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July 24, 2007

It Ain't The Teachers

Responding to Brink Lindsey's op-ed attributing poverty to "a lack of elementary self-discipline," a Wall Street Journal reader tries to explain what it's like to grow up in poverty:

Imagine you, or one of your own children, are born into a "family" where the adults who are supposed to protect you belittle you and beat you on a regular basis. You experience hunger even as a toddler. You babysit yourself beginning as early as four years of age for up to 20 hours per day. You are surrounded by filth, ignorance, drug abuse, alcoholism, disease and violence. You watch your siblings suffer the same torture and by your early teens you are filled with shame and rage.

In his op-ed, Lindsey wrote that serious do-gooders would be well-advised to focus on "education reform," where "real improvements will come from challenging the moribund state-school monopoly with greater competition." Responding to that sort of despair by trying to break the teacher's unions is truly an astonishingly narrow and inadequate solution -- and all evidence suggests it will be far less effective than more serious interventions like universal preschool. At this point, I'm half ready to break the teacher's unions just to prove, once and for all, that this isn't the answer, and we need to move the conversation beyond such comforting bromides. As another reader writes to Lindsey:

It is unfortunate that Mr. Lindsey concludes his otherwise excellent piece with an attack on educators. As a New York City public school teacher who has read and, like Mr. Lindsey, endorses Annette Lareau's studies of child-rearing differences between social classes, I was very surprised to see Mr. Lindsey change course from admonishing the parents and children who exemplify and encourage the "lack of elementary self-discipline" he describes to place the blame squarely on teachers.

It is absurd to believe that teachers who spend approximately 50 minutes with their high school students each day can have as much personal impact on troubled children's lives as the peers, parents and pop-culture figures influencing these children nearly every other hour throughout the day.

July 24, 2007 | Permalink


The problem with this sort of thing is that you can't really talk about it in course of raw numbers, and you have to talk about it in terms of stories.

"Competition", in terms of primary education is pointless. Here's the story.

Full voucher program is passed. Yay. Your kid is just getting out of grade 4, has been doing decent, but you think they can do better. You choose to send your kid to the new Wal-School opening up..and on your block as well! Wonderful. Grade 5 comes and go, they become a straight-A student. Damn this new school is great!! Grade 6, then 7...all the way up to 12. It's smooth sailing. Your kid is looking like he's college bound. Start to apply and...

Oh sorry. We're not accepting applicants from that school. They havn't been meeting our academic standards in a number of fronts. We just made this decision over the summer. Don't bother applying anywhere else either. Your kid really isn't ready for higher education. But he/she got straight A's!. Yeah. But the material is at a few grades below what the age level is at. But wasn't there supposed to be any sort of accountability? No, that was stripped out of the bill to accommodate patriarchal schools.

But you can pay a few thousand a year to send your child to a special private school (not covered by vouchers), to get his/her grade 11/12 covered.

There's no way for parents to judge the quality of a school. What looks like success, in reality, can be a complete utter failure. And that's the problem with any sort of competition. If there's no way to judge which option is better, then it really is pointless.

Posted by: Karmakin | Jul 24, 2007 11:30:23 AM

A social problem does not exist until it corresponds to the solution proposed by the Party.

Public education is delivered by the State, and cadres neeed to constantly remember that the organs of the State only exist to serve the interests of the Party, because the Party, and not the State, is the vanguard of the Revolution.

Posted by: Davis X. Machina | Jul 24, 2007 11:44:25 AM

The commenter who told of growing up in poverty hits on the real issue. If a kid is abused, neglected, hungry or a combination of all of them, nothing else really matters.

My daughter is entering kindergarten this year. I've been reading various literature produced by the school district as well as its website. Her elementary school is fairly small and doesn't have much in the way of cafeteria facilities - in fact, I think meals are made offsite and trucked in - and doesn't have a hot breakfast option. But the school does say that crackers and milk are available to any child that comes to school hungry, no questions or conditions. And if a child is hungry, they will have time to eat.

I read that and started to cry, because I know that my daughter will be going to school with children who will need those crackers and milk.

Hunger, abuse, lack of medical care: these are the problems we need to address. Teachers unions are just a distraction for those who don't want to face the real problems and, most importantly, their own responsibilities.

A social problem does not exist until it corresponds to the solution proposed by the Party. . .

Unfortunately, your comment is not nearly as clever as you clearly think it is. Translated, it reads "wank wank wank wank wank."

Posted by: Stephen | Jul 24, 2007 11:52:16 AM

Karmakin, I don't like your example. Most people who attend private schools don't encounter this sort of problem.

You COULD claim that by its nature, a voucher program leaves itself open to this sort of corruption, but that sort of thing is, at the moment, very, very uncommon in private schools and thus I can't really take it seriously as a boogeyman.

