Monthly Archives: September 2007


Does it ever seem to you as if the United States, having grown in relative domestic peace and stability since 1945, is now choking on itself like an old lilac bush that nobody trims? I am trying to avoid a medical cliché, but surely we are clogging our arteries, letting toxins build in our organs; softening, sagging, and losing our will.

For example, our major manufacturing industries cannot generate decent jobs, in part because they seem unable to innovate, and in part because they are carrying the expense of health insurance for their workers and retirees. For all our firms and households, the health system is amazingly expensive, yet it is riddled with inefficiency, error, and inequality. The technology is impressive; the incentives are perverse.

We choose where we live on the basis of the quality of the schools, which (in turn) is mostly a function of the affluence of the people who live around them. We thus sort ourselves by privilege and leave a substantial minority with dismal prospects.

The neighborhoods with the failing schools are often dominated by the sale of illegal drugs. Perhaps our drug policies reduce the tonnage of narcotics that we consume as a people, but at the cost of violence and rampant incarceration in the very places that begin with the fewest resources.

Our colleges and universities serve mainly to sort people by social class and to confer advantages on the already advantaged. As a side business, they run quasi-professional football and basketball teams.

Our congressional districts are “rotten boroughs,” gerrymandered to prevent competition. Our very land is planted with corn and soybeans that are turned into artificial products, all because our taxes subsidize particular crops while funding agribusinesses to lobby to preserve their advantages. Our bodies are glutted with the refined sugars that the land yields at our expense. While we chew, we sit and watch screens on which tawdry spectacles are interrupted only by incessant advertising for disposable goods that pile up in landfills. We borrow from abroad, burn mountains of carbon, send our young overseas to fight in lost causes, and toss away a trillion dollars on an optional war.

These times demand serious work from all of us, and leaders who call for us to contribute.

the drawbacks of thinking about discrete educational programs

I gave a speech this morning (early this morning) to recipients of federal grants for service-learning. People in the audience run programs that meet the criteria of the Learn & Serve America program: they provide a certain amount of community service to each child, connect the service to academic work on the same topic, etc. This is the dominant way that we think about education today: as combinations of programs that can each be defined according to general criteria. Their average impact can then be measured (holding other factors constant), and we can decide to fund, require, reward, or test only the types of programs that we think work. See the What Works Clearinghouse for the quintessence of this approach.

This was also the approach we used in writing The Civic Mission of Schools report (2003), which identified six “promising practices” for civic education: classes on American history and civics; moderated discussion of current issues; extracurricular activities; student voice (i.e., honoring students’ opinions about school policies); simulations of legislation, diplomacy, and courts; and service-learning (i.e., combinations of community service with academic study). Since 2003, the evidence of positive effects from service-learning has increased.

However, as I told this morning’s audience, there are several pitfalls to basing policy on service-learning, or any such “method,” “approach,” or “practice”:

1. Practices that are institutionalized and defined receive the most support, even if they are not the most important. In our field, two of the “promising practices” in civic education get most of the attention: social studies classes and service-learning programs. I think that’s because they have budget lines (albeit too small) and job titles. In contrast, there’s very little organized advocacy in favor of student voice in schools or extracurricular activities, because no one has a powerful self-interest in advocating for them.

2. There may be a risk that schools check off one or two of the promising practices and consider themselves to be meeting their civic missions. There is no research that allows us to say that particular combinations of practices work better than one program or another. But my gut tells me that you need a comprehensive approach. If, for example, you offer a single service-learning project but everything else about the school “teaches” the kids that they are not active and responsible citizens, it’s hard to believe the service-learning course will work. Certainly, the effects of social studies classes and service-learning programs, while statistically significant, are not very large.

3. Such practices have to be done well. We should be concerned with quantity, quality, and equality. Quantity means how many kids get the opportunity. Quality means how good it is. And equality means how evenly is it distributed. There is a tendency for service-learning to degenerate into pretty meaningless exercises and for the high-quality opportunities to reach only the students who are bound for college.

