School Choice vs. Equal Education: why we are talking past each other

With Betsy DeVos up for Secretary of Education, the debate over “school choice” is back.* Both sides of the debate agree that too many public schools suck, and both sides of the debate agree that children have a right to good education. But the conservative** solution proposed is to allow families to hold schools accountable by voting with their feet. The liberal side argues that, because not all families have equal opportunity to choose the “best” option, this sticks low-income families in the same crappy schools but with even fewer resources. Instead, the lefty solution is to minimize school choice in order to maximize community accountability for all schools.

You can argue this in terms of facts and figures, policy details, and assessments of different attempts to implement these systems across the country. But it seems like those arguments only convince the people who are already generally aligned with one side of the political spectrum. In other words, we are talking past each other. But why?

One big reason is that we are talking about rights in two different ways – ways we tend to associate with different age groups. In particular, I think this is (perhaps subtly) being framed as the right of parents to choose the best school versus the right of children to equal education. Or, in other words, the right to equal access and the right to equal remedy.***

The right to equal access is saying something like, you have the right to try and find work wherever you want, and no one can enslave you or make you a serf, and no one can refuse to hire you for irrelevant reasons (like being poor, Native American, old, trans*, etc). But equal access to work does not mean that you can be the president or a CEO or a professor just because you think that would be nice, instead you are accountable for your own specialized training and have to compete with other people on the same grounds of merit.

The right to equal remedy, on the other hand, recognizes that our society is not a level playing field, and is explicitly targeted at fixing that. The hands-down biggest way we have agreed to do that in the modern world is through education: all children have the right to be educated. It doesn’t matter if they have learning disabilities, it doesn’t matter if they refuse to do their homework, and it definitely doesn’t matter if they live too far away from a school. Unlike the right to equal access, equal remedy means that you have the right to go to the best school just because you think that would be nice. This whole idea of equal remedy justifies the (adult) framework of equal access. It’s how we justify to ourselves that our playing field is equal enough for adults to reasonably compete against each other based on merit.

So, back to school choice. It is, essentially, a framework of equal access and not equal remedy. There’s a reason we don’t talk about children “choosing” their schools: it’s because we recognize that is the responsibility of parents and adult guardians. We don’t frame children’s rights as equal access, because we don’t believe that children have the ability to compete based on merit. We already know that it’s adults competing on their children’s behalf.

That’s why, when lefties vociferously argue to protect public education as a right to equal remedy – that all children must have the right to education (in order to create a level playing field as adults) – they aren’t making any headway. Because the right already agrees with that. Instead, the right has reframed the debate to make it about families, not children, fighting for the best opportunities for their children. Just like how a parent, not a child, is responsible for working to keep their kids clothed and fed.

So, how can we start talking to each other? I think the starting place is to acknowledge the place that both ethical frameworks have in our society. Yes, we do think that it is a parents’ responsibility to fight for (and provide for) their children. And yes, we do think that children have the right to education, food, and clothes, even when their parents aren’t able to provide them.****

And from there, I confess, the next step seems obvious: parents should be able to fight for school choice and anything else for their children, but they must do it within a system that ensures children the equal remedy of education. But I’d love someone to argue with me.

*Of course, there are plenty of other things people have problems with about Betsy DeVos, but I don’t really have anything new to say about those.
** This debate doesn’t perfectly break down along the lines of left/right, conservative/liberal, Democrat/Republican, but it’s close, so I’m going with it.
*** I secretly think these terms are kind of confusing, but I can’t think of any that are consistently clearer, and these are classics – they are how T. H. Marshall distinguishes between civil and political rights on the one hand and social rights (like education) on the other in his long essay “Citizenship and Social Class“.
**** I could write a whole other essay about how we fail to convince each other of anything when we pretend the “other side” doesn’t agree with either of these propositions.

My baby: the Ancient Goddess (or, why to give creative research assignments)

In ninth grade, my English teacher Del Hayes (who would leave the next year to can fish in Alaska) gave my class an open-ended research assignment and I decided to make my first website. It was, more or less, a Wikipedia page on the Byzantine Empress Theodora, although in 1996 there was no other mention of her online (at least according to AltaVista) and Wikipedia was still a twinkle in someone’s eye. But I threw myself into the basics of HTML so that I could choose just the right shade of Hex Value, and I went to the Library of Congress so that I could learn more about Theodora than my school’s Encyclopedias could offer. It was enormously fun.


