The latest episode of my Slate podcast, Schooled, tackles what the research really tells us about class sizes, and how teachers experience class size every day:
Polls show that smaller class sizes are incredibly popular with parents and teachers. But when the Great Recession forced school budget cuts, class size once again became a matter of debate, with Education Secretary Arne Duncan, megaphilanthropist Bill Gates, and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg all suggesting that larger class sizes could be a good idea.
What do we really know about how class size affects student learning? Is there an ideal class size? In this episode, I talk to Larry Ferlazzo, a public school teacher and blogger, and Matthew Chingos, a class-size researcher at the Brookings Institution.
Michelle Cottle has written a Politico Magazine piece about Michelle Obama, called "Leaning Out: How Michelle Obama became a feminist nightmare."
Cottle writes that Michelle has "always" prioritized the domestic sphere over the public, political one, thus enraging feminists. But that's not true. First, there are the basic facts of Michelle's biography, many left out of this piece. When Michelle and Barack met, she was his boss in the law firm where he was a summer associate. She worked full-time until her husband began his presidential run. She earned a lot of money.
On the campaign trail in 2007 and 2008, she spoke movingly about how fear had led the United States into an ill-advised war in Iraq. Shortly after the inauguration, the first couple visited a Washington, D.C. public school. When Michelle asked the children what they wanted to be when they grew up--and one little girl cried out, "First lady!"--Michelle responded, "It doesn't pay much."
If that's not embracing the "Lean In" ethos, I don't know what is. A FLOTUS with a wry take on her transition from a $316,000 per year job to that of an unpaid figurehead? That's not the Michelle Obama we see in Cottle's portrait. Nor do we see the woman who went on a speaking tour to federal agencies to support the stimulus, and who pushed hard behind the scenes for health reform.
And to be fair, that's not the Michelle Obama that her husband's political advisors are most eager to show off. There has been a concerted push to portray Michelle as the "mom in chief." At times, it has rankled.
But what's most problematic about the Politico piece is that although Cottle acknowledges race, she doesn't at all address what leading black writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Melissa Harris-Perry have been talking about for years: that Michelle Obama's focus on portraying herself as an exemplary mother is, in and of itself, somewhat radical, in a country in which the black family is openly pathologized as dysfunctional.
There's another, point, too. The supposedly "soft" issues Michelle has embraced, like healthy eating, exercise, and college-going, are ones that disproportionately affect the black community. Her partnership with Wal-Mart to address inner city food deserts didn't really take off, but at least Michelle helped put this problem on the national agenda.
The first lady role is infuriatingly fluffy, but that isn't Michelle Obama's fault.
For more on these issues, check out this dialogue on black feminism between Melissa Harris-Perry and philosopher bell hooks.
Check out the latest episdoe of my Slate podcast. This week:
With more charter schools, magnet schools, and school choice than ever before, many parents face an intimidating set of options when enrolling their kids in kindergarten and beyond, especially in urban areas. What does the "good school" look like, in terms of teaching, curriculum, and student engagement? Why do one-third of all children struggle to learn to read? What should you do if your kid’s teacher is terrible? And are middle-class or affluent kids hurt academically when they attend schools with peers who come from less educationally privileged backgrounds? In this episode, I talk to Peg Tyre, author of The Good School, and Heather Harding, an education researcher at George Washington University. Both guests have enrolled their own children in urban public schools, in New York and Washington, D.C.
Check it out at Slate. I discuss the challenges and opportunities of teaching in high-poverty urban high schools with two teachers. John Owens lasted less than a year after leaving publishing to teach in the South Bronx. Alex Caputo-Pearl, a member of Teach for America's inaugural class, has been working for two decades in Los Angeles public schools, and was dismissed from Crenshaw High School after he led a controversial curriculum reform effort there.
I'm excited about my new piece in Smithsonian, about the history of corporate and philanthropic influence over American public schools. It summarizes some of the research I've done for my upcoming book:
During the twentieth century, private interests drove a number of cyclical, sometimes conflicting education reform movements. From Chicago, Jane Addams built broad, elite support for an agenda of ending child labor and increasing the years of mandatory schooling. Across the country, politicians and school administrators were inspired by the ideas of the management guru Frederick Winslow Taylor, and implemented complex new evaluation systems to rank and supposedly improve the work of teachers. One of the longest-lasting and historically fraught education reform movements was ability tracking tied to IQ tests, a so-called “social efficiency” agenda that consigned many non-white and working class students, as well as some middle-class girls, to courses in sewing, cooking, personal finance and “current events.” Testing companies marketed “intelligence” assessments later revealed to measure not the innate capacity to learn, but simply the quality of a student’s previous education. A 1932 survey of 150 school districts found three-quarters used IQ exams to assign students to different academic tracks.
