Monthly Archives: September 2013

Voting with Our Dollars for Chipotle

Vote with your dollars.  That’s the message Mike Levy, my tenth grade history and ethics teacher, delivered to Moorestown Friends School’s graduating class in 2004 (the same year 34justice author Jon Zaid delivered a convincing anti-war speech to that same class).  That idea – that I send a loud message with my decisions as a consumer – has grown more and more compelling to me over the past ten years.  When I boycott companies for their horrible labor practices (like Walmart) or anti-gay attitudes (like Exxondespite their improvement a few days ago), use my Working Assets credit card or CREDO Mobile cell phone plan, or transfer my money out of major banks and into my credit union, I’m exercising some political power.

Advocating that people vote with their dollars supports a consumerism-driven society, which I find somewhat problematic.  And most items I purchase and the services I use, even the ones mentioned above, still have plenty of hidden costs along the production line – it’s virtually impossible to buy ethical gasoline, for example.  I am currently unwilling, however, to forego modern civilization to live an entirely ethical life, and I doubt I’d make much headway suggesting that we all sell our belongings and return to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle.  At the same time, the more we consider the social, environmental, economic, and political costs associated with the items we buy, the better off the world will be.

Food has been a primary focus of my monetary votes since I took a nutrition class with Clyde Wilson during my junior year at Stanford, but I was initially more concerned with health than anything else.  Wilson convinced me to drastically increase my consumption of salads before meals, cut out every drink other than water (and the occasional alcoholic beverage) from my diet, and to dramatically reduce my intake of white carbohydrates.  I also began to order a CSA box from Albert & Eve Organics once I graduated.  It was not until reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, though, that I thought deeply about the political significance of our food consumption.  Michael Pollan, the book’s author, completely revolutionized my perception of both health and the social impact of our food choices.

Pollan beautifully summarizes the differences between typical industrial factory farms, industrial organic operations, local farms, truly sustainable farms, and wild foods.  He demonstrates how, when we eat processed packaged goods or most conventionally produced meat, we harm farmworkers, the environment, and our bodies in one fell swoop.  Pollan’s research on and ideas about food deserve considerably more attention than I will give them in this post, but an overview can help explain the impact of the gains he notes for food movements.  The industrial organic movement, for all its flaws, has grown into a multi-billion dollar a year industry largely on the backs of people voting with their dollars.  Consumer purchasing decisions have driven a food culture where many food companies (in the Bay Area, at least) attempt to portray themselves as pioneers at the cutting edge of the “slow food” movement.

The question, of course, is whether these companies truly outrank their competitors on food morality or merely want to hoodwink us into casting our financial votes in their favor.  David Sirota’s article on Chipotle’s new scarecrow ad (see below) caused me to reflect on this question as it pertains to Chipotle.

Sirota, one of my favorite columnists, argues that the ad misleads because it juxtaposes factory farming with vegetarianism instead of contrasting typical industrialized meat with meat from more sustainable sources.  Since most Chipotle eaters consume meat in their burritos, Sirota’s critique has some merit.  He does give Chipotle some credit, writing that he’s “actually psyched that there’s at least one major fast-food company willing to publicly rail against factory farming methods” and noting that Chipotle recently introduced sofritas, a vegan alternative, on their menu (for the record, sofritas are really freaking good).  But despite the ad’s problematic qualities and Sirota’s acknowledgements of some Chipotle positives, I think Chipotle gets an unfair shake in Sirota’s article.  The company is pretty revolutionary in terms of fast food and monetary votes for Chipotle can help support significant social change.

Full disclosure: I love Chipotle burritos.  I started eating them once a week during my sophomore year of college and probably still come close to that frequency of consumption.  Their deliciousness contributed to my New Year’s Resolution this year to only eat meat that meets, at a bare minimum, the sustainability standards Chipotle sets.  After doing some more research, however, I feel justified in having set that bar.

