The Pornographer’s Preschool and the Perils of Public Funding

The feel-good story of the superstorm: Super-rich guy allows a bunch of adorable orphans to shelter in his swanky mansion after Irma knocked out power to their group home. From Lil Orphan Annie to The Simpsons to Fresh Prince of Bel Air, we Americans love it when a spunky kid is plucked from poverty and given a brief taste of the good life. And I hate to be “that guy,” but I can’t help but remind us about the underlying social malfunction that underlies this storyline: Instead of hoping for a well-intentioned generous savior, we should be making sure that all kids are getting the kinds of shelter and support they deserve.

lil orphan annie

I’ll help this one because it amuses me…

In case you missed the story, here it is in a nutshell: After Irma blew through Florida, about seventy kids of all ages at the SOS Children’s Village Florida were left homeless. Marc Bell, former owner of Penthouse magazine and board member of the group home, offered to let them stay at his mansion. They ended up staying for a couple of days. Bell hired clowns and bought pizza.

Cute story, right? If you watched only the Inside Edition version, you’d think so.

I know Inside Edition isn’t about hard-hitting journalism, but it’s hard not to cringe at the way the story is being told. Yes, it was kind of Bell to spend some of his hard-won pornography dollars on helping these children. And yes, it was an emergency situation that strained all public services far past the breaking point.

The real headline here isn’t a happy one, however. The real headline is that our institutional structure to provide basic services for the most vulnerable members of our society is fragile and battered in the best of circumstances. When emergency strikes—as we know it will even if we don’t know the details—people in these institutions are left hopeless and helpless.

Without the lucky and accidental intervention of the Bell family in this case, these seventy children would have been forced to endure more days without food, water, or shelter.

And that’s the real headline, the depressing headline, the headline no one wants to see and no one would click on: Children from Low-Income Homes Get Worse Treatment.

Decent funding for schools, housing, and other basic needs shouldn’t be a special plea that sometimes is met when generous individuals decide to step in. Schools should not need to plead for special treatment in order to have adequate supplies. Shelters shouldn’t need to beg for one-time favors in order to keep the lights on.

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We Need More Wax in America’s Ears

Jonathan Zimmerman says let her talk. When we defend academic speech we disagree with, we defend ALL academic speech. Jonathan Haidt says let her talk, because she’s right. Stable marriages and “bourgeois culture,” Haidt agrees, really do help people improve their economic conditions. We here at ILYBYGTH want Professor Wax to have her say for different reasons. We’ll make our case this morning and we’re going for bonus points by working in both creationism and the Green Bay Packers.

aaron rodgers jesus

I don’t think St. Aaron attended Penn Law…

If you haven’t been following the frouforole emanating out of Philadelphia, here it is in a nutshell: Professor Amy Wax of Penn Law and Professor Larry Alexander of UCLA penned a provocative piece at Philly.com. If we really want to ease the burdens of poverty, they reasoned, we should encourage more people to embrace “bourgeois culture.” Such ideas have gotten a bum rap, Wax and Alexander said, but the notions of deferred gratification, stable two-parent households, and patriotic clean living are of enormous economic value.

The outcry was loud and predictable. Penn students rallied to shut down such “white supremacist” notions. Wax’s colleagues denounced her ideas in more nuanced form.

Any progressive historians in the room surely share Professor Zimmerman’s concern. After all, when academic speech has been banned and persecuted in this country, it has been progressive and leftist scholars who have borne the brunt of such punishment.

There is a more important reason to allow and encourage a frank and open airing of Professor Wax’s arguments. As recent polls have reminded us, Americans in general are profoundly divided about the meaning of poverty. For argument’s sake, we might say there are two general sides. Lots of us think that the most important cause of poverty is a social system that defends its own built-in hierarchies. Rich people stay rich and poor people stay poor. Lots of other people disagree. Many Americans tend to blame individuals for their poverty, to assume that personal characteristics such as grit and gumption are enough to solve the problem of poverty.

