Monthly Archives: June 2004

gone until July 12

I’m going to Europe tomorrow, for two weeks, and I won’t have Internet access. That’s a choice rather than a technological necessity: I need a brief break. So no posts until July 12, but I hope you’ll come back then.

The trip, by the way, is mostly fun–a family vacation in London and Burgundy. But I’ll also be at the University of Sussex/Institute of Development Studies for four days. It promises to be a really interesting visit, and I’ll report on it in July.

what’s going on at the office

We just signed a contract to repeat a national survey of young Americans that was last conducted in 2002. It’s a broad assessment of young people’s civic and political engagement, not narrowly focused on voting and political opinions. Repeating the survey will give us a chance to update our numbers and also to analyze the young population in some detail.

CIRCLE has recently created a nice online interactive map that shows youth voting statistics by state.

Jim Youniss of Catholic University and I have been awarded a Carnegie Foundation grant to pull together a scholarly group that will try to bridge the gap between developmental pyschology and political science. Psychologists know a lot about how the political system makes people into active or alienated citizens; but they tend to be ahistorical. They talk about “politics” or “government” in general, and don’t consider how (and why) politics has changed. Political scientists know all about the changes in our political system, but they rarely consider its impact on political socialization. Jim and I are charged with trying to fill that gap.

Earlier this week, I watched videos of two focus groups: teachers in Portland, OR and parents in Cleveland, OH. These focus groups had been commissioned by the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, which is an advocacy coalition dedicated to implementing the recommendations of the Civic Mission of Schools report. An important first step is to find out which arguments for civic education (broadly construed) are most effective. It was odd (and, frankly, something of an ego-trip) to watch strangers 3,000 miles away being read passages from a report that I had helped to write. Generally speaking, the teachers were very enthusiastic about it. One teacher said, “It’s hard to imagine what else [anyone] could come up with.” They all endorsed the idea that schools have a civic mission. They were also very knowledgeable; in conversation, they referred to service-learning, the Center for Civic Education, Deborah Meier, and even Paul Wellstone’s Civic Education Enhancement Act. They were leery of additional tests in social studies–but so am I. Predictably, the parents’ group was much less knowledgeable and enthusiastic. As one of the teachers said: If you ask parents whether schools have a civic mission, they will agree, because they know it’s the right thing to say. But they really want their own kids to get an education that will help them to get ahead; “civic education is for other people kids.”

two definitions of “public intellectual”

I’m interviewed in the latest issue of a journal called Higher Education Exchange. Actually, David Brown conducted simultaneous email interviews of me and of Bob Kingston, a senior associate of the Kettering Foundation, and edited our comments together (with our help). I’m not sure how coherent the whole document is. I would summarize it as follows:

Bob admires “public intellectuals” who have broad interests, address crucial and current public issues, and reach large audiences. I admire those people too, although I think they are already well supplied and rewarded. Besides, Learned Hand had a point when he warned: “You cannot raise the standard against oppression, or leap into the breach to relieve injustice, and still keep an open mind to every disconcerting fact, or an open ear to the cold voice of doubt.” In other words, there’s a tradeoff between impact and intellectual rigor.

Therefore, I especially admire a different kind of “public intellectual,” one who gets deeply enmeshed in the work of institutions or communities, contributing his or her skills and knowledge but also constanrly learning from experience and feedback. Such scholars may never talk to large audiences about broad issues. On the contrary, my favorite “public intellectuals” are self-effacing, listeners rather than talkers; and they focus on relatively narrow or local issues because those are what concern people. Because they take the time to understand the complex details of local problems, they risk losing the chance for fame and influence.

By the way, these lists of famous “public intellectuals” are interesting. They do not include the kind I admire. (Thanks to Hellmut Lotz for the reference.)

get me Reilly

Apparently a real politico named Reilly (I was told–but forgot–his first name) once explained that a successful Washington career has the following stages:

1. Who’s Reilly?

2. Get me Reilly!

3. Get me a Reilly.

4. Who’s Reilly?

The goal is to reach stage 2 early, and then stay there as long as possible.

social programs, as seen by the press and by blogs

I’m still brooding about Sunday’s New York Times Magazine article on Harlem Children’s Zone (see my previous comment). HCZ is a nonprofit that provides a wide range of services to most of the kids in Central Harlem. City governments often provide similar combinations of services for their residents. But governments always fail, whereas HCZ is successful–right?

Actually, there is very little outcome data available for HCZ. I cited the test scores of kids leaving its preschool program, because these data are listed on the HCZ website (see this report, p. 5). There are a few other outcome measures in the same document. For instance, the rate of health insurance coverage rose from 95% to 97%. This is not exactly earth-shattering. And most of the other data in the report concern “performance” rather than “outcomes”: 1,982 children were screened for asthma, 2,150 books were “made available,” etc.

Any municipal government could assemble much longer lists of this type and also cite compelling “outcome” measures for some of its programs. So why does HCZ rate a cover-story in the Times Magazine? Perhaps …

  • HCZ’s leader, Geoffrey Canada, is a wonderful human being (I don’t doubt this), and reporters can grasp personalities better than programs. By the way, there are many wonderful human beings in the public sector, too. I happened to meet several examples a few weeks ago in Southeast Washington, DC–talented officials who are totally committed to the welfare of the kids in their neighborhoods.
  • HCZ has a high-powered, private-sector board, which knows how to get media attention.
  • HCZ has set inspiring targets, but it is not yet at the point where its actual perfomance can be measured.
  • The point of this list is not to criticize Harlem Children’s Zone, nor am I interested in arguing that local governments do a better job than is generally recognized. In my own thinking, I have incorporated the assumption that traditional welfare programs and schools are largely broken, at least in the inner cities. My concern, therefore, is not ideological but epistemological. I am worried that we do not have reliable ways to understand the performance of local governments, whether they work well or badly. Even people who specialize in social policy must rely on middle-brow publications like The New York Times for a general picture of what’s going on across the whole range of social issues. And such publications generally do a poor job in describing and assessing all social programs, but especially those in the public sector. They mainly cover public agencies when officials are indicted, sued, or otherwise enmeshed in the legal system, because reporters have easy access to police and court records. Insightful stories about day-to-day work in local government are extremely rare. And again–I don’t want more good news, just more substance.

    Everyone now recognizes the failures of the mainstream media, and many people hope that the Internet will fill some important gaps. In particular, one would expect that left-of-center bloggers would rush to describe the government programs, nonprofit associations, social movements, and unions that are usually overlooked in major newspapers. They would want to report good news, because they have an interest in countering the dominant assumption that government programs always fail. And they would would want to report failures, because they have an interest in creating better programs. However, there is very little such reporting in the “blogosphere.”

    I can sometimes get the attention of the Web’s big guns if I opine on political philosophy in relatively general terms. Such editorializing can get me mentioned on Volokh, Crooked Timber, the Decembrist, or Matthew Yglesias. But when I write about day-to-day social work, such as this interesting experiment in municipal government in Washington, no one in the blogosphere seems to notice. Clearly, the reason could be my lack of reportorial skill; I’m no journalist, and I don’t know how to make these examples vivid. However, the important question is not about me; it’s about the whole range of leftish blogs. Where are the Web-based chroniclers of the public sector? Who’s visiting charter schools and telling us how they work? Who’s reporting from welfare offices and health clinics? I would trade a hundred pages of rants against George W. Bush for one site that kept me informed about what works and doesn’t work “on the ground” in our inner cities.

    [Added on June 25: Anna (in a comment) links to “Respectful of Otters, a blog that reports from the frontlines of social work. I’m sure there are other examples.]