statistics and, frankly, there aren't that many jobs out there for dental assistants and even fewer for other programs. It's better for the university to have students go for an extended period of time, max out their loans, and drop out before completion. The college gets the same amount of money either way.

Then I show her that the median loan debt for her program would be nearly $10,000.

She looks at me, shocked. She reaches over and goes to the "FAQ" section and tries to open the link to "How long will it take me to complete my training program." The link is broken (this is a fairly common trick in the for-profit university world. None of the FAQ links for UEI work. At the Everest College site, the link for articulation agreements from their regulatory page fails to load, so there is nowhere on the site that explains that your credits cannot be transferred to any other institution should you decide to switch).

"What the fuck am I gonna do?" She asks, "I don't want to owe no $10,000"

So I opened the LA City College website and showed her that they offer an identical program, with actual college credit, for $2,772 plus books.

Our community colleges are overcrowded. They are trimming programs left and right, their campuses aren't clean and shiny, but they are the socialized alternative to the privatized, for-profit, trap and they do an amazing job for our young people.

We look at the program together, we look at the costs, the classes, the books (LACC's website doesn't require you to give contact information before you can review the programs, another way they are different from the for-profits. LACC won't call students 180 times to try and convince them to attend. They attract students by being good, they don't have to promote themselves through high-pressure sales tactics, glossy ads, and deceit.

By the time we're done, she's sold.

Socialism works when it comes to education. And even though Republicans are hell-bent on destroying public education so that their corporatist backers can reap more profit, they haven't closed them all yet, so that's where Laura will go instead.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Marvin Does Time: Why a Kid Chooses Jail Over School

Marvin, who I've written about earlier, is back in jail. He was part of a chainsnatch robbery and even though he didn't snatch the chain himself he was there and he was on probation so he's back inside. He could be released back to probation if he were willing to go back on house arrest and attend school, but he says he'd rather stay in jail. His incarceration saddens and frustrates me both personally and professionally.

Mainly, I'm frustrated because he has chosen to stay in jail rather than be put on house arrest because he would be forced to return to school.

This isn't because he comes from a bad family. He doesn't. His mom and dad are good parents and hardworking people. They are supportive, intelligent, and both understand the value of -- and are willing to support -- his education.

It is more related to the fact that he doesn't come from a bad family and the dissonance between his reality and his personal narrative is painful. Each of us has a dominant narrative into which we incorporate the events and interactions of our daily existence and Marvin's narrative is founded in badassery. He wants to be hard. He wants to be a thug and it is easier to align himself with his story in lock-up than it is in a classroom.

But it's not just that. There are dozens of kids that fall away from our school each year and many of them don't have a thug narrative and aren't involved in gangs and crime. For many of them their narratives are victim-based or built around self-loathing. But in all cases our schools have played a huge roll in creating the circumstances that make dropping out seem like a valid and reasonable choice.

We tell kids that school is vital. We tell them that getting a high school diploma is the most important thing that they can do. We beg, we scold, we yell and we cheer all in an effort to squeeze another graduate out of the tube. Our national emphasis is on graduation. High school is the only time in any of our lives when entire institutions are willing to bend over backwards in order to ensure our success. High school students are rewarded for attendance and for academic achievement. There are even movements afoot to pay students money to attend and succeed.

But at the same time, we treat them like criminals.

The article on Common Dreams today regarding the 'School to Prison Pipeline' starts like this:

Metal detectors. Teams of drug-sniffing dogs. Armed guards and riot police. Forbiddingly high walls topped with barbed wire.

Such descriptions befit a prison or perhaps a high-security checkpoint in a war zone. But in the U.S., these scenes of surveillance and control are most visible in public schools, where in some areas, education is becoming increasingly synonymous with incarceration.

That article concerns itself with the aggressive policing and policy enforcement by schools and school police which has the potentiality to destroy students. It's a real issue, but the problem is both older and more institutional than that:

Our schools manufacture alienation.

I've written about this in more detail before, but it is important to remember that our schools were designed in part with the advice and consult of Andrew Carnegie and other Gilded Age industrialists in order to tailor the educational product to the needs of the product's consumer. Since most public education products would be working in an industrial setting, it made sense to acculturate them to factory life in their adolescence so that they would be able to make the jump from pupil to cog with little added training.

Factories needed workers who responded to bells.

Factories needed workers who were capable of basic math and literacy.

Factories needed workers who were able to follow directions.

Factories needed workers who did not question authority.

Factories needed workers who did not attempt to think beyond the requirements of their duties.

Factories needed workers who were conditioned to repetitive simple tasks.

So schools tailored their factories to produce factory workers. They even designed the schools to resemble the factories in which their products would labor later in life.


But there are no more factories and the institutions, pathways and methodologies we have spent a century creating, that we cling to because this is how we've always done it, are now anachronistic and ridiculous. For the last thirty years, our schools have been home to a massive self-defeating hypocrisy where we are using a factory model in an attempt to create knowledge workers.

We tell our kids to think for themselves because the modern workforce needs critical thinking, but we punish them for doing so when their analyses don't match the conclusions required by the tests.

We encourage kids to be individuals, but reward conformity and punish dissent within the massive institutional system that is public education.

We want kids to be self-regulating, but still demand absolute obedience to tardy-bells.

We implore kids to express themselves, but we still don't allow them to question authority.

We rhapsodize about creativity, but we don't allow kids to apply it to our curriculum which is forged in steel.

