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Against Vilifying Single Mothers: Responding to Comments from the JHUColeman Conference

Starting graduate school has meant stepping away from the blogosphere for quite some time, but something I heard recently made me angry enough to return.

This week, I attended a conference held in honor of the 50th anniversary of the famous Coleman Report, hosted at Johns Hopkins. Don’t get me wrong – despite the rest of this post, the conference was, overall, very interesting and well-executed; you can see some of the Twitter-worthy highlights #JHUColeman. The conference consisted of two days of presentations and panels, with the first day focusing on researchers and the second on policymakers. In the spirit of the 700+page Coleman Report, dialogues were nuanced, stimulating, and fairly non-ideological.

Until Ian Rowe spoke.

Speaking in the second-day panel entitled “Community and Schools,” Rowe argued that one of the most significant problems facing student in inner-city schools today was the lack of the success sequence in children’s lives. In particular, he fought for the idea that children in impoverished families are struggling to maintain solid school attendance records and achieve academic excellence due to family structure. Rowe stated that, in America today, a child – black or white – with two parents is more likely to have success in the educational system than a child with one parent. From this, Rowe concluded that in order to greatly improve poor children’s educational outcomes, poor parents must follow the success sequence – getting married before having children.

Unfortunately, there was very little time left for audience questions at the end of the panel, so that I was not able to question Rowe about the disturbing causal inference implied in his argument. Fortunately, I have a blog on which to expand my many impassioned counterarguments to Rowe’s position.

Without discussing the problematic foundation of the success sequence research in the first place, I want to focus on Rowe’s argument that single mothers (I will focus on mothers, as there are many more single mothers than single fathers in this country, and it is safe to assume that Rowe was aiming his argument at single mothers) are harming young children’s educational chances by not marrying. According to the causal arrow put forth in Rowe’s argument, one might assume that single mothers who do not marry their children’s fathers are either (1) unaware that children in married two-parent households outperform those in single-parent households, or (2) choosing not to marry their children’s fathers despite their ability to improve their children’s lives by doing so.

Both of these implications are extremely insulting to single mothers. First, single mothers do know the potential benefits of raising children in a two-parent household. According to a representative sample studied by Lichter et al. (2004), the majority of disadvantaged and minority-race single mothers value marriage as a personal goal. However, as the study points out, these marriages often cannot come to fruition due to a number of factors. It is critical to understand that these are not random factors – the majority of these factors relate to the mother’s personal understanding of how to protect the wellbeing of the child. What single mothers understand that Rowe seems to not comprehend is that a two-parent household is qualitatively extremely different than a stable two-parent household.

When mothers fail to marry their children’s fathers, it is not an attempt to sidetrack their children’s chances of life success, but rather an attempt to protect them from very real harms that a father’s presence may inflict upon them, with both short-term and long-term consequences. In a study that drew on qualitative interviews with almost 300 low-income single mothers in three U.S. cities, Kathy Edin (2000) found that these mothers largely agreed on the necessary prerequisites for marriage: financial security, employment stability, a viable source of earnings. Aside from financial considerations, mothers also placed a high value on finding men who would enhance (or at least not diminish) their respectability, be worthy of truth, and not engage in domestic violence. All of these concerns are clearly connected to the ability to care for children and protect them from financial instability and physical harm. I will not delve into the research demonstrating a correlation between financial/physical security and children’s success in school, but suffice it to say that this relationship has been well-documented by researchers, witnessed by teachers, and substantiated in the work of psychologists and child protective services on a daily basis.

Given both the location of the Coleman conference in Baltimore as well as the frequent references to the Moynihan Report throughout the Coleman-themed conference, I also feel the need to reference the vast body of work demonstrating the inability of black low-income mothers to find suitable husbands even when they want them. Spanning back to the time of slavery, marriage has been an historically white institution in the United States. To clarify, this does not mean that black women did not want to marry; on the contrary, black women and men pursued marriage in the face of life-threatening risks, running away from slave masters to start a life together. Furthermore, in the de jure sense, black marital freedom is still relatively new. Only in 1967 did the Supreme Court ban anti-miscegenation laws in Loving v. Virginia.

