It’s Privilege (and Race), not Effort

In the tradition of Mel Riddile (see here and here), I want to assert: In the U.S., it’s privilege (and race), not effort.

The U.S. has a powerful addiction to a false myth, the myth of meritocracy—that success comes from hard work and that failure comes from laziness. Against that myth consider the following:

  • Matt O’Brien reports: “Even poor kids who do everything right don’t do much better than rich kids who do everything wrong. Advantages and disadvantages, in other words, tend to perpetuate themselves.”
  • Matt Bruenig concludes, based on data from the Pew’s Economic Mobility Project: “So, you are 2.5x more likely to be a rich adult if you were born rich and never bothered to go to college than if you were born poor and, against all odds, went to college and graduated….Therefore, the answer to the question in the title is that you are better off being born rich regardless of whether you go to college than being born poor and getting a college degree.”
  • Drawing on the report Young Invincibles, Susan Adams explains: “African-Americans college students are about as likely to get hired as whites who have dropped out of high school.”
  • Bruenig also notes: “Black families with college degrees have a mean wealth of $162.8k, which is effectively the same as the mean wealth of white families with less than a high school education.”

The evidence refutes the myth, then, since race and the economic status of any child’s home are far more powerful influences on success than effort. As long as we cling to the false myth and fail to dismantle privilege, however, meritocracy will never become a reality.

Our Enduring Deficit Gaze: Misreading Poverty (Again)

In Why important education research often gets ignored, Dennis Hayes notes that “[t]eachers’ professional development is ‘fragmented, occasional and insufficiently informed by research'” in the UK, concluding (with some snark), “It will come as no surprise then that this report is likely to be ignored, like much of the research available to teachers.”

“A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods,” wrote Lou LaBrant, although her point was made about education in the U.S.—and in 1947.

Little appears to have changed, then, since LaBrant’s recognition of the “considerable gap” also examined by Hayes, but complicating the failure of research to reach the classroom is how research is distorted by the media, which disproportionately covers think-tank reports (often not peer-reviewed) compared to more rigorous university-based research (see Molnar and Yettick).

One enduring failure of research and reporting on research is the persistent claims about the language deficit among the poor. However, even when that claim is challenged in the mainstream press, the source of that misconception continues to be embraced as credible.

For example, Douglas Quenqua reports in The New York Times:

It has been nearly 20 years since a landmark education study found that by age 3, children from low-income families have heard 30 million fewer words than more affluent children, putting them at an educational disadvantage before they even began school. The findings led to increased calls for publicly funded prekindergarten programs and dozens of campaigns urging parents to get chatty with their children.

Now, a growing body of research is challenging the notion that merely exposing poor children to more language is enough to overcome the deficits they face. The quality of the communication between children and their parents and caregivers, the researchers say, is of much greater importance than the number of words a child hears.

That “landmark study” is by Hart and Risley from 1995, but despite the newer research highlighted by Quenqua, this article remains uncritical of Hart and Risley’s claim that children in poverty can be distinguished from the wealthier peers by the quantity of language they are exposed to in their homes.

Two significant problems are revealed in Quenqua’s article: Hart and Risley’s research maintains its credibility and the new research remains within a deficit perspective, one that marginalizes people in poverty while keeping the gaze of judgment on the impoverished.

Absent in Quenqua (or any media consideration of language acquisition by the poor) is that Dudley-Marling and Lucas have discredited Hart and Risley for perpetuating stereotypes and overgeneralizing claims from a skewed perspective.

Inevitably, when the media and educators address language acquisition and children in poverty (and often minority students), Hart and Risley is cited directly, and a deficit view of language and poverty is presented as fact—despite those claims being baseless stereotyping and debunked mischaracterizations of language, as Dudley-Marling and Lucas stress:

[Hart and Risley] are establishing a norm thoroughly biased in favor of middle- and upper-middle-class children. This common-sense rendering of the data pathologizes the language and culture of poor families, reflecting harmful, long-standing stereotypes that hold the poor primarily responsible for their economic and academic struggles (Nunberg, 2002). (p. 367)

This brings us to the second problem with Quenqua’s piece on shifting from quantity to quality of language when teaching children in poverty. While this newer study seems to refute Hart and Risley, the broader assumptions remain trapped in the same deficit gaze that places all the focus and blame on impoverished children’s parents.

