Monday, April 25, 2011

Me and You and Everyone We Know: Newsweek’s Sex Problem

With Easter just behind us, it is a fine time to consider sex. The Christian holiday celebrates the fertility and renewal of the Spring season, with its symbols of flowers, eggs, and the internationally recognized go-to reference point for libido, the bunny rabbit.  But Easter also more explicitly embodies the sexual weirdness of the religion itself – the rebirth of God’s son, who was born to a chaste woman but grew up to enjoy the company of prostitutes. In this spirit, we take a look at a 2009 Newsweek piece, “Only You. And You. And You,” one of many awkward discussions of sexuality broached by the nation’s most august newsmagazines over the years.

This remarkable piece of work introduces the Peorians of middle America’s checkout lines to “polyamory,” the practice of sustaining emotional and sexual relationships among multiple different partners, with mutual consent. Writer Jessica Bennett suggests that polyamory descends from the free love movement of the 1960s and the swinging fad of the same era. The magazine’s photo editors underlined the point by pasting a photo of Elliot Gould’s chest hair in bed with co-stars Natalie Wood, Dyan Cannon, and Robert Culp at the top of the article, referencing an era when films like Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) and I Am Curious (Yellow) (1967) shocked Americans by portraying unconventional sexuality. (As an indicator of how little progress we have really made, consider this: ABC actually had the chutzpah to adapt swinger film Bob & Carol into an incredibly ill-advised sitcom in 1973, whereas today we are forced to listen to debates about whether a show called S*** My Dad Says is too risqué for primetime; God forbid American children would be exposed to asterisks.) 

When the likes of Newsweek and Time report on sexuality, it is a bit like your parents commenting on photos of your drunken shenanigans on Facebook: everyone had a vague sense that these things were going on, but actually seeing the evidence prompts an uncomfortable dialogue. And like Facebook, these magazines thrive on exhibiting people’s personal lives for public consumption. The polyamory piece reminded me of numerous articles in the past that have attempted to inform Americans of the latest new thing in sex, such as a 1995 piece that announced the discovery of bisexuality. It tells the story of a young couple who met during freshman orientation at the University of Chicago; much to the relief of their parents, Steven and Lori triumphed over their past dabbling in same-sex relationships to become real married heterosexuals. Except for one thing – Steven’s appetites have shifted from men to women and back to men again. He defined himself as both gay and “a once and future bisexual.” The article provides other details to puzzle readers, such as the couple’s habit of discussing “condoms as matter-of-factly as the weather” and maintaining same-sex relationships outside of their marriage. 

The moment was July 1995 – mere months after the Republican Party seized Congress on a wave of revulsion with liberal deficits and decadence, and a year before Bill Clinton would opportunistically sign the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act. Citing R.E.M., Roseanne, and Melrose Place, the article described a “bisexual moment,” which it envisioned as a curious offshoot of multiculturalism, with bisexuals asserting their status as yet another identity group with its own politics and institutions. There were “bi cable shows, bi web sites, bi newsletters and magazines,” as well as “Bi Women of Color, Bi Adult Children of Alcoholics, Bi Star Trekkies.” You know when you’ve been damaged by alcoholism and science fiction, you’ve hit the mainstream.

Almost as clueless as Newsweek

Such news coverage serves up sexual minorities as a bit of exotic titillation while purporting to educate the general public and ease the subjects’ path to acceptance. Another bedroom curiosity to grace the pages of Newsweek in the Nineties, for instance, was the virgin. Eleven years before Steve Carell made chastity (kind of) cool, a 1994 article tapped into the religious conservative zeitgeist with a look at the latest act of youthful rebellion: refusing to fornicate. “A lot of kids are putting off sex, and not because they can't get a date,” the magazine declared. “They've decided to wait, and they're proud o sf their chastity, not embarrassed by it. Suddenly, virgin geek is giving way to virgin chic.” Virgin chic never hit the runways of Milan or the bocce courts of Brooklyn, but the magazine did accurately forecast the rise of a cottage industry that promoted chastity pledges and “True Love Waits” rings. (The Southern Baptists founded the TLW movement just a year before, in 1993 – a harbinger, perhaps, of the Moral Majority’s subsequent rise to power.) 

Of course, the mass media do not look to sexual rebels only for the sake of voyeurism or amusement. The shameful history of fearmongering about gays and lesbians in the American media is well documented, from the first mention of homosexuality in Newsweek (a 1947 article that warned of deranged, feminine men infiltrating the US military) to a 1969 piece in Time that asked “Are Homosexuals Sick?” The magazine answered its own question ten years later, with a snarky comment on the American Psychological Association’s “highly political” decision to stop classifying homosexuality as a mental illness. It was a “bit like dermatologists voting to ordain that acne is indeed a skin blemish, but only if the acne sufferer thinks it is.” Such pejorative treatment might be unsurprising for the 1940s or even the 1970s, but the continued vilification of gays and lesbians throughout the 1980s and 1990s is harder to understand. Part of the problem undoubtedly owed to media panic over the AIDS epidemic, which was initially termed Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (GRID), but an inert conservatism about sexual values, even on the part of the so-called “liberal media” is undoubtedly more to blame. How else to explain the rather prurient interest Newsweek seemed to take in Lori and Steven’s extramarital liaisons with members of their own genders in 1995, or the surprise the magazine expressed, forty years after Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice was released, that monogamy might not be everyone’s cup of tea? 

