Category Archives: Education / Youth

File Under: From Your Mouth To God’s Ears

When someone made a positive prediction in her presence, my grandmother would employ a favorite  “go to” phrase: “from your mouth to God’s ears!” It was her way of saying she certainly hoped that whatever was being predicted would turn out to be true.

Grandma has been gone for quite some time, but that phrase was the first thing that popped into my head when I read this report from Politico.

As many as five Democratic-led House committees next year could take on DeVos over a range of issues such as her rollback of regulations aimed at predatory for-profit colleges, the stalled processing of student loan forgiveness and a rewrite of campus sexual assault policies.

“Betsy DeVos has brought a special mix of incompetence and malevolence to Washington — and that’s rocket fuel for every committee in a new Congress that will finally provide oversight,” said Seth Frotman, who resigned as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s top student loan official earlier in protest of Trump administration policies likely to be examined by Democrats.

In any other administration, DeVos’ “special mix of incompetence and malevolence” would have garnered far more media attention. Trumpworld, however, has such a monumental amount of both that she has had to share that attention with others in the abysmal cohort comprising our nation’s current administration.

Among the incoming committee chairs antagonistic to DeVos is Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.). She’s in line to lead the Appropriations subcommittee overseeing education funding, and–like the other incoming chairs identified in the article–she’s coming to the job with her sights firmly set on DeVos.

The panel’s oversight work, DeLauro said, will focus on ways to “hold Secretary DeVos accountable for her agency’s failure to uphold federal protections for our students.”

DeLauro called DeVos’ record on student debt issues “appalling,” citing the administration’s moves to eliminate Obama-era rules meant to cut off funding to low-performing colleges and make it easier for defrauded borrowers to obtain loan forgiveness.

“I will make sure Secretary DeVos knows Americans want her to protect students and veterans, not the for-profit school industry,” she said.

Maxine Waters will head the Financial Services Committee; earlier this month she accused DeVos of a “full-on attack on civil rights protections for students—particularly students of color, students with disabilities, transgender students, and survivors of sexual assault.”

A number of watchdog groups have brought lawsuits that can serve as agendas for these committees:

Groups like American Oversight, National Student Legal Defense Network and Democracy Forward have all filed multiple lawsuits against the department — many focusing on its ties to the for-profit education industry.

“We are certainly hopeful that the Department of Education will cooperate with the incoming Democratic chairs’ oversight requests,” said Aaron Ament, president of the National Student Legal Defense Network, which published a list of oversight topics for Democrats to take on after the election. “However, given this administration’s track record when it comes to following the law, it would not be surprising if Congress has to use subpoenas to get any useful information.”

Trump’s cabinet–with a combined net worth estimated at $14 Billion–is filled with appointees chosen mainly for their deep antagonism to the missions of the agencies they head. (Total ignorance of the matters under the agencies’ jurisdiction is a plus.) But even in that pathetic assembly, DeVos stands out.

Hostility to public education? Check. Lack of even the slightest understanding of education policy debates? Check. Devotion to her fellow plutocrats who are making fortunes by ripping off students and taxpayers? Check. Total lack of respect, regard or concern for the students DOE supposedly serves? Check.

When Politico’s mouth gets to God’s ears, bring popcorn.

 

What We Can Do

Yesterday, I spoke to the Danville Unitarians about–surprise!–the importance of civic knowledge, and what each of us can do to encourage its acquisition…Here’s what I said. Apologies for the length.

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I was asked to talk today about the importance of what I call Civic Literacy—and to suggest what your congregation and each of you individually might do to encourage other people to acquire the knowledge necessary to properly discharge their citizenship responsibilities.

Let me share some background. In late 2010, I was teaching my undergraduate class in Law and Public Policy. I approach this subject-matter through a constitutional lens, because—after all—in order to be legally enforceable, policies have to be constitutional, and it helps when policymakers have some idea of what the Constitution requires. I begin with a brief description of the Enlightenment (which few of my undergraduate students have ever heard of), proceed to the “architecture” of our constitutional system, and then consider what people mean when they talk about “original intent.”

I often introduce that discussion by asking what James Madison thought about porn on the Internet.

