Thursday, October 26, 2023

Israel's Right to Exist and to Use Public Schooling to Maintain Separate Cultural Identies for Jews and Israeli Arabs: Does This Argument Justify Similar School Segregation in the United States?

I looked for this article to better understand why many reasonable people have reacted with horror to the student positions at American universities regarding Israel's right to exist and whether the frame of "colonialism" is a justified view of the current conflict between Israel and Palestinians. 

It's worth a close read.

One aspect of it gives me some pause: the justification it tries to give for ongoing segregation of Jews and Israeli Arabs in the public schools. This segregation is necessary, the author says, to preserve both groups' right to maintain their respective cultural identities.

If someone tried to justify ongoing segregation of American public schooling according to religion or race, I believe most Americans who believe in democracy would strongly resist that. (Such resistance wouldn't, of course, remove the obvious fact that such segregation is, in fact, becoming more widespread in the U.S.)
I realize that the Jewish/Arab cultural divide in Israel is historically very different than that between, say, Blacks and Whites, or Christian Nationalists and secularists in the U.S. But I wonder if this author's justification of ongoing segregation in Israeli public schooling could be applied to the issue of segregation of American public schools. Certainly the White, Christian Nationalist perspective in the U.S. is that the argument clearly applies to current conditions in the U.S.

Can a clear position be laid out that accepts this author's argument for the ongoing segregation of Israeli public schooling while also firmly rejecting the efforts of American Christian Nationalists to further segregate (or to allow the ongoing further segregation of) American public schools? I'm not sure.

Friday, April 21, 2023

(One of) COVID's effects on schooling

One central result of the pandemic was a huge increase in both teacher and student abilities in educational technology. In a way, COVID was the killer app for EdTech.

But COVID, of course, did a lot more than get a whole bunch of people used to using Zoom. One of the most important thing that happened was that parents, all of a sudden, were able to see into the teaching/learning process going on in their public schools. For some parents, this might have been happy-making. What great teachers!!! What a great curriculum!!! What a great school system!!!

Yeah. But.

For some OTHER parents, what they saw on Zoom was not only NOT inspiring (I mean, a lot of teachers and students really had no idea what they were doing at first), but truly troubling

There are a WHOLE lot of reasons for this. First: teachers aren't perfect. They're human; they make mistakes; and (let's be honest) some of them aren't really very good at what they do.

Second: "curriculum" is one of those things (like colonoscopy?!) that most people really know little about and really DON'T want to know much about. COVID allowed (forced?) parents to see the curriculum in action, or at least see something that gave them clues about what the curriculum is in a given school. (Curriculum and instruction are very different things, as you know. But parents didn't always make this distinction.)

Third: take two people (say a random teacher and a random parent) and they will have a different set of skills, experiences, and values.  Now add a third person: a young person, a child, a student. The parent is watching the teacher (try to) teach their kid. While some parents were like "yeah, it's not great, but during the pandemic this is better than nothing" and some others were like "I LOVE my child's teacher" while a few others were really outraged like "This teacher thinks transgenderism (or the idea of structural racism or whatever) is OKAY/True/Age Appropriate?!?!?"

The combination of these three situations lead SOME parents to start to get more involved. Many talked to their friends (through masks at the local park, maybe) and realized that parental dissatisfaction wasn't just something THEY felt. Indeed, in some places it wasn't rare, but it was shared (sometimes widely among certain parent groups). This realization of shared grievance (sound familiar?) has resulted in all KINDS of parent groups and parent action and even some major political action (Glenn Youngkin, Ron DeSantis?). 

One example here in Florida is the turning over of the Sarasota School Board to a group of people who were allegedly non-partisan but were funded by Moms for Liberty and Ron DeSantis. The three had a somewhat vague agenda (Students First! Transparency! Facts, not belief!) that kind of hid a fairly radical (right-wing?) view about the relationship between schools and society.  (In Sarasota, the county is the school district. The city itself is lovely and pretty liberal. The county is...different.) Once elected in 2020, the board has done a whole lot of things, including firing the superintendent, banning certain books, and in general raising the idea among many Sarasotans that the schools they THOUGHT were really pretty good were, rather, being run by a bunch of radical left-wing cultural marxists. The rest, some day, will be history.

I could say more, but I might stick my foot (further) in my mouth.

Friday, March 10, 2023

Low-quality schools perpetuate poverty? Poverty perpetuates low-quality schools.


The question of whether poverty *causes* the problem of low-quality schools in the US or low-quality schools *cause* (or perpetuate) poverty is certainly relevant to the connection between economic inequality in the US and the huge disparity in the quality of public schools.

