Sharing information and reporting on all that reeks in American education, especially corporate reform in K12 education, the agenda to privatize the right to a free public education for every child, and general corruption in K12-higher education. Calling out and exposing rather than cowering.

AND eager for your help. Have a story of power, manipulation, self-interest or injustice which needs attention? Let me know and we'll let the world discover "what's that smell."

"If you're a profession of sheep, then you'll be run by wolves." -- David C. Berliner

"Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: Everything else is public relations." -- George Orwell

"Washing one's hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral." -- Paulo Freire

*A slideshow of Ed Reform-Critical Boxer's "Greatest Hits" memes runs at the bottom of this page.*



Thursday, August 27, 2015

Studying Robert Putnam's _Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis_: Part 8 -- Explaining the Specters of Poverty

Part 8; Chapter 3: “The American Dream: Myths and Realities” – Explaining the Specters of Poverty

"The fundamental social significance of the neurobiological discoveries that I’ve just summarized is that healthy brain development in American children turns out to be closely correlated with parental education, income, and social class"

So begins the second half of Robert Putnam’s “Parenting” chapter from Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. Having shared *in earlier pages* the Adverse Childhood Experience scale and introduced the John Henry Effect, wherein even those who seemed to escape poverty and other stresses still deal with “adverse physiological effects” due to the “wear and tear of chronic stress” (113), Putnam piles on more evidence that the trace of poverty is at least as difficult to escape as poverty itself.

Kids in poverty “are at greater risk for elevated levels of cortisol,” a stress hormone that “impinges” health; emotional regulation in the brain is influenced by stress; and, some research suggests that the reason poor kids seem to have more trouble concentrating on a single task is because they are struck in a sort of constant fight or flight reflex: “Their brains had been trained to maintain constant surveillance of the environment for new threats” (116).

Imagine being a poor student in the current age of corporacratic education reform, with new threats of high-stakes standardized tests, stressed-out teachers, and the constant peril of school closures! Those of us parenting and teaching in the era of education reform need to pay close attention to what Putnam and his colleagues’ research tells us about poverty, stress, and growing socioeconomic gaps.
Simply put, “kids from more affluent homes are exposed to less toxic stress than kids raised in poverty” (117), and while day-to-day interactions among kids from different economic strata are rarer than they used to be, do parents really want to accept a “I’ll take care of mine; you take care of yours” approach? If we are in an age of self-interest=best-interest parenting within the affluent classes, is such an approach truly in the best interests of even wealthy kids? If the answer is “yes” – and it very well may be – aren’t poor families and poor children simply out of luck?

Perhaps knowledge of the “class-based gap in parenting styles, which has been growing significantly during recent decades,” could offer some hope (117) – if less-affluent parents were able to take on traits of more affluent parents, a big if given the realities of current resource stratifications.
Citing ethnographer Annette Lareau, Putnam mentions two distinctive parenting styles: Concerted Cultivation and Natural Growth (118-121).

      ·         Child rearing investments in time,  activities, etc.
      ·         Autonomy                                                    
      ·         Independence
      ·         Self-direction
      ·         Choices
      ·         Roughly 6:1 Encouraging/Discouraging statements
      ·         Family dinners
      ·         Spending per child +75% since 1980s
      ·         Significant time w infants/toddlers
      ·         Kids get more “face time”
      ·         More common among affluent families

      ·         Development left more to kids’ own devices
      ·         Discipline
      ·         Obedience
      ·         Conformity to pre-established rules
      ·         Roughly 1:1 or even 1:2 Encouraging/Discouraging statements
      ·         Family members do not or cannot eat together
      ·        Spending per child -22% since 1980s
     ·         Half as much time w/ infant/toddlers
     ·         Kids get more “screen time”
     ·         More common among poorer families

Putnam dismisses notions that child-rearing between classes is cultural. Brain science, he says, indicates that poor parents are more harsh and punitive in their styles “because they themselves experienced higher levels of chronic stress” (121). Today’s poor kids are more likely than they have been in a long time to be poor parents despite their efforts. By the time they are parents, imagine the stress that comes from a system that seems designed to keep one where one is rather than offers mobility for effort. Even parents who try valiantly to embed or embody Concerted Cultivated aspects may have to live with the knowledge that the specter of poverty is too great a haunt to overcome. With such knowledge, though, where is hope? Without the knowledge? Imagine a young driver learning a clutch transmission system. The one fortunate enough to have access to the car grinds the gears. The car’s gears grind, but it goes nowhere. If the privileged party doesn’t do something to change his or her operating procedures, the car will grind its gears unwittingly until the stress of the frictions wear it down and it becomes broken, sometimes beyond repair, and not completely because of its own actions.
Is being poor in America like being a manual transmission? You move or grind to a halt
at the whim of the driver, but still take the blame if they wear you out?

Regarding family dinners, we know that conversing around food offers a means of communal rapport humans have known and valued for thousands of years. However, poor parents often cannot “make eating together a priority” (123) even if they wanted to. While admitting eating together is “no panacea for child development,” Putnam asserts that “it is one indicator of the subtle but powerful investments that parents make in their kids (or fail to make)” (123).

“Stressed parents are both harsher and less attentive parents,” says Putnam (130), but we must realize that very few parents actually seek to be harsh and inattentive. Whereas affluent parents have resources, poor, stressed parents live with scarcity. Via a book by that name, Mullainathan and Shafir influence Putnam’s understandings:

Under conditions of scarcity, they write, the brain’s ability to grasp, manage, and solve problems falters, like a computer slowed down by too many open apps, leaving us less efficient and less effective than we would be under conditions of abundance (130).

Those not as familiar with scarcity (or computers) might better understand the world poor parents inhabit via thinking about sleep. Or, the lack of it, actually. Any adult professional will tell you that even if they work long hours, there comes a time when their body and mind is just worn down by the grind of being too active for too long to try to meet a goal. Even affluent parents should admit to not making the best parenting decisions when they are sleep-deprived. In no unrealistic manner, less-affluent parents live their lives in a metaphorical state of sleep deprivation, able to perform better if only they could meet their own needs and rest easy.