Posted by: Tyro | Jul 24, 2007 11:55:46 AM

Tyro:Currently private schools cater to an upper class market, and needs to maintain their reputation for the long-term. (In fact, in a lot of cases this is what they have to offer)

The scenario I put forward, will happen when actual competition comes into the primary education market. Currently, there's not so much competition because there's more desire for private school positions than there is spaces...it's a sellers market.

When it becomes a buyers market (which is the stated goal of a voucher program), think about how schools can compete:

1. Price. In a voucher system, the floor and the ceiling for the lower classes are both the voucher value. So price isn't really a competitive point.

2. Location. Distance to travel to get to school. The area the school is in, etc. This is something really non-competitive as well, although it can come into play.

3. Results. This is the big one, and this is where what I said is focused. The feedback that parents get on the quality of an education..the report card...is a metric controlled by the school itself. If the difficulty of the content is dropped, most parents wouldn't know the difference, they'd assume their kids are learning what they learned, and that's good. Until everything is brought back together and it comes back to bite them in the ass. So what happens? The company goes out of business. In a privately owned company the owner/operator could get away scot-free with a fortune. Just need a contract stating they make no guarantees on the quality of education.

You could use strict standardized testing to stop this, but this is something I think is politically impossible, due to patriarchal interests, and I actually oppose myself, as teaching to the test kills the learning spirit, making the whole endeavor pointless.

Will this happen? Who knows. But competition ALWAYS goes through the path of least resistance. And it seems to me that monkeying with grades and academic standards , in a competitive education marketplace is the path of almost no resistance.

Posted by: Karmakin | Jul 24, 2007 12:28:09 PM

Currently private schools cater to an upper class market

Uh, catholic schools?

That aside, yes, I agree that vouchers present the risk of creating a market for fly-by-night operations, because, unlike real schools, they're not in it for the long term. One sees similar problems with trade schools whose students can use federal aid to pay the tuition. However, the only reason that vouchers are attractive in the first place is because, generally, this isn't a problem with private schools. For your scenario to be a natural consequence of vouchers, it would need to happen much more often in the private school market than it actually does. You're inventing a boogeyman that, for the people who do send their kids to private schools, doesn't really exist. And a voucher advocate can always create a straw voucher program in which minimum standards are required.

In any case, regarding competition-- it doesn't actually help, and you can use the example of Andover High School as an example. Being, as it is, right in the midst of Philips Academy and other elite high schools, you'd think it would be the best high school in MA, if not the country. In fact, the school is pretty mediocre, particularly when compared with other public high schools of a similar socio-economic standing.

Posted by: Tyro | Jul 24, 2007 12:43:23 PM

but that sort of thing is, at the moment, very, very uncommon in private schools

There aren't nearly enough spots in existing private schools to meet the demand that vouchers would create. Slews of new schools would arise, and there is simply no reason to suppose that these voucher schools would resemble existing private schools in the slightest. Contra Tyro, it is highly likely that they would be modeled after proprietary trade schools; likely indeed, that the ITTs and DeVrys and such like would themselves plunge into the primary/secondary school business.

Posted by: kth | Jul 24, 2007 1:08:34 PM

"The poor, indeed, are insensible of many little vexations, which sometimes imbitter the possessions, and pollute the enjoyments, of the rich. They are not pained by casual incivility, or mortified by the mutilation of a compliment; but this happiness is like that of a malefactor, who ceases to feel the cords that bind him, when the pincers are tearing his flesh." -- Samuel Johnson

Or, quoting John Scalzi: "Being poor is people who have never been poor wondering why you choose to be so."

Or, less politely: oh, fuck you, Brink Lindsey.

Posted by: pseudonymous in nc | Jul 24, 2007 1:56:59 PM

Tyro, you might have a rather regional view of the quality of private schools. Many private schools in the South are parochial in nature and cater to the religious teachings often at the expense of the traditional curriculum. That was definitely the case in Texas in the 80s and 90s when I lived there.

From what I have read over the years, where voucher systems have cropped up, the results have been mixed and there has been as much malfeasance in the for-profit schools as there has been success stories. And the problems have generally occurred at the lower end of the socio-economic scale that Karmakin is talking about, while the successes are more obvious at the middle-class schools.

I have read some reports on this over the years...anyone have a good set of links on this?

Posted by: Ricky | Jul 24, 2007 2:27:43 PM

Here's a website you may find useful. http://www.addicted.com is a site for friends, families, and those who suffer from various addictions.

Posted by: Alcoholism | Jul 24, 2007 2:51:55 PM

Tyro, you might have a rather regional view of the quality of private schools

In the interest of full disclosure, I do-- my view of private schools is limited to non-religious schools that range from either the academically elite to the mediocre-but-serves-the-well-off to the urban Catholic schools that provide a decent education to children whose parents of all income levels want to avoid the crumbling public schools. In all cases, regardless of absolute quality, they manage to fulfill the "college prep" requirements.

As far as what goes on in the bible-belt south when it comes to non-catholic parochial schools, I honestly have no idea.

