Moved to tumblr!

For the small number of you who follow this blog, I just wanted to let you know that I have moved the blog to an account with tumblr. My new blog address is:


Thoughts on Senate Bill 7…

Last Monday, (6/13) Governor Pat Quinn signed Senate Bill 7– a new education reform bill.

The bill’s provisions will enable Illinois School Districts to…

1) Lengthen the school day and/or extend the school year

2) Fire poorly performing teachers more easily

3) Offer merit pay to teachers

Apparently, the bill’s provisions will also make it more difficult for teacher’s unions to strike. (This addition comes at a good time for Rahm, who announced earlier this week that  CTU teachers will not be given scheduled pay raises).

Overall, I’d say the provisions in this bill represent a specific political and ideological orientation towards education reform. It’s an orientation my education policy professor labels “business minded”. Put simply, business minded reformers are typically pro-charter, pro-merit pay and anti-union. In other words, the business minded camp is interested in  applying business principles (choice, competition, & incentives) in education policy.

Personally, I’m worried that Senate Bill 7 reflects “business minded” reform concepts more than it reflects research about what matters for improving student achievement.

I  do think that extending the school day is a good change (kids in Illinois spend less time in school than kids in any other state), however, it’s unclear how the state will fund longer school days without an increase in education funding. (This point is currently being argued by Raise Your Hand, a parent advocacy group here in Chicago).

I’m also not opposed to firing poorly performing teachers, however– I think it’s important to point out that the image of the lazy, incompetent inner-city teacher (or the so-called “lemons” depicted in Waiting for Superman) is largely a myth (* See “Chicago School Reform: Myths Realities and Visions“). The “bad teacher” is a scapegoat (much like Reagan’s welfare queens) which enables us to avoid dealing with the root causes of urban social problems.

In my own experience working in two different inner-city schools–the vast majority of teachers I met were hard-working and cared deeply about their students. I suspect some of these teachers (myself included) could have been more effective if they had received more supports (like high-quality school leadership, training in cultural competency or classroom management, or access to more student data). There were of course, a few bad teachers (many of whom were persuaded to leave after a year of teaching). A much bigger problem, however, was that many of the most promising teachers left after just a few years . In most cases these teachers snagged jobs in the suburbs or at well-regarded charter schools where they could count on a less stressful work environment. Sure, firing incompetent teachers will benefit our schools–but it doesn’t really get at the larger issue of how to recruit and keep high quality teachers in urban schools.

As for merit pay… with the present budget crisis it seems unlikely to me that many districts will be experimenting with merit pay programs. Without more funding, this provision seems rather meaningless. Overall, I feel rather  ambivalent about the concept of merit pay. I think that teachers should be rewarded for their hard work–but in order to do this we need to find a holistic way to evaluate teachers (i.e. the idea of determining teacher pay on test scores alone strikes me a highly problematic). Personally, I prefer the idea of career ladders for teachers (i.e. exceptional teachers take on new positions as “teacher mentors” or “lead teachers” and receive a pay increase– much like a promotion).

Ties Between Obesity and Neo-Liberalism

This blog has been badly neglected the past two months… but here is a short post with some information I found interesting…

Last week, I attended a symposium on migrant rights at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration, where I am a student. The first presenter, Gerardo Otero (a professor of sociology at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver) spoke about  the relationship between migration and food production.  During his lecture, Otero described a research finding that captured my interest (and relates to some of my earlier posts about food justice ).

The finding was this: countries that have embraced neo-liberalism the most have the highest rates of obesity.

If you look at a recent list of countries with the highest percentages of obesity you will find that nations with strong neo-liberal tendencies (the U.S., U.K., Australia, Mexico, Canada) top the list. In contrast, developed nations that endorse other models of capitalism have much lower rates of obesity. For example, in Japan (a state-led capitalist model) only 3% of the population is obese (compare to 34% of the population in the U.S.) . In northern European countries such as Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands (where socially conscious forms of capitalism dominate), rates of obesity hover around 10%.