Our aspirations are digital, but our actions are still industrial and for children who grow up in neighborhoods like Marvin's, where they are told over and over again that school is their only way out, confusion and frustration feed their often destructive narratives. Confusion and frustration are a short straight path to alienation.

And for Marvin and other kids like him, alienation means being more comfortable behind bars than in class.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

An Open Response to Drs. Biggs and Richwine at the Heritage Foundation

Dear Drs. Richwine and Biggs:

I read the Heritage Foundation Report on Teaching this morning. I found it because it was referenced at Daily Kos and I read it through over lunch.

It had me thinking all day about my chosen profession.

Your facts weren't necessarily wrong, and your conclusions were predictable. You don't like the idea of public education -- you see it as a government intrusion into a marketplace that should be dominated by private industry -- and so it's really no surprise when you extend your distaste to us who do the dirty demon work of socializing and educating America's youth.

So yes. Yes we are compensated well in excess of our private school counterparts. Yes we generally scored more poorly on the SATs than our private sector counterparts. Yes we still have pensions and job security.

Yes. Yes. Yes.

But. But But But.

But I have mentored a lawyer and a transplant surgeon who were making mid-career switches. neither lasted a year in a job that I do with pleasure. Those coming from better-compensated fields are much less likely to stay.

But I have watched private school teacher after private school teacher earn their credentials so they could come join us in the pay-haven of public schools only to turn around and go back to where there's toilet paper, working copiers, student loads under 100, and students they weren't afraid of.

But, just like all front-line civil servants, we are exposed to the capricious and sometimes vindictive wishes of the populous. We have our job security because without it, we could not be effective.

But I did well on my SATs because I had parents who weren't willing to let me do poorly. They paid for special intensive classes. My 1340 was as much the result of money as it was the result of brains. Were yours so different?

And a special but for those of us who willingly work in places like Watts:

But without us, our country may never be able to recover from the damage that's been done by years of social and political neglect.

As we are seeing on the national and international scale right now with the Occupy Movement, the social contract that bind a people and their government has frayed in the middle class.

But there isn't an Occupy Watts because in Watts and neighborhoods and communities like it around the country, the social contract has already snapped. It was ripped asunder generations ago in a massive display of frustration and instead of being renewed, it was replaced with a simple detente.

For most of the rest of us, this detente has been easy to mistake for renewal, but it is not.

But the students I see everyday don't make that mistake. The children of the detente are not raised in a world where government provides safety and ensures the ability of its citizens to exercise the rights endowed to them by their creator. The children of the detente are raised to see authority with a skepticism that many of the middle class have only learned to adopt later in life and with a cynicism that is heartbreaking.

In the detente, social services are often viewed as entitlements instead of a leg up because in the detente, there is no easy foothold.

In the detente there is no Officer Friendly.

In the detente, the assumption is that teachers and social workers hate their jobs.

In the detente, nobody chooses to be a lifer.

But if we are ever to renew the contract with the urban poor, it is going to be the teachers, police, and social workers that do it. It certainly won't be politicians or Ph.Ds.

And unless the contract is renewed, the libertarian/conservative dream world where opportunity is a choice for all will never come to fruition.

With this in mind, I ask that you, Drs. Richwine and Biggs, reflect for a moment. If we are dumb and overpaid, then we should not be entrusted with the daily diplomacy necessary for renegotiating a broken social contract between a betrayed people and the government they believe has betrayed them.

Maybe you, good Doctors, and your friends at Heritage should be the ones who must always keep in mind that every negative interaction you have during the course of your day while you attempt to do good is a concrete confirmation of hopelessness.

Maybe you should be the ones to inspire change in bad habits that were years in the making. Our students are often a bundled soft core of fear and hurt wrapped in a cage of steel and covered with a soft, thin, skin, and I must warn you that you need to be careful on your approach because piercing skin means hitting steel.

But maybe you would be better suited to unbuckle the taught steel that has been forged inside our students by crime, poverty, hopelessness and the deep belief that nobody cares about them.

Maybe you will be willing to take the time to dismantle the metal-hard shields through long-term, honest, earnest, relationships.

Maybe you would better suited to the burden of knowing that if you make a promise, if you create an opening into the hurt underneath, that you had better be there to see it through or you will have destroyed an opportunity to heal a child and the country in which you both live.

Maybe you would be a better representative of the state than me and my colleagues who are dumb.

Maybe you know a better way to convince a child that the American Promise hasn't been broken.

But unless you are willing to unleash the power of your naturally high SAT scores to help us, you should probably shut the fuck up.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

1% For Teachers: An Immodest Proposal for Teacher Pay

"You couldn't pay me enough to do what you do," a friend told me the other day.

"It's not for everybody," I replied. It's become my stock response in such situations because every time I'm asked that question. My only other choice seems to be to paraphrase Taylor Mali and his "What does a teacher make?" rant, but I'm not nearly as talented as him.

The fact is that, in purely financial terms, most teachers are choosing to earn less than we could in order to do what we do.

And yes, it is nice to get those emails from former students telling us how amazing we are and how much we changed their lives and how grateful they are and how much they want to be just like us. It warms the cockles of our hearts when those come through, but frankly, sweetness and love just doesn't pay off debt nearly as well as money.

This lower pay is, in part, to blame for things like high teacher turnover, low teacher morale, and the lack of quality applicants in high demand areas like math and science, as well as the resultant retardation of student progress.

