Friday, June 3, 2011

No Excuses for Matt Yglesias

I am at work on a longer piece about poverty, pedagogy and curriculum. In the meantime, I came across this relevant tutorial from Matt Ygelsias (via an approving E.D. Kain) on how schools help poor kids overcome poverty:
". . . It all goes back to the basic issue of why poor kids do better in less segregated schools in the first place. Basically, kids seem to benefit from picking up certain bourgeois modes of behavior. Bourgeois kids generally pick them up from their parents. Poor kids can pick them up from their peers, but only if they go to a school with a relatively low concentration of poverty. Poor kids in a high-poverty school can also receive explicit instruction in bourgeois conduct. That’s the essence of the 'No Excuses' model, but it doesn’t make sense in a bourgeois context. We should think of these kind of schools as stopgaps, workable solutions to the difficult problem of running a school in an environment of concentrated poverty. For a whole variety of reasons we should be trying to break those concentrations up and reduce the overall level of poverty. But given that concentrated poverty isn’t going to vanish next week, we should also be applauding people who are finding ways to make it work."

Yikes. Is anyone else troubled by this? Does anyone else think this sounds an awful lot like David Brooks at his worst? I read the above as: All these poor kids have to do is "pick up" "bourgeois modes of behavior" by attending school with middle to upper class kids, you know, since poor kids don't pick up acceptable modes of behavior from their parents. Oh, but that's not really possible right now, so we'll just have to "make it work" by putting poor kids in "No Excuses" schools where they will "receive explicit instruction in bourgeois conduct" until we can break up poverty. Then these kids with their newly acquired "bourgeois modes of behavior" can move on to bourgeois adulthood and work at think tanks and write uninformed nonsense.

I advise Yglesias to read this incredible piece by an actual teacher (and likely a bourgeois one, at that) who taught in a 'No Excuses' charter school. The test scores may have been higher there, but the kids weren't enjoying school and their teacher knew she wasn't offering them a quality or appropriate education. 

Poor kids and their parents don't need to be schooled in the way of bourgeois values; they need jobs, healthcare, housing, and, yes, a rich and meaningful education. If KIPP offers that kind of education, then uniforms or not, kudos to them, but if KIPP doesn't offer this, then they need to re-think their approach. All kids, even poor kids, should learn in an orderly but not rigid, developmentally appropriate, content-rich environment that fosters exploration, critical thinking, and creativity. All kids are worthy of the best practices and great curricula--that's not bourgeois, that's good education.

UPDATE I: As this post gets a bit more traffic, I want to make sure I'm crystal clear on a  few things:
1) I think structure, stability, routines, and fair rules are good for all kids. It's rigidity, a narrow curriculum, and high-stakes standardized testing I'm opposed to.
2) I support my kids being taught to walk quietly in the halls, to be polite and respectful, and to be quiet and listen when their teacher or a classmate is talking. As long as my kids are relatively happy and enjoying learning, I accept and support that some teachers will be more strict than others.
3) I am not a constructivist.

UPDATE II: ICYMI, I have posted a new post on this topic. By all means, head over and take issue with what I've said there.


  1. Not only that, but the point of Goldstein's article is, as I read it, that No Excuses schools don't necessarily teach "bourgeois conduct" in ways that would be acceptable to actual bourgeois parents. What their teaching is not really "bourgeois" at all.

    How those schools will have to change in response to the expectation of more white middle class students is an interesting and important question.

  2. "Bourgeois" doesn't really have anything to do with the fact that middle- and upper-class homes tend to have more books in them, tend to have a higher likelihood of literate parents who can and will read to their kids. Those parents also tend to have easier schedules that enable them to be more involved in their children's academic development. Not to mention parents who are also more likely to place a higher value on education itself.

    "Bourgeois" is about the gaudy display of wealth. A term that was used derisively of newly monied families by the old money families. We call it "keeping up with the Joneses."

    There's probably some truth to the statement that poor kids in a school with a lower overall percentage of poor students will do better, but it probably stems more from being challenged by faster paced classes than from picking up habits from peers.

  3. Michael E. LopezJune 3, 2011 at 11:09 AM

    A few disjointed thoughts:

    1) It doesn't strike me as crazy that different situations might call for different measures, and that there may not be any one "optimal" solution for education. Different children, and different groups of children, have different needs. Intellectual tracking within subjects yields better learning results; might it be crazy to think that social tracking might, to a certain degree, do the same? I know it sounds unpalatable, but we shouldn't dismiss it out of hand just because we're concerned that someone is going to think we're elitists.