As is the case with most social phenomena, de jure ability does not necessarily or immediately translate into de facto ability, and the ability for high-poverty black mothers to pursue marriage is no different. Starting with the work of William Julius Wilson, many studies have demonstrated the profound difficulties that low-income black men and women face in the pursuit of marriage. In When Work Disappears (2011), Wilson famously argued for understanding changes in the economy and the decline of blue-collar employment opportunities as key to understanding the difficulties facing low-income communities. Wilson demonstrates that joblessness in low-income neighborhoods can lead to huge growth in drugs and violent crime. On top of this, the NAACP estimates that, if current trends continue, one in three black men born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime (NAACP, 2016). All of this leads to a very low number of “marketable men” in low-income communities – particularly black communities – for single mothers to marry. This is not because single mothers are looking for perfect men, but because they are looking simply for stable men who can provide a safe, positive influence in their children’s lives.

While Rowe may think that raising children takes a two-parent household, single-mothers demonstrate that raising children takes a village, especially when having a two-parent household is not a safe or available option. In order to try to make up for the lack of father figures available, underprivileged single mothers have taken steps to try to improve their children’s lives in other ways. Many studies have shown the important role that kinship networks play in single mothers’ lives, particularly in the black community. Drawing from interviews with never-married black mothers, Jarrett (1994) explains the importance of kin networks: “The extension of domestic and childcare responsibilities beyond the nuclear family represented a primary response to economic marginality. Extended kin networks that centered around women provided assistance to single mothers and their children” (p. 41). Networks of family and friends provide single mothers with help supporting their children outside of the traditional nuclear (and, as I discussed earlier, historically white) family form.

As I have tried to show here, an overwhelming body of literature clearly demonstrates that economic marginality influences family structure as well as children’s educational outcomes. This does not mean that low-income children of single mothers do poorly in school because their mothers choose not to marry their fathers. What it does mean, however, is that there is a huge portion of the population whose needs will not be met by policymakers who assume that there is a causal relationship between nuclear family structure and children’s educational achievements. It is time to put this myth of causal inference to rest. We must strive to understand the context in which low-income single mothers are struggling to help their children succeed. It is unacceptable and unproductive to vilify these mothers for not participating in the historically white and upper-class institution of marriage.

Citations

Edin, K. (2000). What do low-income single mothers say about marriage? Social Problems47(1), 112-133.

Lichter, D. T., Batson, C. D., & Brown, J. B. (2004). Welfare reform and marriage promotion: The marital expectations and desires of single and cohabiting mothers. Social Service Review78(1), 2-25.

NAACP (2016). Criminal Justice Fact Sheet. http://www.naacp.org/criminal-justice-fact-sheet/

Wilson, W. J. (2011). When work disappears: The world of the new urban poor. Vintage.

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Thoughts on the New NYC Framework for Great Schools

Right now I am supposed to be working on my undergraduate thesis and/or graduate school applications, except that I have writer’s block. And the best thing to do when you have writer’s block is to write, so here I am, procrastinating from writing about education by…writing about education.

I’ve had the great fortune of working at the New York City Department of Education this summer, an especially incredible opportunity given the timing. On July 1st, the NYCDOE underwent a complete restructuring–Borough Field Support Centers are in, and Networks and Clusters are out. Perhaps I will write a longer blog post about this change in the future, but for now I will just summarize the transition by saying that, like all changes in large urban education systems, it has some good and some bad, but we all have to be impressed merely by the fact that it is happening. Even better, it is happening thoughtfully and speedily, at least thus far. Rather than discuss the method of implementation of this new structure or the organization of the structure itself (both of which are completely fascinating), I want to speak a bit about the overarching initiative being launched in the NYCDOE, called Strong Schools, Strong Communities.