If we steal Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hour meme with regards to proficiency, a teacher would need to be in the classroom (figuring the average new teacher puts in 7 hours at school and an additional 1.5 at home) for 6.5 years before they were truly competent. Sadly, 50% of teachers are gone within their first five years.

But it isn't practical to raise teacher salaries. In order to achieve public/private parity we would need to cough up 21 Billion dollars annually and there is just no way that this country is going to do that. We just aren't.

So how can we bring financial reward to both strong teaching and career endurance?

I know a way.

No, I don't mean value-added evaluations. No, not at all. Test scores can only tell us the proximate measure of teacher impact. They measure growth over a 10-month period with a microscopic focus on a narrowly defined sense of progress. Sure they're better than the often random and sometimes vindictive administrative evaluations they replace, but they are not the answer.

They don't even pretend to shed light on the ultimate impact that a teacher has on his or her students.

Ultimately, the success of the teacher should be measured by the success of the student later in life. Successful people owe something to the teachers that helped create them. They are expected to provide for their parents when mom and dad are in their dotage, but Mom and Dad dealt with them for only a few hours each day between 3:00 and bed time. It's the teachers that helped civilize the beasts and turn the pop-culture-puree that passed for a brain into a formidable learning and doing machine. There needs to be some equity in the return on investment here.

I hereby propose the "1% for the Teacher" program and it will work like this:

Every taxpaying American citizen shall be offered the opportunity to earmark 1% of their tax payment to be donated directly to the teacher of their choice that they believe had the greatest impact on their ability to earn and thrive in the modern world, so long as that teacher is still employed as a teacher or the teacher has retired after fully vesting in their pension.

Imagine a world where, come tax time, we sat down and reflected in front of our 1040 or our Schedule C and asked ourselves, "who forced me to learn my multiplication tables so that I don't have to pull out a calculator to figure my yearly income based on my hourly wage?" or "Who taught me that real reward came from doing hard work right?" or "Who believed in me when I was thirteen and I didn't believe in myself?" or "Who taught me to express myself so eloquently in writing so that I could tell people off politely but firmly when they email me with a work request at 4:53?"

And then we think of Ms. Jones, or Mr. Gomez, and we check the small box labeled "1% for Teachers" and we turn to our computers and find their name and school in the database and find their 9 digit Educator Tax Donation Number and we carefully copy the number into the blanks, knowing that our favored educator will finally be rewarded for their hard work. We can choose a different teacher every year, or if one is really special, the same one over and over again.

Now imagine that you are Ms. Jones or Mr. Gomez and you've slaved over your work for the past seven years. You've sacrificed for your students. You've bought them books and lunch and clothes. You've denied yourself time with your own children (who then ask pointedly whether you love your students more than you love them. It happens, believe me.) and you've fought hard against the shortsighted and abusive interference of petty bureaucrats and politicians as they arrogantly try to explain to you how to do a job they've never done. And now you're a veteran teacher and you've found your groove -- and you've topped the salary schedule in your district, so it's never going to get much better than this financially.

Now imagine going to the mailbox one day and finding a check from the IRS made up of small sums from Little Jimmy James and that knucklehead Larry Petersen (with whom you were patient when nobody else was), and others who's names bring back memories both grand and traumatic. You look at the names and you look at the check and you know that even now, years later, they are grateful enough to provide more than just kind words. They believe that what you did -- whether it wa that day when you made them do something over, or you gave that inspirational speech to get them over the hump, or something else -- was the thing that helped make them who they are today. And you know that the money is likely to keep coming so long as you stay teaching and doing it well.

In order to compensate for the fact that teaching in a high poverty neighborhood is likely to produce less 1% income than teaching in wealthy neighborhoods, a small portion of the 1% that is donated to teachers within a district would be siphoned off to augment the donations to teachers in poorer schools. Even the 1040EZ would have a 1% for teachers box and, though no money would come directly from a low-income tax return, a donation tied to the average donor contribution would be made to the teacher named using the 1% reserve fund created by the wealthier donations.

Imagine. A system where the rewards of teaching come from those who are the only ones who can truly assess your work and come from a time when your work can truly be assessed. This would be merit pay based on the ultimate product of a teacher's labor.

It is a system that would reward long careers. It is a system that would reward making a difference to children, rather than just stuffing their heads with tested knowledge. It is a system that allows teachers to continually increase their earnings up to and beyond the point of parity. It is a system where the teachers who truly make a difference glean the benefits of the difference they make.

Mr. Nagel, Ms. Dunning, Mr. Williams, Mr. Livingston, and Mr H.: I hereby start the fight for your 1% and when this plan is implemented, I'm donating 5% each year -- one for each of you.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Charter Schools with a Velvet Rope

I love charter schools. I've worked in and for charter schools for the last 10 years and I've never regretted it. I love them, I really do, but it's not the blind, wake-up-thinking-about-them, goofy-grin, what-faults-are-you-talking-about sort of love. It's the love that one feels after years of marriage. It's a deep, profound, eyes-wide-open and roll-my-eyes-because-I've-heard-this-story-a-thousand-times-before sort of love.

I've written about the realities of charter schools before. And I wrote about it again here. Charter schools are not a panacea. Charter schools will not solve our educational mess. While 3 of the top 5 schools in LA are charters, so are several of the schools on the bottom of the heap. Charter schools are not going to be consistently better or worse than existing public schools. Some are great, others suck in ways that are hard to explain to people who've not seen them in action.