    2) The regimentation of many urban charters is a remedial measure. Just like you don't pump a healthy patient full of antibiotics, but you will massively dose someone with advanced and systemic infection, so you don't need to micromanage students who have been brought up to, in greater degree, tend to their work, follow-through, focus, listen to instructions, delay gratification, push through distraction, etc. (Holy split infinitives, Batman!) Beverly Hills High doesn't need the same strict structure, because the students carry it around inside themselves.

    3) It doesn't surprise me that parents whose child doesn't need social remediation aren't thrilled about little junior getting it anyway. Why suffer when the goal has already been achieved at home?

    4) I don't like the word "bourgeois" -- it's got too much historical and political baggage for me, and I think it improperly excludes EXTERMELY non-bourgeois family traditions -- I'm thinking particularly rural center-of-the-country traditions -- that fully embrace and in some senses exemplify the values we're talking about.

    5) Yglesias isn't crazy: children are little copy-cats and modeling the behavior is the best way to get them to adopt it. If you don't have good models, though, you have to try more drastic measures. I didn't learn certain types of social lessons until I was surrounded by the children of the intelligentsia and the political class at Wesleyan; because I didn't learn them earlier, they were somewhat painful lessons. But it was being immersed in the environment that did it for me. I wasn't able to pick it up in my high school because the student body was too diverse to "force" me to adopt any particular set of values.

    6) I think it's obvious that some values systems are superior to others. As evil as many think Imperialism might have been, and for all its many and obvious faults, the British were the best thing that ever happened to many parts of the world. It's no accident that India is so much better-off than its neighbors.

    7) Regimentation of the soul, on the one hand, and creative indulgence of the mind on the other, both seem necessary for a proper education. You can think of them as the skeleton and the flesh of the body, respectively. Without the skeleton, without the sorts of "bourgeois" values we're talking about here, all you have is a lump of meat unable to focus, without self-discipline, unwilling to listen to or follow instructions. Without the meat, all you have is a dead, inert frame, incapable of vibrant thought and creative synthesis.

    8) It seems entirely possible to overreact to the lack of a skeleton in a patient by ignoring the needs of the flesh in an effort to get bone to grow. You cannot, for instance, beat someone into being creative. (Well you can, but it's going to end poorly.) Goldstein's point is one that has been made many times before, by many people: Christianity at the point of a sword isn't very Christian, the Pledge of Allegiance isn't a pledge if it's compulsory, the ends don't justify the means, etc. etc. etc.

    9) So it seems what we need is a way to get the bones to grow right. You might think this is the point of Ravitch's recent piece in the Washington Post.

  4. This is depressing. Is this what passes for Thinking Progressive nowadays? Thinking success comes from bourgeois values?
    The jargon-rich, intellectual-sounding language that Yglesias uses makes him sound smart, and obscures his simple, offensive, and unsupported conclusions. Let me translate:
    "It all goes back to the basic issue of why poor kids do better in less segregated schools in the first place."
    Poor kids do better when they are around more rich kids.
    "Basically, kids seem to benefit from picking up certain bourgeois modes of behavior."
    They do better because they act like rich kids, and value the things that rich kids value. As a research psychologist, I find his use of "modes of behavior" vague waffling, which he thinks allows him to call poor kids lazy.

    "Bourgeois kids generally pick them up from their parents."
    Oh, so here he seems to be picking values. Rich kids get good values from their parents, but...

    "Poor kids can pick them up from their peers, but only if they go to a school with a relatively low concentration of poverty."
    Poor kids can learn to be hard-working, but only if they go to school with hard working, conscientious rich kids.

    "Poor kids in a high-poverty school can also receive explicit instruction in bourgeois conduct."
    But, "bourgeois conduct" (oh, here we are, not mode of behavior, but "conduct") can be explicitly taught, like in No Excuses schools where poor kids are taught not to be lazy.

    Grrr. Just because you know how to spell bourgeois doesn't mean you aren't sloppy and (intellectually) lazy yourself.

  5. To expand just a little bit on my previous comment. From the research that Yglesias cites:
    " KIPP schools emphasize traditional math and reading skills, the development of a strong student work ethic, strict behavior norms, long school days and an extended school year"
    I can accept that this KIPP charter school succeeds in improving test scores, and that this is not due to selection bias. But how can you turn around and say that this is due to the work ethic part, and not the longer day, longer year, or curriculum of KIPP?
    Couldn't this just be that they do better on these tests because their practice matches up better with the tests, and they get twice as much practice?