We, then, are faced with a shift from “quantity” to “quality” as no real change at all because the message persists that impoverished parents lack something that is thus passed on to their children, who must have that lack filled (once it was more words, now it is higher quality words).

In other words, we are not willing to turn our deficit gaze away from the victims of poverty and toward the systemic conditions creating that poverty—and consequences such as differences in language among social classes that reflect not failed people but a failed society.

Yes, education seems too often implementing practices in the classroom without proper attention to research, but we also must admit that our education system is just as prone to falling for research claims as long as they conform to our stereotypes, those “common-sense renderings” exposed by Dudley-Marling and Lucas—a much more damning concern we must confront if research is ever to matter in the schooling and lives of children.

The State (SC), Letters: We should reject spanking

We should reject spanking

I was disappointed with Ron Prinz’s incomplete and misleading guest column on corporal punishment (“The truth about spanking,” Sept. 26). Prinz claimed he was “getting past myths,” but there is in fact no debate about the correct use of corporal punishment.

Elizabeth T. Gershoff of the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University, in analysis for the American Psychological Association, has concluded: “Until researchers, clinicians, and parents can definitively demonstrate the presence of positive effects of corporal punishment, including effectiveness in halting future misbehavior, not just the absence of negative effects, we as psychologists can not responsibly recommend its use.”

Few, if any, parents are qualified to know the line between mild and harmful corporal punishment, and the research is clear that all corporal punishment is ineffective. Just as we do not justify any man hitting any woman, we should reject any adult hitting a child.

Gender Problem in Academia Tip of Iceberg

Readers often find the concluding section of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tales, titled “Historical Notes,” somewhat disjointed—if readers continue to the section at all.

While these final pages are important to helping readers understand many of the nuances of the narrative constituting most of the novel, “Historical Notes” is also a brutal satire on academia, spurred by Atwood’s own troubling experiences with graduate school that exposed to her a stunning level of patriarchy and misogyny common in universities in the early 1960s.

Nearly five decades later, Roxane Gay, novelist and author of Bad Feminist, details her own experiences of being marginalized, of feeling as the Other in higher education, first as a graduate student, like Atwood:

At both my master’s and doctoral institutions, I was the only black student. Any success I achieved only spurred me to work harder and harder so I might outrun whispers of affirmative action and the arrogant assumptions that I could not possibly belong in those institutions of supposedly higher learning.

Like many students of color, I spent a frustrating amount of time educating white people, my professors included, about their ignorance, or gritting my teeth when I did not have the energy. When race entered class discussions, all eyes turned to me as the expert on blackness or the designated spokesperson for my people. When racist “jokes” were made, I was supposed to either grin and bear it or turn the awkward incident into a teachable moment about difference, tolerance, and humor. When a doctoral classmate, who didn’t realize I was in hearing range, told a group of our peers I was clearly the affirmative-action student, I had to pretend I felt nothing when no one contradicted her. Unfortunately, these anecdotes are dreadfully common, banal even, for people of color. Lest you think this is ancient history, I graduated with my Ph.D. in December 2010.

And then as faculty:

Today, I teach at Purdue University, where in the semester I write this, I have no students in either of my classes who look like me. I have yet to see another black faculty member in the halls of my building, though I know some exist. I previously taught at Eastern Illinois University, where, in my department, I was one of two black faculty members, one of only five faculty of color in all. The more things change, the more they stay the same. This is the price of exceptionalism—you will always be the only one or one of a few. There are no safe harbors. There are no reflections of your experience.

While Gay highlights racial inequity and Atwood has confronted gender inequity, these experiences reflect systemic failures in higher education—ones that impact those of us who come from working class backgrounds as well.