While Otero admits that more research needs to be done in order to fully understand the relationship between Neo-liberalism and capitalism, there is a clear correlation between the two. Otero hypothesizes that Neo-liberal practices (primarily cutting labor costs through any means possible) have the effect of reducing the quality of our food.

Otero’s hypothesis reminded me of Michael Pollan’s book Ominvore’s Dilemma (which I’ve also referenced in earlier posts). Pollan talks about the way that food companies  have sought to maximize profits by increasing portion sizes (i.e. selling only larger bags of chips and charging more for them) and by using cheaper ingredients (Pollan provides examples of how many packaged food items contain ingredients derived from corn, our cheapest and most abundant food source). Put simply, the food industry is profiting at the expense of our health. I think one could make the argument that the government is subsidizing this process when you consider how many tax dollars are spent treating heart disease and other obesity-related diseases.

The history of American corporations is loaded with examples of poor moral decision making. Unfortunately, it seems that maximizing profits and “doing the right thing” don’t always go together. Personally, I find it worrisome that the (presumably) decent people working in the food industry can make decisions which expand profits at the cost of human health. The obesity epidemic isn’t here simply because Americans spend too much time watching TV or eating fast food. I believe there is a real link between our society’s health and our society’s capacity for moral decision making.

A classmate recently told me that the Harvard Business School has decided to place a new emphasis on ethics– as a result of the recent economic downfall. I think this is a good start– business students should be trained to consider the real (if distant) effects their companies will have on both workers and consumers.

Lessons from “The Other Wes Moore”

I just finished reading The Other Wes Moore, a true story that chronicles the lives of two young men (both named Wes Moore) who grew up in Baltimore, just a few blocks apart from each other. Both boys lived in poverty, grew up in single parent homes, and performed poorly in school. One of the young men (the book’s author) went on to become a Rhodes Scholar, while the other is now serving life in prison.

Wes Moore (the Rhodes Scholar) writes, “the chilling truth is that Wes’s story could have been mine; the tragedy is that my story could have been his.”

So what made the difference? Moore recounts the life histories of both young men with detail and precision, but never interprets the evidence. Although one chapter title (“Choices and Second Chances”) is couched in the language of personal responsibility (suggesting that the different decisions made by each Wes Moore sealed their respective fates); Moore mostly leaves the reader to draw her own conclusions about what caused the paths of two similar children to diverge.

In the book’s epilogue, Moore points out that every reader has a different interpretation of the story. For me, there was one difference between the two Wes Moores that is eerily relevant to our current political climate. Wes Moore (the Rhodes Scholar) had a college educated mother and college educated grandparents. Although they were poor, Wes’s mother earned enough to send her kids to private school, and eventually used her social connections to send Wes to military school.

The other Wes Moore’s mother, Mary, was offered a Pell Grant to attend Johns Hopkins University, an opportunity which might have offered her a ticket out of poverty. However, once the Reagan Administration took over it slashed funds for Pell Grants (among other social programs), and Mary’s scholarship was revoked.

Mary never attended college. She raised two sons alone and worked multiple jobs in order to feed her family. Because Mary had to work long hours, the Moore boys were usually unsupervised. There was no one home to make sure that Wes went to school (unlike the other Wes, who lived with his grandparents), and he got involved selling drugs. In my opinion, Wes Moore’s future was decided the moment his mother got a letter in mail stating her scholarship had been cut.

The story of the “other” Wes Moore and his mother Mary calls to mind Langston Hughes’ famous poem, A Dream Deferred:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Mary was denied access to higher education. Her son, the “other” Wes Moore was sentenced to life in prison for his role in the armed robbery of a jewelry store and the murder of a security guard present at the scene of the crime. If this isn’t an example of a “dream deferred” resulting in an explosion, I don’t know what is.

