Monthly Archives: April 2014

where is the public on Common Core?

(Durham, NC) The Common Core standards are the most significant policy change in US education today, and they are increasingly controversial. Strong critics can be found on both the right and left. Meanwhile, the most influential proponents don’t exactly have fired-up grassroots supporters behind them. The main champions include several big foundations, Democratic and moderate Republican governors, and the Obama Administration’s Department of Education.

When read summaries of the Common Core, majorities of Americans and Californians do support it. But of course, how it is summarized will be highly influential if people are not very well informed about its content and origins. If the Common Core is described with hostility, people may be easily persuaded to oppose it. And plenty of political actors have motivations to present it critically–scoring some valid points along the way.

My own feelings are largely favorable, because I like the content of the Common Core, although I would acknowledge that everything depends on the tests that are now being developed to assess it. But even those of us who basically support the Common Core should try to understand what the public is thinking about it so that we can address their concerns.

Public Agenda’s Jean Johnson offers several reasons for the lukewarm level of public support.

First, parents are not primarily worried about low standards or inadequate academic achievement. Public Agenda has frequently found that parents put behavioral and social problems at the top of their lists of concerns. The public’s premise is that kids need the same kinds of educational content that their parents had, but they behave worse. Children either need more surveillance and tougher sanctions or else more care and attention (or, possibly, both). Either way, raising the academic bar is not a relevant solution.

I am not sure the parents are right. One of the striking developments of the last 20 years has been a decline in rates of teen crime and drug use. Kids are behaving better but face increasingly steep global competition. That is the expert’s framework, and it is based on data. But, as Johnson notes, many parents think that school is already hard enough and that testing is too pervasive and consequential.

I have no interest in trying to sell anyone on the Common Core, but would want to present it in a way that gets a fair hearing. To that end, I would avoid talking about tougher standards. After all, how “tough” they are will depend on the tests, which are still being designed. Instead, I would emphasize that they are simpler than traditional standards, easier to read and understand (and thus more fair), and less political because they are not negotiated by state legislatures and education agencies. They also give more flexibility to schools and teachers to decide what to assign.

a day of two provosts

Today is the board meeting of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts, where I work. Immediately after that meeting, I will fly to Durham, NC, to begin chairing the external review of Duke University’s Kenan Institute for Ethics, which plays a somewhat similar role to Tisch College. It’s a day of thinking about strategic plans for scholarly/activist centers at fine universities.

discrimination and educational ambition

I thought this was a crucial moment in the recent debate between Jonathan Chait and Ta-Nehesi Coats:

Chait: The argument is that structural conditions shape culture, and culture, in turn, can take on a life of its own independent of the forces that created it. It would be bizarre to imagine that centuries of slavery, followed by systematic terrorism, segregation, discrimination, a legacy wealth gap, and so on did not leave a cultural residue that itself became an impediment to success.

Coats: What about the idea that white supremacy necessarily “bred a cultural residue that itself became an impediment to success”? Chait believes that it’s “bizarre” to think otherwise. I think it’s bizarre that he doesn’t bother to see if his argument is actually true. Oppression might well produce a culture of failure. It might also produce a warrior spirit and a deep commitment to attaining the very things which had been so often withheld from you. There is no need for theorizing. The answers are knowable.

Indeed, here is some pertinent evidence, courtesy of Angel L. Harris.* She He analyzes a very large survey of Maryland families, black and white, to investigate the connections among race, discrimination, and commitments to education. The results are important for anyone interested in debates about the (alleged) culture of poverty, cultural determinants of success, and racial achievement gaps.

Harris finds that black parents are more likely than white parents to think that succeeding in school is crucial to their children’s success. Blacks also place more importance than whites do on academics; they report spending slightly more time on educational activities; and they are more likely to seek academic help.

African American parents are more likely to believe that they and their children are subject to racial discrimination, although some white parents also see themselves as discriminated against on the basis of their race. The more that black parents perceive that their families are subject to discrimination, the more they see educational success as crucial for their children. But the more that white parents see themselves as discriminated against, the less they believe in education.