Professor Wax’s argument tends to support the latter view. And if you disagree with her, you might be tempted to try to shut her down.

That’s a mistake.

Why? Because her arguments just don’t hold water. And because the more often we can get discussions of poverty on the front pages, the more chances we’ll have to make better arguments, to explain that America’s anxiously held Horatio-Alger notions don’t match reality.

In other words, when it comes to tackling the problem of poverty in America, the biggest challenge is that people simply don’t want to talk about it. They want to rest in their comfortable assumptions that the system is fundamentally fair even if some people don’t have what it takes to get ahead.

I’m convinced that the truth is different. Personal characteristics matter, of course. Far more important, however, is the whole picture—the social system that puts some kids on a smooth escalator to riches and others in a deep economic pit with a broken ladder.

Because I’m convinced that the best social-science evidence supports my position, I want to hear more from people like Professor Wax. I want to encourage people who disagree to make their cases in the front pages of every newspaper in the country.

Sound nutty? Consider a couple of examples from near and far.

Radical creationists like Ken Ham want to protect children from the idea of evolution. They fear, in short, that students who hear the evidence for evolution will find it convincing. With a few prominent exceptions, radical creationists want to cut evolution from textbooks and inoculate students against evolution’s powerful intellectual allure.

Those of us who want to help children learn more and better science should welcome every chance to put the evidence for mainstream evolutionary theory up against the evidence for radical young-earth creationism. Mainstream science should never try to shut down dissident creationist science. That’s counter-productive. Rather, mainstream science should encourage frank and open discussions, knowing that exposure to the arguments on both sides will convince more and more people of the power of mainstream thinking.

Or, for my Wisconsin friends, consider another example.

If a Bears fan wants to clamber up on the bar and insist that her team is better than the Packers, it would be the height of folly to try to stop her from speaking her piece. Those of us who know the true saving grace of St. Aaron will instead happily let her slur through her argument, smiling and waiting for Thursday night. The more games we play, the more often the Packers will win.

When the evidence is on our side, it is always better to encourage all the debate we can get.

The 582-Million-Dollar Question

You’ve seen the headlines: One lucky person from Chicopee, Massachusetts won three-quarters of a billion dollars in this week’s powerball lottery. What can she do with her money? She could buy all the seats—ALL THE SEATS—at the next two Superbowls. She could buy an archipelago of private islands. But, apparently, even with all that money she couldn’t buy better schools for New York City students from low-income homes. Why not? We all know the answer, but we just don’t like to talk about it.

The New York Times reported today that New York’s 582-million dollar investment in its public schools has shown only meh results. Students at a couple of schools showed improvement on test scores, but overall the improvements don’t seem to match the size of the investment.

Why not?

The article concludes that the answer is mysterious. As the authors put it, “nobody knows precisely what works.”

That’s a cop out.

We all know what works: Schools that are part of enthusiastic, involved communities of families, teachers, administrators, and politicians. The problem comes when even the best-intentioned school reformers make the same error we’ve been making for centuries. If we want to improve educational outcomes, we can’t simply invest in academic interventions. And, to be fair, the program in NYC went beyond academics to provide health services for students.

Nevertheless, with apologies to SAGLRROILYBYGTH who are sick of hearing it, we need to repeat the mantra: Schools can’t fix society, schools ARE society. As long as students are living at the bottom of the economic ladder, they—as a whole, not as individuals—will continue to fare far worse on measures of educational achievement.

Why? Not because they lack talent or “grit,” but because they are carrying far heavier life burdens than students from more affluent families. Schools alone can’t level that playing field. No matter how much money we invest, we won’t be able to use academic interventions to solve the problems of poverty. Instead, we need to invest in schools as part of a broader investment in economic equality.

It’s not a mystery, but the sheer political impossibility of doing such a wide-ranging social and economic reform plan leads us always back to the same conundrum. We put the money into schools because we don’t want to confront the depressing truth that our problems are bigger than we like to think.

The Amazing Historio!