So when I read Curt Rice’s Why women leave academia and why universities should be worried, I had multiple response to his opening claim:

Young women scientists leave academia in far greater numbers than men for three reasons. During their time as PhD candidates, large numbers of women conclude that (i) the characteristics of academic careers are unappealing, (ii) the impediments they will encounter are disproportionate, and (iii) the sacrifices they will have to make are great.

First, since my own university is currently conducting a gender equity study spurred in part because a disproportionate number of women faculty have left over the last few years, I strongly agree with the premise that women faculty are justifiably rejecting higher education, notably for the three points identified by Rice

Further, however, the recognition of the gender problem and then the likely responses to that problem both remind me of the recent thirty-year cycle of public school reform.

In both contexts, the problem is misidentified and then the solutions remain trapped within marginal policy tinkering.

Education reform, for example, has focused mostly on the achievement gap (occasionally acknowledging the relationship between poverty and measurable academic achievement, but primarily in order to note poverty is not an excuse) and then has addressed that problem by a recurring cycle of the same types of reform—accountability based on new standards and new high-stakes tests.

That process fails because the core problem, poverty, is marginalized by both how the problem is defined and what steps are taken as solutions; the process ultimately fails because we refuse to identify systemic problems and refuse to offer systemic solutions directly confronting those weaknesses.

This, of course, is the same critique I have of now (belatedly) recognizing the gender problem (or race problem, or class problem) in academia and the likely response: how do we hire more women, how do we insure equitable pay and promotion for women, etc.

Now to be clear, those policy issues must be addressed, but I suspect when and if they are, the consequence will be that systemic problems in academia will be left untouched.

As a tenured white and male faculty member now submitting my dossier for full professorship, I recognize that academia is too often a glorified fraternity, steeped in secrecy and academic hazing.

The structures remain hierarchical, the policies continue to be cryptic, and the entire process for hiring, evaluation, tenure, and promotion appear capricious—and often are capricious—despite there being very formalized steps, mountains of paperwork (literally paper), and arcane systems of titles, committees, and traditional norms of scholarship.

As just one example, high education functions under an unwritten (although often expressed in veiled ways) “know your place” policy aimed at junior faculty. For people who already live in marginalized situations due to gender, race, or class, this dynamic is especially corrosive.

It is not surprising that women are rejecting the Social Darwinism and hierarchical silencing in academia; what is surprising is that not everyone is rejecting these norms.

Just as education reform is committed to a flawed hope that reforming schools will eradicate crippling inequity, poverty, racism, and sexism in the U.S., addressing gender inequity in academia will too fail if we see the solutions as only policy reform—if we point to more women hired, higher salaries and more promotions for female faculty without taking any real steps to dismantle and then rebuild an enlightened and equitable academy.

Again, as with education reform, let’s address inequity at the policy level in academia—inequity related to gender, race, class, and any marginalized status—but let’s also not allow those reforms to replace the greater need to confront the systemic failures of academia that manifest themselves as gender, race, and class inequities.

Atwood’s novel ends with a keynote speech by Professor James Darcy Pieixoto of Cambridge University. His final words are grand, and empty in the way scholars often are: “As all historians know, the past is a great darkness, and filled with echoes,” for example.

But the most powerful aspect of this talk is possibly the most subtle—Pieixoto ends his talk with a question, one that rings as mere rhetoric as no one responds, no one is likely allowed to respond: “Are there any questions?”

If we are serious about gender equity, for example, in academia, we must ask women academics and scholars what the academia should look like, not simply give them raises and promotions in hopes that we have solved the problem.

We must ask, we must listen, and then we must act. Otherwise, we are saying that we really do not take gender inequity seriously (again).

 

Beyond Toilet Seat Etiquette

In her The Airplane Seat Theory of Education post, Nancy Flanagan asks:

When did we stop cherishing our small communities in favor of looking out for number one? When did we lose the idea that we have accomplished great things collaboratively, as a nation of small communities–the GI Bill, the Hoover Dam, the middle class–not as individual, high-profile wealth-producers?

Schools, too, are temporary communities, that function best when the folks involved understand the importance of consideration for our fellow humans, which leads to the rising tide that lifts all boats.

