Me in the Golan Heights, 2005.
It's been awhile since I wrote about Israel-Palestine issues, so I'm glad TIME asked me to do a piece on how younger American Jews are thinking and talking about the conflict as the United Nations considers Palestine's statehood bid.
This is a personal and difficult topic for me, as I explain in the article. The thrust is that American Jews in their teens, 20s, and 30s are far likelier than their parents to have met Palestinians, been exposed to the Palestinian narrative of the conflict, and even to have visited the Palestinian territories or Arab nations.
One UC Berkeley student I interviewed, Eliana Lauter, grew up in an actively Zionist family and attended Jewish day schools. She has lived in Israel on several occasions, and told me, "I love Israel so much. I miss Israel when I’m not there and I get really upset about it. I can cry myself to sleep at night knowing I’m not there."
But Lauter, who is president of Berkeley's Jewish Student Union, has a nuanced view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As a high school student, she was assigned a "dual narrative" history, in which the Israeli and Palestinian narratives were presented on the same page, side by side. (Ex; Many Arabs refer to the founding of Israel and the resulting Palestinian refugee crisis as the "Nakba," or "catastrophe.")
Last summer, Lauter worked in Israel as the assistant to a Jewish professor researching Arab Israeli civil rights issues. "That sparked my interest," she said. "I didn’t necessarily agree with everything I read, but it was a start of envisioning an Israel that also fits non-Jews and non-Israelis."
What I didn't have space to explain in the piece is that even organizations that have traditionally promoted an uncritical view of Israel are now accepting that the terms of the debate have changed. Hillel, for example, the most prominent Jewish organization on college campuses, last week launched "Talk Israel Tents" on 21 campuses, in which students were encouraged to openly debate Palestinian statehood and other issues.
Tor Tsuk, Israel fellow at the Columbia Barnard Hillel, wrote to me that the tent was "a tremendous program that gathered for the first time students from Hillel and the Students for Justice in Palestine group in a discussion."
It's also important to note that among the more progressive Israel advocacy groups, there is significant divergence on tactics. Jewish Voice for Peace, for example, which last year organized a protest in which young people heckled Benjamin Netanyahu, supports divestment campaigns targeted at corporations that profit from the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. J Street and its campus organization, J Street U, on the other hand, oppose divestment, which they say deligitimizes Israel's existence. Instead, J Street U has promoted a campaign called "Invest, Don't Divest," which supports microfinance efforts in the Palestinian terroritories and Arab-Israeli economic cooperation.
On the statehood resolution, J Street, after internal debate, decided to support President Obama's decision to veto. Jewish Voice for Peace opposes the veto. Yet everyone I interviewed said the resolution is an incredibly complex topic; no one was willing to say a "yes" vote for statehood was the absolute right thing at this point in time, given the delicacy of potential negotiations and the opposition of even some Palestinian activists to pursuing statehood in this manner.
I hope you'll go over to TIME and read the piece.
MOF finalist Jacquy Pfeiffer, cofounder of Chicago's French Pastry School, with sugar sculpture. Photo via "Kings of Pastry"
It's been awhile since I've had the chance to indulge my Francophilism on the blog, but last night I watched a fantastic documentary, "Kings of Pastry," that left me reflecting on the cultural differences between how Americans and the French think about intelligence, knowledge, and education.
The film, which you can stream on Netflix, tells the story of the MOF--Meilleurs Ouvriers de France, or "best French craftsmen"--competition in pastry. Every four years, chefs, bakers, cheesemongers, florists, jewelers, weavers, woodworkers, and dozens of other French artisans compete to win this designation. It is considered one of France's highest civilian honors.
The 16 pastry chef finalists--all of them male, a fact the film ignores--bring an absolute, overwhelming intensity to the MOF competition. Their wives and girlfriends speak of normal family life being on hold for years while their partners pursue the MOF doggedly, testing elaborate recipes and decoration techniques, usually at night after working a full day in a restaurant or shop. Some competitors devote decades to the process, competing every four years until they finally acquire a coveted MOF medal.