Though Chipotle’s ad is misleading, it does significantly more good than harm.  The difference between the food most people eat every day and Chipotle’s food is many, many times greater on nearly all the metrics Sirota lists – carbon emissions, energy supplies, water resources, and health – than the difference between Chipotle’s meat and vegetarian options.  Yes, Chipotle’s food is closer to the normal fare from the “Big Organic” industry than the food which one could eat at a truly sustainable farm, but I’d argue, based on everything Pollan brilliantly documents in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, that the typical vegetarian’s diet does worse on these metrics than a diet which focuses on sustainability across the board and includes meat.  Two of the articles Sirota cites to claim the virtues of vegetarianism conflate meat eating in general with the majority of meat eating done in the United States, while the two others provide indirect support for my argument above.  Pollan also makes a strong argument that eating animals that live happy, free lives is completely acceptable from a moral perspective.  While I am fairly certain more people would be vegetarians if they followed Pollan’s lead and reflected on meat-eating by participating in the slaughter of animals raised on sustainable farms, I don’t think it’s Chipotle’s job to subject people to that imagery.  What Chipotle should have done in their ad, in my opinion, is shown some Niman Ranch pigs rooting around happily before having the scarecrow serve a carnitas burrito.  That would have been more honest.  But while Sirota deserves props for his commitment to vegetarianism, there isn’t a ton of difference from a social, environmental, or ethical perspective between that decision and the decision to eat sustainable meat.  If Chipotle’s ad drives people towards better meat options, that benefits us far more than the ad’s omission of the pigs hurts society.

I also think it’s important to give Chipotle credit for pursuing profit and ethics simultaneously.  Sirota contends Chipotle’s intentions are about profit alone, but as Elizabeth Weiss’s excellent New Yorker article on Chipotle makes clear, the company’s commitment to continuously improving the ethics of its food sourcing has been around for 12 years, much more time than the “slow food” movement has been a breadwinner for restaurants.  A lot of companies toss around claims about “all-natural” and “grass-fed” food with little indication about what these words actually mean, but Chipotle clearly defines the standards they impose on suppliers for their pork and indicate where they’d like to go for beef, dairy cattle, and chicken.  When a restaurant can’t source enough meat at Chipotle’s standards and must resort to conventional suppliers, the restaurant sticks a large sign explaining this issue at the front of their burrito line.  The sign is impossible to miss.  I know Chipotle has this practice not just because their communications director told the New Yorker about it, but also because I’ve been to a Chipotle displaying one of these signs in the middle of a chicken shortage.  Sirota mentions his belief that Chipotle “is interested in seeming vegetarian without actually being vegetarian,” driven in part by Chipotle’s failure, before 2011, to note on in-store menus that their pinto beans are made with bacon.  While it’s no consolation to Jews who unwittingly ate pig prior to that year, it’s worth noting that Chipotle mentioned the recipe on their website, always informed anyone who ordered a vegetarian burrito that the beans weren’t vegetarian, and issued a “razor quick” response and added a note on their in-store menus immediately after they were made aware of the problem.

Chipotle is far from perfect.  It took the company way too long to sign onto the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Fair Food Program, a program intended to guarantee some basic rights for farmworkers.  There’s not a great excuse for the pinto bean oversight and the scarecrow ad should probably have shown some antibiotic-free animals.  In the context of ethical food production in the United States, however, Chipotle is towards the top.  In terms of widely available fast food, there isn’t a single company with food ethics remotely close to Chipotle’s.  And if the company’s past is any indication, Chipotle’s future will feature continued improvement.  I therefore can confidently cast my monetary votes for Chipotle and I hope you feel comfortable doing so as well.  Eating a Chipotle burrito is an incredibly delicious and easy way to “cultivate a better world.”

Update (7/14/14): For a Chipotle ad that contrasts factory farming with Chipotle-style meat production, see below:


Filed under Food

The Mural Capital

I consider Philadelphia my city. I have never lived in it or attended school there, but I have worked there and have family that reside all throughout its various far-reaching sections. Some of these family members will even order a “wooter” when they go to a restaurant from time to time, so that’s all the justification I need to feel one with the city. Just over a month ago I moved to Philadelphia and was offered the opportunity to go through a “mural bus tour” through Drexel (my school). This bus tour is designed to acclimate new students not from the area to get a feel for what some of the underserved areas of Philly actually look like by using the many murals that dot the city as points of interest.


As I’m sure many of you know, Philadelphia has the most murals of any city in the world. There was a presentation by a member of the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program to demonstrate how these filthy, crime-ridden intersections of seedy parts of the city can be transformed into magnificent centers for culture and the arts. Well that wasn’t exactly how it was presented but the mural projects were certainly framed in a way that made them seem as if they really could solve many of the problems plaguing these areas. The goal of the Mural Arts Program has many facets. Chief among them are to de-stigmatize mental illness and to advocate for at-risk people to seek help sooner rather than later, and to use the actual painting of the murals by ex-cons as a form of restorative justice that can bring them closer to their communities and ease them back into society.

This is all well and good. Who wouldn’t want a city beautified by some of the area’s most talented artists that could turn an abandoned building into something awe-inspiring that can also have many beneficial side effects? But then I began to think. Even in the areas with the most murals, crime statistics have seen an increase in the last five years, more people are on food stamps, fewer students are enrolled in high schools despite a larger population, etc. In other words, things look bleak for those who don’t need any more bad news. In cities like Rio de Janeiro the government has similar art projects in their slums in order to mask how decrepit and miserable life is in these areas. Are murals simply putting lipstick on a pig?