The Nymph Salmacis and Hermaphroditus, by Francois Navez (yes, that’s where we got the word from)

Shortly after, I put my feminist interest in Greek myths into code and started work on the opus that would become the website “” (my attempt to translate “ancient goddess” before I knew Greek). For years, it was the first hit on Google if you typed in “Greek Goddess,” and the work that I poured into it led me to major in Ancient Greek Language and Literature at Oberlin College (I had intended a more practical major in psychology). For more than ten years, I stayed up late into the night, posting pre-Raphaelite and WPA-art deco-mural paintings of goddesses that didn’t make the cut to D’Aulaire’s Greek Myths.

Then, as now, my interests were wide-ranging. My fascination with creating a beautiful database of woman-centered Greek myths waned as I became more academically competent in studying them (and I gave away the site), but the research skills I had learned translated easily. The limitations and merits of interpretation were some of the biggest takeaways. The strength of finding my own voice as a researcher was another. I went to work in my own community in the DC area after graduating, and soon the questions I was asking there drove me to graduate school.

Today, I am an anthropologist who does research in Ecuador on how rights and responsibilities change with age, and my love for retelling Hesiod’s myths of gender transformation almost never comes up. But what I know now, that I could not have known then, is that website was as important to my sense of self then as my anthropological work is now. And then as now, it was because of my personal investment and ownership of the work.


Cybele, by Erika Meriaux (seriously, look up the myths about her and Attis, who is lurking in the background)

So now when I teach, I, too, try to include opportunities for my students to come up with their own research projects. I keep adjusting my guidelines because too much latitude is overwhelming for students who are less excited or less confident. Students benefit from having some control over their learning process, but don’t naturally know the critical skills that come with learning how to research. But at the end of the day, my academic journey began the day I came to know myself as a creative contributor of knowledge, and I can think of no greater gift.

tl;dr Inquiry-based learning for the win!

On Civilization (V) and the Academic Job Search

I have a confession: I love the academic job search. I love it for the same reason I love playing Civilization. I like to play on a higher setting than I can usually win on, and whenever I start a new game I like to spend a few hours researching strategy guides for new techniques. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to prioritize using my limited production to the best long term effect. When I finally start the game I look for the land tiles with the resources my civilization needs most and then adjust my strategies as I get to know the competitive field. Looking for a tenure track job as a sociocultural Wu Zetian, from Civ 5anthropologist focusing on the life course seems to have a lot of overlap.

Although I took anthropology classes as an undergrad, I first really connected to the discipline when I came across the Washington Post’s obituary for Clifford Geertz on November 2, 2006. I was still working as a direct service provider at Identity, Inc, but I was already itching to engage the kinds of big questions that intellectually curious people ask when they regularly encounter systemic social problems. Although I am not the kind of person who clips things out of newspapers, I clipped out Geertz’s obituary and bought the book it mentioned: The Interpretation of Cultures. The second or third time I read it, the margins had started filling with questions, arguments, and emojis. I was already hooked by the time I started reading Abu-Lughod, Capps and Ochs, and Mendoza-Denton.

By the time I finally started graduate school, I knew that the job market was inhospitable but my whole-hearted conversion to anthropology demanded action. I believed in the truth-value of particularity and in the methods for paying attention when a culture “bodies forth and enmeshes you” (Geertz After the Fact 44). I wanted to learn it, but I also knew I wanted to teach it. So, from the beginning, I attended every professionalization workshop and anthropological pedagogy talk I could. I started reading teaching blogs, and following anthropologists on Twitter. For seven years I made preparing for the job search my break-time treat. So now? I am pretty excited.

I am still playing on a higher setting than I can reliably win on; in the current job market, I am a PhD candidate competing against people who have had two or three years to prioritize building their publication records over things like researching and writing a dissertation. But the game has now started, and I am enjoying searching out the few positions best suited for the kind of anthropologist I want to be. I hope, of course, that I will win the game – find the place where I can do the kinds of teaching and research that have motivated my adult life – but in the meantime, I am having a lot of fun just playing.