But, as Putnam’s amalgamation of the research shows, since families are less able to get out of the cycles of poverty than in decades past, they never get that rest. They may have been on high alert as kids, remained on high alert as adults, and are on high alert while raising kids who are on high alert too.  
Not only do specters of poverty remain, but they compound and form boggish quagmires. Acting more like affluent parents without the resources is not be enough to resolve mobility issues. Indeed, the inverse is more likely: Solving mobility issues is likely to help less-affluent parents act more like those use the Concerted Cultivation style of parenting. 

Indeed, worth noting is that favoring the habits of college-educated (remember: this is the criteria Putnam uses to describe affluent families) parents and their "results" -- the behaviors and dispositions of their children -- may only be seen as healthy or the preferred model because the power of opinion is in the hands of the wealthy. Given that so few affluent American kids interact with poor kids now compared to the 1950s, when social mobility was high within and among classes, perhaps affluent parents are producing hyper-coddled, egotists with no internal coping mechanisms once they see they're not as perfect as they might have thought. Many of us know of one or two kids from well-educated families who are over-confident assholes in no small part due to their parents' particular blend of Concerted Cultivation or meshing of the worst iterations of the  two styles.

I think of some (certainly not all) of my students at Washington State University, who seemed to have left the country club of high school social life for the resort and spa of WSU. While they were eager to call foul regarding many social ills and inequity, rarely were they able to articulate their own economic privilege, except through conspicuous consumerism. Even among those who were first-generation college students or who identified as from working-class families, many admitted to me that the campus seemed to support a social pressure toward entitled that seemed to emanate from those who were economically privileged and did not have the worry of paying their own tuition bills. I remember how uncomfortable I felt on the beautiful grounds of the University of Virginia, earning my doctorate as a North Carolinian with roots in poverty but now walking among the popped collars and BMW's of nineteen-year-olds eager to get to some horse race or show off their latest dress shirt and bow tie. I think of a professoriate at large also willing to point out many inequities and inequalities but less willing to acknowledge that most of its members are from the upper-middle class, so economic value system may perpetuate in colleges. I think of helicopter parents' children who are so afraid of letting go of their support systems and bolstering resources that they have trouble with independence. I consider the push from some college kids for the coddling of required trigger warning policies and how some resist the notion of college as a place where their ideas and preconceived notions should be challenged.  

But I digress...

Regardless of my extrapolations, important questions remain: If rich kids only see and interact with other rich kids, how can their mindsets be challenged? Does class segregation yield parenting with self-perpetuating pampering which reifies paupering? Surely some American kids are living the dream; others seem stuck in a dream state in which neither rest, sleep, nor comfort are afforded them, certainly not offered to them by the dominant discoursers of affluent dreamers either obtuse or unsympathetic to their realities. 

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Teacher Shortage "Dash-Off" Thoughts

 I find it interesting to note how both ed reformers and resisters are appropriating the most-recent iteration of the "teacher shortage" phenomenon. Ed reformers use it to suggest TFA solutions, nix certification requirements, and usher in a cheap and compliant labor force. Resistors say ed policy has become so toxic, people just don't want to be teachers anymore. They point to certain cities and dropping numbers in teacher ed programs and "teacher flight."
The truth is somewhere in the middle, but there are truths both sides are ignoring as well. For example, in citing Albuquerque's teacher shortage, no one has reported that other local districts have laid off good teachers due to budgets but that Albuquerque may not have hired those experienced teachers even though they live nearby. I only know about it due to having a former student teaching in the area.
Another reality that ed professors, school administrators, resistors and reformers do not want to acknowledge due to nuance is that there may be many applicants for positions in certain areas claiming a teacher shortage, but the admins in those districts don't want to hire people who they see as problematic to the ed reform agenda. To my mind, this would be anyone who is a graduate from a teacher ed program worth its salt.
So, while some districts might experience a genuine teacher shortage -- and might have done so for years in certain content areas -- others are most likely experiencing a self-induced hiring shortage instead to help their overlords reward the types of people who will serve them best in teaching positions while they turn away well-trained, educated, even experienced and licensed applicants.

Monday, August 24, 2015

_Our Kids_: Interlude I; Introducing "White Status" and "White Skew"

As I annotated my copy of Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, I thought about many of its findings and precents related to constructs of white privilege and white superiority. Two specific ideas for new(?) terms formulated, or swirled roughly in and out of tangibility, as I read. Given the economic opportunity gaps between the poor and the rich -- within and across races -- why aren't more academics and activists focusing on a poverty-first or socioeconomic equity-first social justice agenda that encapsulates race and gender rather than focus specifically on race? Even in the weeks since I completed my reading, there is evidence of these "race vs class" tensions in policy problem-solving and analyzing current events. The BlackLivesMatter movement has helped Bernie Sanders reframe his talk on financial reform as one in which economic and race issues run as parallels, for example. This new position could constitute kowtowing, given Sanders seems to know that many race issues are rooted in economics first. 

But why do Americans have so much trouble acknowledging that virtually all oppression in American society, certainly in contemporary American capitalism, is economic-based, from slavery to assimilation to manifest destiny to anti-desegregation, anti-suffrage, and anti-gay marriage efforts?

I offer two terms from my inchoate-made-almost-palpable to help explain it. The terms reside below white superiority, or, since I *do* see issues as economics-based first, just Superiority, and are possible subsets of white privilege. Please offer me feedback if other authors have already named these constructs. They're more formulating than formulaic right now, as I continue to learn and grow my own social justice agenda rooted in mobility inequality. 