The Mural Arts Program was initially a component of the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network. The Anti-Graffiti Network’s aim was to redirect graffiti artists towards creating murals rather than “destructive graffiti”. In a somewhat literal sense, the program was designed to cover up poverty and make the lives of those in the lowest socioeconomic strata somewhat more palatable by giving them something pretty to look at on their way to their minimum wage job (if they are so fortunate). In a sense, graffiti is an indication that the area has negative socioeconomic indicators and is more of a symptom of a failing system, not a cause of it. Does covering up the graffiti actually do anything to ameliorate these factors? Will it put food on the table, pay a medical bill, or put a roof over a family’s head? It seems that it may provide hope to some but in all likelihood it will not get at the root of the problem.

After the presentation it was time to head to the streets to see the areas that would help us become compassionate physicians. The (mostly white) students piled into the two buses while we drove through unfamiliar territory that we would only find ourselves in if we accidentally made a series of wrong turns. It almost felt as though we were on a Six Flags Wild Safari tour. As long as we kept our arms inside the vehicle we could pass by inconspicuously, rather than drawing attention to what is essentially our “Privileged White Kids Tour through Poverty presented by a Medical School!”

We eventually got off the bus somewhere in North Philly to take a tour on foot of some of the current mural projects. As an African-American woman passed the throng of kids staring at a mural in progress, cynically and unprompted, she asked, “What is y’all doing here? You just gonna make us some more paintings, huh?” If this is a pervasive sentiment in Kensington, then it seems that the murals may end up doing more harm than good in the long run. Do these communities want their streets to be made beautiful so that they give the guise of economic self-sustainability, when in fact things are getting worse? Will the people in these areas end up being more resistant to outside help if it seems that it isn’t really help at all?


While noble and perhaps just, murals do not attempt to eradicate the major factors contributing to the high incidence of mental disorders and gun violence. Perhaps the Mural Arts Program is only designed to be a safety net and to catch those that fall rather than prevent people from falling. I truly want to believe that the program is doing the most that it can to alleviate the issues that plague these communities. I am very interested to see the outcomes and conclusions of the Yale School of Medicine study of these programs, which is in the last of a 3-year study. If, for instance, the murder rate in the area of murals decreases does this mean that more murders are just happening a few blocks away? Correlation does not imply causation, because if murders are less likely to occur at intersections with a mural, then every city block in every major U.S. city should have them. Worst-case scenario is that not only do murals not contribute to fixing the underlying problems in these communities, but they divert resources away from other worthwhile community-building projects.

Philadelphia is indeed my city and I truly want what’s best for its citizens. It may be a point of pride to proclaim us at the Mural Capital of the World, but it seems like a hollow title. Projects like the Mural Arts Program seem to implicate an air of “things are getting better”, and with a little more elbow grease we can turn this place around one street corner at a time. Perhaps their optimism should be applauded, but I am generally skeptical of programs that put all of their resources toward glossing over why a problem exists and instead focus on how to make it better after the fact. Not that programs like these aren’t necessary, but they should viewed in the light that they can help rehabilitate a community, but not get at the factors that drive a community to the point of collapse– mainly income inequality. I’ll leave you with some anecdotal evidence about how little the denizens of these impoverished street corners care about their murals.

1 Comment

Filed under Poverty and the Justice System

On Intellectual Honesty

Below is an incomplete list of what intellectual honesty means to me. Let me know what I missed, or if I’m wrong. Please comment if you have any thoughts at all; I want to hear from you. Yeah, you.

1. Admit you could be wrong.

“The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently.” – Nietzsche

This is a basis for all intellectual honesty: to not have a higher opinion of someone simply because they agree with you, to not base your opinion of someone on agreement at all, but on how well they can explain what and why they believe; in short, if they can prove they think for themselves.[1] Since most people assume they are right, it makes sense to have a higher opinion of someone who confirms their belief.

So the first principle of being honest is the implicit conclusion to everything you say or believe: “I could be wrong.” Or the stronger, more courageous conclusion: “I am wrong”. Embrace the possibility of someone disagreeing with you; you’ll probably learn something, and they’ll appreciate that you are listening, instead of arguing. Even if I already agree with people, often I act like I don’t. Most people will not explain themselves if you too readily agree with them. Dissent forces them to reconsider their position, if only briefly: “Am I really right? Does being right or wrong even matter?” And it forces people to give reasons for what they believe, a great way of getting to know them.

