About Me

I am Associate Professor and Chair of the History Department at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. I am also the Academic Director of the Clemente Course in the Humanities, in New Bedford MA. Author of "Social Security and the Middle Class Squeeze" (Praeger, 2005) and the forthcoming "Saul Alinsky the Dilemma of Race in the Post-War City" (University of Chicago Press), my teaching and scholarship focuses on American urban history, social policy, and politics. I am presently writing a book on home ownership in modern America, entitled "Castles Made of Sand? Home Ownership and the American Dream." I live in Providence RI, where I have served on the School Board since March 2015. All opinions posted here are my own.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Will historicize for food, coffee

Which college majors have the highest unemployment rates, according to the Washington Post?

I'm proud to say that the 'Liberal Arts' (which includes my discipline, history) took the bronze medal - with an unemployment rate of 9.4%.

Since that is lower than the rate here in Rhode Island, I propose we tweak the Richard Florida thesis somewhat, and say f**k the creative class.  Import historians!  Think of the multiplier effects!

I can't think of any multiplier effects.  Good thing I'm not an economist.  If there were any justice at all, those people would have come in first (especially the 'freshwater' variety).

For the few 70s-era dead-enders who actually think history is a social science...those people came in 4th, with an 8.9% rate.

The worst rate?  Architects.  Is it any wonder that Shana and I don't have any money?  And that the country is presently filled with whiny white Tea Partiers, contemplating the 'victimhood' of John Galt?

The major with the lowest unemployment rate?  Its a tie between health and education.  Illness and ignorance never go into recession, do they?

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Social mobility: the decline of American exceptionalism

Very good overview of the issue of social mobility in the U.S. in the Times today, by the always thoughtful Jason DeParle. 

For a graphic comparing social mobility in the U.S. and Denmark, go here (tried to reproduce it here, but couldn't make it fit).

The piece is quite balanced, and notes that while arguments can be made for the moral, political and economic irrelevancy of inequalities of income, data indicating a lack of social mobility constitute a much more consequential challenge for conservatives.  DeParle makes it clear that while scholars do argue over the data and their interpretation, the vast preponderance of research on mobility shows us two things:  that mobility in the U.S. is lower than most people think, and that other comparably wealthy countries are much more mobile than we are.  He doesn't note -- but I will -- another relevant fact:  Canada and most of Western Europe and Scandinavia not only have more mobility within and across generations.  The consequences of not moving up -- or of falling -- aren't nearly as dire as they are in the U.S.

The only real justification for the extraordinary inequalities of wealth that exist in the US today, is that while resources aren't distributed equally, opportunities are. But this is clearly not true, and hasn't been for quite some time. It is my sense that, barring definitive action by government at all levels, we are only at the beginning of a massive collapse of the opportunity structure in the US.  

The tragedy of this is that over the last decade we have come to a greater understanding of how inequality is reproduced across generations, particularly among the very young -- and because of this research, we also have a pretty good sense of what the most effective policy instruments might be.  But inequality generates a politics designed to protect privilege (surely this is the irony of the 'Tea Party,' as Thomas Frank argues in his new book), making it almost impossible for us to truly grapple with all of this as a nation.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

The passing of Robert L. Carter, and school desegregation in the metropolitan North

I was saddened to hear of the death of Judge Robert L. Carter yesterday, at the age of 94.  The passing of this great generation of civil rights reformers (Fred Shuttlesworth and Derrick Bell are gone too) was of course inevitable -- Dr. King would be in his 80s, if he were still with us.  But studying their words and work, one is reminded of just how limited our visions of justice are these days.

I had the great privilege of spending a week with Carter a few years ago, as a participant in an NEH seminar on civil rights up at Harvard.  He was sharp, passionate and inspiring, as he regaled us with story after story about his legal work with Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and walked us through his informative memoir, "A Matter of Law."  If I remember correctly, I was a bit combative in some of our exchanges.  Carter insisted on the transformative potential of school desegregation cases in the urban North, which he constantly pushed from within the NAACP in the mid/late 60s.  I argued that the real issue was metropolitan housing segregation, and that a focus on the cities alone would achieve nothing more than tokenism, resistance, and white flight.  He countered by emphasizing, rightly, the value of setting legal precedents.  This was, after all, how the Brown decision was achieved in 1954:  a long, slow walk through the court system.  It was particularly important to get the courts to focus on impact, not intent, in the application of constitutional doctrine to segregation in the North.  Once that was achieved, things could open up in much more transformative ways.

As background for my home ownership book, I've been doing some research on civil rights, the law and housing policy from the mid-60s to the mid-70s, and I'm in a much better position now to make sense of what Carter was trying to tell me -- and of his legacy.  During this all-too-brief period, there was a possibility (albeit a thin one) that the nation might finally confront the pattern of metropolitan inequality and segregation (by race and class) that had emerged in the wake of World War II.  Real discussions of the necessity of 'opening up the suburbs' were taking place, not only within the civil rights and fair housing movements, but also within the Johnson administration, the courts, and even in the early days of Nixon's first term (George Romney, Secretary of HUD, characterized suburbia as a 'white noose' around the neck of urban America).  Most parties to this discussion recognized that both access to employment and to quality public education hinged on whether American metropolitan areas could be restructured.  In other words, the future of the American opportunity structure was at stake -- but time was of the essence.  The nation was on the cusp of a massive expansion in suburban development (and of home ownership), but the shape which our social geography would take was still somewhat plastic.  The intellectual, judicial and policy tools were there to trace direct connections between social geography and opportunity, and to expand civil rights jurisprudence beyond the limited individualistic ontology that had previously defined it.

