Category Archives: Education

A Night to Remember. And Then Forget.

After prom, after graduation, after all the senior-year pageantry, I hope each and every one of the graduates – black and white – from Charleston High School are able to put their sad little town in the rearview mirror.

Maybe that’s not the right thing to say.

But I can’t help myself. This is how I feel. When HBO’s fascinating but frustrating documentary, “Prom Night in Mississippi,” reached its uplifting – though carefully planned – denouement, I found myself wanting a more satisfying final act for the teens trapped in this Mississippi Delta backwater.

So what brought the film crew to town? More…

Excuses, Excuses.

I was chatting with my blogmate blackink last night while he watched the Obama speech to the NAACP. “I can already see the headline,” he said. “Obama to blacks: ‘No excuses.'”

He was right, of course. Very, very right.


I don’t even know what to say anymore. I haven’t heard Obama’s speech. But I’ve seen this play out so many times, that I’m fairly sure what happened. Obama probably said a lot of things, and in the midst of it spent a few minutes on “putting down the Playstation and turning off the Ipod.”And then he probably said something about not accepting any excuses from our kids. And thus we have a reductive headline.

Like I said earlier this week–so much of this isn’t about Obama himself, but a deep-seated desire to get out from under history. Expiation on the cheap. White guilt isn’t anyone’s friend. Least of all black people’s.

As has been said countless times, none of Obama’s “personal responsibility” speeches toward black people are the novel, daring phenomenon that the mainstream press seems to think they are. It’s pretty routine church/Thanksgiving dinner/barbershop talk.

What’s frustrating is the common formulation that discussing inequality or disadvantages constitutes an “excuse,” like there’s a sea of black folks whining that the dog ate their homework. For the past 40+ years, black folks have been trying to throw off the yoke of three centuries of being denied the most basic personal agency — the freedom of movement or the freedom to choose education or the freedom even to stay with their families. The deep animus and passive contempt that fueled and informed those doctrines didn’t just evaporate into the ether with the progressive legislation of the 60’s and 70’s. Acknowledging the serious ramifications of those things — disproportionate rates of poverty, imprisonment, inferior schooling, etc — isn’t just “blaming whitey.”

An ex-girlfriend of mine had two parents who both taught in Detroit public high schools. I was talking to her mother once about Kozol’s Savage Inequalities, which she said was depressingly familiar. She was a vice principal at a troubled school, and said that she had large swaths of kids who came in every day because it was the only place they knew they’d have heat in the winter. My ex-girlfriend’s father said that he had students who busted their asses, begged for extra credit, never missed a day,  and graduated at the top of their classes. They were honors students and the focus of their teachers’ attention, affirmation and meager resources. Those kids’ parents were active and involved. They held up their ends of the bargain. But then they got to college, and were confronted with how profoundly inadequate their educations had been, and realized that they couldn’t read at a high school level, let alone write a passable college paper.

David Simon has a great passage in The Corner about how the bootstraps narrative lulls people into the belief that if they had grown up poor in a shooting gallery in B-more with drug paraphernalia littered around them, that somehow they would be different. They’d tune out the fact that they were racked by hunger or that they didn’t have consistent electricity or that their parents were on drugs or that they had no real support and would just go upstairs, shut their doors and do their homework.

It’s an attractive, affirming fantasy. But it’s still a fantasy.

Book of the Month Discussion: Whatever It Takes by Paul Tough.

I’ve been chomping at the bit to get to our discussion of Paul Tough’s Whatever It Takes, this month’s reading/discussion group pick. The book follows the efforts of Geoffrey Canada and his audacious Harlem Children’s Zone program, a formidable array of proactive social programs that Canada hopes will lift every child in Harlem into college and out of poverty. The scale of that undertaking is mind-bending, but Canada is undaunted, maybe even obdurate, in the pursuit of that end. More…

I’m Not Racist! One of my Best Friends Is Black!*

Diversity 101: Having  “x” number of friends who are (insert ethnicity here) does not make you less prejudiced.

Or does it?

There’s a possibility it could for college students.

An NYT article published last week outlined the findings from studies that suggested that interracial college roomate pairings may reduce prejudice. There are quite a few of these discussing benefits of having a roomate or friends on campus who are of different ethnicities that range from increased positive attitude toward other races to boosting GPA’s. But the one that has been generating the most buzz at sites like angry asian man and Resist Racism is this study from UCLA cited in the article as follows:

Several studies have shown that living with a roommate of a different race changes students’ attitudes. One, from the University of California at Los Angeles, generally found decreased prejudice among students with different-race roommates — but those who roomed with Asian-Americans, the group that scored the highest on measures of prejudice, became more prejudiced themselves.