Public discussion of sex is often tinged with a kind of amateur futurism. (Is there any other kind?) Changes in sexual behavior are easily read as signs of things to come; young people are often the ones seen to be experimenting sexually, and sex is tied up with reproduction and the making of the next generation. Perhaps sex functions as a channel for people’s anxieties about the future, especially the shared fortunes of the collective. Last August Newsweek gave us “Are We Facing a Genderless Future?” a piece about transpeople that seems to treat sexuality like peak oil, as if traditional gender roles were a kind of scarce and diminishing national resource.  The essay takes for granted the conceit that underlies the convictions of religious traditionalists – that sexual norms have always been fixed in the way envisioned by the Moral Majority or the National Organization of Marriage, and any reconfiguration of those norms perverts a tradition of ancient vintage. In fact, no bygone era of conformity ever existed. Scholars such as Nan Boyd and Daniel Hurewitz have documented the many fluid ways that Americans expressed their gender and sexuality in the early twentieth century, from female impersonation in vaudeville to the “homophile” activism of the Mattachine Society

Talk of a “genderless future” suggests a world in which people are so unmoored from tradition that it is no longer possible to sustain any distinctive gender roles. The idea of gender itself collapses and loses meaning. The implication – that some people asking for respect and security in their own identities would somehow affect everyone else’s gender – reminds one of the supposed threat that state recognition of gay marriages would pose to the “institution” of heterosexual marriage. Like Anita Bryant, who stoked conservative fears that gay men were insatiable savages who could not resist the urge to molest everyone’s children in the 1970s, we still find it difficult to separate the sexual expression of others from our own sense of self and security. Perhaps these concerns are rooted in the very social nature of sex itself, or the public dimensions of gender as performance and marker of status. If this is so, then a future without gender is as hard to imagine as a future without sex – or a future where sexual anxiety does not work itself out in public. Given the state of its finances, though, Newsweek may not be around to carry on this proud tradition. Someone will.

Alex Cummings

Monday, April 18, 2011

Teaching to the Test: The Middle Class, Teachers and School Reform in the 21st Century

The reality in Washington D.C. is if you live in Tenleytown versus if you live in Anacostia, you get two wildly different educational experiences. It’s the biggest social injustice imaginable. What we are allowing to happen in this day and age, we are still allowing the color of a child’s skin and the zip code they live in to dictate their educational outcome, and therefore their life outcome. ... We are robbing them every single day of their futures. And everybody in this country should be infuriated by that.
-- Speech at a D.C. restaurant in May 2008
People tell me the unions are an inevitable part of this [school reform]. My thing is, what has that gotten us so far? All the collaboration and holding hands and singing ‘Kumbaya’?
-- 2008 round table at the Fordham Institute.

For the last two decades, urban school reform has taken a front seat in national affairs. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley wrestled control of their respective cities’ education systems. Each saw the school system as a means to improve the plight of lower income constituents but also as a way to draw the middle class back into the urban fold. Daley spoke so often about the latter that it practically became a fetish. Teacher’s unions confronted both mayors and in the case of each, educators received concessions like better pay, but also agreed to longer days and school years. Bloomberg repeatedly awarded New York educators with higher salaries while getting the UFT to give on other significant areas.

Reforming urban school systems requires more than mayoral dedication; reform demands an education czar to carry out orders and impose their own vision. In Chicago, current Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Paul Vallas (currently busy rebuilding New Orleans’s public schools) before him filled this position. In New York, the indefatigable Joel Klein served as Bloomberg’s muscle. So it should come as no surprise that for the past several years, Washington D.C. had been following a similar route. The recently ousted Michelle Rhee served the same role as that of Vallas, Duncan, and Klein under the recently deposed Mayor Adrian Fenty. Since her departure from the D.C. government, she has been a regular feature in the news. A recent New York Magazine feature described her as “a sort of wonky Che Guevara, lending celebrity, credibility, and covering fire to political leaders who endorse her vision of school reform. “ Having appeared on countless news programs, the indie documentary Waiting for Superman and undoubtedly most importantly Oprah, Rhee had established a tough-minded persona that promised bad teachers future unemployment. She closed underperforming schools, fired incompetent educators, and laid off administrative staff. She wrangled with the D.C. teachers union, offering significantly increased pay in exchange for ending tenure. As New York Magazine journalist Andrew Rice points out, Rhee’s whirling dervish energy and commitment made her a congenial figure to both people on the left and the right. Moreover, in many ways, Rhee’s approach resembles the Obama administration’s new emphasis on good teachers as the key to school reform. A demanding technocratic leader like Rhee seems pitch perfect for the times. If there is one group ripe for popular backlash, teachers are front and center.

Recent events in Wisconsin aside, union struggles to remain relevant have been widely documented. With shrinking membership and a population working in a private sector that promises far less in job security, many American workers find union complaints about benefits to be obnoxious. Unlike the Bloomberg/Klein or Daley/Vallas-Duncan combination, Fenty/Rhee aggressively attacked the union. To be fair, teacher’s unions have been guilty of retarding school reform in an effort to protect workers’ benefits and rights. From the authors’ collective experience, the UFT sometimes cared too much about protecting incompetent teachers or enforcing seniority rules than ensuring that excellent teachers filled the classrooms. Moreover, as with any large organizations, some union representatives were better than others. According the New York Magazine, over the past decade, the public’s esteem for teachers has slipped to the point that now Governors like New Jersey’s Chris Christie feel comfortable “attacking teachers as welfare queens.” If one were to believe that this was the first time teachers have been vilified one would be mistaken.