Charter schools are public schools. They are not allowed to charge you to come. They aren't allowed to make demands of you that a traditional public school cannot make also. They are obligated to serve all comers. Most charter schools I've seen were created by well-meaning and good people who earnestly believe that what they are doing is going to provide options for children who might otherwise not have had any. Charter schools in Los Angeles provide art for the artless, dance for the danceless, second chances for the recently clueless, opportunities for those with otherwise limited reach, and alternatives for those who just don't fit in the industrial classroom.

But just like in a marriage, there are limits and my personal limit is when people of privilege use charter law to build a school that is designed to exclude, rather than include, students in need. Two of our better known charter elementary schools in Los Angeles, The Los Feliz Charter School for the Arts and Larchmont Charter Elementary have been finding ways to select certain families and children based on criteria such as financial and professional abilities and granting them preferred admittance in exchange for organizing fundraisers and donating volunteer hours. To me, this is an inexcusable violation of the spirit of the charter school movement in California and if it is allowed to continue, it opens the door to again creating the same inequities in public education that I and others have started charter schools to fix.

Even though both schools still employ a lottery for some of their seats, allowing some socio-economic diversity, Los Feliz Charter School for the Arts is serving a population that is only 40% free and reduced lunch and is in a neighborhood where the local district elementary, Glassell Park Elementary, serves 89% disadvantaged students. Glassell Park Elementary is not a bad school, but I would bet that there are 40 kids who go there who would rather go to the school where the Jonas Brothers played at the "Back to School" event down the street.

Exclusivity in charter admissions is an abomination and I am infuriated by it.

The bad actions of these two schools, and my suspicion is that they are not the only two, are putting the great works of hundreds of other charters at risk. It is wrong behavior. It is the behavior of those who elevate the needs of a few over the needs of the many.

It is the attitude of privilege in action.

It's only been in recent months that the national dialogue has allowed us to discuss the conflicting interests and power inequities of class in our country. Up until Occupy Wall Street, class conflict was mostly viewed as domestic dispute so it was politely ignored by passers-by and the victims tended to decompose quietly as they went about the daily business of making do.

The pernicious twisting of programs like public schooling, which were designed for public good and were intended as an equalizer, so that the lion's share of benefits falls to those who need them the least is the story of class struggle in education. The loophole in the law that created this opportunity must be closed. We cannot allow one of the few good things to happen to public schools in recent years to be turned into yet another place where privilege has its privileges.

Monday, October 17, 2011

What would you do for a dollar?

Kids struggle with money. No matter what school I've been in, when it's come to understanding how money works, they're lost. It doesn't matter if they're children of privilege or children of hardship, they just don't get money.

It's no wonder, really. The reality of money is very abstract. Kids have been holding dollars in their grubby little hands since before they could be relied on to properly wipe themselves, but most of them have never thought to ask what it is. Money usually just comes to them. It comes to them from work, from family, from crime, and from fortune, but just like their phones and their TVs, the mechanics of the system are foggy even though the practical applications are readily visible.

But their futures don't depend on being able to understand how their phones work, and all of our futures depend on making sure that all of our children understand the realities of their currency.

Recently, one of my students was struggling with this issue in his econ class. Walter is an intense and thoughtful kid with a melancholy affect. He's studious at times, but is also prone to long periods of staring blankly at work and to the occasional loud forays to other areas of the room when he's frustrated. Economics had him doing both.

"What's the problem," I asked him as I shepherded him back to his seat for the fourth time that day.

He gestured to an article on the money supply. "I don't get it."

I reached into my back pocket and extracted a single dollar bill.

"Walter, what's this?"







"A dollar."

"What's it worth?"

"It's worth a dollar."

"A dollar is worth a dollar," I smile and he does, too. "What would you do for a dollar?"

"Nothin. It ain't worth shit, it's like a twentieth of a 'dub," he cocked his head, "I'd do somethin' for a dub..."

"Well if it isn't worth anything..." I pinch the dollar with two hands and begin to tear it, "then I should just throw it away."

He reaches out to stop me. "Shit man, you gonna rip up money, you should just give it to me."

I hand him the dollar, "So obviously it's worth something to you. What can you get with it?"

He told me. With one dollar, he could purchase a candy bar, a can of soda, a small bag of chips. Almost always, the answer comes back to me in food form. It's what kids buy for themselves, so it's what they know. Walter, like all people, understood the practical application of money and, just like all people, he intuitively understood resource properties --a dollar contains the dual qualities of scarcity and demand so therefore it has value -- but his knowledge of money was just as unconscious as a housecat's knowledge of physics. Unlike a housecat, though, Walter was capable of understanding the mechanics behind his actions.

"So, Walter, tell me. When you walk into the liquor store to get a bag of chips, why is the guy there willing to take this," I wiggle the dollar that I'm holding, "in exchange?"

He bulges his eyes at me a little and wiggles his head. "Cuz it's a dollar."

"Why?" I repeat.

He laughs and shrugs and looks at the dollar some more.

"But why?" I repeat.

He howls a little frustrated, strangled howl that gets the attention of the rest of the kids in class. "Is he doin' the dollar thing with you?" one of them shouts and then laughs. Walter's not the first kid I've done this with.

"Why what," he finally asks.

"Why do we all believe that that piece of cloth paper in your hand is worth a bag of chips?"

