Nicholas Kristof is Gullible, Very Gullible

Nicholas Kristof thinks conservatives are–like a broken clock–right at least some of the time. Kristof, unfortunately, is just wrong throughout his latest limp Op-Ed. To borrow a line from Steven Soderbergh‘s plainspoken Limey they are right precisely the ‘square root of sweet FA‘ number of times – a vanishingly small number.

What are the conservatives right about? Or at least, what ‘ideas’ are they supposed to be credited with?

First:

STRONG FAMILIES Conservatives highlight the primacy of family and argue that family breakdown exacerbates poverty, and they’re right.

Except that they don’t care about family. War–a favorite preoccupation of conservatives–is not family-friendly, and neither is unrelenting hostility to family-planning, maternity leave, paternity leave, and flexible work-schedules. Heck, hostility to women doesn’t seem particularly family-friendly.

Second:

JOB CREATION President Reagan was right when he said that the best social program is a job. Good jobs also strengthen families.

But conservatives don’t care about  job creation. Their interest in exacerbating income inequality doesn’t show an interest in job creation; their enthrallment by corporate ideals doesn’t either. Come to think of it, the wholesale enthusiasm for trade treaties that result in a net loss of jobs doesn’t seem to indicate an interest in job creation either.

Third,

SCHOOL REFORM Republicans were right to blow the whistle on broken school systems, for education in inner-city schools is the civil rights issue of the 21st century. Democrats, in cahoots with teachers’ unions and protective of a dysfunctional system, were long part of the problem.

This makes me want to throw up. In fact, I think I just did. Remember war and its budgets? Or taxes on the rich? Or, income inequality and attendant poverty in the  inner city? Or racism? A lack of interest in ameliorating the effects of these doesn’t seem to indicate an interest in school reform. Kristof, bizarrely enough, seems ignorant enough to believe that conservative ‘concern’ about school systems has nothing to do with hostility to the idea of organized labor.

When conservatives espouse the ideas that Kristof so misguidedly praises them for, they are merely using them as stepping-stones to reach other targets. Concern for the family seeks to demonize working women, to restrict sexual and reproductive choice;concern for job creation is a ploy to secure tax breaks, to further protect the economic privileges of their class; concern for schools is a ruse to push through their anti-union agenda (and now, increasingly to reward their fat-cat friends in the testing and charter school industry).

Kristof imagines that somehow, in each case, he can separate out the holding of an ‘idea’ or ‘belief’ and the prescriptions that are intended to achieve its aims. But you can’t do that. Your prescriptions for the ‘problem’ reveal, quite clearly, whether you actually hold that belief or not. We reveal our beliefs by our actions; Kristof should know that much.

Kristof’s biggest problem is quite simple and represents an acute intellectual failure: he confuses mere lip-service with an actual intellectual standpoint. He does not want to look past the posturing; he is content with sound bites and insincerity. This is gullibility of the highest order.

Michelle Rhee Shoulda Gotten An Education

Late last night, I stumbled across an ‘interview’ with Michelle Rhee (linked to by John Protevi on Facebook). (‘Michelle Rhee Gets an Education,’ New York Times Magazine, 2 February 2013). The comments section is absolutely priceless, and well worth a read. Here, I want to address a couple of her responses, because they offer us excellent insights into an extremely alarming person’s mind, one that has been appointed ‘reformer’ of ‘America’s schools’ but who instead, comes across as more of a destroyer than anything else.

Exhibit Numero Uno:

You write that you were offended by a sign in a Washington public school that read, “Teachers cannot make up for what parents and students will not do.” That didn’t make sense to you? 

As educators, we have to approach our job believing that anything is possible. It is incredibly important that we constantly communicate to kids that they can accomplish anything when they put their minds to it.

Translation: To me, that sign looked like an excuse made by lazy teachers.

Rhee does not like teachers, that much is clear. What she also revealed by her taking offense at the sign is that she lacks an understanding of the circumstances that may impinge on a student’s education. She forgets that schools are placed in very particular social and economic circumstances, as are their classrooms, and what takes place in them is not impervious to what happens outside. Her ‘anything is possible’ affirmation isn’t one; it’s an ostrich-like responses to material factors that affect school success. Unsurprisingly, she is fixated on test scores.