Diane Ravitch documented the conflict and gnashing of teeth that have occurred throughout the New York City school system’s existence in her 1974 classic The Great School Wars: A History of the New York City Schools. In its early stages of development, New York’s teachers were political appointees made by local bosses. Furthermore, many political leaders viewed this burgeoning public system as a font of patronage employment. By the 1960s, teaching had been professionalized. Moreover, the teacher’s union as led by Albert Shanker, represented a largely Jewish workforce. The city’s schools consisted of largely black and brown faces. In the heat of the late 1960s rights movements, a union made up of a religious minority clashed openly with the cities dominant racial minorities.

During the 1968 Ocean Hill-Brownsville school controversy, Puerto Rican and Black parents lodged numerous complaints against New York public school teachers ranging from what we today refer to as “the bigotry of low expectations” to outright racism. When the union demanded more control over the classroom via stronger disciplinary measures, civil rights organizations and Black militants reacted negatively. From their perspective the unions situated the strike that unfolded over the controversy as “striking for the right to put black and Puerto Rican children out of class more easily.” (Ravitch, 327) Yet, forty years after the Ocean Hill–Brownsville controversy, many of the same education issues remain on the table. The continuing decline of urban public schools, funding inequalities, and credentials of city teachers remained flashpoints of conflict. Just as Rhee’s reforms drew applause from segments of conservative and liberal America, the burgeoning charter school movement shared support from minority parents and conservatives.

Though many minority parents might recoil at other aspects of the conservative agenda, the plight of their children in failing public schools creates strange but powerful bedfellows. Whether or not conservatives really care about school reform or are using it as a cover for privatizing public educational systems continues to be a mystery. One could make a similar argument for liberals who continue to support the public education. Many middle and upper middle class liberals speak reverently about urban educational institutions but send their own children to private schools or well-funded suburban public high schools.

As already noted, the fetish for middle class support pervades much of educational reform discourse. Just as teacher vilification has historical precedent, so too does the privileging of middle class interests.

In a Republic I think it is the part of wise statesmanship to give the people that secondary or higher education, at the expense of the state or [city], which they themselves demand … Good schools both for primary and secondary education .. Would, with rapid transit, help to bring back to the city that great middle class which, during the last ten years, has been absolutely squeezed out … leaving here only the very rich and the very poor. (Ravitch, 104)

Does this sound familiar? Board of Education president William Wood uttered these words in 1878, thus, illustrating the dominant influence of the middle class on educational and municipal reform. Modern day tropes about meritocracy and the traditional middle class belief in education as a means to advance in a meritocratic system serve as the driving forces of this credo. From 1878 through the long twentieth century, the need to address middle income interests pervades discourse. In this way, educational reformers have long struggled to develop a rubric by which to identify good teachers from mediocre ones. Over the past twenty years, one means by which this has unfolded has been an undeniable emphasis on testing as the primary evaluation regarding teaching ability and student academic retention.

The pressure on principals and teachers to raise student test scores can lead educators to fudge numbers or cheat in order to ensure that student test scores are high enough so that students succeed and schools are thought to be successful. One noteworthy cheating incident on standardized tests occurred in Atlanta, where in 2010, 58 of 84 elementary and middle schools were accused of changing student answers on standardized tests. The findings were based on analysis of tests that found that the exams had many more erase marks than is statistically probable. The superintendent and other educators vehemently protested these findings and last August another analysis of tests found that the first study was wrong and the district was largely exonerated.

This accusation of cheating in Atlanta was partially based on the fact that schools in Atlanta had made dramatic gains on test scores in a short period. Districts are under immense pressure to make huge gains in a short period of time, but if a district does make these gains it may come under suspicion that it used improper or illegal methods to achieve widespread student improvement. There is a still a widely held perception that it is virtually impossible for large urban districts to achieve success, so success is met with suspicion.

Classroom cheating earned the attentions of economists Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. In their 2005 best seller, Freakonomics, the two economists uncovered cheating patterns in Chicago public school classrooms. While tests have always served as incentive to cheat, as Levitt and Dubner point out “high stakes testing has so radically changed the incentives for teachers that they too now have added reason to cheat.” (23) While this cheating occurred during the aforementioned Arne Duncan’s watch, the two economists exonerated him from blame. “When Duncan was a boy, his afterschool playmates were the underprivileged kids his mother cared for,” the authors wrote. “So when he took over the public schools, his allegiance lay more with schoolchildren and their families than with teachers and their union.” (33) Duncan’s pursuit of classroom cheaters netted only 12 dismissals but according to Levitt and Dubner, the psychological effect was enough to reduce cheating by nearly a 1/3 the following year.

More recently, no large urban district achieved success more quickly or famously than Washington D.C. Under Michelle Rhee schools were driven to make large gains in short periods of time, and principals and teachers would be fired if they did not make the gains that Rhee was looking for. A USA Today investigative report on cheating in D.C. public schools reported that Rhee fired “dozens of principals and at least 600 teachers”, and according to one former D.C. principal Rhee told principals that they had to increase scores on standardized tests by 10 percentage points every year. Some schools in Washington did make outstanding growth in a short time, and Rhee rewarded the principals and teachers with huge bonuses. Now that Rhee is no longer chancellor schools that made huge gains when she was chancellor have rapidly falling test scores. The USA Today investigation found that one school that Rhee repeatedly singled out as being outstanding is being investigated for erasing incorrect answers and marking correct answers after students had finished their tests.

