Thursday, December 10, 2009

Why Urban School Districts Make Easy Targets

In Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life (2003), Annette Lareau compares the parenting styles of middle-class families to that of working class and poor parents. I’ve written about her work before.

According to Lareau, one characteristic of working class and poor parents which would make them easy targets for the school privatization movement is that this group does not have the same type of social competencies as middle class parents. Lareau describes how these different competencies affect the types of interactions which the parents have with their children’s schools, for instance, working class and poor parents:

  • are less likely to customize interactions to suit their preferences
  • accept actions of persons in authority, but at times covertly resist them
  • are sometimes not as aware of children’s school situation
  • may resist school rules as unreasonable
  • have trouble getting “the school” to respond to their needs
  • give a lesson in powerlessness and frustration in the face of an important institution
  • are generally unable to make the rules work in their favor when they confront the institution

Because middle class parents rear their children in a “concerted cultivation” model, succeeding generations are instilled with a sense of entitlement. Working class and poor parents rear their children according to a “natural growth” model, which perpetuates a sense of constraint in their succeeding generations.

Nearly completely absent in education reform discussions is how schools could be improved by building stronger ways to foster a greater sense of entitlement in working class and poor families, as well as to guide them in ways to effectively implement it. This would be especially challenging to do with those who have experienced living under a weak or non-existent democratic model, or who have limited English-speaking abilities, but it would not be impossible and this is what the venture philanthropists should be spending their money on. Increased civic engagement on the part of parents would certainly provoke a greater bureaucratic response on the part of their school districts. Parents who feel empowered and competent who are advocating for change can accomplish a lot. Remember the Chinese fishing proverb?

"Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day.

Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."

But because building a greater sense of mastery for parents has not been sufficiently nurtured, and has even been sabotaged and discouraged by school bureaucracies, a door has been opened wide for the outside privatization forces to insert themselves into those communities. This is evident in the expansion of “we want your child, but we don’t need your input" charter schools. And as this feature is getting more and more firmly rooted in the ground, any and all remaining levels for an opportunity for true community engagement is being entirely wiped out. With school boards being abolished, no elections will be held, and no meetings will be conducted to invite public input. School enrollment is depending more and more on how successfully schools can market themselves to working class and poor parents, with pretty imprinted pencils, glossy color brochures and glowing promises.

The popular explanation of how it this all going to sort itself out is that parents “will vote with their feet.” This method causes an awful lot of disruption, as unhappy parents who don't have a say in how things are run, yank their kids out mid-year and wander over to the next school. Most parents would be perfectly happy if their children could stay put, if their input was regularly solicited, if their comments actually listened too, and if they were made to feel that they were respected and that their views were considered to be valid. This doesn’t happen enough in today’s school bureaucracies, and it hasn't for years. But it is entirely excluded when there is a top-down regime operating from afar, such as is the case with Oakland’s largest charter school provider, Aspire Public Schools. The members of its board of directors hail from far reaching communities, big businesses, and venture capital organizations, and none of them have anything to do with the People of Oakland. A middle class community would never permit its public schools to be run this way.

So along these lines, there was an interesting segment on The World the other day (12/9/09). Anchor Marco Werman spoke with Christian Science Monitor correspondent Fred Weir in Moscow about the Russian culture of accountability. Weir has been living in Russia for 23 years. The story pertained to the Russia’s culture of corruption, indifference and fatalism in relation to the tragic nightclub fire:

I think it’s an age old problem, probably because people are disconnected, and always have been, from authority and the means of getting things done. You know it’s very common for people in Russian to say, “Well nothing depends on me.” I think that’s part of the story and the corruption comes also from just an unaccountable bureaucracy. They’re not elected, they’re not transparent, they’re not susceptible to public pressure and they tend to use their positions – and this is an age old thing in Russia again – to enrich themselves…

…Russia has never had a functioning democracy. It doesn’t have the civil society, the kinds of unity avenues by which people, say in the United States, do insert themselves in the process, again not perfect, but you have so many different ways if you are an individual in a Western country to express yourself, be heard, to at least take a shot rhetorically at an official who you feel has wronged you.