The Triple Interview: a qualitative life course method

Interview face on Liliana's patio

Interview on Liliana’s patio

Sometimes your informants lie to you and sometimes they lie to themselves. Sometimes they are wrong about things, sometimes you are missing the context to understand them properly, and sometimes they just change their minds. When you’re dealing with a vulnerable population – and youth are certainly that – how you work with that unreliability matters. There are plenty of methodological texts dedicated to improving interview techniques, and I have benefited from a number of them. But here is a strategy that I developed for my dissertation fieldwork that I thought worked out very well:

The Triple Interview

Step 1. Interview the kid first

Step 2. Interview the kid with a parent of their choosing

Step 3. Interview the kid and a core network of people that matter to them

Step 1 is easier said than done. Not only does the IRB require parent consent for kids (as they should), a lot of kids themselves want to make sure they have their parents’ approval for something as unusual as an interview. That means scheduling a face to face meeting with a parent and their child to explain what exactly they are consenting to, and then scheduling a second time to meet for the interview (never easy with kids). That’s because I learned that trying to do an interview with a kid after sitting down and plodding through forms with their parent is a great way to undermine rapport, which is the main reason you are doing the interview with the kid first. In an interview with a parent and child dyad, the alignment between parent and (presumably adult) interviewer seems almost automatic. In contrast, if you and the kid have a chance to sit together on your own, you have a shot at creating your own weird category of adult in relation to them. You’re a researcher, not their teacher, not their parent, and you can ask things then that a strong identification with another adult role would make a lot more difficult.

Step 2 isn’t so hard. At the end of your first interview you schedule the second one, and you ask the kid to choose the parent they’d prefer to be interviewed with. Then, when you go into the interview, you and the kid have your own confidential relationship. When parents say things that were expected, students will sometimes laugh and crow, “I told you!” But there are other times when the expected or unexpected thing is understood through a remembered explanation that you do not mention or even risk exchanging glances over.

Step 3 is a pain in the butt to organize, but well worth it. For my study, I wanted to make sure the core networks were broadly multigenerational, and usually ended up with a grandparent, a sibling, a cousin near in age, a parent, and an aunt or uncle. Once or twice, I ended up with friends of the student in the mix, and it had a really different feel.

In each interview, the themes overlapped and a couple of questions were repeated. Sometimes – okay, often – I looked to the kid to help me frame the question I was trying to ask. But it was fascinating and incredibly valuable to see how the kid changed – or didn’t – across the three interviews. Those moments are hard to explain in articles and books, but they spoke volumes about the relationship and expectations between parent and child, and about how the kid fit into a larger network of loved ones. Even more interesting, some of the kids’ answers changed dramatically between interviews. Some were hiding secrets that changed how you understood their world, some reconsidered their positions with their parents’ perspectives. For a life course researcher who includes youth and children among her informants, the triple interview is a valuable addition to methodological toolbox. I know I’ll be using it again.


Once upon a time the Nacirema …


I love this book …

I spend a lot of time daydreaming about creative alternatives for assessing your students. Are you shocked reader? I thought not.

Today I am particularly excited about my idea: children’s books as final or midterm projects for intro to anthropology classes. The basic assignment would look like this:

  1. Write and illustrate a book introducing one of the main course concepts to children. Include a final 1–2 pages with an “Author’s Note” for parents explaining the concept more clearly. Be as specific or abstract as you want in the children’s part of the book.
  2. Length: 9-31 pages long; 60-240 words of children’s narrative; 300-600 words of “Author’s Note” giving additional information about the topic.
  3. Illustrations: You do not have to be able to draw: if you want to make a collage or photoshop images together (including images photocopied from the texts you read in this class) go ahead and do that. These projects will not be published or sold and so they do not have to comply with copyright law. If you want to do the illustrations yourself, do whatever you want: paintings, cartoons, photographs, go crazy!
  4. Writing: The main narrative of the book should be something my 8 year old niece* would enjoy listening to, but don’t worry about censoring the material, she has very liberal parents. The Author’s Note should include at least two works cited (in Chicago style), and should give a compelling reason why you think this is an important topic to know about, as well as more detail on some of the themes you raised in the main narrative.
  5. Format: I want a hard copy to be handed in at the start of class. If you really want me to look at an electronic version, I will, but only IN ADDITION to a good hard copy, not instead. It does not need to be bound, there are no rules on paper size or stock.
  6. You will be graded on a) How well you represent the course concept you choose (60%), b) Presentation (30%) and c) Creativity (10%).
  7. I will return all of your books with comments on STICKY NOTES so that your masterpieces will be unharmed and yours to reminisce with for years to come.