While it is certainly understandable to target teacher cheating so fundamentally, this focus ignores other critical aspects of “cheating”. Is it cheating when the state board of regents waters down state exams? Any New York school teacher with enough experience knows that New York regents exams of the early and mid 1990s differed markedly in difficulty from current incarnations. How about the way tests are graded? In New York, United States and Global history and English exams are all graded in relation to a rubric. The exam score is not based on raw point totals. Instead, students accumulate so many multiple choice and short answer points that are then cross referenced with their essay scores. (Students are expected to complete a thematic essay and a document based essay for history. English exams are based far more on essay writing in that they have fewer multiple choice questions and require four essays.) Thus, if a student had a raw multiple choice score of 28 (which combines 50 multiple choice questions and 9-12 points based on short answers to documents) and a combined essay score of 5, they receive a “local” passing regents score of 55. Now consider the fact that out of a possible 10 essay points this student received only half and less than half of the multiple choice/short answer total. When George Bush talked about the “bigotry of low expectations”, he and others apparently did not consider this aspect as part of the discussion. The push by administrators to improve scores can reach fever pitch in this atmosphere, as educators are ordered to “scrub” for points when students fall just short of the 55 or 65 threshold.

Recently New York City announced that it would begin to more vigorously audit schools’ test scores after data was released that on the five Regents test students need to graduate from high school many more students scored the minimum passing score of 65 than scored 64 or any other score. This news would not come as a surprise to any New York City high school teacher who has sat in a room with other teachers grading their own students Regents exams and trying to find points for students who are just below the passing threshold. As New York has moved to an A-F grading system for schools and has made it easier to close schools, the pressure on teachers and administrators to find extra points for students becomes even more acute.

The pressure on schools to raise test scores does not only come from superintendents and mayors. The No Child Left Behind law that was passed in 2001 mandated that schools had to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) or schools would suffer specific consequences. No Child Left is due to expire this year and Congress will likely reauthorize the law in the next year. There is bipartisan agreement that No Child Left Behind needs to be fixed, but Republicans and Democrats do not agree on what the fix should be. Recently President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan highlighted one problem with No Child Left Behind: if the law is not changed by 2013 80% of schools in the United States will not be making AYP and will be designated as failing.

The reason that 80% of schools would be failing in a couple of years in that NCLB mandates that by 2014 every student in the United States must be making AYP. This provision of the law has been compared to mandating that a police force in a large city completely end assault in 10 years, and nobody thinks that all students will be making AYP in three years. It is absurd to mandate that every student meet an arbitrary standard by an arbitrary year, but it would be instructive to explain what meeting AYP means and why it is so difficult for so many districts to meet this standard.

The first thing to know about Adequate Yearly Progress is that is does not actually measure progress. Improvement by schools does not factor into making AYP. Schools must meet a standard set by the state and if they do not meet this standard then they are designated as a “School in Improvement”. To parents and the media they are designated as a failing school. What makes it so difficult for schools to avoid being labeled as failing is that schools must meet AYP in both math and reading in every demographic group. So a school that is meeting state standards in 17 demographic groups will be designated as failing if one group is not meeting standard. The motivation for creating these rules was sound. The federal government wanted to ensure that schools were not meeting standards by ignoring historically difficult to educate groups such as special education students or African-American males. However, the practical effect of writing the law with AYP is that schools that are making progress still never meet AYP standards.

Once a school is designated as being in improvement students at that school have two options: they can either transfer to another school in the district that is making AYP or they can get free tutoring that is paid for by the district. Most students do not transfer to different schools and in some districts no school is making AYP so students have no place to transfer. The free tutoring that students from failing schools are eligible for is paid for by Title 1 money from the federal government and is provided by private tutoring companies. This free tutoring was a centerpiece of NCLB because it gave the private sector the opportunity to provide tutoring to students whose teachers were failing to provide them a good education. The reality is that there is practically no oversight of these tutoring companies other than to assure that they are not hiring criminals. Many of the people who provide tutoring have no education background and school districts have found that this private tutoring has no overall positive impact on students’ performance on standardized tests.

The different provisions of No Child Left Behind, mayoral control of school systems, challengers firing teachers and principals and the proliferation of charter schools are all recent attempts to close the massive gaps educational outcomes that plague the United States. Ending this inequality has been the goal of education reformers for at least the past 50 years and these new ideas and trends are the current manifestation of this goal. The increasing calls by elected officials and education reformers to make it easier to fire bad teachers is based on research that says that teacher quality is the most important factor in whether a student succeeds in school.

Over the past two decades, most urban school systems adopted increasingly stringent rules for attaining teacher certification. More and more states now require that public school educators earn Master’s degrees. Few people would dispute that generally this has been a positive development. However, as both authors’ can attest, MA programs in education spend too much time on the wrong things. Most classroom teaching skills must be honed on the job. Methodology and pedagogy courses remain useful in small doses, but no amount of graduate school classes can replace the value of actual classroom experience. Most education programs would benefit from a more intense focus on content. Often, new teachers struggle with mastering the core material of their course whether it be Global or U.S. History, Chemistry, or English. The state’s focus on less than useful pedagogy courses and teacher certification exams becomes more tax on educators than anything (ask any New York City teacher about their videotape evaluation in which teachers must tape themselves then sent it to Albany for approval, often one of the last steps in permanent certification. It costs the teacher $80 and the rumor has always been no on actually watches these tapes). Yes, unions play a troubling role in this matrix. The emphasis on seniority and certification devalues the energy and enthusiasm younger teachers bring to education. Both authors’ have witnessed decaying bitter older teachers occupying teaching spots that would be far more affective were a younger, fresher more dedicated face given the responsibility. This is not to say older teachers do not pull their weight, the vast majority do. In fact, truly invested and experienced teachers can serve as invaluable sources of inspiration and guidance for newly minted pedagogues.