1. "White Status" -- a construct residing between white supremacy and white privilege, but in a spectral, trickster sense. White status can be observed living in language via phrases like "That's mighty white of you" and "Thank God I'm white!" even when used ironically or to draw attention to white privilege. Most acutely, white status is the sense of class and race superiority that poor, working-, and lower-middle class whites might have which keeps them separate from, "above" or more fortunate than (in their own minds) POC. White status is a specter, a folly of a false ghost, because for the majority of those who might claim it, it offers negligible benefits at best and actually reinforces wedges between groups of people who have much in common regarding socioeconomic inequities, thereby serving white supremacy/socioeconomic stratification by ensuring that POC and poorer whites do no work together as much or as well as they could to bring about economic revolution. So, white status may appear to be a blessing to poor whites, but it actually serves the Economic Masters.

2. "White Skew" -- whereas white status might be a construct most apparent among poorer whites, White Skew may be more apparent among POC and especially prevalent among well-off whites. White skew is the notion that because of white supremacy or white privilege,or, worse, because of whiteness itself, white people can't really be poor. Intensified by growing socioeconomic segregation in housing, schooling and other cultural and social constructs, white skew is racism when coming from POC but also reveals a hidden racism toward POC from well-off whites. Whiteness equates to privilege, to access to success. So, if a white person is poor, it must be *their* fault and their fault alone because whites can't be poor because they are white. Regarding segregation, white skew might reveal itself when whites of a certain socioeconomic class assume they are the baseline for all of the white experience and simply do not believe that there are white under-classes or white people who struggle with poverty. Regarding racism toward POC, inherent in white skew mindset is that only POC can be poor, so white skew is part of the very worst ways in which white supremacy can be defined. Ironically, white skew might be found most among whites who identify as liberal and be so embedded that it only rears its head when said liberals actualize race-based activist efforts at the expense of all-inclusive socioeconomic equity activism, working for the lesser races who because of their lesser races (usually brown races or ethnicities) can't help themselves.

So, am I on to something? Do analogues of these constructs already exist in critical race theory, social justice theories, etc.?

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Studying Robert Putnam's _Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis_: Part 7 -- Stress and Parenting

Part 7; Chapter 3: “The American Dream: Myths and Realities” – Stress and Parenting

Putnam begins “Parenting,” the third chapter of Our Kids, with eighteen pages devoted to profiling African American families from different socioeconomic strata in Atlanta, Georgia. He chooses Atlanta because it has the “largest, most rapidly growing gap between rich and poor of any American city” (81). He admits the gap deserves studying along racial lines, but notes “within the black community itself, class and income differences have also grown” (81), and the black community as a whole is becoming “increasingly polarized along economic lines” (82).  Combined racial and economic segregation means that in Atlanta, as in many American cities and towns, “the black upper class and middle class…are increasingly separated from their white counterparts and from poor blacks” (82).  While Putnam never treats racial segregation and subjugation with disbelief, he works to reveal that “class disparities within each race” and across races re important to acknowledge as well (83).

The different affordances of wealth regarding parenting spring from this racially-charged backdrop, though, and the chapter’s conversation gets more disconcerting as it develops. Explaining serve-and-return cognition, a construct in which a preverbal child sends forth a signal and learns or gains impressions via adult response, Putnam reaffirms what many early childhood experts and educators have known for years: “Cognitive stimulation by parents is essential for optimal learning” (110). What contingent construct makes a difference in cognitive stimulation? Stress. Or the type and amount of stresses parents face and to which kids are subjected, anyway.

As one might figure, homes in which parents are struggling to get ahead are homes in which levels of “toxic stress” may be elevated. Toxic stress may “impede successful development” of children and can include physical abuse and neglect, the failure to send any signal to a young serve-and-returner. This kind of toxicity, perhaps the result of worn-out parents who cannot move forward despite their efforts, might be worse than physical mistreatment (111). Deficits from neglect impair brain development, says Putnam, and are difficult to repair (112).

So many adverse childhood experiences can affect the neural pathways and emotional development of children that scientists have created a scale in their name (though Putnam doesn’t distinguish what kinds of scientists, presenting a rare moment of the sophomoric): The Adverse Childhood Experiences Scale lists ten realities which correlate with some form of damaging stress.

From page 113. And to think: Some think rigor is the most important thing teachers
can provide for their poor students and students dealing with major stresses. 
Even for resilient children – those who seem to thrive regardless of the many stresses in their lives – the “wear and tear of chronic stress” may create situations in which they are “living on borrowed time” (113). Putnam explains that even for resilient kids, the “John Henry effect” is hard to escape. That is to say even if kids seem to do well in escaping poverty and hardship early on, research suggests it is only a matter of time until the piling on, the cumulative affect catches up to them and negatively influences their lives. 

Except that it caught up to you, John. That ended badly for you.
If such children run forward early on, the monsters chasing them eventually overtake them, and they too become rhizomed into the cycle of moving backwards even as they attempt to move ahead. The specters of poverty may be more difficult to escape than poverty itself, and once the ghosts have caught up, the hopeful striver may not be able to stave off the haunting any longer and tumble back into that from which he or she strove toward liberation. Toxic stresses linger like absent presences, part of one’s history eager to make themselves known. And lived. Now.

As someone who experienced several stresses on the scale as a kid and who has found himself dealing with career and familial burn-out, having reached a nadir of trying to balance financial, family, and especially toxic working conditions in my field and in the English departments at UTEP and Washington State University, Pullman, (and at the University of Southern Mississippi before that), Putnam’s chapter speaks to me. As I look back on all the accomplishments for my family and myself I’d hoped for versus the resources – fiscal, physical, mental, political, emotional; support systems and fallbacks  –  I had or didn’t have to actualize them, I think it is little wonder I have felt and still feel spent.

At twelve and sixteen and eighteen and twenty-four and twenty-eight, I was one of those resilient
Do mobility studies and rhizome theory intersect? When it comes
to improving one's socioeconomic status, escaping one's roots
is more difficult than many Americans want to acknowledge. 
kids, even with a set of adults cheering him on. By thirty-eight, with two kids of my own and a working-class penchant for speaking my mind against ignorance and injustice (especially as perpetrated by the educated “intelligent”) and an intolerance for bullshit, academia’s upper-middle class ethos seemed strange, hard to navigate, at loggerheads with my strong values, and certainly less like a meritocracy than my bootstrap-believing mind had ever thought it was.