Usually, the students to whom I direct that question laugh and say something to the effect that Madison could never have imagined something like the Internet. But of course, Madison did have opinions about the importance of free expression and the need to protect such expression from government censorship, so we proceed to discuss how the courts have applied the Founders’ intent – protection of the principleof freedom of speech—to a variety of communication mechanisms Madison could never have contemplated.

On this particular day, however, the student to whom I directed the question (a college junior) looked puzzled, and asked “Who is James Madison?”

It was my introduction to America’s civic literacy deficit.

That incident triggered a question I went on to explore: how widespread is such civic ignorance? What don’t Americans know about our country’s history, philosophy and legal system? The answer, according to the data then available, was: a lot. At the time, for example, only 36% of Americans could name the three branches of government. By last year, that same national survey found the number had slipped to 26%.

Overall, a huge amount of data confirms that most Americans know little or nothing about the Constitution, or about government, economics or science. Most cannot define the terms they routinely employ to embrace or dismiss different systems, like capitalism, socialism and fascism.

Why do I think that informed civic engagement is so important?

Civic literacy (or lack thereof) affects the whole of society. Reasonable levels are especially critical to the maintenance of democratic norms.

We are currently seeing the results when people elected to high office don’t respect those norms, or know anything about the Constitution, or the way government works—or for that matter, what science is or the most basic principles of economics. Such individuals are elected by voters who don’t understand those things, either– who don’t understand what skills governing requires and who are unable to evaluate the performance of the people they elect.

If that isn’t bad enough, over the past quarter century or so, we’ve seen the growth of yet another problem that is largely attributable to low levels of civic literacy: susceptibility to spin, propaganda and so-called “fake news.” When you don’t know what the rules really are, it’s easy to believe hysterical accusations. Did a Court say a cross on government property violated the Establishment Clause? That means Satanists have won, and we’ll have to remove the crosses from our churches! (True story.)

We know that the American public is ignorant—not stupid, just ignorant– but there’s a lot we don’t know about the causes and consequences of this very troubling deficit of civic knowledge:
·      What is the civic deficit? i.e., what is the necessary content/what are the essential skills that make a person “civically literate”?
·      How are civic literacy and civic engagement related? Which comes first? What behaviors beyond voting reflect civic engagement/civic skills?
·      Where, besides some public-school classrooms, are civic skills taught and/or civic information imparted?
·       Is there a relationship between perceived political efficacy and motivation to become civically knowledgeable? (“I can’t make a difference anyway, so why bother?”)

As an old lawyer once told me, there’s really only one legal or political question, and that’s “what do we do?” That’s the question the Center for Civic Literacy is now focusing on.

So—what can any of us do? Let me share a few ideas.

Awhile back, a graduate student and I wrote a short book we called Giving Civics a Sporting Chance. We compared America’s fascination with sports trivia to our lack of civic knowledge. Every weekend, some bar is holding a trivia contest and customers are demonstrating that they know who threw the winning pitch in the 1939 World Series.  Why not hold trivia contests focused on American history, government and the constitution?  (You might generate some local political support if you include questions like “Who’s your city councilor?” or “What does the county coroner do?”)

In Indianapolis, we worked with the public library on a project we called “Electing Our Future”—it might also serve as a template for local efforts. A couple of months before municipal elections, we had panel discussions about the issues winning candidates would face. We didn’t talk about the candidates–we didn’t even invite them– but about the problems we’d expect them to solve and the practical, legal and financial constraints they would face.

One effort that is still ongoing and has been very popular is an adult version of “We the People.” Women4Change worked with the National Center for Civic Literacy to offer one night per week, six-week versions of that very effective civics curriculum.

There is another thing that each of us can do to call attention to the superficiality of American knowledge. When we read a letter to the Editor or a post to a widely-read blog that misstates a Constitutional principle, or incorrectly defines an economic term, or confuses science with religion, we need to respond.

For example: “I noticed that Sally Smith dismissed evolution because it is “just a theory.” But “theory” in science is a technical term, not to be confused with ordinary usage. Scientific theories are supported by evidence that has been tested empirically….” You get the idea. These corrections should be as polite as we can make them, since the people who express uneducated, factually-wrong opinions are likely to resent having “smarty pants elitists” correct them. That said, I think a concerted effort to highlight misinformation and raise awareness would have a positive effect.