When I first started digging into the Strong Schools, Strong Communities initiative, I was stunned by the easily recognizable Framework for Great Schools. Here is a simple diagram of the Framework for Great Schools:

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The Framework lists the six components that Chancellor Fariña and the current administration boast as crucial to school success: Rigorous Instruction, Collaborative Teachers, Supportive Environment, Effective School Leadership, Strong Family-Community Ties, and Trust, all of which contribute to the main goal of Student Achievement.

Does this graphic look familiar to anyone? Do these values sound familiar? If you have ever read anything about school reform in the state of Illinois, then these should sound very familiar. Illinois adopted the 5Essentials metrics of school success from seminal research that has emerged from the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute over the past two decades. Here is the diagram of the 5Essentials:

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The 5Essentials Survey tool measures schools’ success in implementing 5 “essential” components of a successful educational organization: Effective Leaders, Collaborative Teachers, Supportive Environment, Involved Families, and Ambitious Instruction. According to rigorous research performed at the University of Chicago, schools that rate well on at least three of the components of the 5Essentials are ten times more likely to improve in mathematics and reading. Measuring schools in these areas has been an important step in the direction of progress for Chicago’s schools, and there’s no reason that New York shouldn’t benefit from this extensive and revealing research as well. It’s really quite brilliant, politically speaking–adapting an already existing framework, changing a few words, and calling it a brand new wave of reform measures specifically tailored to NYC students and their communities.

Politically, this is great for the people who claim credit–but in a research sense, this isn’t necessarily the best idea. I say this because I place value in words. I believe that words relay meaning, and when you change words, you change the meaning behind those words, even if–maybe especially if–you’re just a well-meaning politician trying to pass your initiative off as innovative to incite optimism in your constituents.

One difference I noticed, both in its phrasing and its placement in the diagram, is the change from “Ambitious Instruction” as a centerpiece to “Rigorous Instruction” as a side element. In terms of phrasing, I reject the notion that “rigorous” is the same as (or better than) “ambitious.” Ambitious instruction inherently takes students into consideration; it means that classes are demanding for students. On the other hand, rigor is an objective term, facilitating the idea that setting standards will automatically lead students to reach those standards. We can make out “rigorous instruction” to mean a lot of different things, but “ambitious instruction” more clearly points to work that engages and is challenging for students, which is made even clearer by the original explanation provided by the researchers who developed the 5Essentials.

To be fair, this is fairly nit-picky. The bigger problem with the change of the instruction is not the type of instruction but the placement of the instruction within the framework. In the original 5Essentials, four elements revolve around a central goal of ambitious instruction. The purpose of creating the 5Essentials was to improve schools, and the goal in improving schools is to support ambitious instruction. It is only right that instruction should be the centerpiece, as it is in the 5Essentials. However, in the Framework for Great Schools, the centerpiece is “Student Achievement.” As we all know, student achievement can mean a lot of things. To some, achievement is measured by test scores; to others, it is measured by demonstrations of creativity. Every single teacher in the world likely has a different notion of what constitutes student achievement, and this may even be different for each student.

This change in the nature of achievement as a centerpiece is further reflected by the change of the phrase “Involved Families” to “Strong Family-Community Ties.” The 5Essentials defines Involved Families: “The entire school staff builds strong relationships with families and communities to support learning.” Contrastingly, the NYCDOE website defines Strong Family-Community Ties as the creation of “welcoming environments for families and take advantage of community resources to enrich the civic life of the school.” In the NYCDOE definition, there is no mention of “learning” in the family component to the school; instead, the school acts as a hub of civic engagement. While providing a space for civic engagement is an admirable objective, the NYCDOE fails to recognize that families need to come to schools and be engaged in student learning in order to improve achievement. By failing to mention family engagement in the educational aspect of the schoolhouse, the NYCDOE Framework comes off as a thinly veiled attempt to use school reform as a cover for implementing additional progressive economic and political agendas. While the agendas themselves may be wonderful, infiltrating a rigorously researched framework for school improvement with these agendas may weaken the ability of the framework to serve as a valuable research tool and evaluation metric.