Within a week of my reading this, I was sitting at my sister-in-law’s, surrounded by my niece, daughter, wife, and sister-in-law as well as my niece’s two children while I held my granddaughter. In the flow of unrelated discussions, the women in the room had a quick but notable discussion of the age-old anger at men who leave the toilet seat up. The consensus of the women in the room was that such acts are essentially rude, an inconsiderate act that fails to recognize the basic human dignity of other people using the toilet differently.

I think it is fair to say that these women felt as if leaving the toilet seat up was a statement that suggested they simply don’t exist—a pretty awful feeling for a loved one to have.

Since then, I have found myself contemplating the toilet seat in a similar way to Flanagan’s consideration of the airplane seat, and I think her question deserves a fuller reply.

Community and collaboration, I think, are not concepts we have lost in the U.S., but ideals we have never really embraced. And the reason why lies with our essential materialistic consumerism linked to our embracing the rugged individual myth.

The problem with materialism, consumerism, and broadly ownership in Western and U.S cultures can best be revealed through toilet seat etiquette, but let’s start somewhere else—the car.

In the U.S. (and especially in the rural areas), we not only covet our cars, but also each person old enough in the family has his/her own car—and mass transit isn’t even an option. To have your own car in the U.S. is a teenage rite of passage—often a very public marker of class that further ostracizes young people.

Much the same can be said about iPods (and earbuds) or smartphones.

But the toilet is a different matter.

Even in our own homes, the toilet can and will be a communal possession—guests have access to the toilet as do all who live in a home.

Just as death and bodily functions level (and thus humanize) people despite their class, race, gender, or ideologies (we all die and we all must evacuate our bladders), the toilet challenges our individualistic sense of ownership—or at least it should.

“Ownership is an entirely human construct,” writes Barbara Kingsolver in “Making Peace” from her collection High Tide in Tucson, adding:

At some point people got along without it. Many theorists have addressed the question of how private property came about, and some have gone so far as to suggest this artificial notion has led us into a mess of trouble….[T]o own land, plants, other animals, more stuff than we need—that is the particular product of a human imagination.

In the beginning, humans were communal and social creatures. (p. 26)

I would add to Kingsolver’s excellent essay that this tipping point in which, as she explains, humans have come to see ownership “as a natural condition, right as rain” (p. 30) is the imbalance at the foundation of our loss of community, our honoring of individual ownership to the exclusion of communal property and thus eroding the very individual rights we claim to cherish.

The problem is one John Dewey, William James, and others have confronted in philosophical terms—the fabricated choice between the individual and the collective, an either/or in which the U.S. and most Westerners have lined up to support only the individual.

And thus, men lift toilet seats and leave them up as if no one else exists—especially and most damning, as if no women will need to use that particular toilet in a way different than he has.

Failure to honor basic toilet etiquette is simply callousness, selfishness, and a lack of self- as well as collective awareness. It is a very impersonal and undignified “Up yours,” offered in absentia.

As Kingsolver notes, we have abandoned collaboration for competition and championed “I” over “we” to the detriment of each of us as well as all of us.

Again, to Dewey—the individual/community dynamic is not a choice, but an inseparable and symbiotic relationship. To honor the individual, we must simultaneously honor the community, and to honor the community, we must not ignore the individual.

Thus, to recognize the toilet as mine (either literally as in “I bought it” or temporally as in “I am currently on it”) as well as always someone else’s is the toilet seat compact that would benefit all of humanity if we were to expand that premise to essentially everything. This, of course, is the argument Kurt Vonnegut offered over and over in the waning years of his life about the planet: It is in each of our selfish interests to treat the planet as if it belongs to everyone.

“Life is better,” ends Kingsolver, “since I abdicated the throne*. What a relief, to relinquish ownership of unownable things” (p. 33). And I am certain that if we could balance our sense of individual ownership with communal ownership, we would have a similar response because life would be better if we humans lived each moment with the simple compassion and awareness found in toilet seat etiquette that honors communal dignity while also challenging the patriarchy of lifted seats.

