Lessons for both liberals and conservatives from Flint

By abarndweller (AC Spark Plug, Flint Michigan) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
What happened in Flint is absolutely appalling.

Imagine the horror of a mother in Flint, knowing your child has been irrevocably poisoned. Poisoned as the direct result of the decisions of civic “leaders” whose very job, ostensibly, was to serve and protect you and your children. A poison, lead, that is insidious because it manifests in a slow and invisible devastation of decision-making, attention, and behavior that can all too easily be blamed on your child. And will be, because our society always blames the poor for their suffering. It’s so much more convenient to be able to dismiss someone’s suffering—their humanity—outright, without thought or empathy or even that moment’s worth of consideration, due to skin, or appearance, or where they may happen to live.

This is so wrong on so many levels. Beyond the inestimable human cost of the state’s failure, there is a damage that may outlast even the children whose bodies and brains have been poisoned. That damage is the fear and complete and utter mistrust of government that any family in Flint will never forget and will pass on to future generations.

When a community of people no longer can trust their government at any level, this is a damage that will not be fixed by an apology, nor by a formal indictment (and I sincerely hope that Snyder and his myrmidon are prosecuted for their crimes—especially in light of recent information), nor by any immediate action and intervention. What Michigan governor Snyder has wrought upon his people is criminal not simply for the poisoning of his constituent’s bodies and minds that he has been elected to serve, but furthermore for the stain he and his administration have left on civic institutions that his citizens can no longer trust. It will take generations to rebuild that trust.

In an article in Rolling Stone, Stephen Rodrick squarely blames the Republican party, et al, for this crime:

“I hate to get all MSNBC-y, but this man-made disaster can be traced to one fact: Republicans not giving a [expletive] about poor kids as much as they give a [expletive] about the green of the bottom line.” [Edited for language]

I frequently have much the same reaction to the Republican party myself, yet I think it’s all too easy to lay the blame on a political ideology or party in such a knee-jerk manner. In fact, later in the very same article, Rodrick presents some evidence for liberals such as myself to consider. When describing the historical context for how Snyder came into office, he writes:

“There was a $20 million budget deficit, as Flint was having difficulties meeting the pension requirements of union retirees who had worked in a more prosperous time and with a much larger tax base.

I have the same urge to belittle conservatives and the austere and even inhumane policies they often seek to perpetrate. Yet I fear that liberals (well, really, any of us humans) can all too easily get caught up in a rapturous cycle of blame and shame, rather than acknowledging the complex, deeper, and ongoing issues confronting civic leaders and representatives.

The context for what led to the situation in Flint will continue to recur in other cities. As our elderly population increases, the financial burden for health care and pensions will also steadily grow, stressing already taut public budgets. As Robert Guest argues in an article in an article in the Economist on the “millenial” generation:

“Throughout human history, the old have subsidised the young. In rich countries, however, that flow has recently started to reverse. . . . Within families, intergenerational transfers still flow almost entirely from older to younger. However, in rich countries public spending favours pensions and health care for the old over education for the young. Much of this is paid for by borrowing, and the bill will one day land on the young. In five of 23 countries in Messrs Lee and Mason’s sample (Germany, Austria, Japan, Slovenia and Hungary), the net flow of resources (public plus private) is now heading from young to old, who tend to be richer. As societies age, many more will join them.” [Bold added]

At some point, something’s got to give. Many liberals dig in their heels against any consideration of cuts or changes to pensions or health care, or privatizing the provision of some public services, without considering how those amenities will be paid for, and by whom.

Furthermore, our infrastructure is decaying, most especially in older East Coast cities like Detroit (where schools are literally falling apart, such that teachers are resorting to “sick-outs” to protest the decrepit conditions), Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York. But even in younger cities, such as Seattle, updated infrastructure to prepare for potential catastrophic earthquakes is needed.

At some point, something will give, as it has in Flint due to decaying water infrastructure and poor political decisions by state officials. Many conservatives dig in their heels against any and all investments in public infrastructure and the necessary regulations to provide accountability and oversight, without considering how a failure to make such investments will impact future generations.

So there are lessons to draw from Michigan for both conservatives and liberals alike which will be increasingly salient to our rapidly changing cities and states:

  • There are very real financial issues looming due to unsustainable allocations to pensions, health care, and other large administrations of public funds (such as education).
  • There are very real infrastructural and environmental issues looming due to a lack of long-term planning, foresight, and investment.