  6. Great comments.

    @Tim K I think you're right on.

    @Michael L. That a lot to think about. I'm not sure I agree with at least some of what you say, but as an educator & parent #7 is where I would say my main concern lies and I think you're right there. I am not at all opposed to my kids learning to line up, learning to walk quietly in the halls, and learning to shuts their traps and listen when the teacher or a classmate is talking. And I am absolutely not a constructivist. But as they're learning to listen, I want my kids & all kids to learn interesting & varied content.

    @Cedar As you know, that's exactly how MY's post came across to me.

  7. @Michael: A few bones to pick (ha!):
    On #2: I think the remediation mindset is what encourages incredibly corrosive educational practices for many poor school children. Strong emphasis on reading and math skills can be good to a point (for example, on getting decoding and phonics straight, or memorizing the number line, or multiplication tables) but I suspect many of these "basic skills" programs are well beyond that point. Dan Willingham has written about this extensively. For example, Americans are improving on the PISA in 4th grade, but not in the 8th. Why? Because we drill drill drill, which helps for the 4th grade test, but hurts us later. The problem with the skills model is that even in the cases when it helps your short term test scores out, it undermines your foundation for future, by dismissing the value of content knowledge.
    On #5, of course children learn social lessons as well as cognitive ones at school, and at home. But we should be very careful of drawing the connection between the social lessons and performance, especially when that evidence is not there. KIPP could be effective because of their militaristic routines, their No Excuses discipline, their longer school day, or their longer school year. In fact, it could even be the case that the whole effect is due to longer school day and longer school year, and the social element is ineffective or countereffective. Just because KIPP says that it is a coherent and complete whole, doesn't mean that it is, or that some elements could be more effective than others.

  8. Michael Lopez wrote - and I wonder what he meant: "6)...As evil as many think Imperialism might have been, and for all its many and obvious faults, the British were the best thing that ever happened to many parts of the world. It's no accident that India is so much better-off than its neighbors."
    Now, knowing a bit of geography & history, I am wondering what he means by "neighbors," since during the time of the British Empire, just about all of modern-day India's neighbors were part of .... the British Empire: Pakistan, Sri Lanka (Ceylon), Bangladesh, Burma/Myanmar, the Maldives; Bhutan, Sikkim and Nepal.

  9. You don't have to express it in terms of laziness at all. The argument just goes like this.

    To obtain economic success, you need to impress bosses. Some behaviors impress (rich) bosses more than others. Bosses are more like rich kids than they are like poor kids, so the behaviors that attain social status among rich kids/parents are better at impressing bosses than the behaviors that attain social status among poor kids/parents.

    All kids will learn to seek social status in their environment, so rich kids will learn patterns of behavior that, while not "better", are more useful at attaining economic success in the future.

    You can fix this, like all learning problems, by explicitly teaching those patterns of behavior.

  10. @Will I don't deny that this is true in some general sense, but it doesn't really make sense to talk about this in general. It is necessary to be specific. Some behaviors do impress rich bosses more than others. But so do some skills. So does some knowledge.
    If we are going to limit ourselves to "norms" or "values," what about respecting ones elders, or obedience to one's superiors? I would say that poor kids tend to be higher on these dimensions than rich kids. At Google, respecting one's elders may not be as important as in the military.
    Ultimately, I would much rather we worked on the right knowledge and skills, and stopped vaguely implicating value systems as if middle class values were superior, instead of middle class knowledge, skills, or resources.
    Also, all learning problems are not fixed by explicitly teaching them. Kids learn all sorts of lessons at school. Many of them aren't explicitly taught.

  11. Truthfully, my parents raised us correcting our grammar and socially guiding us through how to deal with adults. Our family also had a lot of social capital owing to our professional and academic backgrounds. It was thus easier to raise us with a mindset of "be who you are" and send us to schools that were not explicitly regimented and drill-focused (in part because each night I was relentlessly drilling myself). Parents like mine might not have been comfortable with KIPP, unless they saw that I wasn't performing academically... One thing to keep in mind is that our social and academic capital was "bought" by a couple generations of immigrants who taught themselves how to navigate the linguistic, commercial, and academic norms of the US. My grandparents and even parents placed a much greater emphasis for themselves on understanding and conforming to middle class norms because *they had to*.