While the union’s privileging of experienced teachers makes sense, it also can be counter productive. In recessionary times like today it can be virtually impossible for a young teacher to keep his job if a district lays off teachers based strictly on seniority. These young teachers either have to become substitute teachers, or if they are fortunate, they may be able to find a regular job at a different school. Since districts are unlikely to hire new teachers when it is laying off current teachers it can become difficult for a young teacher to gain the seniority needed to keep her job and the laying off process can repeat itself year after year. It is very difficult to become a better teacher when starting over at a new school every year and can have a negative effect on student learning.

One of the major goals of education reformers and politicians is to end the “first in first out” seniority rules that are employed by about half of the states. For example, in New York Mayor Bloomberg recently said that New York would half to lay off 4000 teachers if the New York state legislature did not modify the law regarding layoffs based on seniority. The legislature has not yet acted on the mayor’s request, but the calls for reform are also coming from Andrew Cuomo, New York’s new governor. The focus on seniority rules is part of a broader argument about the effect of teacher quality on student achievement. As was discussed earlier in this paper, arguments about education reform are nothing new. However, in the past education reformers discussed parental involvement, cultural factors, and class size, as well as teacher quality. Recent studies that have argued that teacher quality is the most significant factor in student achievement have led to a renewed emphasis on trying to find ways to work around or eliminate seniority rules in order to ensure that the best teachers will be in the classroom.

Frequently cited Stanford economist Eric Hanushek has produced research focusing on teacher quality. Hanushek found that students in a very bad teacher’s class will learn about half a year’s material in a year, whereas a student in a very good teacher’s class will learn about a year and half of material in year. Hanushek calculated that in terms of world education ranking the U.S. could move from below average into the cluster of highest performing countries simply by replacing the bottom 6% to 10% of teachers with average teachers. It is studies such as these that politicians to call for not only scrapping seniority based systems, but also for calling for more stringent evaluation of teachers and the ability to fire teachers. There is a case to be made for making it easier to get rid of poor teachers, but the primary problem with this argument is that nobody has yet created a system or metric that fairly and accurately evaluates teachers.

One of the primary criticisms of teacher evaluations is that in most school districts nearly all teachers get satisfactory ratings. A 2009 study by the New Teacher Project found that in districts that use “satisfactory” and “unsatisfactory” 99% of teachers are given satisfactory ratings. This same study found that districts only use teacher evaluations when they are deciding whether or not to dismiss a teacher. Evaluations were not used to help teachers improve their teacher or for any type of extra compensation for excellence. It is clear that when 99% of teachers are getting satisfactory ratings the ratings mean nothing. When the author was a new teacher he was only observed a couple of times a year by the school’s administration, far fewer than the six times a year than was required for new teacher. When the author was up for tenure after his third year of teaching he was given tenure based on about six evaluations over a three-year period. This is an extreme example as the author had an assistant principal who was close to retirement and no longer cared, but even diligent administrators have a difficult time observing new teachers the required number of times. One of the reasons for the high percentage of satisfactory ratings is that when an administrator only observes a teacher 2 or 3 times a year it is easier for him to give the teacher a satisfactory rating than having to deal with the grief that comes from an unsatisfactory rating.

The recognition that the teacher evaluation system is effectively broken has led to a push to make teacher evaluations more meaningful. The Gates Foundation is leading an initiative to put cameras in classrooms to film teachers and base evaluations at least partially on what is recorded. The Obama Administration’s Race to the Top requires that states create a system for evaluating teachers as a requirement for winning money from the federal government. Teacher unions generally agree with education reformers that there does need to be a better system for teacher evaluations. However, the most contentious issue regarding teacher evaluations is whether or not test scores should be included in evaluating teachers. For years unions have vehemently opposed to using test scores to evaluate teachers. Teachers argue that standardized tests do not accurately reflect what students learn in a class and that using tests to judge teachers is fundamentally unfair when a teacher has no control over how well a student was taught prior to entering her class. However, with the more and more politicians calling for an overhaul of teacher evaluations the nation’s largest teacher union, the American Federation of Teachers, recently proposed using student improvement on standardized tests as one criterion for evaluating teachers. Despite this proposal by the AFT there is still a great deal of contentiousness over what is the fairest way to evaluate teachers. As state budgets shrink and teacher pay continues to come under attack it seems likely that teacher unions are going to have to agree to a more robust form of evaluation as a means of taking some of political pressure off of teachers and their unions.

[Author's note: For the record, the authors have a combined teaching experience in the New York City Public High Schools of 18 years, which also happens to be the same aggregate length of their membership in the UFT.]

Shane Updike and Ryan Reft

Currently working for the Highline School District near Seattle doing data analysis and administering the district's Title 1 program, Mr. Updike completed eight years of distinguished teaching in the New York City High Schools and holds MA degrees in Social Studies Education (NYU) and Public Administration (University of Washington).