Earlier this week, Congressman Paul Ryan unveiled a budget proposal that would gut spending for some of our country’s most essential social welfare programs. If this bill comes to pass we can expect that many of our nation’s poor will be denied vital services and supports, much that same way that budget cuts two decades ago resulted in Mary losing her Pell Grant.

Republicans are using the fiscal “crisis” to justify policies which would shift the burden of the recession from Wall Street banks unto the shoulders of ordinary people. Instead of instituting financial reforms such as enacting a financial speculation tax or removing the hedge fund loophole (which could  raise $100 billion and $15 billion in revenue respectively according to a report prepared by National People’s Action), politicians are pushing to trim public employee pensions, strip workers of their collective bargaining rights, and cut social welfare programs. Essentially, Ryan’s plan would take money from the people who are already hurting the most from recent economic downfall, rather than raising funds from wealthy banks who could more easily absorb the hit.

I worry that if Ryan’s budget comes to pass, we will see even higher percentages of poor males spending their life behind bars, while success stories like that of Wes Moore the Rhodes Scholar  become obsolete.

Revisiting Healthy Schools

A few months ago, I wrote a post titled, “Thoughts on Childhood Obesity and Poverty”. In this piece I pointed out that obesity is commonly perceived as either an  individual problem or the by-product of America’s fast-food junkie, television zombie culture. I argued that individual habits and regional cultures are not sufficient to explain the rising rates of obesity in America—corporate food giants (who enlarge portions of snacks and sodas to jack up prices), resource inequalities, unhealthy school lunches and a variety of other structural factors all contribute to the prevalence of childhood obesity and type II diabetes, especially in inner city communities.

So how can we reverse the obesity epidemic in low income communities?

In my experience, many interventions focus on educating students on the virtues of eating healthy. When I worked as a social work intern at Rogers Park High School, the school health clinic invited a food critic to visit the classrooms and conduct an apple tasting with the kids. We helped her haul buckets of organic apples into the classrooms so that the kids could learn to identify the subtle differences between pink ladys, macintoshs, and fuji apples. “Isn’t it wonderful? The kids are actually excited about eating apples! They’re exciting about eating healthy!” my supervisor gushed. Frankly, I felt conflicted about the whole idea. Most of our kids came from poor families–they couldn’t afford to buy organic apples and even if they could there were no groceries stores in their neighborhoods. They didn’t even serve fresh fruit in the cafeteria. What good was teaching kids about eating healthy when they didn’t have any access to healthy food?

After this experience I felt convinced  that we must increase the access that poor kids and their parents have to healthy foods in order to combat childhood obesity. In my earlier post I proposed that governments offer subsidies to help poor families buy produce, that schools make healthy lunches a priority, and that cities offer incentives for grocery stores to move into poor neighborhoods.

Recently, I’ve begun to realize that these structural solutions are also not sufficient to curb unhealthy eating habits among children. In one of my courses last semester, we attempted to devise school based programs that might prevent the development of type II diabetes among urban kids. During this discussion I realized that I had overlooked a few important facts.

Foremost, I forgot the obvious fact that kids–all kids, everywhere, like to eat junk food. Simply put, kids are less likely than adults to worry about what they eat. Furthermore, many kids (especially adolescents) may exercise control or independence from their parents by making choices about what they eat. (I.e. the more your mother yelled at you to eat your vegetables the less likely you were to eat them, right?). A recent New York Times article described parents in Philadelphia who stood outside corner stores to discourage kids from stopping in and buying candy or chips on their way to and from school. Guess what the kids did? Most of them barged right past those parents and bought candy anyway. They were acting out their role as adolescents–asserting their ability to make their own choices.

We can educate kids and provide them to access with healthy foods, but ultimately we can’t control what kids eat. This is especially true for urban children who may spend more time unsupervised than micro-managed suburban children. My professor pointed out that school-based health programs need to create a shift in kid’s attitudes. This means that we need to create school cultures were kids are committed to making healthy decisions.