A new essay in the New York Times Magazine looks at why poverty in the US persists despite ongoing spending on anti-poverty programs at the federal level. The essay barely mentions schooling (and, I think, therefore ignores one of the causal factors relevant to the discussion), but because of that it offers an interesting context for the discussions we've been having (and will continue to have) about the relationship between US public schools and other aspects of our political economy.

The essay points the finger at "exploitation" of the poor by landlords, vendors, employers, and pretty much everyone in the US. Not only do many "anti-poverty" programs end up supplementing the revenue taken in by providers of services to the poor, but it also subsidizes the costs of some services (such as banking) for the rest of society. This emphasizes that MANY people in our society actually *benefit* from the persistence of poverty, and, because of this, the political will to *change* the system in ways that could decrease economic inequality is absent in national and many state policy environments. 

Middle-class people, for example, are able to get "free checking" accounts and to take out short-term loans (including from their credit cards) at affordable interest rates because poor people are paying exorbitant bank fees and "payday loan" interest rates that are more than 300% per *week*. (To add to this, middle and upper class parents believe that the schools that their children attend are of good quality, while believing that the *overall* quality of US schools is low, and yet rarely want to pay extra taxes so that the poor people in their states can have better schools.)

In a system where those with political power (and there's no question that wealthier people in the US have more political power) don't have an incentive to make the system more fair and equitable, the system will continue to be UNfair and UNequitable, and those who are victimized ("exploited" according the the essay) will continue to be victimized/exploited in the future.

Some other countries in the world have been able to keep their own economic inequality well below that of the US, although typically Americans believe that these countries have fallen into "socialism" and therefore have less "freedom," "rights," and "choice" than do people in the US.

(This directly relates to the surge "right to work" rules in many American states, which reduces the influence of labor unions, which have historically helped lower-income people by increasing their wages. Certainly some middle-class people, like public school teachers, benefit very much from having strong labor unions, but so do workers at places like McDonald's and Amazon. Who LOSES money when unions are strong? Corporations and the people who invest in them.)

Why Poverty Persists in America

Proposed voucher program for Florida schools may increase school segregation and decrease public school quality


If legislators in the State of Florida have their way, many families in the US will be able to redirect educational dollars away from the public schools to a variety of private schools, including religious schools.

The problems with the legislation, according to critics, are:

1. The vouchers are not enough to pay for most Florida private schools. So very low income parents won't have the resources to take advantage of the vouchers, meaning that their children will remain in the public schools.

2. Private schools in Florida are not required to reveal certain information that might be helpful to parents in choosing high-quality private schools. Private schools don't have to disclose things such as how many of their teachers are certified, what percentage of students graduate, what extra costs there are for extracurricular programs, or what programs and resources are available for children with special needs.

3. Lower-income parents are less likely to KNOW about alternative schooling for their children, and therefore less likely to participate or benefit from school choice programs.

4. Companion legislation aims to REDUCE the number of state mandates for public schools, supposedly so that public schools are "more free" to do what is necessary to compete with private schools. It's important to look carefully at WHICH state mandates will be eliminated. Will those be mandates that often benefit lower income families or people in marginalized groups?


Thursday, March 02, 2023

What is Going on in Florida Right Now?: DeSantis, public schools, New College, and the Educational Culture Wars

As a fairly recent transplant to Florida from the north, I am continually appalled by some of what is going on in the state regarding schooling and educational policy.

Last spring, the legislature passed, and Governor Ron DeSantis signed, two bills that directly affect what teachers can say in classrooms in the state. The "Parental Rights in Education Act," dubbed "Don't Say Gay" by its critics, bans any discussion of gender or sexual orientation in K-3 classrooms, and also bans any discussions in higher grades that are not "age appropriate."  Who knows what "age appropriate" means? Isn't what is "age appropriate" a contextual question that depends on a particular teacher's relationship with the students that they teach, the mores and norms of a particular community, and the actual needs of the students? (The State Department of Education is developing more specific regulations about what is "age appropriate." Given that departments' recent actions with regard to teachers, curriculum, and even higher education in the state (see more, below), it isn't really clear that the regulations that will be issued by the department will comport with generally accepted notions of what is age appropriate or socially desirable.