You have so many different ways [in the U.S.] that just don’t exist in Russia, and never did. And this, of course, leads to the sense of impunity on the part of bureaucrats and officials who just don’t feel any need to respond to public pressure.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

...[change] involves actually changing that bureaucracy, dragging them out into the open, making them publicly accountable, having elections that are truly competitive and which would allow opposition figures perhaps to come into power. You know, allowing people in their communities to show initiative runs the risk of them challenging authority, and this is where Russian reformers always tend to draw the line after they’ve made these wonderful speeches. They want the country to modernize, but they don’t want opposition to form. They don’t want real, independent initiatives to take place, and that’s the conundrum that we always see.

Urban areas don’t need more charter schools and more passivity; this is a wrong and dangerous direction to take. For our democracy to stay strong, we need to start building the capacity of people to become regularly and effectively engaged. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor is alarmed at the loss of civics instruction in school over recent years. She said:

... public education is the only long-term solution to preserving an independent judiciary and, more importantly, to preserving a robust constitutional democracy,” she said. “The better educated our citizens are, the better equipped they will be to preserve the system of government we have. And we have to start with the education of our nation’s young people. Knowledge about our government is not handed down through the gene pool. Every generation has to learn it, and we have some work to do.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

One unintended effect of the No Child Left Behind Act, which is intended to help fund teaching of science and math to young people, is that it has effectively squeezed out civics education because there is no testing for that anymore and no funding for that,” she said. “And at least half of the states no longer make the teaching of civics and government a requirement for high school graduation. This leaves a huge gap, and we can’t forget that the primary purpose of public schools in America has always been to help produce citizens who have the knowledge and the skills and the values to sustain our republic as a nation, our democratic form of government.

Related concerns are also expressed by James Boyd White in Part one of his essay, Law, economics, and torture. White is a law professor, literary critic, scholar and philosopher who has been teaching at the University of Michigan since 1983:

As the government withdraws from the regulation of the economy, as it has been doing for decades now, its place is taken by private individuals or private organizations which have immense power over the lives of all of us.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The rhetoric supporting this movement speaks of government as the enemy, and the market as freedom for us all. But the power that is created by the disparity of wealth is real power and, unlike governmental power, it is not shaped or guided by law and democracy. Corporate owners and managers are not elected by the people, not subject to the constitution, not supposed – or even allowed – to be motivated by any ideal other than the acquisition of wealth and power, and usually not responsive to argument or complaint.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The consumer dream of our culture teaches us that we have no responsibility, no capacity for action, no right to demand meaning in our work and lives, and no obligation for the welfare of others. It induces the sense of learned helplessness I referred to earlier—which is exactly the opposite of the kind of vigorous independence and competence upon which democracy depends.

And in discussing propaganda and advertising, White says

…one characteristic of both forms is that nothing is meant, everything is said for the moment, all on the assumption that the people who make up the audience have no memory and no capacity for critical thought. A world is created where thought is not possible. In neither domain—the consumer economy or the world of politics and government—are we defined as responsible participants in a world of shared life and action. Rather, we are manipulated objects of an empire.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

…the reason we do not rebel at the immense and unfair transfer of wealth, and all that is associated with it…is that in some sense we do not believe that we really have democracy at all any more, at least in the sense in which we once thought we did.

With restricted autonomy and “learned helplessness,” calling ourselves a democracy is a falsehood. To make our public schools better and to keep our democracy strong, this is the situation we need to begin to reverse, and quickly.


lodesterre said...

Damn, this is an excellent post! You have my head spinning with thoughts, too much to express here. Thank you for being so provocative.

The Perimeter Primate said...

Hello lodesterre,

There's lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of serious stuff that people in this country should be thinking about, rather other than how many women Tiger was able to tempt into his bed.