These results support the thesis that for African Americans, a perception of ongoing discrimination is a motivation for struggle and uplift. It is evidence of Coats’ “warrior spirit” and “deep commitment to attaining the very things which had been so often withheld from you.” But for some whites, a perception that they are being treated unfairly is a reason not to focus on education. Or perhaps they are not succeeding educationally and need an excuse that blames other people.

Given those findings, you might predict that black students would be achieve more educational success than comparable white students. In fact, when white and black students of similar socioeconomic and family backgrounds are carefully compared, blacks are sometimes found to have higher graduation rates and more years of education. (The bottom line of the second cited study: “African American men and women achieve greater years of education than white men and women, respectively, raised in identical family environments.”) But there remain stark aggregate differences in high school and college graduation rates by race. If those cannot be attributed to differences in educational ambition, then the remaining explanations would seem to include: subtler disconnections between the dominant culture of schools and those of some African American families; unequal resources outside the school (including lower numbers of committed parents and other adults per child); unequal quality of schools; unequal treatment within the same schools; and discrimination in admissions and labor markets. I think all of those factors have been demonstrated.

*Angel L. Harris, “Can Members of Marginalized Groups Remain Invested in Schooling? An Assessment from the United States and the United Kingdom.” In Danielle Allen and Rob Reich (eds.), Education, Justice, and Democracy (University of Chicago Press, 2013), pp 101-132

is society an artifact or an ecosystem? (and what that means for citizens)

A fundamental question for anyone who wants to improve the world is which aspects of society are (1) natural and fixed, (2) artifacts that we make, or (3) elements of an ecosystem or social fabric that holds together. This question came into view ca. 1800 and is now inescapable.

Let’s call a society “traditional” to the degree that members view it as natural, permanent, and perhaps of divine origin. For a very long time, some people have been partially non-traditional. They have seen particular aspects of society as artifacts: as things we plan, create, and can change. For instance, the very first Greek historian, Herodotus, collected the varied burial customs of his time. The Egyptians’ “fashions of mourning and of burial are these,” he wrote: “Whenever any household has lost a man who is of any regard amongst them, the whole number of women of that house forthwith plaster over their heads or even their faces with mud. Then leaving the corpse within the house they go themselves to and fro about the city and beat themselves, with their garments bound up by a girdle and their breasts exposed …” Herodotus implied that the Egyptians had somehow made these customs and could switch them for different ones. Yet for him, most aspects of a society were natural and permanent, as were the differences between civilized people (who knew how a society should be run) and barbarians (who got it wrong).

Let’s say that “modernism” is the view that most aspects of society are artifacts. In modernity, people not only understand some aspects of society as artifacts, but they posit that society is generally something we invent and construct; everything human is  artifactual. They believe this not only of objects and actions (such as works of art or laws) but of their underlying principles. Perhaps we have made–not discovered–our concepts and criteria of things like beauty and justice.

Modernity, in this sense, may have arisen at several times in the past. Velcheru Narayana Rao claims that “a form of awareness that can be characterized as modern emerged naturally and organically in the Telugu- and Tamil-speaking parts of the [Indian] subcontinent toward the end of the fifteenth century.” That could well be the case. But the modernism that arose in Europe around 1800 has special significance today because it spread with European power around the world and has never receded.

Two interesting authors hold opposite perspectives on the question of modernism, and I think it’s valuable for citizens to consider both.

Roberto Mangabeira Unger is an ultra-modernist, a “modernist visionary,” as he calls himself (False Necessity: Anti-Necessitarian Social Theory in the Service of Radical Democracy, p. 9). He takes “to its ultimate conclusion” the thesis “that society is an artifact” (p. 2). All our institutions, mores, habits, and incentives are things that we imagine and make. We can change each of these things, “if not all at once, then piece by piece” (p. 4). Unger “carries to extremes the idea that everything in society is politics, mere politics”–in the sense of collective action and creation (p. 1)

Unger argues that that we have not yet taken the modernist project all the way. Even radical modernists have assumed that some things are natural although we can actually change them. Importantly, they have assumed that the relations between one domain and another are given. For instance, for Marxists, the economy is fundamental and it always determines politics. Unger thinks we can change any part of that picture. He wants to get rid of all “superstitious inhibitions.”