Before I can stomach others disagreeing with me on my most precious beliefs, I have to learn how to attack myself, to disregard my feelings, and have it out with everything I hold dear. Nietzsche has a good point here:  “A very popular error – having the courage of one’s convictions: Rather it is a matter of having the courage for an attack upon one’s convictions!”  I have to be my harshest critic. No one is nice enough to do it for me.

Unsurprisingly, this is the opposite of what everyone is taught to think. We rarely critique ourselves and generally find very amiable those we agree with. Unconsciously, our parents teach us to be like them, to be better people than they are, but only they get to decide what “better” means. (Of course, many parents do this consciously, and have no guilty conscience afterwards about how they dominated and saturated their child’s entire worldview[2]) Implicitly, most parents believe that whatever they taught you is right is also right for everyone else. The worst of these say, “If only everyone could teach their kids the values and standards that I have taught mine! If only everyone knew what I knew!” Even more, I find when I ask people why they believe what they do, few can defend themselves quite well, but most merely regurgitate one of four things: the status quo, what their parents taught them, what their peers think, what their company thinks. (Yes, some people are that indoctrinated by their companies — or more precisely, their paycheck.) Some just make up lies on the spot, because they realize they never had a good reason to believe in the first place. The most courageous act is always the same: to think for yourself. Which brings me to my next point:

2. Follow your thoughts to their logical conclusions.

It is such a tragedy that free spirits are, and always have been, so rare; but maybe there are many of them, who think differently, but never do differently. Only the brave and educated mind can — and will — follow all of its thoughts to their logical conclusions. Most people are great thinkers, and see where their thoughts are going, but they always stop short of the conclusion, because it doesn’t fit the model of the society they hold so dear or it disagrees with someone they admire or respect. And yet, they probably secretly despise the society they live in, but continually put up with it, because they believe they have no other choice. Nietzsche is funny here: “Whoever thinks much is not suitable as a party member: he soon thinks himself right out of the party.” Every party, group, or organization has a tendency to wallow and languish in groupthink, so thinking yourself out of the party usually doesn’t take much thinking at all.

3. If you don’t know, say “I DON’T KNOW” or be silent.

It is a sign of strength to own one’s insecurity and vulnerability. Not knowing is insecure, it’s scary, the great void of ignorance. If I don’t know, I should act like it. Admitting you don’t know something means you respect yourself because you have high standards for knowledge, and that you respect others because you won’t deceive them by acting like you know. Respect is the ultimate currency.

Besides, conviction suffocates intellect. The best part about being a skeptic is that you feel agile and free; beliefs and convictions can weigh us down if we let them, especially if they are sloppily obtained. Minimalism of the mind is healthy. Comfort with uncertainty and love of the unknown are habits worth cultivating.

4. Strive for understanding, not agreement. Discuss more, argue less.

“The thing I hate about an argument is that it always interrupts a discussion.” – G.K. Chesterton

It is not whether we agree or disagree, but whether we understand each other. The lack of desire to understand another’s opinion because we find it offensive or foreign is unproductive. Sometimes, we even purposely misconstrue other’s opinions to build our own case. This most commonly happens in political discussions along party lines, such as presidential debates.

I find that when I disagree with someone, they generally ignore me. As in, they’ll listen to what I have to say, but they already assume I’m wrong because they disagree with me. They aren’t trying to understand me or where I am coming from, but are merely looking for ways to convince me that they are right. Understanding never crosses some people’s minds; the need to persuade others they are right is so overwhelming. Even if people happen to agree, each should still give their reasons; two perspectives with the same conclusions often have totally different premises for their beliefs. How can this be? Because each person’s worldview is constructed separately, in their own mind.

All arguing starts with the need to convince. If we drop the need to convince, assume we might be wrong, that is a phenomenal step towards understanding and valuing the opinions of others. You have to understand the context, content and tone of what someone is saying before you can agree with them. But usually, it is the other way around: people ask themselves first “Do I agree?” and only seldom, if ever, do they seriously ask “Do I understand?”

5. Resist the urge to be intoxicated by great writing and oratory.

It’s great to appreciate the beauty in a well-crafted sentence, but it’s even better to hone in on what is actually being said.

Montaigne goes on, “In debates and discussions we should not immediately be impressed by what we take to be a man’s own bons mots [Fr. “good word”]. Most men are rich with other men’s abilities. It may well be that such-and-such a man makes a fine remark, a good reply or a pithy saying, advancing it without realizing its power. That we do not grasp everything we borrow can doubtless be proved from my own case. We should not always give way, no matter what beauty or truth it may have. We should either seriously attack it or else, under pretense of not understanding it, retreat a little so as to probe it thoroughly and to discover how it is lodged in its author.”