4. Service-learning and other discrete educational programs need to be connected to much broader purposes or they will become ends in themselves. Service-learning can be connected to two ambitious movements:

  • The effort to redefine adolescence as a time of positive opportunity and contribution, not as a time of risk.
  • The effort to reform society by getting young people involved in changing institutions for the better.
  • If we merely offer service-learning because research studies find that it has positive effects on test scores or behavior, it will be stripped of its essential purpose and will degenerate. This is what happened, in my opinion, to the curricular innovations of the Progressive Era.

    how the world looks to $25 million

    I spent yesterday at a board meeting of a nonprofit that has an endowment of about $25 million–not very big, but big enough to employ a major investment firm that sent two guys from the West Coast to make a presentation about market conditions. Since I don’t have millions of my own to invest, nor a stake in any private company, I’m not used to seeing such presentations. It occurs to me, however, that there’s a substantial class of Americans–call it the ruling class–that does listen regularly to investment advice. The kind of presentation I saw yesterday reflects an influential worldview.

    I noticed, first of all, that the presentation was very cogent and comprehensive. Almost all the information came from public sources, so we should be able to obtain the same ideas from business magazines, daily newspapers, or even the television. But I don’t recall seeing such a neat package of trend lines and statistics presented in the Washington Post or New York Times. If corporations and investors are willing to pay for general advice about market conditions, I wonder why news organizations don’t provide it to their readers. In size and talent, newsrooms must rival the research departments of investment banks; but they produce very different kinds of information. One reason may be that the target audience of the business section of a national newspaper already gets the kind of presentation I saw yesterday, and they are interested only in breaking news and features.

    Second, I observed that “the economy” looks pretty good from the perspective of $25 million. To be sure, there is a risk of a downturn. The guys from LA put the odds of a recession in ’08 at 30% (with due humility about their foresight). But the past five or six years have been very impressive–we’ve seen solid returns, productivity growth, and moderate inflation and unemployment. If you wonder why the Bush years don’t provoke outrage down at the Rotary Club, it’s because business people see the world from the perspective of an investment bank.

    Third, I was struck by the gap between an investor’s interests and the national interests. An index of “emerging market stocks” has far outperformed US stock indexes, and we were told that that trend will continue, mainly because of the lower cost of manufacturing overseas. This is bad news for the US, but not for $25 million, which can happily move.

    influence of parents

    Libertarians and free-marketers like to think we are free except when we are constrained by laws and governments. Liberals and socialists like to think that people are affected substantially by the state–potentially for the good. None of us takes seriously enough what we know in our bones. We aren’t free, because we begin as completely helpless little beings within mini-states called “families” where the adults have enormous power. How they raise us largely determines what we will value and how we will make our way in the world.

    I write this with no autobiographical intent. My own parents did as good a job as is humanly possible in helping their children to develop autonomously. And my wife and I are, to quote Bruno Bettelheim, “good enough parents”–I am not plagued by guilt on that score. But the experience of being a parent does bring home the enormous power that role gives you: a power so great as to make almost any government seem almost marginal.

    To illustrate the point …. America’s Promise uses survey questions to gauge the degree to which parents are supportive of, and close to, their own teenage children. These questions probe subjective impressions of “closeness” plus the frequency of talking frankly about important topics. America’s Promise classifies parents into three tiers of involvement.

    Look at the differences in opportunities that children obtain, depending on the closeness of their family relationships. For example, if your parents are very interested in, and emotionally close to, you, there’s a two in three chance that you’ll have safe places to play and work and constructive ways to use your time. If your parents are uninvolved, your odds fall to one in five.

    These results are not controlled for anything, such as family income or parental education. It would therefore be a mistake to draw causal inferences. Maybe the root cause is something like money rather than the subjective attitude of parents. Nevertheless, these correlations are striking and they make both libertarian and left-liberal political theories seem inadequate.