Thanks for the praise.

Ted said...

another great post.

Anonymous said...

"A middle class community would never permit its public schools to be run this way..." (with an appointed board of successful, largely wealthy people). Really? Much of the middle class community in Oakland chooses private schools, which are exactly run this way. And so are the many education nonprofits that people use without any sense of scandal;. This is mindless, spiteful populism. You don't care how bad the schools are, as long as people with wealth and corporate connections are kept out. The bottom line should be one thing only: the experience and academic results of students. If Starbucks and McDonalds did a better job of providing education than public schools, I would gladly send my children there. But you consistently ignore the fact that charters are nonprofits and they are subject to a range of public controls beyond those of regular corporations.

The Perimeter Primate said...

Hello Anonymous,

Here’s my thinking.

Middle class parents who decided to stay in Oakland – instead of fleeing to the suburbs in the 1960s and 70s – felt it was necessary to “go private” because they were compelled to isolate themselves, and their children, from contact with low-income, brown-skinned kids -- and the uncomfortable racial and class friction they felt from being around those kids and their families. The private schools became preferable because they guaranteed a more socioeconomically homogeneous environment. That factor makes them worth any price; it’s instant tracking.

As for which schools are “better,” Bishop O’Dowd, the private high school which is most popularly used by Oakland’s middle class families, produces similar college destinations for its students as Skyline and Tech does for its middle class students. To a lot of people, “good” and “bad” most often have to do with the demographics of the school.

One reason the City of Oakland and OUSD are in the shape they are in is because so many middle class parents have been segregating themselves together for decades. Their self-segregation has produced an equal amount of segregation on the other end of the spectrum. When some of the most skilled and confident parents in Oakland exclude themselves from the public school system, fewer parents are left in that system who are capable of advocating effectively for its well-being. Annette Lareau explains the effect of the middle class sense of entitlement on school institutions.

There is probably some sort of mathematical equation that could be created which would predict how many white, middle class families would flee any public school system, based on the percentage of low income, brown-skinned kids in its given community.

Demographics (US Census & CDE – rounded off)
Oakland vs. OUSD
- White: 31/7
- Black: 36/36
- Asian: 15/15
- Hispanic: 22/35
- Impoverished: 19/65

Berkeley vs. BUSD
- White: 59/30
- Black: 14/26
- Asian: 16/8
- Hispanic: 10/17
- Impoverished: 20/36

San Francisco vs. SFUSD
- White: 50/10
- Black: 8/11
- Asian: 31/44
- Hispanic: 14/23
- Impoverished: 11/56

San Jose vs. SJUSD
- White: 48/27
- Black: 4/4
- Asian: 27/13
- Hispanic: 30/51
- Impoverished: 9/45

Walnut Creek vs. WCSD (K-8)
- White: 84/68
- Black: 1/3
- Asian: 9/12
- Hispanic: 6/10
- Impoverished: 4/12

As far as populism goes, I do believe that a greater civic engagement on the part of the general populace would be a healthy thing for this country. I don't think it's wise to give up on that concept, nor to give entire control of our urban public schools to wealthy, paternalistic, corporate types. I think those people would make bigger public school improvements by sending their own kids to the “bad” public schools themselves and getting involved with trying to help them get better from the inside.

The last two entries on Bridging Differences (12/15 & 18/09) are commentaries on the new-found popularity of charter schools among the social elite. I wonder why the social elite has about zero interest in helping the traditional public schools?

The Perimeter Primate said...

The elementary school that seems to be the closest to the city, demographically-speaking, is Kaiser Elementary

White 27
Black 54
Asian 9
Hispanic 6
Impoverished 16

This school has a very solid reputation. It's 2009 API was 864.

If Oakland's middle class families used OUSD's schools, the schools would automatically be widely perceived as being "better."

Also, because of the squeaky wheel manner in which these parents naturally interact with their school, and for other reasons, many of the problems we see in OUSD schools today would begin to be corrected.