How does that happen? Our class came up with a few ideas I thought were valuable. First, kids need “possible selves”. This means they need to see people who come from their communities, people who look and talk like them modeling healthy habits. For example, a white, middle-aged food critic is less likely to influence the way kids eat than a speaker from their own community. When white teachers or school leaders do educate students of color about healthy eating, they should incorporate Black or Latino role models into the discussion (the Obamas are great examples) so that students do not equate healthy eating with “acting white”.Kids also need to have a sense of ownership, mastery and choice. For example, educators can frame obesity or type II diabetes as a social justice issue and encourage kids to be activists and spread awareness of the issue within their communities. Or schools might provide an array of physical activities (from traditional sports to activities like dance, karate or yoga), so that kids who don’t identify as “athletes” can find a way to demonstrate mastery in an activity that includes some aspect of exercise.

I think the bottom line is that programs need to recognize that personal, cultural, and environmental factors all contribute to poor health outcomes in low-income neighborhoods. Furthermore, we can’t overlook the fact that kids themselves can be powerful agents of change. In order to be successful, we need their insights, participation, and buy-in.

Why Our Beliefs About Intelligence Matter More than Our Actual Intelligence…

In second grade I began to hate math class vigorously (to be clear about my feelings I actually scribbled “I HATE MATH” on the borders of just about every class assignment).  It began when the class was required to memorize our multiplication tables. At the end of every week, our teacher gave us a timed test where we were instructed to answer as many multiplication questions as we could within five minutes.

Those tests made my self-esteem plummet. As soon as our pencils hit the paper my mind went blank. It was like something in my brain just clamped shut. While the other kids were writing furiously, my own hand couldn’t form a single answer. Once time expired, I fled to the bathroom to hide my tears and wallow in self-pity.

As a second grader I formed a simple explanation for my struggles with multiplication—I sucked at math. It didn’t take long for “I suck at math” to become an unshakable belief in my brain. I truly believed that my intelligence (especially with regard to math) was fixed. On the occasions when I did earn an ‘A’, I regarded it as a kind of fluke rather than proof that maybe I could get “smarter” at math.

I brought up this example because I recently read an article by an educational psychologist (Carol Dweck) who argues that there are two types of learners. There are learners who perceive their intelligence as fixed (me), and learners who believe that they can become smarter through increased effort.

Learners who perceive their intelligence as malleable are more likely to view struggle as a natural part of learning and are more likely to earn high grades. In comparison, learners who believe their abilities are innate are less likely to put forth effort or persist through challenges.

It makes sense right? As a student I was probably more likely to give up on a math problem than another student who believed their intelligence was malleable—because I believed my math skills were limited. If I didn’t get a problem quickly, it confirmed my assumption that I “couldn’t do math” and I gave up.

Naturally, Dweck’s research makes me wonder how much of my struggles with math were actually a reflection of my innate limitations vs. a reflection of firmly held beliefs or self-fulfilling prophecies. Is it possible I could have experienced more success in math class if I had believed that effort could make me incrementally smarter?

Alright, I know I’m talking a lot about my own experiences here, but I promise this piece isn’t just about me. I think this is important information for those of us who care about the achievement gap. That’s because perceptions of fixed intelligence are particularly problematic for Black and Latino students who may internalize negative racial stereotypes which imply that Blacks and Latinos are less intelligent than their White or Asian counterparts.

The good news is that we can change (at least to a degree) the way kids think about their intelligence just by the way we talk about learning. One approach is to actually teach kids some basic neurology. For example, teachers can share some age-appropriate readings about neuroscience experiments that document brain growth. Research has documented that kids who learn that the brain is like a muscle, which grows stronger the more it is worked actually experience learning gains.

It is also important for us to re-think some of our cultural attitudes towards learning. Studies that compare American and Japanese students reveal that Japanese kids view struggle as a normal part of learning, while American kids assume that struggle is a sign of stupidity. Educators can help curb these attitudes by emphasizing that struggle is a normal part of the learning.