The film shows President Nicolas Sarkozy speaking at a MOF award ceremony for chefs. I was really struck by how coherent his support is for what might be termed "vocationalism," and how out of step this would sound in an American context. Sarkozy said:
"Worker, artisan, apprentice. I affirm: There are not two forms of intelligence, two kinds of knowledge. Manual skill doesn't fall from the sky any more than intellectual skills. I don't want any more of that concept in our country. Because this idea is morally scandalous, and is insufficient economically."
The French education system is structured around such ideas. In the last three years of high school, or lycee, French teenagers choose to focus on the hard sciences, social sciences, or literature, or from among eight career-oriented "technical" courses of study, including the food sciences, health sciences, and hospitality.
Americans are--and probably should be--skeptical of efforts to "track" 15-year olds into specific careers, especially given the vast inequities in children's educational and social opportunities before they ever enter high school. But some of the most thoughtful education reformers I've talked to in my reporting are Americans who are trying to seed workforce-relevancy into our own school system, by introducing young adults to possible professions in an intellectually rigorous way. This is important work, because we know one of the primary causes of dropping-out is that low-income students don't see how their education will help them land a job or build a satisfying, remunerative career in the future.
I profiled two high schools that embody workforce-relevancy and academic rigor in my July Nation feature, but I'd say this remains a real minority movement in American education circles. So many of us--and I'd include myself--feel a real attachment to a romantic idea of the liberal arts, and of "college" in general.
"Kings of Pastry," however, romanticizes vocationalism in a way that is both enchanting and very foreign seeming. It's a delightful film -- but also also very relevant to the education debate.
This morning President Obama will announce that due to the intransigence of Congress, the administration is moving forward unilaterally to reform No Child Left Behind. In what is being referred to as the “waiver process,” the Department of Education will offer states the opportunity to ignore some of the law’s most absurd dictates—for example, that every single student be “proficient” in math and reading by 2014, regardless of whether a child is disabled or fluent in English—in exchange for embracing a narrower reform agenda.
The administration’s preferred reform strategies are no surprise, since they were also part of the earlier Race to the Top and School Improvement Grant programs. They include asking states to embrace the newCommon Core curriculum standards in high school math and English; using student performance data—often standardized test scores—to evaluate teachers and principals; and overhauling underperforming schools by replacing the principal or significant portions of the teaching force. States will also have the option of closing schools down entirely and “restarting” them under different management, sometimes a charter school operator.
But under the new waiver process, states will be expected to overhaul only the bottom-performing 5 percent of schools using these “whole school” reform strategies, while intervening in a less catastrophic way in an additional 10 percent of schools, those that show low performance for specific subgroups of students, such as African-Americans or Hispanics.
This is a significant change from the original NCLB, which asked states to intervene in every school labeled “failing.” According to the DOE, an estimated 80 percent of American schools are on track to “fail” by 2014. No Child Left Behind’s 100 percent intervention requirement was always unrealistic, and could never have been enforced. Nevertheless, it is stigmatizing to states, teachers, schools, neighborhoods and students for schools to be labeled “failing,” so there is ample incentive for states to apply for the waivers.
House Republicans have been pushing their own education reform agenda, which would entail allowing local school districts to spend as they please funds currently intended only for disadvantaged and disabled students. The Obama administration has strongly resisted such proposals as an affront to civil rights, but its waiver process will allow some funding flexibility by allowing states to redirect about $1 billion currently allocated by NCLB for tutoring and school choice programs.
Only about 1 percent of eligible students were ever able to take advantage of the law’s “choice” provisions. Students in failing schools were theoretically allowed to transfer to a non-failing school within their own district, but in many troubled urban districts, the vast majority of schools are underperforming, and thus not attractive to transfers, while the few high-quality schools are oversubscribed, so unable to accommodate extra students.
The law’s tutoring mandates were similarly underutilized.
A more progressive rethinking of NCLB might have allowed students to transfer out of their home school districts to integrated, higher-performing suburban schools: we know from the experiences of Milwaukee, Seattle and Hartford that when such programs are available, they are extremely popular among low-income families and lead to improved academic outcomes.
On curriculum, it would have been worthwhile to encourage states to scale-up programs that introduce teenagers—in an academically rigorous way—to potential occupations, since we know one of the best ways to fight dropouts is to demonstrate to kids that education is relevant to their futures.