Secretly, the “course concept” that started me thinking about this was a wish for a children’s books introducing the variation in cross-cultural marriage practices. But don’t you think it would work well for lots of intro to anth concepts?

Has anyone ever tried an assignment like this? I would love to hear how it went … The incredibly dorky fun of coming up with the ideas is reward enough, but talking about them makes it even better, so comment if you have questions or suggestions!


*I don’t actually have an 8 year old niece, but do keep your imaginary audience in mind.


Dungeons and Dragons in the Present Continuous

Dudes, I am super excited about my upcoming English class activity: I have bastardized Dungeons and Dragons so my students can practice using the present continuous (sort of with future aspect). For example, they’ll be saying stuff like, “I’m jumping on the Orc’s back and biting its ear”. Sure, it may not be as strictly correct as having them practice things like “I’m wearing my red dress with my black sneakers to the party tonight,” but I’ve already had a bunch of kids come up to me outside of class talking about their characters so I really don’t care.

But let me backtrack a little. If you’ve read my blog before you might be asking yourself, did Samgrace quit anthropology? What is this English class nonsense she’s talking about? Fear not, friends, I’m only volunteering to teach an extra English class here in one of the Ecuadorian high schools where I am doing my fieldwork. As it happens, I’ve been teaching English on the side for years (what can I say, I love teaching even when it’s not my main thing), but anthropology still has my heart.

THAT SAID, it’s my English class and not my class-based participant observation that has me most excited this weekend. My students are learning clothing vocab and the present progressive and it occurred to me that it would be super fun (for me, at the very least) to have an ongoing D&D game that we play for about 15-20 minutes out of each 35 minute class. I’m so excited about the idea that I want to share it here, so if you’re interested in this sort of thing, read on!

So I start them out choosing a Name, a Species (Human, Dwarf, Elf, or Halfling), and an Occupation (Warrior, Magic-User, Thief, and Priest/ess). Then I have them draw a picture of their characters and label the appropriate clothes. Instead of having spells or special weapons, I am letting them choose two Special Articles of Clothing

Warriors can choose two of the following:

  • Steel Jacket (extra protection against terrible monsters)
  • Lightning Pants (incredible speed in running and dodging)
  • Warm Socks (magical protection against the cold)
  • Steel-toed Boots (makes your kick as powerful as the blow from a hammer)
  • Iron Gloves (same deal as the boots, but for your hands)

Magic-Users can choose two of the following:

  • Invisibility Hat (works for up to five minutes)
  • Whirlwind Skirt (creates a small windstorm around the wearer)
  • Warm Socks (magical protection against the cold)
  • Solar Bracelet (a magic light on your wrist)

Thieves can choose two of the following:


  • Shadow Tights (provide magical camouflage, especially in the dark)
  • Bottomless Backpack (even big and heavy things will fit with no extra weight for the wearer)
  • Sneakers (allow you to move without being heard)
  • Knife-belt (comes with its own stealthy knife)

Priest/esses can choose two of the following:

  • Solar Bracelet (a magic light on your wrist)
  • Holy Necklace (protection against monsters with demonic powers)
  • White Hat (gives your companions extra help with their actions)
  • First Aid Robes (the pockets are filled with little healing objects)


Although I’m giving them all the same bare bones of an adventure (going on a quest to recover a magical Wardrobe that is a door to another world that has been stolen by an evil dragon living underneath a temple), I’m going to split them into smaller groups for the campaign.