The problem isn’t just that Americans are deficient in knowledge about the country’s history, constitution and legal system— the problem is that, so far as I can tell, most Americans have been unconcerned about those deficiencies, and the failure of most schools to teach civics adequately.

One of the reasons our public schools don’t focus on educating future citizens is the philosophical divide among citizens about the purpose of public education. The arguments made by self-styled reformers tend to focus on education as a consumer good; a “good school” is one that imparts skills needed by children who will enter the global marketplace. In the United States, however, public education was originally conceived to be—in Benjamin Barber’s felicitous phrase—constitutive of a public. In an ever-more-diverse polity, where the Constitution and “American creed” are essential elements of our “civic religion” (and frequently the source of the only values we hold in common), a robust civics education is what allows us to “constitute” a polity. It is what makes us Americans.

Marketable skills and STEM skills are important, but so is familiarity with—and ideally, allegiance to– the history and philosophy of America’s approach to self-government. If there is one over-riding lesson we at the Center for Civic Literacy have learned it is that—despite our national fondness for flag waving and our constant, pious references to the Constitution—too few Americans know what the flag stands for, or what the Constitution says.

Ultimately, of course, we have to lobby our legislatures to require more and better history and civics instruction in our schools. When you think about it, Americans don’t pray to the same god, read the same books and newspapers, watch the same television shows, eat the same foods—a lot of us don’t even speak the same language. The only thing that all Americans have in common is a particular philosophy of government and a distinctive set of social values—and when we don’t know anything about that philosophy or those values, we aren’t Americans; we’re just a collection of separate, mutually-suspicious constituencies contending for power.

And most of us understand that encouraging distrust in a bunch of mutually hostile, know-nothing constituencies is highly unlikely to make America great again…

Thank you.

Local Races Are Important Too

We are approaching midterm elections and for obvious reasons, most of our attention is on Congress. But we shouldn’t forget the importance of local races.

Especially school board elections.

Not only is it critically important to improve–and support– public education, but homeowners have a fiscal interest in good schools: the value of your home is significantly affected by perceptions of the local school system.

I have learned first-hand how thankless a job on the local school board can be. Our daughter has spent the last 20 years–with a one-term hiatus–on the Indianapolis Public School Board. I’ve watched as she and her colleagues (including a former student of mine) have worked their hearts out to improve the district, while every new effort has been met with brickbats and/or accusations of bad intentions from the inevitable naysayers and people with various axes to grind.

You have to really care about children and education to serve on a school board.

Our daughter is retiring, but she has endorsed one of the candidates who is running to replace her. She recently sent out a letter on his behalf, and I’d like to share that letter.

Since I announced that I would not be seeking re-election to the Indianapolis Public Schools Board of Commissioners in July, I have been glad to see a number of high quality candidates enter the field to advocate for the interests of the IPS parents and families of District 3. These candidates represent the diversity of perspective and passion for our young people that gives IPS the incredible energy and potential it has as our state’s largest public school district. As someone who has stood for election a few times herself, I know the bravery, determination and strength of character it takes to put yourself before your own community and fight for the privilege to lead. For this reason, I wish every single candidate in this year’s election well.

With that said, elections are about choices, and when the polls close on November 6th only one candidate will take up the mantle of serving and supporting our public school system. I take pride in what I was able to accomplish as part of the team that has been guiding Indianapolis Public Schools in recent years, and I really do believe we have made incredible progress as a district.  Graduation rates are up and in District 3 more families are choosing IPS because of the expansion of successful magnet programs. But there is more work to be done. It is with the work still ahead of us in mind that I proudly and wholeheartedly endorse my friend Evan Hawkins in his bid to fill my former seat on the IPS Board of Commissioners.

Evan grew up in Butler Tarkington, just around the corner from my husband and me.  I have known members of Evan’s family for years; a family with deep roots in Indianapolis and IPS. I see in him the same passion for community and belief in our young people that drove me to run for the same office 20 years ago. Those values are important, but there’s more to Evan than what he values. IPS schools need leaders who not only have a vision for the future success of our district, but who have the experience it takes to plan and prepare for that future. Evan Hawkins is a career K-12 educational professional who has the expertise it takes to work with our school leaders, teachers, and IPS families to develop a comprehensive financial plan that will improve and sustain IPS for all of our kids.  And Evan and his wife live in Meridian Kessler and are parents in IPS.  They know first hand the the impact high quality public schools have on students, families, and neighborhoods.