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Mountain Goats and the Music of Survival

Sometimes we’re not prepared for adversity. When it happens, sometimes we’re caught short… Sometimes, we don’t know just what to do when adversity takes over. And I have advice for all of us, I got it from my pianist Joe Zawinul who wrote this song, and it sounds like what you’re supposed to say when you have that kind of problem. And it’s called “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.”
- Cannonball Adderley
This line comes from the opening of one of my favorite records of all time, and it sums up one musical and philosophical response to suffering – to recognize one’s own insufficiency and turn to a greater power for some kind of relief. Whether Joe Zawinul was himself a religious man is unclear, although one of his other most notable songs, “Country Preacher” (1969), was recorded in a Chicago church with the help of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, to whom it was dedicated. Adderley certainly viewed the song, famed for its sultry groove, as a yearning for clemency of a divine sort. 

Pain is among the major themes addressed by popular music, right up there with love, lust, and hedonism. Often enough, these concerns are linked by cause and effect, with love lost causing pain, pain leading to “the need to blow it out on a Saturday night,” as a Drive by Truckers song says. How these themes are refracted through songwriting and performance is as much a matter of temperament as genre – a punk might take the same heartbreak that would otherwise prompt a weepy steel guitar riff and turn it into an anthem of exultant rage, while blues oscillates between tales of grinding endurance and an exuberant, body-oriented celebration of pain. 

Indeed, one of the most salient arguments against the idea that human beings are entirely molded by their environment lies in the ways that different people cope with trauma. One person sulks and writes a funereal dirge. The next moves on with flinty determination and, possibly, a lust for revenge. One sibling reacts to a dysfunctional home life with optimism of the most unwarranted kind, while another grows bitter, resentful, and suspicious with the passing years. 

 I thought of these differences upon seeing the Mountain Goats perform in Atlanta, as the band’s own recordings and concerts embody just this divergence of attitudes. When I first heard John Darnielle’s music early in the 2000s, it seemed like the kind of whiny, quasi-emo, lo-fi fiddling that would come and go as an indie fad. I did not want to hear about his awful experiences and what an impact they had had on him through a mopey guitar riff and a four-track tape recorder. 

Later on several songs endeared me to the band, such as “Palmcorder Yajna” and “Going to Queens” – songs that went beyond mere confession of pain to evoke a broader scene of characters, landscapes, and struggles, whether “the ghostly sing-song of children playing Double Dutch” in Jamaica or a flophouse full of tweakers in Portland. In Poughkeepsie I had the good fortune of buying a collection of bootleg recordings called Cast Offs and Put Downs that revealed a much looser, upbeat, and colorful artist than most of the Goats’ studio recordings would suggest. The album showed a wider range of moods, from the rollicking and innocent (“Comandante”) to the sardonic and defiant (“Letter from Belgium,” “Pigs that Ran”) and even the sweet and elegiac (a cover of “Two Headed Boy” by Neutral Milk Hotel). 

It was puzzling that an artist whose songwriting I generally appreciated could still appear in two such distinct guises: studio recordings that were often grating and flat, and live performances that were far more robust. Moreover, how is it that an artist could package themes of child abuse, drug addiction, and depression in a more affirmative package in some contexts, but not others? The concert in Atlanta definitely reinforced this perception, as songs that formerly seemed straitjacketed burst open in a joyous fashion that seemed incongruous with lyrics like “I hope you die. I hope we both die!” A good chunk of Darnielle’s catalog deals with the childhood abuse meted out by his stepfather; while one of my favorite Mountain Goats songs addresses the experience of hearing his mother suffer at the abuser’s hands in bitter detail (“laying close to my little record player on the floor, so this is what the volume knob’s for”), it is hard to deny that some of these compositions lean toward the maudlin. 

Yet his best songs react to this deeply traumatic experience with a roaring resistance, all driving acoustic rhythms and acidic lyrics. By the end of the show, watching this performer chronicle suffering in a vivacious tone of voice, I realized that the anger, resentment, and invective in the songs not only drives the performance but ameliorates the grief. For the artist, and perhaps for much of the audience, it is an affirmation of self in the face of suffering – a token of survival, like so much of R&B and the historical legacy of gospel, with its roots in the Biblical narratives of slavery and redemption as well as the continuing struggles of the poor and people of color. As one of the most rousing numbers declared, with a brio not present on the recorded version, “I’m gonna make it through this year if it kills me!” The paradox is an existential one, a commitment to persevere even if perseverance might not be possible. Generations of people who have encountered violence, oppression, and the foreclosing of opportunity would likely recognize this stubborn refusal. 

Music shows us how people cope, drawing on resources both spiritual and secular. I was reminded of a traditional song recorded by Belle and Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch for the 2009 Dark Was the Night compilation, “Another Saturday.” The song has deep Christian overtones, averring that “He [God] won’t ask us to shoulder a weight too much to carry.” On first listen, the song seems to deny the great misery of the world, where so many face unmanageable burdens. (One thinks of Tupac’s Brenda and her baby in the garbage.) The God of the lyrics has clearly let evil run amok in a world where belief in providence is a luxury of the fortunate. Yet on further reflection the song seems to lay the emphasis not on God but on the shoulders of the individual believer – whatever burden is asked, it won’t be too much to carry, due to the faith and inner strength of the person who bears it. It recalls the Qur'anic promise that “On no soul Allah places a burden greater than it can bear.” 