Intellectual honesty is incredible hard to achieve, mostly because we can’t even get past our own biases and prejudices. Indeed, apparently — and this is a very strong apparently — studies have shown that being aware of your own cognitive biases doesn’t make you any less susceptible to them.  At most, this is depressing; at least, it is very humorous.

I’ll leave you with a few of my favorite quotes on the subject:

Everything that we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth. – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

“Conviction is the belief that in some point of knowledge one possesses absolute truth. Such a belief presumes, then, that absolute truths exist; likewise, that the perfect methods for arriving at them have been found; finally, that every man who has convictions makes use of these perfect methods. All three assertions prove at once that the man of convictions is not the man of scientific thinking; he stands before us still in the age of theoretical innocence, a child, however grown-up he might be otherwise.” – Nietzsche, Human All-Too-Human, 630

“We cheat ourselves of what is rightly useful to us in order to conform our appearances to the common opinion. We are not so much concerned with what the actual nature of our being is within us, as with how it is perceived by the public. Even wisdom and the good things of the mind seem fruitless to us if we enjoy them by ourselves, if they are not paraded before the approving eyes of others.” – Michel de Montaigne, Essais, “On Vanity”

“Never maintain an argument with heat or clamor, though you think or know yourself to be in the right; but give your opinions modestly and coolly, which is the only way to convince; and, if that does not do, try to change the conversation, by saying, with good-humor, “We shall hardly convince one another; nor is it necessary that we should, so let us talk of something else.” – Lord Chesterfield, Letter to His Son

Further reading:

Tim Krieder’s essay in the NYTimes, The power of I don’t know
first paragaph of Nietzsche’s essay on “The Need to be Alone”

Walden by Thoreau
On Liberty by John Stuart Mill

[1] I’m not saying despise people who don’t think for themselves, but, if anyone, those who do think for themselves are the ones to hold in higher esteem.

[2] I know parenting is more complex than this, and I don’t see all parents as authoritarians, but some parents literally do want to dominate their child’s worldview. And they get very angry when the child strays from the path.


Filed under Philosophy

TFA Effectiveness

Several people have sent me articles discussing Mathematica’s recent research study that examined Teach For America (TFA) math teacher effectiveness.  This study is significant because, to my knowledge, it is the first large-scale study on TFA to randomly assign students to classrooms.  Its experimental design provides fairly convincing support for the idea that TFA teachers’ students perform no worse than the students of non-TFA teachers at TFA placement schools.  But this finding is consistent with the findings of previous research and does not support the assertion that Teach For America teachers can close the achievement gap.

Anyone who continues to argue that TFA teachers yield worse educational outcomes than other teachers (generally citing pretty old research and ignoring the much larger body of research that contradicts that claim) are just plain wrong.  While there are some methodological concerns with recent studies, enough evidence exists for me to state confidently that TFA teachers, on average, do not harm student achievement.  At the same time, TFA and its proponents must also stop using misleading data and insisting that studies like this one prove more than they actually do.  Despite articles’ claims, the new Mathematica research does not suggest that TFA teachers’ students outperform non-TFA teachers’ students in a meaningful way.

The study showed a difference between TFA teachers and all comparison teachers of 7% of one standard deviation.  To put that number in context, a difference of 7% of one standard deviation in home runs between two baseball players in 2012 would be a difference of less than one home run over the course of the entire 162-game season.  Or, if you aren’t a baseball fan, a difference of 7% of one standard deviation between two students on the math section of the SAT in 2012 was equivalent to a difference of less than one correctly answered question.  The authors of the Mathematica study and just about every article quoting the study claim 7% of one standard deviation in this context is equivalent to 2.6 months of learning, using this 2007 research paper as justification, but that number is invalid and based on an inappropriately applied heuristic.  The average student in a non-TFA classroom scored in the 27th percentile on the tests administered while the average student in a TFA classroom scored in the 30th percentile; moving from the 27th percentile on a test to the 30th percentile does not represent, on average, 2.6 months of learning.  Furthermore, 40% of classrooms with TFA teachers scored lower than comparison classrooms taught by non-TFA teachers.  The study’s results were statistically significant, sure, but the advantage they show for TFA teachers is remarkably slight at best.