He shakes his head and gives up, "I don't know man... we just do!"

And this is the core truth of our economic system. They whole thing is an article of faith held together with spit, big words and bailing wire. The average person thinks of a dollar as an item with intrinsic value, but it's not. In our economic system, a dollar is a resource just like oil, gold, and bandwidth. Its worth is implied in what it can be used for, not in its simple existence. Walter, like almost all people, thinks of his dollar in terms of what he can purchase for it in a simple exchange.

But he needs to change his view because that's not how the 1% think about money. Throughout our history our long roster of the 1%'ers have understood that if you control a resource, you control everybody who needs it.

Carnegie did it with Steel. Rockefeller did it with oil. The railroad barons were masters of it.

But the average person at the time didn't need oil or steel or railroads in order to live a meager life.

But that's changed recently because now much of ourcurrent 1% are doing it with money itself.

This means that all of us are now dependent on them.

We borrow money from them. We owe money to them. They control our retirements, our pensions and our futures. And just as Carnegie explained in the "Gospel on Wealth," they insist that their existence in our lives is necessary and that what is good for them is good for us.

We struggle with how to push back against them because they own our houses.

Our entire nation has become a company town and we all owe our souls to the company store. And just like hostages of any other sort, we have begun to believe that our only hope resides with their contentment. We cringe when the Dow Jones goes down and cheer when it rises. A bunch of us are really sure that giving them access to more money through tax cuts and deregulation will really help the rest of us. But the one that bothers me the most is when we watch the CPI each month and we all hope that it doesn't budge.

We are delusional.

If we had just a little bit of inflation, if we had just a little less faith in our dollars, we could fight back.

A little bit of inflation would mean that those dollars that the 1% are hoarding would be worth less. Our debts would be worth less. Our houses might actually break the surface and we might be able to breathe. It wouldn't be a panacea, but it might be a palliative for the hurting classes right now. Inflation is only a problem if people owe you money. That's not a problem for 99% of us. For the 99%, it might be a lifesaver.

The

If money is worth less, it hurts less to lend it.

If money is worth less, it hurts less to spend it.

If you are worried that our wages may not keep up, evidence points to no. Inflation necessitates wage growth.


As you can see in this graph, even during the stagflation of the 1970's, wages grew commensurate with inflation.


It would also mean COLA increases for those surviving on government assistance and social security.
Inflation won't solve everything, but it could help us all just a little bit.

But it's not going to happen unless we change how we think about money.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Pawnthink and the Power of Personal Narrative

When I orient new students to my school, I always remind them why they're here:

"Everybody who's here has screwed up. Either y'all did something, or something happened to you, or you had bad habits and it landed you here. We are the land of second chances and the only reason to be here is if your first chance has been used up."

Our school is designed for kids who didn't do high school right the first time.

Most of the time, heads nod. They know. It's not news to them that they didn't do everything right. Most of them have been hearing it since kindergarten or before. My kids are the ones who couldn't line up, couldn't sit still, couldn't stay quiet, and couldn't resist talking back. My students didn't D.A.R.E to stay off drugs. On days when the Watts Childcare center is closed, our attendance drops by a 25% -- all female.

Nodding in an orientation is easy. Changing is much harder.

They may know they made mistakes, but in order to get right with their own best hopes for themselves, they're going to have to do more than nod. They've got to change their narrative.

Our personal narratives are our guides to how we understand the world and the most common narratives among my students are destructive. These children's best hopes are ephemeral and distant and without a change in their personal narrative, their hopes will diminish and then die.

We do what we can to keep them alive.

We can teach them how to line up and we can teach them how to ask questions. We can teach them how to take notes but it isn't so easy to teach them how not to give up. We can teach them not to sleep in class and we can teach them how to show up to school. We can teach them proper ways of addressing authority and we can remind them that calling a teacher a "punk-ass bitch" didn't work so well for them before and that now might be a good time to change.

But it is much harder to teach somebody who has believed since before their earliest memories that they are powerless over the world and that the world is dark,dangerous and out to get them that their own choices have had a starring role in their personal destruction (Click here for more on this worldview in my students).

While our students are all near the age of majority, the dominant narrative is victim-based and leads to an emotional age that hovers far lower. We get tantrums because being a victim sucks. We teachers have all been trained on how to assess levels and types of anger and how to manage, deescalate and distract our students so that no permanent damage is done to our furniture, ourselves, our students, or the tenuous grasp on a second chance that each of them has.

Our classrooms can get chaotic -- sometimes there can be 60 or 70 bear cubs in the room with only two or three adults to keep it together.

And sometimes we reach a point where we have to let one of them go.

Meet Jerry. He's not leaving us yet, but if he can't snap his narrative, he's on his way. He's a nice kid. He's funny and he's a showman. He's a one-man, one-ring, circus who amuses the other kids to no end, but he doesn't get any work done and he's not progressing towards graduation. If you ask him why, he'll tell you that it's because of: people stealing his work, us not seeing the work that he's doing, us picking on him, other kids setting him up, people picking on him.

Today was a bad Jerry day and part of it went like this:

"Jerry, we've got to talk," I started as he settled back in his seat having just returned from the office where he'd been referred by another teacher for dancing around the classroom and singing and then saying, "yeah, sure, baby -- whatever you want, I can do for you," which she somehow found inappropriate.

"Oh jeez, Mr. Singer, I'z just about to get my work done, no'whut'I'msayin (he uses it like a period whenever he talks and it's a contagion that's infected the rest of us. We all say it now)"

"Even so, we've got to talk."