But the Obama administration remains committed to a narrower slate of reforms focused on curriculum standardization and value-added evaluation of teachers. As Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute demonstrates in his recent blockbuster essay, these policies will continue to be controversial on both the left and right, as teachers’ unions and many parents resist test-driven instruction. Meanwhile, much of the Republican base has tired of bipartisan education reform, with the GOP primary field embracing a reactionary “parental rights” ideology that resists almost any federal effort to improve schools.
On school reform, the center is narrowing, but as usual, the Obama administration is rushing to stay within it.
cross-posted at The Nation
Over at The Nation, I assess the Obama administration's new "waiver process:"
A more progressive rethinking of NCLB might have allowed students to transfer out of their home school districts to integrated, higher-performing suburban schools: We know from the experiences of Milwaukee, Seattle, and Hartford that when such programs are available, they are extremely popular among low-income families and lead to improved academic outcomes.
On curriculum, it would have been worthwhile to encourage states to scale-up programs that introduce teenagers--in an academecially rigorous way--to potential occupations, since we know one of the best ways to fight drop-outs is to demonstrate to kids that education is relevant to their futures.
But the Obama administration remains committed to a narrower slate of reforms focused on curriculum standardization and value-added evaluation of teachers.
I'll be discussing this with David Sirota on Colorado radio this afternoon around 4:05 EST.
American Enterprise Institute education expert Rick Hess has written a characteristically thought-provoking essay arguing that education reformers focus too single-mindedly on the "achievement gap" -- the difference between the test scores of low-income students of color and their white, middle-class peers. There's a lot to chew on in the piece, but here's my summary of Hess' main critiques:
1. In many schools, too little attention is paid to the needs of gifted and talented students
2. In an effort to "raise expectations," too many unprepared students are enrolled in Advanced Placement and other "college level" courses, whose curricula are then watered-down
3. Attempts to impose accountability on teachers by deploying student test scores ignore the fact that in middle-class and affluent schools, where the majority of students will easily achieve proficiency in reading and math, test score "growth" may not be the best marker of teaching success
4. In order to raise the reading and math scores of the lowest performers, less instruction time is devoted to the study of music, art, science, civics and other subjects that aren't considered "basic skills;" polls show that the majority of parents oppose such curriculum-narrowing
5. Other worthy civic and social goals, such as racial and socioeconomic integration, are no longer on the reform radar: "Philanthropic foundations that support education causes are interested in serving as many poor and minority children as possible; when 30% to 40% of a student body is made up of white or affluent students, the school is deemed suspect, as reform-minded foundations see such programs as "wasting" a third of their seats."
Hess astutely points out that this agenda takes the broad aims of the Great Society--reducing poverty and inequality and improving social welfare--and grafts them onto a single public institution that may not be well-prepared to fulfill such ambitious goals: the high-needs school.
What's more, the "eradicate the gap" agenda imposes a school reform mandate on all schools that has been crafted with only the poorest children in mind. As a result, middle-class and affluent parents feel disconnected from the school reform debate.
It's also true that point 1 (you shouldn't ignore the gifted) and point 5 (integration matters) are intimately linked. As I learned when I reported from my hometown of Ossining, New York several years ago, districts that cancel gifted and talented programs in an effort to raise expectations for all students are playing with fire: Engaged, affluent, well-educated parents may choose to withdraw their children from schools that don't offer enrichment programs, and that decision can negatively impact the entire student population. The trick, of course, is to offer enough G&T opportunities to challenge the academically talented while not simultaneously segregating gifted kids in totally separate classrooms, which threatens to undo many of the social and academic benefits of integration.
For this reason, I'm a big fan of an extended school day with rich afternoon enrichment opportunities for both the "gifted" and those who are struggling academically.
The last point I'll make is that Hess' thinking truly represents the convergence point between the right and left critiques of standards-and-accountability reform. Left critics of No Child Left Behind also complain about curriculum narrowing, over-reliance on test scores, and asking schools to do too much in lieu of a broader anti-poverty agenda. Progressives, though, would be less comfortable than Hess is arguing that school reform should focus more on middle class, affluent, or gifted students; instead, we tend to focus on how "choice and accountability" stratgies, despite their excellent intentions, continue to leave behind some of the neediest students, by requiring parents to jump through an ever more complicated set of logistical hoops to enroll their kids in decent public schools, for example.