Pragmatic solutions do not frequently come from ideological partisanship. And yet, our country often appears unable to get beyond superficial political polarization of real issues, preferring, instead, to elect leaders who play into and intentionally manipulate our fears to gain power. Unless we can learn to take our civic institutions and responsibilities seriously, we may well witness more horrors wreaked upon our citizens as the result of unscrupulous governance in the oncoming decade.

Public Debates on Education are Ideological, Rather than Sociological

“Yet it struck me that most of the tensions the struggling school experienced that year were sociological rather than ideological: They concerned the challenge of bringing together people of different races and backgrounds (most of the families were low-income and black whereas most of the teachers were young, white, and middle-class) around a shared vision of what education can and should be. Yet our public debate is centered squarely on the ideological rather than the sociological. We endlessly debate the overall “worth” of various institutions—from “no excuses” charter schools to teachers unions—with a political or ideological framing. But we rarely venture inside, scrutinizing the arguably more important question of how people relate, or fail to relate, within these realms. Venturing inside—at least in a meaningful way—takes time, trust, and an open mind.”

—Sarah Carr, “There Are No Simple Lessons About New Orleans Charter Schools After Katrina. Here’s How I Learned That.” on Slate

Words are Important: Notes from an improved ‘gapper’

This post is brought to you via Louisiana professor and education-improver, Dr. Michael Hicks, continuing the exploration of the language that we use to describe education.

“Education is not preparation for life, education is life itself.”

This quote from John Dewey is how I introduced myself to the students in my fall semester Intro to Education course.

The quote served as a challenge to students to think deeply about the word “education” and what it really means to them, to their families, and to the perspective schools, communities and students that they will ultimately serve.

It challenged me, too. Always has.

But (pardon the opening preposition) it challenged me to think about other words and their relevance in my everyday use. Words like reformer, which I know makes me feel a certain way when I am described as such, has a different meaning when I embrace the introspection of it. Reform, which by most accounts means to make changes in a particular structure of things (typically a social, economic, or political institution or practice) in order to improve it, has evolved to take on new meanings. Not everyone feels the noble tinge that I do here in Louisiana when I hear the word.

To me, education reformers are engaged in the not-so-popular work of calling things not as they are, but as they could be. They are engaged in uncovering the completely obvious—but seldom articulated—educational plights of poor and underserved students. They are the Sally Field-type whistle-blowers of practices and people within our own profession of public education who embrace the status quo and blame lack of school progress on the demographics of the students. They are brave, intelligent, and have the best interest of all students at heart. They are educators – public, virtual and online, private and parochial. Yes, some are politicians and preachers, but most are principals and parents whose connection to what happens in the classroom is real and unescapably personal.

But, this is my definition.

Within and without the great state of Louisiana, education reform has several meanings and connotations. Whitney Tilson, Diane Ravitch, Randi Weingarten, Arne Duncan, Joel Klein and many, many others have formed their own variant of the word which has lead to many other strains, producing diverse meanings and equally diverse feelings and followers. This is life itself, and like life, education is personal and intertwined with our own distinct interpretations of humanity.

I now prefer education improver over education reformer. Some of the improvements that I advocate align me with the more modern meanings of the word reformer, but some do not. Some of the improvements that I advocate are pro charter schools, and some are not.

Some of the improvements I will fight for are Louisiana-centered, and some are not. Some of the improvements that make sense to me address refocusing the purpose and viability of traditional neighborhood schools, and some address the technology and structure that students might require in the next century. The word “reformer” limits me, and I want to know no bounds in my advocacy for students.

This conversation that I’m having with myself (of which you are now a guest) reminds me of when I stopped being a gapper. Early in my educational career, I became a poster child for calling out and trying to decrease the achievement gap between Black and White students. I studied authors who helped me articulate the statistics. I wrote blog articles on how to fix the inequalities. When the achievement gap fire began to wane, I jumped to the opportunity gap, then to the exposure gap and next the expectation gap. Gaps, gaps everywhere, and not a spot to think! I was gap obsessed.

Words are important. Real discrepancies do exist in public education, private education, pre-K, K-12, higher ed, and in everything, when you look deep enough. This is life itself. The deficit language I once employed in order to address and “fix” these discrepancies was weakening my efforts and limiting my effectiveness.

I now prefer strength based educator over achievement gap specialist. When I’m invited to speak to or engage faculties in school climate and high expectation culture topics, I rarely mention the gaps I once waved the flag for.

