Monthly Archives: March 2006

worth reading

Three items from my email inbox support the case for democratic education:

1. Nick Bromwell, an English professor, reviews some important recent books about democracy in the Boston Review. He argues that democracy requires a balance of liberty and equality. Although Americans value and understand liberty, we are in danger of losing political equality. Not only are our political institutions actually unfair, but people are forgetting what it feels like to have an equal share in politics. “To resonate with Americans, equality must be something they feel, something they believe in because they sense its presence within them. This means that what we might call the ‘subjective’ dimensions of democracy must be excavated. Democracy is not just a set of institutions, a cluster of marble buildings, and a collection of laws. Democracy is about self-government, and therefore the nature of the self stands at its center.” The books under review are full of practical suggestions.

2. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Gov. Roy Romer have become co-chairs of the National Advisory Board of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools. As a debut, they published a joint op-ed in the Washington Post on March 25. It’s now behind the Post’s dreaded firewall, but this is my favorite part: “We need more and better classes to impart the knowledge of government, history, law and current events that students need to understand and participate in a democratic republic. And we also know that much effective civic learning takes place beyond the classroom–in extracurricular activity, service work that is connected to class work, and other ways students experience civic life. … We need more students proficient in math, science and engineering. We also need them to be prepared for their role as citizens. Only then can self-government work. Only then will we not only be more competitive but also remain the beacon of liberty in a tumultuous world.”

3. The O’Connor/Romer op-ed is timely given this major new finding from the Center for Education Policy: “71% of school districts reported that they have reduced instructional time in at least one other subject to make more time for reading and mathematics?the subjects tested for NCLB purposes. In some districts, struggling students receive double periods of reading or math or both?sometimes missing certain subjects altogether.” One administrator whom CEP surveyed wrote that No Child Left Behind “has torn apart our social studies curriculum. We are raising tomorrow?s leaders and [NCLB is] forcing us to fill their heads with math facts that do not make them better leaders or help students make choices.”

[Thanks to Scott Richardson, here’s a link to the Post op-ed.]

scholarship & teaching

(Pasadena) Sometimes I find it strange that we pay scholars to teach young people. Scholarship and teaching are often such different affairs. A society could employ scholars to conduct research and teach apprentice scholars but never expect them to come into contact with regular undergraduates.

However, last weekend, I found myself at an academic conference session that reminded me why it’s important for researchers also to teach. It was a very strong panel of pyschologists who study adolescents’ engagement in school (not their civic engagement; their commitment to academic work). That’s an important subject, because kids who are disengaged tend to drop out of school and then pay a very serious price for the rest of their lives. The presentations described rigorous and relevant research. I had a somewhat detached perspective on the whole business, because I’ve never even taken a psychology course; I had few preconceptions or opinions about “scree charts,” “eigenvalues,” and “confirmatory factor analysis”–the topics of the discussion. It occurred to me that when social science works well, matters of great public importance are divided up into chunks that can be addressed through rigorous, cumulative research. Scholars build on previous work and use the most advanced available tools on manageable questions. Everyday presentations and discussions within the discipline tend to be narrow and technical. All of that is fine–as long as the whole enterprise moves toward important general conclusions. Thus it’s valuable for specialists to have to present their whole subject to novices who want to know why it matters. I watched last weekend’s presenters talk about factor-analysis with their colleagues from around the country and imagined them also lecturing to undergraduates about American education. It seemed to be just the right combination.

Annette Lareau (III): civic implications

This is my third consecutive post about Unequal Childhoods. Here I explore the book’s civic implications, which Lareau does not address very explicitly. Organizing people to address their own problems from the grassroots up is an alternative to all the ideologies I described yesterday, and it might be the best way to solve the problems that Lareau uncovers. However, it’s hard to take successful grassroots political action without good civic education, and that is something that children of all classes lack.

All the families Unequal Childhoods have problems that are “political.” In other words, they cannot solve their dilemmas without coordinating their efforts with many other families and individuals. For the most part, the problems of the poor and working-class families involve dysfunctional public institutions or a lack of resources and opportunities. For example, one girl in the study has learning disabilities. She is receiving no special help at school. According to the rules of her school district, it would take a minimum of 120 days (out of a 180-day school year) for her to be assigned to special education (pp. 210-1). These rules–at least as Lareau describes them–must be changed; but it takes collective action to change bureaucratic procedures.