My personal opinion on vouchers-- if they help middle-income students stay in cities instead of moving out to the suburbs for better schools, then the policy is a win. And in my experience, public school teachers are generally good, but the school facilities are crumbling and discipline is poor. Even if a student, despite the odds, wants to learn, the classrooms don't necessarily have walls or doors, and no one else in your class might be interested in the material. Blaming the teachers is a knee-jerk reaction from a class who simply hates public employee unions.

Posted by: Tyro | Jul 24, 2007 2:53:53 PM

Tyro, I wouldn't call Andover mediocre compared to the public schools its surrounds. Just look 10 minutes north at Lawrence...

Posted by: Adrock | Jul 24, 2007 4:40:48 PM

"At this point, I'm half ready to break the teacher's unions just to prove, once and for all, that this isn't the answer, and we need to move the conversation beyond such comforting bromides."

I'm with you there.

Posted by: Brian | Jul 25, 2007 12:08:43 AM

Speaking as someone who has paid for high quality, non-religious private schools, I consider every voucher program that has ever been seriously proposed to be a bad joke on the middle class.

First, if you actually research schools in your area, you will find that tuition at such schools runs $8-12K annually at minimum. Church-run schools are lower, but they are partially subsidized by their denomination, and would probably not be eligible for any plan that is actually found Constitutional by the courts. If you find schools that are substantially cheaper and are *not* church schools, chances are that they are either *not accredited* or a very small school (1 room school in teacher's basement, or a front for homeschoolers).

Second, vouchers will not cover such things as uniforms, transportation, extracurriculars, and of course fundraisers. Oh yeah, they have those in private schools too but they're more annoying because as parents, you just want to scream "listen, as much as this is costing me, how much *more* do I have to pay you to not bother my kid with the sales crap??"

Third, and the point that the above posters are circling without saying, vouchers will be used as an excuse to tell schools "if you want this money you have to do things our way." It will be phrased as a quality control issue at first, because after all *everybody* wants taxpayer dollars to be spent wisely. And forgive me, making private schools do things the government way completely defeats the purpose of taking your kid out of public school in the first place.

Posted by: ShortWoman | Jul 25, 2007 12:40:05 AM

"No, that was stripped out of the bill to accommodate patriarchal schools."

I'm thinking you mean parochial here? - although granted, that's really just a specific example of the general principle . . .
The thing with Lareau's work, one can see (and iirc, she mentions?) the class-based child-raising practices she details as teaching vital skills for the likely life the kid'll lead, even as they contribute to keeping them in that life. Boundary-pushing verbosity heavy on negotiation and reasoning, constant competition with peers, and a sense of entitlement is unlikely to serve one well at McD's or *-Mart (as it would in the white-collar world). Following instructions w/o whining, peer solidarity, closely-knit connections with family*, etc. - well . . .

Of course, that's unlikely to serve one well at WhiteCollar, Inc. - but given limited resources, that's a very tough goal (although significant personal ability plus substantial public and/or private monetary and cultural investment in said person helps).

Of course, along with perpetuating inequality, the 'natural growth' model is probably increasingly maladapted to the current economic situation in some ways - and of course, I'm horribly oversimplifying everything, go read her book.

* as James Ault puts it (quoted in Red Family, Blue Family, and in a somewhat difference context):
"Though a life of mutual dependence within a family circle was commonplace among members of Shawmut River and other new-right activists I met, it was foreign to people I knew in academia and the New Left, as well as to other educated professionals I knew. Most of us were prepared, from the moment we left home for college, to leave family dependencies behind and learn to live as self-governing individuals. This left us free to move from one city to another for graduate education or for those specialized jobs for which our training qualified us. In the process, we learned to piece together a meaningful life with new friends and colleagues alongside old ones. Our material security did not rest on a stream of daily reciprocities within a family-based circle of people known in common, but rather on the progression of professional careers, with steadily increasing salaries and ample benefits to cover whatever exigencies life would bring."

Posted by: Dan S. | Jul 25, 2007 2:03:34 AM

Vouchers are a joke and/or a sop to religious private schools. In DC, a non-religious private school runs about $26,000 a year. I don't think a voucher is going to be much use at such places.

Posted by: Klein's Tiny Left Nut | Jul 25, 2007 1:47:04 PM



Yeah, it's subscriber-only, or you could go out to a newsstand and buy the damn thing

Posted by: jonathan | Jul 25, 2007 2:17:34 PM

One place where an active teacher's union was broken recently is New Orleans. After Katrina, the school system was broken up into charters, with the regular school district running just 6 of 50 or so schools. Results: not so pretty so far. I'll be interested in seeing test results over the next couple of years.

Few if any of the charters acknowledged the teachers union, and they've had a heck of a time attracting teachers to the area.

Lots of other factors at work, but it really didn't seem to help much to destroy the teachers union instead of trying to work with their organization to attract the best and the brightest teachers from around the country to help save NOLA schools.

Posted by: Brennan Griffin | Jul 25, 2007 6:58:05 PM

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