Unger fears that the status quo retains an arbitrary advantage. To disrupt it, he proposes a whole range of social reforms that would constantly stir things up: a steep inheritance tax that funds a social endowment, mandatory membership in independent unions that can compete for members, and a “reconstructive branch” of government that can take over institutions for short periods and reform them before leaving. These are ways of creating “a framework that is permanently more hospitable to the reconstructive freedom of the people who work within its limits” (p. 34). The task is to “combine realism, practicality, and detail with visionary fire” (p. 14)

James C. Scott is a critic of radical modernism, especially under conditions when the state is strong and civil society is weak–colonialism and war being particularly dangerous. In Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, Scott describes high-modernist ideology as “a strong, one might even say muscle-bound, version of … self-confidence about … the rational design of social order.”

The modernist’s orientation, as Scott notes, is purely toward the future: what will improve the world going forward? Since that is an intellectual question, the smartest people can basically decide. Existing structures are arbitrary and open to review. Any artifact that works in one place can and should be adopted elsewhere.

High modernism implies a truly radical break with history and tradition. …. All human practices … would have to be reexamined and redesigned. … The structures of the past were typically products of myth, superstition, and religious prejudice. … Society became an object that the state might manage and transform with an eye toward perfecting it (Scott, pp. 92-3).

High modernism forgets humility and the value of local knowledge, the wisdom embodied in traditional practices and any obligations we may owe to the past, the intrinsic limits of human reason and virtue, and the delicate ways that aspects of society interrelate. As Scott shows, high modernist schemes of social improvement can make things much worse. On the other hand, Unger rightly points to the arbitrary advantages of the status quo and our tendency to treat terrible injustice and waste as necessary even when we could change them.

Note that this debate does not map neatly onto the conventional ideological spectrum of left to right. Unger is a radical leftist because he is strongly egalitarian and enthusiastic about state power. He is also an ultra-modernist. But Margaret Thatcher was another kind of ultra-modernist, embracing the creative destruction of capitalism and denying that there was any such thing as “society.”

Meanwhile, the most avid defenders of holistic thinking, local norms, and the precautionary principle are environmentalists (generally placed on the left). European social democrats and US liberals are quick to defend traditional institutions like welfare agencies, schools, and universities against radical reforms. Unger writes (p. 275): “Anyone who accepts the established institutional framework as the horizon within which interests and ideals –including egalitarian ideals — must be pursued is not a progressive. The European social-democratic parties are not progressive.” This is a quarrel within the left. On the right, as well, there can be a debate about the degree to which aspects of a society are artifactual. You can place yourself anywhere on the spectrum from egalitarian to libertarian and separately choose any place on a spectrum from modernist to anti-modernist.

See also Roberto Unger against root causes, the visionary fire of Roberto Mangabeira Unger, Edmund Burke would vote Democratic, and what defines conservatism?


class disparities in extracurricular activities

From the CIRCLE homepage today:

Young people in the United States are starkly divided in how they use their leisure time. Some exclusively pursue their artistic or athletic passions and eschew other types of activities. Others spend their time on academic clubs, perhaps “building their resume” with an eye toward applying to selective universities. Still others are mostly disengaged from extracurriculars and other organized activities, either because they are working for pay or because they would rather informally hang out with friends. This variation, and the “clusters” of like-minded students that it creates, can partially be attributed to personal preference. However, it also reflects troubling gaps based on widening social disparities.

In our most recent working paper, “Harry, Hermione, Ron and Neville– Portraits of American Teenagers’ Extracurricular Involvement, and Implications for Educational Interventions,” CIRCLE Deputy Director Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg analyzes these trends in how contemporary American teens spend their leisure time, with particular consideration to how socioeconomic class affects students’ involvement in organized activities their schools or communities.