At times, I wish I were a bird paleontologist – I’m intrigued with their research methodologies and their findings about our winged friends; but I am not. I am a professor of education and my words are important. When I ask my students how they will improve education, I get robust visions of the future of schooling from sharp young minds. When I ask who will be an education reformer, I’m met with blank stares. When I speak about the uniqueness of Black and Brown students and how to address underserved communities, I see excitement. When I talk about the gaps between certain NCLB groups, I get confused glances. It’s not what ideology you agree with more that I’m interested in, it’s much more personal than that. It is who will you serve as an educator, why will you serve them, and what will you do when you are blessed with the opportunity to do so.

I want my students to be engaged in the current happenings of American and global education. I want them to be informed. I want them to have very strong opinions. I also want them to know that words are important and that education, which per Dewey is also life itself, should constantly challenge them to examine the words they use to describe themselves and their very noble work of teaching other people’s children.

How to Fight Poverty: Provide Options

The Network Effect

Last week, Will and I took up the topic of poverty in response to an op-ed by Eva Moskowitz. Poverty is rightfully a major point of discourse in fields such as education, sociology, and economics, especially given the symbolic and vaunted “golden door” of opportunity for the “huddled masses” presented by the ideal of the United States.

For those of us who work in communities entrenched in poverty, we see firsthand the devastation that poverty and its associated ills can wreak on our children and their families. You won’t catch me blithely trumpeting “poverty doesn’t matter” anytime soon. Poverty matters. Which is another way of saying that capital—and who has an abundance of access to it, and who doesn’t—matters.

Optionality—or the Lack Thereof

I like to think of capital, or wealth, as optionality (with a nod to Nassim Taleb). In other words, capital is the possession of options, which can be social, psychological, physical, or otherwise, and not simply a matter of money. As an example, there are folks who may not have lots of money per se, yet are willing to take fairly large (calculated) risks and thus gain wealth. Such people most likely have access to other forms of capital, such as a solid network of family, friends, or other formal or informal sources of guidance and support. And as we know with capital, the more you have, the more you accumulate. This effect, known as the Matthew Effect, has also been much written about in education, especially in regards to vocabulary development.

Unsurprisingly, a child’s exposure to vocabulary corresponds very closely to the socio-economic status of his family.

There’s No Denying the Challenge

There’s a strong tendency in the ed reform crowd to present a righteously indignant insistence that poverty should not determine life nor career outcomes. It certainly shouldn’t. Not in a world that is fair. But it does. Research suggests that poverty can even have long-term consequences on brain development. In summarizing the research from a longitudinal study, Emily Badger on Atlantic’s CityLab said,

Poverty taxes the ability of parents to do all kinds of things, including care for their children. And the developmental challenges that children face in a home full of stressed adults may well influence the adults that they, themselves, become.

To acknowledge the impact of factors associated with poverty does not mean to give up, nor to suggest that our schools can’t do better. It’s rather to acknowledge the extreme challenges our children might face, as well as to acknowledge that such challenges extend well beyond the purview of the classroom.

By acknowledging these challenges and the stark reality that children and their family may face in fact validates yet more the tough work that educators do. It’s our job to provide an environment where our children not only will be challenged at the highest level, but furthermore provided extensive support, both academic and otherwise. A recent post by CJ Libassi on New America’s EdCentral makes this explicit, based on recent findings from a Mathematica study:

“To catch up,” the authors say, “high-risk children would need to make almost twice as much progress during kindergarten as low-risk children.”

Depressing as these findings may be, more discouraging still is the fact that exposure to risk factors that impede kindergarten readiness has not improved since the 1998-99 cohort of students. And, it may be getting worse. In the 1998-99 group, 58% of kindergartners had no risk factors, compared to the most recent cohort’s rate of 56% students with no such obstacles in their lives. Though we can’t be certain that the number of children experiencing risk factors is trending upwards, it is safe to conclude that the problem is at least getting no better.

Let’s Pull Up Our Big Person Pants

Rather than needlessly polarizing the issue of poverty in education by pointing to outliers, the real question is: how we can better serve communities entangled in poverty and seek to mediate the toxic effects?

Let’s go back to the idea of wealth and capital as optionality. We want to provide our children and their families with more and better options.

  • Having options means that you have some place to go to enrich yourself after school ends.
  • Having options means that you have some place within walking distance to obtain healthy food.
  • Having options means that you have access to different spaces of respite and serenity, places with trees, or water, or flowers, or scenic views.
  • Having options means that you can decide not to go to college, and still develop skills for a viable career.
  • Having options means that you can decide to raise a child before you’ve invested in a career or college, and still find support with child care.
  • Having options means that you can decide to start your own business, because you still have a savings or insurance to fall back on if you fail.
  • Having options means that you can decide to move to another part of town, because there will still be affordable housing options there.