To me, the most important takeaway from the Mathematica study is that students at TFA placement schools, in general, perform terribly on standardized tests no matter who happens to be teaching them.  The reasons for that fact, as I alluded to in my last post, have a lot less to do with teaching and school quality than reformers would have us believe.  Most teachers, whether from TFA or any other program, want to help kids learn and are working hard towards that end most of the time.  But despite our best efforts, in-school reforms alone do little to impact the achievement gap.  The Mathematica study suggests that educators can only succeed if we simultaneously address economic inequality and other outside-of-school factors that disadvantage low-income students. I’d like to see critics and proponents of TFA alike stop quibbling about marginal improvements on standardized tests and start concentrating on the larger-scale advocacy that can really make a difference.

1 Comment

Filed under Education

The Teach Like a Champion Paradigm

At the middle school where I currently serve as Math Instructional Coach, part of our professional development consists of reading Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion.  This book provides a list of “49 techniques that [ostensibly] put students on the path to college” and is a Teach For America (TFA) favorite.  I have nearly finished the book and many of the techniques are great – I believe it can provide considerable value to teachers.  The book has a few major flaws worth discussing, however.  Lemov makes two assumptions that are representative of what I believe to be some of the biggest problems with TFA and the broader education reform movement.

First, Lemov assumes “the highest levels of student performance” are the goal of education and measures performance with standardized test scores.  He briefly acknowledges that “state test results…are not sufficient” but then buries that comment in a bunch of prose defending the value of what test results measure.  As one of my best former teachers argues in a recent article, reformers far too often concentrate on academic concerns “to the complete exclusion of the characteristics that make a difference in kids’ lives.”

The vast majority of TFA staff and corps members I have encountered care deeply about their students, and I imagine Lemov does as well.  But I’d like to see educators focus at least as much time and energy discussing how to inspire kids to be better people as Lemov does explaining how “a walk to the bathroom is a perfect time for a vocabulary review.”  The singular focus on academic achievement and test scores in the education reform debate has also contributed to the nationwide decline in art and physical education classes since No Child Left Behind.

Second, and much more dangerously, Lemov uses his charter network’s test scores to assert: “Great teaching, [our] teachers have proven, is strong enough to close the achievement gap.”  As evidence for this claim, Lemov cites the scatterplot below, which documents the scores of every public school in New York state on a 2009 English Language Arts assessment:

New York State ELA Scatterplot

FRPL stands for free and reduced-price lunch, an indicator of student poverty levels. The circled data point is Rochester Prep, a school from Lemov’s charter network, Uncommon Schools.

Lemov’s declaration – that this chart and others like it demonstrate that teaching effectiveness closes the achievement gap – is the fuel for much of the national conversation blaming the achievement gap on ineffective teachers and schools.  Reformers argue that dismantling teachers unions, linking teacher evaluation to student test score data, shutting down “failing” public schools in favor of charters, and a whole host of other changes would drastically improve educational outcomes in this country.  TFA and books like Teach Like a Champion, both of which suggest educator skill causes the results in the graph shown above, empower these reformers.  Sadly, not only is a causal link between teacher effectiveness and student performance data unestablished and the data itself unreliable, but data presented on charter school success is also incredibly misleading.

In-school factors have never been shown to explain more than one-third of the achievement gap and recent research suggests income inequality is the predominant cause of the achievement gap.  Additionally, outliers are expected in any dataset, Uncommon Schools is one of several that fall well above the trendline in the scatterplot above, and it’s possible (though I believe it unlikely) that the school just got lucky.  But let’s leave those considerations aside for a second and ask whether the student populations at Uncommon Schools are truly representative of the populations the schools draw from.  Lemov states,

Our students are selected at random from the districts where we work, have a higher poverty rate than the districts from which we draw, and, contrary to myth, are often the least, rather than the best, prepared students in those districts (one of the major reasons parents exercise school choice is that their students are struggling and increasingly at risk in their original schools; they are moving from as much as to).

His claim that his students are selected at random is just plain untrue and contradicted by his description of school choice at the end of the sentence.  While students who apply for admission are admitted via a random lottery, any introductory statistics student can tell you that a random sample from a group of volunteers in an area is most definitely not a random sample from the entire area.  Lemov provides no evidence to support his claim that his students are less prepared than their counterparts who don’t apply because there is no evidence to support this assertion; in fact, families who have the knowledge and commitment to seek new schools for their students are more likely to find success in any environment.  Lemov’s statement, if not willfully deceptive, reflects a poor understanding of statistics.

Gary Rubinstein, a 1991 TFA corps member and seasoned educator, has extensively studied data presented by “miracle” schools, schools like those in the Uncommon Schools network that achieve seemingly unbelievable results.  Rubinstein has found that in most cases those results are unbelievable because they are, well, not worthy of being believed.  Whether charters lose students by expelling them, by not-so-subtly suggesting to their families that kids won’t be successful at the school (a practice a friend of mine who worked at a KIPP school called “counseling out”), or through some other method (perhaps unintentional), the student attrition rates at these charter schools are very high and the percentages presented in most cases don’t account for this fact.  When a “miracle” school’s change in the student body is taken into account, the school’s results are hardly noteworthy.  These schools often help students, to be sure, but the students they help are generally small, unrepresentative subsets of students in poverty.