Furthermore, we can use praise to reinforce ideas about malleable intelligence and to normalize struggle. For example, educational psychologist Carol Dweck argues that it is much better to praise students for effort than to tell them that they’re smart. Dweck argues that when children perform well on an assignment and we say, “wow, look how smart you are”, rather than “I’m impressed by the amount of effort you put into this”, we send the message that achievement is determined by innate abilities rather than by effort. Dweck’s research also documents that children who are praised for being smart are less likely to take on new challenges or academic risks because they wish to preserve the image that they are smart. Such children are also less likely to study because they are led to believe that learning should be effortless.

I’m not sure why some kids develop the attitude that intelligence is fixed, while other kids don’t. However, for adults I think the course of action is clear. The way we talk to kids about their learning experiences can send powerful messages—and can shape or distort the way kids think about their ability to succeed. It’s quite possible that our beliefs in our own abilities may be more reliable predictors of future success than any measure of intelligence.

The Problems with Special Education in Urban Schools

Discussions in the media about the “achievement gap” between whites and students of color typically revolve around discussions of teacher quality, innovative school models, high stakes testing, and to some degree teacher’s unions. It always surprises me that education reformers don’t spend more time discussing special education. At both urban schools I worked at, close to 25% of the student population was identified as “special ed”.  Special ed programs are particularly problematic for African American students — who are twice as likely to be labeled E.D. (emotionally disturbed), and three times as likely to be labeled as LD (learning disabled) or some other mild intellectual disability. Furthermore, African American students who are labeled special ed are less likely to be mainstreamed into regular ed classrooms than their white counterparts.

Not surprisingly, these statistics are misleading. African American students are not more likely to be learning disabled or emotionally disturbed  than white students. So why are large numbers of African American students misclassified as special education students?

On Saturday, I attended a workshop titled “The Over-representation of African Americans in multiple public systems”. In one breakout session, I listened to Richard G. Smith, the Chief Officer of Chicago Public Schools Office of Special Education and Supports reflect on the disproportionate representation of African American students in special ed. Smith pointed out that poverty is not a significant predictor of being placed in special education (so no arguing that Black kids get put in special ed because they are more likely to be living in poverty…)

Of course, racism is one key explanation. Teachers may be (unconsciously or consciously) more likely to expect less from students of color. However, in addition to this common argument, Smith provided a few interesting explanations. Smith pointed out that many kids who are labeled “LD” perform average or above average on IQ tests. He stated he believed many children placed in special education programs are actually “curriculum casualties”, (in other words the victims of years of poor teaching) rather than learning disabled. Smith also pointed out at that pre-K students are especially vulnerable to being labeled LD. Sometimes instructors misinterpret delays due to trauma or abuse as learning disabilities. This is problematic because only 5% of students ever leave special education.

Last, Smith pointed out that in most classrooms for kids labeled emotionally a small number of kids with actual emotional disturbances (such as schizophrenia) are usually mixed with “gang-bangers” (i.e students who may cause discipline problems but are by no means disturbed). Special education classrooms are hardly an appropriate solution for gang-affiliated students, or other kids who may cause discipline problems. I was speaking with a CPS principal earlier this week–and she pointed out that many “problem behaviors” that students enact in school are the same behaviors they need to survive on the streets. She stated that schools typically punish kids for fighting rather than teaching them alternative ways to deal with conflicts or manage strong emotions.

What are the consequences of over-representation? For one, kids classified as special education are less likely to interact with typical peers during the school day and may experience stigmatization. Furthermore, teachers may lower their expectations of special education students–and as a result these students may not realize their full potential, and may not feel encouraged to apply for college.

Clearly, schools need a reliable and accurate process for determining which students are coping with an actual disability. In the breakout session I attended, Smith argued that the “Response to Intervention” process provides a systematic process which limits individual discretion and personal bias. Smith also argued that educators must pay attention to other indicators of intelligence besides academic performance. Adaptive behaviors (how well a child does in the outside environment) and IQ tests can provide an educator more reliable information about a kid’s abilities than grades or test scores.