It’s incumbent on all of us, as a society, to provide more and better options for each other. And while the seeds of change can be sown in the classroom, they are sustained and scaled by the overarching structures and policies of our economy and government. Our schools may be on the front lines in the fight against poverty, but the real battle occurs on each of our front lawns.

We’re all accountable for the poverty of communities in our nation. What are we doing to provide opportunities for children and families in those communities?

When framed in this way, we can acknowledge the opportunities that educators are providing without the need to denigrate them for political points. We can acknowledge, say, the great work that Eva Moskowitz’ network provides with Success Academy schools, while also acknowledging that it is simply not enough. We can appreciate the effort Geoffrey Canada has made to make a school provide more than just an education, while acknowledging that it’s still not enough.

And we can acknowledge the hard work that educators in our district schools are doing each day across this vast system, while also acknowledging—it’s just not enough.

In this nation, we’re scared of taking big and bold collective action and pulling up our big person pants. What do I mean by big and bold action? How about reparations for people of color? Or affirmative action? Or integrated and affordable housing? How about a global wealth tax?

Yeah, I thought so. Not in my backyard, right? To each his own. Too bad, so sad. The endless charade of American independence.

Since big and bold action is unlikely any time soon, and we know that simply throwing big money or big names at the problem isn’t effective either, fighting poverty is unfortunately about incremental change. It’s about playing the long game.

So, what’s the long game? I’m going to argue that it has a lot to do with trees.

To be continued in our next post. . . 

Getting Our Children Addicted


During the week, when I have a few moments to scan Twitter or Feedly or newsletters, I’ll save interesting things to read in Pocket. And sometimes, I’ll get a few moments on the weekend to read some of these articles (sometimes; most of the time I just end up with an endless collection of remarkable things I won’t get to read until months later).

This morning, after reading a NY Times report on the lives of teenagers in Brownsville, I happened to read a Nautilus article on the effort to build non-addictive painkillers, and I found an interesting point of connection between the two.

When you read the NY Times report on Brownsville, “On the Brink in Brownsville,” by Mosi Secret, there is a clear sense that for some teenagers in Brownsville—one of New York’s poorest and most violent neighborhoods—boredom seems a primary cause for turning to violence or crime. For example, in a moment in a local park, the highlight of the day occurs when a man beats up his former girlfriend: “The fight was the most thrilling thing to happen in a long bore of a day.”

In the article on painkillers, “Building the Perfect Painkiller” by Maia Szalavitz, there is a statement, generalized from research, that stands out to me as significant when we consider the lives of our children:

Research has found repeatedly that the longer a drug lasts and the slower it is to reach the brain, the less addictive it is; a short, intense high produces more compulsive behavior.

When I read that, I thought about the general meaning of this as it could apply to education and learning, rather than drugs and highs. For example, turning our children “on” to reading—getting them “hooked” on reading—is an incredibly difficult task, as reading itself is a “high” that is slow burning. And for those of us that love to read, we know that the effort and time is well worth the investment—that in fact there is no better method for learning. But for those of us that don’t love struggling through the words and narratives to discover the deep treasures therein, we may find more intense and immediate gratification in TVs and movies, or online videos of cats, for that matter.

Toy bears playing a desktop video game. Author: Mattinbgn Source: Wikimedia Commons

And when I thought back to Mosi Secret’s report on teenagers in Brownsville, it seemed to me apparent that our society has failed these children and many children all across our nation, not simply because of the tragedy of their being raised in an unstable environment with little access to the wealth of greenery, diverse sources of food, and other benefits of living in richer areas, but furthermore because we are so busy harvesting from, capitalizing off of, and perpetuating their compulsions and addictions, rather than offering them healthy and rich sources of learning.

By Stefan B., Thyras husband (GNU Free Documentation) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0
In that report on Brownsville, you’ll notice that Shamir and his friends are well-versed in the lore of fashion and consumer culture. Something’s working here, in some sense. Any distinctions made between high brow art and street life are largely fatuous at this point. These barriers have been broken. The only barrier that remains, as Shamir points out, is one of simply having the money to buy stuff: “Nobody in Brownsville is paying a thousand dollars and change for a [Hermès] belt.”

So our children have access to knowledge of all the things and stuff they want, and sometimes they’re able to acquire the latest sneaker or gaming system. But they have little access to knowledge of the things that make life so much more than a neverending series of a questing after shallow highs.

Why is this? And why is our society so adept at providing access to “stuff” that perpetuates yet more compulsive behavior, but so terrible at providing access to the knowledge and resources that make life worth living?