 Adding on a K12 and higher education system steeped in neoliberal values, policy-making, and counterintuities regarding helping kids and producing valued work, and interlacing them with the peculiar “gold” that is departmental dysfunction, I reflect and wonder why I’m still standing. Given the financial stresses in place as we struggled (and struggle) with student loans (Yes, I was on fellowship at UVa, but…), preschool costs, medical bills, and basic costs-of-living as a family with two parents from poverty (though more so for me than for my wife) still running from their own specters and that all of this was happening in what should have been my formative tenure-“earning” (academia is no meritocracy, though surviving its bureaucracy entails pretending like it is. Hence my quotation marks) years, perhaps I should be surprised I lasted as long as I did in academia. 

And, let’s face it: By the time one nears his or her 40s, the cheering crowds of supporters eager to see a young person like me make good dwindle away with the addition of years which themselves strip one from title of “young person.”

 Surely there are those who experienced worse than I did growing up and who have earned tenure and have happy, content lives. I think of them and remind myself that part of the problem with having Americans acknowledge mobility inequality is American’s penchant for letting exceptions act as the rules.

"Check your economic privilege, Scrooge!"/"I'll not take that from someone
literally as white as a ghost, Marley!"
As a father, the chapter makes me more cognizant of my failings or potential failings as well.  Those who are considering divorce, have a tendency to yell, and are still battling the ghosts of the past in the present are not offered much hope beyond Jacob Marley-like, forewarning knowledge, however. Marley helped transform Scrooge into a more sympathetic person, though, right?

With that tinge of hope in mind, I continue my reflections on “Parenting” soon.

Next: Parenting, Income and Class: Explaining the Specters of Poverty  

Monday, August 10, 2015

Studying Robert Putnam's _Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis_: Part 6 -- Families (2 of 2)

Below is the latest installment of my series of reflections on  Robert Putnam's 2015 release Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. It represents the second of two reflections on the book's first body chapter. I invite you to read my previous four installments on the book's introductory chapter. Access them here: Part 1: 
Part 2: 3: Part 4: 

As well, scroll below this entry to read the first of two segments on Putnam's "Families" chapter. I see Our Kids as central to understanding contemporary exigencies regarding education policy and essential to building and actualizing an egalitarian social justice agenda. I see and hope to reveal connections to education and schooling, education reform, and my own experiences.

Part 5; Chapter Two: “The American Dream: Myths and Realities” – Families (2 of 2)

As if aware of possible imbroglio regarding traditionalist and sexist undercurrents in the first two-thirds of the “Families” chapter of Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, author Robert Putnam offers an admission of the perplexing connections among poverty and women’s health issues. “Whatever the reasons,” he says as if doing so might offer a tabula rasa, “children of less-educated parents are increasingly entering the world as an unplanned surprise…while children of more educated parents are increasingly entering the world as a long-planned objective” (65). This difference, Putnam feels, affects the resources a parent or parents have to raise those kids.

Regarding non-marital births, Putnam informs that numbers remain low for college-educated women and that “the racial gap within classes has narrowed, while the gap within races has widened,” echoing overall trends in American economic mobility. Putnam also explicates issues of cohabitation, divorce, and multi-partner fertility, which is a term to describe “blended families” (68).

Apparently, less-educated families are more likely to have elements of the “impermanent structure” of multi-partner fertility. My own childhood can act as an example of what this means. From the time I was nine until I was nineteen, I saw my mother marry twice after divorcing my birth-father. I saw my father marry three more times. Along the way, I picked up and kept two half-brothers and a step-sister on my mother’s side. I caught and released, so to speak, three step-brothers from one step-mother and have retained two step-sisters and a step-brother from my dad’s current marriage. I “lost” a step-dad and two-step mothers along the way, though I hardly regard them as losses. 
Buy this representation of impermanence here: 

Among siblings with the same mother, I count a set of twin boys with whom I share a father, one half-brother half my age whose dad was my second step-father, and a half-brother whose dad is my current step-father and who is two decades my junior. Our family rule is to count half-brothers as brothers, but given we were close to grown when the latest “steps” entered our parents’ lives, we tend to see them and their children as relatives but not necessarily brothers and sisters. In between the courtships that lead to marriages were itinerant partners, flings, cohabitators, false starts and mistakes. As the oldest child, I am witness to them all and often had to intervene in some way for some manner (I know that’s vague, but even I deserve my secrets). One can imagine the uncertainty and instability surrounding my our childhoods. Male figures in particular, given our mother had custody of us, were ephemeral presences and not always good role models.

In this regard, I lived like many kids, “especially from less affluent, less educated backgrounds” in that my father
Family matters when it comes to upward mobility.
wasn’t always around (69). He was somewhere, though, and often telephoned if he was not nearby. Putnam informs that many men who have children with whom they do not live have “no contact with their children” (69).

All the changes to the family structure have resulted in a “class-biased decline in the number of children raised in two-parent families” (69). Notice within this quotation Putnam does not define “two-parent” to signify heteronormativity, per se. However, he later states that “College educated moms are also more likely to have a male breadwinner in the household” (71), even if they work too, and this results in “a substantial class disparity in the financial resource available for childrearing” (71). Readers will have to draw their own conclusions about whether Putnam’s research and explanations skew toward a prickly conservativism, but he admits to a messiness considering family factors’ impact on poverty and mobility:
[C]ause and effect are entangled here: poverty produces family instability, and family instability in turn produces poverty. A similar kind of mutual reinforcement occurs between affluence and stability (75).
Moving from cultural shifts as explicatives for “family breakdown” to policy shifts, Putnam says three “probably” contributed (76): The War on Drugs, 3-strike legal proceedings, and increased incarceration. Having just heard Bernie Sanders reveal *his plan* for racial justice and equity, I can’t help thinking about these three factors and how they have affected the lives of people of color and poor Americans of every color.   

