Perpetuating Inequality

The Washington Post’s Wonkblog recently reported on an education experiment in Ft. Lauderdale that holds so many lessons—not just about inequality, but about institutional and unintentional racism, the waste of human capital, and the difficulty of seeing things that lie outside our comfortable worldviews.

In 2003, Cynthia Park asked her staff to make a map showing where every gifted student lived in Broward County, Fla.

The result was an atlas of inequality.

“All of them were scattered in the suburbs and in the wealthier communities, where parents were more involved in education,” recalls Park, who oversaw the county’s gifted students program. “The map was virtually void in other areas.”

The map convinced Park that the district needed to work harder to identify gifted children from impoverished areas, and in 2005, it began giving a short test to all students in the second grade. Children who scored well on the test were then evaluated to determine whether they should be enrolled in the system’s gifted program.

The result? The district identified an additional 300 gifted children between 2005 and 2006—and the impact on racial equity was huge: 80 percent more black students and 130 percent more Hispanic students were now entering gifted programs in third grade.

Prior to this change in the method for identifying precocious children, the school district had relied upon referrals by teachers—a system used by many, if not most, school districts around the country. (Not, I am pleased to report, in IPS, which uses a system similar to the one in Ft. Lauderdale.) And therein lies the problem. As the Wonkblog notes

Critics say gifted programs amplify inequality because they disproportionately recruit children from high-income families — another example of how opportunity accrues to those already blessed with opportunity.

This is a perfect example of how systemic bias operates.

People who dismiss the notion of structural racism or advantage do so because they see bias as intentional, and success or failure solely as a measure of individual effort and/or merit. They look around and no one is burning a cross on that black family’s lawn, or otherwise displaying hurtful antisocial behavior, so they draw the (not-unreasonable albeit inaccurate) conclusion that bias is absent.

The Ft. Lauderdale teachers who failed to identify precocious poor children weren’t bigots—they wouldn’t have been in those classrooms, working with poor children, if they were. But like most of us, they’d been socialized to connect intellectual capacity with certain markers of behavior—markers that children from disadvantaged families are less likely to exhibit.

A similar phenomenon occurs when businesses have job openings. Positions tend to be filled via “networking.” The word gets out to people already in those networks, who mention the opportunity to their friends, and to people with whom they feel comfortable. People who look and sound and act like them. It isn’t intentionally nefarious—it’s human. It’s the way the world works.

But in the aggregate, these otherwise innocent social networks operate to keep advantage where it is, and to exclude access to those whose talents and abilities are less recognized, because they are expressed differently. These are the “old boy’s networks” that continue to constrain women’s progress, the continuing friendships of alumni from elite schools disproportionately populated by the offspring of wealthy families, and the many other “communities of interest”—professional or social—where, as the old saying goes, “birds of a feather flock together.”

America cannot afford to lose the contributions of talented citizens simply because that talent comes in unfamiliar forms. We need to break through the barriers that keep us from seeing each other accurately. The Ft. Lauderdale approach is one small step in that direction.




Penny Wise, Pound Foolish–Millionth Edition

These days, partisan divisions are so acute that we sometimes forget the stark differences that can also characterize members of the same political party. For example, I worked in the Hudnut Administration, and I often noted the dramatic differences between Republican Bill Hudnut’s approach to governance and that of his equally Republican successor, Steve Goldsmith.

I used to say that if a survey were to disclose that most citizens didn’t see any use for city planners, Hudnut would go out into the community and explain why planning was important; Goldsmith would say “Oh good. Let’s fire the planners.”

Goldsmith’s approach certainly allowed him to brag about “streamlining” local government. One of his many “reforms” was to get rid of the city’s lab, which–among other things– tested samples of the concrete and asphalt intended to be used by city contractors, to ensure it met specifications.

Evidently, we no longer have a state lab either...

The state’s infrastructure received a D+ rating by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Most recently, I-65 and State Road 156 have served as examples of Indiana’s crumbling roads and bridges, but Indiana’s infrastructure problems go far beyond those failures–we have over 1,900 structurally deficient bridges,  and a new report reveals the Indiana Department of Transportation approved asphalt ingredients that will significantly shorten the useful life of the roads on which they’re used.

The likely cost to Hoosier taxpayers is in the millions of dollars.

“In a cycle that should have two pavings, you have three pavings. That’s a lot of extra,” said Jason Heile, president of the Indiana Association of County Engineers and Supervisors.

INDOT is now testing the materials used, in order to determine whether they met the contract specifications–but this testing is after the fact. Had the testing occurred prior to the use of the asphalt in repaving, these huge costs could have been avoided.

We saved pennies by failing to test materials in advance. We’ll spend lots of pounds as a result.

It would really be nice to have elected officials who were more interested in actually governing than in grandstanding about how much money they are “saving” us.


Sound of the Trump-et

I was reading Frank Rich’s analysis of the Trump phenomenon at New York Magazine, when I heard that John Boehner would resign .

Reading Rich with Boehner’s resignation in mind just served to underscore the travesty that is today’s American political landscape.