Schools in the Uncommon Schools network are quite possibly awesome schools for the students they serve, and the teachers Lemov observed and wrote about are most likely excellent teachers.  Their results, however, despite Lemov’s and reformers’ claims, do not indicate that great teaching can level the playing field for children in poverty.  Teachers can and should work hard to change students’ lives and there are undoubtedly cases where we succeed.  But when reformers advance changes based on misleading data and/or false claims from people like Lemov, our students suffer and the goal of educational equity becomes harder to realize.


Filed under Education

Intro and critique of post-racial ideology

I posted this as a facebook status a while ago, and it resonated with some people; so I figured I’d post it here as well to kick things off. It’s about “race”, so I’ll give a quick intro of my views on race.

Race will not a huge topic for me, mostly because being black (full disclosure) I’ve already thought so much about race, it’s already caused me so much pain, angst, rage, and sorrow, that I’ve essentially decided to take long, periodic breaks from thinking about race. I think it’s good for all people who have been systematically discriminated against to occasionally shut it out of their minds (if they can) and simply live. It is a pity that some people let racial ideology color all of their thought and discourse. I went through a period where I read nothing but race-related literature, and although I learned a lot, I became militant and cynical.

Don’t get me wrong: The fight against racial injustice is far from over, but in order for a “person of color” (what a vapid moniker) to grow more fully in the great personal and Emersonian[1] sense, I sincerely believe they must take a break from all race-related thinking. For me, I can’t watch a movie or read a book about “black issues” or “the state of black men” without feeling the inevitable rage or disgust frothing and foaming in my bosom. It is there, I cannot deny it; and many times, I simply laugh it off. I know it is reality, but sometimes, we should leave reality. Why? To get a better view of our own condition, just like traveling helps you get a more comprehensive view of your own country.

I have been both victim and perpetrator of racism on several occasions. Weird, huh? I know you won’t hear many people say this, but I believe most racism is unconscious because of the subtle cultural cues we ingest as we engage with our environment, so it stands to reason that I could be both, even at the same time! (Especially from the American point of view: America was racially stratified from day 1. In other words, the Declaration of Independence’s “all men are created equal” was an utter hoax, unless one assumes that black men were not actually “men”)

Anyway, if you’re still reading, athena bless you, and here you go:

Post-race as a stupidity. There is a false ethos that says America is beyond “race” (and whoever ascribes to this ethos thinks they are so wise, progressive, and free). With the advent of political correctness and the voice of its cynical and myopic backlash, you can’t be black and discuss racism at the same time without being called a race-baiter. [2] And so now there is a whole behemoth of schmucks who believe that every time race is mentioned as one of many possible causes or the main cause, the speaker instantly loses all credibility. “Race can be neither cause nor effect. Are you still talking about this? It’s 2013. C’mon! Just get over it, will you?” No method of coping could be more dumb and useless! [3] These people have historical Alzheimer’s. They really think America can deliberately practice all types of racism for several centuries, then eradicate legal racism in 1964 – and 50 years later, all incidences of personal and communal racism will vanish into thin air. Really, I wish they were right. Laws have always changed faster, and more gracefully, than cultural attitudes. And since racism was a fact of culture for centuries, this means it was handed down like a tradition, a “just the way it is” – in the same way that Christmas is a tradition. And now what people want is a national affliction of collective amnesia – and for everyone to shake off their past oppressions like a bad dream – “All the women please stand up, and shake off all the injustices men have done to you”. Women would very well be shaking for all eternity!

[1] To give you an idea of what I’m trying to say, here is an excerpt of Emerson’s seminal essay, Self-Reliance: “Every true man is a cause, a country, and an age; requires infinite spaces and numbers and time fully to accomplish his design; — and posterity seem to follow his steps as a train of clients.” Typical Emerson, right? But perhaps Ralph Ellison put it better in The Invisible Man by realizing that a race is the collection of its individuals, and we disallow ourselves to be whole human beings if we always think through the lens of race, politics, and/or ideology.

[2] If you are not familiar with the concept of ‘race-baiting’, read up on it. It is part of the “cynical and myopic backlash” to political correctness that I mentioned earlier, which is a direct outgrowth of insidious white privilege that fancies itself so objective, honest, and “post-race”. I will admit, there are some blacks and others who use the “excuse of racism” as a crutch, but I contend this is far from the norm. Trust me, no one would be thinking about race if they didn’t have to. Why? It sucks. This is not a call for pity; this is the lived experience of actual people.