And Robert L. Carter was right there, at the forefront.  Unfortunately for all of us, this brief window of opportunity to unwind metropolitan inequality had slammed shut by the mid-70s.  There were small victories and experiments at the local and state level, here and there; the Mount Laurel decision, by the New Jersey Supreme Court in 1975, for example.  But my argument about the 'window' is mostly aimed at the federal level.

Nixon gets some of the blame, as much because of his racial demagoguery as his urban and housing policies.  His Supreme Court appointments get a lot of it, too.  The San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez (1973) and Milliken v. Bradley (1974) decisions carved a direct path to the urban school crisis we presently confront.  Despite occasional exceptions at the state level, federal courts also continued to limit the reach of constitutional claims against exclusionary zoning, rendering fair housing law a dead letter in much of the country.  Suburban white America captured the lion's share of the responsibility, and retains it today.  While the Republican Party has become the unapologetic champion of white suburban privilege (see this recent piece by Daniel Denvir, on urban issues in today's GOP), the Democrats refuse to see what even George Romney (let alone Robert L. Carter) saw 40 years ago:  that racial and class segregation is a recipe for disaster for the country.

Thanks, Mr. Carter, and rest in peace.  That window is still closed, sadly.  But it is surely cracked.  And that, as Leonard Cohen once wrote, is how the light gets in.

Finland Finland Finland, the country where I quite want to teach

As it turns out, Monty Python was right:  Finland isn't just a great place for snack lunch in the hall...

It really does have it all:  social democracy, smoked fish, and a public school system that American reformers are beginning to notice.  Too bad they are noticing the wrong thing.

As many of you know, Finland is all the rage in education reform circles these days, particularly among those who don't think that teacher unions and school governance are the primary problems facing American public schools.  Finnish school children have done very well on international tests in recent years (far better than the middling U.S.), prompting a wave of visits to Scandinavia by American politicians and educators, and speaking tours by Finns here.  

Most of the discussion has revolved around their model for the professionalization of teachers -- kind of like Denver's experiment on steroids -- and on their lack of emphasis on standardized high-stakes testing and rote learning.  All teachers in Finland must earn masters' degrees from competitive graduate programs, are paid like professionals, and given responsibilities for curriculum and assessment that vastly exceed those of American teachers in the post-NCLB era.  

The curriculum, meanwhile, de-emphasizes competition and tracking, and tends to be much more focused on creative play and vocational preparation than one generally finds in American schools (particularly urban ones).  According to a recent article by Samuel Abrams in The New Republic, Finnish schools provide students with far more recess than their American counterparts -- 75 minutes a day at the elementary level, compared to an average of 27 minutes in the U.S.  They also mandate lots of arts and crafts, and more learning by doing.  

American school reformers seem to see what they want to see in the Finnish success story.  Liberals (if I can use that word in this context) point to their investment in early childhood education and parental leave policies, as well as the teacher autonomy discussed above.  Conservatives point to the ability of Finnish schools to get high achievement out of students despite large class sizes, and regardless of background.  If they can do it, they argue, why can't our teachers?  Of course, the 'blame-the-teachers' mantra is somewhat undermined by the fact that Finnish teachers are unionized at even higher levels than American teachers are, and also have tenure.

It is also undermined by the fact that levels of inequality and child poverty in the U.S. vastly exceed Finland's -- a critical point.

Anu Partanan, a Finnish journalist, published a thoughtful short piece in the Atlantic Monthly in late December 2011 on K-12 education in her country.  The takeaway:  most American observers have really missed (ignored) what's at the core of Finnish school reform -- equity.

Dissatisfied with the quality of Finnish public education at the end of the 1960s, in 1971 a government commission concluded that economic modernization could only take place if schools were improved.  According to Abrams, Finland committed to reducing class size, boosting teacher pay, and requiring much more rigorous training for teachers.  

While the US has focused primarily on 'excellence' since 1980 (based in part on the mistaken assumption that we had veered too far in the direction of equity since the mid-50s), Finland launched a concentrated effort to use public education to counteract inequality.  It did this, based on the belief that equity would lead to excellence, and enable resource-poor Finland to compete in an increasingly globalized and post-industrial economy.  This effort was supported by relevant social policies too.  

Pasi Sahlberg, director of the Finnish Ministry of Education's Center for International Mobility and author of the new book Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?told Partanan that the "main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location. Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality."  At its core, Sahlberg says, this means that "schools should be healthy, safe environments for children. This starts with the basics. Finland offers all pupils free school meals, easy access to health care, psychological counseling, and individualized student guidance."

While Partanan may not be an experienced observer of American politics and society, she is almost certainly correct that the way that American 'reformers' are viewing Finland's success -- ignoring the equity goals that are at the heart of it -- demonstrates a kind of willful blindness to what is fundamentally wrong with the opportunity structure in the US, and how it undermines both the quality and distribution of public education.

The money quote:

"It is possible to create equality. And perhaps even more important -- as a challenge to the American way of thinking about education reform -- Finland's experience shows that it is possible to achieve excellence by focusing not on competition, but on cooperation, and not on choice, but on equity.
 The problem facing education in America isn't the ethnic diversity of the population but the economic inequality of society, and this is precisely the problem that Finnish education reform addressed. More equity at home might just be what America needs to be more competitive abroad."
It is unfortunate that so many of the moderates and liberals who formerly served as voices for equality of opportunity in public schools in the U.S. have fairly tripped over themselves -- and others -- to leap onto the bandwagon of 'reform' as its presently understood.