Monthly Archives: April 2005

New Voices media projects released

A brief post from California–The New Voices project at the University of Maryland has released a list of the ten micro-news projects that we decided to fund this year. In these projects, citizens (not professional journalists) create high-quality news stories and share them with their communities, using all kinds of novel media. Several of my colleagues on the New Voices Advisory Board have contributed comments about the funded projects.

heading West

Today, among other tasks, I’ll be helping to choose the projects that CIRCLE will fund under our “youth-led research” grant competition. We have hundreds of applications to choose from, many excellent. All across the country, groups of adolescents are conducting research on issues that range from gentrification and disparities in local school funding to teen pregnancy and crime. Many have applied to us for small grants to pursue this work.

After the meeting, I’m on my way to California for a conference on civic education convened by the state’s Judicial Conference. My family and I will then spend Friday and the weekend on vacation along the California coast, so I don’t really expect to post again until Monday.

foundations and k-12 education

Last fall, Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute wrote an article in Philanthropy that was largely critical of the “new” education funders: especially the Bill & Melinda T. Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, the Milken Family Foundation, and the Broad Foundation. According to his article, the “old” funders used to assume that education needed more money, so they gave cash to schools (or to students). The “new” funders believe, in contrast, that ordinary grants won’t make much difference, because total foundation support for education amounts to less than $2 billion, compared to about $427 billion in public funds for k-12 schools. (These figures come from Jay Greene’s paper). Thus the “new” funders aim to use their money as leverage to change education policy.

Their ideologies and strategies are diverse. Some fund charter schools, some give school systems incentives to introduce merit pay, and some subsidize transitions to small schools. In his article, Hess endorsed the idea of trying to change policies, but he argued that the new funders are not particularly effective. Yesterday, AEI held a conference that gave a wide variety of speakers a chance to address Hess’ thesis. (Philanthropy also gave Hess’ targets a chance to respond.) I was only able to attend the AEI event briefly, but the papers are online.

People certainly disagree about what changes we should be trying to effect in school systems. But even if we agreed about the desirable changes, there would still be a debate about philanthropy’s proper role. Either,

a) Given the relatively small amount of money available to philanthropy and the deep problems evident in public school systems, funders throw their money away if they merely support schools. They are obligated to use their resources as leverage to achieve fundamental changes in educational policy.

or …

b) Public schools are controlled by the public through elections. It is undemocratic for rich organizations to try to change school policies. This is also a dangerous approach, since foundations have often been deeply misguided. For example, the current effort to create small high schools, which I find attractive, can be seen as a response to the effort to create large schools in the 1950s. Both efforts were heavily funded by precisely the same foundations.

how to argue for the moral value of literature

At least since Ovid (see EI.VI:1-54), some people have argued that reading fine literature improves us morally. In particular, fiction and poetry are supposed to enhance our empathy and make us more humane. This effect is a staple theme–perhaps even a cliche–of commencement addresses and English textbooks.

Judge Richard Posner has considered that case and found it lacking. “There is no evidence,” he writes, “that talking about ethical issues improves ethical performance. This is not the place to expound and test a theory of how people become moral. Genes, parental upbringing, interactions with peers, and religion must all play a role. That casuistic analysis stimulated by imaginative works of literature also plays a role is unproven and implausible. Moral philosophers, their students, literary critics, and English majors are no more moral in attitude or behavior than their peers in other fields.”

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the civic education movement comes of age

Between 1970 and 2000, most academic researchers said that adults’ political and civic behavior was not affected by what they had learned in their schools. In short, civic education didn’t work. Meanwhile, schools were moving away from their traditional mission of creating good citizens–among other things, by dropping their courses on civics, government, and contemporary issues. Nevertheless, some nonprofit groups labored to provide good civics textbooks and curricula; some teachers worked hard to implement those programs or ones of their own devising; and a few scholars collected data on civic development.

Because that body of research and educational work existed, it was possible around 2000-2 to gather the field together in several venues and forums (at the Education Commission of the States, under the aegis of NACE, and then at the invitation of Carnegie Corporation of New York and CIRCLE). At these meetings, the participants agreed that there were specific forms of civic education that worked, as shown by fairly rigorous research; but public policies needed to be changed to allow all students to benefit. One result of those discussions was the launch of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, whose Steering Committee met today.

At the meeting, which I chaired, we were shown an elaborate website that allows anyone to find civic education “practices” (curricula, programs, etc) by type, state, purpose, or grade level. This website is a useful tool created by the Campaign. More important, it collects much of the valuable work on which the campaign itself is based. The launch of the website is thus a significant symbolic moment for my little community.

We also saw (most of us for the first time) a set of exam and survey questions that can be used to assess civic learning. These quuestions have been selected by some of my colleagues from hundreds of tests and surveys conducted since 1973. Their collection of vetted and approved questions is another handy tool–and another symbol of past work that supports current and future practice.