But my favorite part is that instead of rolling a die, their success will depend on how well they are able to formulate the statement of what they intend to do (they say it right, they succeed, they say it wrong, their action fails). And because they are working in a group they should get help with that (and write it down) before its their turn to act.

So, my fellow geeky friends, what do you think? You got any suggestions about how I can make this even better?

Online Discussion Pedagogy

So if you’ve ever been in an online course – or even a face-to-face course with an online component – you have probably come across some variation of the Online Discussion Board. Modeled on the threaded bulletin boards that once defined internet communication, they are often imagined to replace the kinds of spontaneous conversation that emerge in face-to-face classroom teaching. The most common approach to these “discussions” is to require students to post a thoughtful post of a certain length responding to some sort of weekly prompt, and to read the posts of their peers.

I hate them.

cartoon gif="Thoughtful Discussion on the Internet"

Thoughtful Discussion on the Internet

I do not hate them because such posts are pedagogically useless – they aren’t. But they aren’t the equivalent of an in-class discussion, they’re the equivalent of being handed a worksheet in class with and being asked to write a short answer. There’s value there, particularly in the context of an online class, but its a different value. The problem is when teachers are seduced by the misnomer “discussion” and think that requiring students to read and respond to each others’ replies teaches them something.

The reason I hate them is because I actually think that students CAN get something out of online discussions, but only if teachers stop thinking that the genre accomplishes the same goals as face to face conversation or even open-ended online discussion boards. And that’s not possible if you’re using the space as an easy place to post short answers worksheets.

In case its not as obvious to you as it is to me, here are a few of the differences between the typical online course discussion board and the models it is supposedly built on:

  • Written replies in asynchronous forums, unlike real-time face to face conversations (or online chat), are not spontaneous or easily refined through quick back and forth discussion.
  • If a classroom teacher standing at the front of the room asked the class to respond to a question or idea, and went student by student so everyone could hear all the answers, that would definitely not constitute a discussion.
  • Face to face discussions with students often allow for students to signal their confusion or lack of clarity with nonverbal cues that allow the teacher to redirect in situ.
  • Most non-school online discussion boards have more lurkers (people reading but not participating) than posters, and responders are highly selective about who merits a reply.
  • In some types of non-school online discussion boards (e.g. more anonymous boards with changing groups of commenters), the majority of replies are not discussions of content but ad hominem attacks and critiques of style.
  • In some types of non-school online discussions (e.g. the threaded responses to posts in Livejournal), interlocutors have long-standing relationships that they have been slowly developing over long periods of time, and replies are as much about building and maintaining those relationships as responding to the content.

It follows that many of the things those communicative genres accomplish do not translate into the style of online discussion common to most courses.

But there are ways to run an online class discussion that might actually be a little closer to deserving the label. These maximize what the online discussion board speech genre actually DOES offer, namely:

  • an opportunity for a student to get a survey of their classmates’ ideas on a given issue
  • a space for thoughtfully crafted short replies

I think the key difference that this highlights is that online class discussions are valuable for having students take ownership of the reading by creating well-grounded critical questions. The responses from their peers are still “short answers” for the ones writing them, but when they are actually engaging with their peers’ ideas, there is value for the askers that wouldn’t be otherwise available. In other words, students get value from having other students engage with questions they have, not answers they have.

My approach in an upper level online class I am currently teaching is to have students sign up for a day to lead a discussion on a reading they have all been assigned. Then that student provides their peers with a short summary of what they think the major take-aways of the reading are, and provides a number of critical questions on the reading that the other students then reply to. The Discussion Leaders are given clear guidelines on how to create questions that inspire conversation related to the day’s topical goals, the larger course goals, and the lines of thought that will be useful for other assignments (e.g. papers). In this class I have seen students develop and articulate theoretical questions and lines of inquiry that I have not seen in other assignment formats. And I have seen students who formulated questions that betrayed a lack of reading comprehension get valuable correction from a number of students that addressed the issue more thoroughly than I, as a teacher, could have done in any single response.

While this particular discussion format won’t work for all levels or types of online class, I think that any online class discussion should keep in mind the particularities and differences of the formats – what is does do and what it doesn’t do – when they are designing their course activities.