That’s right, folks, the Amazing Historio can tell the future. I can predict with shocking accuracy the path any new school-reform panacea will take. Actually, it’s not very amazing. Any teacher can do it. Anyone who has been paying attention can do it. The pattern is so depressingly predictable that the only real challenge is figuring out why journalists keep buying tickets for the same show. This time around, the story comes from San Antonio.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH know I’m working on a new book about America’s first urban school reformer, Joseph Lancaster. It’s not to Lancaster’s credit that his loud-mouthed ego-trip school-reform plan established this depressing pattern in the 1810s.

Here’s how it goes: A well-meaning, energetic young person pours his or her heart into building a great school. It works. Soon, the students are doing far better than anyone believed possible.

Buoyed by success, the reformer will build his or her ideas into a marketable plan, something that he or she promises will be able to fix urban schools without costing any more tax money.

It doesn’t work. Turns out, the thing that was really fueling the improvement was not any specific method of teaching or of organizing schools, but rather the energy and dedication that the community poured into its original reform effort. As soon as the “reform” becomes standard, it loses its pep and becomes merely business as usual.

Soon, jealous hacks notice that the reformers’ big promises didn’t pan out, and after explaining away the failure for a while, the reformer goes into some sort of awkward retirement.

For Joseph Lancaster in the early 1800s, his big reform was the “Lancastrian” system, which set up hundreds of kids from low-income urban families in big school warehouses, goaded by older student monitors. It worked great at first, at the Borough Road School in London. Lancaster ate lunch with kings and presidents and promised his system could save every city from hordes of illiterate urchins.

borough road school 1805

The solution, c. 1805. Never again would urban students from low-income families suffer from lower-quality education.

But guess what: Lancaster’s schools didn’t save every city. Students hated them. Parents hated them. Soon, Lancaster was in monstrous debt and his many detractors accused him of venality and obfuscation.

You’d think we’d learn the lesson, but we haven’t. The pattern has repeated itself with every new promise of a silver-bullet reform that will “save” urban education. Ask Colonel Parker. Ask Rod Paige.

And now we can ask Julian Castro in San Antonio. As a recent profile in Politico reports, the former mayor has built his meteoric career on a school-reform plan for the Texas city. The heart and soul of the plan is to enroll every San Antonian four-year-old in high-quality pre-kindergarten with a progressive pedagogy.

SA pre k

The solution, c. 2017. Never again will students from low-income families suffer from lower-quality education.

So far, so good. Getting every student into great schools really IS a great way to reform urban education. The problem is not in the idea itself. Rather, the problem comes when ambitious reformers think they have found a simple, transferable method for fixing schools. The problems begin to pile up when those same reformers hope to build their political careers by wildly overpromising.

In this case, the CEO of San Antonio’s program read her lines directly from Joseph Lancaster’s disastrous centuries-old script. As Politico reports,

Pre-K 4 SA has posted impressive results. Its kids start below the national average in cognition, math and literacy, and finish the year above average. Its founders have become evangelists for the idea that early-childhood education is key to giving poor kids an equal chance to succeed in school and life. The goal, says Sarah Baray, Pre-K 4 SA’s CEO, is nothing less than “to change the trajectory of San Antonio in one generation.”

Again, I’m all for progressive pre-K programs. I’m all for giving all students a great early education. Those are great things.

The problem comes when ambitious reformers suggest that changing the methods or structure of school will solve the problems of low-income families. The problems come when politicians promise that their plan will level the playing field and solve the challenges of poverty in a single generation.

They won’t, and it seems nearly criminal to build a career by making these obviously extravagant promises. When the politicians and CEOs have moved on to Washington DC and cushy corporate sinecures, local schools are always left tackling the same problems as ever.

The recipe for real reform is obvious, but it is never easy. Every kid should attend a school in which the entire community is engaged and enthusiastic. That’s not easy and it’s not cheap. But as we all know, it is the only school reform that really works.

Anything else is just hot air.