What's more, as Frank Bruni of the New York Times pointed out in an opinion essay last April (subscriber firewall), "Parents Aren't The Only Ones With Rights." He goes on: 

[Public] schools ... exist for all of us, to reflect and inculcate democratic values and ecumenical virtues that have nothing to do with any one parent’s ideology, religion or lack thereof.... None of us get from public schools the precise instruction and exact social dynamics that we’d prescribe. That’s because they don’t exist to validate our individual worldviews. They’re public schools, and I and most of the other people I know, whether we have children or not, are happy to fund them, because we believe in education and we believe in democracy. What we don’t believe — what I don’t — is that “parental rights” take precedence over civic ideals.

Parents don't own their kids in the same way that they might own a piece of property or a food processor. As the saying goes, KIDS belong to the future; they have independent minds, hearts, and bodies, which parents may control to a limited extent or for a limited period of time but which are able to move beyond the skills or knowledge or values of their parents. The public schools, in fact, were designed to take children beyond their parents' abilities. 

Before the 1800s, it was generally okay for the progress of society if children didn't learn to read or write, and it was also therefore okay to allow parents to be the primary (or sole) teacher of their children.  But with the changes in society wrought by the industrial revolution, and with new expectations for citizens in a democratic society, it was thought that parents should send their children to school (even if those parents didn't want to do so). School attendance became compulsory in most of the United States by 1920, and although parents do have options (including private schools and, later, state-regulated home schooling), they don't really have the right to deny their kids schooling that may--and in fact must, in a rapidly changing world--go beyond the parents' own experiences.

Literacy (reading and writing) and numeracy (math) are very important purposes of the public schools. The purposes, however, go beyond these basic skills. Public schools teach other things like history and science, and general skills like critical thinking and how to participate respectfully in debates where there may be differences of opinion or even different assessments of facts. They have also been charged with teaching things like tolerance, overcoming stereotypes and prejudice, and healthy habits including safe sex. 

To be sure, some parents at any given point in US history have objected to the expansion of the school curriculum beyond basic literacy. The teaching of evolution in biology class, for example, is still opposed by some members of society who choose to believe alternative theories such as the creation of the earth by an intelligent Creator. Likewise, the teaching of the history of race relations in the US (a history which must include the Civil War and its aftermath, as well as the Civil Rights movement) is controversial in some quarters. 

Should the Creationists or the apologists for the Confederacy be given veto power over including topics such as evolution and the history of race relations in the school curriculum? Some people believe that yes, any controversial topics should be avoided in public schools, even if the people objecting are a small minority and even if the people objecting are actually demonstrating racist, sexist, ableist beliefs.

It is true that after children turn 18 and perhaps are either attending college or university or are no longer involved in schooling, they can learn things that their parents might not accept. But the formative years in school set the foundation for people's lifelong educational trajectories, and people who grow up having never been exposed to some of the perhaps controversial topics in science, history, or health education may therefore develop habits of mind or behavior that are potentially destructive of a democratic society's commitments to truth, social harmony, or public and individual health. 

The prospect of our children maybe expanding beyond their parents' limited experience through the attendance at colleges or universities is, perhaps, a comforting thought to those of us who value an informed and tolerant society. Colleges and universities (even public ones)  have always been somewhat less subject to state regulations with regard to curriculum and instruction than are public K-12 schools. In the past, only a very few students were able to afford or get admitted to college, and those were people headed for elite professions like medicine, law, theology, scientific research, or policy analysis. 

But since the 1960s, the United States has greatly expanded access to higher education, through such means as scholarships, loans, and the establishment of many additional institutions including trade schools and junior colleges, many with "open" admissions policies. If you graduate from high school, you can attend some public institutions without having to submit specific credentials like standardized test scores. I am currently teaching a couple of courses at Florida SouthWestern State College (FSW) here in Fort Myers. The courses I teach--which are introductory in the teacher preparation program--are open to almost anyone who has completed high schools (and even some who have not yet finished high school, through dual enrollment programs). I'm also currently teaching a somewhat similar course--also on a part-time basis--at a more elite public college, SUNY Geneseo, where the students have much more polished academic records and not everyone is welcome to attend. The students in my classes at FSW and the students in my class at Geneseo are about the same age (18-21), but the students at Geneseo seem to be much more knowledgeable about school subjects and generally have noticeably higher skills in reading, writing, and research. 

Public colleges are, like K-12 public schools, a significant resource for the advancement of society and for the maintenance and cultivation of a democratic citizenry. Almost all the students I'm currently teaching want to be teachers in public schools, and so the topics that we are discussing are essential to their understanding of themselves, their future roles, and their future students. The curriculum in these classes is historical, philosophical, sociological, and aimed at developing a critical approach to the topics and practices of public schools in the US. Among the topics are the influence of race and gender in the outcomes of public schools, how funding disparities in schooling sometimes seem to keep lower income kids from entering the more elite professions in society, and how public schools should gradually expose students to potentially controversial debates going on in the larger society. 