Your Monday Random-Ass Roundup: The Low-End Theory

Hey, has anyone else seen that picture of President Obama ogling that 17-year-old girl’s ass at the G8 summit in Italy?:

Of course you didn’t. Because there’s no such picture and he wasn’t doing that. Silly rabbits.

And without any further ado, your reading material from the weekend:

1. On Friday, the Washington Post reportedthat Leon Panetta, the head of the CIA, killed a secret intelligence program started in 2001 that had been hidden from Congress and that he himself only learned about in late June. This, understandably, kicked up a major shitstorm, with Senate Democrats saying they want to investigate the program (and indications from Eric Holder that he wants to go after the Bush administration on torturedespite Obama saying that he doesn’t want to “look back”). As of now, no one even knows what exactly the program entails, but yesterday, the New York Times reported that the program was kept secret on Dick Cheney’s orders.

Seriously, after wiretapping Americans without warrants, authorizing the torture of detainees, and sending others to secret prisons in other countries to be tortured, what other nefarious shit could the Bush administration possibly have thought up? The Washington Times quotes an anonymous source who hinted that the program involved assassinations overseas — which it bears mentioning, is against the law — which is sort of what Seymour Hersh reported earlier this year.

2. The White House has been getting Sonia Sotomayor ready for the confirmation hearings, which start today. What to expect: a whole lot of bluster and self-aggrandizement from senators, a whole lot of “I cannot answer that question lest this issue come before me on the bench” from Sotomayor, a lot of feeble attempts by Republicans to make her look crazy on abortion and discrimination cases, and an easy confirmation.

3. Speaking of SCOTUS, Emily Bazelon sits down with Justice Ginsburg, who has been a vocal advocate for more women on the court. “I always thought that there was nothing an antifeminist would want more than to have women only in women’s organizations, in their own little corner empathizing with each other and not touching a man’s world. If you’re going to change things, you have to be with the people who hold the levers.” Like Sotomayor, she makes no bones about the fact that she benefited from affirmative action. And like Sotomayor, she’s a sparkling example of how it’s supposed to work: Harvard Law (one of five women in a class of several hundred), while raising kids and caring (and taking notes) for her husband who was stricken with cancer. She made law review before transferring to Columbia and graduating first in her class. Please believe it: she’s a beast.

4. Also, a new poll from C-SPAN shows that 54 percent of Americans can’t name a single Supreme Court justice but two-thirds know Obama has picked a Hispanic nominee for the current vacancy on the panel. Behold our idiocracy.

5. a. The NYT takes a look at the events that led up to Sarah Palin’s resignation. After the campaign, Republicans from across the country tried to help her get her affairs in order for her to remain a national figure; as is her wont, she disregarded their advice. She got bogged down in petty fights with Levi Johnston and David Letterman. Her schedule got lighter and lighter, and she took a trip to Indiana for an antiabortion event while the state’s budget was up in the air. Now she’s saying she wants to campaign for conservatives across the country — even conservative Democrats — and fueling speculation that she wants to start her own party.

b. Want to hear more about Sarah? I know you do. Check out this smart post from Anonymous Liberal about the Village’s role in the ascendancy of Palin, likening it to the Hans Christian Andersen classic, “The Emperor Has No Clothes.”

c. Dahlia Lithwick and Frank Rich also offer their own takes on the Quitta from Wasilla.

d. Thanks but no thanks. GOP politicians facing tough elections in 2010 would prefer she stay far away, roughly somewhere in the vicinty of the Bridge to Nowhere.

e. According to a Mudflats reader, Sarah Palin became the member a very exclusive group of state leaders when she announced her resignation the other week. She joined Jim McGreevy and Eliot Spitzer as only three of about 1,200 governors in the U.S. since 1900 to quit in their first term for no apparent reason. That’s quite an accomplishment.

Ok. That’s plenty.

6. As the economy worsens, thousands and thousands of families are joining the ranks of the homeless. Also interesting but disheartening: 20 percent of homeless people live in Los Angeles, New York and Detroit.

7. ABC News lists the 10 states in the worst budget situations. The West is in particularly bad shape. California tops the list, with Arizona, Nevada, Oregon and Washington also facing significant shortfalls.

8. Despite being in the middle of a shitstorm for condoning racist comments on her Facebook page – and defriending the folks who called her out on it – Audra Shay was elected chair of the Young Republicans. Of course she was. Because, as Michael Steele might say, this is all strategic.

9. With California crumbling under the weight of its deteriorating economy, The Economist asks if Texas is ready to lead the U.S. in the 21st Century? The answers are unclear. But in many ways, Texas represents both the best and worst of our country. And quiet as kept, Texas seems well on its way to becoming a blue state.