In general, the problems that face middle-class suburban families result from competition among themselves, not from underperforming or under-funded institutions. They are very good at obtaining excellent services from schools, doctors, and other organizations. If their schools were unresponsive, they would simply move. Nevertheless, their lives are not idyllic. They rush from activity to activity. If a parent refuses to take her kid to an inconvenient soccer practice, the child will be cut from the team. And if the child is cut from the team, she will lose access to peer networks and learning experiences. One parent says (p. 49) “There’s something arrogant about soccer. I mean, they just assume that you have the time, that you can get off work, to lug your kids to games. What if you worked a job that paid an hourly wage?”

One middle-class family struggles with an unmanageable load of homework. As the father says (p. 188), “I don?t think I did that much homework in college.” This burden could be the fault of teachers; but I suspect the underlying cause is pressure from other middle-class parents. It would take counter-pressure from many families to lower those demands.

As David Moore observed in a comment on Monday, each class would benefit from interacting with the other. The working-class kids miss educational opportunities that the middle-class children take for granted; and the middle-class kids miss opportunities to invent their own activities and manage their own affairs. In the fiction that suburban kids read, the young protagonists always decide what to do from hour to hour–something that only working-class kids actually do. Getting the two groups together would help both–but that, too, would require collective action.

In short, families’ most serious problems require political skills to address. To what extent do children learn such skills? Again, it depends on their families’ social class. Middle-class kids learn their rights. They know how to understand professionals and institutions and get the most out of them. They exchange information with one another. But they have no experience in organizing collective action and will usually respond to dissatisfaction by simply exiting from an institution–not a solution to all their problems. Working-class kids, meanwhile, learn how to self-organize and mediate conflicts. But they have low expectations of institutions and do not know how to navigate or change them.

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Annette Lareau (II): ideological implications

(From Pasadena, CA) Unequal Childhoods (see yesterday for a summary) catches children in the process of replicating their parents? class positions. When children who start in poor or working class families end up as poor adults (which happens frequently), they are deprived of health, longevity, and rich human experiences. The replication of social class is by no means a new problem or a new topic of research, but it is acutely important today, when solid working-class jobs are disappearing. Just as access to the middle class is narrowing, the price of not making it there is rising.

Lareau cautions (p. 251), “Untangling the effects of material and cultural resources on parents and childrens’ choices is beyond the scope of this study. These two forces are inextricably interwoven in daily life.” Yet our choice of ideology depends on how we untangle these effects. In a previous post, I argued that responses to poverty vary along three axes: 1) the degree to which we believe that money (versus culture) determines economic outcomes; 2) the degree to which we like (versus dislike) the dominant, white-collar culture; and 3) the degree to which we trust (versus distrust) the state to ameliorate poverty.

Despite Lareau’s disclaimer, her findings have implications for three important positions on this chart.

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Annette Lareau (I)

(From San Francisco) This is the first of several consecutive posts about Annette Lareau’s book, Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life. It’s the most stimulating work of social science I have read for a long time, and I hope to explore its implications for political philosophy, education policy, and civic engagement in subsequent posts. But first, a brief summary of Lareau’s method and argument.

She and her students chose children from the same metropolitan area who were middle class, working class, and poor. From each of these groups (defined by the parents’ profession, not their income), they selected both African American and white children. They obtained permission to observe the kids’ lives–in school, in the neighborhood, at home, and on visits to church and medical appointments. They interviewed the parents and teachers, but mostly they just hung around, lying on the floor with the kids, riding in the back seat on the way to appointments, playing cards or ball, sleeping overnight in their homes.

Lareau finds that the middle-class parents in the study, without regard to race, use a strategy of “concerted cultivation” to raise their children. They devote almost every waking minute of the day to giving their kids educational experiences. The children are very heavily scheduled with organized after-school activities, to the point that they lead hectic lives with much rushed traveling and many overlapping or conflicting appointments. Even ordinary conversations are opportunities to develop kids’ cognitive and language skills. Parents use persuasion and negotiation to influence their children’s behavior–a laborious and slow way to get them to comply, but one that constantly challenges them mentally. Kids talk as equals with adults, including teachers and physicians.

Working-class and poor parents, on the other hand, attempt “the accomplishment of natural growth.” They are just as loving and concerned as middle-class parents, but they are much less likely to arrange activities, to teach verbal skills, and to negotiate. They protect their kids’ health and safety and then leave them to be kids. They defer to schools and medical professionals to diagnose and address any problems that arise.

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