During the 1950s and 1960s, the Civil Rights movement recast education in terms of equality: equal access to good schools, effective teachers and a curriculum with the ability to engage all children and hold them to high standards. Yet when the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education proved incredibly divisive, even in the black community, the national school reform agenda fractured.
I've written a new explainer for Slate on the indictments of 35 Atlanta educators for inflating students' test scores: What does it tell us about national education reform? For previous coverage of my thoughts on Atlanta and standardized test-based accountability, see this 2011 piece.
And here is my Martin Bashir segment on the same topic, from yesterday:
I've worked in offices for small magazines, large media companies, and think tanks. So I know there's a lot about office culture that sucks: useless meetings, crackberries that ruin your precious out-of-the-office hours, and sometimes an assumption that whoever stays latest or arrives earliest is working hardest. In New York, there's competitive dressing. In DC, there are old-school dress codes, as if everyone were about to meet with a senator, any minute now! A lot of this is absurd. I'm a huge believer in flex time for office workers. There's nothing about the hours 9-7 that make them especially productive; a lot of us get more done in the evenings, or while fighting insomnia, or at sunrise. And the occasional guilt-free day of working from home is priceless: the quiet, the pajamas, the home-cooked lunch. For new parents, people with chronic health conditions, or people who serve as caretakers for sick or elderly relatives, having the ability to work from home at least some of the time can mean the difference between being able to hold down a job and being forced to quit.
So I sympathize with those who are outraged over Marissa Mayer's decision to put the kibosh on work-from-home arrangements at Yahoo. It's insulting to employees to suggest that the only legitimate reason to stay home is "for the cable guy," and Mayer does sound like kind of a nightmare boss, counting the cars in the corporate parking lot at 5 pm. Because women tend to disproportionately handle child care and other domestic responsibilities, it is very likely that female employees will be especially affected by Yahoo's policy change.
All that said, I'm not sure working from home is feminist nirvana.
I'm a freelance writer -- a really lucky one, with a book project, an interesting editorial consulting gig, and frequent magazine assignments. I love what I do. But working from home is by far the hardest and least enjoyable part of my professional life. For one thing, it's lonely, isolating, and, at least in my case, challenging for my physical and emotional health. I often get so caught up in my indoor responsibilities that I forget to get fresh air, put on real clothing, take a walk, or talk to other human beings. At The Awl, Ken Layne pretty much nails what this can feel like.
And here's the thing. For a woman, being stuck inside "the home" all day--a space traditionally coded as female, one that many women hold themselves to high standards to care for--can be especially stultifying. Here are some of the things I can do, in my home, when I'm supposed to be writing my book: Laundry. Emptying the dishwasher. Booking a hotel reservation for a friend's wedding. Cleaning the toilet. Shopping for and preparing a healthy, low-carb, high-protein dinner for my boyfriend and me. (This morning, I've already done several of these chores, and it's only 11 am.)
No one is forcing me to take sole responsibility for these tasks. If I don't do them when I'm "working from home," they will still get done. My boyfriend and I will split them up, or do them together. But here's the thing: It's really hard for me to be at home and ignore my domestic to-do list. I have a voice in my head telling me that until my apartment is neat, clean, and stocked with fresh food, it's perfectly okay to procrastinate on my real jobs, the ones for which I get paid: reporting, writing, and editing. After nearly three years of freelancing, I've learned that I shouldn't work from home more than one or two days per week. I now commute from Brooklyn into "the city" almost every morning, to work at the New York Public Library on 5th Avenue and 42nd Street. Yes: I voluntarily spend my days in midtown Manhattan, eat lunch at the ubiquitous Hale & Hearty Soups, and dodge tourists in the subway.
Granted, I don't have children yet. And if I'm still freelancing when I do, I know my flexible schedule will make parenthood much easier. Yet I have many freelancer female colleagues, a few years older than me, who admit that a big professional challenge is learning to turn off their mom selves and simply get to work (luckily, work they love). They are some of the people who helped me realize that even if you "work from home," you have to work outside your home often, and if that means scrimping for a babysitter, a coworking space, or a $104 monthy Metrocard, it's totally worth it, if you're privileged enough to be able to afford it.
So here's my tentative conclusion. Flex-time is a feminist issue. Working from home full time? Maybe not so much. And here are some very definite feminist issues: Access to high-quality, affordable childcare. Paid sick leave, maternity leave, and paternity leave. Male partners who pull their weight at home.
In a Nation podcast, Bryce Covert interviewed me about Obama's new early childhood proposals. Listen here.
And on Jane Williams' BloombergEDU show, I participated in a panel discussion of education writers. We each got to discuss two education issues to watch in 2013. I named preK (before Obama's annoucement!) and school diversity/integration. Listen here.