The “two-tiered family pattern” (77; also see my previous blog post on "Families") has consequences for children. Affluent kids tend to live in two-parent homes and have access to the resources two incomes affords. In the lowest third of poor American families, most kids live with only one parent or in the “kaleidoscopic” realities I mentioned in part 1 of this chapter’s reflection and in this installment’s paragraphs detailing my own upbringing. Even within the kaleidoscopic mode, the dominant theme is that only one person has an income (76-78).

Divorce and absent birth-fathers take their tolls on children. Regardless of race,
Children who grow up without their biological fathers perform worse on standardized test, earn lower grades, and stay in school for fewer years....They are more likely to demonstrate behavioral problems such as shyness, aggression, and psychological problems such as increased anxiety and depression (78).
So does stability.
Again, problematics are apparent. Many education experts know better than to rely on standardized test scores as meaningful metrics of anything more than poverty and/or parents’ income or educational background. Standardized test scores may reveal more about zip codes, given increased segregation among class lines, than they do about intelligence or ability. Further, neither a proclivity toward shyness nor an assertive nature need labeling as problematic except in extreme examples.

Of all the body chapters in Our Kids, “Families” reads as the one with the writerly voice most different from the others. Putnam reveals his book is influenced and informed by a team of researchers. While the book lists him as the single author, I hear someone else’s imprint in this chapter’s tone and penchant for entering a quagmire while trying to top-toe in and out of damning quicksand. To be sure, liberal, vociferous social justice warriors may struggle to remain objective in reviewing this chapter’s timbre. Throughout, though, the veteran scholar’s voice remerges to soften claims with qualifiers, as in this summary from the penultimate paragraph:

Since family fragmentation is, as we have seen, powerfully fostered by economic hardship, in one important sense family structure can be seen as merely an intervening variable between poverty in one generation and poverty in the next. Nevertheless, it is a prominent part of the picture (79).
While definitions of family evolve and the importance of a “birth-mother-and-birth-father-centric”/neo-traditional model of the two-parent home faces multiple critiques and interpretations, one thing is clear: When it comes to poverty, affluence, and economic mobility, family matters. When family is defined with stability, it encompasses better affordances for children than when it is not. Regardless of whether or not Putnam and/or other speakers in this chapter are justified targets for critique for cis-centric, heteronormative, traditionalist definitions of family and marriage/healthy pairings, smart readers can, at least, agree on that.

 Next: “Parenting”

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Studying Robert Putnam's _Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis_: Part 5 -- Families (1 of 2)

Below is the latest installment of my series of reflections on  Robert Putnam's 2015 release Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. It represents the first reflection on the book's body chapters. I invite you to read my previous four installments on the book's introductory chapter. Access them here: Part 1: 
Part 2: 3: Part 4:

I see Our Kids as central to understanding contemporary exigencies regarding education policy and essential to building and actualizing an egalitarian social justice agenda. I see and hope to reveal connections to education and schooling, education reform, and my own experiences.

Part 5; Chapter Two: “The American Dream: Myths and Realities” – Families (1 of 2)

“Families,” the second chapter of Robert Putnam’s Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, unfolds via the formula established in chapter one: People and families from the same area are profiled and extrapolations to national trends are made based on what the case studies reveal at the local and national levels. Putnam leaves Ohio to focus on Bend, Oregon, in the early going. Bend experienced rapid growth, especially between 1970 and 2000, and segregation in Bend “is mostly economic, not racial” (47) as Putnam says it is in many other cities. In the east of Bend, child poverty rates are ten times what they are to the west. Bend’s disparities appear to be the results of the housing bubble. Putnam transitions from the city’s history to talk about the current “life chances” afforded Bend’s children and the structures of many of its families (49). “Family differences,” he says, “produce very different starting points for rich and poor kids” (49) in Bend and nationwide.

Putnam extols the stability of 1950s American marriage and life,
but they were not without their problems. 
Indeed, a major point in this chapter is that “poverty produces family instability, and family instability produces poverty” (74). Likewise, affluence and family stability appear to correlate. Putnam sets the framework for an important discussion on the role that stress plays in keeping poor Americans moving backwards even as they strive to move toward greater social mobility and economic opportunity, but that component comes to a head in later chapters. Nonetheless, the undercurrent’s import merits attention.

In further discussion of the history of changing family dynamics, which have “restricted along class lines over the last half century” (61), Putnam comes dangerously close to suggesting a politically conservative ethic that could distance him from liberal or progressive readers.  He notes the 1970s as a time when “family structure suddenly collapsed” (62) and informs that this was when the Baby Boomers were coming of age. Among the factors challenging previous family dynamics are a delinking of sex and marriage, the feminist revolution, women entering the workforce, and increased attention on the individual and “self-fulfillment” at the expense of community (62). While scholars are of multiple minds about the exact causes of the transformation, an “unexpected outcome” has been the emergence of familial trends along class lines. Putnam calls this a “two-tier” (63-64) structural pattern:

1.       Neo-traditional Pattern:
a.       Generally the  college-educated “upper-third of American Society”
b.      Both partners work outside the home
c.       Marriage and childbearing is delayed until careers are started
d.      Domestic duties are more-evenly shared than in the 50s.
e.      Divorce rates have fallen and stabilized since the 70s

2.       Kaleidoscopic Pattern/”Fragile Families” Pattern
a.       Generally the high-school-educated “lower third of the population”
b.      Less likely to have two-parent households
c.       Two-parent households often include step-relatives
d.      Childbearing and marriage disconnected; children may be born before or without partners marrying.
e.      Sexual partnerships less durable
f.        Marriages less durable; divorce rates rising

One might easily consider these lists and wonder about access to contraceptives and cultural value systems regarding their use. “Delayed parenting helps kids because older parents are generally better equipped to support their kids, both materially and emotionally” (64), says Putnam. Early sexual activity may be the brew in which future family poverty stews. Non-college educated women are sexually active earlier than their college-educated peers but do not seek to have more kids than those peers; they are less likely to use birth control and to have abortions and have more unintended pregnancies.
Could a class-centric approach to sex education revolutionize how it is taught? Likewise, can a sex education approach to examining social class and economic inequity afford a means of  examining pertinent topics with American teens?
 In the same way that one might read this chapter as a wholesale endorsement of 1950s American family life – not without its own problematic patterns and narrow-mindedness – one might read part of this chapter as placing the blame for class divisions on women. Neither assumption reflects an accurate representation of Putnam’s goals, but those who are invested in nontraditional notions of partnership and marriage and those who advocate for women’s rights may work to trust in that fact throughout this chapter.