That said, we should all fear for the schoolchildren being held captive there by an increasingly partisan educational system. The state’s Board of Education has put together a six-member committee to help develop new curriculum standards for social studies classes and textbooks. Among the members are a couple of conservatives who believe that Cesar Chavez and Thurgood Marshall receive too much credit under the current curriculum. Also, Gov. Rick Perry is considering a rock-ribbed, right-wing conservative to lead the state’s Board of Education. Which wouldn’t be a problem if not for the fact that she argued the country’s founding fathers created “an emphatically Christian government” and that government should be guided by a “biblical litmus test” in her book, One Nation Under God. She also calls public education a “subtly deceptive tool of perversion” and home-schooled her own children.

Heckuva job, Ricky.

10. Lou Dobbs does not want you to hear this: “If you want to find a safe city, first determine the size of the immigrant population,” says Jack Levin, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Massachusetts. “If the immigrant community represents a large proportion of the population, you’re likely in one of the country’s safer cities. San Diego, Laredo, El Paso—these cities are teeming with immigrants, and they’re some of the safest places in the country.”

11. SEK at The Edge of the American West pens a beautiful takedownof right-winger Andrew McCarthy, who spent an awful lot of time during the fall complaining that it was impossible to learn anything about Obama’s allegedly radical days at Columbia. Well, the New York Times managed to get the goods. So says SEK: “If you believed that a trip into the city and an afternoon in an archive would spare America four years of tyranny, would you do it? Would you fly into the city, rent a room, borrow a library card, request a day-pass under false pretenses, and spend an afternoon in an archive if you believed that doing so might save the world from nuclear destruction? Or would you whine because no one will silver-platter you a smoking gun?” Please, read it all.

12. No, MLK was not a Republican. And don’t let anyone or anything tell you different.

13. Wendi Muse at Racialicious wonders: can interracial porn not be racist? Short answer: not really.

14. James Kirchick at The Advocate wonders how “half-literate typist” Perez Hilton has “become one of the most prominent gay people in the country?” It’s a fair question.

15. Jamaican sprint star and Olympic champion Usain Bolt is still fast.

16. The rise and fall (and rise) of Stephen A. Quite frankly, I disagree with the author’s contention that Smith might be our next Al Sharpton. No thanks. One is plenty.

17. Eating watermelon and fried chicken and drinking Kool-Aid? It’s the Black Olympics, with your host, Dallas Cowboys tight end and all-around buffoon Martellus Bennett. You see, stereotypes are funny. Remind to tell you all this joke about picking cotton later.

18. Joey at Straight Bangin’ reviews the first half of the year in hip-hop. He liked the new joints from Mos, Puba and, miracle of all miracles, U-God. Can’t say the same about the latest from Hov, Eminem and Maino.

Some of you folks are going to have to hang out somewhere else this summer. I’m worried you’re changing the complexion of this blog.

Also, we have only one rule. Tell’em Kobe:

On Incentives and Outcomes.

Average Bro points to a program in North Carolina that pays teenage girls a dollar a day to not get pregnant.

The group College-Bound Sisters was founded at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro by Hazel Brown, a maternity nurse who thought too many teens were having babies.

Brown said she hopes the program, which pays $1 each day to 12-to-18-year-old girls, will keep them from getting pregnant. In addition to remaining pregnancy-free, the girls must also attend weekly meetings.

The program is funded by a four-year grant from the state.

“Our three goals are that they avoid pregnancy, graduate from high school and enroll in college,” Brown said.

Under the program, $7 is deposited into an interest-bearing college fund that the girls can collect once they graduate high school.

Some recent graduates earned more than $2,000 and are an inspiration to those still in the program.

“I might want to be a teacher for a few years and then be a lawyer,” said 12-year-old Chelsey Davis. “I might want to be an actor or singer,” another girl in the program, Amanda Davis, added.

AB’s take on it, however, is pretty strange.

Essentially, they are paying young girls cash money to do something they should probably have the personal desire and willpower to do on their own. Much like the (somewhat successful) act of paying kids to do well in school, you wonder what message is really being conveyed here. Are these girls being taught to value their goodies, or simply that $1/day is better than a sweaty five minutes in the of some random boy’s Momma’s basement? I honestly can’t call it, and that’s likely why God blessed me with two sons instead. … this “pay kids for something they should do for free” thing is getting out of hand. We are already paying kids to simply attend school and show up on time. What’s next? Paying kids to not smoke weed? This is getting outta control.

It’s funny that AB take issue with conservatives for their reaction to the program while offering up a pretty boilerplate social conservative critique of the program of his own. (“Whatever happened to personal responsibility?”) He even tosses in some lazy patriarchy for good measure. The comments sections for the original article is filled with the same idea: these little girls don’t need money, they need some self-esteem and to keep their legs closed.