"What about?"

"What happened in Ms. ______'s class. You got yourself referred again. Come on outside with me." Going outside is where the "private" conversations happen -- it's a green mile in our school.

"I didn't do nothin'. I'z just getting my shit done, no'whut'I'msayin. She got it all bent outta shape." He's smiling and at the same time growing smaller in his chair. I'm trying not to smile because he's funny, but this isn't.

We got Jerry last year. He'd bounced from Compton to Watts to Los Vegas to Bakersfield and finally back to us. He'd lived with his mom, his grams, his dad, his brother, and finally back to his grams in that stretch and he's attended 5 different schools. He'd accumulated a little over 100 credits in the last four years and he was going to need another 130 to get his diploma. That's 26 classes. He's completed 4 since he came to us last November.

It's hard to convince a kid who's been essentially itinerant his whole life that he has some responsibility for what happens to him, but we try.

His time with us has been composed of long stretches of silliness and aggravation interspersed with short periods of hard work and a lot of redirection and counseling. We've had some real moments, too, between reminding him about not shouting across the room, not pinching girls, not stealing other students' backpacks, not dancing, not calling the female teachers "baby," not responding when somebody 'taxes' him or 'puts him on blast,' but each moment was quickly lost amidst the silly, the weird, and the sometimes downright tragic.

A friend of mine refers to the personal narrative of kids like Jerry as "pawnthink"

Each conversation with Jerry starts the same way this one did. Jerry thinks like a chess pawn. A pawn never moves itself, it is not autonomous and has no control over the board on which it will most likely live and die. Thusly, Jerry has never once been able to see that he plays a role in what happens to him. It's hard to take advantage of a second chance if you aren't willing to admit that it was you who blew the first one.


We continued the conversation in the parking lot. "Y'all are putting extras on this, no'whut'I'msayin?"

He pointed out some of the other cubs that were prone to playing in class. "I get my work done, no'whut'I'msayin? I'm handlin' my shit but you never see that. You always sure I'm fuckin' shit up."

I have my computer in my hand and when he sees me scrolling over to the gradebook where little progress has been recorded, he throws up his hands. "You gotcher mind made up about me, Mr. Singer. My name's always in your mouth and I don't do nothin compared to Deshawn or Rhonda but you aren't movin them out."

Deshawn and Rhonda were both aggravating. But they were also both progressing. We'll put up with a lot from a student who's making progress. Jerry knows that -- he was complaining about it earlier, sure that they couldn't have accomplished as much as they had -- but it doesn't play into his narrative, so now he ignores it.

Jerry's narrative, like all of ours, is strong. I don't know when it happens for us, but at some point in our lives, we decide how our story will be told and then we stick to it come hell or high water. For some people, enough pain can break the narrative's hold long enough for a new one to form, but for others it takes an awful lot more.

Jerry is one of those. I talked at him a bit more, but he wasn't hearing me anymore. When I talked to his grams later, she sighed. She can't get heard by him, either. She's not a pawn and she doesn't like pawnthink any more than I do.

Pawnthink is especially pernicious because it is so prevalent in neighborhoods like Watts where citizens actually don't have that much control over their circumstance. It becomes a vicious circle and builds into a pervasive sense of powerlessness that can dictate inaction even when action is possible.

And Pawnthink can be extraordinarily frustrating to the bishops, queens, kings, and rooks who come down here to work. We want to change things because we see how it could all be different. If they would just think like us. If they would just do what we say. If they would just stop defeating themselves. If they would just be different.

But the structure of the industrial school was designed to re-enforce pawnthink and teachers who are trying to combat it can find themselves working against the narrative in a structure that supports it.

When a child's narrative casts them as a pawn, large institutions do little to disabuse them of the notion.

But Jerry will be back at school tomorrow because he has learned to attend every day. And tomorrow we'll start hacking away at his narrative again.

And maybe tomorrow it'll finally snap.

And if we can get it to snap, then he can make the most of his second chance.


Blogger's Note: Please feel free to also see this as an extended metaphor for conversations with anyone who doesn't yet believe that standing up and taking action will pay off. I'm looking at you, non-voters.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Topeka Consideration: Costs, Benefits and Moral Decision-Making

It's been a a bit over a week since the Values Voters Summit ended and, again, the right wing of our country has been able to use the words Values and Morals without challenge by main stream media. Since the 1980's it has been a foregone conclusion that those people who rate morals and values as a priority in selecting a candidate will vote Republican.

They claim morality and values and we shy away from playing ball on their field so historically, they've won the debate by forfeit. This has remained true even as Republican policies and rhetoric have grown so venal that they have had to redefine Jesus in order to maintain their conceit as Christians.

Ironically, the Values Voter Summit took place the same week that the Topeka City Council, facing a dwindling budget which was going to force them to choose between street maintenance and court costs, decriminalized domestic violence along with some other misdemeanors in order to shift enforcement costs to the county and state.

The City Council's argument was simple: We need to cut 10% more from our current budget and misdemeanor courts are our biggest expense. Our biggest expense in the misdemeanor courts are the domestic violence prosecutions, so we can save the most money by decriminalizing them and letting the state and county take over.

Most of us were aghast when they did this -- we were appalled at the total lack of regard for the potential costs to society if domestic violence were deemed non-criminal. Think of the murders, the felony beatings, the damaged women, the hospital expenses, the destroyed lives. How could they not consider the consequences?!