This is clearly a religious frame of mind, but it finds its complement in secular music that takes pride in survival. A critic once noted that many of Pearl Jam’s most successful songs dealt with survivor’s guilt, notably “Last Kiss” and “Alive.” The most memorable moment from the latter song may be the poignant question posed in a verse (“I’m still alive, but do I deserve to be?”), yet the takeaway remains the simpler assertion of the chorus: “I’m still alive!” Songwriters like John Darnielle, who evince no sympathy for theism, find joy in the simple fact of surviving and the possibilities that remain, rejecting an attitude of pure fatalism. Even in a song as dark as “Going to Georgia,” a sense of wonder can be found: 

the most remarkable thing about coming home to you
is the feeling of being in motion again
it's the most extraordinary thing in the world
i have two big hands and a heart pumping blood
and a 1967 colt .45 with a busted safety catch
the world shines as i cross the macon county line

Though the lyrics are menacing, even homicidal, in performance the emphasis seems to lie on the world shining. A certain community of spirit was never so clear as in the final encore of the show, when the Mountain Goats and openers Megafaun performed a svelte cover of “You Really Got a Hold on Me.” Here the tie between soul and angsty 21st century folk was most explicit. “I got joy, joy, joy in my soul,” Darnielle sang. “Although you treat me badly, I love you madly. You really got a hold on me…”

Darnielle captured the emotional thrust of the Mountain Goats well on a Colbert Show appearance not long ago. The host noted that many of the band’s songs juxtapose a driving, upbeat rhythm with lyrics that were dark, to put it mildly. Colbert also asked why he didn’t name the band after a cooler animal, like, say, mountain lions. Darnielle explained that mountain goats were actually the coolest animals, because of their ability to climb sheer, vertical surfaces with ease. They become so cocky, he said, that they think they can cross steep ravines between ridges safely, which results in the inadvertent deaths of many goats each year. So the Mountain Goats, as a band, celebrate the animals’ “suicidal pride?” Colbert quipped. Yes, the singer agreed. The music is all about taking “it all the way down to the bottom,” in order to say, “What can you do to me now?” – a sort of defiance, a faith in oneself, which declares “I made it, I survived this, I will persist in the face of anything and everything.” It is a kind of determination that one finds in both secular and spiritual music, although for a skeptic like Darnielle the source of strength lies squarely in the self.  It is also a fine symbol of the music's existential promise: the goats take a literal "leap of faith" that comes with no guarantee of success.  The band's music, Colbert suggested, was all about “cheerful desolation,” and rarely have two words so aptly captured a recording artist’s animating spirit.
Alex Cummings

Monday, April 11, 2011

Revisiting Black Suburbanization

In its March 31, 2011 issue the Economist noted the acceleration of a process often associated with white suburbanites, "white flight". The article "Black Flight" reports that increasing numbers of urban black dwellers have been departing for suburban environs. "Black flight" has had consequences for both suburban and inner city communities. Too often, historians have ignored Black American suburbanization. In January of this year, T of M explored this very issue through the work of San Diego State University Professor Andrew Wiese. In his 2004 work, Places of Their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century, Wiese addresses this historical blind spot. For Wiese, Black suburbanization unfolded throughout the century, but the ideals, values, and concerns of these suburbanites have garnered far less attention than their white counterparts. Placing Wiese in dialogue with other scholars on the topic, most notably sociologist Mary Pattillo-McCoy, T of M's Getting to the Mountaintop: The Suburban Dreams of African Americans engages the discussion, exploring the dynamics of a process that is still occurring as we speak.


The Changing Colour of Cities

Black Flight

Now it is the turn of America’s blacks to leave for the suburbs

Mar 31st 2011 | SEATTLE |

IN THE 1990s black Americans began returning in significant numbers to the South. This marked a reversal of the Great Migration, in which their parents and grandparents fled Jim Crow racism in the 1920s and 1930s for jobs in the industrial cities of the north-east, Midwest and West. But since 2000 the destination of many inner-city blacks has shifted again, according to details from the latest census. From Oakland to Chicago to Washington, DC, blacks are surging from the central cities to the suburbs.

Analysis of 2010 census data by William Frey, chief demographer for the Brookings Institution, shows that more than half the cities with large concentrations of blacks have seen significant declines in their black populations. About half of black Americans now live in the suburbs, up from 43% in 2000.

This is proving a mixed blessing. Well-educated blacks are finding better jobs, bigger houses and newer schools, just as white-flight suburbanites did in previous generations. But many lower-income migrants from the inner cities are finding poverty, crime and poor social services when they arrive in their new homes. In the past decade, poverty has increased more than twice as fast in the suburbs as it has in the cities.

Although the black exodus is happening across the country, its consequences are especially vivid in Seattle and nearby Portland, two of America’s whitest big cities. In each of these cities, blacks were squeezed by restrictive property covenants and racial prejudice into a small but highly visible central district—black-majority islands in a white sea.

By 2010 the islands had largely gone. Seattle and Portland had become “smart cities”, magnets for hordes of young, highly educated and highly paid newcomers, most of them white and childless. Hungry for “diversity” and rushing into relatively rundown black neighbourhoods, they snapped up the only housing bargains left. White-owned banks were eager to make loans to yuppies. Tens of thousands of houses were gutted and rebuilt. As gentrification gathered pace, property prices exploded. Black homeowners cashed in, taking their windfalls to the suburbs. Black renters were squeezed out by higher rents.