What I see, however, is the need to have conversations in the secondary classroom on the facts and conjectured facts this chapter offers, perhaps as part of sex education, perhaps as part of current events or American History.

As a lifelong educator reading about the confusion among researchers regarding what to make of the breakdown of family structures and all the emphasis/potential responsibilities placed on girls and/or elements within young women’s control if they are empowered enough to note these trends and possible causes, I can’t help but think that part of the problem in not changing these inequities is that schools do not talk about these issues enough (or at all) , and abstinence-only programs in schools seem all the more blind to realities – and worse, instruments that reify the class patterns.

I admit it seems unfair to women to draw conclusions that put so much of a burden on their shoulders, but it is true that childbirth is a universal burden particular to women’s lives and bodies, so perhaps this is a logical weighting. As the father of young sons – and as someone who entered the word as the son of a teenage mother and father – I know boys need to hear these facts and be cognizant of all the ramifications of how they treat young women and can influence their bodies and lives.

While educators and teacher educators work admirably to craft conversations about race, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality into K12 classrooms, they often struggle about how to talk about class and socioeconomic divisions. Teachers know how to make classes multicultural spaces regarding color and gender and have learned how to have conversations in which a person with certain demographic traits is not seen as representing all people with those similar traits.

One's economic class is a cultural element of one's life too, but are Americans
too afraid or ashamed to talk about poverty and socioeconomic diversities and inequalities
in K12, higher education, and teacher education settings? Are we better equipped to talk about
race, gender, ethnicity and sexuality than we are to talk about upward mobility and economic equity?
Of course, all these issues are inter-related. 
 Teachers are less educated and less comfortable discussing realities of poverty, especially in the face of actual poor students. Such is the stigma associated with being poor in American society and the schools which represent and recreate it. It’s hard to know how or where to start.

My advice to teachers is this: “Families” and the information within it offer excellent points of entry into discussions on poverty, family, class, and burdens of responsibility among young people and society. Find ways to integrate this chapter into your curriculum. This chapter represents a great place to start. 

Educators, share Our Kids with your kids. 

Next: Whatever and Ever, Amen?

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Studying Robert Putnam's _Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis_: Part 4 -- A Conceptual Note to Ruin It All?

Below is the last installment of my series of reflections on the first chapter of Robert Putnam's 2015 release Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. I hope to offer commentary on the remaining chapters as well and invite you to read my previous three installments. I see this book as central to understanding contemporary exigencies regarding education policy and essential to building and actualizing an egalitarian social justice agenda. I see and hope to reveal connections to education and schooling, education reform, and my own experiences.

Part 4; Chapter One: “The American Dream: Myths and Realities” – A Conceptual Note to Ruin It All?

In the latter pages of the first chapter of Harvard public policy professor Robert Putnam’s Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, the author defines his research terms and discusses his methods. Two worrisome facets emerge which could be enough to turn some readers away or to call his work into question.

Putnam mentions that many who study socioeconomic mobility use a “lagging indicator” (43) approach in
which they compare children’s income and education to those of their parents when all parties are or were in their 30s or 40s. I worried Putnam used a similar method. The result would be that we couldn’t really know what “now” looks like for several decades. So, Putnam’s work would feel dubious and conjectural. I was vexed critics and the reading public would look at his work in such a way that it might actually increase a sense of “inequity disbelief” among powered, like-classed cross-sections of the population.

Luckily, Putnam does not use the lagging indicator model of research, instead “examining directly what has been happening to kids the past three decades – the family into which they’ve been born, the parenting and schooling they’ve received, the communities in which they’ve been raised” (44). He does, however, use an indicator of social mobility that might be seen as flawed as researchers apply their lagging indicator- or “rearview mirror”- (44) approach to Our Kids in the coming years.

Generally, when Putnam speaks of class breakdowns, he uses education alone as a delineator, or, sometimes, a composite model based on income, education and occupation (44). The latter is more appropriate, as education does not automatically signify higher salaries and thereby more economic mobility. One need have only a baseline awareness of the adjunctification of the professoriate to know this. Unfortunately, he appears to rely more on the former:
So when I speak of kids from “upper-class” homes, I simply mean that at least one of their parents (usually both) graduated from college, and when I speak of kids from “lower-class” homes, I simply mean that neither of their parents went beyond high school (45).
He explains that in the book, “poor” equates to those who are high-school-educated (or have less than high school educations, one presumes); “college-educated” and “rich” refer to those with college degrees.

I have apprehension that these criteria aren’t accurate enough for 2015 realities. I find It odd that, given his position as an Ivy League professor, Putnam fails to consider his set terms as flawed, especially given the plight of many doctorate-wielding individuals scraping and clawing to put enough adjunct work together each semester to make a decent but many-times still poverty-level wage. Certainly outliers exist to suggest Putnam uses a faulty system. Perhaps too few outliers exist to make a difference statistically (which would fit a denotative definition of “outlier”); perhaps Putnam makes a mistake via his defining terminology.

If further analysis of the issues he raises reveals that – as I am experiencing and as I have a hunch a significant amount of others are experiencing, especially those with terminal academic degrees – he has overlooked the poor who (though I hate this term) “over-achieved” to get to college only to remain poor or return to poverty upon graduation or later in life, I fear the entirety of Our Kids can be called into question in ways that might undo the good I assume Putnam wants to enact via writing on the subjects. Ironically, the model of research he disfavors, one using lagging indicators, might be what helps cement the book’s validity or seriously challenges its credibility.