Exhibit Numero Dos:

You offered thousands of dollars to teachers and principals who brought up their schools’ test scores. Did you ever consider that it would encourage some to cheat? 

Teachers have integrity. And if money was the motivating factor, they wouldn’t be in education.

But money is enough of a motivating factor to get them to work toward your objectives? There is something more insidious at play here: Rhee wants to insist that teachers should work for the ‘love of it’ and shut up and put up about wages and working conditions. All those unions, asking for raises and better working hours. Shouldn’t you guys be working instead? As I’ve noted here before, the only Americans allowed to do the best for themselves are CEOs. The rest of us have to work for the love of it.

Exhibit Numero Tres:

Your reputation has been partly informed by the fact that you allowed a PBS news crew to film you firing a principal. Was that a terrible idea in retrospect? 

When I became chancellor, for the first two years of the job I was incredibly naïve about the press. I thought that my job was to run the school district, and that was what I was focused on. Now in retrospect I know how naïve it was.

At least Rhee is unapologetic. What she really wanted to say: ‘I quite enjoyed firing a principal on television; it let me show the teachers who’s boss.’

My sniping at Rhee here is inadequate; the real treat for the reader lies in the comments section of the interview. And in reading the always-wonderful Diane Ravitch on her.

Andrew Hacker on the Supposed Superfluousness of Algebra

An Op-Ed titled ‘Is Algebra necessary’ is bound to provoke reaction. So, here I am, reacting to Andrew Hacker’s anti-algebra screed (New York Times, July 29th, 2012). It is a strange argument, one unsure of what it is attacking–mandatory math education, elementary algebra, higher algebra?–and one founded on an extremely dubious premise: that the way to carry out educational reform is to cherry pick your way through a curriculum, questioning the ‘utility’ of a particular component in case there are no jobs that require an exact application of its material. Hacker makes things worse by leaning on statistics that cry out for alternative explanations and pedagogical reform, rather than the ‘lets drop the subject students seem to have difficulty with’ approach that he favors. If American students are struggling with algebra, it might be time to inquire into how it is taught, to show students how abstraction and symbolic representation are key to understanding a modern world underwritten by science and technology. Dropping algebra seems like a profoundly misguided overreaction.

The ‘surrender in the face of poor test scores’ approach results in a series of bizarre statements of which the following are merely representative samples:

It’s true that mathematics requires mental exertion. But there’s no evidence that being able to prove (x² + y²)² = (x² – y²)² + (2xy)² leads to more credible political opinions or social analysis.

Certification programs for veterinary technicians require algebra, although none of the graduates I’ve met have ever used it in diagnosing or treating their patients. Medical schools like Harvard and Johns Hopkins demand calculus of all their applicants, even if it doesn’t figure in the clinical curriculum, let alone in subsequent practice.

I have news for Hacker. There is little evidence that being able to leads to ‘more credible political opinions or social analysis’ either. Furthermore, if job skills  are examined as superficially as Hacker does in his examples then it becomes all too easy to dismiss large parts of one’s educational background as being irrelevant. Hacker would be alarmed, I presume, to find out that even though modern physicists hardly ever roll balls down inclined planes, freshman physicists are still required to spend a semester solving problems that are full of problems that stress just that. Hacker dismisses the argument for a general education in mathematics with the alarmingly glib ‘It’s true that mathematics requires mental exertion’ without stopping to inquire what that ‘mental exertion’ might consist of and what it might engender in turn. This is hardly an attitude toward pedagogical reform that breeds confidence.

It is a consequence of Hacker’s argument that the only students who should receive an education in algebra are those preparing for careers that require them to apply algebraic techniques and concepts in their jobs. Everyone else can be spared its ‘difficulties, ‘ like the above-mentioned abstraction and symbolic representation. How would an extension of this argument work in, say, fields like history or literature? A relentless whittling down of the curriculum would result, leaving us with a list of subjects read off the Help Wanted Ads section.

This is an impoverished, grimly utilitarian, and ultimately soulless view of education.