They did consider the consequences. Here they are:

In the relationship between cities and counties, the cities handle misdemeanors and the county system handles felonies. If the city decriminalizes misdemeanor domestic violence and a woman is killed because of it, that's a county expense. If a victim is sent to the hospital and has no insurance, that's a county expense. If a child ends up in protective services that's, you guessed it, a county expense.

The Topeka City council made a rational decision.

Whenever any of us make a decision we tally up the costs and the benefits before acting. We weigh the impact of our choice in terms of time, money, happiness and lost opportunities and make our decision in favor of the preponderance of the evidence we've considered. This is exactly what the Topeka City Council did.

Pro: Reduced cost
Pro: No new taxes
Pro: No loss of other services
Con: Women and children will die
Con: People might think we're assholes

They went with pro because they value money more than people. And they've backtracked this decision not because of the potential damage it could do, but because too many people thought they were assholes.

They aren't alone, though. More abstractly, killing the jobs bill, defunding NPR, defunding women's health, flat taxes, 9-9-9 plans, campaigning against national health care, destroying the regulatory machinery, defunding schools, defunding social services, cutting medicaid, raising the retirement age, and privatizing social security are also examples of exempting morality from decision-making.

Without morality, all a person can value is personal time, money, and satisfaction which means too often our national decision-makers make decisions solely based on their own self-interest. Getting money and getting re-elected are the sole considerations.

In response to all of this, we make snarky remarks and point out the hypocricy of Republicans wearing the dual mantles of Values Voter and Moral Majority, but we need to stop that.

We need to be come the Moral Majority of Values Voters who loudly and enthusiastically incorporate values and morality into our decisions, into our rhetoric, and into our platforms. Not only is it the right thing to do, it is also our birthright as liberals.

As we saw in the reaction against the Topeka consideration, and as we are seeing on Wall Street and in civic plazas around the nation, moral outrage that is founded in true morality is a more powerful tool than base self-interest.

But if you don't believe me, just ask a Republican:

"A people that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both."


~Dwight D. Eisenhower, first inaugural address, 20 January 1953

Monday, October 10, 2011

Fighting For The Other 22%

One of my students asked me for a dollar again today.  She does it almost every day so that she can by a bag of chips and a granola bar.   I had one today, so I gave it to her.

100% of my students get free lunch.

33% of the minors in my program are in foster care.

Everybody is poor.

Their parents were poor, too.  So were their grandparents.

One student told me today, "We're waiting for the power to get turned back on."  Another mentioned that the reason he hadn't been coming was because they got the bill for his mom's surgery and the family needed him to work right now.

Several of them are homeless.


I wasn't born yet when LBJ declared his War on Poverty but I know we didn't win it -- the enemy has firm control over large swaths of our territory and is in charge of huge numbers of our people -- but I don't know when we gave up on it.

We did, though.  We still sometimes publish the body counts -- 22% American children lives in poverty and 9% live in extreme poverty -- but I haven't heard anybody mention winning the war on poverty in America recently.  

22% of children live in families that subsist on less than $22,000 per year for a family of 4.  9% of American children starve on less than $11,000 per year for a family of 4.

We sure as hell didn't win it and since we've stopped fighting we're nearly back to where we were before we started.  Just like in Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan, Iraq, the War on Terror and the War on Drugs, we've redefined victory and declared an end to the campaign.

Now when we talk about poverty, we split our time between blame and discussing  whether or not we should be providing palliative treatment.  We no longer discuss a cure.

This isn't true elsewhere.  England is still trying.  There was an editorial in the Guardian UK today that took the British Government to task for not having a clear enough strategic plan for ending child poverty in the UK.

In America we don't even have a strategic plan for ending child poverty to rail against for its ineffectiveness.

We don't even talk about it.  Breaking News:  7.5 Million children went hungry in America today.  But in today's LA Times, they fretted about the anti-Mormon elements in the Values Voter Conference (Jonah Goldberg: Morality not Theology), the Anti-Christian attitudes in Egypt ("Egypt's Petty Palm Embargo"), and a piece regarding the Nobel Prize for science ("Why Einstein was Wrong About Being Wrong").

Today in LA we seem to want to talk about religious intolerance, instead.


7.5 Million children who are living in extreme poverty in the land of plenty and The Grey Lady is only slightly less cuphineous.   In her opinion section, we can read about Scott Brown's body ("Naked in Massachusetts" ), why the OWS isn't worth our time (David Brooks' The Milquetoast Radicals), or why our economy is in real trouble ("This Time, It's Really Different") and why our government is unable to fix it ("Chipping Away at Gridlock").

We of the 99% recognize that the national debate is about saving the curtains or the carpet rather than extinguishing the fire that's consuming them.   We are tired of hearing about Casey Anthony, Amanda Knox, Dancing with the Stars, Mormon underwear, and Michael Jackson's Doctor.  We are frustrated and angry and looking for change because we are struggling mightily to try and make it, and we are becoming vocal because we believe that we have the right to do better than we are.

But the 22% aren't showing up.   Their electricity's been turned off.  They don't have any way to get downtown.   They're too hungry to bother and if my students are any indication, they don't hold out much hope for our efforts.

They never had insurance or a pension in the first place and they don't think that they're going to get either now.