[3] Word choice is the most agonizing task for a writer. By “dumb”, I mean it is a lazy and ahistorical way to view racial issues. By “useless”, I meant it’s basically ignoring the complaints of the oppressed, because it’s saying those complaints don’t exist. The oppressed are not always right, but they should be heard.

Most of my posts will be much shorter than this diatribe, as I’m terribly fond of the aphorism. To give you an idea of what to expect, I hope to offer you a series of very rich debate openings, in a very scatterbrained fashion. The life of the mind is utterly disturbing, enigmatic, and friendly — won’t you join me?


Filed under Race and Religion

Objectivity and Credibility

Most of the people reading this post will be friends and family who have received my political emails for the past five years.  If you don’t fall into that category, however, you have most likely stumbled across this blog by accident.  Maybe 34 is your favorite number and your dog’s name Justice; you wanted to find out what hooligans had stolen your rightful domain name.  Or perhaps you conducted the same Google image search that I did last week, looking for a banner featuring Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and Cesar Chavez (I still think it’s awesome that we found one).  Whatever the reason, you’re here, and I figure it’s incumbent upon me to tell you a little bit about the perspective from which I’ll be writing.

I don’t believe any writing is “objective.”  I have held that view since tenth grade, when Mike Levy and Jack Schneider decided to use Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States as my history textbook.  I highly recommend Zinn’s entire first chapter, but I’ve tried to capture in the following excerpt the argument that fundamentally altered how I read anything from that point forward:

…The treatment of heroes (Columbus) and their victims (the Arawaks) – the quiet acceptance of conquest and murder in the name of progress – is only one aspect of a certain approach to history, in which the past is told from the point of view of governments, conquerors, diplomats, leaders…My viewpoint, in telling the history of the United States, is different…The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people…not to be on the side of the executioners.

…[T]his book will be skeptical of governments and their attempts, through politics and culture, to ensnare ordinary people in a giant web of nationhood pretending to a common interest. I will try not to overlook the cruelties that victims inflict on one another as they are jammed together in the boxcars of the system. I don’t want to romanticize them. But I do remember (in rough paraphrase) a statement I once read: ‘The cry of the poor is not always just, but if you don’t listen to it, you will never know what justice is.’

That, being as blunt as I can, is my approach to the history of the United States. The reader may as well know that before going on.

What I continue to find so striking and compelling about what Zinn writes is not that I agree with his perspective.  I do – I love the idea that it is the job of thinking people to adopt the perspective of the disadvantaged as much as possible – but what I really respect about Zinn is that he states his opinions upfront.  That meant I could agree or disagree with his conclusions based on the merits of the case he presented.  I didn’t need to try and discern his biases and agenda because he told me what they were.  That chapter, to me, instantly made Howard Zinn the most credible writer I had ever encountered.  It also made me skeptical of anyone claiming to deliver an objective assessment of facts.  Whether we’re aware of them or not, our values and assumptions dictate what we say and when we say it.

Right after Glenn Greenwald broke his first story on the NSA, articles popped up asking whether Greenwald could be called a journalist.  They argued that Greenwald’s espoused views on civil liberties and Edward Snowden make him different from traditional reporters engaged in “the dispassionate reporting of facts.”  It is precisely those reporters who proclaim they are dispassionately reporting facts that we should view with skepticism, however.  As Matt Taibbi writes, “journalists can strive to be balanced and objective, but that’s all it is, striving.”

NYU professor Jay Rosen is more forgiving of journalists who try to report objective truth, calling their brand of journalism “politics: none.”  But he calls Greenwald’s brand of reporting, in which the writer’s perspectives are clearly stated for the reader, “politics: some,” and writes that, “if you’re persuaded that transparency is the better route to trust, politics: some is the better choice.”  So, to be fully transparent, here is my brief overview of the perspective I will be writing from in all my posts on this blog:

I believe a just society is one in which all its members have all basic needs met and equal opportunity to succeed.  The current state of the US and the world is incredibly far away from this ideal, and as Chris Hayes argued in Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, equality of opportunity will never be achieved while we allow a gross inequality in outcomes. Correct policy lies not somewhere in the middle of two opposing points of view, but in whatever measures will help us achieve this ideal.

That is my approach to political issues.  I hope that’s helpful as you read this blog.

Update (9/8):
Conor Friedersdorf has an interesting article on Syria that examines press objectivity.


Filed under Philosophy