Probably the most noticeable change is the addition of “Trust” to the NYC Framework. Frankly, I almost laughed the first time I saw this. Don’t get me wrong: trust is incredibly important to the development of both the student and the school community. But the addition of trust to what are otherwise the original elements of the 5Essentials is worrying because trust is probably even less measurable than student achievement or community civic engagement. With the addition of trust, the NYCDOE has turned the 5Essentials tool from a focused, rigorous, research-based evaluation tool to a patchwork collection of vague, nice-sounding ideas about how each child’s life should look rather than a tool for determining how it does look. This Framework aims to simultaneously improve each and every facet of the child’s life; after all, the name of the umbrella initiative is about Strong Schools and Strong Communities. Both of these institutions work together to influence youth development, but so does every aspect of society. If we continue to merge various institutions and improvement efforts until we live under one umbrella initiative called Strong Schools-Communities-Economies-Families-Hospitals-Libraries-Police, social, economic, and political variables will become completely incapable of being isolated and studied, and we will lose the ability to institute rigorous research-based policy.

In short, by implementing a fantastic framework for school success, the NYCDOE may accidentally destroy both the Framework and the impetus for school improvement.

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Education is a Human Right (Town Hall)

Hello everyone! Although my blog doesn’t reflect it, I did a lot of education writing over the summer when working on a research project with Block 58. Unfortunately, this isn’t ready yet, but I’ll be happy to tell you all about it once it’s published! In the meantime, I’d like to talk about some of my more recent experiences in the realm of education, starting with an event I went to tonight.

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This evening I attended the Education is a Human Right Town Hall. The meeting had a great turnout, with a mixture of students, parents, community members, UIC professors, and education activists coming together to present “testimony to Amnesty International and the U.S. Department of Education on the impact of school closings, turnarounds, phase outs and disinvestment in neighborhood schools.” In addition, the Town Hall presented the people’s plan for the new Dyett High School (you can find out more by following #SaveDyett.)

Before going to the Town Hall, I expected that my post-event blog post would focus on the more philosophical side of the event. I expected to come out of this Town Hall with reinforced notions about the importance of civic capacity to our education system, and how that capacity is being continuously and purposefully undermined by our non-representative elected officials. And while there was certainly some philosophical rhetoric, and some very powerful rhetoric at that, I think it’s more important to highlight the mere facts that came out of the testimony:

Dyett High School:

  • The principal of Dyett High School is effectually attempting to trick the remaining 13 students (“the Dyett 13”) into transferring out so that the school can be forcibly phased out
  • The front door of Dyett High School has been locked so that students can only use the back door
  • Dyett High School students only have 4 teachers and therefore must take online versions of art, science, and physical education (what?!) classes

Mollison Elementary School:

  • Special education students at the overcrowded Mollison Elementary School are receiving their services under the staircases
  • Approximately 20% of students at Mollison Elementary School cannot eat lunch in the lunchroom, and must eat in the hallways and classrooms

These are some shocking and truly unacceptable facts. They speak for themselves, and I don’t feel a great need to explain why they are truly outrageous (I mean, taking PE classes online? Really?) Now, some facts that were brought up at the Town Hall concerning the political reality:

  • In 2012, 87% of voters were in favor of elected school board officials in Chicago (so, where are they?)
  • Title VI Civil Rights complaints have been filed in 12 cities thus far, and 3 now have open investigations

These are all of the facts that we should keep in mind before even attempting to contemplate the philosophical and political truths underlying educational inequity in Chicago and other cities throughout the U.S. It’s only once you’ve taken the time to hear community stakeholders state these facts and really think about the children that are living with these grievances that you can think about the deeper political implications and explanations for these grievances. Some of the great quotes from the night that point to these deeper truths are:

  • “It is about race, and somebody’s gotta have the courage to say that unapologetically.” -Jitu Brown
  • “When you close a school…you’re erasing that people’s memory.” -Jitu Brown
  • “This is a chance for elected officials to [stand with] the people and their children.” -Jitu Brown
  • The 3 D’s of Chicago school reform: destabilization, disinvestment, and disenfranchisement. -Professor Pauline Lipman

In addition to these, I was really impressed by Amara Enyia, who basically summed up the issue by saying “I know I’m supposed to spout talking points about educational policy, but I want to talk about the power that we are all born with, and what our communities would be like if we embraced that power.” While the grievances may be educational, they are symptoms of a broader problem of societal inequity that can only be conquered by communities that embrace their power, as individuals and as a collective.

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Reflecting on Block 58’s Student Voice Summit

Today I attended the Student Voice Summit held by Block 58 on the University of Chicago campus. Students from the University of Chicago, along with students from Northwestern University and surrounding high schools, gathered to discuss how students’ voices play into education. The description of the event reads:

Too often, students’ voices are left unheard by policymakers and leaders. From issues in education to issues in community development, Chicago’s leaders must look to young leaders to build stronger neighborhoods, stronger communities, and ultimately a stronger city.

The event included leaders from student groups across Chicago high school and college campuses. I enjoyed that the conversation was not limited to issues of education, but revolved around the work that students are doing to impact their school communities on a variety of issues. The panel and Q&A was probably my favorite component of the summit, as we heard from leaders from the University of Chicago’s Socioeconomic Diversity Alliance (SDA) and Northwestern’s Class Confessions. These student leaders spoke about their experiences with student leadership and the difficulties of mobilizing a student movement, particularly the difficulties of mobilizing around the realities of socioeconomic status, often considered a taboo subject to speak out about. They spoke of the wide variety of issues that low-income students face, such as social isolation, adjustment to a new environment, asking for academic help, finding financial resources, code-switching between home and school, and balancing paying work with being a full-time student.

The student leaders on this panel spoke about their dedication to community-building, work that is important for low-income students as well as campuses at large. Especially for low-income students who have not been exposed to the culture of academia before, isolation can be devastating to the student’s ability to succeed. For these students, having relationships with and the support of peers with similar backgrounds can be key to success. Just this past week Paul Tough wrote a piece for The New York Times Magazine called “Who Gets to Graduate?” Tough writes about Professor David Laude at UT Austin who recognized the unique challenges that low-income students face once they get to college, and the immense obstacles that stand between them and graduation. As a professor, he implemented additional classes for these students at-risk of falling behind, and by giving them extra support and resources, helped them achieve at even better levels than their higher-income peers. Professor Laude, who now serves as Senior Vice Provost at UT Austin, recognized the need for community-building to help low-income students succeed. He founded the University Leadership Network in order to gather students with financial need and help them gain leadership skills in the university setting.

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Matt Collins, Co-President of Block 58, helps post ideas that students have written about how to create opportunities for organizational development in student-led movements.

While programs such as those implemented by Professor Laude are laudable, it is important to recognize the additional benefits of community-building via student-led mobilization efforts. Student leaders in UChicago’s SDA and Northwestern’s Class Confessions have a student’s perspective and can fill needs that administrators may not understand (for instance, SDA is working to publish guides that list restaurants which offer student discounts). Ultimately, the most profound success will probably be derived by combining the skills and resources of both university officials and student leaders. Faculty, administrators, and students must join forces in order to create an environment in which all students can openly discuss their challenges and find the resources they need to thrive socially and academically in the university setting.

 

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On the Stark Contrast Between Developmentally Appropriate Practices and an Era of Standardized Testing

Unfortunately, midterms are starting up again, so this reflection post will be brief.