I really recommend the Hess essay. Lots to think about and argue with.
Should schoolchildren be required to receive the three-course vaccination against HPV, the sexually transmitted infection that causes 12,000 cases of cervical cancer each year? Michele Bachmann has made the issue a major line of attack against Texas Governor Rick Perry, who signed a 2007 executive order requiring female public school students to receive the vaccine before they enter the sixth grade. (Texas parents have the right to opt their child out of the vaccine.) “I’m a mom of three children. And to have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat-out wrong,” Bachmann said at Monday night’s GOP debate. “That should never be done…. Little girls who have a negative reaction to this potentially dangerous drug don’t get a mulligan. They don’t get a do- over.”
This type of misinformation is dangerous. Cervical cancer is known as a “silent killer” because in its early stages, it is typically symptomless. That’s why women are advised to undergo regular gynecological exams and pap smears to screen for HPV: If they do not get regular check-ups, the cancer may be discovered at too late of a stage to treat it effectively. For this reason, the disease is closely associated with poverty and lack of health insurance. What’s more, treatment of HPV and cervical cancer, which can include scraping of the vaginal walls and hysterectomy, can be very painful.
So Rick Perry was absolutely right on Monday when he said, “What was driving me was, obviously, making a difference about young people’s lives. Cervical cancer is a horrible way to die.”
It’s important to point out, however, that as uninformed as Bachmann’s critique of Perry has been, there is no broad consensus on whether HPV vaccination should be mandatory. In 2007, for example, the New York chapter of the American College of Obstreticians and Gynocologists (ACOG) came out in support of a state vaccination requirement for school enrollment. But in August 2008, after the Bush administration required the vaccine for young immigrant women seeking green cards, a coalition of health care, feminist, and immigrants’ rights organizations—including the national ACOG, the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, and the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum—opposed the move. “Prospective immigrant women should have the same opportunity as American women to make an informed decision about whether or not to be vaccinated against HPV,” ACOG stated. In November 2009, the CDC and Department of Health and Human Services, then under the control of the Obama administration,reversed the policy.
Last year, the national ACOG recommended the HPV vaccination for all girls and young women between the ages of 9 and 26. About twenty states now require vaccination for school enrollment, although in legislatures, the topic continues to be a contentious one. On both the left and the right, there is concern over the profit-motives of Merck, the company that manufactures Gardasil, the most common HPV vaccine. Vaccination conspiracy theories are unfortunately quite popular across the political spectrum, in part because of celebrities who have embraced the debunked claims that childhood vaccinations cause autism. And social conservatives argue that innoculating young girls against a sexually transmitted infection somehow condones sexual activity and promiscuity, and that school enrollment requirements, even with an opt-out, violate “parental rights.”
A reality check: more than 95 percent of Americans have premarital sex, and more than 50 percent of sexually active Americans contract HPV at some point in thier lives. The disease can cause genital warts in men, and a small percentage of affected women will develop cervical cancer.
The HPV vaccine is also FDA-approved for boys and men, and I happen to believe that the best way to fight cervical cancer would be to encourage both girls and boys to undergo vaccination; after all, innoculation is most effective when it occurs throughout the population. That said, schools and medical professionals need to do a better job of providing parents with accessible, accurate information about vaccination. In the absense of such public outreach efforts, we let Michele Bachmann frame the debate, and conspiracy theories fester.
cross-posted at The Nation
He's right, but mandatory HPV vaccination has always been controversial on both the left and right--among feminists, immigrants' rights advocates, health care professionals, and conspiracy theorists.
Over at The Nation, I try to untangle the debate.
The jobs plan President Obama unveiled to Congress last week calls for $30 billion to save public school teachers from layoffs. "While they’re adding teachers in places like South Korea, we’re laying them off in droves," Obama said in his speech to Congress. "It’s unfair to our kids. It undermines their future and ours. And it has to stop. Pass this bill, and put our teachers back in the classroom where they belong."
This may seem like an uncontroversial, conventional Democratic spending priority. Indeed, the 2009 stimulus and the Education Jobs Fund* also helped school districts avoid teacher layoffs.