From complex budget issues to school closures, my time on the IPS Board has meant hard choices for the district and the taxpaying families we serve. Everyone can see that in these changing times, more complex challenges and difficult choices will await those candidates who become commissioners after election day. IPS parents and families deserve to know that their district has the best prepared leadership at the helm to help guide our schools to success. This election, IPS District 3 has the opportunity to elect a leader with the passion of an IPS parent and the preparation of a professional in the educational field, and that is why I’ll be casting my vote for Evan Hawkins on Tuesday, November 6th.

I’ve known and deeply admired members of Evan’s family for a long time, and it’s clear that Evan shares his family’s belief in social equity and public service. If you live in IPS District 3, I hope you’ll consider voting for him. If you don’t live in District 3, I hope you will carefully consider the candidates for your local school board.

It’s one more important decision in a monumentally important year.

Word Choices Can Feed Bias

A recent headline in the Indianapolis Star read: “McCormick Calls for LBGTQ Strings on Private School Voucher Money.”  (Jennifer McCormick is Indiana’s Superintendent of Public Instruction.)

Strings? Or standards?

The statement by McCormick–with which I entirely agree–was prompted by a local controversy over actions taken by Roncalli High School. Roncalli is an Indianapolis Catholic High School that placed one of its guidance counselors on administrative leave after discovering that she was in a same-sex marriage. The school has evidently threatened to terminate her unless she dissolves her marriage.

Roncalli has received more than $6.5 million in public money over the past five years through Indiana’s most-expansive-in-the-nation school voucher program.

The issue is simple: should public dollars–which come from all Hoosiers, including gay and lesbian taxpayers–support schools that discriminate against some of those Hoosiers?

I would argue that taxpayer dollars ought not support private–and especially religious– schools at all, but that is an argument for another day. In any event, I found the Star’s headline offensive. By characterizing McCormick’s proposed standards for receipt of public dollars as “strings,” it strongly suggested that an unnecessarily picky bureaucracy was trying to make it difficult for religious schools to participate in Indiana’s voucher program. It utterly trivialized a very important issue, which is the use of public money to subsidize discrimination.

As usual, Doug Masson has a more temperate–and eloquent– response to the story, and to the issue.

The issue of inclusiveness appears to be a reference to Roncalli’s decision to terminate a long-time, well-regarded guidance counselor when the school was made aware (or forced to acknowledge) that the counselor had a spouse of the same sex. Roncalli is a private school but it’s funded — in part — with public money. The question becomes whether public money should come with conditions and, if so, what conditions should be attached. Obviously, it should and does come with conditions. Voucher money can’t just go anywhere. The voucher school has to look and act more or less like a school. If it was, for example, a tavern that labeled itself a “school,” then Rep. Behning would likely change his position. He says:

If parents have a problem with the school’s practices, employment or otherwise, Behning said they can send their child elsewhere. In that case their tuition will follow, whether it’s paid by the parent or by the state. “Parents are the ones that should be making those decisions,” he said, “rather than the government.”

Rep. Behning is obviously being a little disingenuous here. The government simply wouldn’t let parents make the tavern decision. So, as the joke goes, we’re just haggling over the price. Is discrimination on that basis against an otherwise well-qualified employee because she has a same-sex spouse something we’re willing to fund or not? I obviously fall on the “not” side of that question, and it sounds like Dr. McCormick does as well. My guess is that the General Assembly will be perfectly willing to continue subsidizing Roncalli, notwithstanding its employment practices. (Because, remember, my view of the three goals of the General Assembly when it comes to school vouchers: 1) Hurt the teacher’s unions; 2) direct education money to friends & well-wishers; and 3) subsidize religious education.)

Before education reformers write me to protest that we need “alternatives” and “choice” and “innovations,” let me suggest that they research the difference between Charter schools, which are public and subject to the Constitution, and schools receiving vouchers, which are private and aren’t.