    I came to the table with an enormous amount of social and academic capital regarding how to deal with an academic environment. People lacking that are helped by having an environment that teaches it. Yes, it takes more work, but in the same way that someone without a trust fund needs to save up more money to buy a house than someone who does have a trust fund,

    I think some people are projecting their own discomfort with KIPP on to children who are not their own. It doesn't seem fair, I suppose, that some students might benefit from an environment that runs counter to some of expectations we have for our own schools, but that's what it is.

  12. Kain has a good response:

    IMHO, it's post like this from Levy why conservatives often make fun of progressives on educational policy. On this matter, I can't disagree.

  13. @Will- Thanks for reading and for your comment. I think bosses respond positively to job candidates who are educated rather than to "patterns of behavior." But they also respond to job skills (which personally I think should be part of core knowledge and skills taught to all kids in secondary school), for example, how to write a resume, how to fill out a job application, and how to conduct yourself in a job interview. Again, this is not a middle or upper class norm or behavior specifically (in fact, it's often not something those kids are taught at all since they are presumably all going to college first) but a practical skill. There are certainly some poor kids who have these been taught these skills and some rich kids who haven't.

  14. Michael E. LopezJune 4, 2011 at 7:46 PM


    Let me explain what I meant. The relative stability and success of the countries you mention can be almost exactly correlated with the degree to which they cleaved to or abandoned the British institutional/cultural inheritance.

    Really -- let's look at Pakistan. It's got a parliamentary system, relatively good treatment of women (for the area). It's a nuclear nation that hasn't gone off the deep end and bombed anyone (*yet*). To the degree that it's starting to show signs of deterioration, it's because it's moving away from the British model towards a more overtly fundamentalist society. Still, would you rather live there or in Iran or Afghanistan (Pakistan's neighbors)?

    Burma's a good example. They went full-on dictatorship after going communist. Adios British legacy. It's a pretty crappy place to live now. But they weren't influenced by the Brits for nearly as long, only having been brought into the fold in the 1820's (or 30's... I forget). India was more or less occupied from the 1700's on.

    I don't know... maybe you think Iran is a great place to live. Maybe my judgment is colored by the fact that I'm an American and am really in love with democracy and the Enlightenment all that crap. But it seems to me like Britain picked up the Greco-Roman legacy and -- for all of its monarchist baggage -- spread it far and wide. And where it took seed, which wasn't everywhere, it's done a world of good in the long term.

    It was just a metaphor, though. My real point was that some values are just more successful than others, and that they sometimes take hold in various places and flourish; and people flourish with them. In other places, for various reasons, they don't take hold. And the people don't flourish so much.

  15. Rachel, no one is arguing that certain skills, values, etc. are exclusively the province of the middle or upper class--your insistence to this effect strikes me as missing the point.

    But do you honestly not think that kids who grow up in wealthier households are likely to have more opportunities to learn skills, values, etc that are advantageous on the job market? That is the proposition that needs to be debated here. If that is true, then it implies that kids from poorer households will be disadvantaged--and that this disadvantage could be compensated for by explicitly teaching these skills to them at school rather than relying on tacit or informal channels such as parents and peers, which would be insufficient.

    If I may speculate a bit, it seems like you are viewing this through a "cultural colonialism" frame that is not really relevant here or useful for the kids.

  16. @Zach - Thank you for reading & commenting.

    I think that that is exactly what MY is arguing, i.e., that certain "patterns of behavior" or "norms" or "conduct" are held by middle class parents and then taught to their children. Poor kids have to go to school with middle class kids or go to KIPP to remedy this. That's exactly what MY said.

    As for your questions about the job market, it really depends on which job market you're referring to. Are you talking about getting a job at Goldman Sachs or the Center for American Progress post-college? Or are you talking about getting a job as a car mechanic or nail technician after completing a vocational program? Those are entirely different markets and success in obtaining jobs in them rely on very different skills and, I suppose, "conduct."

    As for my viewing this through a "cultural colonialism" lens, I can see why you'd suggest that, but I don't think that's the case. I'm not arguing that poor culture should or shouldn't be supplanted by middle class culture (and I'm not sure there is such a thing as a monolithic poor or middle culture). I'm saying that culture or values mostly don't cause poverty or middle class-ness in the first place; conditions do.

    Stay tuned for my next post where I hope I'll address some of your questions.

  17. @Rachel- Thanks for the response.

    All I am saying is that I think you can weaken the claim to "certain skills/values relevant to job market success are *more likely* to be transmitted to children from middle/upper class households. The same prescription--to teach some of these skills/values explicitly--would follow. The precise content for a particular population is open for debate. Clearly, a variety of contextual factors would need to be taken into account.