This evening I attended a workshop held by the Neighborhood Schools Program called “Positive Environments: Engaging Activities + Stimulating Materials = A Great Learning Experience.” The talk (along with some fun interactive activities) was presented by Annette Kelly, a CPS consultant who also runs a non-profit organization that engages students in quality programming both in the classroom and in after-school programs. Basically, the workshop focused on – well, you guessed it – positive environments, engaging activities, and stimulating materials to make a great learning experience.

More specifically, the workshop focused on Developmentally Appropriate Practices and how educators approach children’s individual developmental needs and backgrounds. Most of the workshop participants (myself included) are currently undergraduates who work with kids in the community, though many of us (again, myself included) aren’t necessarily interested in teaching as a long-term profession. Many of us work and volunteer in low-income and underserved classrooms in the area surrounding the community, and thus could certainly relate to the discussion about environmental influence on child development. We spoke about the environments of family, neighborhood, and community, and how all of these settings distinctly influence every student’s cognitive, linguistic, physical and socio-emotional behavior.

When discussing these different influences and learning styles, I couldn’t help but think about how little schools can do nowadays to individualize learning for students based on these different influences and learning styles. For me, this is largely due to the ever-heightened importance of standardized testing. I remember reading an NYT article a while back about questions in New York State standardized tests about counting stalks of corn. In order to prepare students for these questions, schools in New York City were holding field trips to farms in order to show city kids what a stalk of corn looked like. This is just one example of how tests do not take into account students’ environments. Students may spend hours of class time learning to answer questions about an environment that is wholly unrelated to their own.

In the workshop, we also learned a bit about different types of learning styles (we focused on visual, auditory, tactile, and kinesthetic, though there are arguably many more). One thing that all of these learning styles have in common, it seems to me, is that none of them is best suited by standardized testing. There is not a learning style named “bubble-graphic” in which students learn best by coloring in small circles for hours at a time. However, there are learning styles that are starkly go against this practice. In particular, we spoke about kinesthetic learning, and I couldn’t help but think how much of a negative impact the rote memorization and silence method of “schooling” must have on students with this learning style. Even students who are auditory learners, which is pretty common, must go nuts sitting silently hours on end in order to complete practice tests, what schools are being forced to call “learning.” The sad thing is that some of these kids must actually grow up thinking that this is learning. How is any kid supposed to develop a love of learning in such an environment? Honestly, I don’t know.

In the end, this workshop gave me food for thought, though not necessarily a lot of optimistic thought. It’s comforting to know that there are professionals out there who understand the developmental needs of students and create quality programming based on this knowledge. But it is quite discomforting to know that these professionals have very little say in the metrics that control our classrooms and dictate how students are being forced to spend their time.

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The Art of Teaching: Reflecting on a Trip to Golden Apple

Hello again!

I just now returned from a UCIEP trek to Golden Apple, a foundation that focuses on the importance of teachers in Illinois classrooms and offers a collective initiatives aimed at teacher appreciation, professional development, and scholarship opportunities. We had the opportunity to meet with a large number of staff at the foundation, almost all of whom told their own narratives of past and present experience as teachers in K-12 classrooms. I very much enjoyed introductions by Dom (Dominic Belmonte, President & CEO of the foundation), a very charismatic leader who describes himself as a South Side Italian who relied on his moxy to succeed, both in life and as a teacher. When talking about teaching, Dom said:

“It’s an artisan’s kind of work. We’re artists.”

This statement is very simple, relaying a sentiment that is often articulated by the best of teachers, and yet it got me thinking. How do teachers find teaching as a profession? Golden Apple offers aspiring teachers scholarship opportunities, and those who become fellows are offered an array of professional development opportunities in order to achieve their goal of becoming teachers, and furthermore, to become good teachers. For those who already teach, Golden Apple offers awards that recognize outstanding, committed teachers, and provides them with further professional development, as well as the opportunity to teach classes to others in the teaching profession. But all of these opportunities come to those teachers who already are or know they want to be teachers. So, the question remains: how do people discover their desire to be teachers?