I admit a sensitivity to this possible methodological blemish. Three years ago I was was earning approximately $66,000 annually (base salary plus summer teaching) in a tenure-track position in the English Department at the University of Texas at El Paso.  When five years of dirty politics, shaky leadership (I worked under three department chairs in those five years) and departmental backbiting at UTEP became untenable to my mental health and the health of my family, and I felt I might be denied a fair tenure process after publicly calling into question the methods my colleagues took in ousting the second chair under whom I worked and abstaining from the final vote to expel him, I took a significant pay cut by moving cross-country to Washington State University – Pullman. My position in WSU’s English department was a visiting assistant professorship with a salary in the $40Ks. I hoped to reinvigorate my career and outlook, only to find a new breed of toxicity and mismanagement at my new employer.

Now, having left two academic positions -- albeit obviously noxious ones – in two years (not to mention that WSU fired me when me cleaning out my office and informing the departmental secretary I’d done so and where she could find my office keys, after having completed all duties assigned to me, was not considered a formal enough resignation notice!) of my own accord blends with my public criticism of the current education reform movements, Common Core State Standards, Teach for America, Value-Added Models of teacher evaluation, do-nothing professional organizations, excessive and harmful standardized testing, and colleagues taking the “C.Y.O.A.” approach to dealing with these things that they know are detrimental to children and students to make a perfect storm of unhirability (or so it seems) in my field of preparation (teaching/teacher education).

I am a first-generation college student who rose from divorced parents, neither of whom completed high school, to not only complete college but to earn a doctorate from a Public Ivy and earn a tenure-track position at a university ranked in the top echelon of Washington Monthly’s college rankings. But I am also a person who had to look at the life he had at that institution and the one that came after it and let it go, once again in hopes of more stable, positive environs. Having spent a year on the job market and getting only a nibble or two at K12 positions and university positions, I have to wonder if that quotation attributed to Voltaire isn’t spot-on: “To determine the true rulers of any society, all you must do is ask yourself this question: Who is it that I am not permitted to criticize?”

By Putnam’s definitions, I came from a background of poverty. By his definitions, I was poor, but I am no longer poor and will never be again because I am educated. Educated, indeed. Putnam makes no room for the Icarus crowd in Our Kids. Further, academic neoliberalism embraces concepts of white privilege and white superiority which suggest I truly screwed the pooch in my recent decisions to seek better working conditions/leave my academic positions, and American exceptionalism, Rugged Individualism. Bootstrapping and American Dreaming suggest the weight to make it work, to remain successful, was on my shoulders and mine alone. I made my decisions to relocate, criticize, and quit bad jobs to look for better jobs. My new economic status reflects a self-made individual.

Further, regardless of my possible current poverty (luckily I have a working spouse, but she’s in K12 education too, so you can image how tight our budget is for our family of four), strings of critical race theory, probably misapplied, suggest that as a white, straight, male, I was born rich and privileged. Putnam does, at least, offer a decent job of revealing that white privilege only gets poor whites so far. As well, he reveals that white superiority could be rebranded accurately as class superiority, since the opportunity gap within races has widened too and middle and upper-middle class people of color are pulling ahead as their poorer peers fall further behind, just as is the case among and within white populations.

I suppose my reach exceeded my grasp – my grasp of what it took to stay in the middle class once I got there; my understanding of upper-middle class culture and the upper-middle class culture of academia; my (mis)understanding that a doctorate in education and an established record of scholarship and publication granted me enough authority and security to speak out against K12- and higher education ills. Well-educated scholars and researchers might look at me and see the “White Supreme,” and notions of individualism suggest that I must have messed up handily to feel like a pariah or reject or object of erasure and be straight, white, and male. 

Putnam helps me see – could help any willing reader see—that white supremacy seeks to keep many more of us under thumb than critical race theory or theories on gender and sex inequalities might allow. White supremacy is not the domain of whites; it is the domain of the small, exclusive white ruling class – and of the people of color in those upper classes too.  

American Supremacy Systems vs. Upward Mobility?
To affect social change, people of color and those advocating for specific marginalized groups rather than for wholesale socioeconomic reform will need to decide if that is a reality they can accept; if acknowledging their own socioeconomic privilege and the growing class gaps positively changes their perspectives and benefits. Ideally, a Putnam-informed perspective would help whites and people of color work together to the mutual benefit of all regarding upward mobility and a reconsidering of “Supremacy.”  

When the stakes are so high that one risks returning to poverty and hardship upon critiquing the systems of socioeconomic Supremacy and being erased as a recognized poor person due to limiting definitions, and so much weight is on the individual’s shoulders in terms of culpability within America’s mobility apparatus, can those on the precipice of privilege or comfortably within it find ways to answer the call of addressing inequities without being crushed by the machine that gave them the silver spoon-, or perhaps just the sliver-, of-a-chance to do well? 

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

This American Life Covers Schooling, Segregation

The July 31, 2015, broadcast of This American Life covers issues of schooling and segregation by race and poverty. The topic connects well with my discussion of Our Kids, so I want to share the link to the broadcast, "The Problem We All Live With." Find it * here.* 

Nikole Hannah-Jones talks with Ira Glass about busing, integration, why segregation stopped, and why it might work again. 

While there are many problematic aspects to the conversation -- a focus on improving schools rather than communities, favoring of white/black notions of diversity at the expense of attention to other enthicities, relying on test scores as a metric, to mention a few -- I still recommend it, especially if paired with a reading of Putnam's  Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. (Or braided with that book and Coates' latest Between the World and Me). 

As well, *here's* some commentary on the broadcast from VOX.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Studying Robert Putnam's _Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis_: Part 3 -- The New(est?) Segregation

Below I offer the third in a series of posts reflecting on my reading of Robert Putnam's 2015 Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. In this and coming posts, I examine Our Kids in digestible chunks, offer critique, and attempt to expound upon connections I see to education and schooling, education reform, and my own experiences.I see this book as central to understanding contemporary exigencies regarding education policy and essential to building and actualizing an egalitarian social justice agenda. 