But it's important to realize that on education, Obama has rarely sounded like a conventional Democrat. During his years in the Senate, his presidential campaign, and after he entered the White House, Obama framed his school reform agenda around the issue of teacher quality, not teacher job security. He has resisted seeing schools primarily as places of employment, and has focused instead on measuring student achievement and using the data to evaluate teachers. He is a longtime fan of test-score based merit pay and a critic of tenure protections, which is why, as a presidential primary candidate, Obama did not win the endorsements of either of the major teachers' unions.
This is the agenda Obama sucessfully pushed via his Race to the Top grant competition. Consistent with these views, in his January State of the Union address, President Obama implied that American teaching is in crisis, and that a significant number of bad teachers ought to be removed from the classroom. “We want to reward good teachers and stop making excuses for bad ones,” he said.
So last week's rhetorical emphasis on saving teachers' jobs --unaccompanied by talk of "teacher quality"-- is actually something notable from Obama. It represents a messaging win for teachers' unions and for the more traditionally liberal wing of the Democratic coalition. Now the rhetoric is being echoed by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on a Midwest speaking tour.
Where does this leave the teacher quality debate?
Over the past year, education reformers like Michelle Rhee, Mike Bloomberg, and Providence Mayor Angel Taveras have sought (though not always successfully) to use the threat of recession-era budget cuts as a lever to end teacher seniority protections, also known as "LIFO." These folks usually say they regret having to shrink the teacher corps, but as long as it must be done, it should be done smartly, saving the jobs of the most effective educators. As Rhee wrote in a recent email to Gary Rubinstein, a teacher and critic of standards-and-accountability reforms:
...to be clear, lay-offs are not a strategy we're advocating for at all. Though enrollment actually has been decreasing, lay-offs aren't happening for that reason, or to get teachers working to their full potential. They are happening because of the economy and declining revenues. I hate that lay-offs have to happen at all, but I also agree with legislators who remind us that we can't do what we can't pay for--we have to have money in the budget to pay for personnel.
Obama has allied himself with this view.
What's less acknowledged is that there is a quieter conversation among reformers about reducing the size of the teaching force regardless of whether or not such a move is necesitated by budget crises. The folks who will talk about this most explicitly are those who are not (or no longer) actively engaged in political negotiations around teacher quality--folks like Joel Klein, the former New York City schools chancellor-cum-Murdoch-consigliere. But Rhee nods toward this argument when she notes to Rubinstein that "enrollment has actually been decreasing." Indeed, research by education sociologist Richard Ingersoll has found that since the 1980s, the number of teachers has grown far faster than the number of students.
Eric Hanushek, a prominent Stanford University education researcher and fellow at the free-market Hoover Institution, has used these stats to advocate for laying off "ineffective teachers selectively while letting class sizes drift up a little." Arne Duncan has made similar arguments. But it is Joel Klein who has discussed this most explicitly. At the New Schools Venture Fund conference in San Francisco this June, he noted that school funding and personnel costs have risen over the past several decades while test scores remained essentially flat. "We made the wrong bet," he said:
We bet essentially on a personnel strategy that needs to be radically, in my view, reformed. ... A very different system would be empowered by technology…a huge infusion of private capital aimed at creating an entirely new delivery system. Teachers would be much fewer, but paid much more…it would be data-driven, it would be customized, it would engage kids, it would differentiate the approaches we take, and it would value human capital in a much different way
Wireless Generation, the company News Corp. acquired and put under Klein's corporate purview, hopes to put these ideas into practice. Their "School of One" concept envisions using virtual lectures and educational software to allow larger groups of students to be supervised by fewer teachers. Theoretically, it looks like this, with some students working alone at a computer, some working in small peer groups with a computer, and some hearing traditional lectures from a live teacher or getting individualized help:
rendering from School of One
The education policy decision-makers in the Obama administrative are clearly intrigued by and generally supportive of scaling up models like this one. But by choosing to focus right now on saving teaching jobs--instead of on the more controversial agenda of allowing class sizes to grow while investing in technology--this Democratic president is signaling exactly how "reformy" he is willing to be. Teachers unions will applaud, while some advocates will be disappointed.
*post updated. Thanks to Benjamin Riley for pointing out that the Edu Jobs Fund was not tied to teacher quality reforms.