Thursday, June 30, 2011

Unrealistic Expectations: the Uncertain Promise of College

Dana Goldstein has an excellent article on vocational education appearing in next week’s issue of The Nation. (You can read it online currently, and I recommend it). Before delving into some interesting modern incarnations of vocational ed, Ms. Goldstein discusses a recent study by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, which found that only about 30% of new jobs in America, over the next seven years, would require a four-year college degree. The study serves as a jumping off point for a critical reexamining of the contemporary reformist rhetoric that every student in America can and should attend a four-year liberal arts college. Not surprisingly, challenging that rhetoric generated some vitriol in the online comments on The Nation’s website, but Ms. Goldstein is right to take on these questions; thorny though they may be, they are pressing ones.

"Long Odds"
Original artwork created for Dewey to Delpit.
Line Drawing: Paris Mancini. Color & Texture: Tavet Rubel
I’ve been concerned about the implications of “college for all” since my first experience working at an inner-city No-Excuses charter school. The school had a motto, which the students were made to memorize and chant often: “Work hard, go to college, change the world.” The first two items in that list formed the driving axiom of the school. What do you need to do? Work hard. Why? So you can go to college. College was presented as the ultimate motivation and reason behind everything we did at the school.

The effort to inculcate in students the bourgeois value of college-attendance was everywhere visible. Each classroom was named after and decorated with the colors and emblems of a different college, and the students in a given homeroom were addressed collectively by the name of the corresponding college. “Wisconsin, I need your eyes on me,” a teacher might say to a class of eighth graders. Teachers went out of their way to refer to their own college experience whenever possible in classroom discussions, and hallway bulletin-boards were often decorated with photographs of faculty alma-maters and accompanying testimonials. Whenever possible, school trips included a visit to a college campus. Students were never referred to as students; they were called “scholars.”

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Time-Traveling Fashion Reviewer
Observations of an Unusual Sixth-Grade Writing Class

Listening to Each Other
Original artwork created for Dewey to Delpit, by Paris Mancini
This is the first in a series of posts that I intend to write on an innovative literacy program that I've been observing for the past six months at a public school in Chinatown. (Read previous observation-based posts on Dewey to Delpit)

At 2:15pm on a Wednesday afternoon, the students in Amy Piller’s sixth grade humanities class gather on the rug at the front of the room. Some take seats on low, wooden benches, most kneel or sit cross-legged on the floor. A girl with wavy brown hair takes her station at the document camera—the digital version of an overhead projector—and begins to read from the hand-written manuscript projected on the pull-down screen in front of the board. “A Review of European Fashion in the 1600s, 1700s, and 1800s,” she announces. The writing is her own and the subject just what the title promises, but the approach is novel: the writer has placed herself in an imaginary 17th century English clothing boutique, in which the opulently-dressed proprietor comments on our narrator’s “poor looking, filthy” 20th century clothes, before stuffing her into an elaborate outfit so heavy she can barely walk. (“The women must have to have muscle to carry this elephant on them every day”). She departs the boutique happy with her new finery but worried about her wallet. It cost “a lot of euros,” she concludes. “I figured I didn’t have enough for dinner.”

Quirky and playful as the story may be, like all writing done in Ms. Piller’s class it’s based on detailed research. According to the writer, she used five sources on 17th century English apparel, and the background work is visible in her elaborate descriptions of dresses, wigs, veils, jewelry, and embroidery.

When she has finished reading, the class thanks her in unison for sharing, and it is then that, from a pedagogical standpoint, the really interesting part begins. A cup of popsicle sticks, each bearing the name of a student in the class, is handed to the writer, who moves from her position at the document camera to a seat amongst her peers. She picks a popsicle stick at random and calls out the name written on it. A blond girl in a white t-shirt has been selected, and she pipes up without hesitation: “I really like your piece,” she begins—but she thinks the writer needs to check the thesaurus for some synonyms for embroidery, because that word is overused. She also wants more description of setting—she doesn’t feel like she’s getting a sense of the context.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Integrated Education and No-Excuses Charter Schools

Desegregation, the great education reform cause of the mid-20th century, never really happened, and not many people even talk about it nowadays, so I was pleasantly surprised last week when Dana Goldstein, a blogger for the Washington Post cited my page on No-Excuses education in an article about race and class integration in charter schools. The writer’s concern was the increasing popularity of the No-Excuses model, whose lengthened school days and rigid behavioral codes she worried would prove distasteful to middle-class and affluent parents, leaving only poor, inner-city kids to populate these rapidly proliferating schools. That is the tip of a very craggy iceberg: dissimilarities in how we educate children from different backgrounds have widened over the past two decades, and unlike in previous eras, the dissimilarities are stated and intentional.[1]

Original artwork by Tavet Rubel, created for Dewey to Delpit.
Matt Yglesias, writing for, responded to Ms. Goldstein's article with a version of the standard argument behind many of these dissimilarities: “…kids seem to benefit from picking up certain bourgeois modes of behavior.… Poor kids in a high-poverty school can… receive explicit instruction in bourgeois conduct. That’s the essence of the ‘No Excuses’ model, but it doesn’t make sense in a bourgeois context” (emphasis original.) That explanation resembles the one given by many No-Excuses schools for their strict behavioral codes: Middle-class students, the argument goes, learn school behaviors at home, and arrive in kindergarten already knowing how to sit still, listen to instructions, wait their turn, etc. Students from impoverished homes need to be explicitly taught these behaviors once they get to school.

The Times Printed my Letter

A little over a year ago, I started this blog in order to post a response to a New York Times article. (I'm not even linking to that post, because it's not very good; if you want to read some classic Dewey to Delpit, try this or this.) That same day, I wrote a letter to the editor of the Times, on the same topic as my post, but they never published itin retrospect, it probably wasn't worth publishing. A couple days ago, I wrote another letter and they did publish it. I'm one for two. You can read it, if you like. It's the third one down.