Part 3; Chapter One: “The American Dream: Myths and Realities” – The New(est?) Segregation

I wonder if America is in segregation denial. So few seem to realize the civil rights battles from the 1950s and 60s did help to desegregate the American South, but many U.S. communities and social institutions across the nation were then and remain now segregated by color or ethnicity. Churches are prime examples. Housing communities too. In the North and elsewhere, communities remain deeply segregated, even more so than in the South, but this fact is one of many regarding sociocultural dividing lines to which Americans seem oblivious or simply don’t want to believe. 
After all, slavery and racism were only constructs of the confederate states, and reconstruction took care of all that, right? Of course not, but when it comes to addressing the realities of seclusion and exclusion, it seems to me Americans either turn the blind eye or don the rose-colored glasses.

Americans need more revealing lenses when it comes
to acknowledging segregation by income. (Not these, though).
In the latter pages of the first chapter in Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis,  Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University Robert Putnam reveals more disturbing trends regarding growing opportunity and social mobility gaps. Not only are more affluent families pulling further away from less-fortunate peers in terms of accumulated wealth, but “the ballooning economic gap has been accompanied by growing de facto segregation of Americans along class lines” (37).

Putnam says contemporary exigencies differs from past decades in which social mobility was more equally distributed in that fewer people are exposed to people beyond their own “socioeconomic niche” (37.) Simply put, the well-off are disappearing the rest of us, and it may be that this disappearing continues to happen at whatever other marked class delineations exist. Class segregation is “pervasive,” says Putnam, and housing communities offer evidence to that affect: “More and more families live either in uniformly affluent neighborhoods or in uniformly poor neighborhoods” (38).

Putnam labels this phenomenon “geographic polarization,” though I prefer his other descriptor, “incipient class apartheid” (39).  

Lest one thinks Putnam ignores racial and ethnic segregation while favoring income data, note he offers evidence that “race-based segregation has been slowly declining” while “class-based segregation has been increasing” (38).

What are ramifications of the “incipient class apartheid” linked with my worries about Americans’ foggy vision? If the rich no longer live among the rest of us, and we live only among those in our own income and housing brackets, how do we develop and sustain authentic empathy for those who are less fortunate than ourselves? If the benefits of living with the like-incomed are such that living in a mixed-bracket community actually seem to hurt a well-off family’s networking and ability to sustain their own lifestyle or support their progeny to the best of their ability, why would anyone seek to economically diversify communities?

Similar anxieties permeate Putnam’s thinking too: He worries, for example, that kids from different economic strata are not considered “our kids” anymore, that there is no longer a sense among elders that everyone in a community wants to see all young people, regardless of their economic station, do well and grow their economic progress.

 Stratification seems to perpetuate not even a “You do you; I’ll do me” attitude and necessity, but a “We’ll do us. No one else exists” mentality among the economically empowered which should concern even the most hardcore American capitalist. Not only is “trickle-down” not working; families at the top may be so cut off from realities beyond their own there isn’t even thought given to trickling. Don’t believe me? Try discussing poverty and housing with your peer groups. Note instances of denial and discomfort. Time the conversation to see how long it takes someone to mention that by global standards, Americans in poverty are the envy of the world. For those in poverty, the notion of bootstrapping may seem like a perverse like more than even a fading dream.

Other segregations stem from residential segregation. Putnam examines several:

1.       Schooling segregation: private vs. public
2.       Schooling segregation: public school districts
3.       Schooling segregation: schools within districts
4.       Education segregation: AP enrollment vs. general enrollment
5.       College segregation: Elite vs. less-elite
6.       Marriage endogamy
7.       Social segregation: Friendship networks and other social resource

Affluent kids are more likely to attend good schools and have more choices regarding education; are more likely placed into advanced, college-readying classes; are more likely to attend top-tier universities; are more likely to have two parents who are both well-off; and more likely to benefit from tapping into a vast network of influential and powerful peers and parental peers than are their less-wealthy counterparts.

In both absolute mobility (which Putnam describes as a situation in which "a rising tide lifts all boats")
and relative mobility ("dinghies doing even better than yachts," or the ability of less-privileged folks to surpass the more-privileged and networked) , "American youth now have the worst of both worlds
 -- low absolute mobility and low relative mobility" (42). Even if a non-affluent somehow gets a dinghy  they may find themselves rowing in a situation like this fellow's.

I worry, since affluent people may see less of those not like themselves regarding these segregations, they may even be less likely to even acknowledge “counterparts” exist.  As a first-generation college student who grew up with family unrest, an economic base teetering at best, and many mitigating stresses when it came to doing well and fully participating in school, I worry especially about the friendship network and social resources gaps between the affluent and the poor. Had it not been for the support mentors and caring individuals outside my own socioeconomic strata, I am sure I would not have survived as well as I did as a conscientious but resource-limited student. I had people – teachers, friends, and parents of friends -- believing in my abilities to overcome. But Putnam suggests that sort of cross-class humanitarianism is at risk. Before delving into chapters on families, parenting, schooling, community, and, finally, suggestions, Putnam sums his book’s findings and concerns:
Ultimately, growing class segregation across neighborhoods, school, marriages (and probably also civic associations, workplaces, and friendship circles) means that rich Americans and poor Americans are living, learning, and raising children in increasingly separate and unequal worlds, removing the stepping-stones to upward mobility – college-going classmates or cousins or middle-class neighbors, who might take a working-class kid from the neighborhood under their wing. Moreover, class segregation means that members of the upper middle class are less likely to have firsthand knowledge of the lives of poor kids and thus are unable even to recognize the growing opportunity gap (41).
When it comes to acknowledging socioeconomic inequality, perhaps rose-colored glasses keep their tint because they disappear all but those in the same economic situation as the wearers. For the affluent, this possibility can screen people from the needs and well-being of the less-fortunate. For the less-fortunate, it reveals the mockery and manipulation of Hope.

Next: A Conceptual Note To Ruin It All?