So as we band together to keep ourselves from sliding into poverty to join them, as we rail against the excesses of the 1%, as we work to create change that benefits the 99%, I urge us all to fight a little longer and a little harder than we would if it were just ourselves we were fighting for.  There are millions of other Americans who are not yet standing up because they are just too fucking tired and we need to fight for them, too.  

Let's bring back the only War worth fighting in this country.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Watts-rich: The real meaning of income inequality in America

"You ball, right?" Donald, a new student, asked me as I was getting ready to walk away from his seat.

"I do ok," I responded, knowing what was coming. This wasn't the first time I'd had this conversation.

"How much you make?" Donald pressed.

I pivoted slowly back to face him and gave him a tired but friendly smile, "It's not polite to ask a man his salary," I told him.

"I don't mean disrespect," he assured me, "I just wanna know." The kid has big, friendly eyes that are made more engaging by his deep caramel color and wide grin.

I sighed and fell back to his desk. I told him my salary.

His eyes grew bigger. "Seriously? What's that..." He began to break it down by days, weeks, and months. When he'd arrived at a figure, he shook his head, "Naw, man. That can't be right." He showed me what he'd figured I earned per month.

I nodded, "That's right."

"You rich!" He smiled widely while shaking his head. My monthly salary made me competitive with the richest people he knew, including those who made their money illegally.

I started to shake my head, too. I wanted to tell him that I'm not rich, that I'm middle class, but it seemed inappropriate. Middle class is rich in Watts and it would be a lie to tell him otherwise.

Instead, I said: "For Watts, I am. Look, Donald, I seem rich to you because I do earn more money than most everybody you've ever met."

He nodded.

I wanted to continue, but I was stuck. I thought about telling him that it was all because of my college degree, or that it was the product of hard work, or even that, while I'm Watts-rich, I'm America-middle and for a Caucasian male with an advanced degree and thirteen years in a profession that I'm near the bottom of the financial heap.

But you don't tell a man who's intimidated by the hill in front of him that it's merely a foothill to the mountain behind.

Instead, I went for the PSA: "Education is the key, Donald. You remember what I told you about the difference between a drop-out and a college grad over a lifetime, right? One million dollars in earnings. That's why you're here with us. That's why you want to be doing well. I'm only ballin' because I did what you're trying to do now."

He laughed a rueful laugh. "You came up easy, dint'u?"

I smiled. "I made my own troubles, Donald, but you're right -- compared to here, I came up easy."

"So why you come down here?" He gestured with his chin to the whole neighborhood that pushed up against the ten-foot tall fence that surrounded the school.

"So I'd be somewhere where people thought I was ballin',"

He laughed. "Seriously, why you here?" The question had subtext and we both knew it. His experience had shown him that teachers in Watts fell into a very few categories and he needed help with my taxonomy.

"We've already established that I'm not returning to help kids like me. I'm also not here because it was the only place that would have me and I'm not here to build my resume," I watched him as he "x"'d out the possibilities as I rattled them off, "So I must be here because this is where I want to be."

"Why?"

"Because here I get to work with kids who kept looking for shortcuts in school. Y'all are the ones that I wished I could have gotten to when you were in my classes -- here I finally get to work with you and tell you that there are no shortcuts."

He looked down at his desk and shook his head. He mumbled something that I didn't hear.

"What?"

He looked up at me. He wasn't smiling. "The NBA"

This one had an answer I knew. "Hey, man, do you know how many players there are in the NBA? About 300. That's 300 out of 360 million Americans and 300 out of 6.3 billion people worldwide. Even if you are a phenom, you gotta have a back-up plan. You could be the best in LA and still not make it in the NBA. You gotta have something else to fall back on. That's why school is important."

I felt like a good teacher for a moment -- don't tell him he won't make it, but make sure he thinks about what else he could do if it doesn't happen.

He smiled, but it wasn't because he had learned something, it was because he already knew it. He rolled up his pant leg and gestured to the long red scar that ran vertically down his knee. "I don't have NBA dreams no more. That shit's over."

And that's why he was with us. My school is for kids who've fallen behind, screwed up, got sent up, got knocked up, or simply had their dreams destroyed like Donald. We are one of only a very few paths for young people who are trying to pick themselves off the floor and Donald had been knocked flat. He looked at the work laid out on his desk and the lesson displayed on his monitor, sighed, and rolled his pants leg back down.

"Now I gotta do this." And it was obvious that he didn't want to. And it was obvious that he thought it was too much. And it was obvious that he wasn't sold on the return on his investment. In a neighborhood without money, time is currency and finishing high-school was going to take his entire roll.

"You'll do it, Donald. You're too smart not to."

As I walked away, I thought back to a conversation I'd had a while back with a man who earns nearly 10-fold my salary. He insisted that he was middle class. I insisted that he was rich, but he demurred, "Rich people earn at least a million a year. I'm not there yet."

And that's how bad income inequality has gotten in our country.

Those on the bottom cannot even see beyond the middle of the ladder and those on the middle rungs are spread so far apart that we mistake the highest point we can see for the top -- even though we know that far beyond them lies the rarified regions of those that are so wealthy that we can no longer simply call them rich. The historic definitions of rich are now so outmoded that those who meet them feel middle-class by comparison.

And those at the top of the ladder? They can't even see us. There are clouds between us and them.

And Donald and all of those like him in whom the foundation of the ladder is secured? I wonder what will happen when they realize how high the ladder they're holding goes and how few of them will ever get to climb it.