kitchen table math, the sequel: Robert Pondiscio, education reform, and the white working class, part 1

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Robert Pondiscio, education reform, and the white working class, part 1

Robert Pondiscio has a terrific article on Donald Trump, education, and blue collar white Americans that we've been talking about on Facebook (come join if you haven't already--!)
If my Dad were alive today—and fifty years younger—I suspect he'd be a Trump voter.

My father got a high school education, enlisted in the Army, and fought in the South Pacific during World War II. After the war, he was hired by American Airlines, the only company whose paychecks he would ever cash. In forty-plus years on the job, he went from working as a mechanic to flying transcontinental routes as a flight engineer (a job made obsolete long ago by microprocessors).

He earned enough to move his family from Yonkers to Long Island, with its affordable houses and good schools. His own father had been an immigrant pick-and-shovel man. My Dad did him one better by following the playbook common to men of his moment and mindset: learn a trade, word hard, play by the rules, and things will work out. On the day he dropped me off at college (I was the first in my family to attend), he was still badgering me to learn TV repair, plumbing, or heating and air conditioning. College was fine, but its benefits seemed nebulous to Depression-era guys like Dad. It wouldn't hurt, he insisted, to have "a skill to fall back on."

Within a generation, however, his kind of life and the playbook he followed have largely ceased to exist.


The ground has not merely shifted beneath the feet of blue collar white Americans with no college degree; it has liquefied. "You can see the effects of their despair in the new statistics describing horrifying rates of suicide and substance-abuse fatality among this same group, in middle age," Frum notes. "They are pissed off. And when Donald Trump came along, they were the people who told the pollsters, 'That's my guy.'" If he were my age today, my Dad would almost certainly be struggling among them. The country that allowed him to become upwardly mobile through sweat, toil, and time—not credentials and connections—is gone.

As this new sobriety over the issues animating Trump supporters, if not Trump himself, settles in, I'm hoping for a parallel rethinking among education reformers. What, if anything, can be done to bring this huge contingent of pissed-off Americans, or at least their children, in for a softer landing before they give up entirely?

Frankly, we missed it. With our focus on closing the achievement gap between blacks and whites, framing reform as the "civil rights issue of our time," and the attention and praise we have heaped on inner-city charter schools—one of reform's few bona fide success stories—we have tacitly made education reform a race-based endeavor. In doing so, we largely overlooked a crisis that's been hiding in plain sight for years. There are about twice as many non-Hispanic whites as blacks living below 150 percent of the poverty line in the U.S. It's a fair bet that their kids aren't doing very well in school—and that they see Donald Trump as "my guy."
A couple of things.

First (and I can't remember whether I've been saying this on ktm, believe it or not), although I was a strong (and public) supporter of NCLB from the get-go, I realized pretty early on that the race-based aspect of NCLB was a problem.

Being from the heartland myself, it's possible I was more aware than some of the changes taking place outside big cities and affluent suburbs. I've gone home to central Illinois every year of my adult life; I've seen those changes firsthand. (Of course, I've seen the same changes taking the Amtrak out of New York City into the small towns of New Jersey and Pennsylvania.)

However, as a white parent sending children to predominantly-white suburban public schools, I had another vantage point that may have been more eye-opening: the new law and its supporters gave districts like mine a free pass.

Once NCLB became law, our district became high-quality by definition. No matter what our administrators did, no matter what cockamamy programs they embraced, no matter how many tutors we parents hired, no matter how much reteaching we did, our school was good because our kids did better on the state tests than underprivileged black and Hispanic kids attending urban schools.

Virtually everyone I knew believed (and still believe today) that all white suburban schools are better than all urban schools, period.

A couple of you will remember my adventures trying to get my district simply to perceive the fact that KIPP, in the Bronx, had an algebra pass rate that was double my district's. Doug Sundseth actually created a bar chart to illustrate.

I couldn't do it. I would look people straight in the eye and say "KIPP has 80% of its 8th grade students passing Regents 1 in 8th grade; we have 40%" and ---- nothing. Blank stares.

The one time I did manage to get a rise out of a fellow parent, she protested, saying: "KIPP has to have higher scores. They have to fundraise."

Which, actually, is true: KIPP had to show results, my district didn't.

But no one saw the problem with this state of affairs. By definition, no matter what, our schools were superior because our schools were affluent and white. The great injustice of the day was that inner-city black and Hispanic kids couldn't attend excellent schools like ours.

Before NCLB, I'm told, my district was much more modest in its claims, and much more realistic. Each year students in all grades took a standardized test, much like days of old when each year students took the Iowa Test of Basic Skills or some such, and each year the then-superintendent would tell parents that student achievement in our district fell roughly in the middle of student achievement across all Westchester schools.

Roosevelt's minimum wage

Education reform's race-based narrative has always reminds me of a story my mom told me about my grandfather during the Great Depression.

He was working at a gas station when Roosevelt created the minimum wage.

His boss immediately lowered my grandfather's wage to the minimum.

That was NCLB in my district.

Again, I say this as a person who supported the law privately and publicly--and who would support it still today, in some variant.

* I can't link to Doug's chart because, lo and behold, the original kitchen table math is down because Outlook has been down so I didn't get the email invoice etc, etc, .... dealing with all that now & will include the link when the site is back up.


Hainish said...

The link didn't work.

Jean said...

Nope it did not. Also I do not know where to find your conversation on FB. I can't find a KTM group...

Auntie Ann said...

I found CJ's facebook page. Search for her name and Morningside and it shows up!

Jean said...

Not for me. Stupid FB.

lgm said...

In my area, working class 2nd generation people of all skin tones saw the money difference and heard the school board's rationale that the money would be spent on students 'who really needed help'....I.e. truants and special needs....and realized their children had a lot of 'study hall'. Many moved to Title 1 districts, which have been funded enough to offer courses that middle class districts refuse to AP Physics and AP Chem. My district added social workers, psychs and support personnel for the needy who moved here from NYC or other countries, while cancelling college prep courses. They cant fund raise enough to sponsor working class students who need to take courses like Trig, which are only offered DE.(DE in this state is at parent expense). Parents who themselves are graduates of the district were astonished to be labeled 'wealthy' bluecollar tradesmen....and told they needed to hire private tutors as their children arent needy enough to get help from the district. No suprise that they value hard work and despise those who are preventing their children from getting an education at school.