* Yes, “abdicated the throne….”

Idealizing, Misreading Impoverished and Minority Parental Choice

In his The Charter School Paradox, Walt Gardner asks: “If charter schools are guilty of all the sins described in the multi-part cover story, then why are there waiting lists across the country of mostly poor black and Hispanic parents who are desperate to get their children enrolled in these schools?” And then he concludes:

I continue to be a strong supporter of traditional public schools for reasons I’ve explained in this column and in other venues over the past two decades.  But I also support parental choice. I don’t see this as a contradiction in terms. Yes, parents often make mistakes in their decisions.  However, I maintain it is their right alone to decide what is best for their offspring. Charter schools are accused of increasing racial segregation, but that does not seem to bother poor black and Hispanic parents who want to enroll their children.  I wish The Nation had addressed this paradox in its cover story.  It’s too important to brush aside.

I recognized the role of parental choice in the larger school choice debate as well as how that element complicates both advocacy and rejecting a wide range of school choice initiatives, resulting in my writing an extended examination of the issue in Parental Choice?

Despite spending a great deal of time on school choice research and finding little to support advocacy for choice options such as tuition tax credits, public school choice, or charter schools, I too was baffled by the apparent appeal of charter schools, notably among impoverished and minority parents—particularly in the context of my own claim that “no excuses” ideologies are racist and my concurrent rejecting of paternalism. I was able to understand that tension, however, once I read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, in which she confronts the same tension over mass incarceration and intensive (as well as disproportionate) policing of high-poverty minority neighborhoods.

In Education Reform in the New Jim Crow Era, I reached the following conclusion:

Since market-oriented education reform is producing evidence highlighting the ineffectiveness and even negative outcomes associated with those policies, that the agendas remain robust suggests, again like mass incarceration, education reform fulfills many of the dynamics found in the New Jim Crow.

Just as mass incarceration from the war on drugs continues institutional racism once found in slavery and Jim Crow, education reform, especially the “no excuses” charter school movement, resurrects a separate but equal education system that is separate, but certainly isn’t equal. The masked racism of mass incarceration and education reform share many parallels…

This last point—that African Americans seem to support both the war on crime and “no excuses” charter schools—presents the most problematic aspect of charges that mass incarceration and education reform are ultimately racist, significant contributions to the New Jim Crow. [emphasis added]

For example, [Sarah] Carr reports [in her Hope Against Hope] that African American parents not only choose “no excuses” charter schools in New Orleans, but also actively cheer and encourage the authoritarian policies voiced by the schools’ administrators. But Alexander states, “Given the dilemma facing poor black communities, it is inaccurate to say that black people ‘support’ mass incarceration or ‘get-tough’ policies” because “if the only choice that is offered blacks is rampant crime or more prisons, the predictable (and understandable) answer will be ‘more prisons'” (p. 210).

New Orleans serves as a stark example of how this dynamic works in education reform: Given the choice between segregated, underfunded and deteriorating public schools and “no excuses” charters—and not the choice of the school environments and offerings found in many elite private schools—the predictable answer is “no excuses” charters.

The charter school movement, specifically the “no excuses” versions, represents a skewed choice environment; again one that does not include the qualities found in many selective and expensive private schools.

We must be careful, then, not to idealize parental choice and not to misread the choices in limited contexts of impoverished and minority parents who in fact are not being offered the sorts of choices that would likely erase their apparent support for charter schools.

Well-funded, safe, and high-quality public schools would negate the need for choice, and that should be what we are pursuing, as I have detailed before:

People in poverty deserve essential Commons—such as a police force and judicial system, a military, a highway system, a healthcare system, and universal public education—that make choice unnecessary. In short, among the essentials of a free people, choice shouldn’t be needed by anyone.

No child should have to wait for good schools while the market sorts some out, no human should have to wait for quality medical care while the market sorts some out, no African American teen gunned down in the street should have to wait for the market to sort out justice—the Commons must be the promise of the essential equity and justice that both make freedom possible and free people embrace.