To be honest, as a professor for the past 35 years at a variety of public and private colleges and universities, I've gotten used to little intervention in the curriculum or instruction that I utilize in my classes. Typically, the subject-matter and methods are, to some extent, under the supervision of the faculty, and of course the students in my classes provide course evaluations that go into decisions that (largely faculty) make about the progress of my own career. Faculty governance and peer evaluation are essentially important for curriculum coherence and for establishing the mission and purpose of the institution and ensuring that individual faculty conform (to some extent, within the broad outlines of academic freedom) with these larger purposes. 

But the Parental Rights in Education Act isn't the only thing that the Florida legislature, Department of Education, and governor are trying to do to influence teaching and learning in the public schools of the state. DeSantis' Department of Education recently banned the public schools from implementing a proposed advanced placement course in African American Studies. Another piece of legislation signed by the governor last spring was the Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees (WOKE) Act. This act, according to the governor's own press release, "Codifies the Florida Department of Education’s prohibition on teaching critical race theory in K-12 schools; Provides employees, parents and students a private right of action; Strengthens enforcement authority of the Florida Department of Education; [and] Prohibits school districts, colleges and universities from hiring woke CRT consultants." In December of 2022, the Department issued a rule that all state colleges and universities must produce a report that lists "their spending related to critical race theory and diversity, equity, and inclusion." (I've been rold that one of the courses I teach at FSW, "Introduction to Diversity for Educators," was included in FSW's report to the state, and that, due to ongoing pressure, FSW is very likely to drop the course from its course catalog and requirements for pre-service teaching candidates.) 

The Stop Woke Act specifically prohibits colleges, universities, and even employers in the state from doing anything that makes anyone uncomfortable due to their race. For example, anyone who feels uncomfortably singled out because of how white people have acted in the past to oppress or subjugate black people (through slavery or discrimination, for example) is given a private right of action to sue any institution that has sponsored such courses or workshops.

There's no doubt that, like the Parental Rights in Education Act, the Stop Woke Act is designed to dissuade teachers or professors from talking about certain topics in class. The very vagueness of the legislation is intentional, to put all teachers and professors in the state's public schools on notice that they could be sued by parents or adult students at any time, and to push state schools, districts, colleges, and universities to take proactive measures to prevent certain topics from being discussed. 

Florida's governor has indicated in recent weeks that he intends to actually ban "critical race theory and diversity, equity and inclusion programs, known as DEI" from public institutions, saying that such programs would get “no funding, and that [they] will wither on the vine”.

These general efforts to limit discussions in the public schools and colleges in Florida have recently been put into an even brighter light by DeSantis's efforts to remake New College, the so-called "residential liberal arts college" in Florida. In the past couple of months, the governor fired the college president and replaced him with a political ally (Richard Corcoran) and also replaced six (later, also a seventh) members of the institutions Board of Trustees. One of the new members, Christopher Rufo, has explicitly stated that his goal is to "lay siege to our institutions," including public universities, that have become "a patronage system for left-wing activists." This goal was turned into specific action yesterday, when New College's newly constituted board eliminated New College's Office of Outreach and Inclusive Excellence (despite evidence presented that the office had many functions that go beyond diversity, equity, and inclusion), and prohibited

Any effort to promote as the official position of the administration, the college, or any administrative unit thereof, a particular, widely contested opinion referencing unconscious or implicit bias, cultural appropriation, allyship, transgender ideology, microaggressions, group marginalization, anti-racism, systemic oppression, social justice, intersectionality, neo-pronouns, heteronormativity, disparate impact, gender theory, racial or sexual privilege, or any related formulation of these concepts.


I had to reread this numerous times to try to understand what, exactly, is being banned: "Any effort to promote" a "particular, widely contested opinion."  Yes, folks, the New College Board of Trustees is banning a particular opinion (rather broadly defined here) from influencing any administrative policy. Specifically banned are any efforts to promote the diversity of the faculty or administration. 

Can you imagine how candidates for the faculty or administration at New College are trying to scrub their resumes of any mention of the topics listed in the Board's decision? In my experience, most of the people around the country who have been working in higher education in the past few decades has done many things to portray themselves as friendly to, and promoting of, diversity, equity, and inclusion in their teaching, consulting, publishing, and administrative work.The new policy at New College will likely have ripple effects beyond New College, and indeed beyond Florida, in terms of the work of those in higher education.