AB’s argument rests on the assumption that going to school or getting good grades or not getting pregnant in high school isn’t incentivized behavior. But if your parents are professionals and you are expected to go to college, you’re going to receive a steady stream of affirmation and structural encouragement to that end (decent schools, pressure to do well, SAT prep courses, etc.) — so much so that the risks/benefit calculations don’t even need to happen on a conscious level. Your parents went to college, all your classmates are going to college, so why wouldn’t you? For a kid in that situation, the costs of getting pregnant — parental disappointment, social isolation, the end of college plans — would be pretty major. “Personal desire,” as AB puts it, isn’t formed in a vacuum.

But while shame can be a damn good motivator, it’s only as effective as its context. If you don’t know many people who’ve graduated high school and you don’t know anyone who has graduated college or you go to a shitty school, that cost/benefit equation is completely different. Getting pregnant or dropping out of school doesn’t really take anything off the table because going to college was never a likely outcome. The kids in both scenarios are making honest appraisals of their situations and their incentives toward certain life outcomes, and making their decisions accordingly.

“Self-esteem” and “personal responsibility” are kind of beside the point. College-Bound Sisters is trying to approximate the same incentive structure and support systems that middle class kids take as a given, which — whether you agree with how they’re handling it or not — is what has to happen if you want those kids on the margins to aspire to and have middle class outcomes.

Anyway, knowing that middle class teenagers are far less likely to get pregnant and far more likely to go on to college, doesn’t taking AB’s position on “personal responsibility” and “self-esteem” mean implicitly buying the idea that lower-class kids are irresponsible lazy asses who hate themselves?

UPDATE: pprscribe and Leigh make excellent points.


It does annoy me, though, how frequently these programs are portrayed as paying girls “to not get laid” or “to keep their legs closed.” The outcome measure being referenced is “not getting pregnant” (among other requirements, like participation in regular meetings). Presumably obtaining an abortion following conception could keep a girl in the program, so really it is a program discouraging *childbearing*. And certainly sex without conception would not be covered by the program. To frame it as a way to control young female sexuality is just silly to me, and reveals a lot about folks who jump to that conclusion.


I’m a big believer in incentives, and I’m a big believer in responding to the particular risks and opportunities that different groups (e.g., teen girls) face.  But I find the framing of this initiative troubling, as it seems to me it once again reduces women to our reproductive capacity, rather than incorporating and responding to the risk of teen pregnancy as one particular obstacle for low-income young women among many on the path to college and out of poverty.

More on Teacher Pay.

Per our earlier discussion on $100,000 teacher salaries, I thought this post by Dr. Bitch was worth mentioning:

Sure, there are great natural teachers who do amazing things despite mediocre salaries, piles of administrative trivia driven by legislatures and/or fears of litigation, and the broad popular belief that teaching is easy and that therefore everyone and their dog is entitled to second-guess what happens in the classroom. And sure, there are also brilliant, driven students who can get into Harvard despite a lifetime of homelessness. …

But, exceptions aside, good teaching is something that people can be trained to do-–or at least trained to be better at. It *is* a profession, after all, much like medicine. And good students, too, can be trained: that’s the entire fucking point of education, after all.

Now, that doesn’t mean that you can treat teachers like widgets and just “train” them in lieu of providing professional salaries. Or that any old teacher in front of any old student can do the kind of excellent job that we want every student to have access to. If you want people to adhere to professional standards, you need to pay them like professionals. And one important reason for that is that maintaining professional standards actually *does* cost money. Not just at the level of “the system,” either.

If the job is easy enough that people who are half burned out and/or not really paying attention can “go through the motions” and do it “well enough,” then fine; pay $40k/year. Your employees will be average, won’t be able to pay for ongoing training, won’t be able to take vacations very often to recharge, and won’t be willing or able to take their work home to a reasonably-appointed office space, since they won’t be able to afford the childcare, rent, equipment, or mortgages that make working at home possible. They won’t be able to afford the “networking” opportunities that keep them in touch with other professionals, who can alert them to new and interesting developments in various fields that can be brought into the classroom as examples, opportunities, or curricula (including field trips). They won’t be able to afford to provide students with the things that rich parents can afford to provide their children: educational games, toys and software; the ability to “try out” new, unfamiliar hobbies; the ability to experiment (which sometimes involves breaking or wasting materials) without being punished. They won’t be able to afford the “down time” that lets them come back every day and juggle not only the day’s curriculum, but all the emotional and psychological events that come up in any group of 20-40 (or more) young people every single day.

And yes, if they are bright, ambitious, and creative enough to be able to command six-figure salaries in other professions, they are unlikely to stick around teaching for more than a couple years because (1) teaching well actually is really hard work; and (2) we do, as a society, measure status in large part by income and lifestyle, and few bright, ambitious people really are going to feel happy for long living and being treated “lower” than their intellectual peers.