As usual, I agree completely with Doug’s analysis. (I do think he’s too kind to Rep. Behning…”disingenuous” isn’t the word I’d have chosen.)

Another word I wouldn’t have chosen is “strings.” As the saying goes, one person’s “red tape” is the next person’s accountability.

The Science Of Democracy

“If Scientific Literacy is the Answer, What’s the Question?” is the provocative title of an online article by my friend Eric Meslin. Eric is a native of Canada– a bioethicist who left IUPUI a couple of years ago to become President and CEO of the Council of Canadian Academies. He wrote the article as part of a celebration of Canada’s “Science Literacy Week.”

Canada has a “Science Literacy Week.” Sort of makes an American cry….

I remember when people in the United States respected science. And education. That, of course, was before Trump, Pence and Betsy DeVos scorned bookish “elitists,” elevated religion over science, and job training over education. But I digress.

Eric reported on a 2014 Expert Panel assessment Science Culture: Where Canada Stands that found Canadians having mostly positive attitudes towards science and low levels of apprehension about science compared with citizens of other countries. Nevertheless,

The assessment also found only 53% of Canadians understood that antibiotics were not effective against viruses; only 46% were able to describe what it meant to study something scientifically (that is, using the scientific method); and that around 42% of the population had attained a basic enough level of science literacy that they could grasp general coverage of scientific and technological stories in the media. And yet, these results rated Canada as the most scientifically literate country in the world.

Why should science literacy matter? Eric points to the “tsunami” of information available, and the need to cull what is useful and well-founded from the mountains of speculation, disinformation and conflicting reports (to which I would add outright peddling of snake-oil.)

Maneuvering in a busy world of science information gives one answer to the question, why does science literacy matter? Knowing something about science can help distinguish between claims that are truthful from those that are not, to understand which new information should be heeded and what can be set aside for the moment. Indeed, part of being science literate is knowing where to find the resources to make sense of the scientific evidence.

Perhaps the most important argument for improving science literacy is the connection between a basic understanding of the scientific method and democratic self-governance. As Eric explains that connection:

As important as science literacy is for people to understand science, a science-literate public may also be the best hope for a well-functioning democracy.

This view sees science literacy as an antidote to the many varieties of fundamentalism that undermine pluralistic, cosmopolitan, multicultural democracies. A science literate society not only better understands the science behind a policy (e.g., it is a good idea to know a little bit about stem cell science before deciding whether to fund it), a science literate public also understands how to think carefully about how policy gets made, who decides, and using what criteria. When decisions are made to build bridges, dams or pipelines; to regulate chemicals and food; or to require vaccination, or fluoridate water, a science-literate public is applying its critical thinking skills to policy making in society.

Scientifically-literate citizens won’t always come to the same conclusions, but their debates are far more likely to be illuminating and productive than the arguments between, for example, the scientific community and the troglodytes who use biblical passages to dismiss the threat of climate change.

Eric also quoted a favorite book of mine: Timothy Ferris’ The Science of Liberty. As I wrote a few years ago,

Ferris argues convincingly that the democratic revolution was sparked by the scientific one. The new approach to governing wasn’t merely a function of the embrace of reason, because–as current events keep reminding us–people can reason themselves into all sorts of conclusions that have a tenuous connection to reality. Science was the new ingredient, and while science requires reason, it isn’t just reason. It’s empiricism, experimentation…the same sort of experimentation that is the basis for democratic governance.

It was the advent of science and the scientific method that underscored the importance of decisions based on evidence.  As Ferris notes, dogma ruled the world before science came along, and dogma remains the preference of the majority of people today. (If you doubt the accuracy of that observation, look at Congress. Or Texas. Or, unfortunately, the Indiana Statehouse.) But democracy is not a dogma–it’s a method,a process not unlike the scientific method.

It is well to recognize that when strident anti-intellectual political figures attack scholarship as “elitism,”  when they dismiss scientific consensus on everything from evolution to climate change, when they call for “repealing” the Enlightenment, it isn’t only science they are attacking.

It’s democracy as we understand it.

The U.S. isn’t doing so well in either science or democracy these days. One more reason to envy Canada…