“My clientele has all moved away,” says Charlene Williams, owner of De Charlene’s Beauty & Boutique in Seattle’s Central District. Her neighbourhood was 79% black when she set up shop in 1968. It was 58% black as recently as 1990. Now it is 21% black. Ms Williams once had 13 hairdressers on her payroll; now she employs none. The young Ray Charles once performed in black-owned nightclubs in the Central District. Those clubs are gone, as are the restaurants where Ms Williams used to buy pork-chop sandwiches and peach pie. Eateries now offer crepes, wood-fired artisan bagels and north-west fusion cuisine.

The total number of blacks in the greater Seattle area has grown in the past decade, but they are widely dispersed to suburbs such as Renton, a dozen miles away. A few thousand black Seattleites still get together on Sunday mornings. They drive in from the suburbs to downtown churches. “There’s a community,” says Ms Williams, “but no unity.”

Monday, April 4, 2011

How to Approach a Historical Methods Course?

Teaching historical methods is a bit like studying American history – outsiders are prone to be skeptical. America has history? History has methods? You mean, like statistics and models and guidelines for the proper use of a Bunsen burner?  (My question is informed, or should I say misinformed, by a total lack of knowledge of what research methods in the sciences might actually be.)

Almost every history major (except for one of the degenerates who writes for this site) has to take some variation of a methods course as an undergrad. For most people, this class is the first time they ever hear the word “historiography.” I know when I saw a snarky comic strip on my professor’s door in which a Foucauldian egghead drones on and on about the “horizons of subjectivity” in “Historiography 101,” I assumed it must be one of those cumbersome terms that people dream up to make what they do seem more complicated than it is – and, perhaps, for history professors to give a scientific, technical gloss to their vocation.

Perhaps there is some truth to that suspicion, but the intervening years have at least given me a healthy respect for the body of thought that considers the nature of history and how to do it. Historiography and historical methodology are not just tokens of professionalization, grafted on to the simple practice of studying the past; they actually provide a toolbox of perspectives and techniques that enable us to see more and understand the story better.

At least, this is what we would hope to convey to our students in a basic methods course, but how do we go about it? Do you try to acquaint them with a rich variety of historical literature to give a sense is what is possible – ranging, say, from Carlo Ginzburg’s classic of early modern Italy, The Cheese and the Worms, to the latest book about transgendered vampires and Halal food culture in the borderlands of the Western Sahara? Perhaps you keep the same range of material but structure it chronologically, to show how historical thought has evolved from ancient Greece to the early twenty first century. Or do you deemphasize reading and focus the course entirely on writing – teaching the basics of grammar, argument, and research with primary and secondary sources?

As I plan my own course, I am torn among these options. Some of the freshest and most interesting work in history is the most difficult to read; I would love to assign Ian Baucom’s Specters of the Atlantic, a dazzlingly complex study that manages to connect the Atlantic slave trade to the rise of insurance, the novel, statistics and finance capitalism, but I wonder if it would go over the heads of undergrads or even grad students. I barely understand it. Is this a good use of the time that history majors could be spending learning about race, class, gender, sexuality and other fundamental categories of analysis, or getting the hang of Proquest, Hein Online and other resources for research?

A friend told me that most of his students in one class were familiar with JSTOR, but 80% said they had never checked a book out of the library. Any library.  So it might pay to spend a decent amount of time introducing students to the Congressional Record, microfilm, and the concept of a library card. Then again, I want the class to be intellectually stimulating for both the students and myself; it would be nice to cover the nuts and bolts while still evoking a sense of the possibilities of history, even if some of the books or articles we look at are more provocative than intelligible.

Another question involves the use of a theme. Some instructors do a methods class as a crash course in all that history has to offer, or a more general introduction to the basics of research and writing. Others orient the class around a central topic or time period, so that students get to test out a variety of different ways to approach a similar set of historical questions. Students who select the course may be particularly interested in the section’s focus, whether it is “The 1920s” or “The Atomic Bomb,” and thus involve themselves more in the course. My own methods course was called “Jefferson’s America.” It was not a topic that was especially dear to my heart, and a vegan anarchist friend who was also majoring in History chided me for doing such a conventional “Great Men” kind of topic. But the class still provided some valuable hard knocks in terms of learning to write better, and it prodded me in the direction of thinking historically – even if it was something so simple as the professor asking, “Why do people speak of ‘Jefferson’s America,’ but not ‘Washington’s America’? Why do people talk about Jeffersonian democracy and not Washingtonian democracy?” Embedded in such an innocuous question is a curiosity about assumptions, framing, and the power of language – the sort of things a History major ought to be thinking about.

What is the best way to design a course that introduces History majors to the tools of the trade? What best serves the interests of students, most of whom are enthused about History but will likely (hopefully) not pursue a career in academia? Do we try to give them at least a little exposure to the theoretical end of things, in the hopes that they want to dig deeper and learn more? I never once heard of Michel Foucault or Hayden White in an undergraduate class, although I did get a good dose of Edward Said during my senior thesis project. Maybe this material is best left to grad school, to await those who are masochistic enough to go looking for it. Then again, maybe students ought to know a little about the world of theory.

Should our primary goal be to ensure that history majors come out with a solid grasp of how to do research, read documents, compare and contrast, and make an argument? What was your experience with a course like this as an undergrad, and if you are teaching now, what has worked best for you?  What would you assign?  Any thoughts or suggestions on the subject would be warmly welcome.

Alex Cummings