Dom’s statement about teaching as an art form referred to the practical ingenuity and creativity that are crucial skills for teachers to have, particularly in the neediest schools. But I think there’s another practical dimension to this statement as well. Like artists, teachers must have passion. The work must be fulfilling to the individual on a deeper, emotional level (because, as we all know, most people in both professions are unlikely to ever achieve great material wealth). This passion doesn’t just allow people to take the risk of pursuing an insecure profession with difficult work and low pay. This passion doesn’t just make teachers–it makes good teachers. As all of the teachers and former teachers of Golden Apple articulated, it is the passion of a teacher that allows him or her to connect with children, make children believe that they give a damn about what happens to their students in and outside of the classroom setting.

The policy reforms that try to “fix” inner-city schools through the use of complex quantitative data and strict numerical metrics fail because they continue to miss the point. The point is that kids with high risk factors in dangerous environments require teachers who are not robots. They need teachers who are not scientifically proven efficient, and who are not chosen on the basis of their ability to follow a curriculum that is completely unrelated to the issues that impoverished children face in their everyday lives. These kids need teachers with passion. In short, these kids need artists.

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Reflecting on Workshop with Dr. Charles Payne: The Historical Context of Universality Rhetoric in American Education

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This evening, I attended a workshop with Dr. Charles Payne, hosted by UChicago Careers in the Education Professions. I attended an event with Charles Payne last quarter as well, hosted by Block 58. I have to say, having the opportunity to hear him speak frequently is very much a perk of attending this university.

One of the great things about events featuring Charles Payne is that there are only two certainties. The first is that you never have any idea what the topic will be. As one of my professors put it, he speaks about whatever happens to be on his mind that day. It can range from neighborhood development to national policy, employing any and all types of logic from theoretical sociology to real-world policy debate. The second certainty, luckily, is that whatever Charles Payne chooses to speak about, it will never be boring.

This evening’s talk was a short presentation followed by a Q&A discussion with Dr. Payne. The presentation commenced with a question: “Why do kids who look like they’re from very similar backgrounds have very dissimilar outcomes?” I’ve heard Dr. Payne speak to this interest of his before, though always with a slight twist that makes each asking of it differ from the last . After all, so much about education boils down to variability, and so does much of the political rhetoric. In the classroom, teachers must work with variability in an incredible way, somehow managing a classroom with (sometimes up to 35) students who come from different cultures, socioeconomic levels, and home climates, and that’s before even broaching the topic of differences in academic abilities and motivation levels. The issue of variability travels all the way up to the international level, with our top officials asking how our students compare to those of different nations.

Of particular interest to me is the management of variability in urban school districts, both in terms of neighborhood composition and policy rhetoric. Fortunately, Dr. Payne spoke to this tonight. He explained his most recent research interest, which concerns the successes and failures of various urban school districts in the United States. One story in particular I found really intriguing, namely, his story of an urban district superintendent who tried to directly combat “white privilege.” There are many ways of circumventing this crucial issue in urban education, and it is always refreshing to hear someone use the term in the context of honest inquiry, rather than with apology or hostility.

The most important policy lesson that Dr. Payne saw in the superintendent’s success, he explained, was universality. In short, improving educational opportunities for less-privileged children in urban districts is only politically achievable when improvement can be shown for more-privileged children as well. This is something I spent a lot of last quarter thinking about, while I was writing a term paper about the history of universality in education reform rhetoric and putting the universal pre-k movement into that historical context. After hearing Dr. Payne speak, I believe even more fervently in the sheer power that universality rhetoric can have in the field of educational reform. I am not saying I have an opinion in whether this power is ultimately a positive or negative force for society (though perhaps this question will go on my list of potential topics for my Sociology BA Thesis). Regardless of connotation, the rhetoric of universality has proven important historically in a country that prides itself on–though it rarely knows how to promote–its own diversity.

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