    Your question about which job market is a good one and must be considered case by case. In general, the answer is likely to be entry-level white collar jobs--jobs that the children in question can realistically attain *and* for which the skill-deficit we are talking about is likely to be highest. Of course, there are also probably some values or skills that are equally applicable across a number of different types of careers, and those are the ones that should be emphasized.

    I think the debate over culture/values vs. conditions in causing poverty is fruitless. Its very hard to tease out the root cause because the two sets of factors tend to positively reinforce each other. The far more relevant question to me is what *sustains* poverty, and when you frame it that you I think it becomes clear that both conditions and cultural factors contribute, and progress can be made by addressing both simultaneously. This doesn't presuppose a monolithic poor culture, by the way, it just presuppose that culture has some independent causal role.

    The NYT attempted to sum up the scholarly debate on this subject a few months ago.

    Again, nothing definitive here but we should keep an open mind.

  18. Skills and values are very different things. Values should be only be explicitly taught in a very limited way in public schools. Skills can be taught to a certain extent but their development are heavily dependent on background knowledge. Do middle class children arrive at school with more background knowledge? Absolutely. Do they arrive at school with more knowledge that will translate to greater success in finding a good job? Absolutely. Do middle class kids arrive at school with values that will translate more easily to getting a good job? That, I don't know about. Remember, though, that while I think these discussions about the job market & education are very important, that's not really what MY is talking about--that's not the evidence he cited.

    What sustains poverty is indeed an important question and I agree that in some cases the two sets of factors can reinforce each other (I am tentative here because I need to read & think more about this.) I agree in general that the values vs. conditions debate gets tiresome. However, it matters in this case because people are deciding how and what kids should be taught dependent on their presumed values or lack thereof. I care how and what kids are being taught because I was and will be a teacher (now I am stupidly writing for no income :) and because I have children in public schools.

    I will check out the NYT article.

  19. @Zach - That's a very good article. Thanks so much for sharing it. Now I remember the particulars of the debate and of it in its new form. Lots to think about and I appreciate reminders to keep an open mind.

  20. I think you and MattY are talking about two different things. KIPP is not meant to address poverty. If you want to address poverty, address poverty.

    KIPP is, however, meant to provide better educational opportunities for those who are stuck in a high-poverty environment.

    If you asked MattY, "how do you deal with urban poverty?" he wouldn't answer "send the kids to KIPP schools." It's unfair to imply that he is arguing otherwise.

  21. @Tyro - Thanks for your comment & I'm sorry I didn't respond to your previous one until now.

    I agree that kids with educated parents arrive at school with more academic capital which is otherwise known as background knowledge. As for social capital, I don't know--it depends on what you mean by that and what purpose such capital serves. Are you talking about being able to converse comfortably with other relatively affluent kids? Or are you talking about having manners, being polite and patient? I'm also unwilling to assume there is a monolithic middle class culture to conform to.

    As for KIPP, I've read a lot about their schools, but I've never visited a KIPP school, though I may have applied to work at one when I fresh out of ed school. I don't know enough to say I'm comfortable or uncomfortable with KIPP. I am, however, uncertain that a No Excuses model is good for anyone's children or at any school. I don't think rigidity and a narrowed curriculum is good for anyone's children.

    True, KIPP is not meant to directly address poverty. True, I don't think MY thinks KIPP is the only way to address urban poverty. If I said that, then that was, indeed, unfair. KIPP, however, is meant to address the achievement gap. Now, keep in mind that in the larger ed reform debates, many neo-liberals (CAP, for one) say that schools like KIPP will lead to a reduction in poverty, that "talented" teachers can lead poor kids to overcome poverty. I do not disagree that good education can help diminish poverty; I am skeptical that places like KIPP achieve good results via more talented teachers and social/values/norms education versus say, a challenging curriculum or a longer day or more funding or some combination thereof.

  22. Sorry to report that direct instruction of middle-class norms is not a viable educational strategy. I'd be interested in seeing the "scope and sequence" and a lesson plan or two. Must ask what specific non-middle-class behaviors one has in mind to target: appearance? language? networking with high achievers--preferably those with wealthy parents? table manners?

    Hard to know what Yglesias has mind--his motive--in referring to "bourgeois norms." Surly there's some irony lurking there, possibly to provide cover for an embarrassing flirtation with a decades-old deficit model.


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