According to Rich, Trump’s “passport to political stardom” has been “his uncanny resemblance to a provocative fictional comic archetype.” His character

 is a direct descendant of Twain’s 19th-century confidence men: the unhinged charlatan who decides to blow up the system by running for office — often the presidency — on a platform of outrageous pronouncements and boorish behavior. Trump has taken that role, the antithesis of the idealist politicians enshrined by Frank Capra and Aaron Sorkin, and run with it. He bestrides our current political landscape like the reincarnation not of Joe McCarthy (that would be Ted Cruz) but of Jay Billington Bulworth….

In résumé and beliefs, Trump is even closer to the insurgent candidate played by Tim Robbins and reviled as “a crypto-fascist clown” in the mockumentary Bob Roberts (1992) — a self-congratulatory right-wing Wall Street success story, beauty-pageant aficionado, and folksinging star whose emblematic song is titled “Retake America.” Give Trump time, and we may yet find him quoting the accidental president played by Chris Rock in Head of State (2003): “If America was a woman, she would be a big-tittied woman. Everybody loves a big-tittied woman!”

Rich points out that Trump embarrasses the GOP by saying in public what “real” Republicans keep private.

Republican potentates can’t fight back against him because the party’s base has his back. He’s ensnared the GOP Establishment in a classic Catch-22: It wants Trump voters — it can’t win elections without them — but doesn’t want Trump calling attention to what those voters actually believe.

 Rich’s devastating analysis of the Trump phenomenon, together with John Boehner’s resignation (to the barely veiled glee of the party’s Neanderthal wing) confirm the GOP’s descent into know-nothingness and farce– and its utter inability to govern.

We may be entering an “End Times” rather different from the one anticipated by the GOP’s fundamentalist base. The question is whether the “Trump-et” is sounding for a complete melt-down and disintegration of the once Grand Old Party, or the beginning of a difficult but necessary climb back to something approaching sanity.


Producing Educated Citizens–or Worker Bees?

A recent, lengthy post at Talking Points Memo blames conservatives, liberals and accrediting agencies for a decline in the excellence of American higher education–a decline that is widely remarked upon.

First comes conservatives seeking a corporate transformation or restructuring of higher education. One option comes through the rise of for-profit private colleges, offering a game plan of expensive tuition and pricey administrators, delivered mostly with low cost adjunct professors in often cookie-cutter, interchangeable curriculum delivered online.

This is Fordism coming to higher education… The other option is traditional schools adopting this model; employing business leaders to run schools and developing cost containment policies aimed mostly at standardizing curriculum. It is top-down decision-making premised upon treating faculty no differently than an assembly line worker….The result: a market-driven product devoid of innovation, creativity, and intellectual challenge.

Liberals come second, often joined by religious conservatives, bent on enforcing political correctness on campus and in producing a curriculum that offends no one. Captured in the Atlantic by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in their article “The Coddling of the American Mind,” there is a push to insulate students from ideas and words that they do not like. Across the country schools are adopting policies demanding trigger warnings or alerting faculty to forms of microaggression that students find objectionable. The result is not only an erosion of academic freedom but a curriculum that is uninteresting and devoid of learning.

Finally comes the accrediting agencies who have taken the assessment lessons from K-12 and are imposing them on higher education. They demand schools measure and test students and curriculum by developing a complex process of goals, objectives, rubrics.

I would add to these indictments a more foundational issue: until we reach agreement on what we mean by education, we will never be able to focus on the question of how best to provide it.

Far too many “education reformers” at all levels fail to recognize the fundamental difference between genuine education and job training–between intellectual flowering and the inculcation of skills needed by the marketplace. It doesn’t help that state legislatures and Commissions on Higher Education focus on graduation rates and  employment metrics to the exclusion of all else.

Evidently, if you can’t count it, it doesn’t count.

It’s probably heresy for a Professor to say this, but not every high school graduate is a candidate for college. There is nothing wrong with job training–it’s important and entirely legitimate– and such training can meet the needs of a number of students. If we were to reserve the university experience for young people who display intellectual curiosity, a capacity for serious scholarship and/or a demonstrable passion for the life of the mind, both the institutions and their graduates would benefit.

As a bonus, we could trim those bloated administrations, disabuse ourselves of the notion that educational institutions should be “run like businesses,” and stop coddling students who demand protection against ideas they find threatening.

Ideas can be right or wrong, comforting or offensive–but to find any idea “threatening” is a signal that one is unfit to be educated.


Electing Our Future/Why Should I Care?

Media attention is already firmly focused on 2016 and the presidential race, and that’s understandable, given the amount of cluelessness and buffoonery being displayed by the current crop of “candidates” (note the quotation marks, because, really–who can take some of these people seriously?).

Most recently, Ben Carson has replaced Donald Trump as  the preferred mouthpiece for bigotry and unintended irony : almost immediately after defending his offensive stereotyping of all Muslims, he defended his own scientific ignorance by complaining that people were denigrating him for his faith. You really can’t make this shit up.

As fascinating as all this continues to be, 2016 is next year. Indianapolis will hold municipal elections this year. 2015. And those of you reading this who live in Indy need to pay attention to that election, because in a very real sense, we will be electing our future. Monday night, at Central Library, a large group of civic organizations held the first of three planned events intended to provide voters with the information needed to understand how and why local government affects them.

Take some time and view the embedded video, courtesy of WFYI. You’ll be more informed for the investment!