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.

SalmacisNavez

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 “paleothea.com” (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.

cybelemeriaux

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!

Comps as Rite of Passage

I was planning on writing a follow up to my last post on comps* preparation tips, but there was really one one thing I wanted to say:

Try not to stress out. 

Of course, I wanted to say it because I was totally failing. Despite efforts to keep up with the basics**, enlisting the help of a caretaker***, and getting other people to help me with my non-comps work****, I was still feeling sick with stress and generally struggling to stay on track because I was psyching myself out. What actually did help was reframing the comps process for myself as a rite of passage.

Maidenhood Ceremony, my favorite rite of passage yet

Maidenhood Ceremony, my favorite rite of passage yet

And, amazingly, it has helped a lot with managing my stress. Whereas I can – and do – always second guess my academic preparedness and the adequacy of my self-discipline, this frame refocused my attention on completely different aspects of the process. I’ve been through a few major rites of passage in my life – I got married in 2006, I had a maidenhood ceremony in 1996, I got baptized in 1994 – and there are commonalities that I found very soothing.

  • You can’t ever really be prepared. That’s kind of the point. You can center and ready yourself, but the rite itself is beyond your control. Since a great deal of my stress around comps comes from trying to control it, I find this to be a major relief.
  • Some challenges aren’t that meaningful. It’s not just about testing your knowledge, the structure of the thing also introduces challenges that have nothing to do with whether you are qualified to be a PhD candidate. Whether it’s 3 weeks of nonstop writing or a day of fasting, some of the challenges are just arbitrary, and for me that provides some respite for feeling intimidated by them.
  • The rite is actually for me. Even though other people are participating, helping, guiding, and ultimately judging me, the point is creating a ritual that marks my transition into another stage. I need to not lose sight of the forest (yes, I’m prepared to be a PhD candidate and do my fieldwork) for the trees (what if I don’t say what this professor expects to hear!?).

One final thing I realized is that, because of my particular background, I have had a lot of agency in the structures and practices of all my rites of passage up until this point – why stop now? Instead of just trying to control myself to meet their expectations, I want to think about how to make this really mine. Maybe I’ll spend some time designing a comps outfit for orals. Maybe I’ll go to happy hour after I finish each question. Maybe I’ll take a ridiculous photo of myself every day of the process and post it. If you have other ideas, please share them! Help me make this a ritual worth loving memory.

* aka the comprehensive exams, aka qualifying exams, aka quals
** exercise, food, and sleep
*** You know what stuff you let drop when you get stressed (in my case, eating healthily and getting exercise), so ask someone else to help you stay on track – maybe even bring you food like you just had a baby. Maybe take regular walks with you.
**** This tip came from my adviser, and she was talking about my TA responsibilities and encouraging me to ask my coworkers to help me with grading and even cover my classes while I’m in comps.

Worries of a Recovering Interventionist

Condescending Wonka: OH YOU'RE PAID FULLTIME BY A NONPROFIT? YOU MUST BE SO SELFLESS

Before I was an anthropologist, I was a service provider. I worked for a wonderful program called Identity, Inc with Spanish-speaking immigrant youth in the DC Metropolitan area. In fact, in the same amazing school system that I grew up in. Even though my college major was in Ancient Greek, I knew by the time I graduated that I wanted to be working in and for the Latino community in my hometown. I was motivated – as I think most young, non-profit workers are – by a desire to make a difference and actually be able to see the difference I made. I think I did more good than harm for the youth and their families I was able to serve, but obviously I had more to gain (given the foundations I was starting with) than they did from my work. They got referrals, counseling, a couple of fun hours of Positive Youth Development every week, and some of them got a stipend for working as peer HIV educators – but I got a regular salary, a meaningful job, and ultimately a stepping stone to the next stage of my career. When I left, making a difference was still a big part of my narrative of my own life.

Now it seems next to impossible to imagine wanting to frame myself that way.* Can it be reduced to cynicism? I used to see interventions (at least the ones I took part in) as Good Steps In The Right Direction, but my faith in my ability to identify which direction is right has been seriously shaken. Working as a sex educator at Identity seemed culturally complex but morally straightforward, but after grad school I found myself making room for many of the conservative perspectives on sex education that had once sparked righteous indignation. My Master’s research with pregnant and parenting youth so dramatically impacted my perspective that I now think most pregnancy prevention efforts are potentially more damaging than helpful. When I think about the kinds of change that interventions make, I cringe at the thought of myself as just another governmental force in the lives of the people I am most motivated to support**.

I am now in the phase of my research where I am trying to identify the broader impacts of my proposed study. But over the last five years I have been so carefully critiquing the claims to salvation that trying to write that narrative about myself leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I wonder, is this just a phase or a sea change? Have others experienced this kind of alienation from a previous interventionist or advocacy identity only to later reconcile with it? And if not, in this deeply morally engaged discipline, what path is left to me?

* To be clear, this is in no way meant to be a generalized indictment of people who design and/or implement interventions. I have the utmost respect for those who have found ways to incorporate service work and advocacy into their lives, and am frankly envious of the applied-research balance some of my peers have found in their anthropological work.
** Apart from my sense of self, this is most awful because of how deeply I cared about many of the people I was working with and for – I believe this is usually, if not always, the case for people who find themselves in this type of work.

Happy Halloween!

Halloween is my favorite holiday because it is the most fun. I love playing dress up (perhaps a secret underlying factor in becoming a sociocultural anthropologist?) and I love ritual, so I am all about October 31st. This year though, on Saturday when all my undergraduate neighbors were out throwing their red plastic beer cups at my car*, I was in working on a grant. And tonight, the big night, I’ll do the same.

But will I let that sway my Halloween spirit? Absolutely not! I’ve tucked my black corduroys into high black boots, put on a loose black shirt, tied a black pajama shirt around my head and I am sitting on my couch, with all my grants drafts open, Dread Pirate Roberts-ing it up.

Sometimes, a lady’s just got to dress like a pirate and write some grants.


* The great drifts of red cups that emerge after party nights in a college town are like a form of weather all their own, in my opinion.

On turning 29 for the first time

For women of a certain upbringing, 29 years old signifies the last year of one’s youth. I think it is fascinating (and more than a little funny) that this arbitrary prime number has been embraced as a number to claim, over and over through the years.

As a woman committed to a career in a field where maturity and asexuality will likely serve me better than youth and virility, I have to admit I am a little horrified by the idea that someone hearing my age will assume that I am seeking to conceal my chronological age.* As an anthropologist interested in the intersection between multiple frames of age (chronological, social, physiological, sociolinguistic, and otherwise) it is marvelous to have achieved (again) a chronological age with real social meaning**. As an outgrowth of the child I once was, I am thoroughly disgusted that I have not yet achieved a 2.5 kids and financial certainty. And as a grad student, the age trajectories of people who have not given almost a decade of their lives to training seem bizarrely foreign***.

What a ridiculous birthday this is, so saturated in banality and denial. And how delighted I am to celebrate it!

* I adore my (sadly few) gray hairs and years of experience in the world and unashamedly hope they will work in my favor.
** And, if I am being entirely honest, somewhat concerned that I will soon be too old to establish non-maternal rapport with adolescent informants …
*** There is a real sense in which graduate school seems to be a limbo of age in which real life only continues by sheer force of will and otherwise you are suspended between some freakish extended adolescence while preparing for obsolete decrepitude.